Branko Dimitrijevic

Interview on the occasion of the Participation on the Octobersalon Belgrade

1. In your photographic series Im fotografischen Exil (Rache fur Trotsky) you make an inversion of the practice common in “real-socialist” systems of erasing certain politically unfavoured personalities from photographic historical documents. The phantom-like appearance of Lav Trotsky in your montages is also an intervention in the fiction we call history. What were your intentions in creating such a symbolic intervention? (Also, it will be interesting to hear was there any “strategy” when you decided whom to erase in order to have him replaced by Trotsky.)

I like your phrase "the fiction, we call history" very much, because it relates to my way of thinking about history, which I would like to illustrate using a quote of the German writer Sebastian Haffner:

"History is not predetermined like nature. History itself is a piece of art. Not everything, which did happen, will become history, only those events historians somewhere and sometime have paid attention to in their narrative ... history - in my clearcut view - is not reality, it is a part of literature."

If you do not exclude photos and pictures from your concept of narration, we have arrived at the subject I am interested in. A picture can be much more powerful and resiliant than writings of historians. The scourge of war, complexities of situations and events are often only remembered in a vivid manner, if you are confronted with pictures like the naked girl running away from a Napalm attack in Vietnam or a plane which crashes into a high-rise building. These pictures are very important. Because of their symbolic value they supplement and influence history.
Leon Trotsky's pictures had their own story.
Stalin recognized very early that his opponent was dangerous to him, not only in person but as a symbol. Therefore he followed him and arranged his assassination. In parallel he ordered that Trotzi's torso had to be removed from the photos by using the technique of retouching. Pretending that Trotsky had never existed was not likely to be regarded as a statement of the truth by the people, but as a threat. It was dangerous to own a picture of Troski during the time of Stalin's tyranny. In addition, this is the most original and prominent example for the use of manipulation of photos. Lastly, on a more personal level, I am again and again struck by the meanness and perfidiousness of this strategy.

The subject of erasing people from photos begins with Trotsky and leads until the present times. In dictatorships it is still common that opponents are killed and traces of their existance are removed, not stopping with documents of their birth. During the military dictatorship in Argentina mothers, whose son's had disappeared, went on the street showing photos of them, in order to prove their existance.

The titel 'In Photographic Exile' reveals much: Because Trotsky in person disappeared from photos, it could well be that other photos are useful for him as refuge. Photographic exile, for a fugitive. The new settings in which Trotsky appears are situations of similar historic relevance like the ones in which Trotsky was erased. These situations are well-known and positive feelings are associated with it - this clearly implies an appraisal and compensation for Trotsky. Disregarding the person of Trotsky for the moment and focusing on the ideas, which are standing behind such historic moments, his appearance in photos together with miners, communards fighting in the Spanish civil war, Che Guevara or Nelson Mandela becomes plausible.

The best known example of a photo manipulation is the photo of Trotsky next to Lenin during the latter's speach at Sverdlow square in 1920. Lenin gesticulates in the foreground and red-army leader Trotsky is standing on the stairs leading up to the wooden tribune. The manipulated photo shows only the stairs. I took this figure of Trotsky and made it appear in a similar situation many years later when Boris Yeltsin in 1991 climbed on a tank to make a speech, trying to stop the coup against Gorbachev. The circle closes, because the photos represent the birth and the demise of the Soviet Union.

Some time ago I had the opportunity to give a lecture about this piece of art in front of Russian elite students, aiming at a career in the Russian government. To my surprise they liked this work and understood it very well. The director of this institute asked me, if the choice of pictures was arbitrary and interchangeable? I choose to answer with a question myself, asking him about his attitude about scientic research in his institute and if he enjoys the different approaches science offers. He responded that he is looking for final answers. This attitude seems quite arrogant to me, because it claims that there is an objective truth which can be clearly defined and final answers can be found. I prefer to add a new dimension to historic storytelling and I regard it as important to think and speculate about history.

2. Why Trotsky? He was very influential in the 1930s and 1940s for the anti-Stalinist left-wing intellectuals in the West, including widely influential art and culture theorists like Clement Greenberg. But what may be his symbolical role in art and politics today?

The subtitel of is 'Revenge for Trotsky'. I choose this hood-blooded, but slightly ironical phrase, to open up for the possibility that emotions are involved in this piece of art, which refers to a story which took place a long time ago. One meaning is: a symbolic revenge is taken, by letting him appear again. At the same time, there is a different, not so emotional reason for choosing Trotsky, which is, I think, similarly important for this work. By chance, he became the most prominent example of picture manipulation and I use him to refer to this insidious strategy in general.

Still, Trosky himself is interesting. He was one influential actor in the Russion revolution. He lost the fight for power against Stalin and did not even get the chance to fail afterwards. Communist utopia could not be achieved and got perverted by Stalin. Surley, Trosky was the most important antagonist to Stalin. For this reason, as you indicated in your question, he was very influential to intellectuals in the West. Surrealist André Breton was enthusiastic about a meeting he had with Trosky. In the 1970s there were Troskyst political groups in Western Europe. One of the photos I choose is from this period of time: Joseph Beuys self-confidently marches towards the spectator, title of the work is: 'La Revolutione Siamo Noi' (The revolution is us). Having changed this, it is now Trosky who approaches the spectator in the same determined manner, signifying revolution in a more original manner.
Nowadays the symbolic role of Trotzky is nearly meaningless.

3. How does the photo series presented at the October Salon relate to your other work? You have been working in very different media: sculpture, painting, installations, and you have been involved in some collaborative projects, too…

For a certain period of time I studied history and political science, therefore I am very interested in these subjects in other parts of my work. I am interested in historical pictures, staging of events, fakes and manipulations. A good example of staging of events is Saddam Hussein. His own propaganda stagings in the posture of a megalomaniac dictator with a gun and, in contrast, today's pictures showing him with white shirt without tie and suit.

In my artwork 'Dictators with Animals' I show 25 tyrants of the 20th century accompanied by animals. This is not an unusual motif, many rulers like to present themselves in the company of lions, horses and eagles. My paintings show them together with beavers, pandas and flamingos. Mussolini rides on a donkey, Pol Pot sits in front of a hyaena, Suharto runs over a cock with this motor-scooter, and the aged Pinochet is gently striking a dog. The motifs are not spectacular and it takes some time until one has identified the many dictators, who managed to capture their part in history.

Recently, in the Museum Fridiricianum Kassel I did a frieze out of 80 different wooden jigsaw figures hanging as 60 meter long band. This became a work breathing a lot of space and creating a quite atmosphere. A lot of these figures were taken out of our collective memory, the Warzwaw ghetto, the Spanish civil war, the prison of Abu Ghraib. These pictures move me and I think a lot about them. This is the main focus of my art at the moment, but there are other things I do ...