Last summer, Montreal celebrated the 50th anniversary of Expo 67, a monumental event that put the city at the centre of the international stage. Jasmina Cibic’s latest project—created expressly for the Foundation’s exhibition spaces and the Montreal milieu—is an immersive installation that explores the production of national culture and its instrumentalization for political aims in the context of 20th Century World Expositions. The exhibition’s title, Everything That You Desire and Nothing That You Fear, is drawn from political discussions and agreements in the planning stages of Expo 67 about what each country should show to the international audience.
Expo 67 was also the last international exhibition at which the former Yugoslavia had a pavilion prior to its dissolution in the 1990s—its final act of staging where the country presented, each time under a different name, at four political blockbuster World Expositions: 1929 Barcelona, 1937 Paris, 1958 Brussels, and 1967 Montreal.
Yugoslavia’s renaming—and finally its disappearance—becomes a lens through which Cibic studies the aesthetic permutations within art and architecture as “soft power” and statecraft strategies used to achieve the ultimate display of dominance for international audiences. How are a state’s interests and rhetoric deployed through art and architecture to shape public perception of a place? How do governments instrumentalize culture for the formation of national identity and representation? Cibic’s artistic methodology involves archival research and collaboration with a variety of specialists, through which she creates sumptuous Gesamtkunstwerks (total works of art) that combine the potencies of installation, sculpture, photography, performance and film. The overall effect simultaneously captivates the visitor and reveals constructs that are fashioned and implemented by governments for hegemonic control.
Cibic will make conceptual use of the Foundation’s two very different buildings to draw comparisons and underscore tensions between the spaces of state-sanctioned public structures (which are often inaccessible) and the private space of the home where the ghost-like machine of state politics permeates.
Within her works, Cibic brings together a range of strategies including scripting, enacting and re-enacting to draw connections between “statecraft” and stagecraft. Through a critical, feminist unpacking of the complex entanglements of art, gender and state power, the artist encourages viewers to consider the strategies employed in the construction of national culture. Cibic’s proposal is especially pertinent in our current situation of increasing nationalist fervour around the world, and poignantly resonant in the Canadian context where a sense of national identity is in constant flux.
Everything That You Desire and Nothing That You Fear is supported by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.
I met Jasmina Cibic in 2014 when she visited Montreal on a trip organized by the Slovenian consulate. This now strikes me as ironic as her work critically examines the instrumentalization of art and architecture for the purposes of nation building and state representation. After becoming more familiar with her deep, research-based methodology I have come to marvel at how deftly she plays a double game. Through an immersive approach that involves film, installation, sculpture, photography and performance, Cibic brings our attention to the apparatus of cultural production in service of the nation-state, through her own construction of allegorical gesamkunstwerks (total works of art) that direct our gaze and choreograph our movements. With Everything That You Desire and Nothing That You Fear—made expressly for the Foundation’s exhibition spaces and the Montreal context – Cibic studies the connection between the former Yugoslavia and its participation in world exhibitions including Montreal’s Expo 67, as well as other major examples of state-sanctioned art and architectural projects. A defunct state – Yugoslavia and its political-economic history become a lens through which to study the employment of art and architecture as ‘soft power’ and statecraft in a variety of aesthetics and forms, in an attempt to achieve the ultimate display of power for (inter)national audiences. At the same time, she masks or disguises the codified spaces of the foundation, throwing into question its own vocation as a site of display for specific interests and desires.
Cibic makes conceptual use of the Foundation’s two very different buildings to draw comparisons and underscore tensions between the spaces of state-sanctioned public structures (which are often inaccessible) and the private space of the home into which politics permeates as a ghost-like shadow. The building at 451 St-Jean has been re-imagined as the residential dwelling of an unnamed collector invested with architectural elements, objects, photos and film that draw from the artist’s archival research on the four chief representations of former Yugoslavia at World Expos created for very different, if not contrived, ideological spaces of the 20th Century’s political space. Drawing upon a country that no longer exists, Cibic’s forensic gaze provides a timely commentary for today’s socio-political failings of contemporary nation states.
