Cultural expediency, statecraft, the illusory nature of national identity – it’s all there in Jasmina Cibic’s ‘The Pleasure of Expense’, an exhibition exploring the complex entanglements of art, architecture and political ideology.
Born in Ljubljana and based in London, Cibic has long been investigating how national cultures are physically embodied in buildings, monuments and art objects. Here, her aesthetic rigor and forensic curiosity manifest in three video works, cleverly integrated into the architecture of the exhibition space – a two-floor university gallery, designed in 1953 – which complements the grand institutional buildings in which Cibic’s films are set.
A central tenet of the show is how states use culture as a strategically deployed gift and implement of soft power – a concept that feels increasingly anachronistic in a world of splintering national identities and populist politics. In a new short film, The Gift: Act II (2019), set in the Palace of Nations in Geneva – a neoclassical building that originally housed the League of Nations, from 1936–46, and which is now the European headquarters of the United Nations – a grave-faced diplomat walks the corridors, antechambers and large debating halls. As he passes a series of paintings, sculptures and murals, he expounds earnestly on the need for an alternative to ‘old and decrepit concepts, dead museum pieces’. At stake, he intones, ‘are not just aesthetic issues but our very identity’. A violinist provides a fractious accompaniment, her playing occasionally curtailed by his censorious hand. Despite his optimistic assertion that ‘our gift will be immaterial – it needs to persuade and seduce on a spiritual level’, the diplomat’s new vision seems as flawed as the old one.
Projected at the end of the main gallery, The Gift forms part of a low-lit installation, The Pleasure of Expense (2019). The remaining wall space is covered in a mountainscape collage dotted with archival photographs of Yugoslavian monuments clad in scaffolding – presumably under construction, or perhaps in the process of being dismantled. Arranged on the floor are three angular, metal frames, each supporting a hammock made from what appear to be flags, upon which three sopranos perched during the exhibition opening, singing slogans taken from speeches about the cultural gifts that currently adorn the Palace of Nations. Embroidered across each hammock is a different phrase: ‘Moral Ascension’, ‘Political Decadence’, ‘Statecraft’.
Excerpts from political speeches also feature in the dialogue of Tear Down and Rebuild (2015), part of the artist’s ‘Spielraum’ (Scope) trilogy. Four women debate the architectural conservation and cultural worth of an imaginary building – a composite of various historical structures – slated for demolition. It is filmed in what was previously the Palace of the Federation in Belgrade. Cibic casts the women in the roles of conservationist, nation builder, pragmatist and artist/architect. Meanwhile, in State of Illusion (2018), we witness a country’s demise through a theatrical re-creation of Yugoslavia’s pavilion at the 1967 world fair, Expo 67. In a series of performances – one for each of the former country’s six republics – an illusionist is placed in a different section of the modular pavilion. As she is subjected to increasingly dramatic – and violent – disappearing tricks, the illusory nature of this failed state is made literal. Nation builders everywhere, beware!
In spite of her repurposing of slogans and ideological rhetoric, Cibic’s own stance remains notably undidactic. From her crisp imagery and tightly wound symbolism comes a blurry message, with the lingering camera shots at once exposing political shortcomings and admiring the aesthetics of their failure. It’s an ambiguity that allows space for conversation, remembrance and pleasure, too – even as past cultural and political certainties reveal themselves unfit for the 21st century.
‘The Pleasure of Expense’ continues at Cooper Gallery, University of Dundee, UK, until 14 December 2019.
Main image: Jasmina Cibic, The Gift - Act III, 2019, film still. Courtesy: the artist