PRINT February 2018


Irena Haiduk’s Nine Hour Delay: Introduction Poster, 2012, an advertisement for the Borosana shoe.

A GROUP OF SIRENS glided silently around Kassel during the run of Documenta 14 last year. These were women balancing books on their heads in the style of the classic finishing-school posture exercise, cast by Irena Haiduk to form an “Army of Beautiful Women” for the performance Spinal Discipline, 2017, a component of the artist’s enigmatic contribution to the quinquennial exhibition. During the summer, this perambulatory team of female-inclined people wore a light, cap-sleeved garment called the ABW Pattern #3 Dress in a variety of shades. During the autumn months, when I visited, they wore the long-sleeved, somberly black ABW Pattern #2 Dress, what the artist calls a “dress designed for strolling.” At all times, they wore black lace-up heels with open toes called the Borosana shoe. Trained by the artist to evoke the semidivine status of the Siren, the women stared ahead, appearing to move with undefined yet synchronized purpose, thus assuming an unnerving gravitas. I witnessed one rubbernecker swerve on a bike. A handful of men and boys swaggered, approached, and ultimately faltered for the right catcall with which to disarm them.

Irena Haiduk, Spinal Discipline, 2017. Performance view, Kassel, September 9, 2017. From Documenta 14. Photo: Gareth Tynan.

Arms are, indeed, an important context for the work. Haiduk made her Documenta project under the guise of Yugoexport, a mysterious entity established in 2015 that she describes as a “blind, non-aligned, oral corporation.” Yugoexport is designed to be a copy or avatar of Jugoexport, the national export business of the former Yugoslavia, which manufactured apparel and weaponry before folding in 2003. Haiduk’s corporate alter ego relates to her own ongoing dissimulations about her biography: She will allow only that she was born in Belgrade, Serbia, in 1982, in time to experience the violent breakup of Yugoslavia. Like Jugoexport, Haiduk’s Yugoexportdeals in clothes and arms, yet it’s more accurate to say that the company revives and subtly weaponizes historical apparel connected to feminine labor.

The only option in a battle with the Western image is to play to lose.

The sidewalks of Kassel were at once a runway and a battleground for the Army of Beautiful Women. Each group departed from the Neue Neue Galerie, where Haiduk also presented the major installation Seductive Exacting Realism, 2015–, composed of three discrete spaces. (A version of this work debuted in 2015, appearing concurrently at the Renaissance Society, Chicago, and at the Istanbul Biennial.) In a “Transactional Area” that brought to mind a high-end concept store, visitors could purchase Yugoexport apparel and accessories such as dresses, shoes, and enamel pins featuring the company’s logo, though the majority of products could only be discovered through conversation with the store workers. Each item confers its material history on the wearer: the ABW Pattern #2 Dress, for example, is based on the first Italian dress created to liberate women from the corset. The aforementioned Borosana shoe, meanwhile—originally developed in the 1960s by an orthopedic surgeon together with the female workers in a factory in Vukovar, in present-day Croatia—was the mandatory footwear for women working in Yugoslavia’s public sector. Yugoexport’s variations on these shoes, sold under the rubric of the project Nine Hour Delay, 2012–58, preserve this legacy in the form of a contract: Everyone who purchases a pair must sign a document stating that they will only wear the shoes when working (all staff for Documenta 14 were offered a pair). In our post-industrial age, this presents something of a quandary: For many, it may be hard to establish the times of day one is truly not working. And so the question “Am I working?” effects a significant perceptual shift. It offers entry into a different era of industrial labor—on and off the clock—one that is primarily experienced, for the wearer, through the soles of the feet and in the spine.

Irena Haiduk, Spinal Discipline, 2017. Performance view, Kassel, June 2017. From Documenta 14. Photo: Anna Shteynshleyger.

