It’s not often that I get to talk art and war in the same breath. For sensitive, existential children of the Yugoslavian war, there’s a preoccupation with death that knows no bounds except, perhaps, death itself. Belgrade-born artist Ivana Basic knows this, as do her installations whose titanium spears poke and prod at the rough edges of fleshy materials suspended in indefinite and untenable states. It is war enacted, but mostly it is life. “Even before the 1990 bombing, as a child, I was in these very existential states,” Basic tells me. “I couldn’t understand why I’m contained in this thing I’m contained in, which is my own body. I think I had all these questions and the context [of the war] just emphasized that.”
It is the perishability of the human body that is at stake in Basic’s work—”the temporary state of us”, as she calls it. “I feel like our reality [living in Yugoslavia] was very emptied of meaning and very emptied of hope, and there’s this instinctual urge to find something that is bigger and more substantial than what you’re experiencing.” When she tells me she found old diaries from when she was six wondering why am I here? what is the point of life?, I understand instinctively: I found crayon-scribbled notes from when I was six repeating existential Latin phrases that my father had drilled into me in broken letters.
But there is a beauty in the broken. I know this, having gathered the most beautiful bomb shards in my derelict Sarajevo neighbourhood and traded them like jewels. And Basic —whose pieces hang suspended between life and death, the very enactment of life becoming matter, or returning to it —knows this. Her works wade in the uncanny —wax that oozes like flesh, concrete that breathes like it is living. But when I tell her what I feel while looking at her pieces is not discomfort or fear, as is often the case with the uncanny, but tranquility, she smiles knowingly. “I’m really taking that moment [of life turning into matter] and I’m contemplating it. And there is an acceptance of it, which is why I think there is a peacefulness to it.”
I talked to Basic for well over an hour, mostly in English, somewhat in Serbo-Croatian, and the following are some of the highlights from an interview that was too long to print in its entirety. If you find it bleak, you should read a newspaper.
If someone put a gun to your head and asked you to describe your work in three words, what would you choose?
Ivana Basic: Do they have to be consequential? It’s basically: life into matter.
Would the words have differed had I asked you to describe how other people see your work?
IB: I’m sure it would be different. I think elements of it could be hinted at just by observing it. Obviously there is the body, there is this fight with materiality, and there is sampling of my own body. I feel like a lot of those things are visible, and a lot of the issues I’m talking about are universal and in that sense accessible. But there are multiple layers some of which go pretty deep into the matter and become very abstract and those are the ones that stay more hermetic and I am okay with that.
Coming from former Yugoslavia myself, I learned that there are those that think of the war as integral to who they are or have become, and those that prefer to disassociate from it and leave it in the past. Which one are you?
IB: That’s a struggle that I’ve had for a long time. The instinct was, for me, to completely disassociate. You try not to be defined by that, because you are so many other things. The first instinct is to develop an identity that is outside of that, that has nothing to do with that. But then somehow, throughout the years, I’ve learned that a lot of the elements and a lot of the quests that I’m on are very strongly connected to the context.
It has a lot to do with having been exposed to the war, but it’s not just that: it’s the whole mentality of coming from the Balkans, where reality is really present, where the actual existential reality is something that you live in. The fear of death, the fear of tomorrow, the complete uncertainty—these are things you cannot help but be defined by. It’s just the things you are born into. So in that sense, while I don’t completely identify myself with the experiences I’ve had, I think they’ve deeply influenced the kinds of questions I’m asking and what I’m seeking.
A lot of your pieces deal with the body—the female body, and in particular your body. Do you think about it in specifically feminine or feminist terms?
IB: I’ve encountered that question a lot. My work is not really informed by the fact that I’m a woman. And people say, ‘yeah but you’re using your body and your body is female’. But I’m using my body because it is the most neutral for me to use. That is the strongest abject to me, that’s why I’m using it. All of my bodies are gender-ambiguous, and it is actually ambiguous whether they are alive or dead to begin with. They’re just…humanity, on very subtle levels. The only thing that communicates that I’m a female is my blush colour palette.
But that’s also just human—flesh-coloured.
IB: Exactly. I have a lot of works that are literally derived from my own skin, but I tend to tint them more towards pink, which is my way of taking one step away from raw reality, and kind of sterilizing it.
I’ve never really looked for gender filters myself. I’ve always just been on my own, fighting by myself, giving my best, and have felt just as strong as any man that I’ve ever met—stronger than many. My work is what defines me, and I just don’t think there are obstacles to that.
