Negotiating the mechanics of becoming and unbecoming and speculations on post-human scenarios beyond death and singularity. New York based artist Ivana Basic in conversation with Maria Abramenko.
Your artworks seem very complex, can you talk a little bit about materials and techniques you use?
In my practice, form reflects materiality and all media are chosen for their elemental properties—and utilized as substances rather than artistic materials. My sculptures are usually human scale and composed of four to five different materials such as wax, blown glass, bronze, alabaster, and stainless steel. These materials have narrative properties. Glass speaks to the breath that formed it. Wax connotes the malleable, impermanent flesh—paraffin wax comes from petroleum, from the soil and fossils to which the body will ultimately go back into. Stone speaks to matter under pressure. Stainless steel to the inevitability and violence behind the forces of life and death, forces that act upon the body. At times, my sculptures are also interjected with kinetic and mechanical elements, offering a palpable connection between the substance and the broader systems it must operate within. In other words, I look at sculpture as the kind of holistic practice where form and substance go through the same process, in order to narrate a singular truth. My pieces are made so that all elements fit in a seamless way, erasing any traces of my own intervention. This type of seamless blending of multiple materials, some of which are extremely fragile, requires a lot of engineering and structural problem solving. This makes my process very long and extremely labour intensive, with a single sculpture taking months or even years to produce.
You have recently participated in “The Body Electric” group show curated by Pavel Pyś next to artist such as Laurie Anderson, Bruce Nauman and Martine Syms among many others. Tell us about this experience.
It has been a great honor to take part in this show. The exhibition is a seminal survey of works that examine our relationship to technology and materiality as shaped by our increasing dependence on screens. An incredible list of artists, some of which you mentioned, in addition to artists like Gretchen Bender, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Pierre Huyghe, Nam June Paik and many others, speaks to the depth of angles from which the idea of construction and deconstruction of the self as mediated through technology is examined in this show, as well as the implications of these major shifts in our life and perception. Having in mind that the survey is initiated through the pioneering generation of artists in the 1960s all the way up till today, it is a great honor to be included, and for my work to be able to contribute to the narrative of what I believe has been one of the most radical paradigm shifts in the history of humanity. Because of the unfortunate circumstances of COVID-19, I have not been able to see the show in person, but have instead supplemented that as much as possible with online documentation, and curated artist talks, which have been really incredible at expanding upon the exhibition’s inquiry.
What is your work talking about and what are you inspired by?
My work examines the ways in which primordial matter—life, breath, flesh—succumbs to various conditions that are pressed upon it. Through my sculptures I negotiate the mechanics of becoming and unbecoming and speculate on post-human scenarios beyond death and singularity. Each of my works grow from a period of intense research, which is where my inspiration comes from. This research encompasses historical and philosophical study, religious mysticism, material specificity, and kinetic processes which are all woven into forms. As I studied technology, the technological lens is embedded into my consideration of the body. Finitude taken as a product of the material condition of the human, becomes variable through the shift that technology is bringing toward dematerialisation of the human being, and this is something I am actively engaging with through my work—considering it as a possible pathway to immortality.
You were born in Belgrade, how different are the Serbian and New York art scenes, what is your opinion on American art system nowadays?
I was born in Belgrade and lived there until I was 23. While I was growing up, and until I left the country, there were barely any traces of art to be seen. The country and larger culture had been ravaged by wars and political upheavals to the degree that there was no space for anything but the most necessary. Galeries were non-existent and museums were closed for decades. Since I left, however, things have changed quite a bit. A lot of galleries have opened up, museums have reopened their doors, contemporary art found its way back into the public discourse, and whole generations of artists and curators are shaping the Belgrade art world as we speak. The differences between the art scenes in Belgrade and New York are hard to speak of, as I don’t think they are really comparable. To begin with, the living standard in New York is incomparably higher than in Belgrade, which is really the key, as the presence of capital, collectors, private philanthropy and public financial support will ultimately determine the growth of the art scene. As for the American art system, I am still wrapping my head around it, honestly. There are some incredible things to say about being an artist in New York, but also some problematic aspects. The city has an amazing energy, fueled by curiosity, critical discourse, and constant hunger for new work. There is a strong infrastructure, incredible museums and institutions, and a highly professionalized art scene that is mostly driven by the art market. On the other hand, I also see a lot of problematic things, such as the art schools which put students deep into debt, and are contributing to the model in which artists work matters less than the stamp of approval they received from certain institutions and the number of contacts acquired through them. On a larger scale, I think that this is a really difficult moment for art in America. Whether because of the social media, or because of the tense political atmosphere, I feel there is less and less space for nuance, complexity, and a shared humanity. The main focus of art discourse these days is on the most reductive, and involuntary aspects of the human being: body, gender, sexual orientation, skin color. One of the main reasons why I left Serbia was because there was no space in the society to accommodate anything but politics, and making work in America today can feel just like the system I thought I left behind a long time ago. A system where everything is read according to the particulars of the artist, rather than for the questions raised by the work.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on a new body of work, my most ambitious thus far, which has been in development for the past three years. The work is scheduled to be shown the beginning of next year in a solo exhibition in New York. The work examines ways in which subjectivity can transform into otherness: from material to immaterial; from organic to inorganic; from human to non-human; and from ground-bound matter into pure idealism. These transformative processes reflect the ways in which human life is becoming immaterial in the early 21st century. Capitalism increasingly turns physical matter into pneuma (breath, spirit) and new technology allows contemporary humanity to constantly traverse screens, making it possible to exit bodily boundaries. In my research, I have focused in particular on ideas stemming from Russian Cosmists, Catherine Malabou, and Clarice Lispector, considering metamorphosis as a strategy of modification to avoid destruction, but also expanding upon ideas from Gnosticism, Eastern Orthodox mysticism, as well as biological processes in insects. This new universe is definitely more surreal, more machine-like, as well as more turned toward spirituality, and I am super excited for it to see the light of the day.