When I met with Milena Jovicevic she had just returned from Venice, where she had her hair cut. This was no ordinary haircut, however. It was, in fact, part of a performance piece orchestrated by artist Sislej Xhafa for the Venice Biennale. He hired a professional hairdresser, and reserved a special place for the coiffing to take place – a tree. Milena had to strap on a harness after her 13-hour drive to Venice, climb the tree (fitted eloquently with a barber pole) and sit to get her haircut. The piece was part of Xhafa’s representation for the Italian Pavilion at the Biennale, which focused on the theme of the binaries that come to define our identity.
Milena’s own performances and interactive works of art, however, are usually focused on one particular binary – that of male and female. The artist is interested in the tension between traditional women’s roles in Montenegro and the former Yugoslavia, and the new, emancipated woman that emerged after the break-up of Yugoslavia and the end of Tito’s socialism. So, on the one hand, you have the traditional grannies wearing headscarves and black dresses, and the younger generation, in the same family, where the woman embraces her role as an object of desire – also in a black dress, but perhaps a more ‘little’ one.
To illustrate this dichotomy, for example, Milena created a glass foosball table, which cannot be played. The players, along with the table, are made entirely out of glass, demonstrating the fragility of this situation that women find themselves in nowadays. The two generations of women are competing against one another, but they cannot actually fight it out. The piece is called Man Games (2011), as all of these roles that women take on (the good wife, the sex object) are ultimately defined by their relation to the opposite sex.
She continued this theme with Free Sugar, lollipops made of sugar and caramel that were shaped like muscular, well-built men. The visitors to the exhibition were meant to consume these candies, and some found the task difficult. (One can’t help but wonder whether female-shaped lollipops would have been easier to stomach.) The idea reminded me Polish artist Natalia L.L.’s Consumer Art from 1972, where a model was photographed eating sexually suggestive objects, such as a banana and hot dog. Here, however, it is the viewer that becomes the consumer, quite literally, of the work of art, and of the male body. The theme of consumption is one that has occupied artists since the post-War era, but in Milena’s work, the tables are turned, and now it is the male body that is being consumed.
It is not only the male body that is the object of consumption in Milena’s work. At the opening of the exhibition PAY & P(L)AY in 2013, the artist created visa credit cards of sparkling gold plastic, with the lone digit “0” occupying the center. The cards were just plastic, without an active magnetic strip, but people took them to nearby shops and tried to use them to purchase real items. As Milena told me, they urged the shopkeepers to keep trying to put the transactions through, but the cards, without a qualifying bank behind them, couldn’t purchase anything. Present in the exhibition hall was Milena’s custom-made abacus, an ancient tool for calculating purchases and debts. In our oversexed society, however, the beads on the abacus have now grown nipples, and are stuck together in pairs – like real boobs. Just as the tension between old and young was made manifest in her football table, here an old fashioned adding machine is modernized by being outfitted with the female anatomy, for each of its users to (willingly or unwillingly) consume.
Milena observes how everything in our society is vulgarized – whether it is relating to sex, objectification, consumption, etc.. She draws attention to that fact using humor and irony to draw the viewer in, and challenge his or her received ideas about those aspects of society. We consume sex on a daily basis without even knowing or realizing it. Milena makes this consumption overt, saturating our visual sphere with re-sexualized objects such as lollipops and calculating machines.
Milena Jovicevic, from Montenegro, does work that specifically references gender issues significant to the local community, referencing the patriarchal society in Montenegro and the great divide between women of the older and younger generation. But because these issues can also be understood on a more global level, they have universal application and significance to a wider audience. I think this range of relevance is what often makes good art – the fact that it can be read and understood on many levels gives it a much greater depth.