Visualising the Systematic Disease
The artistic visions of Mihael Milunović
The Paris-based artist Mihael Milunović expresses the language of world politics and social movements through visual means. His paintings delve deeper and deeper into the mechanics of these systems, revealing their dark, invisible and complex inner workings. When visuality is the primary means of interpreting the world, Milunović recognises the important role of painting. His intricate body of work offers multiple layers of meaning, guiding the viewer into a zone where they can gain new insights, new perceptions and new answers, where they can truly explore their curiosity and break away from themselves. If that is even possible…
Attila Sirbik: Besides your interest in social and political issues, geography, devices, machinery of all kinds, and the genre of classical painting, do you also operate with visual elements that represent reinvented, transformed and somewhat mystified versions of your personal observations of reality?
Mihael Milunović: Our so-called “objective reality”, and especially the one digested through the media and additionally aestheticised by the same, are, for me at least, an inexhaustible source of inspiration. My impression is that personally experienced reality is devalued in relation to the reworked reality of social media. This creates a constellation that resembles the mirror situation of the novel Alice in Wonderland: a reflection and refraction of reality. I always deploy visual elements consciously as a vehicle to reveal the true essence of relationships between actors, things and their natures. The narratives I weave into these presentations are there not there to create a specified emotion – as with media-suggested reality that engages the spectator on an irrational level – but to draw them to the very source of their understanding, which is much more important than the occasional, and after all, rather touristic phenomenon of empathy. The challenge of our current moment lies in the act of preserving, and I rely on the use of personal experiences, memories, and emotions because they are both the most precious and the most fragile segment of our beings. I believe that art has both the function and the power to change reality, people’s abilities and worldviews and open them to more profound and more fundamental meanings that will bring them closer to their true essence, not away from it.
Mihael Milunović: Feast ╱ 2021 ╱ oil on canvas ╱ 210×140 cm ╱ Image courtesy of the artist
AS: Have you always been interested in the Central European region’s different conflicts, perspectives and realities?
MM: As someone with true Mitteleuropa roots and mixtures, yes. History is ever-present and alive in this region, especially in the Balkans. Central Europe is one of the great crossroads, and it witnessed formidable flourishing and exchanges between different cultures and bloody wars, destruction, and exoduses… My work explores and questions history in such a broader context. I am trying to understand and research the bonds between the exterior emanations of power, ideologies and societies. Take the architecture that I often reference in my paintings as an example. It is, for me, a perfect example of how ideology materialises into a visible object that has both structure and function. Central Europe is full of still-standing remains of the progressive architectures of the 20th century: modernist, neoclassicist, socialist-brutalist. All these ideologies perished at one point, but their “shells” as present and functional buildings are still there. The ideological void is filled with something else, and I am researching what this is and what function and message these things might have in our present time. Actually, identity is another topic I am interested in. Therefore, I use yet another symbol that questions the role of the individual in society and its abandonment into the crowd: the flag. I often present these objects in strange colours, confusing the spectator in a game of identification. By education and not by our own experience, we all recognise an item or an object without knowing its meaning or without being able to “read” it. The same is true with imaginary flags that virtually do not exist, but we address them as such. By the act of recognition, these nonexistent things gain the aura of the real ones. Those strange colours are a hidden code that places, by such a procedure, the presented reality into the realm of “otherness”, where other laws and rules apply…
AS: What does it mean for you to understand or cognitively explore objective reality?
MM: As I mentioned before, understanding objective reality demands serious research and deep digging. We live in an era submerged in non-validated opinions and where many are bamboozled by the simulacrum of knowledge provided by fast information. These quick pieces of information are gathered like rebounds on the surface of reachable knowledge, but since they’re fast, there is neither space nor time to get deeper into each point’s fundamental issues. It merely creates an “impression of knowledge”. I try to take time and go as deep as possible to understand certain phenomena that emerge from objective reality and gather enough actual knowledge on topics or parts of my own research. It is sometimes long and heavy work, but it definitely pays off. I am trying to completely understand what surrounds me and understand the processes and mechanisms that operate in the deep. It demands a good and sharp eye, capable of focusing on the bigger picture, and, as I said, should be competent to spot a diamond in a heap of dazzling garbage.
