Q&A with artist Jasmina Cibic

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Jasmina Cibic, 2014. Photo:Pete Moss

Jasmina Cibic was born in Ljubljana, Slovenia. She studied in Italy and the UK and later represented her homeland at the Venice Biennale in 2013. Now based in London, her work continues to explore the complexities of cultural and national identity, and the various elements and concepts of representation.

In our new exhibition, Demented Architecture, three of Jasmina’s video works are set amid her illustrated wallpaper that features the "Hitler Beetle".

We asked Jasmina about her life, her practice and the works that are on show at City Gallery.

1. Can you tell us a little bit about your life and influences?

Since the beginning of my studies, I have been intrigued by Slovenia’s territorial placing – it is a paramount example of an in-between territory, one that has been included within seven different nation-state formations within the last 100 years. My great-grandmother was born in Austro-Hungary and died in the European Union. This leaves an obvious mark on the territory, its people as well as artistic tendencies. If one takes a map of Europe and folds it many times, 80% of the times the first hole that develops on it is where Slovenia lies. After the collapse of Yugoslavia, contemporary art within these territories naturally made a turn towards dealing with the traumatic experiences of the wars, the ethnic cleansing and the West’s relationship towards it all. With the new generations of artists, this period is giving way to constructive new tendencies of problematising what can be at the first glance understood as specific national exoticisms on a global scale. This is where my interest was always placed. How can we overcome the political exotic each small nation/country may become?  And how can art and architecture resist instances of soft power mechanisms? - and at the end of the day, how frighteningly similar these instances are across time and space and ideologies.

2. How’s life in London? 

I chose London for the MFA at Goldsmiths College, renown for questioning exactly what I had most problems within art with: geopolitical exoticism. Slovenia unfortunately does not have a well developed art system or market, so many contemporary artists work extensively between Slovenia and other places where they have galleries or teaching positions. Ten years on, I still love London’s saturation of art events and exhibitions, but my favourite part are the amazing artists that I have got to know through the years.

3. Can you tell us the background to the works at City Gallery, Fruits of our Land  and Framing the Space ?

The videos shown in Demented Architecture were part of my project for the Venice Biennial in 2013 where I represented Slovenia. The entire project literally followed its title: For Our Economy and Culture – so each element of the immersive installation was produced in Slovenia, by Slovenian craftspeople, artists, actors, factories and so on (this included the wallpaper’s drawings of the endemic Hitleri beetles, the still lives that hung on the installation’s walls drawn from the walls of the Slovenian politicians in office at the time, the Slovenian performers installing these works on top of the Hitleri beetle wallpaper for the opening and so on). The project questioned the nature of national representation and the problematic of identity forming apparatuses of ideology and how art and architecture are utilised within this equation. The video works on show in the City Gallery were all filmed within representative state architecture of Slovenia – the one of ultimate national power – the Slovenian Parliament and the summer residency of former Yugoslavia‘s president Tito, where he entertained various diplomats, kings and queens, dictators, presidents and film stars: Vila Bled. Both videos use script as a fundamental part of their concept: Fruits of Our Land is a word for word translation of a parliamentary debate from 1953 set to decide which Slovenian artist should decorate the newly built People’s Assembly in post WWII Socialist Federative Republic of Slovenia. The members of the Committee for the Review of Artistic Works and Sculptures, the viewer can follow in their heated discussion, is still today set within the same format (obviously with a different name) and when I was applying for the representation in Venice a very similar debate was taking place about my work (with some same family names that the debate in 1953 featured).

The second work - Framing the Space – was on the other hand filmed in Tito’s Villa the day the Slovene state claimed back the building (it was used as a hotel after Tito’s death in the 1980s) and the camera script was following the route the Prime Minister was taking during the protocol “reclaim” of the building. The video shows a dialogue between Vinko Glanz – the architect of both Tito’s Villa and the Slovenian Parliament in a discussion with a journalist – the script was collaged together from fragments found in Glanz’s legacy in a shopping trolley in a garage. What amazed me about these two state representative architectures was the fact that there was practically nothing written about the architect for over 50 years (mere two articles until the recent PhD by my colleague Dr Nika Grabar, who was a vital part of this project also). Glanz was not perhaps a star modernist architect that would be discussed in press and architectural reviews, but he was the state architect who’s role was to translate the architectures of the old regime for the new state. There is a famous anecdote, when Tito said to him: “All other presidents have flat roofs..”, so Glanz transformed the Hungarian hunting castle that Vila Bled once was into a flat roof, modernist looking building, “fit” for the president on a new “forward looking nation”.

