tomislav gotovac & zagreb

Tomislav Gotovac (born in Sombor, Yugoslavia, 1937 – died in Zagreb, Croatia, 2020), a renowned Croatian artist with an educational background as a film director, was the author of early experimental films from the 1960s. Simultaneously, he was engaged in a visual arts practice, and is our first and most important representative of performance and body art (Happ naš, 1967). Gotovac’s film, performance and visual arts practice were always intertwined, forming a clear unity, crucially influenced by his film oeuvre and experience.

I met Tomislav in 1976, through his solo exhibition at the Gallery of the Student Centre in Belgrade and I have closely followed his work since. We socialized and I partnered as a curator on several projects with the artist. On this occasion, I will recall two of his exceptional performances – one I attended, while the other I had the pleasure of organizing in the role of the curator.

Performance Lying naked on the asphalt, kissing the asphalt also known under the title of Zagreb, I love you! was performed in 1981 in the centre of the city. On that grey, autumn Friday, November 13, 1981, at noon, I found myself in Ilica when I witnessed an unusual, almost unreal event and commotion of passers-by. I recognized in the crowd, a naked Tomislav Gotovac, walking with strong steps towards the Republic Square with arms raised, shouting ‘Zagreb, I love you!’.

As he was approaching the central square, the artist stopped on several occasions, pausing his movement by lying on the floor, kissing the asphalt only to later resume his walk, repeating the exclamations and gestures. I was very excited and immediately aware that I was watching the artist in the creative tension of a performance that could be interrupted at any moment. That is exactly what happened when Gotovac arrived to the Square, and was stopped by the police for disturbing public order and peace. I remember rushing to the Upper Town, to alert my colleagues at the Gallery of Contemporary Art to hurry to the artist’s aid.

Tomislav Gotovac's performance titled: Zagreb, I love you! (1981), photographed by Ivan Posavec. Image courtesy of Tomislav Gotovac Institute.
Photographer Mio Vesović also documented Gotovac's performance, Zagreb, I love you!; in Ilica Street. Image courtesy of Tomislav Gotovac Institute.

Numerous Gotovac’s artworks are dedicated to certain important film directors, as is the case with the performance, Zagreb, I love you!, dedicated to Howard Hawks and the film Hatari. Gotovac never announced his performances in advance, only his closest circle of collaborators and photographers were aware of their executions. Photographers Mio Vesović, Ivan Posavec and Boris Turković followed and recorded Gotovac’s movements and documented the performance.

Sixteen years later, I organized a Performance Week called Javno Tijelo: Public Body, where Zagreb was the exhibition stage from October 14 to 18, 1997, with performances by six prominent Croatian and three foreign artists[1].Performances took place all over Zagreb, in squares, city streets, parks, train and bus stations, as well as theatres and galleries. With their performances, the artists successfully communicated with the urban fabric of the city and with the audience, both targeted and casual passers-by.

The opening act of the Performance Week was bestowed upon Tomislav Gotovac, who at noon on October 14, 1997, began his performance Adapting to the Objects on Marshal Tito Square, the artwork is better known as Marshal Tito Square – I love you!. The action began with the artist’s act of concentration, i.e. throwing a ball on the sidewalk and circling around The Well of Life, a fountain designed by the great Croatian modern sculptor Ivan Meštrović. Then Gotovac, dressed in an orange work suit with Howard Hawks’ signature printed on his back, in sneakers with a cap and protective gloves, wrapped his arms and bent body around Meštrović’s expressive human figure in bronze, shaped into a ring around a water source, adjusting his body in a circular shape of sculptures.

Furthermore, as the artist walked through one of the most beautiful squares in Zagreb, he approached buildings, benches, sidewalks, handrails, fences, lawns and the monument of St. George killing a dragon. He physically marked objects by ’embracing’ or rather ‘filling’ them with his body, and adapting their various forms. Numerous members of the audience followed Gotovac during the two hours of the performance, and many casual spectators also joined. It was interesting to observe the reactions and see how some viewers were amazed, others remained indifferent, and there were some willing to lend a hand and help the artist. The whole performance was filmed by photographer Boris Cvjetanović. As was the case with all actions at the Performance Week, Gotovac’s performance was also pre-registered and we secured the permission for a public action with the police officer on duty discreetly following the event, amongst the audience.

The streets and squares of Zagreb, through which he passed every day and thus ‘appropriated’ as his private and artistic space, were an inspiring scenography filled with symbolism for Gotovac. On these landmarks Gotovac performed provocative, controversial, even subversive statements.

