Ask any Croatian culture-junky to name their most cherished artists of the last 50 years, and mercurial conceptualist Mladen Stilinovic would always come out near the top. Both as an individual artist and as a member of the iconoclastic Group of Six (1975-79) Stilinović pioneered the idea of art as a witty form of subversive activism that could embrace performances, happenings and urban interventions alongside more traditional forms of gallery-wall decoration.
Like most Croatian artist of his generation, Stilinović has always made highly eloquent use of mundane materials and small gestures. One of his most famous comments on the status of contemporary culture is ‘Pjevaj!’ (‘Sing!’; 1980), a grainy photograph of the artist with a 100-dinar note stuck to his forehead. Slogans, scribbled without any attempt at neatness on bits of cheap material, mirror the declamatory nature of the socialist society he grew up in (‘An attack on my art is an attack on socialism and progress,’ he declared in 1976) and the capitalist society that followed it (‘An artist who Cannot Speak English is no Artist’, from 1993).
His best-known work is ‘Exploitation of the Dead’ (1984-1990), an epic jumble of photographs, images, ideological symbols and slogans that looks like an uncaptioned scrapbook of 20th-century history – ‘a mad, Eastern European incarnation of Mexico’s Day of the Dead’ according to Richard Unwin of ‘Frieze’ magazine.
Stilinović’s reputation outside Croatia has been growing steadily over the last few years, with one-man shows in Istanbul in 2007, Eindhoven in 2008, and Budapest’s Ludwig Museum in 2011. A retrospective exhibition on home turf is something that has been a long time coming.
Museum of Contemporary Art/www.msu.hr