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PRINT February 2018

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Jasmina Cibic’s NADA trilogy

Jasmina Cibic, NADA: Act II, 2017, HD video, color, sound, 13 minutes 1 second. Production still.

IN HIS LEGENDARY German pavilion for the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe kept his spaces bare, pairing prototypes of the celebrated Barcelona chair and matching stool he designed with Lilly Reich with one other object: Der Morgen, Georg Kolbe’s 1925 sculpture of the goddess of dawn, which was reverently stationed on a small pedestal in one of the two reflecting pools flanking the building. This juxtaposition of high-modernist design and the classical female nude would become a recurring motif within Mies’s interiors, with coquettish statuettes from colleagues such as Wilhelm Lehmbruck and Aristide Maillol tucked into the boudoirs of many of the homes he designed. In the context of a world’s fair, however, the representation of a woman’s body carried a specific connotation as an allegory for Mother Nation. A mainstay of nineteenth-century nationalist painting, the allegory proved curiously resilient throughout the modernist era, particularly in international exhibitions. Indeed, Dragiša Brašovan’s ultramodern star-shaped pavilion for the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (renamed Yugoslavia later the same year), which neighbored the German pavilion in Barcelona, was crowned with a statue of a stalwart woman holding a basket of fruit to her bare breasts, symbolizing abundance and fertility. If daring architectural feats performed progressiveness, projecting how the country envisioned itself going boldly into the future, depictions of the idealized female form conjured an immediately accessible link to history while remaining comfortably outside a set temporality. And yet, within the ideological syntax of the pavilion, both modes of representation were tasked with conveying the same abstract ambitions of soft power and statecraft.

Intrigued by the unlikely coexistence of modernist architecture and classical allegory, Ljubljana-born, London-based artist Jasmina Cibic made the national pavilion the subject of her three-part suite NADA, which she launched in early 2016 and is on view this month at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gates-head, UK. The trilogy takes its name from the story of Croatian architect Vjenceslav Richter’s design for the Yugoslav pavilion for Expo ’58 in Brussels. This was to be the first world’s fair to take place during the Cold War, with its attendant amplification of the divisions between East and West. Yet Yugoslavia was neither. A freshly formalized republic, having broken with Soviet influence and socialist realism only a decade before, the country positioned itself as a natural inheritor of the modernist legacy of an ardently transnational avant-garde.

Heavily influenced by Mies, Richter was one of the initiators of Exat 51 (Experimental Atelier 51), a Zagreb-based design collective inspired by the Bauhaus and other prewar avant-gardes.Alongside like-minded contemporaries such as André Bloc’s Groupe Espace and the Milan-based Movimento Arte Concreta, Richter’s group sought a total synthesis of art forms, reviving Constructivist ambitions to inject art into public life. In their progressive posturing, Richter’s first sketches for the Brussels pavilion reflected the architect’s own quixotic interest in gravity-defying structures, with nuances borrowed from avant-garde projects designed decades earlier: The proposal centered on a cone-shaped mast soaring over two hundred feet into the air. Cables attached to the tip of this mast would be used to suspend a five-story asymmetrical structure, which would hover over ground-level gardens and reflecting pools. This pavilion would have no main entrance or dominant orientation, with, as its designer proudly declared in his proposal, its “foundations in the air”—a fitting emblem for an unanchored new country, free to claim its inheritance of the revolutionary experiments of the 1920s.

Jasmina Cibic, NADA: Act I, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 10 minutes 56 seconds. Production still.

Ballooning budgets and increasing engineering concerns eventually forced Richter to reconcile himself to more traditional steel-column foundations, which literally grounded his concept. As a memorial to his missing mast, the architect selected a spot beside the pavilion and installed a freestanding column, over one hundred feet tall, which was fashioned from six arched steel rods, undulating in a helical ascent. He christened the object Nada, after his wife and muse (whose name, incidentally, means “hope” in Croatian).

We see Cibic looking beyond architecture’s obvious representational associations to unlock a latent performative potential.

First screened in June 2016 in the villa the Richters once shared in Zagreb, Cibic’s eleven-minute single-channel HD video NADA: Act I features a streamlined model of the architect’s initial proposal for the Yugoslav pavilion. Opening with a slow pan up the model’s cylindrical metal axis, the camera pauses on a double ring of perforations crowning its tip. A pair of human hands threads individual wires through each set of holes, securing their opposite ends to the row of metal pins protruding from the lower base. The fingers then pluck each string in turn, twirling the knobs to adjust the pitch. Almost in real time, we see Cibic making a profound discovery about the political dimensions of architecture, looking beyond its obvious representational associations to unlock a latent performative potential. A national pavilion is, after all, conceived as an ideological instrument—why not play it?

Once the object has been “tuned,” the musician embarks on a suite from Béla Bartók’s 1926 pantomime ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin. The tale of a prostitute made to dance in a window and the lonely men she lures in for her pimps to rob, the piece was met with outrage when it premiered in Cologne. The ballet’s scandalous history (and, for that matter, its composer’s Hungarian nationality) notwithstanding, a new production of the performance—featuring Dušan Ristić's radiantly modernist set—was included in the program for the 1958 Yugoslav pavilion’s Nation Day.

