” … the exhibition takes fully into account the fact that bodies have become techno-cultural constructs immersed in networks of complex, simultaneous and potentially conflicting power-relations in which all kinds of historically transposed ideologies have been internalized by contemporary capitalist conditions of everyday life as a permanent and only possible state of social reality. Through the subject of (non)human nature, the exhibition presents the challenge of finding a new way of (social) imagination towards possible futures and its responsible politics of the commons and communalities.”
So reads part of the mission statement of the 54th Oktobarski Salon, curated by the feminist collective Red Min(e)d. The aims of the show, seeking to use everyday experience as a basis for a vision of a better future, are very ambitious- particularly in an age of easy cynicism, the curled lip of post-ideological positions and the constant mid-level anxiety of societies in “transition”. There are as many “new ways of social imagination” suggested by the chosen artists as there would be in any political discussion about the future- ask a general question to fifty different people and you will be answered with fifty different solutions. What is different here however is a broad commonality of outlook, a basis upon which power relations in the visual art world, and wider society, can be reconsidered and carefully thought through.
Even if the show were not as ambitious, the curatorial team would have had a very difficult job in the Zepter exhibition space. A former department store, dominated by a cascading Yugo-era chandelier,and a set of Alice-in-Wonderland mobile stairs and mirrors, this gallery is a nightmare to show any work in- full of searingly bright open public spaces surrounded by dark, hole-and-corner former storage rooms, bathrooms and offices. Some work is simply swallowed by puzzling recesses and bays on the second and third floors. However, these difficult conditions are, as we shall see, occasionally turned into a curatorial triumph, in the placing of the work of one or two specific artists. Moreover, the building’s eccentric internal dynamics mitigate against any temptation to smooth over differences and dissonances into an easy curatorial narrative. This is a show which sounds as a cacophany of unique voices talking over one another, rather than a curatorial drone received passively by participant and audience alike.
In such a space, working out which artist will be shown where and how works relate to one another (if they do at all) is an unenviable task. On the ground floor, it takes the visitor awhile to find the most compelling works. Milijana Babić’s multimedia installation, Artist Looking For Any Kind of Job, a series of sound pieces, artists books, photographs and films, is one of the most touching pieces of the whole show, and functions perfectly as a metaphor for the aims of the curators.
We follow Babić through telephone conversations, presented as sound pieces and as transcripts, as she desperately seeks “any kind of job” in Rijeka. We continue to follow her as she is hired for a variety of positions which gain her very little money and, shockingly, much contempt and disdain from people she encounters. She is treated as somewhat less than human as a cleaner of apartment buildings; kicked whilst delivering leaflets; harrassed and abused as a barmaid. Using a wide portfolio of media and techniques, Babić lays bare the brutality of late captalism; the reduction of our evaluation of others to appearance, money and status; the exploitative leer of some of the prospective “employers” she encounters in her search for work. This long-standing research and performance utilises a variety of visual styles- social realism, book art, sound installation- to give the viewer an uncomfortable cinematic close-up of precarcity.
In a different way, the video works of Nataša Teofilović really caught the eye, too. Here 2012 piece, One for Tango, is a beautiful synthesis of personal and performative memory. The video, monochrome with flashes of red and purple, shows a body moving from the horizontal to the vertical, with each movement momentarily pixellated on screen. The result is a captivating five minutes of notation around the axis of the human figure, reminiscent of the motion photography of Eadward Muybridge. At the same time, this work, whilst it deals with one of the oldest questions in the history of art (how to represent the human figure in motion, convincingly), is deeply personal, linking back to the artist’s childhood memory, the difference between being upright and horizontal, dance and falling. Teofilović’s new piece, a | symmetry, reaches out to the audience with a visualisation of collectivity and solidarity, one arm becoming several around a circle; the patterning and composition here is assured.
Elsewhere on the ground floor, Jasmina Ćibić – fresh from representing Slovenia at the Venice Biennale- has a very strong presence with four works, the most intriguing of which is perhapos her electronic airport departure board to non existing places, above the escalator; her series of circular photographs, entitled XXth Century, a mixture of abstract shapes echoing Utopian modernism with bords- are chillingly beautiful. Next to these works is another demonic mechanical creation from Dina Rončević. This new piece, Hot Hot Burning Water, is a tricycle powered by a chainsaw motor. there is a slight alteration in emphasis in the presentation, here, from Dina’s previous work; rather than merely presenting the process of mechanics, through a collective of female colleagues, she presents this piece as evidence of her passionate nature- mechanics as a metaphor for subjectivity. The fusion of an artistic imagination and mechancial capability continues to be the basis on which this artists rapidly developing practice evolves.
Moving upstairs, Adela Jušić‘s Ride the Recoil sound installation is perhaps the best sited work in the whole exhibition. For over a year now, the artist has been working up a research and criticism of the video game Sniper : Ghost Warrior 2, which is set in Sarajevo. Relating programmatically to her earlier work The Sniper, this piece moves beyond the deeply personal narrative of that video piece, towards a critique of those who would concrete over such memories with commodified falsehoods. In a cold, bare, abandoned side room, its windows with a claustrophobic view of a tight courtyard, this is an incredibly powerful work.
