City Gallery

‘Jasmina Cibic: Q and A’, blog.

Jasmina Cibic was born in Ljubljana, Slovenia, but studied in Italy and England, and is now based in London. Her work explores questions of cultural and national identity. She represented her homeland at the 2013 Venice Biennale. Our current show, Demented Architecture, includes work from her Venice project. Her videos are presented in spaces decorated with her wallpaper featuring representations of Anophthalmus hitleri—the Hitler Beetle.

Olivia Lacey: Tell us about your life and influences.

Jasmina Cibic: Since the beginning of my studies, I’ve been intrigued by Slovenia’s place in the world. In the last 100 years, Slovenia has been in seven different nation-state formations. (My great-grandmother was born in Austro-Hungary and died in the European Union.) This leaves a mark on the place, its people, and their art. If you take a map of Europe and fold it repeatedly, 80% of the time the first hole that develops is where Slovenia lies. After the collapse of Yugoslavia, contemporary art within its territories naturally turned towards dealing with the trauma of the war, the ethnic cleansing, and the West’s relationship to it all. But, with a new generation of artists, this is giving way to constructive new tendencies, problematising specific national exoticisms. This is where my interest has always been. How can small nations overcome being politically exotic? How can art and architecture resist mechanisms of soft power?

Why live in London? 

I chose London for the MFA at Goldsmiths College. Goldsmiths is renowned for questioning the thing in art I have the most problem with: geopolitical exoticism. Slovenia, unfortunately, does not have a well-developed art system, so many artists work 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 is the amazing artists I have got to know over the years.

What’s the background to your works in Demented Architecture: Fruits of our Land and Framing the Space?

The videos were part of my Venice project, For Our Economy and Culture. Every element was produced in Slovenia, by Slovenian artists, craftspeople, actors, factories, and so on. These included the drawings of the endemic Hitleri beetle that I reproduced in the wallpaper and various still lifes drawn from the walls of Slovenian politicians in office at the time. During the opening, Slovenian performers installed the still lifes over the hitleri-beetle wallpaper. The project questioned the nature of national representation and ideology, and art and architecture’s place within it. The videos were shot in two buildings representing ultimate state power: the Slovenian Parliament and Vila Bled, the summer residence of former Yugoslavian president Tito. There, he entertained kings and queens, dictators, presidents, diplomats, and film stars.

The Fruits of Our Land script is a word-for-word translation of a 1953 parliamentary debate to decide which Slovenian artist should decorate the newly built People’s Assembly in the postwar Socialist Federal Republic of Slovenia. The viewer can follow the heated discussion in the Committee for the Review of Artistic Works and Sculptures. That committee still operates today (under a different name). When I applied for Venice, they had a similar debate about my work. Some participants had the same family names as those in 1953.

Framing the Space was filmed in Vila Bled on the day Slovenia reclaimed the building (it had been used as a hotel after Tito’s death in 1980). It follows the route the Prime Minister took during the protocol ‘reclaim’ of the building. There’s dialogue between a journalist and Vinko Glanz, the architect of both the Slovenian Parliament and Vila Bled. The video’s dialogue was collaged together from Glanz’s papers, which were found in a shopping trolley in a garage. Glanz has been a neglected figure. Practically nothing was written about him for over fifty years, until the recent PhD by Nika Grabar, who was a vital part of my project. He was not a star modernist architect. He was the official architect whose role was to translate the architectures of the old regime for the new state. There’s a famous anecdote. After Tito said to him: ‘All other presidents have flat roofs’, he transformed the Hungarian hunting castle, which Vila Bled once was, into a flat-roofed, modernist-looking building ‘fit’ for the president of a new ‘forward-looking nation’.

Are you interested in Slovenia specifically or is your interest in national identity wider?

My work is site and context specific. In Venice, I investigated what it means to represent a nation, and, further, why an artist cannot do so. I placed this within a completely specific situation, taking into account only the country I was representing. I explored various attempts at national representation in the same country through time and in different fields (entomology, politics, art, and architecture). My current project takes the inquiry into national and cultural identity further geographically. It addresses style and rhetoric across the twentieth-century European political landscape.

