We want to thank everyone, who has already attended the solo show “Loopy” byManutcher Milani. We carry on with an interview of the artist with Ivan Mitrovic, which gives an extensive and personal insight into his artistic practice.
IM: In all your works I identify a unifying element, a kind of form-language, or rather: form in general. Something that I find very striking. You have many forms that are reminiscent of many things, for example writing. Where do they come from? Is it related to something real or are they purely invented forms?
MM: I have to go into a lot of detail with this question so you understand everything. It goes back to my childhood in Ghana. There are very well-known traditional symbols there from which Ashantis are descended. My Ghanaian family are not Ashanti, but these symbols are extremely well known throughout Ghana and have actually been elevated to national symbols. You see them right after the landing on the walls of the airport, on traditional clothes, jewelry, they are just omnipresent. Each individual symbol has a specific meaning and one also sees similarities with symbols from other cultures, such as the heart or swastika-like shapes. These symbols fascinated me as a child and have affected my creative work to this day.
The other big influence was our annual summer holidays in Zurich with my grandparents. My grandparents are and were Persian and lived in a very large house at that time. The floor was covered with the most beautiful Persian carpets and as a child I would lose myself in these shapes for hours. My grandfather was one of the first carpet dealers in Zurich, so we had a selection of the most beautiful carpets at home. The walls were decorated with works of art and sculptures and there was a library on each of the three floors, there was even one in the basement. There were ornaments everywhere! My grandparents had very refined taste and you could feel it in every detail of the house's furnishings. For me, the most beautiful thing was to come from Ghana to this house, to see all this, to touch it and to leaf through books about art. I never knew anything like that in Ghana and it left a big impression on me.
When I was a teenager, we moved to Switzerland and like every teenager who is bored at school, I started drawing doodles. I drew a lot and then applied for art school partly with these drawings. There I started to draw and collect these shapes, signs or symbols - call it what you will - in a more organized way. At some point I started tattooing the shapes I had drawn, and after that they had an influence on pretty much all my artwork. The forms always appear in my work and have a great recognition value. They are a product of my memory, of the interweaving of the formal language that characterized my childhood with the ornamentation of the furnishings of this Zurich mansion.
IM: So you have a kind of collection of invented symbols? Sure, you have the references, but they are not symbols that I suddenly see at the airport in Ghana, but rather the memory of symbols that you work with?
MM: I have piles of sheets at home and in the studio that are full of these symbols. Symbols without a specific meaning for now. They are influenced by ornaments and these national Ghanaian symbols.
IM: So for you they have a meaning, of course, but they are not existing symbols?
MM: No. It is never the case that I depict a single symbol that has a specific meaning. They are often symbols that I draw very intuitively. It is true that they can resemble familiar symbols, figures or the like, but that is never my intention. Only when I look at them in peace I make associations. The work lives from this process. While working, I do not try to depict anything concrete.
IM: Let's say you identify a symbol as a human figure? Do you then consciously use it again in this reading direction or do you want it to remain open how they are received?
MM: There are moments when I see a human body in a drawing, for example. I then already use that as a figure, but I want it to be on the edge, so that you can almost no longer recognize it and the figures or forms linger in a kind of intermediate state.
IM: It's interesting that you explain it in that way, that they are signs coming from a certain culture. It always reminded me a lot of language or letters. I have often seen arrangements in your paintings that remind me of text, side by side or on top of each other. Also the spatial interventions you make. The last one I saw was at the Kunsthalle Zurich, where you generated a pattern from these symbols and airbrushed it over parts of the exhibition space. I was very strongly reminded of writing in this work. It is also the airbrush technique you used that possibly triggers this association with graffiti, i.e. painted words. Is language important in your art? Or are you only interested in the visual experience?
MM: Having my own visual language is very important to me, but the visual experience is in the foreground. Graffiti has influenced me a lot and until a few years ago I sprayed a lot. You write letters, trying to develop and maintain your own style. It is often repetitive, one paints the same letters several times in a row. This influence can certainly be seen to this day. As a sprayer, I was often ashamed to work with airbrush because I thought it was cheating. Graffiti belongs on the street and not in a gallery. Airbrush paintings are often very kitschy and I try to avoid this aesthetic. Meanwhile I use it a lot and see it as an essential tool for me, with which you can paint depths extremely well, for example. My work in the Kunsthalle also has the aspect of gesture, which is an important part of graffiti. Large movements, executed with the whole body, are reminiscent of drawing outlines in graffiti. Images can trigger different moods; one can also speak of an atmosphere created by a spatial intervention.
