Tomislav Gotovac

Tomislav Gotovac

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.

 The beautiful stain in Gotovac's bathroom

The beautiful stain in Gotovac’s bathroom

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.

 Gotovac's kitchen, left exactly as it was when he died...with all of the ephemera of daily life that he collected, and that surrounded him

Gotovac’s kitchen, left exactly as it was when he died…with all of the ephemera of daily life that he collected, and that surrounded him

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.

 Gotovac's materials

Gotovac’s materials

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.

 The location of  Zagreb, I Love You!  

The location of Zagreb, I Love You!