Hammer Projects: Danica Dakić

Hammer Projects: Danica Dakić

Bosnian artist Danica Dakić creates videos and photographs that explore displacement, role-playing, and alienation. Her exhibition features Isola Bella (2007-2008), a video created with the residents of a facility for the mentally and physically disabled, the Home for the Protection of Children and Youth, in a town outside of Sarajevo. Dakić transforms the facility’s small theater into a film set by inserting a 19th-century wallpaper design called “Isola Bella,” which features imagery of this tropical island, and a piano. Enlisting the residents as participants, they wear Victorian paper masks—ranging from Marie Antoinette to Carmen Miranda to Caesar to a Native American chief—which hide their identities and expressions and allow them to role-play and to re-invent themselves. The video alternates between the residents’ performance in front of the wallpaper and their reactions as audience members. The sense of abundance created by the lush scenery and ornate masks is disrupted by the contrast with residents’ plain clothes and the institution’s linoleum floor. Through storytelling and improvised songs, the residents weave together their personal histories and desires, creating a space between documentary and performance that is part fact and part fantasy. The video projection is accompanied by a three-part “movie poster.” This will be Dakić’s first solo exhibition in a U.S. museum.

Organized by Anne Ellegood, Hammer senior curator.

Biography

Danica Dakić was born in 1962 in Sarajevo and currently lives in both Sarajevo and Düsseldorf. She has studied at The Academy of Fine Arts, Sarajevo; the University of Arts, Belgrade; and the Academy of Fine Arts, Düsseldorf. Dakic has had solo shows at Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb; Generali Foundation, Vienna; Wilhelm-Hack-Museum, Ludwigshafen; Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, Düsseldorf; Kunsthaus Langenthal, Langenthal; Museum of Modern Art Ljubljana, Ljubljana; Kulturzentrum Sinsteden, Sinsteden; National Gallery of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Sarajevo; Kunstverein Ulm, Ulm; and Obala Art Centar, Sarajevo. She has participated in many group exhibitions including documenta 12, Kassel; the 2003 and 2009 Istanbul Biennials, Istanbul; the 2003 Valenica Biennial, Valencia; the 2010 Biennale of Sydney; and the 2010 Liverpool Biennial, Liverpool. This is her first solo show in a U. S. museum.

Essay

By Emily Gonzalez

Bosnian artist Danica Dakić creates videos and photographs that explore displacement, role-playing, and alienation. Employing the tropes of historical painting, she places people in ornate and poignant settings. Her works come out of collaborations with her protagonists—including Romani communities in Kosovo, underage refugees in Germany, and a Huichol family in Mexico—who participate in various aspects of the work, including the script, costumes, and staging. This level of involvement allows their distinctive personalities and desires to permeate the tableaux vivants created by Dakić. In this way, she explores identity with a sense of empathy and empowers her often politically, socially, or economically disadvantaged participants to perform their own narratives.

Dakić originally studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Sarajevo. She became interested in the German artist Joseph Beuys and his teaching that art has the capacity to change lives. In order to find remnants of his aura, she enrolled at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art, where Beuys had been an influential teacher. In Düsseldorf she studied with the pioneering video artist Nam June Paik and began working with video and photography. Now living in both Sarajevo and Düsseldorf in addition to working internationally, Dakić has a personal understanding of navigating between very different cultures. Her experience as a painter as well as her interest in architecture, music, and theater are central to her artistic approach and add a richness of content to her work. 

Dakić’s works pull viewers into a totally contained environment, displaying the continuing influence of architecture in her projects. La Grande Galerie (2004) is a series of photographs that feature Romani individuals, commonly known as Gypsies, set against the backdrop of an enlarged reproduction of Hubert Robert’s painting Imaginary View of the Grand Gallery of the Louvre in Ruins (1796). In Dakić’s images, the refugees pose in casual groupings wearing their own plain clothes. The reality of their living conditions is set in contrast to Robert’s conception of Western civilization’s downfall. Likewise, Dakić’s video Role-Taking/Role-Making (2004–5) travels between Romani communities in Kosovo and a Romani theater group based in Germany. The work deals with questions of the theater as an institution and theatricality as a mode of everyday performativity in the context of the specific historical and political situation of Roma in southeast Europe and Western Europe in the post-Yogoslavian era. Interspersed among the scenes in which the protagonists discuss their lives and the roles they play, a psychologist dressed as a Gypsy explains the theory and purpose of role-playing. For the video El Dorado. Giessbergstrasse (2006-7), Dakić worked with underage refugees in Germany who discuss and act out their hopes, dreams, and fears against the ornate background of the scenic wallpaper El Dorado (1848) and other rooms of Kassel’s Wallpaper Museum. In all these projects, the participants perform for an invisible viewer. They expose their struggles and desires to the anonymous gallery visitor, expressing a universal longing for empathy and visibility that is present throughout Dakić’s oeuvre. 

