A few years before taking up the post of visiting professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich last semester, I was there to deliver a lecture about my visual art. On that occasion I met Anuk Miladinović and had the opportunity to talk to her at length about her work, art and life. Hearing her story, I recognized some of my own thoughts and preoccupations. During my recent visiting professorship we continued our dialogue. As multi-disciplinary artists we have some formal similarities: both of us create installations, sculptural pieces, photographic work and videos. But we have some thematic common ground too in a similarly reflexive, mildly ironic take on life as it is: nothing more or less than a tragicomic setting, at once sublime and ridiculous, beautiful and ugly, elegant and awkward. While we may employ entirely different idioms and our oeuvres have distinct objectives, we both start from our perception of the everyday, the ordinary, and go on to make it extra-ordinary, to question and interpret it. We look for ways of using the image to both enchant and disillusion. This produces a relentless tension between optimism and playfulness on the one hand and the realization of our powerlessness as human beings and ensuing melancholy on the other. The banal here functions as a discreet metaphor for a bigger, social narrative.
Miladinović’s work is sometimes massive and bold, sometimes insubstantial and ephemeral, but it almost always enters into an unsettling dialogue with the surroundings in which it is presented. One of her creations, for example, features a monumental, seemingly toppled ‘negative’ volume for an alcove on a façade, suggesting that the bulky piece had once been an upright part of that façade (complement #1). She has also turned images of weapons and bullets into a decorative pattern on a tiled wall found in a former munitions factory (recurrence #1), and has challenged our powers of visual observation of reality by adding a photographic transparency to a window (overlay #1). As part of her installation work the artist also frequently works with existing objects, either manipulating their form or appearance or combining them to create new and surprising meanings. An ordinary, suspended light bulb was elevated to a work of art when she constructed a glass display case around it and thus “captured” the light in this accessory (light light #1). The immaterial light was suddenly accorded the material status of an object. This kind of abstraction from the original surroundings and distortion of the primary function of an object often plays a key role in Miladinović’s work.
Broadly speaking, the optical, poetic illusion and concepts such as visual deduplication, disappearance and fictitious additions to a given context are major recurring motives, in the three-dimensional work as well as in the videos. Every once in a while the artist also makes profoundly ironic gestures, as she did when she bought a series of interchangeable, saccharine reproductions on canvas at Ikea and decided to display them in a place where art tends to be seen primarily as a decorative backdrop.
Many of Miladinović’s staged situations suggest a “before” and an “after”. As a viewer this can make you feel as though you “catch” the work in a particular phase, a moment frozen in time. You could argue that in terms of premise and strategy the artist remains largely within the confines of contemporary installation and video art, but that her confounding fiction is idiosyncratic and, above all, presented in very subtle and elegant ways. Therein lies her greatest merit: the sophistication of her deceptive simplicity. She brings everyday elements, objects, actions or sculptural interpretations, or traces thereof, to our attention in the most ingenious way, and in doing so plays with our conditioned responses, our senses, our psychology. She also effortlessly mashes up visually contradictory codes such as good and bad taste, can work with both a nostalgic patina and an industrial sterility and often causes us to lose our sense of spatial and temporal orientation.
“access”, Miladinović’s new video work, features a nondescript, grey, dry business environment in which anonymous, slightly ridiculous businessmen with drab suits and briefcases, a cleaning woman quietly going about her cleaning, a metro station and a peculiar lift take centre stage. The film is a kind of confusing non-event which intrigues precisely because it is a non-event: an illogical succession of minor, banal actions by anonymous, silent, mostly waiting figures in carefully staged settings, in which the absurd, repetition and – to a lesser degree – the surreal are recurrent themes. Although the film, and to a certain extent all of Miladinović’s work, is exceedingly illogical and alienating, it offers an instant familiarity, enabling the viewer to easily identify with what can be seen and heard. That’s why I would describe the piece as a visual fiction, and certainly not as a fantasy. Fiction offers the possibility of an immediate acceptance or credibility, like a seemingly realistic novel with convincing characters and a plausible plot. Fantasy is more like a world with its own laws, peopled by fantasy creatures that are far from our everyday lives. The artist does not go down that route. Her alienating fiction serves her well.
The observational character, the through-composed images, the attention to colour, detail, silence and rhythm and the sometimes slightly menacing undercurrent of Miladinović’s fiction evoke cinematic stylists such as Roy Andersson, Jacques Tati and David Lynch. The non-event dimension and the manipulation of banalities and messages between the lines in turn conjure up the bleak but compelling short stories of Raymond Carver. The ironic interaction with a given setting in a public space suggests to me similarities with installation artists such as the Belgian Guillaume Bijl, while I associate the pervasive absurdity and the unmistakable mise en scène in her work with the world of Samuel Beckett.
But above all I should underline here the poetic, subtle, experiential and unsettling qualities of Miladinović’s work and to stress that the prime references in her work are not the aforementioned great artists but everyday life and our tragicomic human condition.