Claudia Wahjudi

The Invisibles

Sometimes art goes to the borderlands of human existence. Milovan DeStil Markovic, 47, knows how things look there because he went there and visited homeless people, who told him their stories. These stories blows Markovic up, so large that no one can lose sight of them. Claudia Wahjudi visited the Belgrade born artist at his atelier in Berlin.

If Milovan DeStil Markovic looks through the window of his studio in Berlin-Mitte he can see the skyline of Alexanderplatz. A tower block dominates the view, at the façade of which huge commercial posters have been hanging from time to time. The recent one featured an athlete advertising high priced sneakers of a well-known company. At the walls of his atelier Markovic pinned large colour photos, they show shebangs made of corrugated metal and boards, carpentered by the homeless themselves. The gap between the luxury promised by the advertisement outside and the poverty of the shebangs is rather shocking.

The work by which Markovic intends to fill the gap – even if for just a short time –, is called the “Homeless" project. It will be happening in seven cities on four continents – and it is planned start in Berlin in November. Markovic will install a mega-poster at a building in the centre of Berlin presenting a text: a quotation by a homeless person, who tells of his life. Further avowals of men who live on the street will be painted in pigment on eight canvases and shown at a gallery space. This is the first work in public space by the artist, a studied painter. The Berlin Capital Funds for the Arts sponsors the project and the Berliner Veranstaltungs GmbH (a public art institute) takes charge of the organisation. However, it proves to be hard to find just one real estate owner who would provide a representative façade for the presentation. DaimlerChrysler at Potsdamer Platz for example has refused to cooperate, Markovic says. He is currently in negotiations with the PR departments of several other large companies and in this way he tries to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor (the up and the down of society) himself while visiting pauper-societies at the same time. There he meets those who he interviews for the „Homeless" project.

The poster and the lettered canvases are larger-than-life portraits excerpted from the talks. They are written in the color of the skin of the interviewed person. Markovic wants to realise this work in Moscow, New York, Johannesburg and London as well. “I am interested in the question what it means and how it feels to be homeless in different cultural environments.” The artist, born in 1957, made the first "Homeless" project in Belgrade in 2003. In Tokyo he already interviewed homeless people. In Serbia, Markovic says, men talked about the war again and again. In Germany and Japan he met homeless people who had been in high positions in earlier days: one at the state security services, another as a manager at a huge company. Social upheavals catapult people onto the street, he says. But Markovic, who migrated from Belgrade to Berlin-West back in 1986, is not only concerned with social compromises. By the means of his banners, the artist reflects on the use of portraits in general – their commercial function in the cities of capitalism as well as their former propagandistic use in countries of socialism. In Belgrade he chose the Albania Palace at Terazije Square as the right place for his poster – a façade where the portraits of statesmen were presented in earlier times. Even after his emigration, Markovic always kept in touch with topics and problems that dominate public life in former Yugoslavia today. During the war in Bosnia he produced a photo series that conventionalised a saluting hand to a prototype – for unlimited reproduction. He as well joined in an solidarity initiative for independent media in Belgrade. Most importantly however, his understanding of image is strongly influenced by orthodox Christianity and icon painting tradition. His early installation and photo works were concerned with problems of perspectives and the different visual traditions of the catholic, the protestant and the orthodox dominated regions. Motivated by the skepticism towards the use of human face, Markovic searched for a new form of portrait that could do without figurative representation.

The best way he found out at a café at one night while he observed a woman who painted her face. For the golden framed „Lipstick Portraits”, the best known works by Markovic until now, which were produced from 1994 on, he painted reputed women as a surface of a single red tone, which he created with lipstick on silk.

Benazir Bhutto for example is characterized by a muted dark red, Hillary Clinton by a pink tone. “The colour is dependent on the cultural and geographical context and informs about the portrayed person”, Markovic says. The „Lipstick Portraits” are part of the work group of “Transfigurative Paintings”, works that represent the portrayed person by a third object, quasi analogously to the representation of God through Jesus. In this respect the „Homeless" project is a counter-concept to the women’s portraits: In a way Markovic erases or dissolves the faces of the prominent female media personage in that red colour, but he ennobles the image of “men who are incompatible with society”, as he likes to put it, to the status of idols by the chosen kind of presentation.

After the women now it is the turn of the men. The make-up of women corresponds with the technique of painting; as a contrast, shaving follows rules like sculpturing does. The face of men is a result of cutting, scratching and rubbing. For his series ,,Aftershave Portraits” Markovic asked homeless men, to wipe off their face with a piece of canvas, on which he then wrote an excerpt of the interview he had done with them. So the portrait emerged as a combination of the subjective telling and the objective genetic trace in particles of skin and blood. While using only the color of the skin in his current „Homeless" project, Markovic mitigates the strong biologistic touch that was inherent in former one. “I am interested in the character”, he says. “Some of the men understand homelessness not as a misery but as the last chance to survive because they cannot cooperate with the majority of the society.”

Milovan Markovic plans to publish a book along with the “Homeless" project. It shall document the process of creation and development – beginning at the negotiations with the firms and ending at the meetings with the homeless people. So the involved parties, who would hardly ever meet elsewhere, shall be gathered together at least between the front cover and the verso of this book for a longer time.

First published in u_Spot magazine, Berlin, April 2004.