Irena Lagator

 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.