Born in Belgrade when it was the capital of a newly independent Yugoslavia, and now living in Zagreb, Mladen Stilinović is revered as a leading figure of Conceptual art in Central and Eastern Europe. Despite his 40-year career, though, he has yet to attract more widespread acclaim. Visitors to ‘Sing!’ – Stilinović’s first full-scale retrospective – not previously acquainted with his work may have been caught off-guard by the exhibition’s breadth, as well its dashes of vibrant colour. In fact, in its diversity and quality, this was a show that moved well beyond the experimental black and white photography and esoteric performance pieces often associated with early Conceptual art in the region, and presented Stilinović as an artist deserving of an international stage.
Central to Stilinović’s work is his engagement with absurdity: of the individual, of the artist, and of the world. Here, his oeuvre coalesced as an existentialist enquiry pursued through art, a cyclical process where the life of the artist, his practice and his need to survive become part of the work. Along with the essential notion that life is inescapably absurd, Stilinović pursues recurring themes that he sees as integral to the way in which society operates – primarily money and human suffering, the latter represented by Stilinović simply as ‘pain’. A key work in this vein is Dictionary–Pain (2000–3), in which Stilinović replaced the definition of every word in an English dictionary with the word ‘pain’. Installed at the Ludwig in its entirety, the relentless, repetitive pages were individually framed and hung across the gallery walls in rows. The works Pain (1990) and ‘Buried Pain’ (2000) took a more physical approach to human trauma: the first was an installation of two wall-mounted coffins, one black one red; the latter a series of large photographs documenting the burying of mattresses, all marked with the word ‘bol’, Serbo-Croat for ‘pain’.
Stilinović is still probably most widely known for his works dealing with the influence and corrosive power of money in the art world. ‘Sing!’ took its title from the seminal 1980 work of the same name – a photographic headshot of the artist with a banknote stuck to his forehead. Linking the role of the artist to that of a musician who must perform for his fee, Stilinović illustrates the artist’s dilemma whereby the twin desires of self-expression and material reward compete. A similar concern is expressed in Money Environment (1980/2011), installed and updated at the Ludwig by Stilinović himself. Making appropriate use of Hungarian forints, the installation invited visitors to walk over coins strewn across the floor, while a ceiling of notes hung above their heads – an allusion, in part, to the contrary position of being simultaneously encouraged to save and spend.
Consisting in many cases of installations made of small, individual works, ‘Sing!’ continually engaged with philosophical and political themes, but in a playful and at times exuberant manner. Rather than monotones, Stilinović’s recurring palette choices are red and pink, respectively referencing Communist iconography and the liberal-bourgeois connotations that the artist sees as its antithesis. This dichotomy was intricately explored in Red–Pink (1973–81), a 90-part installation incorporating collage, drawing, painting and photography. Evolving out of the same diverse use of media, Exploitation of the Dead (1984–90) – a 200-part installation mixing Constructivist-inspired imagery with cartoons reminiscent of Philip Guston’s painting – resembled a mad, Eastern European incarnation of Mexico’s Day of the Dead. The diversity of influences and interests make Stilinović both difficult to categorize and repeatedly engaging, an auteur who sings with a voice that is as universal as it is self-reflective.