ICONOSTASIS OF ISMS
– Artworks of Aleksandar Todorovic (Serbia), accompanied with short interview –
His intensive, art-brut-like approach and style of paintings, full of characters and grotesque situations, catches your eye from the first sight, and never leaves it at peace again. Somewhat disturbing and sarcastic in their nature, Aleksandar's series entitled "Iconostasis of isms" have attracted attention of wider audience due to their structure and political engagement. We discussed the process, content and intentions behind these artworks with the author.
RP: Can you briefly describe us the technical nature of your series of artworks entitled “Iconostasis of isms”? How long did it take to produce them, which techniques did you use?
The question, though simple, due to the course of the events, demands a bit more elaborate answer. When I thought of doing Iconostasis paintings, I wanted to do them with the tempera or oil colors on wooden panels, as the real icons are made, with real gold plating, carved frames etc. The Paintings which I have produced, the first three iconostasis, were supposed to be a preparatory drawings - I expected to do them really fast, but once I started doing them, after several months of painstaking work and slow progress, it became clear that it will take me much longer than I have anticipated. I only had time, since it was at the final year of my college, to finish the drawings - but I will surely create my next Iconostasis in the way I originally envisioned them - and on much bigger formats also. The first three Iconostasis - Communism, Capitalism and Nazism I created in 2007, and it took me around 6 months to complete them. The fourth one, the Iconostasis of Serbism, it took me somewhere about 7-8 months to create, between 2008-2009. After that one, I thought that I need to elaborate more about the situation in Serbia, so I started doing, in 2009, the last three - the Serbo-capitalism, Serbo-communism and Serbo-nazism, which i stopped doing at 2010 after some 6 months due to some negative and unexpected personal situations, and the pause lasted almost 2 years. Finally, in 2012, I went to finish them, and it took about 8 months to finalize them - which means that each of the last three took about 4,5 months to complete. All in all, in all seven Iconostais paintings, there is a combined creation time of about 2,5 years of full time, day-to-day work. I made them, due both to my lack of workspace and my sensitivity to turpentine and other chemical medias, on smaller formats, using watercolors, with black ink and acrylic in really small quantities for some details, on paper.
RP: At first sight, they seem extremely politically incorrect and disturbing, but after one spends some time watching them, your Isoncostasis's evoke approval and support among experienced and educated spectators. Can you describe the setup, environment, context and the feelings that initiated the creation of such intensive artwork?
Well, the idea came in a moment of inspiration, but the prime motivator was the horrible situation in Serbia at that time (and also nowadays), while the rest of the world itself is not in so much of a great shape. The problems of our complex surroundings have always interested me. At that time, at the end of the fourth year at the academy, I had purchased several large wooden panels which I have bought to financially support my colleague who was selling them, and in that pondering of what shall I do with them, the idea has struck: to create a non-religious political and satirical "reliquary" object - the panels where perfect for that. I was also thinking of many problems at that time - the situation with Kosovo, Montenegro became independent, our troubled history and not so bright future - so all of those things were definite triggers for that idea to occur. How big task I took upon myself, it only became clear when i was knee-deep into solving those problems. Probably, if I had known how much time and labor-intensive that work would be, I would think twice before starting it in the first place - but the ignorance combined with arrogance, spiced with the "can do" attitude mixed alltogether and voila - today we have those artworks.
You are right, they are not politically correct one bit. I think that artists need to be sincere in speaking their own attitudes and opinions in their art, especially in this kind of narrative socially engaged art, without the fear of being labeled as chauvinists, communists or something else completely. The world has so many catastrophic problems, of which labeling people and political correctness is integral part (and most of the time those are simply mechanisms that people in power use to direct and control the public opinion), because that so-called "correctness" prevents identifying many problems, and thats why some of those problems can never be truly solved.
RP: You used the conventional form of orthodox Christian icon as a starting point, in order to represent and implicitly criticize the dominant systems of values in our societies. Systems that turned out to be drastically wrong from the perspective of a humanistically oriented spirit. Were you schooled in these traditional techniques at all, or you just relied on your experience as academic painter?
Well, at the Academy we had a subject of Painting technology, where we learned about different painting techniques - how to prepare paint, which pigments and binders to use, which mediums, how to prepare surfaces for painting etc. We learned how to do traditional icons - gold plating, surface preparations, how to paint - which I then used for doing some commissions, regarding icons that is - it was a great opportunity to practice that technique and painting style, and to be paid for it. Afterwards, i used that knowledge for these Iconostasis Paintings, though the media is different - but i became versatile in imitating to some extent the traditional byzantine style of painting and the characteristics of the orthodox icons. I used it mainly on the iconostasis which depicts communism, abroad and in Serbia, because it originated in Orthodox Russia. For other iconostasis' I used more of an illustrative, caricature-like style of posters whilst the composition was inspired mainly by the traditional icons and church murals - comics have always interested me, and the Christian icons, when they were created had same function (they had to be clear, thus they are very illustrative) to the illiterate people, in order to convey the message and the story as clear as it can be conveyed. My artworks had the same function - they were like a simulation of a question I asked myself "If politics equals religion, which is their iconography?", and a part of that imaginary simulation is to give the "followers" of that political systems/religions their tools of worships, in the form of mass produced poster-icons. You can buy it, hang it on a wall and pray - which is also a part of that imaginary simulation and reality twist. Their form is also a lie, a simulation of the real icons, a 2d rendering of a real 3d objects, and their ideological promises are also lies. Thus the artworks had to be as clear as possible, and their underlying message is not affirmative for those systems, its completely opposite.
RP: As I understood, your work was mostly inspired by local socio-political context of Serbia and western societies. Broad audience of Risha Project website might react to it in different ways, according to their local social contexts /having on mind that significant number of our readers comes from north-african and middle east countries/. Do you have any special message for them?
To keep an open mind while "reading" these artworks - their problems (African, Indian, Chinese, South American etc. to speak geographically) are also in part illustrated on the Iconostasis of Capitalism. Out of seven Iconostasis so far, three of those focus on global events and persons, very well known anywhere across the globe - and regarding those four that depict Serbia, I tried to make them as clear as possible to the others, even though the texts are in Serbian - the symbolism and gestures should be enough to be correctly interpreted by a wide audience. Also, the majority of world problems, of whom through internet we are all informed to certain degree, originates from so called Western, "developed" world, problems such as the over-exploitation, colonialism, unregulated capitalism, imperialism, economic and political oppression, ecological disasters, and many more other. I also advise people to be prepared to step out of their local cultures and problems, and to try to see the world through the eyes of others, their so-called enemies in particular, and to keep doing so constantly. Before our nationalities, ethnicities and religions, beneath our culture and history, we are all, first and foremost sentient human beings, and with that gift of awareness comes also a great responsibility. Only a group of informed and connected, open-minded people, consisting of highly capable individuals with right ideals and morals, unburdened with prejudices and ideologies can tackle the problems of the modern world, and hope to be successful - and art has to support and inspire them.