Interview with Danijel Žeželj for Boonika Network
It's not easy writing about someone you admire, especially if they're from the same city you live in. You don't want it to sound corny nor fanboyish, so I'll try to avoid both. The earliest I can remember of Danijel Žeželj's work is when I was, as a real youngster, going for the first time to this great club in Zagreb called Kulušić. There was this devil-headed suit-wearing guitar-wearing man-like figure that was jumping, painted on the wall greating you when you were entering the club. That figure look real eerie and unsettling, but it felt like it really belonged there as it was a Rock club. Kind of fitted right there. I loved the straight lines of that character as it looked very comic-like, and I always loved that style of drawing. Later on I realised I saw couple of similar drawings around the city and realised it was from the same author. I totally loved the style and someone told that those were made by Žeželj, the comic-writer. I picked up some comic from him and that was it - the atmosphere those work provided was something I always craved for in the comics. Bit dark, bit confusing and completely humane and alive.
Danijel Žeželj started publishing comics during his first year at the Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb. Since 1986, his comics have appeared in various magazines and anthologies in ex-Yugoslavia, Croatia, England, Switzerland, France, Italy and the USA. He has authored tweny graphic novels and short comic collections. He moved to London in 1991 and then to Montepulciano, Italy the following year. In 1993, Editori del Grifo published his first graphic novel, 'Il Ritmo Del Cuore' with an introduction by Federico Fellini.
Since 1995 he has lived in the USA where his illustrations and comics have been published by DC Comics, Marvel, The New York Times, Harper's Magazine, etc. Since 1997, in collaboration with musician/composer Jessica Lurie he created several multimedia performances combining visual art with music. In 2004, he was a resident artist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and in 2005 the first graphic novelist to have a solo exhibition there. He is the author of two animated films shown in the 2010 Brooklyn International Film Festival and the Holland Animation Film Festival official selections. He was the 2010 Eisner Award best artist nominee for graphic novel Luna Park.
In 2001, he founded a publishing company and art workshop Petikat in Zagreb, Croatia.
He lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.
Can you tell us a bit on your beginnings. How did you get started with art and how did you end up with your unique style. What and who influenced you in the beginnings?
I was always drawing, as most kids do, and never stopped. I liked inventing stories through drawings, building up a story in my head and drawings characters, buildings etc, around it, so from the very beginning there was some narrative going on behind the drawings, otherwise drawings didn't make sense to me. I didn't grow up reading comics, but was always attracted to art and paintings, always looking for a story behind them, because western art is all about illustrated mythologies, from the first cave paintings through Renaissance until street art today. Who is the half naked guy holding a knife, why is hooded lady crying, and since I was ignorant about the origins of the Western iconography (generally it's all biblical) I would make up all kinds of bizarre plots behind those characters and images.
Specifically for comics the major influence was work by Jose Munoz, I saw it for the first time when I was 14-15, and it hit me with its raw expressive power and, for me, a completely new way of telling a story. There was also Breccia, Moebius, Toppi, Bataglia, Pratt, and later wild italians around Frigidaire magazine, punk rockers of comics, Tamburini, Liberatore, Pazienza, etc.
I mentioned the Kulušić 'boogieman' in the intro. Can you tell us how that idea came to life? Have to say I love that work.
Thank you, if I remember it right, the drawing was inspired by Tom Waits' song All Stripped Down, from Bone Machine album. At that time I often got a kick from a song and would try to visualize it. So the image existed already and when the Kulusic job came through (the visual identity for the club as well as interior design that was created together with Greiner & Kropilak) the jumping devil with guitar seemed a perfect match. It is also very good image for stenciling, white on black.
Later on some other establishments in Zagreb wanted to be graced with your work. Is that how a collaboration with Greiner & Kropilak came to life? Did you get contacted for similar work outside Zagreb?
