Milovan DeStil Markovic on the Text Portraits of Homeless project, his conversations with the homeless and the posibilities of portraits
Interview: Claudia Wahjudi
It is quite a leap from your series Lipstick Portraits to the Text Portraits. For the one color red Lipstick Portraits, you used world-famous women such as Hillary Clinton and Phoolan Devi as models. In contrast, the eight Text Portraits of the Homeless project are of anonymous homeless men. How did you get from one extreme to the other?
For the Lipstick Portraits, I needed famous personalities because they were one color pictures rather than images. The viewer does not see a regular portrait, but rather red surfaces, and he remembers what he knows from celebrity. I chose charismatic personalities from all over the world to show the different cultural backgrounds of images using make-up. However, with the men’s portraits, it took a little time for me to decide to use the home- less as models. My key question was, “What is the male equivalent to female make-up?” In Western culture, it has been the razor, ever since the French Revolution. Shaving is an initiation rite. But to choose famous men for a portrait series would be rather boring in the first place, and secondly, there are not enough charismatic men. Besides, I wanted to create this image differently.
Why, of all things, did you portray the homeless?
In my search for models, the form I chose helped a lot: the basis behind portraits of homeless is using language and text and not pictures as much in the traditional sense. I wanted to create a portrait out of an interview, bringing together the interview and the picture. An interview is already a kind of portrait. My creative work consists in choosing a central passage, a still, that is transfigured as an image. The subject would be recast as a global phenomenon, but this time anchored locally, and it should be an antithesis to glamour, fame and femme fatale images. Homelessness is a phenomenon of the city that occurs worldwide but is strongly centered in the local. The homeless in Homeless project are men without house or home. In traditional societies, the man built the house in which the woman then settled.
In traditional thinking, homeless men are also robbed of their manhood?
They are failures: in society, in the family and ...
... to themselves?
Yes. The most important elements for me were the stories. These people have something to say – about life, about their lives – that a famous personality most likely could not say.
In both series, were you looking for subjects that did not fit the ideal of their genders? Giving up the role of nurturer and protector in order to be in the public eye is less understood for women than it is for men.
Yes, although that was not my original intent. For me, the panel came first and the question was which form it would take.
Did you plan from the beginning that Homeless project would use so many elements: interviews, videos, photographs, eight pictures for the exhibit in a gallery and a billboard on the public space?
No. That’s the way the project developed. The key element was the interviews. I had decided to do camera interviews, so I could have both: the picture documents and the tone, the text. That was enough material for me to begin with. Out of the mass of information, I had to build a profile, all in one color, compressing one still and finding the 10 or 15 key sentences.
What interview technique did you use?
In Belgrade, Tokyo and Berlin, I did 20 to 25 interviews for an hour each with homeless people. The interviews began with “police information:” name, place of birth, place of residence and the length of time of homelessness. I needed this information to begin the conversation. Later the camera-woman and I just let the interviewees run. Some needed questions because they didn’t know what they should talk about, but others could not stop once they had started.
In that case, did you just stop the interview?
I had to. I gave myself parameters, as in a performance: for each interviewee, we had an hour-long cassette tape. Sometimes that was a shame. With two or three of the men, I would have liked to do five hours of interviews, but I could not find them again because they have no fixed address.
Who were your interview subjects?
In Japan, I mostly met people in the parks or other public places that they have made their own. The homeless in Japan are very organized: they go into certain places and build shanties. For example, there was one who worked in management for Sony and decided to live on the street. He wanted to free himself from the social structure and the hierarchical construction of Japanese society. I don’t know if he is rich or poor; it doesn’t matter. He had lived for 15 years in one of these huts and told me that he was happy as he never was on the other side. In Belgrade, I interviewed homeless who were persecuted in the war and were expelled from their homes: Serbians who had fled Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Others had been mercenary soldiers but afterwards landed on the street. Unfortunately I did not get to talk with the other side, since I did not have projects in Zagreb and Sarajevo. In Germany, I met one man who had lived with his mother in Brandenburg his entire life. When he was 40, his mother died suddenly and he ended up on the street. I was interested in the point at which the subjects entered homelessness – these were big decisions for them.
In Homeless Project, you concentrated on “visible homelessness” without interviewing people living in state or charitable facilities or forced to live with family and friends. It is interesting that you did not talk about housing shortages, which is cited as a classic cause of homelessness in the literature on the subject.
That’s right. Having a home does not necessarily solve the problem. The problem is upheaval such as war or the German unification. When a person loses a home, there are always more factors at play; not just the fact that he has no apartment or house, but also his history, such as his childhood, and the violence of his daily life, not just larger catastrophes. To dismiss that would be a lie. Often, the psychological background plays a big role. Many homeless are stuck so deep in their situation that they need social support in order to find a socially acceptable position again.