Seizing on this anomaly, Cibic repurposed The Miraculous Mandarin as the central metaphor for her trilogy, recasting the prostitute as the allegorical Mother Nation, the pimps as the bureaucrats who benefit from her representation, and the hapless victims as the artists—or, in this instance, architects—tasked with loving the one while ultimately servicing the others. The three films stage aspects of Bartók’s ballet within three different structures, each a case study for the ways in which public and private interests find themselves in a similar tangle of limbs: Richter’s Yugoslav pavilion; Arne Jacobsen and Erik Møller’s city hall for Aarhus, Denmark; and Mies’s Haus Lange and Haus Esters in Krefeld, Germany.

Just as Richter cherry-picked elements of such prior movements as Bauhaus, De Stijl, and Constructivism in his designs, Cibic builds her films as acts of ventriloquism, slipping into the vernacular of a decades-old stylistic language, then repopulating it with a mélange of contemporary references. Her conceptual collages rarely show their seams, collapsing varying narratives of modernism into a single, fluid conversation, organized around such motifs as censorship, veiling (or, perhaps in this particular context, curtaining), and the representation of the female body. In her handling, modernist forms no longer carry the same propagandist charge of progressivism, nor are they purely historical, outmoded relics of a long-failed utopian dream. If anything, Cibic reveals the language of modernism to be as vibrant, malleable, accessible, and dynamic as the allegory of Mother Nation.

Jasmina Cibic, NADA: Act III—The Exhibition, 2017, HD video, color, sound, 17 minutes 14 seconds. Production still.

Filmed in early 2017, NADA: Act II is set in the sumptuous interiors of the Aarhus City Hall. A masterpiece of Scandinavian modernism, the building was designed by Jacobsen and Møller in 1937 but was completed in 1941, when Denmark was under German occupation. A parquet panopticon, the building redirects the surveillance mechanism of prisons onto the worker bees of the bureaucracy, with balustrades of beechwood and brass lining the interior corridors of a four-story atrium, allowing each office a view of the others. Against this backdrop, Cibic restaged The Miraculous Mandarin, using five performers and choreography extrapolated from existing archival photographs with help from choreographer Lea Anderson, who filled gaps in movement with traditional poses lifted from other allegorical depictions of Mother Nation. Cibic replaced the props most typically found in these depictions—banners or swords in times of war, laurels or harvest baskets in times of peace—with modernist forms she extracted from Ristić’s set, merging modes of abstraction and figuration.

If NADA: Act I introduced the ideological elision between pavilion architecture and the ballet, and NADA: Act II established the choreography and scenography, then NADA: Act III—The Exhibition, 2017, uses the ballet’s three-part structure to explore the politics of exhibition and display, as conveyed through the motivations of its main players. The single-channel HD video is structured as a seventeen-minute debate among three archetypes—the Artist; the Curator; and Germania, the Nation—filmed within the pristine interiors of Haus Lange and Haus Esters. Now part of Krefeld’s Kunstmuseen, these two private houses were commissioned by Hermann Lange and Josef Esters, two of the board members of Verseidag, a conglomerate of Krefeld’s luxury-silk manufacturers. The villas were completed by 1930, respectively, concurrent with the German pavilion for the 1929 Barcelona Expo (the commission for which, it has recently been alleged, was influenced by Lange). The private houses share the pavilion’s airy blend of glass walls and flexible interior arrangements—though they are considerably less open than the architect would have preferred, with street-facing brick facades added only at the insistence of his privacy-seeking clients.

Cibic encourages her actresses to fully inhabit these spaces, fitting their bodies into the architecture’s ready-made frames. Using the first spoken words of the trilogy, the three archetypes recite quotes from historical debates among politicians, patrons, and architects regarding Germany’s pavilions for world’s fairs in 1929, 1937, and 1958. The film riffs on the contradiction of these “public” debates held behind closed doors by reactivating their arguments within a literal glass house. The three statuesque actresses offer figurative vessels for abstract ideals, even as the script they rehearse delves—not without humor—into the crass realities of national representation. Germania, for instance, drifts between cynicism and practicality, caring little for the public she claims to represent and favoring the elites (among them, Lange himself), who will ultimately pick up the tab for “national” culture. When the Artist angrily counters that “no one who understands the modern age would have the crazy idea of driving the spectator away from public life,” Germania dismisses her protest, assuring the Curator: “It’s not because we don’t respect them, but because we respect them too much.”

Over the course of the conversation, the three characters vacillate between two distinct bodies of work vying to fill the pavilion: first, the abstract forms derived from Ristić’s scenography, and second, a series of statuettes of the “generic” female nude, produced by combining a Lehmbruck figurine from Haus Lange with a smaller model of Kolbe’s Der Morgen. When the Curator proposes the simplest of solutions—that of aligning with neither one nor the other, and leaving the walls empty—the other women grudgingly concede. The threesome then stroll from the interior to the open grounds of Haus Lange, where a group of plein air painters—all male—dutifully render a trio of nude female models, sprawled atop the Richard Serras in the museum’s sculpture garden. The coupling of modernism and the female body remains intact, though the cracks in its foundation are starting to show. Therein lies the hope.

Kate Sutton is a writer based in Zagreb, Croatia.