Dakić created Isola Bella (2007-8), the video on view at the Hammer Museum, in collaboration with the residents of the Home for the Protection of Children and Youth in Pazarić, a town outside Sarajevo. Many of the residents of this facility for the mentally and physically disabled appear to be beyond their youth and have likely spent most of their lives there. Dakić installed a piano and a nineteenth-century panoramic wallpaper design of a tropical oasis—called Isola Bella—in the institution’s small theater during her two-week film shoot. The participants dance, sing, improvise music, and talk about their lives and their wishes. Attempting to draw out and encourage their talents, Dakić brought hundreds of Victorian paper masks—depicting characters such as Marie Antoinette, Carmen Miranda, Caesar, and a Native American chief—for the actors to wear during filming. Their sincerity and commitment to their roles shine through in their performances, sometimes heightened by the masks’ features, even though their eyes and expressions are obscured.

In addition to acting on stage, the residents serve as the audience for the performances taking place before the wallpaper stage set. Mirroring the characters on stage, the spectators wear masks, and some players can be identified both in the audience and on stage. By creating this type of double performance, Dakić makes the audience’s role just as important as the action on stage. At one point she creates a direct connection between one of the players on stage and his counterpart in the audience by cutting to the character sitting in the audience just after he has been shown on stage wiggling his fingers as if playing an invisible piano. In Dakić’s narrative, he seems to smile to himself in response to this playful gesture. 

While these projects come out of close partnerships between the artist and her protagonists, it is Dakić who controls the finished product. Without removing the candor and truth of their stories, she edits the scenes with the residents to create her own narrative about them. The hand of the artist is palpable in her use of prime numbers in the intertitles that punctuate the scenes. They are shown in no discernible order, a nod to the splicing that happens in the post production of a film, making evident the way that Dakić leads the viewer through her invented chronology.

The first line in the video is spoken by the double-masked master of ceremonies, who asks, “Where is the audience?” The residents respond to the call by filling the seats: they talk to one another, look around, and adjust their postures as they await the performance. Throughout the performance they sit with rapt attention or clap enthusiastically. This questioning of the role and participation of the audience marks a departure for Dakić. While all her past projects have involved performing for a camera, this is the first in which she has created an audience for the play. The audience in the video is itself a performance, but the fact that it is played by the same actors who perform on stage creates a closed loop of viewing. The performance is meant not only for the art patrons but also for the residents of the home themselves. 
After reading about the institution, Dakić was struck by the way that it had survived the Bosnian war of the 1990s untouched. Her choice of the Isola Bella wallpaper reflects her view of the home as an island amid the turmoil. It functions as an island of sorts—paradisical or deserted—for many of the inhabitants as well. In their performances, twin brothers mention that they leave the facility only once a year, when another brother picks them up for a weeklong visit. A resident talks of falling in love with another resident and their courtship. One woman expresses her wish to become a lawyer for the United Nations in New York when she leaves the home. Another woman waits with a suitcase for someone to take her away, although she laments that the person never comes. Both of these women have a desire to escape the island, but the viewer knows that this is not likely to happen. These stories reveal how enclosed and intertwined the residents’ lives are, pointing to the institution’s character as a self-contained ecosystem.

Through her artworks, Dakić creates a space for the performers to escape the constraints of their daily lives by recognizing and staging their desires and phantasies. Here again, her use of prime numbers in the intertitles in Isola Bella highlights the value she sees in their unique, often overlooked, stories. By including numbers that are the product of only themselves and one, Dakić further argues for the importance of paying attention to individual experiences.

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Hammer Projects is made possible with major gifts from Susan Bay Nimoy and Leonard Nimoy and The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation.

Additional generous support is provided by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission; Good Works Foundation and Laura Donnelley; L A Art House Foundation; Kayne Foundation—Ric & Suzanne Kayne and Jenni, Maggie & Saree; the Department of Cultural Affairs, City of Los Angeles; and the David Teiger Curatorial Travel Fund.