Wide Walls Magazine

The Color Red In Interesting Times – North Macedonia at Venice Biennale 2019

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October 22, 2019, by Balasz Takac

This year’s edition of the Venice Biennale will soon close. After the opening rush, the media coverage gradually went to the projects that were considered daring, provocative, and in some cases shocking such as Barca Nostra by Christoph Büchel.

On view, there are still the national pavilions, offering complex and socio-politically well-articulated exhibitions that were not sufficiently featured in the media regardless of the achieved results. Such is the case with the pavilion of  North Macedonia and the installation format spanning through several rooms produced by the internationally recognized artist Nada Prlja.

Prlja’s entire practice is focused on the exploration of the notion of migration in the contemporary moment alongside various implications of the same. By employing great efforts to understand the matters of dislocation, abandonment, and borders (physical and mental), Prlja constructed a specific, and most importantly engaged approach, aimed to dissect contemporaneity and the burden it imposes.

Within the Venice Biennale 2019 pavilion, the artist decided to present an interdisciplinary project titled Subversion to Red aimed to explore and propose alternative artistic and socio-political models through installation and performativity. The core of the whole project is a reconsideration of the Leftist thought where the artist finds a significant place for articulating both the present and the past.

Through a dialog with the curator Jovanka Popova and in collaboration with Tevž Logar and Artan Sadiku, Prlja used various artistic and non-artistic means to conduct each segment of the project, starting from the experimental live art event called Red Discussion 1 and 2 (the latter includes contemporary thinkers and curators), the installation Discreet Subversion that revisits the art (from the collection of MoCA Skopje) made during the 1960s in Yugoslavia, a country North Macedonia was part of, as well as Prlja’s other works.

To find out more about Subversion to Red, we asked the artist a few questions regarding her overall impression of the Biennale, and the feedback the whole team working on the national pavilion received.

Portrait of Nada Prlja

The Critically Engaged Art Practice of Nada Prlja

Widewalls: We will start this interview with an observation that your practice explores the notion of migration and refuge, integration and labor, belonging and identity. Your project “Subversion To Red”, currently on display at the pavilion of North Macedonia, pulsates differently since it primarily takes into consideration the social, ideological and cultural domains of Yugoslavia. Is that your most personal project until now and is that country your own place of refuge?

Nada Prlja: It is correct to say that I have not worked with the cultural domains of Yugoslavia. In my portfolio, there are a few projects that work with Communist ideology. I dislike the fact that the Yugoslav socialism is very much associated with the notion of nostalgia now, so I tend to avoid this topic [so that] my work is not seen as melodramatic.

At the same time, I avoid proposing concepts that are fashionable and trendy. I always “nihilistically” search for marginal topics that can offer something new and fresh to society. Idealism and Communism are not topics of interest today, therefore I have focused on them in a desire to find aspects within those two concepts, presently relatable to us.

The notion of ideology and solidarity prevails throughout the whole exhibition in the pavilion. In the performative event Red Discussion 2, key concepts such as to-be-in-common (Charles Esche), agonism(Chantal Mouffe), care (Laura Raicovich), etc. were identified as the notions necessary to be activated for a better present and future, which simply proves that we can not avoid the Leftist thought as the only place of refuge for all of us.

Widewalls: The potential reading of your project could be saturated with nostalgia, but it seems that all the references spanning from the iconic movies of Yugoslav Black Wave to the works of renowned artists found in the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Skopje suggest that you tend to dissect both your personal and collective relationship with the past by speaking about the (leftist) ideology. What does it mean to have a concise ideological standpoint in interesting times, as the title of this year’s Biennale proposes?

NP: Juliet Jacques writes that these “Interesting times” are not new in Eastern Europe, especially in the former Yugoslavia with its 20th-century shifts between empire and monarchy, [the] Nazi occupation and socialism, and the catastrophic war during the 1990s. The Interesting Times or the unsettled time, that I focused on for this project, is the time of Socialist Yugoslavia; those times were probably the last time when ideology was exercised on all social levels in our region. Therefore, Subversion to Red is seeking to find and define exit strategies from the current conditions of social precariousness, by offering alternative solutions rooted in Marxist theory and Leftist thought: in other words, ideology.

In Subversion to Red, three sculptures are inspired by the works by Jevrić, Nikoloski, and Grabuloski alongside a series of paintings inspired by Lazeski’s recently destroyed mural. Those works are from the 1960s Socialist Yugoslavia, and I used them all to communicate the idea of Solidarity, one of the main postulates of the Leftist thought. I encountered the works by those artists for the first time as an adolescent in the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art, or as a child in a public space of the Post Office, both in Skopje. They have hence influenced my understanding of the artist’s responsibility in a particular social reality on a very personal level.

In essence, this exhibition is a reflection of the personal and the collective.

Nada Prlja - The Collection Raul Betti
Nada Prlja – The Collection: She does what she wants, Untitled II, 2019. Metal profiles and metal sheets, paper, concrete, 110x110x210cm. Courtesy of the artist. Photo © Raul Betti

The Red Pavilion of North Macedonia at Venice Biennale 2019

Widewalls: Although a frequently asked question, could you emphasize the context of the national pavilion in regards to the local and global art landscape? Is it a burden or a potential place of a dialog?

NP: The elements that comprise an institution, such as a National Pavilion, are quite complex. This multifaceted machinery is driven by different goals and aspirations, where the most prominent driving force is the notion of national representation.

Due to the number of complex operations and procedures involved, most of the countries start their preparation for the Biennale 2-3 years prior to the actual Biennale. In recent times, the selection of artists for the national pavilions has been dominated by commerce, with private galleries often sponsoring the artists’ work at the Biennale. The complexity of the operation, the timing involved and the strong links between commerce, PR agencies and politics are limiting national pavilions’ ability to engage with current issues and trends.