Along the back wall, sequential images of a child in red shorts- successively larger as though we are homing in on her through the sights of a sniper rifle. As we observe these images, the “instructions” on how to play the video game effectively are relayed through two speakers, just at a pitch to be insidious and uncomfortable. The overall effect is quite chilling, as the visitor processes the multiple gaps between personal memories of that siege and the commercial ficition now offered for sale by a global corporation. The callousness of the computerised female voice, giving the gameplayer instructions of how to kill more effectively, set against the very human surveillance images of a small child, can’t help but provoke feelings of anger in the viewer; the flattening of the worst suffering into a dehumanised, pixellated game environment for the desensitised consumer; with, at best, an indifferent shrug from the game’s producers when called to account for their product.
Alexis O’Hara’s SQUEEEEQUE igloo of sound is a remarkable piece, on the same floor. The Ottawa artist has played on the stereotypes of Inuit culture, by confronting the viewer with an igloo- but no ordinary igloo. Instead of blocks of ice and snow, this igloo is made from obsolete old speakers bought from fleamarkets and reclaimed from landfill sites and reycling depots; inside, in the clastrophbic space, four microphones are set up. the sound produced by the speakers is governed by what the users of the igloo say and what environmental noise they make. As a result, this interactive installation is constantly producing new and unexpected sounds, surprising even those who made them miliseconds before they are played back. This work uses the environmetal metaphor of re-use / recycle subtly; this is a relational work, flitting between voyeurism and narcissism, playing on the vanity of the atomised consumer, sitting in an enclosed space listening to their own noise, largely unseen by passers by.
Above the stairway linking the second and third floor, we find the comic book work of Nina Bunjevac. Astonishingly, there seems to have been some noises off about the work of a comic artist being included in a “fine art” show, but this is a strong piece. the five panels chosen are taken from Bunjevac’s forthcoming comic book Fatherland, a poignant visualisation of a childhood marked by exile and the random chance of political wrong turns. Based on the life of her father, who left Yugoslavia in a hurry after the jailing of Milovan Đilas in 1954, the works use a mixture of maps of journeys to indicate childhood dislocation, and the banality of provincial architecture as a theatre set for the terrible events that subsequently befell the family. In exile, the father joins a prscribed Serbian nationalist group, through friends and connections, only to die in the late 1970s in a mysterious explosion. Part biography, part geopolitics, these comic drawings beautifully illustrate the destructive effect of power relations on so many oprdinary lives, in this region, in the last century.
One video installation that has provoked quite a bit of debate in the last twelve months is Tejal Shah‘s Between the Waves. The piece was shown at dokumenta 13 and widely elsewhere in Europe. In the darkened space, a dialogue is established between two separate narratives; a collective dance set in a landfill site and, on a larger screen, the hallucinogenic sensual delirium of the interaction between two lovers in a rapidly changing landscape and set of surroundings. As the eye jolts between the two pieces, the beautiful choreogrpahy of the landfill ballet acts as a counterpoint to the eroticism and intimacy between the two lovers. The relations between human and land, between human lifestyles and nature, and the reclamation of human sexuality from the commodifying and depersonalising processes of pornography, fuse together in a truly mesmerising, visually overloaded piece. These are pieces which are unapologetically about love, and love as an empowering, life affirming force.
Elsewhere on the top floor, it was good to see again Lana Čmajčanin’s 166987 Uboda, this time with the stark sexual language obscured in a white embroidery-on-white cloth under a very bright overhead light, forcing the viewer to squint and then be surpirsed at the words that have been embroidered; this is next door to Andrea Palašti‘s funny and poignant Balkan Disco installation. In a tight, darkened space, strobe lights flashing over the bodies of the visitors, the artist has placed photographs of indivduals; fusing her own sense of memory with those of the visitors own experiences. A broader point is made here about the identity of the post-socialist Balkans; as once again a region of hedonism and kitsch, as is evidenced by the growth of “Balkan” themed club nights across the former Western European world- from Vienna to Edinburgh. Finally, the video work of Nandifa Mntambo provides some kind of full stop to the show; the legs of two anonymous dancers, with a Fred-and-Ginger chemistry implied, a dance not of love and closeness but of personal alienation and as a metaphor for inner conflict and disturbance.
Earlier we described this show as a cacophany of clashing voices. The resulting noise is sometimes chaotic, sometimes unexpected, but always an invigorating one. At its best, this show evades definition; somehow it is both present and absent in the insterstices between fine art, activism, popular culture, the politics of feminism, personal memroy and collective experience. The presence of the ongoing Bring In Take Out Livng Archive, the Perpetuum Mobile of video work seen in Sarajevo last september at the Tito Barracks, give the show a real critical cutting edge; a space in which to shape a response and develop further knowledge, and defers any sense of finality and closure, as the show is about to come to an end in this format. This is the kind of hands-on opportunity which grows and develops audiences for contemporary art
Through the selection of works and their presentation, this is a show rooted in a radical interpretation of feminist ideology, and it is unapologetically idealistic and open. This is a bold strategy in an art market that for over a decade now has been nervous of ideology and would prefer visual commodities which look beautiful and offer limitless room for critical obfuscation of, well, not very much. More broadly, the social and political outlook of this show is a welcome diversion from a hegemonic political technocracy, and scepticism of the possibility of any kind of collective future.
This is no naive proposition that everyone be a bit nicer to one another, and a bit less greedy. It is a well chosen set of narratives pointing at possible alternatives to a dystopian future, that everyone likes to pretend hasn’t already arrived. The real question now is- with this conversation having started and widened to include many more participants- where it goes from here. I have no doubt that the curators and artists involved will take a lot from this experience, and that this kind of collectivity-in-action will re-emerge in another venue and an other formats. But, more than this, this is a show which is stimulating enough to provoke new artistic expressions and formations amongst those who have seen it- and for that alone, it has been a noteworthy and valuable enterprise.