I met Boris Greiner and Stanislav Habjan (Greiner & Kroplilak) around the time I was hanging a lot in Kinoteka and Moderna Vremena bookstore, which was still functional then. I new their work but when we finally met personally the collaboration started immediately and naturally. One of our first projects together was magazine Metropolis that lasted whole 2 issues. Those were already grey years, things were falling apart, publications shutting down one after another, smell of war was in the air. We were getting offers for graphic design and design work, we did logo for Radio 101 as well as many other posters and prints. Many jobs were never payed, it was time of general bankruptcy on all levels, morally & financially. I published over 100 pages of comics in various magazines and got paid clean zero. At that time my first graphic novel Rhythm of the Heart came out in Zagreb and I started collaboration with Italian magazine Il Grifo which turned out to be crucial for my survival.
How did the collaboration with musician Jessica Lurie, begun and how did you feel about it? Was the music an inspiration for painting, vise versa, or was it a work in progress, feeding off each other?
I like music, and cannot play any instrument. Live concert is to me the highest and most immediate expression of art, and I was always fascinated by witnessing the creative process on the stage (especially playing that includes improvisation). Jessica is a virtuoso saxophone and flute player and composer, and we were looking for a way to connect live music with the visual art. At the beginning it was music combined with slide projections, or short movies, but those elements never merged into an integrated form. Eventually we started experimenting with live painting and that's when it all came together. Live painting in front of an audience is not natural, you are exposing your weaknesses and work under specific time pressure. But that was and still is the challenge and exactly the part that puts it on the same level with the immediacy of live music. Also crucial connecting tissue between music and painting is a story, all our performances have narrative line which usually grows through the sequence of images which are either painted one over another, or in the horizontal row, like a gigantic comic strip. Live Painting + Live Music is about two languages sharing the same time and space in an live act of stage narration.
On the same note, tell us something on Brooklyn Babylon as well.
Brooklyn Babylon was the biggest multimedia performance I've ever been part of, although this time the collaboration was with composer/conductor Darcy James Argue and his 18-piece big band Secret Society. The performance was commissioned by BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) one the most prestigious theaters in the world, and it premiered this November, 2011. It took us about a year to put it together. The performance, which lasts an hour, combines live music, live painting (on a canvas 12 meters wide) and around 25 minutes of animation which I created in 10 months of work. The piece is based on my script, a story about the highest tower in the world being built in the hearth of today's Brooklyn. It's about life and death of an urban community, and the ways corporate business imposes the ideas of progress over the reality and beauty of human life. It's something all of us experience and share, no matter where we live, Zagreb, Milano, Brooklyn.
There's a sense that a lot of your work could easily function with almost no accompanying text. You also mentioned that there is a lot happening in the space between the words and an image, that they could easily have their own parallel lives and still connect at one particular level. Is there a rule to storytelling? Are there any rules?
Breaking rules should not be random, one should learn them well before trying to bend them. I do think that comics have a great potential for storytelling that has been only partially used. Images and text can be used together but also could be telling different stories simultaneously, and create almost an additional space, a story in between. My last graphic novel “Industrial” is without text, because I felt that the story works perfectly well as silent, and that images will have stronger impact without any words. The method of storytelling should be determined by what author is trying to communicate, by the content, mood, atmosphere and the necessity of expression.
compared to some of your early works, the latter work seems more painting like. Is your Academy of Fine Arts angle kicking in more often than before?
I actually never departed from the roots of my work, which is classical oil painting, especially baroque painting, where forms are painted monochromatically (in oil painting it's usually sepia color, raw umbra) using shadow and light for modeling volumes. With black and white ink on paper that same method is reduced to sharp black and white contrast, and the scale is smaller, but the principal is the same. A couple of years ago as I started working on animations, I got back to actual painting, using acrylic on large wooden boards. I enjoy working on a large format again, and using rollers as well as brushes.
Black and red on white seem to be your favorite choice of coloration. Is there a story behind that? Do you think you can say more with less that way? To have a clearer message using only couple of colors instead of going full color?
