Jeu de Paume, Paris
11 February – 18 May 2014
by DARRAN ANDERSON
Slava Klavora was one figure swept up in the wreckage of history. A Slovene freedom fighter born in Maribor, she was arrested by the Gestapo, tortured and executed, becoming in death a heroine of Marshal Tito’s Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Following the dissolution of the communist state and the tempestuous advent of capitalism, the artist and fellow Maribor resident Nika Autor re-examines where Klavora, and indeed all of us, stand amid the march of supposed progress. Curated by Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez as part of the satellite programme, Newsreel – The News Is Ours is poignant, disturbing and ultimately inspiring; linking a triptych of troubled eras, and the light that brave individuals and collective action might salvage from the darkness.
Autor’s use of multimedia art is both connective and immersive. She delves down through the historical strata and finds features that still resound, either by difference or similarity. These are reflected in works that are equally interconnected. Place is the key; geographically and politically. Her native city, Maribor, was and is a place of occupation and liberation, with the two conditions in a state of flux. Initially in the exhibition, there is a sense of the overwhelming immensity of oppression facing the prospective rebel. We are greeted with typewritten text, the meaning and context of which changes with each section. At first, it consists of practical instructions in the manner of a covert guidebook for partisans. This changes to events as dramatic as fiction, but distressingly real: “The bell rings. The Gestapo is at the apartment.” The haunting effect is accentuated with terse accounts of arrest: “Cut off from comrades, a leaf without a tree, in cell no 68, scratched on the wall.” At this point, in a brilliant touch, Autor has the words appear not in print, but on the wall itself: “Speak nothing, know nothing, know nobody.” It signifies vividly an act of negation and affirmation, as if Klavora wrote her name and existence into history at the precise moment she sought to erase them. With six simple words and the manner of their writing, we are suddenly, impossibly, in her cell; the years between then and now, and the space between our thoughts and Klavora’s are for an instant transcended.
The minimalism of Autor’s approach is paradoxically expansive. Less is more in terms of the presentation of the tragedy and heroism of Klavora’s actions. The murder of a human being by the fascist regime is alluded to in a foreboding and abrupt title, The reaction of the enemy to the silence. The rewards for her sacrifice, and others, by the later regime are delivered without comment, with their incommensurate nature implicit: “Reaction of the state: Income of a mother heroine. Disability benefit: 1200 din. Heroism benefit: 1000 din. Total amount within pension: 9000 din.” If financial recompense is woefully insufficient, so too is the bureaucratisation of remembrance: “The reactions of the party: Posthumous glory: A primary school, a male choir, an army barracks and two streets named after her.” Art offers some semblance, or at least the beginning, of an appropriate if still inadequate response: “The reaction of the painter: His fingers are frozen, he cannot draw/but will start soon./Those eyes, small breasts in front of guns/the bloody faces of the Gestapo agents/all this is worthy of Goya.” By recalling Goya’s Disasters of War series and his howl of protest, The Third of May 1808, Autor demonstrates that there is, in art at least, a form of remembrance that can outlast even countries. In the absence of justice and the impossibility of restoration, it is all that is left.
Working with Marko Bratina, Ciril Oberstar and Jurij Meden, Autor adds extra layers to the memorial and its rethinking with the video montage Newsreel 55 (2013). The title Newsreel – The News Is Ours is a composite of, and a tribute to, earlier newsreels; Finally Got the News (1970), which followed the League of Revolutionary Black Workers agitating within the Detroit car industry, and the French Communist Party’s proletarian film, La Vie est à nous (1936). Using material sourced by Obzorniška Fronta (Newsreel Front), Autor’s film juxtaposes the three modern ages of Maribor; a recreation of the anti-fascist partisan graffiti on the prison wall, late Soviet-era workers protesting for rights and living conditions, and protestors rising against capitalist corruption in 2012. In the latter, the contemporaneity and extremity of the government reaction genuinely shocks, with the riot police on horseback and spotlight-wielding helicopters belonging more to dystopian cinema than a modern European city. “We’re marching towards Liberty Square in the footsteps of the workers from 24 years ago,” reads the commentary. “Where organised industrial workers marched, today here troops the mob forgotten by the state … With the excuse of the demonstrations being illegal, they finally gave us the right to resistance, expression, political thought.” Has there been any meaningful progress in those intervening years, between headlines of corrupt party officials and stagnation to craven bankers and recession? And, if there were gains, what was lost in the process?
Resistance is nevertheless possible, indeed essential, Autor suggests, given the consequences of apathy. This, it seems, begins with awareness and scepticism. The exhibition notes reflect on the origin of newsreel footage as a short, unique cinematic form that used to be shown before fictional motion pictures. The fictional element here, according to the artist, is the news itself. Autor’s work subversively defines truths that are outside those of the official channels. It would be a grave mistake, Autor implies, to assume news reports are objective or impartial, when they are inherently ideological. If newsreels are explicitly agitprop, then news reports are implicitly so; which is the more dangerous is left to the interpreter. The News is Ours must be defined as a title then because of the pre-existing assumption that the news is already “theirs” and their ideology is invisible but omnipresent.
Updating Joyce Wieland’s film Solidarity from 1973 to 2012, Autor films the motion of a marching crowd, focusing on the feet of the participants. The dearth of visual cues is revelatory. A degree of personality and character can be derived, absurdly, from the footwear, while the ebb and flow of emotion in the chants and whistles takes on a tension without the reassurance of wider perimeters of context. There are no faces to judge the feelings of the crowd. Similarly, there are no faces for surveillance. When a period of quiet emerges, it seems like the eye of the storm.
An equally unlikely, but effective, perspective is evident in childhood footage from the year the Berlin Wall fell. Teachers and pupils in uniform sing patriotic Yugoslavian songs; an indoctrination and militarisation of youth that is reinforced by sketches from Autor’s first-grade exercise book (a red star and a female soldier with flowers). Yet for all the ceremonial brainwashing, something nostalgic and genuine exists in the footage. It is a relic from a lost age. “The real image of the past whooshes by … what remained was the recording.” Along with it went, perhaps, a sense of innocent hope, leaving behind not just the problems of the present and the trauma of the past (with the victims and beneficiaries of both), but also the haunting feeling of better futures that could have happened but did not.
In the photographs glimpsed of Slava Klavora, this sense of loss becomes acute. Her portraits among members of the Triglav Academic Club or alone in the Kamnik Alps naturally defy categorisation. She was neither the victim her torturers wished her to be nor the Socialist Realist icon she was later canonised as. She was herself and her heroism was a uniquely personal one. In those fleeting shots, there are aspects of real, precious, unexplainable things worth fighting and dying for, things beyond ideology.
“Where do we live?” calls a lone voice in Autor’s footage. “Maribor” might come the reply, but which Maribor? Autor shows us a continually metamorphosing place, yet one prone to cycles of authoritarianism and resistance. If there is a path, it is helical, a curve in 3D space, never quite returning, yet never quite breaking free. Issues of dominance, independence and solidarity recur because they are innate human questions, here and everywhere. We make progress, however unsteady and tangential its course, because of people willing to resist. Art can merely bear witness and remind us of this. In the commentary, the following exchange, during the breakup of Yugoslavia, is recounted: “Three classmates are missing. Our class teacher tells us: “They went home.” “Home where?” we asked ourselves. “Aren’t we home?” Home, like Liberty Square, seems something eternally to be marched towards, without ever fully arriving. Yet, as Autor insists, it is a choice between that or giving up the prospect of both.