The most pervasive component, presented on all four floors of the building, is a curtain decorated with patterns drawn from tapestries and rugs that graced the halls of the Former Palace of Federation in Belgrade, a building where Yugoslavia’s president Tito inaugurated the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961. It was these artefacts which provided a scenographic backdrop for the diplomacy of the Non-Aligned member States — a third way political movement which was to pave the way for a new world ideology inhabiting the space between the conflicts of the Eastern block and the West.
G1 is further invested with an architectural element, sculpture and photographs. The ceiling is made-over with a modernist pastel-hued ceiling design cited from the grand staircase of the Former Palace of the Federation. As Anna Gritz remarks, the appropriation and restaging of a key architectural design element “turns the fragment into an architectural costume, a mask or a form of drag that masquerades one form of architecture as another.”1 In the middle of this space is The Pavilion (2018) – a sculptural work based on the few archival traces of the Yugoslav pavilion designed by modernist architect Dragiša Brašovan for the 1929 World Exposition in Barcelona. Close by is Land of Plenty (2017),the artist’s attempt to recreate the female nude positioned in front of the Yugoslav Pavilion in Barcelona, an image aimed at promoting the idea of a stately ‘mother nation’ that represents and manifests the richness of her nation. Three photographic portraits set against the curtain-enveloped walls announce the protagonists in Cibic’s film, NADA: Act III – The Exhibition, presented in the 465 St-Jean building. The film’s charactersfollow the dubious tradition of the allegorical female, carrying in their arms sculptural objects drawn from theatrical productions at World Expositions as musical instruments. A further reference is made to the process of “design by committee” espoused by the politicians and bureaucrats who strived to define the “most representational and progressive national artwork” to the world.
The film Tear Down and Rebuild (2015) from Cibic’s earlier Spielraum trilogy (2015) is presented on G2. Shot within the Former Palace of the Federation, this film features four female characters — the Nation Builder, the Pragmatist, the Conservationist, and the Artist/Architect engaged in a passionate debate on the merits or disadvantages of the demolition of an unnamed state-sanctioned architecture. Spoken in convincing, often declarative sentences, the film’s dialogue is comprised exclusively of quotations pulled from speeches by public figures such as Ronald Reagan, Prince Charles, Margaret Thatcher, Francois Mitterand and Benito Mussolini – political players who had great stakes in the shaping of our urban environment as we know it today. Also on this floor are Firm Foundations (2018) a rotating sculpture presenting landscapes of the new political allies shaped by the Non-Aligned Movement– images which Cibic collected from the archive of the official photographers of president Tito; and Everything that you desire nothing that you fear (2017) a large ironmongery hoop sculpture that is reminiscent in both material and form of the architectural ironwork of gates and fences of state architecture. It bears the aphoristic phrase used for the exhibition’s title, repeating the address from an idealogue’s speech on the ‘best’ of what a country should present to the world.
Cibic’s research revealed that one of the central forms seen in the Yugoslav pavilion at Expo 67 was tapestry, further noting their use in political manifestations as official decor. She linked these tapestries to the kilim, a flat woven textile characteristic of the artisanal practices in parts of the former Yugoslavia. In G3, two kilim works are re-imagined by Cibic and placed on view with specially designed seats, which reference the display mechanisms of the Expo architects. The works themselves are hand woven by female artisans from Visoko in Bosnia, where this craft is maintained. Cibic derived the imagery from the patterns and motifs of artistic tapestries created for government architecture that are now held in the collections of the contemporary art museums in Belgrade and Zagreb. Slogans selected from political speeches also infiltrate the design. On weekends during the run of the exhibition, two singers will occupy the seats and enact the embroidering of the textile’s border, while reworking melodies from the soundscape of the Expo pavilions, using the slogans as lyrics.