I feel that monochromatic image has more impact than the colored one. And by using just one additional color over black and white, which is usually red and sometimes blue, the contrast is even more emphasized. I like that effect, it's also connected to the aesthetic of russian avant-guars posters and art and 1920's art in general. I wouldn't really know how to use a full spectrum of colors, it doesn't make sense to me, feels like a make up, a decoration. The foundation is always monochromatic and if it's set right it doesn't need any color.
Can you tell us something about your animated films. They had a lot of success. Do you prefer static pictures comparing to moving ones, or is it maybe other way around?
Zagreb has a long and amazing tradition of animation, it is one of the greatest achievements of this city ever, the absolute top world class animation production, through Zagreb Film in 60's, 70's... I grew up watching Zagreb's Festival of Animation as it was happening every two or four years, I remember a year when I've seen every single movie in the Festival, in and out of program, few hundred movies in a week, at least. It was a huge influence but I never really wanted to make animations myself, the idea of 20 frames per second seemed an impossibly slow and tedious method that I wouldn't know how to handle and control. Then few years ago I discovered work of William Kentridge, his animations, but also his work in general (paintings, prints, theater, installations), which often explores the relation between perception and time, and exposes creative process as an element of art. I started to experiment with similar method of animation, which consists in recording the painting process. I work in a studio with the steady light and a pre-set digital camera on a tripod, and paint on a large board (120 x 90 cm) with acrylics. Every 10-15 second, as painting grows, I take a picture, following the metamorphosis of image from abstract into figurative and then to the next image etc. Images follow the specific story, a preset scenario and storyboard. Next stage is processing and formating images in Photoshop and finally editing it all in Final Cut Pro, with the soundtrack, sound effects, titles etc.
What do you think you'll be doing next? Any plans for the future?
I'm finishing 8-minute animation movie Fibonacci Bread, which is coproduction of Zagreb Film and Petikat. There is comics work, illustrating the last 3 episodes of Northlanders (written by Brian Wood) and hopefully a longer monthly series with Brian Azzarello, for DC Vertigo. And we just finished a week of rehearsals in Italy for the new multimedia project El Corazon, which combines live music, live painting and live video. It has been created together with Jessica Lurie (http://www.jessicalurie.com/) and videographer Marco Molinelli (http://www.marcomolinelli.com/) and produced by associazione Il Matattoio. Hopefully we will have promo video soon and then take El Corazon on the road in the spring next year.
I know you established Petikat, the publishing house and graphic workshop. How is that going and is it hard to control that operation in Zagreb while living in New York?
Petikat is a joint project of Stanislav Habjan and me, an art and design studio and publishing house, a space for the experimentation and production of all kinds of useful and useless graphics and objects. We just finished the entire visual identity for the Book Festival in Pula 2011, and also had a stand there, actually an art installation created by Stanislav, entitled The Shop of Metaphors. We also published and presented in Pula my graphic novel Industrial, and a picture book The Shop of Metaphors written by Stanislav and illustrated by me. It is hard to survive in Croatian reality by creating work that is extremely personal, sensitive and requires an input of time and attention from the audience, but we are still holding it together, day by day, and not giving up.
Tell us a bit on your design for a T-shirt you produced for our baby project Booteeq. How did you get the idea for it and is there a story behind that design?
The choice of image was based on street art aesthetic. A clean sharp black & white image, almost a sign or a logo should work well for a t-shirt. For the directness of it and the way it shapes and blends with urban environment, street art is one of the most exuberant and energetic art forms today.
Do you miss Zagreb? Ever thinking on moving back?
I do miss parts of Zagreb. I grew up in periphery (or what was periphery then), Folnegovicevo naselje, I still like those marginal parts of Zagreb, Folnegovicevo, old Trnje, Tresnjevka... I will always stay connected to Zagreb, through people I love, through my friends and family, through Petikat and work, but I will never move back, it's not an option. I'm permanently an immigrant, and I'm an immigrant in Zagreb as well. Zagreb is not an option for Jessica either, she definitely needs musicians' community and daily experience of playing together and exchanging ideas face to face, and for that New York and Brooklyn are still best place on earth.