ArtReview sent a questionnaire to a selection of the artists exhibiting in various national pavilions of the Venice Biennale, the responses to which are being published daily in May, in the run up to the Biennale opening. Jasmina Cibic will represent Slovenia and is exhibiting at the Galleria A+A, San Marco 3073.
What can you tell us about your plans for Venice?
My project for the biennale, For Our Economy and Culture, condenses many of my earlier preoccupations, but through very specific elements that examine the position of the artist as a state representative. The project tackles the ideology behind defining a ‘representative’ national iconography and will manifest an architectural visualisation/reconstruction of the processes of national myth making through an immersive multi-media installation that appropriates the entire space.
The Slovene pavilion will essentially become a site of interrogation, questioning the ideological tendencies that underpin selection processes and the way that our ‘gaze’ is therefore directed.
I’ve created an architectural framework, which redefines the interior of the Pavilion and contains the presentation of two new film works that utilise documentary formats to both anticipate and subvert expectations around fact and fiction. One is shot at Tito’s residence in Lake Bled, where he received royalty and state dignitaries in post World War II Yugoslavia, and dramatises a conversation between an architect and a journalist around strategies of state architecture. The other is shot at the Slovenian parliament and re-enacts, word for word, a parliamentary committee discussion of the ‘appropriateness’ of specific artworks proposed to decorate the People’s Assembly.
The debate took place in 1957 but it cannot be experienced as purely a historical reconstruction, since it could easily – and eerily – be mistaken for a current debate around cultural selection processes. Interestingly, the transcript of this debate was actually found abandoned in a dank garage, in a shopping trolley filled with the archives of the former Yugoslav state architect. It is not recorded in any official state archives as far as our research has discovered.
Other elements explore the choices behind particular decoration and state/national representation. I’ve created a wallpaper, which covers the entire interior and features scientific illustrations of an endemic Slovene beetle that attempted and failed to be adopted as a national icon. This beetle, which uniquely lives in five Slovenian caves, carries the somewhat charged moniker of Anophtalmus Hitleri, a title given in the 1930s and which subsequently, due to its inconvenient ideological associations, spectacularly failed as a national icon.
There will also be a selection of paintings: still-lives drawn from the historical art collection of the National Assembly of the Republic of Slovenia, which continue to decorate the walls of the current Slovenian parliament.
Are you approaching the show in a different way to how you would with a ‘normal’ exhibition?
It is the very ‘normality’ of the exhibition format that my practice tries to subvert, and this project perhaps does this more acutely than any previous works. My starting point is an explicit unpicking of the processes of selection and constructs that certain ideologies reinforce in order to be recognisable and assert legitimacy. I wanted to use the seemingly neutral format of an exhibition to more deeply explore issues around presentation and reception and in doing so to liberate spectators from a prescribed, even passive acceptance of what is being shown. In essence, no exhibition is ever ‘normal’ for me and the context around this particular presentation gave me an almost perfect opportunity to articulate my main concerns.
I explore the consequences of the backfiring of attempted national branding and the project further attempts to reveal the behind-the-scenes of selection processes and expose the cracks and flaws within the smooth well-oiled machine that nations brandish almost like a shield to position and convey a ‘brand’ identity.
What does it mean to ‘represent’ your country? Do you find it an honour or problematic?
These two questions lie at the heart of my project. The Venice Biennale is one of the most illustrious remnants of the so called world fairs, the universal exhibitions of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, that originated the idea of ‘National’ pavilions with their imperialist national ambitions and colonialist strategies of display. Given my preoccupations it’s easy to see how the Biennale provides a context par excellence for my work. But in the same way that my installation in the Slovenian pavilion scrutinises what artworks might be considered to best represent a nation, being the artist chosen as a national representative for such an event, throws up a mass of contradictions.
The phrase ‘soft power’, which is increasingly utilised today to refer to a countries ‘attractiveness’ and ability to co-erce through means other than economic, seems especially useful in this case. The immense symbolic capital of art and culture ought to provide countries possessed of a prolific culture sector and excellent artists, with more influence in the political and economic arena, but it’s not that simple.
