This exhibition displays a set of your paintings made in the last year and a half. How did you come up with its name - the Anatomies of Caution?
While thinking about a broad link connecting all the subjects I have dealt with, I realized that it all boils down to alerts directed towards somebody, especially me. The starting point was to position myself in the system within which I operate; from my expectations to the nature of the work. I realized this system was one of the rare places where it was possible to control a final product or a work from the beginning till the end. I am an absolute self-reliant creator, a position which requires some kind of a strategy. So I started to realize how much I maneuver and calculate each aspect of life, from the emotional to the professional one, and even trying to control the imagination. The flow of my decisions and wishes is subject to thorough analyzing and development which is nothing but a kind of precaution. On the other hand, while analyzing the paintings in this series I realized that my starting point is always the fact that something valuable is endangered. All the paintings have a moment of catastrophe in them or a possibility of a complete collapse that hangs like the sword of Democles over the protagonists’ heads. Coincidentally, at the time I was reading Some Anatomies of Melancholy by Robert Burton and it seemed to me that term anatomy could be sufficiently associated with a thorough insight or a cross-section of a subject. And so the name Anatomies of Caution came to life.
When did you realize that the whole set was conditioned by the idea of caution?
This happened at the very end. I wasn’t able to perceive the idea of caution before I started look for the name of the exhibition. It is something subconscious that lies deep within me. Until recently, I couldn’t have conceived that there was a link between all the six paintings. Each of them was made out of a different motive and with a different subject. I believe that in a few years they will appear even more homogeneous, as each life period, viewed retrospectively, becomes distinctively marked.
It is quite obvious, even from the names of your paintings that there is an effort in naming, aside of producing them. How did you come up with the names for your paintings?
Coming up with names can sometimes be difficult, but I still love to do it because titles are very important to me. Their role is to offer a key for interpreting a deeper structure, rather than just confirming what is being displayed. I think that some titles are better than others. They are able to trigger a creative moment that can be as exhilarating as creating the art piece itself.
The name Oil has a razor sharp feel - short, very precise and quick. I thought that nafta had a universal meaning, but when I googled it I realized that Nafta is a U.S.-based international trading organization. In other languages Nafta has no other meaning but that one. The English word for nafta is Oil, which was very convenient, considering that at that time I was heavily influenced by P.T. Anderson’s movie, There Will Be Blood, which is based on Upton Sinclare’s novel Oil!.
The name of the painting Hold on to Your Friend, Hillary! directly refers to the main protagonist of the painting and to the emotion that I wanted to infer.
I debated over the name of the painting The Last Minute with Klaudio Štefančić. He believed, and probably rightly so, that this particular title imposed restrictions on the interpretation of the painting, even reducing it to mere illustration. On one hand this was a reasonable argument but on the other, the name came to me as a logical solution.
I like the title Live to Tell very much, but at the same time I am burdened by it because, as it has been the case with my titles before, it cannot be adequately translated to Croatian. I come up with the names for my paintings through the process of writing blog entries, which are all in English. It is very important to me that the titles can be translated to Croatian, because Croatian is, in some instances, ignored at exhibitions. Sometimes I fail in my attempt to do so, and Live to Tell is a good example. The translation of this phrase to Croatian would be: “Živi bili pa vidjeli”, which sounds like an announcement for a local soap opera. English language is universal. If we want to find an adequate Croatian counterpart for an English phrase, we have to use a bulky word construction that we would never use in everyday speech. I always have problems with making up names because I try to make them truly bilingual.
The paintings in this series look like stills from a movie, like fractions of time and space from a certain story.
It wasn’t always like that; it only started with this series. My previous paintings were lyrical in a way. The change was a result of a conscious decision. I just stopped operating in that mode, I couldn’t identify with the lyricism anymore; it got worn out. Just like some songs and albums seem to expire after a certain amount of time. They still have the same meaning for me, but I just don’t feel the need to listen to them again. And of course, new things always come along with time. I realized I needed to create a different structure and try out a new approach. I wanted to introduce elements of action to the paintings. That is probably where the connection that you make comes from.
The transition seems to be visible on Goodbye Desolate Railyard (Mile End). It doesn’t seem to have a narrative content like the other paintings. How did you deal with the difficulties arising from your new way of work?
That’s because it was derived from an earlier piece. It’s the only variation on a theme that I have painted and it was preceded by a version made for the Essl Award in Klosterneuberg. I felt that one had certain compositional flaws with which I couldn’t come to terms with. Since I found the theme and the concept itself very appealing, I decided to give it another shot. That’s how Goodbye Desolate Railyard (Mile End) came to be. I see My Home is Nowhere Without You and Goodbye Desolate Railyard as a transition from my previous way of work into the more methodical way of thinking that I employ now. They represent a turning point, or an experiment, so to say. That’s why it’s appropriate not to exhibit them as parts of a greater whole. And Mile End is a visual derivation. Perhaps the absence of the creation process that all the other paintings have makes it less intelligible.