Your actors perfomances are stylised and there’s a strong element of drama. 

I investigate systems using elements of those systems. The Venice work plays the game of the system, in using of a specific cinematic language and delivery. The project was a kind of a tableau-vivant. As the videos are projected in loop within the exhibition space, they almost function as paintings placed within niches ‘purposefully’ designed for their presentation by some unknown authority.

The Venice project includes wallpaper featuring the Hitler Beetle. What’s the story behind this work?

The project began with the story of the discovery of one of Slovenia’s endemic species, a cave beetle, Anophthalmus hitleri. 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. After National Geographic published an article on the insect in 2006, collectors of Nazi memorabilia began to hunt them down, resulting in this small blind creature joining the endangered-species list. I worked with over forty international entomologists and scientific illustrators, including associates of the Natural Museum in London, the US Department of Agriculture, and the Zoological Museum at Tel Aviv University, to produce illustrations of the beetle. They feature in the wallpaper in Venice, which will also be covering the walls of the City Gallery.

My Venice project addressed this beetle as a ‘failed’ national icon, as its name prohibits it ever being placed on the pedestal of national representation. Cave animals are one of Slovenia’s distinguishing features (the first cave beetle was discovered in Slovenia in the late 1800s). In national branding, representatives of endemic and indigenous flora and fauna often feature on coins, banknotes, stamps, and passports. These symbols are all constructs. But do 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, this is a crucial question.

Is the Hitler Beetle acknowledged in Slovenia? 

It once featured on a stamp, in a series of endemic animals, during the Yugoslavia era. Even then its Latin name did not accompany the illustration (unlike the other featured animals).

What’s the Slovenian contemporary-art scene like?

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. My current project, Spielraum: The Nation Loves It, will be also presented in its entirety in Slovenia next year, which is important for its discussion and critical assessment.

Robert Leonard, ‘Blockheads’, blog.

Olafur Eliasson’s The Cubic Structural Evolution Project (2004) must be one of the most popular participatory works ever. Since being acquired by Brisbane’s Queensland Art Gallery in 2005, it has been shown all around Australia. Now it’s touring New Zealand. It’s been at Dunedin Public Art Gallery and Auckland Art Gallery, and it’s currently at City Gallery Wellington. Eliasson’s Project is catnip for punters and catnip for the museums who want to pull them. Who can say no?

The Project is a long table covered with zillions of Lego blocks. Visitors are invited to participate, by making what they will from the blocks. As they do, forms emerge from the rubble and collapse back into it. No one tells participants to create architectural forms, but almost everyone does. Someone replicates Chartres Cathedral, others build skyscrapers or Jetsons-inspired sci-fi minarets. The Project is a utopian nowhere, but every building is ‘destination’ architecture. Starchitect gimmickry abounds.

Sometimes participants start from scratch, sometimes they cannibalise what went before. As more blocks are used, participants tear down existing structures to build their own (or just for the hell of it). A few may collaborate, but typically it’s every man for himself. Participants show off, trying to build the tallest, biggest, stupidist, or most distinctive signature thing. We all become Howard Roark.

The Project looks like a city skyline in a constant state of evolution, emergence, and becoming. It’s amazing, but also a mess. We get skyscrapers, but no streetscape, no town planning. It’s unregulated, cancerous, a developer’s paradise, like Sao Paulo or the Gold Coast. There’s something psychologically or culturally revealing about what participants build and how they build it—aspirational penile skyscrapers abound. On the other hand, there’s also a sense of inevitability, as similar structures are endlessly reinvented. (The Project is as much about blocks expressing themselves through people as about people expressing themselves through blocks.)

The Project’s popularity has also been its curse. On the one hand, it is routinely framed as a happy-clappy kids activity, forgetting the art part. On the other, participants also get caught in the thrall of their own artistry and forget it is someone else’s artwork. Content with a spike in visitation, museums routinely collude in the confusion, as long as punters keep coming back. In one place, the Project was so popular that they added a sign telling parents that brats must take turns—twenty-minutes max!

