On April 1, Tanja Ostojic, a Berlin-based artist (born in the former Yugoslavia/Serbia), will be in Aberdeen for the Director’s Cut. Before her arrival, Amy Bryzgel, lecturer in History of Art at the University of Aberdeen, and Jasmina Založnik, PhD candidate at the University of Aberdeen, sat down to discuss various strands of Ostojic’s work, centred on marriage, migration, markets and misunderstandings.
Amy Bryzgel: For me, one of the most compelling aspects of Tanja’s work is the manner in which she places herself fully and completely into the artwork, so that the distinction between art and life becomes incredibly blurred. In the project Looking for a Husband with an EU Passport, she advertised herself as a sort-of mail-order-bride, posting a naked photo of herself on the internet and asking for any interested prospective mates to contact her at email@example.com . After receiving numerous propositions, she finally married a German man named Klements Golf. Not only did she have no idea who she would be marrying at the start of the project (if anyone), but she also had no idea in which country she would end up. Although she is a “migrant worker” herself when she travels to the EU (being the citizen of a non-EU country), in this piece she very much puts herself in the position of the migrant woman whose life and future are completely dependent on external, outside forces. I cannot imagine how one “turns off” from that when working on such a project, how an artist navigates that fine line between art and life and doesn’t allow the art to take over that life completely.
Jasmina Založnik: While exposing herself, Tanja tackles the issue of vulnerability. Even more, she explores in a most direct way the “radically different ways in which human physical vulnerability is distributed across the globe. Certain lives will be highly protected, and the abrogation of their claims to sanctity will be sufficient to mobilize the forces of war. Other lives will not find such fast and furious support and will not even qualify as ‘grievable’.” This is also how Judith Butler explains how the body is never only yours, but is part of a matrix, of society or better entangled into sociopolitical-economic process, in which bodies are marked, differentiated and distributed.
How to expose these bodies once they become visible? The photograph, through which Tanja represented herself, is very telling. Naked and shaved, at one’s disposal… And this is a major difference with how people are presenting themselves on-line – even oppositional to it. It is a way to express, in a heightened manner, the state and condition for her “marriage”. It is also a way through which she most probably thought she would avoid misunderstandings, and convey an awareness of what this marriage is supposed to be in political as well as artistic terms.
AB: As a migrant in Germany herself, much of Tanja’s more recent work has dealt directly with the lives of migrants and refugees. She has said that she believes that her first-hand experience with the issue gives her a particular insight and sensitivity into it, which can help translate those experiences to the general public through a work of art. I think this work is highly relevant and topical, especially nowadays, and especially here in the UK. But what makes it particularly potent is the fact that these topics are addressed in the artistic sphere, as opposed to the political arena. For Claire Bishop, what distinguishes socially engaged art from social projects (Artificial Hells, 2012) are the aesthetics involved. The ambiguity of the work of art, which does not necessarily postulate one viewpoint or another, but opens the floor for discussion, is, I believe, what could enable the work to have impact. Recently a controversy erupted over the TV show “Immigration Street,” produced by Channel 4 in the UK. I couldn’t help but think that broadcasting her film Sans Papiers or video performance Naked Life might have been more beneficial to the immigration debate.
JZ: I would agree with you that her work seems to be more effective. Most likely, the reasons could be found in the ways she is dealing with these topics, the way she is presenting them, which is so far away from the everyday representation we are exposed to; abstract or at least distant.
Tanja manages to be very lucid and at the same time unobtrusive. Stories flash before you suddenly, and then they become concrete, tangible, real. What I admire about her work is also the simple truth with which these works are delivered. And at the same time they are very complex. The layers of complexity are somehow appearing through time, through the development of the projects and also in the interrelations among them. She is like a surgeon unfolding the power structures; injustice and inequality; mechanisms of social exclusion and inclusion.
While going through her works again, I got the impression that she is somehow training our ability to understand while unfolding ambiguous procedures through which things are valued. Don’t you think so? And it does not matter really what subject she is addressing.
AB: I agree – in unfolding these layers and taking them apart, piece by piece, and exposing them, she reveals the manner in which we understand things, when we accept all of the layers rolled up into a ball.
I wanted to turn to her work that interrogates the art market, which is also inextricably with her feminist approach. Feminism has become an ugly word nowadays, and I don’t really understand why. I come across a lot of artists whose work deals with gender and gender identity, yet they insist that they are not “feminists,” rather, they are interested in individual identity, be it male or female. Tanja is an artist who proudly defines herself as a feminist, and she takes the institutions of art to task, interrogating the power structures that persist in the art world until today, and which remain largely unchanged despite inroads made by feminist artists in the 1970s. For example, in I’ll be Your Angel (2001-2002), she followed curator Harald Szeemann around during the opening of the 49th Venice Biennale, dressed in couture, and remaining silent. I thought her act was a great coup in the art world; although she remained unable to speak and acted primarily as an escort for the male curator, she gained access to one of the most prestigious art events of the year – a feat not just for a woman artist but for an Eastern European one as well.
