CHICAGO — Irena Knezevic’s exhibition Night of the World: Flatworks, Multiples and Music Programs embodies a heavy-handedness that could only come from the mind of a Serbian artist living in America post-Yugoslav Wars. The exhibition takes its inspiration not from a concept or image, but rather from the text of Jedenje Bogova, the diary of a chief officer at Jasenovac concentration camp. Written during World War II, the diary re-emerged in 1982 and became a popular text by the late 1980s. Atrocities documented in the diary are beyond appalling; gruesome doesn’t aptly describe them either. They are unthinkable — mothers confined in the Jasenovac concentration camp, manipulated into calculated starvation techniques, and later forced to eat human flesh including that of their own children. The last printing of the diary occurred in 1988; the Yugoslav civil war began three years later. Then the book disappeared. Knezevic looked for a copy of this book for nearly 10 years before finally locating one online; a Croatian man who wishes to remain anonymous sold it to her. Knezevic’s English translation of the diary and an albino boa constrictor snake form the foundation of this chilling exhibition.
In the center of the gallery, the medium-sized, yellow-and-white-speckled albino boa constrictor sits or slithers, depending on the moment you catch it, inside a glass case. It is positioned on a slab of matte gray/silver monochrome that holds the entire translated text of the officer’s diary. Eventually the snake will move around enough to dust off the silver particles of the gray scratch-off paint, revealing the text. Viewers can peer in and read it or not. Knezevic uses an albino boa constrictor because it was the only reptile — or animal, for that matter — to survive the Belgrade bombing; every other living being in the Belgrade zoo died. An albino relative of the Belgrade zoo snake unknowingly uses its thick scales to reveal the translation of a text that fueled the Yugoslav wars, including the Ten Day War (1991), the Croatian War of Independence (1991–1995), the Bosnian War (1992–1995), and the Kosovo War (1998–1999). The Yugoslav War’s human death toll approached 150,000. In Shamanism, the snake is a symbol of death, rebirth, eternity, mysteries of life, and psychic energy — and so it is fitting that this reptile will wipe paint away from the monochrome, revealing the English translation of this gruesome, cursed diary that would otherwise remain invisible to many non-Serbs.
Knezevic also utilizes the remains from the printing of the diary and the creation of this show. She fires the objects left behind, such as an Epson printer ink cartridge and other material bits and pieces. They are the exhibition’s physical remains, and proof of its existence. A detailed, 13-page document compiled by Knezevic explains the significance of the work. It is available at the gallery (or online) in lieu of a glossy brochure or press release. The work in this exhibition does not have titles; rather, it is organized by object type, including Table (edition of 1), which includes the snake, glass case, and the only complete version of the translated text; Monochromes (edition of 6), which are the complete translation split across six different sheets of aluminum that form one whole all together; Cartridges (Edition of 3), the Epson Ink Jet cartridges used for printing, which Knezevic fired and filled with glass; and Maintenance Tanks (Edition of 2), which are the tanks used to clean the printer nozzles during printing.
This is an exhibition that one has to experience in-person. Previous to the opening, Knezevic did not release any information aside from the show poster with exhibition title, dates, and location. In this way, the exhibition itself operates almost like a much-awaited unveiling, or the release of a prisoner confined to silent research in their study until the day of the opening. In our social media era of live streaming artwork before the exhibition actually opens, Knezevic’s approach comes as a much-needed break from an always-on culture that often times releases the prize before the competition even begins. The show kicks up dirt on history, revealing the historical cycles of war and violence, yet the artwork itself comes out clean, uncovering more through its layered process of becoming.
Upon exiting this heavy exhibition, I was left pondering two very important questions: If World War III ever happens, will it wipe out the “normal” humans and animals, leaving behind a brave new world populated only by albino people and animals? And one day, 40 years from now, will a misplaced diary from the Yugoslav Wars surface, igniting the cycle of war anew? Somewhere in America, a snake slithers about, gulping pigeons, and mice for dinner. The answers are embedded into its scales, which it will eventually shed in order to transform anew.
Irena Knezevic’s Night of the World: Flatworks, Multiples and Music Programs continues at Alderman Exhibitions until January 13, 2013.