Srđan Tunić

art historian, freelance curator, cultural manager and researcher

Simonida Rajčević, Human activities. Helpless. (2012, catalog text)

A catalogue text on Simonida Rajčević‘s exhibition in Gallery Zvono and gallery of The Museum of Railways, Belgrade, May 2012

Text in Serbian: https://srdjantunic.wordpress.com/2012/05/05/ljudske-aktivnosti-bespomocni/

Text in both English and Serbian: http://www.simonidasimonida.com/fotke/selected/selected%2001.html

More on Gallery Zvono’s website: http://www.galerijazvono.org

Mixtape by Manja Ristić: https://www.mixcloud.com/nofmrs/radio-special-human-activities-helpless-by-simonida-rajcevic-mixtape-by-manja-ristic/

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Human activities. Helpless.

More than half a century ago, American pop artist Robert Rauschenberg presented one of his first works in the mode of combines: a life-size bed compressed into a work of art (“The Bed”, 1955). In what can be described as his reaction to the then prevailing abstract expressionism, Rauschenberg adopted a twofold approach: on the one hand, he started integrating objects from everyday life into works of art, i.e. installations (a procédé soon to become a major characteristic of pop art); on the other hand, he confronted the intimate world of the artist’s personal space head on, without any attempt at abstraction or mystification.

With her new cycle of drawings (2010-2012), executed on white bed linen sheets, Simonida Rajcevic also distances herself from expressionism. In her case, the departure is made from what used to be a recognizable feature of her own individual style rather than a general artistic trend. The cycle Human activities: Helpless is realistic in form, with some drawings even leaning towards photographic hyperrealism. Accessibility thus takes precedence over expressiveness in Rajcevic’s work. In presenting her subject matter, the artist gives priority to clarity and intelligibility. When considered in isolation, the form of the drawings has no purpose other than to serve as a simple means to convey a narrative. This, at least, is what the shift in style towards (hyper)realism seems to suggest.

What, then, is the narrative laid out before us? Face to face with Human activities: Helpless, we are drawn into a world of intense intimacy and high-voltage emotional charge. When we realize that the white bed sheets had been slept on before they were handed over to the artist to serve as a surface for her drawings, the poignant privacy of the themes represented strikes an even deeper chord.

While used in one context only to be relocated into a different one, in the process of artistic creation the sheets do not become dissociated from their original purpose. Unlike Rauschenberg’s combines, Rajcevic’s drawings are not framed and hung on a wall. They form an integral part of an installation, operating in a self-created environment of their own. Spread across a mattress, laid against a wall, the bedding remains firmly associated with the bed, both literally and metaphorically. The twin bed – a place of intimacy, comfort, love, dreams and vulnerability – thus becomes a palpable incarnation of mental images projected by the people who slept in it. The artist combines drawing, text and music to materialize their dreams, stories and fears. References to film, painting, literary narratives, abstract concepts, personal homages and family pictures all intervene to recreate the intimate experience of everyday life as reflected on the white bed linen sheets.

 

Thematically, Rajcevic’s representations of intimacy inevitably revolve around two centers of emotional refuge: the family in childhood and the couple in adulthood. However, the relative simplicity of this premise is not left unquestioned. A homage to the British artist Richard Billingham – a drawing depicting his parents – brings ambiguity to the very notion of intimacy, forcing us to ponder on the scope of human relationships and the borderline between the public and the private. The concept of the bed as a personal refuge is further compromised by looming conflicts. Guerilla fighters from the film Apocalypse now point their guns at the spectator as a living menace (and perhaps as a symbol of our contemporary obsession with terrorism?). Whether imaginary or real, they threaten to breach the inviolable privacy of the bed as a personal space and undermine the sense of soothing security associated with it.

The past intertwines with the present as old narratives demonstrate their vitality by reappearing in new shapes and forms. The Medea we know from Antiquity is reinterpreted in modern terms with references to Lars von Trier’s and Paolo Pasolini’s films, while Jason and the Argonauts seem to have transformed into Marvel superheroes: Silver Surfer, Superman and Batman. Similarly, Aesop’s fable about the “Boy who cried wolf” reemerges through the verses of Patti Smith’s eponymous song dedicated to Kurt Cobain.

Animals are yet another theme frequently touched upon within the installation. Their presence is partly inspired by Dante’s Hell and Milton’s Paradise Lost. Within this referential framework, iconic animals operate as mirror images of humans. Sinners must confront their crimes when making their descent into Hell; so must we confront our bestiality when put face to face with Ancient and Christian allegories of the lion, the panther and the she-wolf. But, in the privacy of the twin bed, the animal side of humans is not reduced to bestiality and primal instincts alone. The allegorical images of the horse, humankind’s oldest companion, are reminiscent of a life in harmony with nature. This intimate dream of paradise lost stands in stark contrast to the accompanying “soundtrack” drawings. Niko’s Behind the Iron Curtain and Patti Smith’s Radio Ethiopia are there to remind us of the social realities intruding once again into the private world of the people dreaming in their bed.

Regardless of the shift from expressionism to (hyper)realism, there is a formal continuity in Simonida Rajcevic’s work. The white marker coloring set against the background of black garbage bags in her previous installation, The Dark Star, finds its negative in Human Activities: Helpless with its predominantly dark grey coloring executed on white bed linen sheets in graphite pencil, marker and fabric paint. There is a parallel to be drawn with the visual identity of the English band Bauhaus (black) and its successors, Tones on Tail/Love and Rockets (white). The artist uses the two contrasting colors – or, rather, the two non-colors – to set off interplay of opposites with its timeless symbolic value.

Another point of continuity in Simonida Rajcevic’s work is the blending of visual elements – image and text – with music: this is a constant and recognizable feature of all her installations. Here, the visual representation of the childhood family portrait is textually accompanied by Milena Markovic’s poem “The Lullaby”, complemented in turn by a “mute” soundtrack, i.e. a reproduction of the LP cover for David Bowie’s album Aladdin Sane. With the installation Human Activities: Helpless, the Romantic idea – and the Romantic ideal – of synesthesia are reinterpreted with both subtlety and vigor. The artist’s subjective experience of intimacy finds its palpable and poignant materialization in twin bed sheets infused with pictures, words and music, all intertwined in a symbolic embrace of art and everyday life.

Srdjan Tunic

Art historian and Curator

Translated and adapted by Jelena Dobricic

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