There is a vein of black humor every time the Slovenian artist Jasmina cibic is about to show its work in some European countries. “They’re firing so many museum directors,” she said with a brittle smile, “so we had this joke, that my show was going to be the last in this director’s career.”
Cibic highlights what happened in Hungary and Poland, where right-wing governments attacked the arts, sacked museum and theater directors, silenced writers and put pressure on galleries. Even in Britain, which is perhaps much less authoritarian but prone to populist nationalism, Cibic has encountered obstacles. After Brexit, she said, âI lost [some exhibitions] in English museums, and I was told they would reschedule according to local and national interests. She smiles. âWith the nature of my job, it couldn’t be more bizarre. “
Cibic is inspired by the European identity crises of the 20th century and the way in which culture can be “hijacked by ideology”. She has focused her recent work on the idea of ââ”cultural gifts” – such as a building, a piece of music or art – and what they mean for a regime’s power and ability to sustain identity. cultural and nationalism. Her film The Gift is one of the many works that helped her win this year’s award. Jarman Prize, the annual prize for artists working with the moving image.
Beautifully filmed, featuring music and dancing, and set in places that were themselves political gifts – Oscar Niemeyer’s building for the French Communist Party in Paris, the Palais des Nations building in Geneva and the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw, “donated” by Stalin – The Gift tells the story of a competition to create a singular work of art to “hold our nation together”, or as it says a character, to show “who we are and who we want to be”. An artist, an engineer and a diplomat each present their case in front of four judges, in a film which questions what art means for a country (“dynamism in art and culture creates dynamism in a nation”, as one judge says), what future generations do with such a cultural gift, and what âobligationsâ go with it. In an earlier work, the Nada film trilogy, Cibic explored iconic architecture and national identity, re-examining key moments in 20th century European history.
Cibic, who was born in Ljubljana in 1979 when she was part of the former Yugoslavia, has been studying the notion of ‘soft power’ and the way in which culture has been used for political ends since at least 2013, when she represented Slovenia at the Venice Biennale. âIt seemed that by then we were already feeling the new nationalism in Eastern Europe starting to bubble up. I only looked at the local specificities of the Slovenian icons, which ones succeeded and which ones failed. She has lined her pavilion with illustrations of what she calls “local Hitler insects” – beetles, native to Slovenia, named Hitler in the 1930s – and still lifes hanging in government buildings. from his country. âIt all had to do with how Slovenia chose, over time, to represent itself through culture. “
She has become, she says, more drawn to “identity crises in Europe, because that’s usually when culture is called in, to kind of try to fix something.” The screenplay for The Gift, as in some of his previous work, is made up of fragments of speeches and political debates – the result of years of international archival research by Cibic and his team.
We meet in his London studio. Cibic, dressed in black, is warm, funny and an energetic speaker. With The Gift, she also wanted to look at âour responsibility as artists in this whole situation. With commissions, it’s easy to say, âI was commissioned. But with this idea of ââthese “gifts”, there is more at stake. Where are we ready to go? Because there is no own money, there is no longer any apolitical commitment. Everything we do is political.
She comes, she says, from a politically engaged family. âMy grandparents were all partisans, they all fought in anti-fascist struggles in the former Yugoslavia. His father was a teacher, who taught the works of Marx and Engels “until the system collapsed.” His books were relegated to a lower shelf and Cibic’s bunny ate them. Both of her parents would have liked to work in the culture, she says, but her grandparents âwere bourgeois reds. They bought art as wedding gifts. You don’t make art, you buy it.
Cibic was 11 when the first of the Yugoslav wars broke out – Slovenia’s 10-day conflict with the Yugoslav army after its declaration of independence in 1991. She was relatively spared this conflict, but sees that among many other artists of his generation from the former Yugoslavia, “many of us now live abroad and really face the legacy”.
The former Yugoslavia fascinates her, in part because she thinks her failure should serve as a lesson. “The collapse of Europe which is unfolding before our eyes is what Yugoslavia was going through, like the rise of nationalisms, of ‘let’s not spend money abroad'”, in particular in international cultural projects, she said. âAt the end of the 1960s, nationalism began to flare up, so Yugoslav diplomacy decided to launch major construction projects at home to [honour] the anti-fascist struggle – great monuments were built and so on. But the idea of ââbeing present abroad fades.
Cibic saw friends from mainland Europe leave the UK after Brexit. She has been here for 20 years and has a 12-year-old daughter, but says that like many other artists from EU countries living in Britain, she felt “the ground breaking” when the referendum result has been announced. Winning the Jarman Prize, she says, gave her a strong feeling that she, in fact, has a place here. Also, says Cibic, she is more concerned with young artists. She says that, for the first time, she noticed that the students she teaches seemed depressed “about what’s possible.” If you don’t have that internationalism, that cross-pollination, we’re going so far back.
Cibic is an internationalist – she’s about to show in New Zealand – and when it comes to her new job, there is, she says, a sense of urgency. She relies on her ability to sift through archives and her films are so site specific, working with architecture that “represented – or still represents – national or transnational authorities.” I see a disturbing tendency to close access to questioning “the meaning of these spaces. âI don’t have a project that I’m like, ‘Oh, I’ll do it in five years.’ It must be done now. “