“Soft Power” and the Instrumentalization of Art in World Politics

By Hannah Megally

Jasmina Cibic’s “Everything That You Desire and Nothing That You Fear,” a multimedia exhibit currently taking place at the DHC/ART museum in Montreal, critically examines the instrumentalization of art and architecture in nation building and the making of international status. Cibic’s work explores the concept of “soft power,” and the use of art to communicate political rhetoric. Her installations at DHC/ART elegantly embody complex and nuanced political confabulations and challenge the exploitation of national culture for political power and esteem.

Jasmina Cibic, Slovenia-born and London-based, uses her art to explore the ways in which political rhetoric is deployed in art and architecture. With medium and subject matter in sync, her pieces have a strong sense of complexity, reflexivity, and self-awareness. This is strikingly true for her current exhibit, “Everything That You Desire and Nothing That You Fear,” which critically examines the instrumentation of art and architecture in nation building and the making of international status. Cibic uses Yugoslavia as her main subject, yet also draws on Montreal’s own Expo ’67 as one of the most celebrated of the world fairs and explores the now-obsolete nation’s participation in international art expositions. Cibic looks to these historic events as a part of the era of world fairs that surfaced sometime after World War 2 in an effort to revitalize national identities separate from the war and create a platform for international cultural exchange. “Soft power” is central to this exhibit and to this international art fair époque. Primarily a concept in international relations, it refers to the ways in which a nation can further its objectives through attraction, rather than “hard” military or economic coercion. Culture, reputation, institutions and national identity are some of the ideas that soft power is built upon, and as such, the era of expos was key to the rise of soft power as a political strategy after the war and governments were careful and intentional with the art and architecture that they chose to represent themselves. “Everything That You Desire and Nothing That You Fear” uses sculpture, photography, video installations and performance art to explore the ways in which nation-building projects co-opted art and architecture in their quest for the progress of state, and calls into question the role of the female body within this enterprise.

“Everything That You Desire and Nothing That You Fear” begins at the DHC/ART’s 451 Saint-Jean building, a small four story building with a single interior room on each floor. The walls of all four rooms are shrouded in a patterned curtain, which according to curator, Sheryl Sim, mimics the patterns of tapestries and rugs that hung in Yugoslavia’s Former Palace of Federation in Belgrade. Each room is an intimate experience of soft power at play and collectively, they conjure a sense of walking through a series of private historic moments, as much as through an art gallery. Cibic’s use of montage, piecing together fragments of history and art, is central to her artistic process and begins with the conversation between these four galleries.

“An Atmosphere of Joyful Contemplation,” a performance piece that takes place on the third floor, invites gallery goers into a private moment with two seamstresses who work competently away at a hanging embroidered tapestry with “STATECRAFT” woven into its center. As spectators circle them, the women hum to themselves and gradually begin to sing, their lyrics infused with political slogans pulled from Expo 67’s Yugoslav pavilion. Spellbinding voices and the delicate specialty of their craft summon a sense of preciousness to the moment, something that it seems could easily vanish with the speedy “progress of the state,” even while they sing the line themselves. This piece in particular brings to view the ways in which national politics seep into private spaces and extract that which is commercially and politically valuable.

“State of Illusion,” a video installation on another floor re-imagines the construction of the Yugoslav pavilion at Expo ’67 and uses allegory to highlight the illusive coerciveness to using culture for political gain. The silent black and white film features a female illusionist and three male assistants in constant motion, interacting with a geometric structure in the center of a stage and the screen that is spun and transformed in several stages. The piece draws from elements of silent film, using expressive music and text frames to advance the story - it also integrates elements of Russian constructivist cinema and French new wave to further imitate the development of national identities through art and culture. As the construction of the pavilion proceeds, the illusionist disappears and reappears, tying the project of national architecture to female visibility in nation-building and lack thereof.

Collectively, the galleries explore the intricacies of cultural exploitation in the name of nation building with control and nuance. Most notable about “Everything That You Desire and Nothing That You Fear” is Cibic’s acute attention to detail – installations, photographs, sculptures and performances are distinctly controlled in their exploration of the nuances of their subject matter. Cibic’s exhibit focuses primarily on the exploitation of culture in the name of nation building and international esteem, but her art simultaneously looks to gender as a category of analysis through which to examine the way the female body is simultaneously instrumentalized in the construction of national identities.

The exhibition continues on the single floor space of DHC/ART’s second building a few doors down at 465 Saint-Jean. Here, three large gallery spaces display Cibic’s NADA trilogy, a series of three films that explores three European modernist architects. In NADA I, a large screen displays close up shots that chronicle the construction of a small architectural model, which sits in the center of the room. As the film progresses and the construction of the model is complete, the object is then “played” on screen as an instrument, wire strings that reach from the edges of the building up to a tall metal spire emerging from the center, are strummed with a cello bow and then plucked to produce an array of different instrumental sounds. The piece makes direct reference to the “instrumentalization” of art, invoking notions of puppeteers and social hierarchy, but the elegance of the music simultaneously offers a more optimistic read, perhaps suggesting that art’s ability to connect, engage and move people cannot be offset by dubious political pursuits. That art can stand as a source of “nada,” the Croatian word for hope.

Other pieces in this second section of the exhibition use symbolic storytelling in ballet and film to further explore the role of art and architecture in the production of a nationalist identity. In NADA III, Cibic’s writes an entire script using fragments of dialogue taken from archival transcripts, political discussions, reports and letters surrounding Germany’s world exposition presentations. In NADA II, The Miraculous Mandarin ballet is re-imagined with the archetypal characters of the Politician, the Architect, the Motherland to explore the relationship of the body to architecture and of architecture to the building of the nation, thusly the nation is built, somewhat violently, upon the bodies of its citizens.

On the whole, “Everything That You Desire and Nothing That You Fear” is an aesthetic and historic journey through the nuances of cultural exploitation and the construction of national power and identities. With a careful hand, Cibic elegantly condenses the intricacies and unknowns of these issues into intimate spaces and beautiful installations that can much better speak for themselves in person!

This exhibit is on view at the DHC/ART until March 3rd 2019, with performances on Saturdays from 12:00-5:00pm. Admission is free.

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