Out of a 60-minute interview, you chose a passage of three or four minutes. How did you reach the final extract?
I read. We had the interviews transcribed – in slang, how they were spoken, with all the mistakes. Then I reduced the texts in much the same manner as I reduced the Lipstick Portraits to color.
As a sculptor who must carve away material to find the form, you carved away the text until one quote remained?
Painting is adding, but shaving is taking away; it’s sculptural work. The quote consists of a closed piece; I have not made a collage. The selected person made his own particular way through the interview, spoke about certain topics and thus exhibited his character, his profile. So it was not difficult to find the 15 sentences to describe the background of the subject or his culture. In a traditional portrait, let’s say the Mona Lisa, maybe 10 percent is the character of the subject. That’s not much. The rest is clothing, haircut, make-up. A classic portrait does exactly as much or little to portray a person as my Text Portraits do.
Out of the eight short passages from the interviews that were selected for each city, how do you choose one particular quote for the city billboard?
That depends on the context. I speak with the people in each city about the quotes and about the current politics and mood there to figure out which one of the eight would fit. I should not make this decision on my own.
Can you give an example?
With my first project, in Belgrade, I initially chose a very politically charged interview. I thought it would fit; the interview subject had a lot to say about society and he criticized the war in Bosnia and the Serbian Church. But when I spoke with others involved, they expressed doubts: the elections would be taking place right after when I wanted to put up my billboard. It was clear to me that I should avoid being used politically or help either party get more votes. As an artist, I want to stay neutral, and I do not want someone’s message that was given in a certain context placed into a totally different context. I do not want to manipulate.
But you filter. Is it your wish to define the image of the homeless for the public?
I always want to show a portrait as a portrait. What the viewer thinks or not depends on him – there is no additional information on the billboard. But he should not immediately think, “Aha, this is about homelessness.” The passer-by can ask himself whether the billboard is an ad or a political pamphlet. This ambiguity is very important for me.
Why did you choose buildings as the media for the portraits?
My work deals with images in public space as has been done since the Russian Revolution and with which the Russian avant-garde took issue. In Eastern Europe and other countries with a one-party system, the billboard was and is a political ad; in Western Europe and countries with similar systems, it is used commercially and covers whole buildings. Even in the Islamic world, where there is a ban on images, the billboard is either an expression of Western commerce or a medium for socialist-realist images, as influenced by the Soviet Union. I am using their form for the portraits of people who count as nothing and nobody in society, in places where commerce or power dominate. I’m shuffling the deck. A building – a roof over one’s head – is what the homeless lack. This is the contradiction with which this project deals. I need these building because they are in consumer areas. The homeless also go there; there is something for them to get – a little bit of money. In these same places are offices where decisions are made about millions or about war and peace. When I deal with the firms located there about using their facades for my bill- boards, I speak with managers who have power, and the next morning I meet with people who live on the street.
On which buildings are the billboards already placed and on which buildings should they be placed in Moscow and New York?
In Belgrade, I used a building on Terazije Square in the city center in an area that is now a business center. Earlier, there was a portrait of Tito there and slogans for the state, brotherhood and labor. In Berlin, I initially wanted to put it up on Potsdamer Platz, but it was very complicated. Now it is in a central area – at Checkpoint Charlie – with many tourists and businesses. In Tokyo, it is on the post bank in the center of Tokyo Square, where crowds of people gather and shop nonstop. In Moscow, I am looking for a place where political portraits used to hang and which is now used commercially. In the USA, the architecture will play a bigger role; in New York, with its skyscrapers, I have to approach the dimensions differently.
It is very symbolic that in Berlin, there were no businesses that wanted to display the portrait.
The refusal of the businesses reflects the huge crisis in the Berlin real estate market. There is no desire to be charitable because things are going poorly for the business itself. When I bring up the subject of homelessness with my billboard,
I am causing yet another problem. In Germany, people would much rather leave charity to the state than in the Anglo-Saxon countries. That is very disappointing to me. The topic of homelessness is immediately blocked out. There is a nice passage in Empire by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt about the poor and how important they are for the economy. The whole economy profits from them. People should be aware of the poor and help them to boost the economy. In Germany, they have not yet realized this.
What was the reaction in other countries?
Refusal came in other forms. In Belgrade, for example, a minor bureaucrat wanted money in exchange for his help. And in Tokyo, they wanted to see what others were doing before they committed to doing anything themselves. That meant that no one made a decision. The employees in the public relations department are afraid of a new topic like mine; they think that it could be dangerous and that they could be risking their jobs.
Was there anything in the interviews with the homeless that surprised you?
I had not expected to get so much information about the state, social politics and society. That really surprised me.
