A Show About European Identity Opens With a Backdrop of War

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A Show About European Identity Opens With a Backdrop of War

When the first visitors arrived at the new Jasmina Cibic exhibition at the Modern Museum in Salzburg, Austria, earlier this month, they encountered a pile of rubble. The room is also filled with the scent of rose varieties named after the founding fathers of united Europe — figures such as former French President Charles de Gaulle and NATO co-founder Robert Schumann.

Presented a week after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the symbolism, and the show’s broader questioning of European state-building, has implications that artist and filmmaker Cibic hadn’t anticipated.

“It shouldn’t be so close to home,” she said of the show in a recent interview at her east London studio, “Favorite Country”. “We didn’t expect not to open the door, but it felt weird.”

The show’s curator, Marijana Schneider, also felt the changes in the collection of films, installations and live performances after the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian war. “It gives me chills,” she said in a phone interview, “when you think about nation-building and how Vladimir Putin invented his own myth and denied Ukraine’s cultural history.”

Born in 1979 in the former Yugoslavia (now Slovenia), Cibic has spent her career studying how fragile national and international solidarity is. For her, the invasion of Ukraine by Russian President Vladimir V. Putin was just the latest example of how statecraft has always been a stage art form. “Look at Putin’s long table,” she said, looking at Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, “an actor who played the president and became the president.”

Before MFN, Sibek’s exploration of the nature of political performance included a film called The Gift, which won Britain’s prestigious Jarman Award last year. It was filmed in buildings used as backdrops for the exercise of political power, such as the Palais des Nations in Geneva and the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw. In this film, shot in a strikingly stylish palette, actors representing architecture, music and art try to convince a committee that their disciplines are best suited to producing cultural gifts for a nameless, divided nation. The film’s dialogue brings together archived debates across Europe about how states use culture as a means of soft power.

Cibic can trace her interest in these topics back to her upbringing in Yugoslavia, where she saw how the nation reinforced civic nationalism by building monuments.she studies art in Venice, and began to stage theatrical productions with a group of other women in her area who played with the concept of how to represent the state.

“We do these crazy shows on trains when they cross the border,” she said. In one series, they would dress up as flight attendants on a train from Slovenia to Italy and hand out hygiene kits. “One question, do we need to sanitize ourselves to play the role of the West?” she said.

After graduating from the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice in 2003, Cibic continued his studies at Goldsmiths College in London. Her first film, The Fruit of Our Land, was part of the Slovenian Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale and was a re-enactment of the minutes of a 1957 Yugoslav parliamentary session to determine which artworks might be suitable for decorating the country’s government building.

“The real theatrical lighting, and the way the language is used in the film, is a bit over the top,” Schneider said, “so the audience really understands what the whole political spectacle is about.”

To Cibic, some of these expressions of power are so absurd that they are quite entertaining. In her studio, she points to stills from “Gifts” hanging on the wall of the council chamber at the United Nations Palais, decorated with golden murals depicting heroic figures, or, as Cibic describes it, “Titans on steroids” superior. “

“It’s like James Bond’s lair, the room where people sit and talk about nuclear disarmament,” she said, shaking her head in disbelief and laughing.

In “Gift,” it was this dramatic, actor-stylized action and near-surreal 4K shooting that impressed the Jarman Awards judges. The film made Amal Khalaf, one of the judges and curators at the Serpentine Gallery in London, think about the way we act as audiences for political power performances.

“We’ve been consuming it — we’re watching our parliament,” she said in a phone interview, “and the way Jasmina was able to glorify it was jarring. You think, what’s the ramifications of this show?”

Cibic’s current performances in Salzburg often draw on public performances of the national identity of the former Yugoslavia. An installation called “Power Verticals” includes a curtain showing the decorative column designs of the Yugoslav pavilions at various mid-20th century world fairs and expositions.

But except in program descriptions, Cibic avoids public references to any particular country or historical period. Despite this intentional generality, Schneider said, the exhibition’s visitors most directly linked the work to the Russian invasion of Ukraine: Much of the discussion she overheard during public tours of the exhibition was about the war.

While Cibic couldn’t foresee the current geopolitical context of her work, she’s glad audiences are making those connections. “The projects I do, there’s no audience without an audience, they’re just platforms for discussion,” she said.

Tevz Logar, who commissioned Cibic for the Slovenian pavilion at the 2013 Biennale, said that Cibic’s work’s ability to spark discussions about global political power is one of its strong strengths.

No matter what lens you want to look at the production through, “it still works,” he said in a phone interview.

While “most-favored-nation” may feel particularly important given the current European conflict, the practice of nation-building will continue around the world as long as states and borders exist, Cibic said.

“We merge, then we break up, we merge, and we break up,” she said. This is “something that humans do for a reason”.

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