Her eyes locked on ours, her face framed by darkness, she lifts her cupped hands, spilling over with sugar cubes, to her mouth.
The video, “Abandoned” (2020), at three minutes and 40 seconds long, is the shortest of five works comprising the online exhibition, The Far Away Is Here, currently available at catincatabacaru.com, curated by artist Rachel Monosov and gallery director Catinca Tabacaru.
The other works in the show — Monosov’s “It will end up in me” (2017); Marie José Burki’s “A film” (2017); “The White Wolf” (2018) by Sue de Beer; and “Ziggy and the Starfish” (2018) by Anne Duk Hee Jordan — offer an array of angles on the COVID crisis, all of them intriguing, if applied after the fact.
“Abandoned,” by Serbian artist Sanja Latinović, was made in the pandemic’s grip. The sugar cubes are more like sugar slabs, wide and thick. She crams them into her mouth like a starving refugee.
The video comes out of a master class taught by Serbian-born Marina Abramović, and a look at Latinović’s website reveals an artist who has absorbed the performance legacy forged by women like Abramović, Regina José Galindo, and Alex McQuilkin, making it her own with uncommon power and imagination.
Her approach, like theirs, is decidedly physical — plunging knives into a wall to turn the tables on sexual aggression (“Upotreba noža [Use of a Knife],” 2020), or cutting a precarious pathway through neck-high sheets of glass suspended on metal sawhorses (“Do Not Cross,” 2016).
She can display self-deprecating humor, dodging eggs lobbed from the audience (“Deflection,” 2009), or stumble into a misstep, cross-legged on the floor beside a fellow artist, Ranko Đanković, with a starling tethered to her shoulder (“The Bird,” 2014). In her majestically macabre “Movements: White” (2012), a collaboration with Đanković, 18 disembodied limbs — two pairs of legs and seven pairs of arms, protruding from holes in a canvas wall — form an arc in which modeling clay is passed hand to hand, from one end to the other.
Latinović’s description of “Abandoned,” as posted on the gallery website, is simply “how we feel right now in Belgrade.” But the emotions are complex. As she stares into the camera with sugar cubes jammed into her mouth like dislodged, oversize teeth, she forces sounds from her throat in guttural bursts. The website tells us what she is saying — “I am abandoned” — I assume in Serbian, because for an English speaker, it is impossible to understand.
But not to comprehend: as she tries and fails to form her words around the obstructions wedged into her mouth, her eyes glisten, well, and run with tears. At the 1:40 mark, her frustration flares into outrage, brimming with waves of hopelessness and bewilderment, before ebbing into fear, supplication, and silence.
Throughout Latinović’s performance work, the simplicity and specificity of the action engender a multiplicity of readings, all of them open-ended. The burning vehemence of “Abandoned,” stunning to absorb, could erupt from any trauma. But at this moment, the opacity of its metaphor — a mouth packed with sugar — coupled with the artist’s strangulated cries, deliver an emotional lucidity that pierces our self-protective veil with a glimpse of the pandemic’s raw truth, in all its random horror.
Latinović’s oracular howls are neither redemptive nor cathartic. They don’t offer a way out, or even a way to cope. They are simply what they are, dredged from a wellspring at once uncompromising and incandescent.
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