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He Is Lying, He Is Not Lying

This man takes responsibility for all natural disasters of the last 2,000 years. Deliberately? Why him? An encounter.

“Seven Euros for the dead Africans!“, he screams like being on a market. The auction start offer is shouted through the steril room. In times of war and refugees, such a call sounds more than just politically incorrect. Yet, as part of a series of auctions taking place in Vienna these days, many other tragedies are at stake. Natural disasters, and the responsibility for those disasters. „Seven Euros, ten…fifteen, twenty…One…“ - „Twenty-five!“, calls a female voice from the back. The epidemic in Nigeria, causing 1,700 deaths in 2009, finds interest in the visitors to this auction in the gallery Bildraum. The auctioneer’s index finger shoots in to the second row: „Forty, Three!“ Applause, followed by restlessness in the room. Next set. Flood in India 2013, 5,000 deaths.

The current holder of the responsibility for this disaster stands next to the auctioneer, with parted hair and the gesture of a ruling person, his hands put on a small white desk with a stack of acquirable certificates. He already showed his big mouth beforehand. „I, Milan Mijalkovic of Macedonia…“ …meaningful pause … „take full responsibility for all natural disasters of the last 2,000 years. By choice.“ Just out of generosity, he furthermore decided to share parts of it.

„We shall be careful when dealing with people who take responsibility in a big-mouthed manner“, says philosopher K.P. Liessmann. This 35 year old Milan Mijalkovic really oozes a big-mouthed manner, showing deep wrinkles on his forehead and chuzpe behind his deep eyes. What does he want to do with this responsibility? Why does he take on something no one would have to? Shall we be careful when dealing with him?

It is a foggy winter’s morning, when Mijalkovic enters the Café Hotel Imperial on Vienna’s Ringstraße. It is one of the most prestigious places in town, known since the days of the Kaiser, meeting place of the rich and the powerful. Mijalkovic takes off his dark-grey coat and orders a soup and a glass of beer. This is something, he says, which is affordable everywhere, pointing out that the places of powerful people, the deciders who define their social position by their wallet, shall not be left to them alone.

Mijalkovic is not a member of this social club of deciders. Born 1981 in the Macedonian capital Skopje, he left the country and came to Vienna shortly before the war broke out between Albanian rebels and troops of the Macedonian

The truth is actually boring, he says. Being a student for architecture, he received a students visa; he stayed and works as an architect and free artist. Whereby he says, the occupations cannot actually be separated from one another. To his mind, architecture is a highly responsible art. It defines how people live, it creates and generates social interaction. Yet Mijalkovic wants more. „I want to provide space inside the heads.“

As he says, he uses the space to handle the responsibility. For the last 13 years, legend has it, he collected details and facts on natural disasters, set up categories and built up a private archive for them. The thought behind it: „The biggest responsibility is taken by fictitious figures.“ God, for instance, has been the one figure taking almost all responsibility. „People did not have to worry that much. Yet, since the days of enlightenment, this has changed.“ Hence, Mijalkovic took this task. He initially took responsibility for his archive of disasters seven years ago as part of a performance, where he publicly declared his task, and hereby stylized himself as a godlike figure. This has nothing to do with guilt, he says. What matters is the act.

Politicians take responsibility for mishaps and suggest they function as a kind of martyr acting in an altruistic manner by holding their feet to the fire for the people. For terrorists, he claims, the deed is often less important than the message to the public, that they take responsibility for. This sometimes leads to situations where TV experts have difficulty in deciding what confessor’s note or video is reliable. Things are not that different in art. It is hard to find art projects that do not claim to take „social responsibility“ in their vindicatory descriptions. „Today, artists in Western Europe are expected to take responsibility. The artist should depict social defects of society.“ Critical art is easy to handle for the system, Mijalkovic argues, while expressing his anger towards symbols of status such as walls of CEOs and bright offices of politicians full of art. It has become a hobby for oligarchs and prosecco drinking visitors of vernissage shows. To Mijalkovic, this is first of all: „Boring“.

Instead of taking a role in the background of this system, Mijalkovic went a step beyond. „I hope to exceed all expectations with that. They expect from me to be responsible? Well, so I take all responsibility for natural disasters.“ In stead of pointing at unjustness, these performances turn around the roles. Yet, this alone, is not enough, Mijalkovic says. „When you really want to take responsibility, you have to share it.

It does not work another way in this system.“ Following this approach, the next step for his project developed. To stand in the middle of the art market and auction parts of the selected natural disasters publicly. A scenery which, on the one hand, could not be more off-taste, and also not more enlightening. „Nature becomes big art“, explains Mijalkovic with big gesture, „The sublime elements are for sale.“

If the art business is self-important - Mijalkovic can push this to another level. The artist - a master of staging himself „I am god, I am the first victim“, says one of his slogans that he likes to utter full of pathetic gesture and subtle irony, making his work more ambiguous and transparent at the same time.

The semolina soup, brought by the waiter with a decent bow at our table of the Café Imperial, has gone cold. Instead of taking the spoon, Mijalkovic repeatedly opens his blue notebook full of yellow post-it notes with thoughts, fragments of sentences and ideas. „Democracy?“ is the title of one Suhrkamp book, a collection of essays written by left-wing thinkers like Giorgio Agamben and Slavoj Zizek. Democracy will be the focus of Mijalkovic’s next solo exhibition in the Kunsthaus Vienna. To the artist, this exhibition represents a logical consequence. „With the responsibility thing, I excelled myself“, he states in a confident tone. He even fell into a crisis, until the epiphany hit. He himself, Milan Mijalkovic, now had to become democracy. Usually, he is facing a pitiful view of being a victim of an inferior system. „To many, I am the poor guy from Eastern Europe who came to the West, now being able to take free decision and take responsibility for the first time.“

„Precondition to all Responsibility is the freedom of the human being“, as K. P. Liessmann says. „Only free people can act in a responsible manner.“ Hence, Mijalkovic argues: „So, if everything is possible, now I am total democracy.“

Just before Mijalkovic leaves the Café of the Viennese elite, he comes back to his own story. He wants, so his promise, to think of a good story. For, as he confesses, in art, he always tries to be a liar: „By lying, truth can be found, and even more than the simple truth. Yet, to take responsibility for sheer lies is much more complicated than for things that are obvious“, states the master of self-staging. „To lie in a responsible way, you have to think about the person in opposite much more. You always have to be present.“

Text: Judith E. Innerhoferfoto
English translation: Carsten Schmidt
Photo: Sigmund Steiner 

Copyright: Milan Mijalkovic, 2020