There are always a great many competing factors that dictate the transformation of so-called ‘soft power’ to ‘hard power’ and that’s what interests me. In an ideal sense the Biennale could be perceived a healthy, competitive kulturkampf where even the ‘small players’ in classic power terms can excel and disseminate influence as a kind of cultural ambassador. To that end, I play my part of cultural representative in exemplary fashion, as an embedded ‘acteur’. And that suits my purposes. There is no external position of critique from which I could propose solutions. I have to work from within and with the tools and platforms available, but just not exactly in the way they were intended to be used. My project is an interrogative artwork that will be shown in the intended exhibition place following expected exhibition formats. However, at the same time by displacing the elements, accentuating the paradoxes of ideological interpellation, by making things a bit less comfortable, I hope to show that the given setting is exactly that: given, and in no way neutral or equal.
What audience are you addressing with the work? The masses of artist peers, gallerists, curators and critics concentrated around the opening or the general public who come through over the following months?
I’m not one to claim the inherently democratic nature of Contemporary art, as opposed to say the acknowledged elitism of classical or modernist art. Contemporary art is far from being inherently democratic – in truth, nothing is inherently democratic, it can only be intended as such, which is different than possessing intrinsic democratic quality. In all honesty, whatever my ideal intentions, I cannot profess that a work created for an event such as this could ever be democratically received. It clearly doesn’t speak to, for instance, the disempowered communities of the third world, in the way that it does to the arts interested or culturally engaged audiences that will attend the biennale. The notion of whom any artist is addressing through an artwork or series of artworks is always complex.
Contemporary art has a certain reach, which is not to say that it doesn’t address universal issues, but it would be irresponsible and disingenuous to maintain a naïve stance about its generality. In any case the term ‘general public’ implies a homogenous group and there is nothing general about the public that visits the Biennale. That is what is interesting about this event. This project addresses the specific audience of the Venice Biennale and it is obvious that art professionals constitute a large percentage of these. My work builds upon the very visibility and inconsistency of varied entry points. Nothing is taken for granted or assumed. The very legibility of the project depends on such disjuncture, and foregrounds the fact that something is a bit out of place, a bit dodgy, whether that be the beetle with the Nazi name or the parliamentary debate on appropriate national art, which could be current or could be historical. All serve as invitations to decode what is being presented and in what kind of surroundings.
What are your earliest or best memories of the biennale?
I have always been struck, whenever I have visited the Venice Biennale that it is really composed of two events: The preview and the mass of openings surrounding it, and then the official Biennial. Few artworks manage to succeed in both. The audience that experiences the preview days witness an almost crazed hyperactivity: special performances, actions, interventions, basically ‘best in show but if one returns later, to “really see the works”, you’ll often find pieces not maintained, broken-down projectors, non-activated works, almost the tumbleweed after the parade has passed. Tellingly, this reveals a lot about the myth of ‘democratic’ audience treatment at such affairs. Quieter, denser and more elaborated works tend to go unnoticed and I have often wondered how much the complexity of artworks influences the choices curators, commissioners make. At the end of the day, whether we admit it or not, it is usually the more ‘spectacular’ instantly presentable works that function best in the cacophony of voices clamouring for attention. As well there is the question of the amount of media attention that different projects get. I’m not arguing that this is a PR competition, but I think perhaps one of the best grounds for measuring the soft-power index is to assess a playing field where some pavilions have more money for promotion then others do for the entire production.
That said, my best memory was Tino Seghal’s piece at the German Pavilion in 2005. It was one of the best pieces I’ve ever seen in Venice, on all fronts: content, context, audience engagement and execution.
You’ll no doubt be very busy, but what else are you looking forward to seeing?
Massimiliano Gioni in conversation with Ute Meta Bauer at the ICA, London, to express his curatorial vision for this year’s Biennale, said that healthy countries decide on artists two years in advance (I loved his choice of the word healthy!). Slovenia confirmed me as their representative only three months before the opening, so this project has felt like a marathon, even though it has utilised projects I had begun working on over 2 years ago. I must admit therefore that I know very little about the other representations but I am really looking forward to seeing how Gioni will realise the curation of works chosen for the Arsenale. Especially in terms of the use of texts to accompany the works – will he deem it necessary or not? The pavilions I am most excited about seeing are definitely the Welsh and the British along with Estonia, Israel, Austria and Luxembourg.