Something about how people lived in the GDR, that people also sent their mothers flowers, that in everyday life, people lived as people did in, say, Regensburg. Between East and West there is not such a great difference. But there are crucial differences that make one man homeless and not another: places where there was war or economic upheavals or floods, acts of God. The differences naturally include the cultural background and the moral climate. In India, for example, everyone gives the beggar money. In Germany, however, they expect him to find a respectable job. I learned a lot about the different cultures from what the subjects had to say.
European literature has portrayed homelessness as either a romantic life of freedom, focusing on roaming and itinerancy, or it has used homelessness as a warning to the bourgeoise and nobility that they can also fall, as in Balzac’s Oberst Chabert, who after the loss of his love and without the structure of the military, loses his way and his fortune and dies as an anonymous, deranged vagabond.
This is what Negri and Hardt called “the dangerous freedom of the poor.” But fear of homelessness is, in part, a northern European view. In the south, in the Mediterranean, the poor person – quasi a modus operandi – is treated as a part of society and is recognized as an individual. He is, so to say, the fool in the king’s court who can say anything. In the south, homelessness is fated. It is the similar in Japan.
In Belgrade and Tokyo, you photographed the sleeping places of the home- less. Why?
The photographs relate to the portraits in the series: I was interested in the dwellings as images of their owners. Besides, I was interested in their impermanence, the technical know-how of their builders and their mix of materials, space and culture. The photographs are by-products and are displayed in the installation as the interviews are.
What story do these dwellings tell?
I wanted to know: which material is the most flexible, which lasts the longest, which is used in which culture, which is available on the street? In Tokyo, for example, the shanties have floors because in Japan people sleep on the floor. So even the poorest have floors. In Belgrade, this is unimaginable. In Belgrade, if you have a floor, you are rich. In Berlin, it is forbidden to sleep on the street or to build temporary dwellings. Here the state has more control: agencies and welfare institutions offer emergency accommodations, so there aren’t any shanties in Berlin.
Aren’t there also global similarities in homelessness?
A businessman in Tokyo lives differently than a businessman in New York, even when both work for Sony. They are affected by their local context. This is also true for the homeless.
Do you view the photos of the shanties as architecture, documentary or portrait photography?
They are photos of façades, not three-dimensional buildings.
I ask, because homelessness is not an uncommon topic in art, especially in documentary photography. Then there is narrative photography, such as Boris Mikhailov’s series Case History or Dayanita Singh’s portraits of a eunuch living in a cemetery. Intervention by artists to improve the situation of the homeless is quite common, such as the Homeless Vehicles sculptures by Krzyzstof Wodiczko or the mobile medical provisions of the Gruppe Wochenklausur in Vienna. How does the Homeless project fit in?
I was interested in an image and I approached the topic from the point of view of this question, not the other way around. In the ‘20s, artists and intellectuals worked to approach workers and the poor. Such contact always took place, and they were very important. It’s like in Neapolitan cooking: the inspiration always comes from below.
Is the discussion of homelessness in art part of a larger effort to bridge the assumed divide between art and life?
Perhaps not to bridge it, but to live it. Artists are free enough to figure out something of their own. I did not have a preconceived formula of how the Homeless project should go. If I may take journalism as an example ...
... please …
… there is a certain form that is expected from the employer or from the reader. But in art, you can perhaps go this way, perhaps that way, and maybe you will not exhibit here, but there. The form is more free than in journalism or politics. My work deals with politics, but that is not my primary concern. My major interest in this project is the picture.
In 2000, Jochen Gerz created a work about the homeless in Paris: Les Mots de Paris was exhibited in front of a church, and Gerz also used quotes from the homeless. However, he engraved these on glass plates, placed them on the ground in front of bus stops and provided them with a slot for money so that a homeless association could get some benefit from it. And for the length of theproject, he hired homeless people. Have you also arranged such cooperation with those involved?
No, I cannot manage such an effort alone. My contribution consists in the fact that I bring attention to the issue with my project. A percentage of the sales from the work go to the homeless center that helped me contact the interviewees.
Can art, by collecting money or offering practical help, suggest solutions? Or is that not the role of art?
Art is inherently political, and everything that goes on in the public sphere relates to its role. But as an artist, it is one thing to give a big speech and another to go beyond and find a way to draw attention to the work situation and the homeless. That requires give and take. That is a suggestion but not yet a solution. A solution? Such a project makes a momentary ripple and makes sure that different people deal with the subject of homelessness. Because everyone is potentially homeless.
That is why people are afraid of this topic.
I have been asked why I am doing Homeless project and if I am afraid of homelessness. Yes, homelessness is not something that you want to go through.
Homeless project is your first work in public space. Why did you decide on this step?