Could you take one painting as an example and explain the process of creating the other paintings in this series?
In Oil, my first intention was for the spillage to be coming from a sinking ship. That would link the figure with the spill directly. However, the fact that the protagonist’s feet are in the water, in those surroundings, is alarming enough. So, I decided against the ship because there would have been too many elements indicating the same thing. This way the spill, a herald of ecological disaster, complemented the protagonist. By stripping down the elements that clearly point to the premise, I assess the minimal requirements for it to remain intelligible. The connection between the protagonist and the spill is obvious even without the ship. I do this a lot in my work. I try to avoid literal interpretation of the issue that I am dealing with. It might sound like a paradox, but no matter how clear the idea, concept or thought that I want to portray is, I start preparing for the visual by making a number of questions examining its viability. I only start visualizing when I choose something that I feel is the furthest away from an obvious and banal portrayal, yet still within the parameters of the idea itself.
All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone is a result of your reflection on power relations in the art world, where you as an artist are repressed by institutions: by museums and galleries where “time-honoured skeletons” hold key positions. What were you going through professionally and privately when you made this painting?
Actually, this one is the only dualistic painting inside this series. The only one to have two equal themes: an emotional and professional one. I consider this a success, if neither one prevails. I started out with the first one, the idea of the emotional: a dialogue with myself, ending in solitude and without the possibility of anyone being around but myself, really. And an extension of this thought was my situation in the professional sense.
You mean working within the system of the art world?
That’s what it’s about - the hopelessness of the situation. It ended up being the theme of the painting: the little one against the big ones. I haven’t entirely embraced this system; I could spend my whole career on the issue and not resolve it. My feeling of uneasiness about having to sell a product is like in the movie Glengarry Glen Ross. But this game has its rules. It’s a compromise I had to make. There is a fantasy of the artist in an ivory tower, but this kind of Pollock or Picasso myth is no longer viable nowadays. I had to do things that I wouldn’t normally choose to do. For instance, contextualize my work. It’s in my best interest to explain what I do as precisely as possible. I look at it as a necessary means of communication. That’s the idea behind the blog. Speaking in percentages, I spend about 90 percent of my time working on my paintings. Considering the effort put into it, it would be irresponsible and stupid not to put the remaining 10 percent to good use.
Another interesting thing about All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone is that it is the only painting with you in it.
Yes, I’ve never portrayed myself before. I really had no choice, and that’s what’s great about it. It was important for me to follow both themes through, and I found that this could only work with me there. At one point there was an idea to do it with five characters, but I dropped it because I think a certain amount of vagueness and ambiguity is always important. I do my best to avoid banality, or literally describing or narrating everything. On the other hand, my shoes are the only ones I can walk in. I will always be preoccupied with myself, I can’t escape this. Delving into my own consciousness, conscience and character fascinates me. The issue of what makes you or me human is the kind of subject I really get a kick out of.
That’s how you portray both Hillary and Kittinger – not as heroes, but as ordinary men who happen to be in extremely unusual situations. Their personal stories are what gets your attention.
Exactly; and this is, after all, the Hollywood idea of a hero. I greatly admire their ground-breaking accomplishments, but that’s not what these men are about. I’ve always been fascinated by astronauts. I read the confessions of the Apollo program participants who had been to the Moon. Each and every one went back to their lives knowing that everything else would be a mere shadow of that event. Unable to repeat such an experience, they became depressed, in some cases started drinking. They were marked by having seen something others could not. But it’s the idea of another, more human aspect of these people is what attracts me. This also explains why Werner Herzog, who often dealt with such characters, is one of my heroes.
For instance, the painting Goodbye Desolate Railyard started from a story about Joseph Kittinger. There was an article about his exploit in one of the first Croatian issues of GEO Magazine. It really made an impression on me. Trailblazers attract me because of my boyish spirit, especially those who push the limits of human endurance. I’m fascinated by their frame of mind and interested in their personal stories. It’s funny if you think about it: the videos show Kittinger sitting in a small open gondola. He was in his seat, and the sky was all around him. Psychologically, that’s a big deal, because people are usually protected in some sort of box. The man holds an unbelievable number of records, including being at the highest altitude without a shuttle, cockpit or any other kind of box. To see the Earth from up there, to rise above everything, must be a spiritually and emotionally devastating experience; one that profoundly changes you.
