A Conversation with Aleksandar Todorovic on Reinventing Byzantine Orthodox Church Icons
It's been a while since we checked back with Serbian artist Aleksandar Todorovic whose provocative works we first introduced back in 2014. After a solo show in Greece last year, he caught our attention with the new series which portrays contemporary people and events using the aesthetics of Byzantine orthodox church iconography.
The new pieces he recently worked on are open critiques of contemporary society and politics and feature some of the world's most recognized characters. Depicted in a classical format using traditional materials, they are rich with narrative, symbolism, and well-informed cynicism, and are currently on view in a big group show in Serbia along with 11 other Serbian artists that received international recognition.
We got in touch with Aleksandar just before the opening of this show and talked a bit about these particular series and the influences and inspiration behind them.
Sasha Bogojev: What inspires you to portray contemporary people and phenomenon as religious artifacts?
Aleksandar Todorovic: Inspiration came from one question I asked myself- how would the Bible (or any religious texts), look like if they depicted our contemporary history? Also, since I am very much interested in the functioning of highly complex systems, like social and political systems, I noticed patterns and a very strict hierarchy all systems share, and that they share a multitude of similarities with hierarchy depicted in religious iconography. Also, by using a certain visual language of religious iconography, iI add a certain "holiness" to the secular, historical and surreal scenes Ii depict, therefore creating a certain uneasiness. People, whether they like to admit it or not, most often religiously defend their political and social opinions with a great dogmatic zeal. So my icons are perfect for them.
What is it about church icons that attract you to use that format?
The visual language of Byzantine orthodox church is a very abstract way of presenting reality in a very surreal way. It creates a sense of other-worldliness. The technique itself- egg tempera and pigment, gold, wood board- have that very specific visual effect, as if they came from the past. But, since my "Icons" depict modern scenes and occurrences, something with which we can relate to, it almost feels like they are a premonition, a prophecy of sorts.
How much of its actual construction, elements are you using in your work?
I am using certain visual aspects- inverted perspective, isometric compositions- coupled with specific Byzantine treatment of surfaces, draperies etc. I also use traditional materials, gold, pigments, wood. But also incorporate modern lettering, very precise drawing and construction, modern symbolism which often iI modify and change (flags, brands etc.), and specific cartoon look of characters, robots, and machinery, with very precise and neat contours. I, therefore, use elements of hi-end illustration because it is a modern way of communication in advertising, which is also in a way separated from reality, a type of iconography of our time.
Do you see your work more as humorous or as a serious critique?
It is a very serious critique of the modern world and a vision of what might come. But I also like humor a lot- of a dark and slightly twisted kind- and I like to incorporate it in my work. I think of it as a sugar coating, which helps people to swallow a bitter truth more easily. Also, it is a great fun for me, it amuses me a lot.
Hows your work accepted in your homeland?
It is accepted in certain circles. I had some problems with the works depicting modern Serbian history, but nothing extremely serious. I guess art is not such a huge threat to the people in power, at least in our country, so things can fly under the radar quite far. I am in a way known by my peers and colleagues in Serbia, often (jokingly) referred to as a "Serbian Bosch".
Hows the response to such work from outside of the country?
General feedback I am getting is that it is a very unusual and recognizable work and that it attracts a lot of attention whenever it is exhibited. It doesn't leave an audience ambivalent, they either like it or they don't, which I think is good. If these works make you pause and think about the world in which we are living, then they fulfilled their purpose.
What were these particular works painted for?
These works were made for the oldest biannual exhibition in Serbia, in Cacak, and Ii was invited to participate in it by Mihael Milunovic, who co-curated the exhibition with Vuk Vidor and Uros Djuric. Starting on 29th of September and ending on 29th of October, titled "Limited", this exhibition presents the works of twelve contemporary Serbian artists, most of which have their successful art careers and gallery representations abroad (such as Aleksandar Dimitrijevic, Jamesdin, Marko Marković, Milorad Mica Stajcic, Davor Dukic, Petar Mirkovic, Milan Hrnjazovic, Ivana Basic, Marko Velk, Marta Jovanovic, and Djordje Ozbolt). With planned bi-lingual publication and awards I felt it was a very important exhibition and also an opportunity to create new series of Icons and try out different sizes and shapes of boards, as well as using different types of compositions.
Are you working on a bigger series of such images and what are your plans for the near future?
I will definitely continue making new Icon-like works in the future, I truly enjoy the process. Saint Mr Zuck would surely need a buddy or two. I definitely plan on incorporating new materials in my future works like neon tubes, maybe doing some special manipulations on wood boards inspired by glitch art. I want to create a new body of work- with some traditional canvas paintings- so that iI can have a solo exhibition next year, hopefully abroad. I am also glad that this year I made a ninth work from the infamous Iconostasis series, after many technical challenges and months of hard work. It is the first one I made on wooden board, with egg tempera and gold leafs, and that it will be exhibited alongside several other works of mine in Untitled Miami art fair in December in Dio Horia booth, with the works of the other great gallery artists as well.