This year, Jasmina Cibic represented Slovenia at the 55th Biennale in Venice. This significant accolade notwithstanding, it is safe to say that Jasmina has been representing her country since the beginning of her artistic career, through her own artistic production.
Jasmina’s work often involves a complex interweaving of different ideas and dedicated research, which come together to create intricate installations that can only be described as Gesamtkunsktwerk. She combines a variety of different elements, from taxidermied animals to wallpaper, from film and video to installation. Nature is a prominent feature in her work, which she says comes from her grandfather’s influence – he was a hunter. The animal trophies of hunters, most notably antlers, are a common feature on the visual landscape of Slovenia – used as a motif in the work of Laibach and IRWIN as well. Jasmina takes these antlers, which are already infused with this cultural resonance, and installs them in unusual places, such as the empty belly of an airplane – polluting (or cleansing?) the stale neutral mechanical environment with the natural and organic. Jasmina chooses the elements that feature in her work carefully, but quite often her focus is on decoration and excess, and the manner in which ornament and objects function in terms of national, cultural and individual identity.
National cultural identity was the focus of her presentation at the Venice Biennale last year, and Jasmina employs a range of sources with which to dissect not merely the creation or assignation of the Slovene identity, but rather the manner in which either occurs – whether by design or by accident – in modern day society. While the elements that she chose as tools for her investigation are specific to Slovenia, the themes that she explores with them are universal, relevant as much today as they were 100 years ago.
There are a number of distinct elements to the installation in the pavilion. One of them is the wallpaper, which is decorated with a series of drawings of the “Hitler Beetle,” or rather, Anophthalmus hitleri, drawn by professional entomologists without ever having seen the bug – the drawings were based on their professional understanding of the name and their own knowledge of entomology. The drawings are all remarkably different, in the same way that a bed drawn by 20 different people would look different each time. Furthermore, while the name conjures one image in the heads of those who are non-specialists, it offers a completely different possibility to scientists who know about these species. For them, the Hitler reference is inconsequential – it is simply another species of bug. But despite the anonymity to the actual bug that the name gives, it is indigenous to Slovenia, and rapidly becoming extinct (due to an article about the bug in National Geographic in 2006, and some eager Hitler-memorabilia enthusiasts, who pillaged the country for samples of it). This ignominious insect is simultaneous the scourge of the nation, because of its name, yet also part of its national heritage, which needs to be preserved.
The interior of the pavilion is papered with the Hitler beetle, dutifully representing its nation as it faces extinction. While Jasmina is clearly part of Slovenia’s next generation of artists, one cannot help but notice ties with her artistic heritage, both past and present. The Name – Readymade project of Janez Jansa, Janez Jansa and Janez Jansa also explores this concept of naming, from a different perspective, focused on individual identity. And while Laibach provoked by using the German name for Ljubljana as that of their band, Jasmina poses the question of what to do with a national symbol that has such a disgraceful name. (Incidentally, according to protocol, scientific animal and plant names cannot be changed.)
On view in the pavilion are two of Jasmina’s films, made for this installation. One involves a fictitious conversation between a journalist and Vinko Glanz, the architect of the Slovene National Assembly and official state architect under Tito. The other restages a debate among Yugoslav officials in 1958 as to how an artwork represents a nation. While the conversation, which was recovered from the Vinko Glanz archive, regards commissioned work that would decorate the new buildings of the People’s Assembly in Ljubljana, the discussion could be universally applied. The overriding question, “is this who we are?” can apply to a nation or any other group of people that could potentially be represented in or by an artwork. The presentation is poignant, because it could equally be applied to Jasmina’s work in the pavilion itself, and this element of self-reflexivity provides an additional layer of complexity to the already complex work.
Finally, adorning some of the walls are the paintings that had hung on the walls of the National Assembly itself, seemingly innocuous still lives and floral arrangements, deemed worthy of representing the nation in a building that does just that. These paintings function as decoration and excess, and while framed themselves, they frame the space that the politicians running the country inhabit.
The pavilion seems to represent a culmination of Jasmina’s work on space and decoration, and the identities that inhabit those spaces and function in relation to that decoration. For example, some of her earlier work focused on airports and places of transit, or so-called non-spaces – neutral places that are not necessarily connected with any particular identity. For example Tourists Welcome coincided with the redesign of the Joze Plecnik airport in Ljubljana. Following its entrance into the EU and Schengen, the airport terminal had to be redesigned to accommodate travelers entering the Schengen area. While this was essentially a renovation that would divide the airport into zones of inclusion and exclusion, based on who is allowed into Schengen and for how long, Jasmina created a performance along those divided lines. Playing with Slovenia’s newly adopted tourism slogan “I Feel sLOVEnia,” the artist commissioned the police orchestra to play Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” in an area that could be viewed by both those outside and inside passport control and security. Although a strict and policed line divided “inside” and “outside,” passengers and visitors, both audiences could see the orchestra, hear the music, and experience the “love” that Slovenia has to offer. Additionally, she flips authority on its head, by turning those strict intimidating authority figures tasked to protect the borders into entertainers. The border guard is usually one’s first point of contact in a new country, and although technically they welcome you in, really they create a sense of intimidation and fear as the gatekeeper – he who can prevent you from entering. With Jasmina’s performance, instead of creating fear and uncertainty, they provide passengers with a pleasant and welcoming atmosphere.
Jasmina also decorated the airport terminal with different elements, among them drawings made by a police sketch artist of places invented or imagined by Karl May, who, in the late-19th century, wrote a book about the Balkans (In the Gorges of the Balkans), without ever having been there. His novel draws on stereotypes and received notions about the region, but, much like Anophthalmus hitleri conjures an image without every having been seen, the images that the words create up often have little to do with reality.
Whether she uses a taxidermied animal, a 19th-century work of fiction, or a modern day disco song, Jasmina Cibic draws on different elements to probe the construction and maintenance of national cultural identity. The complexity of her work reflects not only the depths of her own personal research into the elements that she presents, but the very complicated nature of the issues at the heart of her work.