In his despair, he was certain he would not make it back alive. That’s the human aspect that I find captivating. I can not fathom the things he did. The nature of these people…are they simpler than others, do they not question certain things? Does it take an emotionally detached person? Is that the reason why someone like me would never get himself in that kind of situation? The fall scene itself is incredible. It’s visually spectacular. This sort of extremes and aberrations escape all definition and social norms.
You talk about your music influences a lot. In what way does music have an effect on you? For instance, you hardly ever mention visual art.
Absolutely, I try to steer clear of being influenced by the medium of painting as it carries a certain visual code which I would rather avoid since I create in the same medium. Of course, it always has a certain impact on your work, so I use my visual influences in a specific way. I try to fill myself with the sensation a certain thing evokes, rather than being influenced by its appearance. The definition of a sensation is used here in a broader sense than just referring to the visual dimension. It entails all perceptive senses that can be activated in my humble mind. It is more gratifying to use music as an artistic model because it leaves more room for creating my own visual code. However, I use painting as a visual influence when I come across obstacles in technical performance.
What kind of music do you model your work on and use for inspiration?
It is a complex set deriving from the same generation of artists I belong to. During the period of growing up, since my earliest memories from preschool days, followed by MTV phase and so on, my taste in music was influenced by rock and roll tradition. As time passed by, I came to be more acquainted with the work of authors who based their music on lyrics/poetry. My affinity towards music broadened to include most of contemporary pop-music. However, I always go back to powerful individual artists such as Dylan and further on. So, paradoxically, the words are the most important thing for me, because I believe that rock and roll is not all that experimental in its tradition.
I am attracted to the kind of music where rhythm and melody are prominent. It doesn’t trigger my creative imagination, but it leaves enough room for the lyrics to flow naturally and present themselves in most beautiful way. I get completely overwhelmed by certain lyrics. A whole range of recent authors, some of them even from my generation, provide me with an inexhaustible source of material: starting from Jeffrey Lewis, Kimya Dawson, Herman Dune, Devendra Banhart to Will Oldham/Bonnie Prince Billy whom I consider to be the contemporary God.
You often mention the term melancholy when you refer to the music you listen to. Is this something that functions as an artistic drive for you?
The music that I listen to tends to be sad, introverted and contemplating, mostly with author himself as the subject. Nowadays, the equivalent for melancholy would be emo (laughs). It would be wrong to mistake melancholy for depression. I experience it as a state of non-active comfort. Melancholy is not a driving force. It experiences and finds enjoyment in itself. The easiest way to interpret it, in visual arts, is by the sense of pleasure that it evokes. This has always been a familiar sensation to me. Actually, it was through the medium of music that I got drawn to melancholy. It fulfils me.
In the last two paintings, The Last Minute and Live to Tell you question the idea of utopia. Do you believe that utopia is possible?
I’m confined by my own rational thinking. This determines quite a lot of my beliefs and keeps my feet firmly on the ground. Certain elements of those two pictures function as a cynical mockery of the Utopian idea.
About a half a year ago, a documentary film Life After People had a strong impact on me. It belongs to the genre of speculative fiction based on scientific facts and is actually a high-budget documentary made in CGI technology that enquires into what would happen with Earth if all people were to disappear one day. What would happen to cultural artifacts as time goes by?
The notion that grass would completely cover the streets in one year fascinated me. All animal species on the verge of extinction would recover to the optimal population count in a record time. A lot of SF apocalypse movies are based on an idea of just a partial collapse of civilization, such as Mad Max and others. In those movies, raw materials such as petrol have value instead of money, which is ridiculous because all of those values would have simultaneously disappeared. However, the main issue that puzzles me is expressed in The Last Minute and Live To Tell. It concerns the values and knowledge we acquire through life. What kind of knowledge are we equipped with and what are its limits?
The painting Live To Tell portrays a place devoid of people. Unlike all your other paintings, this one doesn’t depict a human figure.
The atmosphere of tension and anxiety was important for this painting, and if I were to depict any people, notions of idleness and tourism could be easily evoked. To omit them, seemed like an effective solution. In addition to the previous answer - the idea behind Live To Tell is: even if we take all our civilization’s artifacts into consideration, what do we actually know that could facilitate our survival? This is a panic scenario, of course, and the likelihood of that happening can be measured in percentages not much higher then zero. It is a travesty having in mind the fact that, if that happens, most of us could only lay down and die. Isn’t it also funny that the demand for survival-shows derives from the fact that eighty percent of the western population is unable to climb a tree?
Vanja Žanko spoke to Zlatan Vehabović, in Zagreb, February 20, 2008
(translation: Sanja Horvatinčić, Iva Kušek )