The work of Irena Lagator may appear simple and subtle at first glance, but this is precisely its magic. It initially attracts the viewer on a sensory level, then draws him in to a web of far deeper and more complex ideas imaginable from first glance. An unassuming cartwheel turns into a larger statement about the human body and its presence in the universe, a billowing curtain begins a dialogue on interior and exteriority, and a pile of used cash register receipts becomes a fantastical city that draws our attention to the effects of consumerism on society. It is the intriguing visual that draws you in, but the compelling ideas that keep you coming back to the work for another look, and further contemplation.
A short performance entitled Registrar, from 2004, captures a number of themes that are important to the artist. When Irena was preparing to get married, she decided she needed to alter a traditional part of the ceremony that had been in place since the Yugoslav era. A poem by a Serb writer that is read as part of the wedding vows didn’t really fit with Irena’s idea of marriage. The text spoke of one’s wedding as “the most important business deal” of one’s life. Irena’s one-minute performance consisted of her entering the registrar’s office and asking her to remove that one sentence from her wedding ceremony, the following day. The piece demonstrates the manner in which Irena uses performance and interactivity to engage with everyday issues, operating on the border between art and life, pulling life into her art – including everyday people, such as the registrar. It also deals with issues of consumerism and transactions that take place in all aspects of our daily lives, yet nevertheless go unnoticed. Most couples embarking on a new marriage probably give little thought to the words that are traditionally uttered, taking them for granted as the way that the ceremony is supposed to be. Irena’s heightened awareness to these unchallenged traditions continues throughout her work.
The presence of the human individual in the universe, and the existence of art in a space that we create is an overarching concern for the artist. She began her journey on this theme in an early performance that she did without an audience. In a hall of mirrors, dressed all in black, she did cartwheels across the room, and noted how her reflection in the mirror formed a star. This star came to represent, for the artist, the individual presence of the body in the universe in that individual’s own self-created space. She filled an entire book with these drawings, individual star figures filling the pages of a graph-lined notebook. This year, for the Montenegrin Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, she created Ecce Mundi, an installation in which she directly engages the viewer with these ‘individuals.’ Upon entering the room, it appears completely white at first, but upon closer examination, the viewer comes to realize that this room is in fact filled with thousands of squares containing drawings of these individual star creatures. By walking across the floor, the drawings become smudged, thus the viewer destroys the peaceful coexistence of these individuals in their private spaces. With this piece, the artist questions whether this peaceful existence is even possible. In many ways, she tells me, her work is a performance about a society that never really existed, with people sharing space and respecting one another completely.
The viewer comes to play a large role in Irena’s work. The artist demands that the viewer interact, engage, and manipulate the work, to make it his or her own. In some instances, she creates a situation where it impossible for the viewer to refuse this interaction, for example in Passerby, from 2004. A large transparent red curtain billows out from the gallery space and across the street, so that passersby are often struck by it and sometimes caught in its web, which beckons them to enter the interior space of the gallery. In works such as Living Room and Own Space from 2006, it is both the perception of light and the tactile presence of the piece that engages the viewer on a multi-sensory level. Firstly, the low level of lighting in the interior space of the gallery causes the viewer to have to remain in the space, so that the eye adjusts to the light. In the course of this adjustment, the viewer’s perception of the piece changes. She creates a penetrable wall with a series of strings hung from the ceiling. The viewer can walk through the installation and change its configuration by physically moving it with his body, or as a result of changing wind currents that the body in space creates. The viewers themselves deconstruct the barriers placed before them. This piece reminded me in some ways of one of Allan Kaprow’s early piece, Rearrangable Panels, from 1957-59, where the artist asked the viewer to reconfigure the panels of the painting. Irena’s proposition is much more subtle. The viewer can unwittingly rearrange the piece, simply by being present.
And presence, for the artist, is very important. She refers to Marina Abramovic and states that indeed, the artist must be present – but for Irena this means in a socially responsible way. The artist feels that by being present and sensitive to what is going on in society, it can change something. She contrasts this with the capitalist system, for example, which cannot help people with the real issues that plague them. Her performative piece May I Help You (together with Jelena Tomašević), from 2004, attempted to highlight this paradox. Standing in front of the “information points” set up by the city of Athens to help visitors during the Olympics, the two artists proceeded to ask questions that no one could answer, for example: “I’m afraid of getting married, can you help me?”
