Jasmina Cibic

The hard lessons of Europe’s soft power

Jasmina Cibic, The Gift, 2021,4K three-channel video, color, sound, 23 minutes 43 seconds.

Through her films, images, installations, and objects, Jasmina Cibic pulls back the curtain on hegemonic powers, exposing the formulations and ideologies that create and maintain political authority. Cibic’s latest exhibition, “Most Favoured Nation,” on view from March 5 until June 12 at the Museum der Moderne Salzburg, features, among other recent work, a major new installation for which the artist surveys the crumbling state of Europe.

IN 1920, in the wake of the First World War, the city of Salzburg resolved to return humanity to a Europe that had been completely desecrated: socially, economically, and politically. The founding of the Salzburg Festival effectively proposed high culture as an antidote to human suffering. As my work explores how art and culture are used as tools of political and national power, this felt like a particularly resonant point of entry for my exhibition at the city’s Museum der Moderne. It was important to me that the show focus on the current crises of Europe, as well as the perpetual hijacking of culture by ideology.

The first thing you see when you enter the exhibition is Most Favoured Nation, 2022: a sculpture made of debris sourced from a marble factory in the Salzburg hills. It’s scented with a perfume I created together with the city’s botanical university and French perfumers using the essences of specially cultivated roses that have been named after founding fathers of the European project: Sandro Pertini, Helmut Kohl, Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle . . . Their sweet scents merge with the hard notes of concrete and wet earth, translating the concept of vanitas into an aroma.

As we were installing this work, the war in Ukraine was just breaking out. I remember speaking with the curator, Marijana Schneider, about how we should respond. Obviously, we were all glued to the news, but we were also watching how the art world was reacting, from the crowdfunded promotion and support of Ukrainian artists to the total isolation of Russian artists, regardless of their politics.

The art world can be so perverse. It can expect and even demand that artists use and abuse and, in a sense, become prostitutes of crisis. I come from former Yugoslavia, and we experienced this effect after the Balkan wars in the 1990s. What followed? Exhibitions targeting the region’s trauma like “Blood & Honey – Future’s in the Balkans,” curated by Harald Szeemann in 2003. Just before Slovenia entered the European Union, I went to study at Goldsmiths, famed for its geopolitical exotic pull as one of the “methods” of enacting the “otherness” the Western art system adores so much. That experience pushed me to resist becoming just a pawn in the various permutations of this kind of “cultural production.” Instead, I decided to try to up the game.

View of “Most Favoured Nation,” 2022. Museum der Moderne Salzburg. Photo: Rainer Iglar.

For the Slovenian pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale, I created an immersive installation that included wallpaper with images of an endemic Slovenian beetle. When an amateur entomologist first discovered it in 1937, he named it after Hitler, and since you can’t change scientific names, the name remains. I then borrowed the collection of paintings that hang behind the backs of politicians in the Slovenian Parliament and hung them against these Hitler bugs. The main point of the project was precisely this act of borrowing, which the parliament debated in a special session. This is perhaps a good example of the double game, in which art and culture attempt to enter into spaces of power that most of the time treat our sector as lubricants for cocktail receptions or brownie points for the soft power index.

When I was in the United Nations Library and Archive researching my short film The Gift, 2021, I found two sets of donations made to the League of Nations in the 1930s: flags for the League and musical compositions for its protocol events. None of these was ever activated because the leadership was so freaked out at the prospect of having a representative icon created by a German artist, or by a French artist, and so on. The scores were either hymns or marches, which makes sense: You need a hymn to announce a new nation-state and a march when that nation-state goes to war. Despite the League’s headquarters shutting its doors during World War II, composers continued to send gifts to this failed alliance, to a dead Palace of Nations. This seemed such a powerful metaphor, I felt it had to be activated.

I was working on my 2021 show at Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź when the curator Agnieszka Pindera introduced me to Barbara Kinga Majewska, an amazing artist and composer from Poland. We started going through the scores, searching for anomalies or anything that might bear particular resonance. We identified a composition that was very ambitious, intended for a big orchestra. Within its annotations, six lines remained empty, and, quite far into the composition, a very faint, handwritten melody appears. Now, these were donated scores; you wouldn’t send a gift that is half-baked, right? But this very simple, very fine melody had no notes, nor any indication of its intention. It was like a ghost voice.

It’s funny, all of the nation-building discourse of old colonial Europe is completely devoid of women (at least, on the record). Even in the Yugoslavian archives, when you had a woman present—no matter if she was a minister—you never have her name, just “a female voice from the background says.” We decided to claim this melody as our missing female voice.

Given that Salzburg is the international opera capital and has one of the most prestigious music schools in the world, it made perfect sense to collaborate with the female voices that will inhabit the future stages of Europe. Barbara created a composition for three sopranos based on our ghost voice, and I wrote lyrics drawing together phrases from the Most Favoured Nation clause—a principle conceived after World War II to replace the power-based policies of international trading rights. I was interested in this principle as a lens through which to observe historical case studies where culture was made to facilitate ideological revisions amid international conflicts. After all, we are again facing an ideologically heightened atmosphere, in which culture is, if not canceled, then heavily instrumentalized in the attempts to reinvent political narratives.