I had the good fortune to meet Nemanja Cvijanovic when I was in Ljubljana, Slovenia. The artist, who is originally from Rijeka, just a few hours from the Slovenian capital, was in residency at the Mestna Gallery’s Tabacna 01, and had the opening for his show, Death to Fascism! when I was there.
Nemanja has stated that he is interested in “the mechanisms of production, manipulation and consumption of meaning in post-modern culture.” His work also seems to juxtapose power structures and their symbols and apparatuses, past and present.
Death to Fascism! is an installation that presents the state seals of several different nations that were colonizers historically, and who many feel still exert their power over smaller nations. The heraldic symbols on these seals – eagles and lions – have all been “killed” by the artist, as he depicts them dead from visible wounds. The other component to the installation is a series of targets. The artist spent time with a local anti-capitalist group and asked them which symbols they would most like to shoot at in target practice. The came up with the list of usual suspects – multi-national corporations and international organizations, such as NATO or the UN. The artist organized professional lessons for the members of this organization, and then had them shoot at their preferred targets, framing the results for display in the exhibition. The members of this group preferred to remain anonymous. Some did attend the exhibition, but were very inconspicuous, posing for pictures in front of their targets, but not facing the camera!
When speaking about the project, Nemanja said that “you can’t change the world with art, but you can try.” The artist puts the power to change things in the peoples’ hands. Although he literally armed the members of this group, the message was about the power of civil society to fight for what it believes is right. He commented that we are, in fact, victims of a system that is generated from our own society, so it is necessary to change that system from within.
Nemanja questions whether this impulse to fight and stand up for one’s beliefs is really present in society anymore. His 2008 piece, Applause, highlights the absence of public protest in society. Interestingly, however, it also foresaw the return of that culture, as it was staged just one year before similar civil manifestations started to appear on the streets in Zagreb. To create the piece, he hired 250 people as “extras” to come to the demonstration site, hold banners and flags with slogans, and to vocally chant their protests. The piece started with the individuals repeating slogans that they had been given by the artist, but gradually they began to create their own. These extras were paid 9 EUR for their part in the performance, which, ironically, was their own money, since it was paid for by public cultural funds. The artist said that he staged this piece to prompt people to consider their obligation in changing society. Perhaps his performance did inspire them, as one year later people did begin to speak out against the nationalist government.
Nemanja’s work seems to encourage and promote an active participation in society on the part of its citizens, and also provides a space for that. Active participation in the art world is no exception, and for the opening of an artist-run space that the artist is part of, Drugo More, he placed an open call for people to come to the exhibition space, and the first 100 people who did became part of the piece, as artists. As part of the project, the artist himself spent time with these artist-audience members in the gallery space, getting to know them better. As the artist said, “this is one way to get an audience for a gallery.” But if providing incentives to create an audience and get them to participate – either in civil society or in art – provides an introduction to these new worlds that the participants then use to carry on that activity, then perhaps the artist has completed his mission of “trying to change the world” one small step at a time.