Tomislav Gotovac was one of the most significant Croatian artists from the second half of the last century, active in a variety of media, including performance, film, and two- and three-dimensional mixed-media work. Not only was he a remarkable artist, but he was also a striking presence in the city of Zagreb, an instantly recognizable towering figure, even more identifiable when he appeared with his full beard and long hair (or, alternatively, with his head completely shaven). Sadly, Gotovac passed away in 2010, but his legend and spirit lives on in his apartment, which now forms the heart of the Tomislav Gotovac Institute, dedicated to preserving and promoting the artist’s work.
I met with Darko Simicic, and artist and art historian who is in charge of the institute. He gave me a tour of the space, pointing out significant elements, such as the bathroom ceiling, which was stained from flooding from the upper floor years ago. As Darko told me, Gotovac loved that stain, and promised that it would remain as it is forever – a beautiful, natural painting on the ceiling. His toilet contained various diplomas and awards that he had received over the years. And his kitchen was a veritable installation of its own, with piles of materials that the artist had collected over the years. The artist was know for his penchant for collecting materials – tram tickets, bottle caps, clothespins – literally everything that he came across, which could serve as potential material for a future artwork.
The collecting started early in his career, as some of his earliest works are Kurt Schwitters-like collages (he saw an exhibit of the German artist’s work in 1959), many of which consisted of tram tickets and packaging. He also created three-dimensional collages using newspapers – bunching and balling them up to turn the two-dimensional into a relief. These newspapers, along with the mass media, would become a running theme through the course of his work.
Gotovac’s most famous phrase, “when I open my eyes in the morning, I see a movie,” identifies his other obsession – film. The artist was known to view the same film several times, and he was particularly fascinated with Hollywood. Many of the artist’s early photographic performances are, in fact, organized as if they were a film, and made as staged photographs because he didn’t yet have the money to make films. Regardless of the medium or intention, it is the artist’s body that is almost always present, acting, and in some cases being acted upon – as a readymade. Furthermore, it is quite often the artist’s naked body that appears in his performances, completely exposed and shed of inhibitions.
In 1960, the artist created a series of five photographs in which he dressed up and pretended to be an actor in a French film. Although not created as a performance, these early pieces bear an uncanny resemblance to Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills (1977-1980), although they predate them by nearly twenty years. One of Gotovac’s most well-know photographic performances dates from just two years later: Showing Elle Magazine, staged in winter of 1962, on Sljeme Mountain outside of Zagreb. In a wintry setting, the artist removed his shirt and thumbed through a copy of Elle, showing pages to the camera. While the artist shows one object – a female underwear model appearing on one of the pages – he is also object himself. Common courtesy to the ladies present at the photo shoot prevented the artist from removing all of his clothes, as originally intended, but the message is still conveyed effectively – with the artist bareback he is equally naked as the underwear-clad woman in the photos that he displays to the camera. While the artist would further disrobe in his later performances – most notably his first streaking performance in Belgrade in 1971 – he would return to the image of the (nude) human body as subject and object in a 2002 photographic series, Foxy Mister, in which the 65-year old male artist was photographed naked, assuming the positions of female models seen in pornographic magazines. The elderly and corpulent male takes on the role of the slender and youthful sex object, continuing the exploration of gender roles and representation that he had begun several decades earlier, in Showing Elle.
The artist has appeared many times naked in public, so much so that local jokes have been created on the subject. The artist’s first appearance as a streaker took place in 1971, as part of a film (which was eventually banned, and thought to be destroyed) entitled Plastic Jesus. In one scene, the artist ran naked down Sremska Street in Belgrade. He later did this in Zagreb in 1981, as part of an artistic performance entitled Zagreb, I Love You!, where the artist emerged from 8 Ilica Street, walked along the street toward Republic Square (now Ban Jelacic Square), and lay naked on the street, kissing the asphalt. The action lasted all of seven minutes: it started at noon, which is a time marked by the sounding of a canon in the city center, and ended at 12:07, when the police came to arrest him. While the exposure of his body was an act of defiance against the system – against any system – and the ultimate display of freedom of expression, in some later performances, he was able to use this naked body as a blank slate – a position from which to embody a variety of different roles, as he did in 1984, when he donned a variety of different costumes, including a death mask, a chimney sweep, Superman and Santa Claus, and sold copies of the student newspaper in Republic Square in Zagreb.
For the artist who took the approach of art as life, he has demarcated different times of his life as performative periods, for example, Letting all Hairs on Head Grow (1976-1981). Following this period, in 1981, he had his wife completely strip him of all of his facial and head hair, cutting, shaving it and removing it in a very precise way, according to his design. The hair was then saved and preserved in special envelopes, marked by the artist with the section from his head in which it was removed. This was actually Gotovac’s third performance entitled Hair-Cutting and Shaving in Public – while the first two took place in Belgrade in 1970 and 1971, this act took place in the center of Zagreb.
Gotovac is also responsible for the first happening in Zagreb, Happ Nas-Happening (Happ Our-Happening), which took place in a Zagreb basement, in 1967. Although this event was specifically labeled a happening, one could argue that the artist’s entire life was one great happening, which included not only streaking through the city and cutting his hair, but collecting all of the objects of mass culture that crossed his path, going to the movies, and simply being present on the scene in Zagreb.
It wasn’t difficult to get the sense that I was in the presence of a great and creative artist when I was in his studio/apartment. It was not just the objects that filled the place, or the art objects I was shown, but the way that the artist was talked about reverently, and the impressive body of work that he produced. In fact, throughout my stay in Zagreb, he was spoken of quite often, and always with praise and admiration. It is certainly disappointing not to have met this remarkable artist, but having spent a few hours in the place where he once lived, in some small way, I feel that I did.