IM: So I understand it as a visual language. Let's talk about the other language. Language about the work. Do you like to talk about your work or do you also write about your work? Or do your works live through/for the moment, that is, for the temporality of the exhibition. Again, as an example, the work in the Ballostar. The mural was there during the exhibition and was painted over afterwards. There are only photos and no other forms of documentation. Is that important to you? Can these signs be understood as a substitute for language?
MM: It has always been difficult for me to put my work into words. They are there to be perceived visually and that's what I focus on, a kind of visual experience, you should be able to lose yourself in it. For me, seeing must be an experience. A visual sensation. Damien Hirst speaks of "visual candy", I like that very much and it also fits my work. For me, the focus is on the visual and that can simply stand alone. I think text is important too, but I don't think language can replace the experience of the work. To be honest, I was against this interview at the beginning because it is about transforming visuals into language.
IM: I see a variety of media in your work. It ranges from spatial intervention to painting, object to tattoo. Where do you see yourself as an artist? Is it important for you to have a clear position within your practice?
MM: I try to stay away from clear positioning or categorization as much as possible. I am an artist; I paint, I build objects, I make carpets and tattoos. I have an almost old-fashioned view of what it means to be creative. I create work and always try to apply my personal approach.
IM: So one could say you have a theme that you deal with again and again, but which is detached from the more classical idea of how painting works?
MM: I have certain basic principles in my approach, which I developed during my studies and which I apply to different media. At that time it was important for me to never stick to one work or medium, but to keep trying new things and working with new materials. To paint or draw every day whilst facing new challenges that lead me to new insights. It was also very important to me that I could reinvent myself in each medium but still find a recognizable style. In this context, the figures and forms are important to me. But the most important thing is not getting stuck and always tackling something new.
IM: But at the same time, you want your work to have a recognition value?
MM: Yes, it is a kind of challenge to myself to familiarize myself with new materials or tools and to apply them while maintaining my certain style. I can't spend half a year on one painting, I'd be bored to death, because I need a certain rhythm of change.
IM: So your way of working is a form of movement! Do you differentiate between being in motion in thought, or is that also a physical movement?
MM: My way of working already results in a dynamism and movement that is present in almost all the works. But it's also about the language of form or colour. I would say that no matter what medium I work with, the work would very quickly be attributed to me. That is not necessarily a positive thing.
IM: And no matter where you would be, let's say in 5 years, is it important to you that this "style" is not lost? Or is that not important to you at all?
MM: Style and recognition value are very important in my work, but I have a split relationship to it. Often you recognize my work quickly, but I find it just as appealing to make work that you wouldn't suspect is mine. Because it's all about reinventing yourself again and again. That is more important to me than the recognition value, which is not just a conscious decision.
IM: An unconscious approach? Do you mean that you choose things that you have never done before?
MM: I don't say to myself: Hey, you have to try to incorporate something in this work or with this medium that has a recognition value.
IM: I understand that you work from the material with a more instinctive approach.
MM: Yes, many works are created in parallel and I move back and forth quite fluidly.
IM: In an older conversation you mentioned that you often see your work as design, that you are more of a designer than an artist. Is that a general idea of art that you have? Do you still see it that way or has it changed in the meantime? What do you understand as design in your work? What is design for you in general?
MM: In that case i will take back what i said (laughs). Many of the works I have made, such as the carpets, can be situated between design and art. But I actually refuse to categorize my work or position myself clearly. These questions slow me down because the question of whether something is art or design is also somewhat outdated. That distracts me from my work. Art and design have many parallels, but actually it's mainly about implementing ideas and concepts, and whether that's art or design is something everyone can decide for themselves. For me, the form or shape is certainly at the forefront. I am not trying to make political comments with my work or get involved in a social discourse. I often perceive my work as very flat art. But even my tattoos - which can be perceived as a kind of body design - arise from an explicitly artistic process, as they are created from my drawings and then take on new forms in interaction with the human body.
IM: Could it be read as harmony? Do you see the approach of design there? Be it a tattoo or a picture, the unifying element is to find harmony? It should appear harmonious/disharmonious?
MM: Yes, I do pursue this duality strongly, whether it is in the tattoos that I adapt to the body or in the murals where I respond to the architecture, but also in my practice in general.
IM: So tattooing is also part of your artistic practice? Is that an important part of your work or could the one work without the other?
MM: Tattooing comes second for me and is the by-product of the art. They are based on drawings and sketches that I made primarily for my art.
IM: That was a very enlightening conversation, thank you very much.
MM: A big thanks to you as well and greetings to my family and friends. Love