The exhibition Avoiding eye contact is part of the ongoing project Shame on You! initiated by the Miroslav Kraljević Gallery, CELEIA – Center for Contemporary Arts from Celje and the Association for Culture and Art CRVENA from Sarajevo. The project provides a platform for artistic and theoretical study of the idea of shame as defined by specific political, economic and social contexts. Starting from the understanding of shame as a consequence conditioned by social and cultural actions whose experience is personal and/or collective within the private sphere, the following questions arise: which identities and practices are considered shameful and which structures or positions have the power to mark them as such? Can shame be understood as a symptom caused by a break with the established normative behavior, economic ideologies, political goals and forms of patriarchal dominance? Can the act of shaming function as a mechanism for maintaining the existing power relations and providing a means of social control?
Avoiding eye contact takes on the concept of shame through the works of Nicole Hewitt, Louie+Jesse, Ivana Pipal, Oliver Ressler and Chloé Turpin. The title of the exhibition is taken from a drawing by Ivana Pipal depicting a multitude of eyes, alluding to the constant exposure to the gaze of others as well as to the avoidance to look back. The Hungarian mythologist Károly Kerényi associates shame with observation since it presupposes both passivity and activity, being looked at and looking.1 The exhibition considers the way shame is condition by the gaze, focusing in particular on the public aspect of shame which is a consequence of dominant social patterns.
The body on display is the topic of whimsical drawings taken from Ivana Pipal‘s third book: Instructions for use (human body). Drawing from everyday social and personal situations, Pipal uses drawing and text to build a proposal for a system of habitation in the human body. The presented segments of her work are related to the concept of shame; for example, the drawing of a figure that is being observed through long pipes by neighbors’ curious eyes. In a way, it is the body that is ashamed, that is, it is the cause of our shame. To quote Giorgio Agamben: “Nudity is shameful when it is the obviousness of our Being, of its final intimacy. And the nudity of our body is not the nudity of a material thing that is antithetical to the spirit but the nudity of our entire Being, in all its plentitude and solidity, in its most brutal expression, of which one cannot not be aware.”2 In that sense the body is seen as a metaphor, as the spirit’s means of transport.
Chloé Turpin also reflects on shame through the corporal, with an emphasis on gender. Her piece Mora alludes to a specific gender politics and fascination with the rejected. The artist associates the term mora from the Slavic tradition with “monstrous femininity” which she encounters in the drama Adventurer at the Door (1925) by Milan Begović. Turpin interprets Freud’s psychoanalytic theories and stages of hysteria through the character of the “Girl” whose mirror image “Agnes” is based on the widespread femme fatale stereotype. The dancer and performer Nikolina Komljenović embodies the “Girl” in the performance in three acts. At the beginning the performer embodies the conceptual archetype of the mora through improvisation, only to deconstruct the first act. At the end she assumes a physically demanding pose which stresses the impossibility of escaping from the camera which is located in the other room. Exposed to the gaze of the unknown other, she wears the mask of shame.
While in Turpin’s work there is an emphasis on corporeality and performance, Oliver Ressler‘s film The Visible and the Invisible focuses on power structures that escape the naked eye. The title was taken from the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and the film juxtaposes the exploitation in the form of heavy industrial pollution and inhuman working conditions in the global South and the gigantic profits generated by trade in these commodities which are in the hands of the elite in the global North. The artist deals with the elusive aspects of actual power, and he films only the closed doors and non-descript facades of Swiss companies that are unknown to us. On the other side the exploited have faces and identities, but the grey tone makes them seem like distant strangers.
The invisible is also the topic of Nicole Hewitt‘s performative lecture This Woman is Called Jasna 06, and what is invisible in this case is the protagonist’s female voice. In early nineties, Jasna was a comparative literature student, and in her forties she was the employee of the Interational Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in Hague, which makes her a witness of the time. The sixth episode deals with a love story and is written in epic form, but it intertwines the motives from both personal and official history. The artist builds the narrative through “the memories of an expert witness, her own memories, Jasna’s memories, discourses that shaped her as an author, theories that shaped her as a subject, representations that petrified her as an object, war migrations that marked us as displaced and always out of tune with our own past.”
It is precisely this displacement and non-compliance with the official historical narrative that raises the question of an adequate testimony that could bring us closer to the truth. The issue of testifying is also tackled by the duo louie+jesse in their card game The Hague Truth. The title refers to the eponymous poem by the defendant Simo Zarić written in Scheveningen in 1998. Ironically, in the poem Zarić talks about the good relations between detainees regardless of their nationality and committed crimes. A part of his text is placed on the back of each card, and the artists have used the novel They Would Never Hurt a Fly by Slavenka Drakulić as a starting point for the game’s design. Based on her descriptions of the defendants’ time in custody through the game the artists have told us a little about the good life in custody. The ultimate goal is to get rid of eight witnesses, whereby the player is acquitted, since unus testis nullus testis, or a single witness is no witness.
Shame on You! in the Gallery Miroslav Kraljević is curated by Ana Kovačić and Irena Borić.
The project Shame on You! is supported by the City of Zagreb, the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Croatia, and the foundation Kultura Nova.
Photography by: Miran Kramar
1 Agamben, Giorgio (2008), Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. Retrived: http://www.heartefact.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/Giorgio-Agamben.pdf , 23 September 2015.