Slovenian artist Jasmina Cibic’s exhibition ‘Spielraum – The Nation Loves It’ (the first in a three-exhibition cycle) pointed towards a new nation in formation. Hints and fragments of this imagined place were strewn about the galleries like puzzle pieces waiting to be put together. Sharp-angled icons appeared as metal sculptures, reappeared as background motifs on the walls, and again as outlines cut into photographs of romanticized landscapes. A series of over 30 black and white photo collages featured woodland scenes and prairies with geometric designs cut from their panoramas, as if planning the location for a new capital city. In the serene lake view of Express yourself through the fundamental ingredients that define a genuine civilization (2015), the curvy outline of what looks like a sort of postmodern castle sits nestled in the hills, the building made up of a photograph of clouds layered underneath.
Slogans abounded and bounced through the exhibition, whether as titles of works, as circular steel sculptures leaning against the wall, or as a set of banners tumbling aimlessly across the landscape that covers an entire wall: ‘SOLVE TASKS IN THE SPIRIT OF OUR NEEDS’, ‘DISPLAY THINGS BEAUTIFUL’. Cibic’s declarations are like a generic set of motivational instructions, repeated and echoed to the point of absurdity. In a performance at the show’s opening, two actors finished sewing parts of the multi-coloured curtains that hung throughout the exhibition and casually regurgitated these adages to each other, as if staging the most boring sewing circle imaginable.
The short film around which the exhibition revolved, Spielraum – The Nation Loves It (2015), features a woman practicing a speech for the inauguration of a new ‘ambitious building programme’. The issue of whether a monument, structure or artwork can be expected to act as the embodiment of a nation has been a presiding concern for Cibic: her project for the Slovenian pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale presented a historicized reflection on artists standing for their country. Part of that project, the film Fruits of Our Land (2013), which re-enacts a 1957 parliamentary debate over which artworks to include in Ljubljana’s new People’s Assembly, was also shown here. In both films, Cibic removed specific names from the political speeches, referring instead to ‘the artist’ or ‘our country’. Whereas her Venice project functioned in the context of a national pavilion, it seems that the focus of ‘Spielraum’ was the act of de-specification itself. Cibic’s sources are always fascinating – the collages are made from photographs taken by Tito’s official photographer and the curtains’ designs are taken from a 1961 conference of Non-Aligned countries. The show’s context – a national museum hosted inside Budapest’s marble-lined Palace of Culture, at a time when a conservative government is asserting greater control on the country’s arts organizations – was one that should feel relevant. But, curiously, Cibic’s removal of specific names and contexts – moving toward the general, towards ‘the universal’ – made it feel less so.
The new nation we witnessed coming into existence in ‘Spielraum’ seems like a place where nothing will ever happen, surrounding us with rhetoric that feels like a conjunction of doublespeak, ad-speak and art-speak. Which is to say, this exhibition talked about everything, and nothing. Cibic’s vision is nostalgically dystopian, emphasizing the truism that abstract aesthetics and abstract language can be used towards political ends. And, in adopting those methods herself, it works both ways: vague rhetoric is empowering, but also stultifying. The audience is left rebuilding the future, ad nauseum.
First published in Issue 171