A few e-mails on Mladen Stilinovic

Below is an e-mail dialogue between İpek and myself. Why Mladen Stilinovic? Why publish it now? I think the answer is hidden somewhere between a rapidly developing art world, what it means to produce work in 2011 and the visceral experience of the political, the aesthetic and the human in an object as simple as a handmade book. But, I’m not quite sure.
Merve Ünsal

Dear Merve,

Last summer, I got a chance to see Mladen Stilinovic’s artist’s books at the e-flux project space. When I saw the exhibition, I already knew he was an Eastern European artist who produced during a time of war, conflict and strong political divide between, what in the 20th century might have been appropriately called, the East and the West. During a talk at Cooper Union, I saw the way he talked about being an artist at that certain time and place and the struggles he faced in representation, exhibition and recognition. This is precisely why I consider myself a partial viewer.

I read Stilinovic’s discussion of the color red in one of his books that was exhibited at e-flux and the need to de-symbolize it; I could generalize his arguments to re-evaluate the role all prior knowledge in reading and interpreting a work of art.

Stilinovic argues that we should erase our knowledge of all symbols to read a painting correctly. He specifically focuses on red as the sacred symbol of communism and mixes it with white to produce pink, transforming red to be only a color. If I did not know anything about Stilinovic’s sociological and geographical background, my perception or reading of his books would be conflicted; I would be left in a dilemma.

The artist’s books are means of deliberation on a couple of issues, including language and money. Apart from his statement-based works where he employs clearly articulated ideas to become a material for the work, Stilinovic’s books remain largely abstract. Books such as 00000 or=0 are visually and content-wise very minimalistic. Without any prior knowledge on the artist or his ideas on art and money it would be almost impossible to decipher these books and interpret 0 as the symbol for value or non-value. I would argue the same principle or frame of reading applies to his books that employ language and different translations of words. Without reading his statement—an artist who cannot speak English is no artist—the words would remain as scribblings on a piece of paper, merely a sketch.

Stilinovic’s books made me question how we should view art and what art is. As I have discussed with you on various occasions, I find the Turkish word for “art,” “sanat”, extremely hollow. The word is indiscriminatingly used in so many, sometimes contradictory, places that on its own, it does not mean anything. Stilinovic, in his letter to art, shares the same discontent.

Dear Art,

They use your name so often so that you don’t know anymore whether that is your name.

Lately, because of this sentiment, I’d been leaning more towards using “üretim” (production) and “üretici” (producer) instead of “sanat” (art) and “sanatçı” (artist). Choosing to use a different vocabulary perhaps enabled me to wash away the “pretentious” atmosphere surrounding conventional wording. However I did not realize that by doing so I equated an artist to a worker and destroyed all mysticism that’s may be essential to one’s becoming an artist. Production is made because there is a demand for it; art however does not necessarily need to be demanded.

art cannot exist anymore in the West…artists in the West are not lazy and therefore are not artists but rather producers of something.

Most of Stilinovic’s work focuses on redefining art and shifting the paradigms used for its representation. The books and writings almost provide a road map for thinking about art and his whole body of work can easily be thought of as a manifesto. One of his most visually and ideologically enthralling books My Sweet Little Lamb is filled with normative statements such as,

What can be shown cannot be said.
The limits of my language mean the limits of my world
whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.

The tone in these writings very much remind me of the writings of Karl Marx and why socialism still remains attractive. Well-thought out rules that come from great minds have always given me comfort and enlightened my way of thinking. After all, who wouldn’t be comforted by the thought that to be an artist you must be free of work?

—İpek Kuran


I want to pick on the issue of language. Many of Stilinovic’s books use language, words and pulp. This creates a language barrier between Stilinovic and the viewers, which I most welcome. The inability to comprehend the scattered words and phrases in the books pushed me (and I’m projecting on other viewers here) to deduce some sort of meaning from the exhibition that was outside of any language. Trying to refrain from exoticizing the foreign language, I had to be creative in “reading” this work. While the resources available in the gallery space, ranging from interviews with the artist to close readings of the work, provide a background on which the works can be viewed, I did not find this necessary. Seeing the “wall text” that repeats “I have no time” written in pencil, Stilinovic was already speaking or pretending to speak my language and we were accomplices from that point on.

Many visitors were thrown off by the use of a foreign language in these small notebooks/books that they could leaf through. Subverting expectations of untouchability in the exhibition space, the works might have been better understood than many visual works as the viewers tried to penetrate these curious objects.

Just as many interpretations of works of art fluctuate over time, I have to bring in something I saw for the first time yesterday. I was reading “Ethnic Marketing,” edited by Tirdad Zolghadr. The “ethnic marketability” of this work is something I can extrapolate on, but I want to draw on one of the works that was an homage to “An artist who doesn’t speak English is no artist.” There is something about this phrase that exposes me, an English-speaking artist who functions in New York. There is something about this statement that forces me (as well as the artist …) to respond, grunt and concede. I go back to the lecture at Cooper and Stilinovic’s slow spoken English and try to remember what I thought about when he started speaking. Did I fetishize him? Did I think about his Eastern European accent? Did I interpret his use of the language?  It does not matter what language he uses. His language, his vocabulary, his semantics is one that he invents and that is his practice. Red is reinvented, pain is reinvented, time is reinvented, labor is reinvented.  I then think about Barthes’ use of the word “text” in his From Work to Text. If the text descends into a field of interactions and becomes redefined, constantly and if the only constancy is this flux, then Stilinovic has exposed us, me, you and anybody else who is trying to make sense of (his) language.   Which brings me to the use of “sanat”. Sanat has become hollow, flushed, emptied out, maybe. And “uretim” is a handsome word that encapsulates process, labor, product. I’m suspicious about the implication of word. As I’m still kneading Stilinovic’s “work” in my head. What is a word that could integrate that process?


It’s poignant that you’re also reminded of the lecture at Cooper’s when talking about Stilinovic’s work. I guess once introduced to the personality behind the product one cannot think about it independently. Yes, I will insist on using the word “product” since the more I think about it, the more I find this word applicable to the nature of the way Stilinovic’s books were presented. If it were only one book that was exhibited, my interpretation might had been different, but thinking about all those books aligned next to one another—books with writings, books with drawings, books with collages—they seem like the ultimate form of production. I could even go as far as to contradict Stilinovic’s ideals and call the artist’s books an aestheticized form of mass production, regardless of the socialist backdrop. Viewed from this perspective could we name Stilinovic a pop artist ? Think about the porn magazine cut outs he uses…


Being introduced to the personality behind the “product” definitely alters one’s perception of the work. However, the reason I’m reminded of the lecture is not only Stilinovic’s persona, but also his use of language. The way he talked and his playfulness mirrors the way in which he produces. I can see the connection with pop, but I think it’s more of a coincidence or serendipity if you will, that he uses the materials readily available to him. His work is an aestheticized form of mass production, no doubt, but it is still a production that is for the sake of communication and circulation. His work somehow feels more accidental or natural than pop ever was. Pop comments on production and culture, whereas Stilinovic just naturally takes in what’s around him and somehow translates/transforms.


By pointing to the naturalness of Stilinovic’s work, inherent both in the product itself and the process of production, one can understand a lot about the why and how of these books. It is through and because of this “naturalness” that Stilinovic becomes an activist and not just a commentator.