4. Why have you chosen to explore concepts of national and cultural identity? Is it Slovenia you are interested in specifically or is your interest global?

My work is site and context specific, so the project for the national representation at the Venice Biennale followed my methodologies. It seemed the only position within that situation my practice could take was an investigation of what it means to represent and furthermore why an artist cannot represent a nation – placed within a completely specific situation – taking into account only the country I was representing. I subsequently decided to engage in the project various attempts at national representations within the same country through time and various fields (from entomology, politics, art and architecture). The current project I am working on, on the other hand, is taking the queries into national and cultural identity further geographically and is including a study of style and rhetoric across the 20th century European political landscape.

6. The actors are highly-stylised and there is a strong element of drama – why is that?

My practice always plays with ideas of systems and the works often manifest themselves utilising elements of the system I am investigating with the concurrent project. The works mentioned play the game of the system in the way of usage of a specific cinematic language, delivery as well as script collaborators that in “real life” help to construct the dramatisation of geo-political events. The purpose of this assemblage is also a kind of a tableau-vivant, as the videos are projected in loop within the exhibition space, they almost function as paintings carefully places within niches, designed “purposefully” for their presentation by some unknown authority.

8. The project For Our Economy and Culture includes a wallpaper featuring the "Hitler Beetle". What is the story behind this work?

My project for the Slovenian pavilion practically began with the story of the discovery of one of Slovenia’s endemic species, Anophthalmus hitleri, a cave beetle, which has recently joined the endangered species list solely because of its name. Discovered in 1933 and named by an admirer of Hitler in 1937, this blind beetle marks an unerasable ideological moment since, according to the rules of Linnaean taxonomy, animal and plant names cannot be changed.

In 2006, National Geographic Magazine published an article on the insect (in its specific overtly-dramatised tone) and soon after collectors of Nazi memorabilia began to hunt the hitleri down, resulting in this small blind creature coming close to extinction. I worked with over 40 international entomologists and scientific illustrators, including associates of The Natural Museum in London, the US Department of Agriculture, the Zoological Museum at Tel Aviv University to produce illustrations of the hitleri beetle – the collection of which features as the wallpaper that also will be covering the walls of the City Gallery Wellington.

The project, For Our Economy and Culture, considered this beetle a “failed” national icon as its name prohibits (for obvious reasons) it being ever placed on the pedestal of national representation. Cave animals are one of the specifics of Slovenia (the first ever cave beetle was discovered in Slovenia out of all places in the late 1800s) and as it is usual with national branding – representatives of endemic and indigenous flora and fauna are the ones that feature on items such as coins, banknotes, stamps, passports etc. As such, of course these symbols are all constructs, but it is precisely the question of when these constructs have a genuine effect on national identity, and if so, is it a positive or a negative one? Within the current state of affairs with upheavals of nationalism I believe it is a crucial question also.

Jasmina Cibic Fruits of our Land wallpaper 2013

9. Is the ‘Hilter Beetle’ widely acknowledged in Slovenian culture? 

The beetle was since its discovery only once featured on a stamp (a series of endemic animals) during Yugoslavia’s era, and even then its Latin name did not accompany the illustration (in contrary to the other animals featured within the series).

10. What is the contemporary art scene like in Slovenia?

Slovenia is presenting amazing new artists and curators, who will hopefully give rise to better structures of a more solid art system. I consider myself lucky to have been able to work with some of the most amazing art institutions and curators in Slovenia: Vladimir Vidmar from Škuc Gallery, Tevž Logar who curated the Slovenian Pavilion in Venice in 2013 and Simona Vidmar from UGM Maribor. The current project, Spielraum, I am working on at the moment will be also presented in Slovenia in its entirety next year – something I hold extremely important for its discussion and critical assessment.

Olivia Lacey, Publicist

Jasmina Cibic  Framing the Space 2013, single channel video

Jasmina Cibic Fruits of Our Land I 2013