I think it also speaks to cultural differences. In North America, there’s this schema of feminism—and I’m apart of it too—with a whole education of feminism, and a whole network of journalists, etc.. And I feel like that just isn’t the case in the Balkans.
IB: No, I feel like people are just not interested in that. It’s just not a real thing. Maybe it’s a symptom of more developed, richer societies.
White people problems?
IB: I think it’s a very impotent way of going about it. Because you are defining yourself within the terms of feminism and women’s struggle. That’s the highest point you’ll ever get to, because you’ll just work within that context, you won’t be able to overcome it. That will be your little narrow playground. If you want to get at a truth that is gender equal, you have to work with terms that are gender-neutral. I just don’t think that identifying with a gender is the way to go forwards in order to fight for the rights of the gender —I think it’s the other way around.
Your pieces deal a lot with the Real and the dichotomy of the internal / external as it relates to the body, and the materials you use reflect this disruption or questioning. Where does that come from?
IB: Being exposed to an acute reality of death… that moment where life turns to matter, that is what I’m on the quest for. That’s the moment I am trying to suspend. Our body overcomes us at the point of pain; that is when our body is in control of us. A lot of the bodies in my works are injured —bodies in pain —and they are in the moment of dying, so it is very ambiguous whether they are alive or not. So it’s treating the matter as a habitat in a way, as a locale—a limited space, which is why all my works are hollow. They are all just shells—the wax pieces, the silicone pieces—because it is just treating the body as a space. And thinking about wax, and form, as this very temporary state—the temporary state of us. Every form is actually just temporary in that sense. The form is not the end.
In the Disintegration in the direction of something other than death series, pieces of wax are resting on pillows that are not secured in any way, but just suspended from the ceiling. It’s about the subtle play and potential for them to fall, to go back into matter, repeating the fact that the form itself is just temporary.
My work is just really experiential —it’s about viscerally feeling that body, feeling the endangered body, feeling it all.
Another theme that I notice quite explicitly is that of disintegration, of an un-becoming, seen in the series ‘Disintegration’, but also in ‘Automata’ which records a kind of destruction from within.
IB: All the pieces are kind of hurting from the inside—those ones just more explicitly. But this pain never leaks onto the outside, it never goes into the external. My concrete breathing piece, ‘Still’, is breathing from within but it never actually penetrates out of itself. And same with ‘Automata’: there’s this urge to penetrate the boundary of the skin but once it does happen, the destruction happens alongside it. It is this impossibility of leaving the matter that you are contained in that threads through all of the pieces.
Tell me the story behind ‘Ungrounding’.
IB: That piece came as an almost direct response to the chapters I was reading in Cyclonopedia by Reza Negarestani. Because I feel like my whole logic—the body as container, the void within, the contents escaping from their shell—was translated as materials in this book. The conversation is really about the mutual dependence on the solid and the void, and how every solid is diseased by the void but every solid also narrates anomalies created by the void. In order for you to address the void, you have to be in a conversation with the solid, basically.
So I was taking this wax, this material that only temporarily holds the form and that has a certain velocity, and breaking it. Ungrounding is basically the process of inflicting or degenerating the surface of the whole or the solid by inserting the void into it. So I was breaking this wax and the cracks became something that deformed it, and then I was creating this skin over it, not filling in the voids but covering them up so that on the outside, it would look like a whole. So I could address this idea that wholeness is a construct, that wholeness is a performance—it’s not a real thing.
How did the insane breathing concrete sculpture, ‘Still’, come about?
IB: That piece took me more than two years because it was…the most impossible thing to make breathing concrete.
It sounds absurd.
IB: The impossible quest! It’s made in the dimensions of my body, the space that I would take, and then I created the walls around it that would contain me. I was basically making an analogy between concrete and the surface of my skin: a kind of being contained within, and not being able to get out, and this constant struggle to move these boundaries that are so solid and so strong.
The thing about that piece is that it is so subtle. When you see it, you barely notice the breathing until you come really close and then you can see the little cracks in the chest, and see it slowly moving. The initial idea was inspired by the prison, and the fact that people are taken out of reality and flattened into the walls. It was also informed by the months I spent in the shelters underground, in these thick, thick walls, while the bombing was happening. Those are some of the most intense memories I have —these thick walls that kind of become the edges of me.
I’m not a person that derives a lot from reality. My work is just completely internal. It comes from so deep within and refuses to reference present moment in order to be able to stand outside of time and escape its own mortality and therefore finitude.**