Indeed, the artist takes the capitalist and consumerist focus of our society to task as she develops her “Society of Unlimited Responsibility.” The name is a reference to the Montenegrin term for LLP, Limited Liability Partnership, which one enters into to set up a business. In Montenegrin, this term translates as Society of Limited Responsibility, and the artist who feels an overwhelming sense of responsibility in society takes issue with the fact that in business, one is required to have even less responsibility. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? The artist takes as her object of focus the rolls of cash register receipts that every shop or business is required to keep a copy of for five years following the transaction – as an archive of our performance of consumption in society. She takes these receipts and builds castles and virtual cities with them. From a distance, they appear as simple fantastical dioramas of futuristic cities. But again, on closer inspection, a record of the transactions imprinted on those pieces of thermal paper, using nothing more than the warmth of the machinery, can be seen.
The artist and her viewers have made some interesting discoveries in perusing these receipts. One viewer, in Vienna, discovered that one can purchase “Morning Happiness” for only 50 cents. Morning Happiness referred to a t-shirt, most likely with that phrase imprinted on it, but that got Irena to thinking: “what if we could buy such a thing as ‘morning happiness’?” So she got hold of a cash register herself and started to program it with ordinary items, such as bread, yogurt, bananas, and some extra-ordinary items, such as love, happiness, etc. Now not only do these receipts show a record of someone’s (imagined) consumption, but in reading the receipts, the viewer also consumes those items, and imagines the possibility of consuming them in real life.
If the consumer aspect of our society is not the answer to our questions or needs, then the artist proposes that it is the relationships in that society – between one another, and between an individual and his surrounding space – that should be the focus. She brings this idea to the fore in An Embrace in the Space, a performative/interactive space/installation that the artist created in 2006 at a train station in Bari, Italy. As usual, the artist engages the natural elements of the surrounding space in her work, focusing on an announcement that is habitually made at the train station: “stand clear of the yellow line.” The announcement is made to warn the passengers of danger if they go beyond the yellow line painted on the platform, creating an effective barrier of space between them and the track or oncoming train. Irena, then, painted yellow lines in the waiting room, between the benches, so that when the announcement was made, those passengers, too, would have to distance themselves from the yellow line. In doing so, that would bring them closer to the person that they happened to be sitting next to. In altering this everyday space, the artist provides the unwitting participant the opportunity for an embrace that may be missing in everyday life.
While society may focus on profit, not people, Irena’s work brings the focus back to those people who may get lost in the shuffle when looking toward profit. Witnesses of Time – Now (2002) tells the story of the awaiting inhabitants of one apartment building. While the people thought that they had bought their own individual apartments, it turned out that the owner of the building had sold each apartment to more than one person. The case had to go to the Supreme Court, but the prospective inhabitants were unable to move in to their new spaces in the meantime. The artist found those people and photographed them, installing their photos on the shutters of the apartments that they were supposed to inhabit. The shutters were left open, so the images of those people remained on the outside of the building – just as in real life, they were unable to occupy the spaces that they had purchased. As a result, they had to perform their lives in another space, she said. She followed up on the stories of these people in Are You Happy Now? (2004), when the court case was finally resolved and the owners were allowed to move into their apartments. She questioned the people as to whether this resolution of their desire ultimately provided them with happiness. Both of these pieces contain a number of elements that are consistently significant for the artist in her work – the connection and interrelation between art and real life events, calling attention to the tension between inside and outside, and a focus on commercialism in contemporary society.
Irena Lagator’s work is focused on the individual in society, both in a physical and metaphysical sense. She remains attuned to the processes that take place in everyday life and uses the visual, tactile and interactive elements of her artwork to draw the viewer’s attention to them. For her, the role of the performance of the individual in society is of prime importance, and her interactive work gives the viewer the possibility to enact this performance, through art. Her work can be appreciated on a visual and intellectual level equally. It continues to engage because of the artist’s skill in posing questions to which we continue to seek answers every day.