Republic Square [2], the central square of Zagreb, acting as a metaphor for a political forum where rallies and protests of various signs traditionally take place, was Gotovac’s most common choice. Back in 1979, he performed the action Whistling (100) on the aforementioned square as part of the 10th Music Biennale. In front of the Wounded Jesus Church in 1980, Gotovac performed  Begging (Can You Spare a Dime? Thank you. The Begging Artist!). In the same square, in the middle of the 1980s, the Street Vending of ‘Polet’ actions took place, in which he disguised himself as a different person every week; from Santa Claus to Superman.

For the Marshal Tito Square, which was urbanized at the end of the 19th century and marked by the buildings of the Museum of Arts and Crafts and the Croatian National Theatre, exceptional historicist architecture, Gotovac was bound by childhood memories. The artist’s mother had her permanent bench for meetings and conversations with friends there. In addition, the square bore the name of Marshal Tito as a symbol of a bygone era and his ideology, a time when Gotovac was extremely artistically active.

Gotovac’s performances were carefully and thoroughly prepared, with a solid script, predetermined scenography and action that took place within the planned time, from scene to scene, from frame to frame. They mostly started at noon, when the streets and squares were busiest and when the number of potential spectators is highest. However, the course of the action was subject to change, depending on the case – an unforeseen event or interaction, which opened up space for the artist’s improvisations, despite control.

Gotovac also turned his knowledge and experience as a film author into a medium of performance. The main role has always been played by the artist personally, using his body, his physical personality as the direct means of expression. The artist’s striking appearance, of tall stature, strong build, expressive face with a beard and moustache, could not go unnoticed. ‘It’s all a movie’ was Gotovac’s artistic and life philosophy.

In the artist-curator relationship, Tom, as we called him, was professional, correct and cooperative. Extremely focused on his work, he demanded that the performance be realised as precisely as possible in accordance with his concept.

The two autobiographical and symbolic performances speak of Gotovac’s fascination with Zagreb and his devotion to his beloved city. In them, Gotovac starts from conceptualism and Fluxus in the 1960s, using his own body without hesitation as a medium, in minimalist performances, in a creative and sensitive way. In the synopsis for the film Total Portrait of the City of Zagreb, which was never shot, Gotovac states: ‘The city of Zagreb is a human being. She has her body and soul. She has her bloodstream, her breathing, her nerves, her steps, her optimisms, her pessimisms, her illnesses, her delights, her hands, her legs, her body, her head, her nose, her ears, her hair, her teeth and her eyes.’[3]

Through fifty years of work, Tomislav Gotovac built an outstanding multimedia opus and became an internationally known influential artist. Undiminished interest in his work among artists and critics of the young generation opens space for new interpretations and valorisations of Gotovac’s artistic work and a platform for new, uncompromising artistic ideas.

[1] The Performance Week: Public Body was curated and accomplished by Jadranka Vinterhalter. The Soros Center for Contemporary Art – SCCA Zagreb, organised the manifestation, financed by the grant from the Soros Contemporary Art Regional Programme – SCARP for 1997.

[2] In 2017 the Marshal Tito Square in Zagreb was renamed to the Square of the Republic of Croatia.

[3] The synopsis for the film Total Portrait of the City of Zagreb, which was never realised in film format, is stored by the Institute Tomislav Gotovac and published in the book by Slobodan Šijan: Tomislav Gotovac – Life as a Film Experiment, Ed. Tomislav Gotovac Institute / Croatian Film Association / Multimedia Institute, Zagreb, 2018, p. 106


Author: Jadranka Vinterhalter (born 1948) is a Zagreb – based museum consultant, art historian and curator. She comes from a family of diplomats and spent her youth in various cities across Europe and the USA. Following her studies, she joined MSUB (Museum of Contemporary Arts Belgrade) as curator in the field of visual culture and information. Since 1984 she worked in curatorial roles for the following institutions – Museum Documentation Center, Zagreb; Soros Center for Contemporary Art Zagreb (SCCA Zagreb); Museum of Contemporary Arts in Zagreb (MSU).

Article is supported by The Tomislav Gotovac Institute, founded in 2012 on the initiative of the artist’s family. The Zagreb – based Institute is situated in the artist’s home and studio in 29 Krajiška Street where a rich collection of artworks, photo documentation and archive is guarded.

Tomislav Gotovac's performance, Marshal Tito Square- I love you! (1997), photographed by Boris Cvjetanović. Image courtesy of Tomislav Gotovac Institute.
Tomislav Gotovac's performance at festival - Performance Week; Javno Tijelo: Public Body, captured by Boris Cvjetanović. Image courtesy of Tomislav Gotovac Institute.