Dina Roncevic

Dina Roncevic has always been interested in cars, she tells me - at least since high school, when she first learned how to drive a car, and wondered how the mechanisms behind the machine actually worked. Moving the gear shift, she wondered what it actually did that made the car move, so, later in life, once she had achieved her qualifications as an artist, she went through retraining to become a mechanic – all as part of an artistic project, entitled Suck, Squeeze, Bang, Blow.

The retraining, she tells me, was largely a failure. She didn’t manage to actually become a mechanic. This was not due to lack of ability or lack of trying. The reason for her 'failure' has to do with the patriarchal structure and lack of awareness, and laws, regarding gender equality in Croatia at the time of the project. After she finished her coursework, she was obliged to do an apprenticeship, which she did at a Volvo service shop. She described the working environment as hostile – as the only woman in the shop, none of the men believed her capable of doing the work there, and only entrusted her with menial tasks, such as cleaning or going off to fetch parts. As a result, she gained little practical experience to become a mechanic. She also had an apprenticeship in a Custom Chopper shop, which was really like a dream come true for the artist, who adored motorcycles and even learned how to ride one, also for this project. This apprenticeship was even worse – motorcycle owners are very protective of their vehicles and, consequently, very strict about who can touch and service them.

Dina suffered a lot for this project. She was literally a woman in a man’s world, and a man’s world that simply would not budge to let her in. But the artist possesses an amazing amount of confidence and determination. While she may have been initially discouraged, what she learned from the project was that she needed to find a different way to break into that system – she needed to get creative (what better job for an artist?!) and find a different way to accomplish her goals. I asked her, for example, if she had considered legal action for the discrimination she had encountered in the workplace, and she responded by saying that any action of that nature would automatically make her work political, and that wasn’t the goal. It would also further ostracize her in this male-dominated world that she was trying to enter. But the real goal, she told me, was to get inside the engine. This is the dream for any mechanic, whose daily tasks mainly involve adjusting brakes and changing the oil. The crank shaft (which I had never heard of, but she told me about), is at the heart of the engine, and if you can get to it, it means that you have really arrived as a mechanic.

The result of Dina’s search for alternatives were her Car Deconstructions, a project in which she and a group of girls dismantle a car or other vehicle. The artist made a lot of discoveries in the course of this work. She compared working with older girls, who had already been indoctrinated into their feminine roles, and younger girls, who hadn’t. It all had to do with the way they moved, held and carried their bodies. Younger girls weren’t afraid to bend over, spread their legs apart, and move their bodies in ways that were necessary to work with these machines. Older girls, consequently, found this physical work challenging for those reasons. "They knew what [these movements] meant," she told me. But little by little, as they became involved in this physical task, they made discoveries about different parts and tools, and how they worked. For Dina, out of this deconstruction came a reconstruction – of minds and attitudes, as the girls started to gain interest in this mechanical world that, for the most part, is denied to them by the structures of society. And as a bonus, in taking apart the car, Dina finally got to the crank shaft.

Dina’s work is in many ways a response to the patriarchal culture of contemporary Croatia. Although there has been a Center for Women’s Studies in Zagreb for years (which the artist is a graduate of), it was only quite recently, in Split, that the first Feminist Art Practice program was started – about four decades after the first one was founded in the US at Fresno State University in California, in 1970. Interestingly, Dina’s graduation work for her studies in Electro-mechanics also served as her graduation work from the Center for Women’s Studies. What was a study in the workings of an engine for one program was a sociological study of gender and society – with Dina as the main subject – for the other. And all of it came under the banner of art.

Dina decided to pursue this retraining not only out of her love of cars, but also as a practical way to earn money, which, as an artist, is usually a challenge. But she also wanted to make art that could make a difference, socially. Dissatisfied with the gallery system, she moved toward collaborative projects that, while not overtly political, definitely carry a message that can be meaningful for its participants. In describing her performances and situations to me, it seemed that one thing that the participants – be they male or female – got out of these situations was confidence. Indeed, this can be the one barrier that is most difficult to surmount. The girls who participated in the deconstructions, for example, faced their fear of this foreign object that they were long told was not for them. Dina’s own experiences in her apprenticeship only underscores the fact that most feel that the domain of auto and engine repair is not for females. By deconstructing the parts of a car, and examining them, the participants saw that they were not as intimidating as they seemed. Dina even described the event as “empowering,” as the girls realized that they, too, could work with tools.

That sense of empowerment carried over into another work of hers, Orgasms, during which the artist, on a train ride from Zagreb to Paris, masturbated in the public space of the train’s restaurant car. This was not, however, an overt display in a public setting. The artist achieved climax by crossing her legs, unbeknownst to those around her. Sexuality is something that is so little discussed in society, especially the taboo subjects of female masturbation and orgasm. By approaching this private and taboo subject in a public space, and framing it as an artwork, it draws attention to the subject in a subtle way, without being shocking or sensationalist.

In a series of two-dimensional works, Dina has brought together two usually distinctive spheres – the male world of automechanics, and needlework, traditionally a female domain. By copying the technical drawings that appeared in her textbooks and manuals in the form of needlepoint, she adds a human (as well as feminine) touch to these otherwise mechanical computer-generated drawings. The needlework seems to serve as a metaphor for Dina’s work in general. By merging these two usually separate sphere’s of women’s work and men’s work, surprisingly beautiful and creative results appear.

In addition to deconstructing machines, she also constructs them – with the help of some friends. For example, Vehicle was the result of a collaboration of three women and one man. Together, they created a self-propelled vehicle that they could drive – sort-of a bicycle built for three. Dina is interested in these collaborative projects, as they seem to represent a type of utopia – a world where everyone is working together (not against or in competition with one another) to build something new.

In many ways, the so-called failures that Dina encountered on her retraining as an auto-mechanic are in fact her triumph. Our of the struggle and frustration, new ideas were born – ideas that react not with anger or aggression against the current situation, but attempt to create new situations, by alternative methods and means. Instead of fighting the system, Dina is creating her own system – a system in which girls can be mechanics if they want to, where people who work together create new objects that function and can better society, and also strengthen relationships. Dina’s work may seem to be specifically about cars and auto repair, but in fact, it is about much, much more.