We spoke to Serbian artist Branislav Nikolić about his transition from painting to sculpture, impromptu architecture inside galleries and collaborations with marginal audiences.
MAZIPOS – Why don’t you start telling us about your most recent exhibition Superstructure at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade?
BRANISLAV NIKOLIĆ – This year I got a great chance, better say privilege, to exhibit at one of the most prestigious galleries of Belgrade – Salon of the Museum of Contemporary Art. Museum is providing decent budget, they have excellent curators, media coverage and technical support. Curator of the show was Dr. Zoran Erić. I wanted to use that opportunity in the best way possible, to make a new piece for the specific space. Together with Zoran and Una Popović, main curator of the gallery, I decided to make a large roof – superstructure. It was the largest object I made so far and probably the largest piece ever made in that gallery. It was an interactive work which visitors could climb on it during the show. One of my intentions was to break borders between the visitors and the work itself. I am often doing this kind of interactive installations where the public is part of the process, but it still had all qualities of the artwork. It was in a way enormous collage made of wood, glass, metal, plaster… It covered the surface of almost 120m², but at the same time it was generating a very intimate atmosphere. All that colors and traces marked in old doors, windows, closets, were telling the stories about their previous life. It was a small history of the city written in different materials.
M – The exhibition alludes to the informal, DIY architecture used by marginal communities. What is your personal approach to the life of these people?
BN – I am interested in architecture in general and specially in DIY architecture. My works are ‘images’ of the architecture, but not the architecture itself. They are reconstructions of some architectural shapes and techniques in the contemporary art language. One of my previous projects called Secondary Architecture included people from the margins in a very direct way. I hired one of them to build a house in the gallery for me. I was just his assistant. We followed whole process from collecting materials from the streets to building it in the gallery. Most of the people who recognize this kind of buildings only from TV or newspapers had a chance to enter inside and see how it actually look. To experience how it feels living in a house without water, electricity, heating. It is quite shocking experience. But, I didn’t want to picture them as poor, helpless people constantly suffering and waiting for the help from the society. On the contrary, they are very creative, adroit people, singing, dancing and most of the time enjoying the life. It looks like they are not attached to the materialistic culture of the modern society at all. This work had a certain success in Serbia. We got few prizes including a prize in the Salon of the Architecture for the experiment.
M – Are any of your structures intended to be used as a living space?
BN – No, they are purely art projects. Although, after finishing the shows I usually donate materials to the people living in slums to rebuild or improve their existing buildings or make a new ones. Material is back on the streets again!
M – There’s something powerful of putting in a gallery a cheap structure inspired in the most primary need, and despite the pieces being geometric and abstract, I can’t help but think in the social element of economic disparity, discrimination and distribution of public space. I bet your work makes a lot of politicians uncomfortable…
BN – Contrast between the old, ruined structures and whiteness, shininess of the gallery is the most powerful effect. Neutral space of the gallery is suddenly filled with a material full of life, full of meaning – it is almost ecstatic feeling. Also, there is a social aspect. Visitors of the galleries and museums are different kind of people than the people who are living in the shacks. Clash between these two worlds is very strong force. I am interested in these differences. We are all the same – human beings, but the difference between our experiences are one of the things that makes this work so vivid.
I don’t know about politicians, they don’t usually follow the cultural life -they are busy with their own reality shows, but my projects moved some generous people and some organizations to act towards the improvement of the living conditions of people from the margins. We organized a panel discussion about this subject with urbanists, architects, artists, historians, and we also collected some money, food, clothes to help these people.
M – A lot of your work from previous years is painting, but recently you’ve been migrating your practice to sculpture and now architecture… how do you feel with the transition? Are you going to expand into more ambitious projects?
BN – Sculpture and installation became more interesting for me than painting. It is more physical, more direct. Painting was too abstract and too decorative for me. It could be powerful as well, but you need experience and imagination to perceive it. Sculpture is physically present in our 3D world. Everybody can feel it. For me, objects are closer to the real life than 2D works. Actually, in the project called City Mirrors I tied to combine these two worlds.
I am not planning anything. Things are happening itself. I’m letting it grow naturally. Of course I am not making so large works in my studio. I am sitting and waiting for a new invitation, new chance to make something big. In a meantime, I am doing collages, drawings, writings, photos, books…