Mihael Milunović: Gamechanger (detail) ╱ 2021 ╱ oil on canvas ╱ 100×81 cm ╱ Image courtesy of the artist
Mihael Milunović: Chewing Gum (detail) ╱ 2011 ╱ oil on canvas ╱ 41×33 cm ╱ Image courtesy of the artist
Mihael Milunović: Soldier of Deception (detail) ╱ 2016 ╱ oil on canvas ╱ 50×61 cm ╱ Image courtesy of the artist
AS: The representation of the inhuman nature appearing in human form is crucial for you, isn’t it?
MM: These characters began to appear in my works, in paintings and drawings many years ago, and over time they turned into a variety of categories. I do not regard these natures as “imaginary” because they actually exist. Just because we are socially and educationally normalised, we do not see them in their naked form. They have imposed themselves as incarnations of natures that are not human or that are deprived of their essential human qualities. And that spectrum is not over. In addition to elliptical heads, diamond heads, shitheads and slimeheads, some new characters will appear in the future.
AS: When and why did you decide to choose Paris instead of Belgrade?
MM: I must say that I did not choose Paris in a strange turn of coincidences, but Paris chose me. At the beginning of the 90s, I wanted to continue my postgraduate studies in Spain, but the civil war in Yugoslavia thwarted my plans. I was trapped in the country during the war, and I spent four tough years constantly moving and hiding from military police and various paramilitaries that wanted to mobilise me. I refused to go to war, and in those years, I just tried to survive and stay sane. In the early spring of 1995, I got the message from the then French Cultural Center that I had a scholarship waiting for me. It was on hold since the war started, and I totally forgot I applied for it parallelly with the Spanish one. So in October of the same year, I was on my way to Paris. And it changed everything. First, the special studies on Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts, where I met professors like Veličković, Alberola, Boltanski, Tony Brown and Marina Abramović, and then my first steps into professional life, the feeling that I was swimming alone in that big ocean of art world and making my way in it, was something overwhelming and breathtaking at the same time. Paris gave me the stage and the public. This city gave me freedom and encouragement and challenges and rough times. Many people helped me on the way, but I did it outside of the relatively narrow and compromised environment that I came from.
Mihael Milunović: Taylors ╱ 2020 ╱ oil on canvas ╱ 200×140 cm ╱ Image courtesy of the artist
AS: Despite the occasional surge of interest in the forgotten and neglected parts of Europe, the contemporary culture of Central Europe remains unknown and, to some extent, misunderstood?
MM: Unfortunately, this is true. Political elites in power who evidently have other priorities often neglected the contemporary culture in this part of Europe. It seems they do not understand or they underestimate the force and range that contemporary art and culture can play and perform in better visibility of the creative potential of different countries or regions. This would also be a change in the overall perception of the above. But it needs the application of strategies. Bad strategies could be improved, but they had to be invented and put into practice. It needs minds and people. It requires time and means. Especially for the region of Ex-Yugoslavia, my opinion is that it is a potential gold mine, speaking about contemporary art and its production and culture overall, and it still needs more attention. Some work has been done to bring together the central European Avant-Garde to the same movements in western Europe, but actual living currents in contemporary art need to be defined and presented adequately in order to understand them and give them their proper place.
Mihael Milunović: Your Golden Tooth I. ╱ 2020 ╱ oil on canvas ╱ 41×33 cm ╱ Image courtesy of the artist
Mihael Milunović: Your Golden Tooth I. ╱ 2020 ╱ oil on canvas ╱ 41×33 cm ╱ Image courtesy of the artist
AS: Do persistent prejudices, a lack of information, and sometimes somewhat naïve perceptions of historical and political realities and of the radical political changes currently taking place in the region still hinder an accurate and authentic reading of Central European culture and art?