JZ: For me the distancing from or even rejection of feminism is also not really understandable. It seems to me that our memory is really lacking. Or it just shows how easy it is to abolish and neglect things. For this reason, maybe we could describe her as a post-feminist artist, since she does very precisely reflect feminist standpoints that are inseparable with her artistic work. I’ll be Your Angel together with some other works (Bubble Bath, Sofa for Curator, Vacation with Curator, Politics of queer curatorial positions: After Rosa von Praunheim, Fassbinder and Bridge Markland) are creating more than eloquent Strategies of Success / Curators series (2001-2003) in which while analyzing she is unfolding the procedures through which the contemporary art market is functioning, its values. To put it differently, Tanja and Szeemann could be seen metaphorically as Beauty and the Beast, where the marker could be shifted from one to another side, depending on the perspective from which you are trying to look at the art. Or, with a direct reference to Ostojic, referring to the art intervention made by Russian artist Aleksander Brener, who, in 1997, painted a green dollar sign on Kazimir Malevich’s painting Supermatism; would the work/event/curator/artist have been worth more or less with this additional signature? Tanja is full of references, appropriating them, deconstructing and reconstructing them. One on the long list for sure appears her work Untitled (After Courbet).
AB: One of the most surprising things about Tanja’s work, for me, is the fact that Untitled (After Courbet) (2004) was censored when it was displayed on billboards in Vienna in 2005, just before the country was going to take over the EU Presidency. The reason given was that the image was “immoral” and “offensive to women.” But in this image, Ostojic, who uses her own body as the model, is clothed! The original 1866 Courbet painting on which it is based, L’origine du Monde, is on display in Paris at the Musee D’Orsay. Not only is the woman in the painting naked, but her legs are splayed and her genitals fully on display. I suppose the painting is deemed ok by the ‘court of public opinion’ because it is old, canonical, and a painting, whereas Ostojic’s image is new, and it is a photograph (not to mention the placement of the EU flag). But what surprised me even more is the fact that in one of her performances she broke the law (Illegal Border Crossing, 2000), by crossing the border illegally on foot, through the forest, between Slovenia and Austria. In another long-durational performance piece, Looking for a Husband with an EU Passport (2000-2004), she massaged the law by marrying a man just for his passport, so that she could get a visa to live in the EU. Of course, in this piece she did everything by the book, but nevertheless, her motives were clear – marriage for the purposes of migration. Untitled, which breaks no laws (not even public decency, for she is clothed), however, was the only piece that she was effectively sanctioned for, by being censored. For me I suppose that speaks to the power of visual images when it comes to such contentious issues as migration, immigrants, asylum, etc. I believe that Marina Grzinic has argued that it is in fact the “dubious political (almost amoral) protocols and procedures regarding the regulation of mobility within and at the borders of the EU” that are immoral and obscene. Perhaps because of the visual imagery involved, the objectification of the female body in Ostojic’s piece is foregrounded, obvious and overt, yet when that same objectification occurs in legislation, in the written word, it is less noticeable or apparent, and more difficult to detect.
JZ: The reason why this piece was censored could be explained through various perspectives. First of all, there was the context of its presentation (being exhibited on the eve of Austria’s EU presidency) and this time not closed in an art institution, but outside, in much more frequented public space (billboards). The second reason is directly connected with the first one due to this very special situation where Tanja is suddenly embodying much more than just herself (I am not saying that in her other works she does not): she becomes the ambivalent almost-European who is simultaneously alluring and off-putting. It is the ambiguity of the image, which is inviting, appealing as EU, which just lies between her legs. While doing so, she located sex (or rather the OTHER) at the centre of European politics, as Judith Surkies has argued. However, this, or rather its position, is blurred and sporadic. It is left to the mercy and caprice of the Big Other. Tanja does not look for answers, but present the problems. The ‘who’ and the ‘how’ are addressed in her work, since the question ‘why’ is just too obviously imprinted in Western history. And it is reproduced on the basis of inclusion and exclusion since always. Moreover, with these ambiguous procedures, it becomes clear that we could all easily find ourselves in a similar situation to those that Tanja is addressing, or maybe, we already are, maybe just in (slightly) different situations and contexts. However, it is also questionable, how aware we are of these procedures, if at all? Do they remain hidden or are they just taken for granted?
AB: I think a lot of them are indeed hidden or taken for granted, and it is the artist who can reveal them. I think we both agree that Tanja does this rather deftly.
To hear from the artist directly about her work, come to the Director’s Cut on 1st April 2015, at the King’s College Conference Centre. The event is free but it is requested that you register. All are welcome.
All images courtesy of the artist.