Dalibor Martinis was part of a generation of artists active in Zagreb in the 1970s that came to be known as part of the “New Art Practice.” The reason for this title was the fact that their art moved away from traditional painting and toward the conceptual and experimental, including performance and installation. The artists also sought alternative exhibition spaces, outside of the official institutions, using the street to show their work and also establishing their own artist-run spaces. In many ways, their art was perfectly in line with the global trends in contemporary art at that time: pushing the limits and boundaries of art to their extremes, questioning what, in fact, art was, and questioning the role of the institution.
Much of Dalibor’s early work probes those very issues. In Work for Pumps Gallery (1978), the artist painted the walls of the gallery space white, and then exhibited those painted walls. In If Yes Light a Candle (Art is...), from 1977, the artist raised a question with his audience – written on a box of candles was the statement: Art is an absolute truth invented by the artist. If yes, light one candle, if no, quench one candle. The collection of lit and unlit candles enabled viewers to make a statement for themselves. In Artists on Strike (1977), Dalibor turned all of the paintings in the gallery around so that their surfaces wouldn’t be visible, and covered the sculptures to block them from view. His original idea was for the artists to actually strike, but this was difficult to organize. So, instead of the artists going on strike, the art effectively did. This was a powerful statement in socialist country, where it would have been considered taboo to strike in such a way.
In addition to questioning the role and nature of art, Dalibor questioned the role of the institution, by creating his own artist-run space, which he and his wife at the time, artist Sanja Ivekovic, owned and ran from 1978-1980, called Podroom (podrum is the word for “basement” in Croatian, and the artists spelled it phonetically, so that the second syllable becomes the English word “room”). There artists sought to create works of art independently of any institution or market, and also create a free space to foment discussion about art. These artists were turning away from the commercial art and the painting of the past, and aiming to forge a way forward and create a space for their new art in the future. Dalibor told me that at that time, there were no artist-run spaces in Zagreb, and he learned about the phenomenon through contacts in Canada.
At that time, Dalibor was not only forward-thinking with regard to institutions. In 1978, in a Canadian TV studio, the artist recorded a series of questions for his future self, Dalibor Martinis, in the year 2000. Owing to some technical and organizational issues, the recording of the “future” interview was delayed until the year 2010. Then, Dalibor Martinis of 2010 answered the questions of the 1978 Dalibor Martinis. The first question, not surprisingly, was whether Dalibor was still alive. In fact, the artist told me that writing the interview questions in 1978 almost created an obligation for the artist to remain alive, in order to complete the piece. Furthermore, the large gap between the two dates was important, because it created an element of uncertainty. When he spoke of the interview, he talked as if the two entities – the 1978 Martinis asking the questions and the 2010 one answering them – were two different people. In many ways, they are. The 1978 Martinis was a young guy, and the artist recalls that when he interviewed the ‘older’ Martinis, that he thought he wouldn’t be as interesting as his 1978 self. He also said that the interview functioned like any other, with one person trying to outsmart the other, or be more clever – and this was also due to the generational element. The artist has further plans to post questions to Dalibor Martinis in 2077. While the 1978 idea and video demonstrated the manner in which the technology of that day could bridge present and future, the next segment of the project speaks to the post-human world and the manner in which our online identities will outlive our human ones.
While that project remains the artist’s own personal data recovery project, he has a number of other works focused on data recovery from the public sphere. For example, when a monument to Tito was blasted with explosives and destroyed in his native town of Kumrovec, Martinis stood on the empty pedestal to commemorate the date. He later reenacted the decapitating of the statue at an exhibition in Rijeka. The piece prompted discussion about the manner in which the past is currently dealt with in contemporary Croatia. A similar piece, this time a video performance, aimed to recover the word of Tito, as opposed to simply his body. In Zadar, Dalibor read a speech by the former Yugoslav leader, one that he had given in that city in 1951. In order to do this, the artist had to play the recording backwards, so that the words would not be recognizable, but the gesture and tone still made the action recognizable as a political speech. As the artist explained on his website about the piece, “memory is brought forwards, but citizens went backwards.” The artist mentions that it is still not possible to talk about Tito in Croatia nowadays, and this denial of the past has only been exacerbated by the right-wing government in place after the war, in the 1990s and 2000s.
In Dalibor’s early work, he explored the relationship between the individual and its image that is filtered through mass media. For example, in Open Reel, the artist became the film reel himself, as he took the videotape emanating from one reel and wrapped it around his head, which became the second reel. In Video Immunity, the artist is showered by the stream of the video recording, as he replaces a shower head with a video camera, and proceeds to bathe under it. In these pieces, the pervasive role of the captured image and the media are underscored. The artist carries these pioneering and fundamental works forward through a broader exploration of the images that surround us in our individual and social lives. We eagerly await the discoveries and revelations made by the artist in 2077!