Mladen Stilinović, Exploitation of the Dead, 1986 – 1990

Mladen Stilinović
Exploitation of the Dead, 1986 - 1990
wood, metal, glass, textile, paper
dimensions variable

When Mladen Stilinović (1947-2016) staged his exhibition “Exploitation of the Dead” at the Extended Media Gallery in Zagreb in 1988, art historian and curator Branka Stipančić provided a detailed description of the exhibition set-up in a review: “The exhibitions opens with a photograph of Kazimir Malevich on his deathbed, and ends with empty panels with mourning bands, while the entire intermediate space is replete with images that are copies or interpretations of the works of Suprematism, Socialist Realism and Geometric Abstraction of the 1950s; collages with photographs of political assemblies, labour actions, group exercise, cemeteries… They feature countless squares, triangles, stars, crosses, factory, sun, flags, … and between them there are painted suits, ties, bread, cakes and boards with texts “Exploitation of the Dead”, “Dead Optimism”, “Let Them Eat Cake”…”. In total, says Stipančić, 350 objects filled the gallery space. Although “Exploitation of the Dead” as a series is dated to the period between 1984 and 1988, Stilinović continued with its presentation, expanding the original set-up depending on the exhibition or social context. In an interview published in the catalogue of the Zagreb exhibition, when asked about the title of the exhibition, Stilnović replied that there is something hypocritical in naming our reaching for works of past historical periods as renewal, tradition or nostalgia. Rather, Stilnović emphasised, it is about the exploitation of “dead religion, ideology and painterly poetics in the most irresponsible, aggressive and boring way.” Noticing that artistic postmodernism turned tradition into a series of superficial actions and stereotypical signs, Stilinović was one of the few artists who recognised in this phenomenon a new form of ideological manipulation, exposing it first in the area of the late socialist society, and then, after the fall of the Iron Curtain – like some belated prophet – also in the West. Cognizant of the fact that art also reproduces some of the social power – hence the many references to the Russian avant-garde and Socialist Realism – Stilinović was honest enough to be aware of his own position. “There is no art without consequences”, he said on the occasion of the exhibition at the Extended Media Gallery. In the “Exploitation of the Dead”, Stilinović used humour and irony to respond to the problematic relationship between art and ideology, so when approaching this work, one should not lose sight of that spirit.

Text: Klaudio Štefančić, senior curator of the National Museum of Modern Art © National Museum of Modern Art, Zagreb
Translated by: Robertina Tomić
Photo: Goran Vranić © National Museum of Modern Art, Zagreb

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