The Transactional Area also contained two marble tablets, engraved with the incorporation documents of Yugoexport in Serbian and English, respectively. (Photography was banned in the installation. Those who wanted a copy of this text could purchase paper rubbings of the tablets.) The documents—which include a declaration of founding principles and the company’s list of articles—amount to an electrifying essay and call to arms.They are structured according to a central concern: “How to surround yourself with things in the right way.” For Haiduk, this is a matter of dismantling hierarchies and approaching history-making through alternative means. By the artist’s reckoning, “Any culture that cannot re-create itself visually through the dominant image channels will be exterminated. This includes all cultures that pronounce their presence through orality.”

Irena Haiduk, Seductive Exacting Realism, 2015–. Performance view, Neue Neue Gallery (Neue Hauptpost), Kassel, June 9, 2017. From Documenta 14. Photo: Fabian Fröhlich.

The only option in a battle with the Western image, then, is to play to lose, outside the realm of the visual. In darkness, history becomes a contact sport played with the remaining senses of sound, taste, smell, and touch. This, says Haiduk, yields “an equivalence, a loyalty, and a familial solidarity between people and things.” In an enactment of such an alternative oral culture, every Friday at dusk in Athens a Siren performed Oration of Yugoexport Articles of In-Corporation, 2017–, reading these documents aloud near a storefront in the Stoa tou Vivliou (Arcade of Books).

Irena Haiduk’s Yugoexport storefront, Stoa tou Vivliou (Arcade of Books), Pesmazoglou 5, Athens, 2017. From Documenta 14. Photo: Yiannis Hadjiaslanis.

For Haiduk, the Sirens are agents of waiting, possessing a song that makes the present moment stretch into forever. In Kassel, these figures also resided in a dimly lit “Waiting Room,” adjacent to the Transactional Area. They sat in stillness, or walked up and down an onyx-black catwalk with books on their heads, announcing the performance schedule in sonorous, authoritative tones. Three times an hour, the twinkling sound of the iPhone “Chimes” alarm rang throughout the entire building, counting down the minutes until the start of an audio performance. To begin this component of the show, Sirens would lead the waiting audience into a pitch-dark “Blind Room,” stating that it would be impossible for them to leave until the twenty-eight-minute audio program was completed. Then two icy, robotic female voices—provided by Lin Qian, the voice of Siri for Apple’s Asian market, and Jennifer Estlin, an actress mimicking the voice of Rachael in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982)—could be heard reenacting a 2015 conversation between Haiduk and activist Srd¯a Popovi´c. In 1998, Popovi´c led the group Otpor! (Resistance!), which helped to unseat Slobodan Milošević; now Popovi´c runs the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS), a professional consultancy for revolution that has been employed by activists in Ukraine and amid the Arab Spring. In the course of the conversation, the interlocutors reveal that CANVAS has collaborated with Stratfor, an Austin-based think tank, intelligence provider, and forecaster for major American corporate interests, the point being that corporate interests might also be the silent clients of consultancies such as CANVAS, keen to encourage potential market expansion. When Haiduk reveals that her project is funded by a Stratfor client, the voices switch roles. Waiting again arises as a theme. The postrevolutionary condition must anticipate a change that will never fully arrive, just as the market continually thwarts our hopes for art’s political utility. The audience is returned to the Waiting Room.

Irena Haiduk, Oration of Yugoexport Articles of In-Corporation, 2017–. Performance view, Stoa tou Vivliou (Arcade of Books), Pesmazoglou 5, Athens, April 28, 2017. From Documenta 14. Photo: Erika Yonezawa.

In some respects, Haiduk’s work deals with well-trodden territory: It is a form of corporate realism that conjures businesses without biographies and incorporated selves, suggests equivalences between humans and commodities, and demonstrates the symbiotic relationship between markets and political upheaval. Her repeated use of a Serbian phrase meaning “Hope is the greatest whore” is a fine example of her unsentimental approach—hope as an immobilizing trap. What separates Haiduk from her peers, however, is her unusual cocktail of malevolence and delight, of which the Siren is an apt mascot. In its vague obscurity, and deadly darkness, Haiduk’s work is not meant to be helpful. It is not meant to travel quickly through light-speed channels. On the contrary, it is meant to tempt sailors to dash themselves against the rocks.

Laura McLean-Ferris is a writer and Curator at the Swiss Institute, New York.