It is an overall impression that the Biennale is not based on a real dialogue, but primarily on the power play of the giants. The North Macedonian representation was not burdened by any of the previously mentioned obstacles or complexities. The deadline for proposals for the Biennale was November 2018, and by giving me the chance to answer to the curatorial context, there was no local gallery influencing the selection, etc., but our main obstacle is that the entire budget for the North Macedonian pavilion is 64.000 Euros, therefore by default we are excluded from the game.

Widewalls: What were the reactions like throughout the Biennale? Was it hard to maintain interest in what was shown and was the desired message communicated right? 

NP: The underlying curatorial concept for this year’s Venice Biennale was summarized in the title of the Biennale: May You Live in Interesting Times. Theorist and activist Artan Sadiku, proclaimed during Red Discussion 2 at the inauguration of our Pavilion:

If we claim that we have only now started to feel the ‘Interesting Times’, by suddenly feeling the burden of the Others arriving to European shores, then this is a highly Eurocentric viewpoint, through which we view the crisis, Interesting Times in Afghanistan, have been present for decades. Eurocentrism sets the tone of the Biennale, where a number of countries’ perceptions and interpretations of the ‘Interesting Times’ will go unnoticed. Unfortunately, some of the Eastern European pavilions were also ‘victims’ of this unjust World Order.

Five months after the opening of the Biennale, it could be concluded that the global climate crisis (mainly due to the alarming current situation, but also in light of the winning project of the Lithuanian pavilion) has overpowered, while neglecting to reflect references introduced by Rugoff, such as ‘post-war order’, in relation to the ‘world order during WWII’, as presented in Greek Pavilion; to ‘convey an affinity with the idea, asserted by… Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’ (which was actually reflected in our pavilion); or to ‘reveal key traditions’, as introduced by the Canadian pavilion.

The art world has chosen to accept a sense of inertia, a Western or Eurocentric ‘pre-Raphaelite’ image of a dying world, embracing a somber doomsday and reveling in a general sense of dystopia.

Nada Prlja - Red-iness
Nada Prlja – Red-iness, 2013. Video still. Video, single screen, 5 min., loop. Courtesy of Calvert 22 Foundation and the artist

The Future

Widewalls: How would you describe the whole experience and do you think the Oscar’s of visual arts provides a solid background for new artistic ventures?

NP: The opening of the North Macedonian Pavilion was indeed spectacular, with an opening across 8 spaces, with numerous visitors who remained for the entire duration (over 2 hours) of the performative event Red Discussion 2, with more than 400 visitors at any one time at the palazzo. Following that, during the usual opening times of the Biennale, we continue to attract a large number of visitors, since September the number of daily visitors has doubled.

Our pavilion is multi-layered, the 8 artworks, which all offer their individual story. Palazzo Rota Ivancich, where the Pavilion is housed, is a hidden jewel in the center of Venice, by its beauty and cultural legacy of Joseph Kosuth and Ernest Hemingway, among others. It is fascinating to be a part of this buzzing world of the Venice Biennale.

To answer this question more directly, the Venice Biennale (as with the Oscars) is a very competitive context, which provides a platform for those who have been selected to participate as national representatives, and a very solid platform for those selected as winners. Venice Biennale, for the non-winners, is a platform that strengthens connections previously already established by the artist or a team. This doesn’t exclude, however, the possibility that some beautiful surprises could happen along the way.

Widewalls: At the end of this interview, we have to ask you about your plans, although the future itself doesn’t seem very bright with Brexit, climate crisis and other things happening across the globe..

NP: As I was working on my artworks for the Biennale, I felt disappointed with the fact that I was using new materials in order to reshape them into something else – sculptures, artworks. As an artist, I have always tried to avoid focusing on the use of materials, but have instead focused more on the importance of ideas or concepts.

In a way, this inspired the whole exhibition Subversion to Red – I felt the urgency to change, for myself and my own way of working. Firstly to recycle the ideas – in this particular case, the old Marxist ideas and leftist thought, which never came to their full fruition. To recycle the history, as for example, with Robespierre’s speeches, which was reused for a speech in the context of the ‘68 students revolt in Belgrade, etc.

With this attitude, I arrived in Venice, which only was strengthened by seeing the amount of goods, services, and money used for the preparation of the Venice Biennale. I admit to having been somewhat sickened upon noticing all of this. As a result, I am now working on a new series of artworks where I am using only existing materials and objects, including my own already made artworks, in an attempt to create a self-modifying practice, where objects simply change the form, without the application of any newly acquired materials.

Nada Prlja - Humane Communism Raul Betti
Nada Prlja – Humanistic Communism, 2016. Workshop documentation, 20 Photographs. Held at the National Gallery of Arts, Tirana, Albania. Organised by TAL Tirana Art Lab. Courtesy of TAL and the artist. Photo © Raul Betti

Featured images: Nada Prlja – Red Discussion II, 2019. Live art event (with Charles Esche, Maurizio Lazzarato, Vlad Morariu, Chantal Mouffe, Laura Raicovich and Artan Sadiku). 6 participants, table, markers, 340 x 340 x 120 cm, 2 hours performance. Courtesy of Nada Prlja. Photo © Ana Lazarevska; Humanistic Communism, 2016. Workshop documentation, 20 Photographs. Held at the National Gallery of Arts, Tirana, Albania. Organised by TAL Tirana Art Lab. Courtesy of TAL and the artist. Photo © Daniel Serafimovski; The Collection: She does what she wants, Untitled II, 2019. Metal profiles and metal sheets, paper, concrete, 110 x 110 x 210 cm. Courtesy of the artist. Photo © Ana Maljanovska at HO1000D / Feydom. All images courtesy the artist.

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