Maybe because of my past. I grew up in a state where portraits and photographs of famous people were displayed in public space. Now I am at the point in my life where a step into the public space makes sense: as a boy, I had to read the pamphlets in Belgrade, and now I can hang them myself in the center of Berlin or Tokyo.
The late revenge of Markovic?
Yes (laughs). But seriously: I have always had problems with the cult of personality and the cult of commodity; it doesn’t matter who or what they spin. My work is something like the reverse of this cult and its ideology.
Homeless project also follows cult rules. You do not see the subjects in the portraits, and in the Ten Commandments it says: “Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any manner of likeness ...” The Text Portraits have to do with cults.
Yes, it has to do with iconoclasm. I am very cautious about images and the possible cults surrounding them. I don’t see such a big difference between an advertising billboard image of an athlete performing and a socialist picture of workers looking to the future. In Lenin’s time, Socialist Realism, not Suprematism or Constructivism, won the fight of who was to represent the image of the new
man. The question was, “Why?” and the answer from the political center was, “Because the people understand Socialist Realism better.” The communist states rephrased Christian iconography into one-party system iconography. Marx, Lenin and Stalin, for example, would be depicted as the Holy Trinity. I am not saying that this was done intentionally, but in their presentation and perception, not much changed. The big companies do the same thing today, as Naomi Klein has pointed out in her book, No Logo.
But a contradiction remains. On one side you express skepticism about the use of portraits. On the other side, the traditional portrait ennobles the subject. That is exactly what you are doing by placing the image of a homeless person in public space: lifting up someone who stands very low in society.
Yes, only I don’t utilize the familiar forms as they are usually used. As I said before, a billboard with a Riefenstahlesque body or with Coca-Cola is not so far away from the earlier images in Moscow, or in Tehran or Belgrade. Only now it is not about Leninism, but buying. Tomorrow it could be something else more dangerous than shopping.
With your portraits, you make people visible who are mostly not named in the debate about society. That is a political act, right now, to form a new class society in many places. So your portraits are also political portraits.
You could say that. As an artist, I have my opinion and my critical position, because I have spoken with 75 people. One lost his job, one a company, one became homeless for political reasons, one lost his apartment because he came from the GDR and did not know how to approach social agencies, and so forth...
Could you say that your type of portraiture generates democratic portraits?
Yes, but I would not call them that. I would rather call them “cult-less” portraits, because they don’t focus on just one person, but on many. For me there is not a big difference between working on art or on society, because art is always a picture of society. Even the Mona Lisa reflected her society: the hair was cut one way and not another, the clothes followed a certain look and women were not emancipated. You can see all that in this portrait. In the public space, there is more to add: I can’t talk about genius, because I pay closer attention to the other members of society. You register the sociopolitical situation more precisely and learn to take political responsibility.
That responsibility is also one of the viewer, who, unlike a gallery visitor, does not see your work voluntarily. What can you expect of him?
I have a responsibility to the people portrayed. But to the recipients? Architecture does not ask that either. Does the Christmas tree ask passers-by if they are Muslim? In my opinion, art poses no threat: art, compared with the capital behind advertisements, has very little power. It is different when art is politically organized and represents the state.
Do you envision doing further work in public spaces?
I don’t like to repeat myself. There are very few opportunities to work with pictures in the public space: mostly it is sculpture or objects or billboard art that comes from graphic design and advertising. But if I could explore something new, why not?
Ingrid Breckner, “Wohnungsnot, Obdachlosigkeit”, in Hartmut Häußermann, Ed., Großstadt. Soziologische Stichworte, Opladen: Leske + Budrich, 1998, 279 ff.
Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, Empire. Die neue Weltordnung, Frankfurt am Main: Campus, 2002.
Honoré de Balzac, Oberst Chabert, Stuttgart: Reclam, 1998.
Boris Mikhailov, Case History, Zürich, Berlin, New York: Scalo, 1999.
Dayanita Singh, Myself Mona Ahmed, Zürich, Berlin, New York: Scalo, 2001.
Rudolf Frieling and Dieter Daniels, Eds., Medien Kunst Netz, Bd. 2. Wien/New York: Springer, 2005.
Naomi Klein, No Logo, London: Flamingo/Harper- Collins, 2000.
First published in Markovic: Transfigurative Works, Nurnberg, Verlag fuer Moderne Kunst, 2006.
Claudia Wahjudi is an editor with Berlin city magazine Zitty and also works as a freelance culture journalist. Her work has been featured in art and culture publications including, among others, Kunstforum International, Metropolis M, Der Tagesspiegel, Frankfurter Rundschau, taz, Emma and u_spot. Her own publications include Metroloops. Berliner Kulturentwürfe (Berlin, 1999) and Handbuch Antirassismus (together with Mirko Heinemann and Alfred Schobert, Essen, 2002).