I spent an afternoon with Vlasta Zanic, poring over her 2011 catalogue, To Meet Myself. As we flipped through the pages, she kindly took the time to explain each and every work to me. I found every one of them so compelling that it is difficult to choose which ones to write about here, so I will present a selection of the works that I found most intriguing or in which I saw parallels with other works that I’ve come across in the region.
Vlasta started her career as a sculptor, and her early concerns with the object in space seem to penetrate into her later work in performance, as many of her works deal with issues of the body in space, in relation to a room, object or other entity. Her oeuvre contains work that seems to express an overriding desire or yearning for balance; and indeed several pieces address this head-on. For example, in See-Saws, she installed several hundred mini see-saws in a gallery and invited the visitors to walk on them. During the moment at which the see-saw tips its balance over to the other side, the individual experiences a feeling of instability. This feeling was not dissimilar to the feeling that the artist herself experienced in her 2006 performance, Balance, where she spun around and around in the gallery space until she eventually lost her balance. A sense of equilibrium and stability is something that we all strive for in life, and Vlasta mentioned a particular feeling of instability in her own, both due to her personal experiences and the experience of living through war.
Another issue that pervades the artist’s work is that of gender, specifically related to domestic roles. In the performance Marasca Cherries, the artist covered her body in dough and Marasca cherries, as if transferring the process of making a cake to her own body. Taking an everyday domestic chore, which normally results in something sweet and nice, the artist turns it into a destructive and violent act. In particular, the use of cherries turns the entire mess into a bloody and gruesome scene, recalling ritualistic killings, menstrual blood, as well as the blood of Christ, whose body Christians are also meant to consume. Similarly, in the video performance Baring, the artist is seen on the video screen plucking her eyebrows, engaged in a typical process of beautification, which is also quite painful. However, this process does not end when she has achieved a desired shape for her eyebrows; in the piece, she plucks every last hair off. She continues with this theme of beautification in The Three of Us, which she created together with her two daughters. The three appear in front of a mirror, applying make-up to their faces individually. When each one finishes applying her make-up and decides that she is fully “made-up,” she removes the make-up and starts this ritualistic process all over again, from the start. Finally, her piece Rozata combines Vlasta’s role as artist/sculptor with her daily domestic tasks. She creates sixteen rozata cakes – a Croatian dessert similar to crème brulee – and displays them in the gallery as if they were pieces of sculpture – in glass containers and on spotlit pedestals. After about a half-hour into the opening, Vlasta switched from her artistic role to her domestic one, and began to cut the cake and serve it.
Baring and The Three of Us recall works by fellow Croatian artist Sanja Ivekovic as well as fellow Yugoslav/Serbian artist Marina Abramovic, although the artist told me that she wasn’t that aware of those works at the time. The first performance she recalls seeing, in fact, was one by Vlasta Delimar. In Abramovic’s Art Must be Beautiful – Artist Must be Beautiful (performed in 1975, in Denmark), the artist appears before the camera furiously brushing her hair, repeating over and over the title phrase. The focus on the ritualistic processes of beautification is also shared by Ivekovic, whose performance Un Jour Violent also raises issues about the connection between beauty and pain.
In Crossing Over, Vlasta presents herself as a sculpture in the center of the gallery space, holding a video camera. The pedestal on which she stands turns, and records the audience viewing her from the sidelines. Here, the “sculpture,” which is normally stationary, moves, while the usually mobile audience remains still. In another room, the film that the artist records with her camera is projected onto the walls of an adjacent gallery, and it circles the walls, so that the audience can view itself being viewed and recorded by the artist, who is in fact the art object. This type of role reversal between artist and art object recalls similar pieces by Ivekovic, such as Inter Nos, as well as by that of her partner at the time, Dalibor Martinis (Open Reel, for example). While those pieces created distance between artist and audience, Congratulating (2005) in fact brings them closer together. For the duration of this performance, Vlasta remained in the gallery space. Participants were asked by invitation to join her in the performance, which involved coming to the gallery space to congratulate her – a process that often occurs at gallery openings, but is often performed without thought or even sincerity. Here, she asks the viewer and visitor to think about this gesture and what it means, as she does so herself. It is a long way from the action that the artist performed in 2002, which was to close herself off from any outside entity. For that piece, entitled Closing, the artist constructed a special suit, which had openings on it in the form of jar and container lids. Gradually, one by one, she put the lids on the openings and closed herself off. The artist commented on how dangerous it is to close oneself off completely from the rest of the world – and in this case, it was literally dangerous, because this process also cut off her air circulation.
But if anything, Vlasta Zanic’s work is about coming closer, coming together, and approaching equilibrium and balance – between one’s competing personal and professional roles, between artist and audience, and in life in general. Her 2010 performative object, Conveyer Belt, is a sculpture made from a conveyer belt on which the viewer is invited to stand. At the end of the belt is a mirror, and the motion of the belt brings you closer and closer to yourself, forcing you to confront all of your demons face-on. It takes a while to traverse the distance of the belt, forcing you to take the time to contemplate all of these issues, along with yourself, on the journey there.