Sharpest regards

All eyes on the young feminists from Serbia and Montenegro

Jelena Tomasevic’s <i>Joy of Life</i>, 2007.

Jelena Tomasevic’s Joy of Life, 2007.

In 2001, the Belgrade-born conceptual artist Milica Tomic made the most of her stint as a cover girl for Prestup, a glossy Serbian lifestyle magazine, by staging what became known as “Belgrade Remembers (16 August 1941/20 October 2001).” In it, Tomic appears most appropriately glamorous: self-assured, sexy, smartly dressed—and hanging by the neck from a lamppost. The gesture goes deeper than straight-ahead satire of fashion-mag couture: Tomic alludes to Serbia’s anti-fascist resistance, whose activists were similarly arrayed—though, alas, not in jest—by Nazis 60 years earlier. She isn’t merely making a facile comparison between the deadening corruptions of capitalism and fascism, but a highly charged comment on Serbian nationalism and cultural amnesia during and after the Yugoslav wars.

Maybe none of this will seem immediately obvious, or relevant, to the American viewers who discover the piece at Sac State’s Else Gallery this month. But that’s all the more reason to visit Off-Center Femininities: Regards from Serbia and Montenegro, a touring exhibit (guest-curated locally by professor Elaine O’Brien) of politically aggressive art by Tomic and seven other women, on view through October 12. Instead of losing vitality with time or distance, this is work that has proven its durability by becoming even more complicated, more bewildering. And it brings up a question every seriously political artist must consider: When the target is your viewer’s credulity, is it better to encourage outrage or laughter?

Could both work? The exhibit’s subtitle—that coy, curt, post-card greeting—says a lot about its tone: What’s being offered here is not love, not best wishes, but simply “regards.” It doesn’t get much drier, and to imagine that salutation scribbled on the back of any one of these challenging images is to feel vaguely, tersely accused. It already was hard to tell whether a gasp or a laugh was the right response to Tomic’s stunt. Is it any easier to think that the image of an attractive, capable and self-actualized woman strung up in public might, to some threatened-feeling male chauvinists, also look a lot like wish fulfillment?

Jelena Tomasevic&#8217;s <i>Joy of Life</i>, 2007.

Riffing on and subverting familiar images, complicating viewers’ pleasure at every turn, these Off-Center artists are wily feminists, indeed—as likely to be commended for their nervy sophistication as they are to be condemned for sometimes seeming so wickedly unladylike.

“The artists represented here are working within the cultural climate that takes feminism for granted,” chief curator Jovana Stokic allows. But you couldn’t call them unfairly advantaged. After all, national disintegration is their very milieu. They come from a region, Stokic says, “that does not belong to the center of the art world.” With the exception of Tomic, all the artists of Off-Center Femininities are under 30, of the right age to have been influenced—for better and worse—by all the cultural overflow that spilled through the broken Berlin Wall. Most of them were just on the cusp of adolescence then, and it’s safe to say that subsequent history has not been dull during their collective creative maturation. The exhibit’s wall text speaks of “fashion-obsessed consumerist culture that has been aggressively interjected in the country in the state of transition,” and that really is putting it lightly.

That comment comes up in reference to Jelena Tomasevic’s 2003 photo, “I Love Montenegro.” It depicts the corpse of a young woman, whose head is wrapped in a T-shirt—"emblazoned with words ‘I love Montenegro’ that serves only to deny the viewer a glimpse of the victim’s identity.” Like Tomic, Stokic suggests, “Tomasevic here willingly plays the victim. … [She] is present to demonstrate how national identity can be (literally) suffocating.”

Tanja Ostojic&#8217;s &#8220;<i>L&#8217;Origine du Monde</i>,&#8221; 2005.

So too can political art, of course. Thank goodness stridency isn’t all Tomasevic has to offer. As evinced by her 2006 photo “What Your Eyes Won’t See,” of a nude woman alone in an ocean under a cloudy sky, with a radiant silver-white balloon tied to one ankle, the artist also has a flair for stark, faintly surreal whimsy. Nowhere is this more evident, though, than in Tomasevic’s extraordinary, weirdly dreamy Joy of Life illustration series. Here, in flat, empty spaces tense with menace and mystery, her “figures are not really engaged in any of the activities,” Stokic writes. “They are merely posing as replicas from fashion magazines.” That leaves them prey to the artist’s shrugging suggestions of violence—as when, to take one example, a suited woman leans back in a patio chair to put up her purple high heels while a man lies apparently dead on the sun-bleached nearby sidewalk.

Probably the most contentious of the Off-Center Femininities contenders is Tanja Ostojic, one of several European artists commissioned to celebrate Austria’s presidency of the European Union in 2005, and later dropped from that commission for producing a now famously scandalous work—namely, her photo of herself clad in the so-called “EU flag panties.”

“L’Origine du Monde” is the actual title, borrowed from the now famously scandalous 1866 Gustave Courbet painting—of the torso of a naked woman, spreading her legs—to which Ostojic’s picture directly alludes. In her “L’Origine,” though, the most conspicuous feature is the ring of a dozen yellow stars in a field of blue.

Milica Tomic&#8217;s &#8220;Belgrade Remembers,&#8221; 2001.

“Experience tells me that it is the inner message actually causing a provocation,” she has said, “not the directness of my female body that is used.” What’s more: “My interpretation of ‘L’Origine du Monde’ is of course even much less naked than Courbet’s model.” True that.

It might not mean much to 2007’s Sacramentans, who are perhaps forgivably inclined to care less about what it means to want to get into the EU, and what it takes, than about whether those flag panties are for sale in certain lingerie catalogues. But it’s still worth seeing, right?

Off-Center Femininities may or may not repair ongoing American befuddlement over the recent history of the Balkans, and it may or may not inspire another wave of young international feminist artists. But it certainly does suggest the best thing political art can be: outrageous in more ways than one.