Interview between Una Popović/Siniša Ilić. Excerpt from Inverted House, exhibition leaflet, Tate Modern, London, December 2013 – April 2014
Belgrade, Serbia / Zagreb, Croatia & London UK
September – October 2013
Una Popović: Siniša, you work across different mediums including drawing, installation and the performing arts. How did you decide upon such a combination of approaches, and could you describe your work from the point of view of the media that you use?
Siniša Ilić: It’s quite difficult for me to describe my work in terms of a particular media, and I feel that it’s not hugely important. What interests me is the image itself – the narrative that surrounds it, what is taken away from it, the way it’s presented in the mass media and how it reflects upon and responds to our reality and the current political moment. I am also interested in the ways in which we remember the images that we grew up with, their materiality and history. Basically, I am interested in the organisation of pictorial material, which includes working with space and the working processes themselves.
Still, I do employ various media: Uncomparables. Forming a Suspicious State (2010) and Precarious Adaptations (2011) – my joint works with Tina Gverović – consider work as a space through which the audience moves without a clear plan, linking individual segments together to form narratives – be it through drawing, photography, sound or architectural space.
UP: Common themes in your work are uncertainty, instability, violence, desire and expectation. Would you define your work as political? Do you think art is still political today and to what extent do you think it should be?
SI: The topics you mention map out the problems of today: an intermittent, over-saturated and exhausting time that’s full of tension. This isn’t new, but it does make us nervous and aggressive because we are living in expectation whilst very little is changing – or, if it does change, it changes too slowly.
As a public activity, art is always political, but it’s difficult to determine its measure or format.
The interior of the Project Space that Tina and I are currently working on is a temporary context: a micro space, which deals with the personal and the geopolitical results of instability, disintegration of solid ground and dependence upon fragile states. There are architectural elements of deconstructed wall-like structures, recalling colour schemes of museum walls that date from another time. These form a type of space, and image, which is caught between being unregulated, disrupted, unruly, wild, out of control, and a place that is regulated, that is slowly growing into something.
UP: How would you define the position of an artist in Serbia? In the situation we’re currently faced with – two major national museums in Serbia, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the National Museum, both in Belgrade, have been closed to the public for years due to building reconstruction work – the overall strategy surrounding culture is vague. How would you describe the role of an artist in our society – does it actually exist – and what strategies might be taken up by curators, artists and cultural workers that would be helpful at this stage?
SI: I would say that one of the roles of artists and cultural workers is to reflect on society in a critical way, examining its weaknesses and opening spaces for discussion. It seems to me that the position of an artist in Serbia is almost an invisible one, as is that of the arts in general. Useful strategies could involve education, solidarity, mutual exchange of information about the work that is being developed and some sort of unified front, but these are unlikely in today’s society, oriented as it is towards self-interest and in each segment being completely dependent on the economic condition. The museums have been closed for too long, which raises the question of what the reality of art is today with a lack of institutions.
UP: Tina Gverović and yourself have received an invitation to present your collaborative works at Tate Modern. What does this opportunity mean to you?
SI: Art, artistic work and communications occur in different contexts and spaces. I am curious about the opportunity to exhibit at an institution such as Tate. This invitation was unexpected and is, in many ways, an important step in my artistic career and development in a world organised according to the rules of institutional success and recognition.
UP: Your work is often collaborative – involving cooperation with a variety of authors – and you have already worked with Tina Gverović a number of times. Do you make a distinction between individual and collaborative work, and does the collaborative process have an impact on your individual work?
SI: What I like about collaborative work is questioning the subject from different angles and perspectives, including the heterogeneous nature of the completed work. Within the activities and contributions of TkH (Walking Theory) – a platform for contemporary art and theory from Belgrade of which I am a co-founder – I have been, amongst other things, constantly learning about the procedures of collaborative work. On the other hand, individual work requires a different organisation of time and I experience that type of effort as being the most focused moments for my work, which can be later ‘dismantled’ and ‘edited’ in various ways.
Tina and my collaborative work concentrates on subjects of uncertainty, fragility and ever-present feelings of the lack of solid ground. Our collaborative practice is enriched with the contributions we receive through communication with London based artist Ben Cain and other colleagues with whom we have worked in the past. Although collaboration is sometimes criticised as a pragmatic and economic approach to work, I find it tense and full of uncertainty, and see it as a space for both successes and failures; something that distracts us from ourselves.
UP: One section of the exhibition presented at Tate will include drawings and texts created by Tina and yourself and then exchanged via email. Why do you think this process is interesting, what does it record and what is its contribution?
SI: It’s a process that reflects the time and conditions in which we live and work, based on improvisation, speed and mobility which, in this case, involves internet communication. Its main advantage – and, in some sense, its disadvantage too – is the notion of constant availability, always and everywhere: drawing and writing on your knees, in coffee shops, at the airport, sending emails at every hour of the day and night. This process might not be interesting and unusual in itself, but it does record different modes of work and communication – something that I believe occured in your curatorial collaboration as well. On the other hand, it brings a nice slowness: slowness in reading emails, slowness in observing pictures, the pleasure of returning to the inbox and the anticipation of some new material. A characteristic of such work is its physical mobility: we carry it along with us, somewhere in our email, and it comes into being materially in different places that carry various atmospheres, thoughts, exhaustions and problems. The particular work we will be presenting for this exhibition was created during travels between Rijeka, Zaton, Belgrade, Zagreb, London, Kabelvår, Svolvær and Bremen. It is almost possible to track this journey by looking, for example, at the types of paper or paint that are being used, since the range of materials on offer varies from one place to another.
UP: The work in this exhibition doesn’t hide the process by which it was made. The intention, rather, is to openly demonstrate the meeting of different milieus, communities, opportunities and institutions, and to show how this process of meeting and connecting with others has led to the creation of the work on show. For this exhibition, Hannah and I – the curators – didn’t simply select finished works to exhibit. Instead, we have had, from the very start, the intention of introducing the public to the direct processes of collaboration and communication that have characterised both our curatorial cooperation, and your artistic one. How do you view artist residencies and do you think that they have contributed to the potential of this exhibition or not?
SI: I believe that even short conversations say something about the working process and our positions – perhaps even more than we think or are comfortable with. As we are having these conversations at the same time as we are conceiving our work for the exhibition and making organisational arrangements, there is something live in this process. We are building the exhibition piece by piece. I am now getting familiar with the context for the exhibition, thinking about the topics that you have proposed, such as the collection, building and museum. Tina and I are trying to (re)organise the elements of the mural, the ‘false’ museum walls scattered around the space, the abstract or ready-made objects used by the institution itself, as well as the images of the ‘samples’ of society, nature, traces of violence and conflict, disconnection, and technological waste. From a very personal perspective, artist residences – generally speaking and in spite of all their problems – have a positive impact on my work, artistic articulation and production. This time has been no different – meeting people and contexts first hand is always a valuable experience.