That rather missed the point, because the Project is not about fair, it’s about anarchy. It’s less about the Lego than the people playing with it. If someone wants to demolish everyone else’s structures—that’s fine. If someone wants to be there all month and create their new Berlin by hogging all the blocks—that’s fine. If someone doesn’t get a go at all and starts crying—tough titties. The Project is about human interaction, good, bad, and ugly. It’s about competing desires and world views and how they play out. It’s about ‘the city’.

So, while the Project is fun for all ages, it also has a dark, septic side. It may be spruiked as a sharing group activity, but it demonstrates how venal and solipsistic we all are. It may be hailed as a showcase for everyday creativity, yet it finds everyone endlessly ploughing the same mental ruts. That’s why I’m rather pleased by how we are currently presenting the Project at City Gallery. In his show Demented Architecture, curator Aaron Lister has played the spoil sport, by surrounding the Eliasson with other works that riff on architectures of doom and on architects as cranks, meglomaniacs, and fascists—lest we forget. In doing so, he has restored a political context—and a bitter aftertaste—to this wonderful, but too-much-beloved work, where the patients build the asylum.

Aaron Lister, ‘High Times’, blog.

Zbiginew Libera’s Lego Concentration Camp Set has left Demented Architecture, destined for another exhibition, in Poland. As with the urban cityscape, nothing remains vacant for long, and a new structure has already risen up to take its place. Kirsty Lillico has added High Rise (2015), a third soft sculpture, to the exhibition. Made of carpet and from the floor plans of modernist buildings, Lillico’s sculptures play with the form, function, and experience of architecture. I wonder whether architect James Beard recognises himself in the slumping sculpture modelled on the floor plan of an apartment from his Hamilton Court building. Or even if Lillico, the apartment’s current occupant, sees the sculpture primarily in terms of the place where she lives or as a new strand of her practice. After the exhibition, would it be too weird to hang the sculpture on the wall of the apartment, putting a new spin on that ever-present quest for work/life balance?

This new sculpture is like and unlike Lillico’s other sculptures in the exhibition. Firstly, the materials have changed. With the support of Sallee—maker of custom carpets—Lillico has used new rather than recycled carpet. Part of the impact of this shift is formal. New carpet holds its shape and falls differently than its worn, secondhand counterparts. Its colour and surface are rich and lustrous, rather than faded and threadbare. The presentation, too, is different. This sculpture does not cling to the wall but drops from the ceiling. The relationship which it poses to the architecture that supports it and the body of the viewer that stands in front of (and, now, behind it) has fundamentally shifted. It somehow becomes, at once, more and less sculptural, signaling that something different is at play.

This sculpture is less bound to the experiences of the real world that the earlier iterations carry through every stain and tear. It belongs elsewhere. Rather than reuse floor plans from existing buildings, Lillico here turned to fictional architecture—specifically Robert Laing’s apartment on the twenty-seventh floor of the forty-storey, 1000-suite tower block from J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel High Rise. A master of dystopian architectural spaces, Ballard, like Lillico, is less interested in architecture itself than in the psychological power buildings exert over their inhabitants. It’s not surprising that both have turned to Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation. It hovers within or behind Ballard’s monstrous structure, which provides the floorplan for Lillico’s third sculpture.

When working off real buildings, Lillico starts by tracing and cutting pre-existing floor plans into her material. With High Rise she had to work differently, visualising the building from Ballard’s text. She had to glean the shape of the apartment from the descriptions and movements of the novel’s characters. Ballard doesn’t always help here. He is less interested in describing architecture than using it symbolically to represent the inner state of his characters. A sentence in the first chapter provided the strongest guide: ‘The apartment had been expensive, the studio living-room and single bedroom, kitchen and bathroom dovetailed into each other to minimise space and eliminate internal corridors.’

The question of how these spaces might dovetail proved particularly vexing. In figuring this out, Lillico shared the drawings she had made with architect Michael O’Brien who interpreted Ballard’s description slightly differently. He suggested: ‘The thing about your plan that I have a slight issue with is the size and the kitchen. Studios usually are a one or two room apartment. In a one room apartment the bed, living, dining and kitchen are all in one space with a small bathroom off to one side. In a two room studio, you would have the bedroom and bathroom as one space and kitchen/dining/living as another space. I think Robert’s apartment would be the latter. He mentions that it had been expensive, which would imply a level of spaciousness. A clue to the layout of the kitchen in the text says ‘As he stood amongst the garbage sacks in the kitchen, trying to coax a few drops of water from the tap, he peered over his shoulder at the dull fog that stretched like a curtain across the sitting-room.’ This implies he can see the sitting (living) room from his kitchen. I suspect that the plan would be more squarish than rectangular, with the bathroom in the top left with bedroom in bottom left. The kitchen/dining/ living would be to the right side of the plan.’