MM: Prejudices or stereotypes always alternate; it is rarely a unilateral situation. For example, historically rooted fears in the Western Europe of Islam brought to the Continent by Ottoman Empire also came through the southeast and central Europe… These fears were romanticised like Bram Stoker did in his “Dracula” or Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express”, where the fictional, infectious and blood-sucking vampires are “turning” the civilised and orderly citizens of western Europe into their own likeness. Central Europe and the Balkans were for more than a half of a Millenium this “reservoir” of western exoticisms and phantasies of all kinds, where the new stereotypes were replaced by the old ones – like the Islamic threat and vampires transformed into the “red” danger of global communism. I think that western-centralised cultures lack knowledge of contemporary art of Central Europe, probably because it is seen as “lesser”, or peripheral, and as something that lacks chronological cohesion – something most of those who think so is due to fifty years of communism – but I think that essentially that it is a political and economic standpoint.
On the other hand, the rooted stereotypes in central and southeast Europe about the western world, its treasures and wealth, militarism, and cold rationalism and “will for order” keep ancient divisions, past century walls and curtains, and build brand new ones. Strangely enough, plenty of artists who moved from central or southeast Europe to the west in the last hundred years, among which Brancusi, Hantai, Moholy-Nagy and Kandinsky almost totally changed the western perceptions of Western art and their understanding of the history of art. These two “other halves of Europe” desperately need one another and are in an inseparable grip of perpetual procreation.
AS: Lately, it seems as if you were more concerned with global than local issues, or has this always been the case in some respects?
MM: I always tended to use an artistic language, not a local dialect, so yes, it has always been a case. I always address the issues globally, and anyone can understand my viewpoint regardless of their cultural or social background. Some of these issues include social progress, and I see it as a factor of stable and solidary societies, but we can see that today the countries that were the very models of that progress lie in ruins. Ruins are also one of these ever-present topics, not only as a consequence of deconstruction but on the contrary of creation – ruins are created in the same way the buildings are, only the ruins are the monument of chaos and confusion…There are many topics I am currently dealing with, but they all gravitate around the true human values, the place of the individual in the world, faith in man, the symbols of power and might, nature, and the hope we hold for the future.
AS: I think it’s safe to presume that your painting practice is a pillar of your artistic output, but you have also touched on other media such as photography, installation, and video throughout your career. What determines which medium you choose in a situation?
MM: Today’s artists should have total freedom over technology and mediums of expression. This is one of my strongest beliefs. Only, it comes with a condition; The artist should acquire specific technological “know-how” and use this with total responsibility towards themselves. Depending on my acquired abilities, sensitivity, and mood, I channel my ideas and direct them through the various media until their realisation into artworks. My artworks communicate on various levels and forms, from drawings and hand-sewn flags to large-scale photographs, posters and paintings, sculptures, machines and installations, but all these aspects move in the same direction and are intrinsically interconnected. My poetical world is one. It is not fractioned into media categories, and these different approaches only show the basic idea from different angles and perspectives.
AS: How does your work deal with violence, oppression and manipulation in our present day?
MM: I remember that the opening of the newly built MUMOK ( Ludwig Museum ) in Vienna occurred just a few days after 9/11, also featuring a series of my photographic works called “Mobile”. This was the first major museum acquisition in my artistic life, but there was this gloomy shadow rising from the clouds of burning Trade Center towers and hovering also over the world of art. After that opening, I remember the round table discussion, and some museum directors depressively noted that this was maybe the end of meaningful institutional collecting of art. Violence was always there, and I see violence through my work as a kind of systemic disease. Violence is a brutal expression of predatory principles that unfortunately rule the world. Reality is twisted and manipulated by digitalised media and confectioned images of all kinds. I try to express this through the visions of the “world in negative”, an inversed, shadowy reality that takes the looks of dogmatic religion. Our senses are fooled and confused, maybe more than ever in history. The annihilation of the making of art, its conservation, and its fundamental and spiritual importance, so feared by those participants of the round table back in mid-September 2001 in Vienna, actually never happened, although some even more dramatic events occurred in nearest past. Art in any of its forms or mediums, but genuinely genuine, will always be of the crucial importance of preservation and maintenance of the inner human spiritual self and will always be a potent weapon that brings a determinant upheaval… saying so, my work will always showcase my trust in human nature, mankind, in good will and in the preservation of knowledge.