05/07/2012
Darko Šimičić

When he asked a friend to take snapshots of him in several pre-staged poses in the summer of 1960, Tomislav Gotovac, then 23, had probably hardly been aware that he had thus embarked on an exciting adventure of his own artistic work.

What we see in these five black and white photos is the face of the author under dramatic lighting, situated in an undefined and rather peculiar ambiance. Gotovac was the actor, the playwright and the director of the whole happening. The set was utterly simple: it was composed of site-specific objects found on the spot (a lamp, light bulbs, a developing tray, wire). And yet, it appeared abstract, surreal and anxiety-ridden. In a conversation later on Gotovac explained that the photos had been taken in the premises of the Zagreb Cinema Club, where he had been seeing people of the same turn of mind and the same obsession with film. Gotovac gave charge of the snapshot camera to Vladimir Petek, a friend with whom he shared the same filmophile passion. It was Gotovac’s intention to make a series of photographs in place of a film, which had still been out of reach for him at the time. The end result differed radically from usual photographic and artistic works of the time, the reason most likely being in its divergence from standard practices, as well as in the author’s intention to demonstrate his personal views of French movies, while, at the same time, paying tribute to artists such as Salvador Dali, Luis Buñuel, Robert Bresson and Jacques Prévert. Several characteristic features that would later mark Gotovac’s entire artistic work underlie this first and rather courageous creative endeavor of Gotovac. In this work, Gotovac addressed the viewer directly by showing his face and creating an ambiance, thus setting up a strict situation which was to be realized by another person following his instructions. The sequels that were taken as snapshots follow a film structure – and they were indeed conceived and executed in place of a film, which was still out of Gotovac’s reach at the time.

Watching the movies, all the movies, repeatedly and in turn, has had a fundamental effect in shaping Gotovac’s views of art and life. A strong contrast between darkness of the cinema hall and the fascinating world of flickering pictures had also possibly offered an escape from humdrum existence. Be it as it may, this everyday ritual enabled him to gradually comprehend characteristic features of the film language and to grasp its procedures. Soon afterward, in 1962, Gotovac started releasing his own movies. His film works were characterized by their strictly conceived structure, as well as by use of only key film techniques, such as static camera shots, zooming, repetitions, and camera movements following a strictly predefined direction. The image captured by the camera is irrelevant in relation to structure. Such a fundamentally minimalist approach was also radically applied in terms that all irrelevant parts were skipped. Another characteristic feature of his film opus relates to paying tributes and making references to other films and music. What appears to be a minimalist artistic piece thus gets filled in with complex contents. Or else, as the author himself put it, the film is about: “a latent experience of the world, expressed through movement.”

Among many references to films and music in the opus of Tomislav Gotovac there is also one account of a visual artist and his works. Gotovac points out that he head seen the original collage works of Kurt Schwitters at the end of the fifties in Zagreb, which put a spell on him. He then started collecting various material objects, such as tram tickets, cinema tickets, envelopes, rustling pages of foreign newspapers, cigarette boxes, as well as other apparently worthless objects which would pass almost completely unnoticed. In a relatively short period of time (between 1964 and 1965), he converted the collected material into a series of visually fascinating collage works. Gotovac carefully systemized the selected material and glued the objects onto a base board with strict precision. The dominant motifs vary from one collage to another: sometimes it is a flickering commercial poster for beer or cigarettes; sometimes it is a ragged cement bag. The end result clearly shows that the usual esthetic hierarchy has been completely abandoned. The achieved outcome thus becomes even more extraordinary: the ‘quotes’ from reality have been revealed in unexpected beauty.

One can watch his collage works as an intimate chronicle, noting the collecting of objects from reality with patience, then organizing them in a systematic way and fixing them to the base board. This becomes particularly apparent in a series of small collage works, which he was sending as postcards by mail to a beloved person. They were made out of food packages and out of fractions of travel tickets and cinema tickets and they undoubtedly contain a complete intimate universe. Even more powerful sense of privacy is observable in the books of collage works. These books are dedicated to a single privileged viewer – to the one whom the author allows to turn the pages, to watch them and to touch them.

However, one has to point to another, essentially opposite principle represented in Gotovac’s use of a different reality - the reality of his body. When showing ourselves publicly, we have been trained to apply and obey to general social standards, and any dissimilar behavior is possible only in our private areas. Gotovac had been showing himself naked in public, directly and in a provocative manner, in the central downtown area. As a rule, these actions and performances came unannounced - the audiences were unprepared and were largely taken by surprise by unexpected scenes. These performances were photo-documented and later on presented in various galleries, but what is really relevant for Gotovac’s work here is that he had, intentionally and with purpose, assured public media presence at the very early stage of his work. At the beginning he appeared mainly in the youth and student press which were daring in spreading media freedoms, and this type of provocativeness gained them popularity. At the same time, this enabled Gotovac to become a principal local media attraction. Body in action thus became a central tool of expression for Gotovac, and the highlights in the mass media became an integral part of his artistic work.

In the world of Tomislav Gotovac, everything that goes on in the shape of images moving on the film screen is on the same level with what goes on in front of his eyes in reality. In his works, life becomes a public matter and practicing art becomes just another step – a brave, but just another normal step into reality. What he had to offer were his looks and his behavior, which means his art, and he offered it to everyone without bias: to occasional passers-by and to informed viewers alike. “Everything an artist spits out is art,” Schwitters said. Gotovac added: “I actually like people, and I love life, I love everything, but I do not like uniformity, that bothers me, and becoming a stereotype bothers me, and I am bothered by all those things that are canonized.”

Darko Šimičić

Translation to English: Ivica Zec