This dialogue between an artist and an architect over the appearance and dimensions of a fictional architectural space gets to the heart of this exhibition, which plays on and hams up the relationship between these disciplines.  A recent talk at City Gallery Wellington dwelled on another of these productive working relationships—embodied in the house/painting Humbug. Painter Peter Adsett and architect Sam Kebbell worked together and challenged each other through this project that collapses the experience of painting and architecture. It is now the place where Adsett lives and paints.

Lillico’s late injection of High Rise into Demented Architecture has shifted the readings of an exhibition that had settled. Suddenly, everything reads differently, feels a touch more sinister, and other presences come to the fore. Michael O’Brien, for example, has provided more than just an architectural ear to Lillico. His presence can be found in a few works in this exhibition. O’Brien is Lillico’s neighbour, also living in the Hamilton Court apartment building. The floorplan in Lillico’s original sculpture is from her own apartment, yet it also provides an echo of O’Brien’s. It turns out that, as an architecture student, he also assisted Russian artists Brodsky and Utkin with the construction of their ill-fated public sculpture in Civic Square in 1992, also documented in the exhibition.

In truth, Ballard was never far from the conception of Demented Architecture. The architect Anthony Royal in Ballard’s novel provides the exemplar for the ‘demented architect’ trope that runs through the entire exhibition. According to who you read, Royal is based either on Le Corbusier or British Brutalist architect Erno Goldfinger (who, in turn, became parodied as a Bond villian). Like Goldfinger with his Balfron Tower, Royal lives in a palatial penthouse apartment as the super ego of the building—overseeing his vast social experiment. While the style of Henry Coombes’s film I Am the Architect, which anchors Demented Architecture, is often called Lynchian, his portrayal of the architect is certainly Ballardian—especially when overlaid with the Oedipal implications where the artist-son makes a film at least obliquely about his architect-father.

English Director Ben Wheatley has taken on the task of adapting Ballard’s novel for the screen (yet to be released in New Zealand). Like Lillico, Wheatley must have puzzled (differently) over how to represent the interior spaces of Ballard’s dystopian apartment block, which provides far more than a simple backdrop to the story. His solution is to set the film within the social and architectural context of the 1970s—when the novel was written, if not explicitly set. This was a period dominated, in the UK at least, by the upsurge and subsequent resistance to brutalist council estates. Among the early responses to the film and its representation of architecture, Architectural theorist Owen Hatherley has cautioned against understanding this apartment block through brutalism. He recently tweeted: ‘Not seen the film and it may be great but anyone who thinks High-Rise is set in a council block hasn’t read it’. That was quickly followed by ‘It is not Balfron Tower, it is the Barbican. Thank you.’ (Hatherley presented a lecture at City Gallery Wellington on the art and architecture of the Moscow Underground in association with Demented Architecture.)

In attempting to make connections between the work in Demented Architecture and Ballard’s High Rise as introduced by Lillico, one might think that the connection to the exhibition’s primary medium of Lego would prove the most resistant.  Enter the mysterious Lego Loki, who has undertaken his own project to make a scene-by-scene adaptation of High Rise in Lego. Like Lillico and Wheatley, he has had to imagine and draw these architectural spaces in order to remake them in his medium, with special attention paid to Laing’s apartment.

And, to return to the exhibition, what else is Olafur Eliasson’s The Cubic Structural Evolution Project but an attempt to unleash the tribal class warfare that takes place in or through architecture in the pages of High Rise? Is Eliasson as artist playing the role of the demented architect who sets this action in place? Or, perhaps, he is more like Ballard—setting the scene in motion and willing his work’s participants to, consciously or not, play the role of Anthony Royal.