Presented on G4 is a new film produced specifically for this exhibition, which investigates the poetic connection between statecraft and the fostering of illusion through an allegorical re-telling of the creation of the Yugoslavian pavilion at Expo 67. State of Illusion (2018) features a female ‘Illusionist’ and her three male assistants to further unpack the concept of the nation-state as an allegory of the female body. Cibic created a skeletal replica of the pavilion which is composed of seven triangular structures each representing one of the six Yugoslavian republics plus Canada, the host country. The device is employed as an illusionist prop in which the Illusionist is made to disappear and re-appear. Her benevolent assistants turn into malignant henchmen growing more violent with each trick, until they murder the Illusionist herself. This violence is a nod to the destructive force of nationalism that tore the country apart, the seams of which are easily tracable through the archives of the Montreal Expo pavilion which became a stand in for the absent body of Yugoslav President Tito who refused to appear at its unveiling. The Yugoslav Pavilion was shot at multiple times, and bombs were positioned at Yugoslav embassies and consulates in Ottawa and Toronto during its announcements. Accompanying the film are six photographic portraits which feature the female illusionist in six different costumes drawn from tapestries from the Expo displays, each representing one of the republics. The Illusionist lifts a different flag within each image, which bears a slogan of an ever-growing nationalist sentiment.
In the more expansive spaces of the building at 465 St-Jean, Cibic presents her NADA trilogy of films. NADA means “hope” in Croatian, and also makes reference to Nada Kareš-Richter, the actress and partner of modernist architect Vjenceslav Richter. The NADA series examines three of European modernism’s celebrated architects and the role their work played in forming national representation at decisive moments of political crisis in European history
The subject of NADA: ACT I (2016) presented in G5a, isVjenceslav Richter’s first, but unrealized design for the Yugoslav Pavilion at the 1958 Expo in Brussels. Cibic appropriates and recreates the pavilion as a sculptural work placed in the center of the space. This very sculpture is also played as a musical instrument in the film by violinist Dejana Sekulić. She is seen tuning the architecture and attempts to play the theme from The Miraculous Mandarin a composition for ballet by Béla Bartók, performed at the 1958 Expo as one of the central artworks.
NADA: Act II (2016), installed in G5b, presents a re-purposed, mis-imagined and overwritten version of the choreography of The Miraculous Mandarin. Invested with new purpose by the artist in collaboration with choreographer Lea Anderson, Bartok’s original characters – the pimps, prostitute and exotic Mandarin – are replaced with the archetypes of politicians, the ideal of Mother Nation, and that most easily abused of Modern practitioners: the architect. Cloaking the space is a velvet curtain patterned with the motif of a tapestry that adorned the monumental spaces of the Former Palace of the Federation.
NADA III: The Exhibition (2017) presented in G7, was filmed on location at Haus Lange and Haus Esters, two residential houses designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe between 1927 – 1930. The script is assembled from archival transcripts, political discussions, reports and personal letters surrounding Germany’s presentations at world expositions in 1929, 1937 and 1958 and their legacy. Cibic devises the script into three positions: the Artist, the Curator and Germania who engage in a discussion about the aesthetics and style of the artworks and architecture that should be exhibited at an undisclosed event of national interest in order to ensure international success.
Accompanying the three films in G6 is the performative installation We will ensure our country does succeed (2018). A large-scale mural presents a fictitious landscape consisting of various Yugoslav modernist monuments in the building phase and also bears political statements taken from archives of political discussions with Yugoslav artists and architects employed by the state. It is these monuments that have been exoticised by the art market for the contemporary viewer in recent years, effectively Othering the socio-political path of Yugoslav visual identity.As part of the performative aspect, a group of women artists will be gilding a selection of these slogans throughout the duration of the show, underlining the absense of the female presence from nation-building discussions.
Jasmina Cibic brings a range of strategies together including scripting, citing, re-siting, enacting and re-enacting in order to draw connections between ‘statecraft’ and stagecraft. Through a critical, feminist unpacking of the complex entanglements of art, gender and state power, the artist encourages viewers to consider the strategies employed in the construction of a nation-state. In our current climate of increasing nationalist fervour, the questions that guide her practice are especially pertinent. As she asserts, “…with the return to populism and of culture being reconsidered along the lines of bread and circuses2, it is history’s more sinister accounts of this most awkward relationship of art and life that seems to merit resuscitation.”
1. Anna Gritz: Curator’s introduction, pp 129 – 131, Spielraum, Distanz, Berlin 2018
2. This expression refers to the slogan Panem et Circenses dating to Roman times and referring to government strategies created to appease public discontent