During my time in Bosnia I took a very long bus ride through narrow and winding roads in 40C weather to the capital of Republika Srpska, Banja Luka, to meet the artist that had represented Bosnia-Herzegovina at the Venice Biennale for the first time in several years – Mladen Miljanovic. I was only in town for two days, but Mladen generously gave me a great deal of his time to tell me about the many facets of his work, since the beginning of his career. Mladen is a very prolific artist for his young age, and it is difficult to choose the works to discuss from such a vibrant oeuvre of work.
Malden’s piece at the Venice Biennale represents two aspects of his work that I want to explore, both related to his personal background – the theme of the artist as an individual who serves his public, and the theme of trauma. Before becoming an artist, Mladen was a soldier, having served his one year of mandatory duty in the army just after high school. Later, he worked for one year as a tombstone engraver, before applying to art school. As a military officer, Mladen has a very definite understanding of the meaning of the word “service,” and carries that over into the realm of art. As a tombstone engraver and one who was actively involved in the war, he also has a very particular understanding of the term “trauma.” These two themes are consistently explored by the artist throughout his work.
In one of his earliest pieces, I Serve Art (2006), the artist isolated himself inside the military base in Banja Luka, which, during his third year of studies, became the Academy of Arts. Since the artist found himself once again in that same space where he had once trained soldiers, he decided to decontaminate that space by occupying it. As he told me, he “mapped the space with [his] body,” beginning his service to his viewers in a similar manner to a way that a soldier does – through intense, dedicated training. But it could be argued that Mladen’s training was perhaps even more intense, as the artist essentially put himself into isolation by living in the building for the entirety of the ninety days, never leaving it, not even to receive his Zvono Award, the nation’s prestigious award for promising young artists. Because of his dedication to the project, he was forced to decline the award, since he could not be there to receive it in person. Mladen saw this moment as a significant one – the fact that the art academy was moved into this former military base indicated a shift in society, from a militarized position to one focusing on education. While the artist had previously been trained to serve his country, and also trained others to do so, now he would train himself to serve his fellow citizens in a different way – through his art.
He developed this these ideas, of occupation and service, in some later pieces. He developed the icon of an artist-as-soldier, a silhouette that he used to cover the walls of a gallery in Graz, in 2007 (Occupo), and in Taxi to the Museum (2010), the artist literally put himself at the service of his viewers, by offering a taxi service to and from the museum. For this 7-day performance, the artist was available by cell phone to pick up and drop off any passenger who wanted to visit the museum – in a Zastava 101, no less. The artist mentioned that he wanted to “fill the space” in between the moment when a person leaves his home to embark on a trip to the museum and when he actually enters it. If that space can be filled with art or an artistic experience, then that further bridges the gap between art and life, and between art and the everyday world. With this performance, Mladen transforms the everyday experience of transporting oneself to the work of art into a work of art itself.
Do you intend to lie to me? (2011) is perhaps one of Mladen’s better known pieces, and perhaps one of the most dramatic. This 14-minute film and staged performance/intervention brings to the forefront the issue of truth in art as well as functioning as the staging or re-staging of a trauma. For Mladen, performance has a crucial role to play in art, insofar as it is the body that remembers the traumas that occur, and repeats those traumas in different ways. In the film, Veso Sovilj, Mladen's professor from the Art Academy in Banja Luka, is arrested and interrogated by the Special Police force of the Republika Srpska Army. They ask him 26 questions, one of which relates to his invitation by German artist Klaus Rinke to come to Dusseldorf. This occurred at the same time that he was called up for service by the Serb Army, so the artist remained in Bosnia. This fact determined the remainder of the course of his life, so in the interrogation, he is asked whether her regretted not accepting Rinke's invitation, to which he replied that he did not know.
With the completion of this project the artist realized the power of art – not only the power that he had to stage a situation in which he exercised power over his former teacher, but also in the way that the project took shape. Since he wanted the intervention to appear as authentic as possible, he first asked the Ministry of Culture, and then the Minister of the Interior for the use of the Special Police for the purposes of his video. Because the Minister of the Interior respected his approach – in having the guts to ask for such things – he granted him even more than he had originally requested – the use of a helicopter, the most elite forces, and a cordoning off of the area when the seizure took place. As Mladen described it, it was a “modest idea that intersected with power” and came to produce effective results.
The artist also recognized the ethical dilemma he had placed himself in in subjecting his teacher and mentor to this type of treatment. (Sovilj, incidentally, when he realized what was going on, was quite pleased with his former student’s work.) Mladen asks himself whether a non-ethical situation can be dealt with in an ethical way. In order to subject himself to similar punishment, he staged the performance At the Edge in 2012, when during the opening for his exhibition, he hung, by his hands, from a window, outside the gallery. As he himself posed the question: “is it ok for me to have fun [at the opening] as long as there are people suffering?” In this performance, the artist attempted to create an equilibrium between the discomfort that some of the subjects of his work might have felt, by putting himself in an equally uncomfortable position. He also literalizes the marginal position of the artist in society – always on the outside.
In 2013, Mladen Miljanovic was selected by two curators, one from the Federation and one from Republika Srpska, to represent his nation at the pavilion of Bosnia and Herzegovina at the Venice Biennale. Prior to the opening, he sent the following text message to 500 people, primarily people not associated with the art world: “Dear friend, what would you love or wish to see in the pavilion of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Venice?” He then engraved all of the responses on a marble tombstone, which he held, in his hands, during the opening of the pavilion in Venice, until he could bear the burden of holding such wishes no longer; the performance lasted around 90 minutes. This piece, entitled The Pressure of Wishes, underscores many of the ideas that recur throughout his work: that of service and responsibility to one’s audience as an artist, the burden that that carries with it, the suffering artist who suffers not only for his art, but also for his viewers, and of course the trauma involved in the experience of doing so. This piece is also a very poignant commentary on the current situation in BiH, which did not have representation at the Venice Biennale, because of the difficulties in reaching an agreement as to how to select one, and from which region (the Federation or RS), they should come from. In a nation that is divided, how can one artist properly represent all interested partied? Mladen Miljanovic has found a way to do so quite eloquently and intelligently.