A Structure of Feeling

By Maite Lores

My first encounter with Ana Sluga’s work was a brief one: a 73-second video entitled Away (2006), showing the final stages in the demolition of a building in ruins. Knowing the artist to be from Slovenia, my first reaction was to read the work as a reference to the destruction of the former Yugoslavia. But, of course, I should have known better, for as Barthes and Foucault would tell us, it is always unwise to seek the explanation of a work in the origins of its author. An author, in this case, too young to have any real recollection of a war that was short-lived in her own country, and that she has known only through her family’s memories.

Better, then, to read the work as a sequence of syntactical elements: the building being destroyed by a bulldozer; a publicity billboard advertising the latest Renault Megane (top model included); the soundtrack of Arild Andersen’s mournful music that envelops the scene with its air of nostalgia; the deliberate use of slow motion. Four elements, through which the tragedy presented by the demolition of the building’s identity is contrasted with the billboard, an almost banal representation of the regeneration process. We are not told of the site’s ultimate fate, but left to assume its transmutation into yet another piece of capitalist real estate. Only the final elements, the music and the poetic quality of the image, represent a mood that cannot be defined by the commonplace subject that is being presented.

‘Irony by excessive aesthetics’ is how Sluga defines much of her work. And here, I find myself being drawn once more, if not to the identity of the artist, at least to some of the reasons that drive her to make art at this particular moment in history. ‘My criticism of Western civilisation and modern man goes so deep that making art is for me the best way to find a better solution, or to deny reality by using the opposite elements of that cruel reality. And this is aesthetic sensibility, harmony.’

And so it occurs to me that what marks Sluga’s work are not her origins, but an aesthetic sensibility that makes her ‘contemporaneous’ with such disparate artists as Casper David Friedrich, Corot, Vermeer, Warhol, Turner, Schiele, Fra Angelico, Eva Hesse, Yves Klein, Klee, Pollock, Barnet Newman, Franz Kline, Klimt and, above all, Mark Rothko, to quote her own preferences. To which I would add, Andrei Tarkovsky, that supreme poet of the cinema who saw art as a means towards spiritual enrichment and for whom ‘art would be useless if the world were perfect’.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Trees (2006), a series of photographs of woodlands taken by the artist in Russia, Estonia, Latvia and Finland while studying for a masters in photography in Tallinn, Estonia, and then finally in Slovenia. Shot with an old Ljubitelj 2 camera, the pictures could have been taken in those same forests a century earlier, with the viewer being no wiser as to the exact location. Trees have a universal resonance, and what Sluga was attempting was ‘to carry the viewer’s eye to the field of eternity’.

At some level – although perhaps not consciously – she was also paying homage to The Sacrifice, Tarkovsky’s final masterpiece and one of Sluga’s favourite films. The Sacrifice begins with a slow upward pan along the central tree in Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi, followed by a long-shot of Alexander and his young son planting a dead tree. As in Leonardo’s painting, the tree here is the tree of life, and the attempt to revive it is seen an act of faith. A futile act, perhaps, although Tarkovsky does not tell us whether the dead tree returns to life, as in the Buddhist monk’s tale quoted in the film. Yet, ultimately, all art – even in the current climate – demands an act of faith.

In Eco-Ego (2007), a series of photographs taken under strict official supervision in an ‘ecological’ rubbish dump in Ljubljana, Sluga reflects on two contradictory concepts: ecology and mass consumption. Waste buried underground is turned into fuel to generate energy, with the incinerator towers dotted around the landscape assuming the role of a latter-day tree of life. Ecology as a form of redemption? Here the artist doesn’t pass judgement or even try to inform the viewer, for far from adopting a documentary approach, Sluga limits herself to showing us the landfill through the lens of her subjective camera: a scene of destruction photographed in the misty hours of the early morning taking on the attributes of pictorial landscape, yet unable to escape reality in a game of contrasts where formal beauty only serves to further emphasise the true nature of reality.

The endless cycle of construction and destruction that characterises consumer society is another constant in Sluga’s work. In 2007, she submitted Trees to the Essl Award for central and southeastern European art, and was subsequently awarded second prize in the Slovenian section. For the touring exhibition, however, she elected to install Away together with Homo Faber (2007), a black-and-white soundless video of a baby, again shot in slow motion. The child evokes purity, innocence and inexperience, yet he is given the name of Homo Faber, literally Man the Maker, in reference to man’s ability to control the environment, and ultimately his destiny, through technology. Again echoing the character of Alexander, for whom all scientific advances inevitably lead to evil, Sluga reminds us that ‘it is man’s instinct for growth and innovation that leads to the incessant and inexplicable human need to create and destruct. With these two works of art, I wish to appeal to primordial, basic human emotions leading to irreparable acts.’

Whether art can encompass such noble yet fraught meaning remains questionable, for to do so may require too great an act of faith. After all, wasn’t Alexander’s sacrifice, for all its poetic resonance, ultimately a pointless gesture? Yet, if art is to be more than a simple mimesis of life, then it matters little whether the artistic narrative is grounded in reason or not, as long as it holds together in some corner of our mind, our eyes or our senses. Perhaps due to her age and the lack of resources that inevitably holds back younger artists, Sluga’s art is made up of small statements – a few short videos, a few series of photographs, some paintings – but she shares with artists like Tarkovsky or Rothko the aesthetic ability to make the kind of visual statements that mirror life, not as it appears in day to day reality, but in the often more plausible world of the imagination.

In consequence, some of her work can appear abstract, almost obscure. Away from the grand narrative of politics that so often rings hollow in an artistic context, she prefers ‘to take situations, feelings, objects from everyday life, and give them a new image, so that when the spectator enters the gallery, the atmosphere takes him or her from one kind of living into a new kind of thinking.’ Reminder (2008) and Metamorphosis (2008) are video works whose meaning is not immediately apparent. It helps to know that the rotating image in Reminder is the disc of an antique Polyphon music box and that the amorphic forms in Metamorphosis are the reflection of a spotlight on a window at night. That said, what concerns the artist is the way these are shown ‘from a new, unseen point of view that is different to that of everyday life’. In both these works, lighting and sound play important roles. In Reminder, we hear the staccato yet somehow magical sound produced by this mechanical device, while in Metamorphosis a male voice endlessly asks a series of mundane questions – ‘May I speak with you? How do you do? My name is Keni Jung. What can I do for you?’ In their unsettling repetition, coupled with the mesmerising effect of the image, these interlocutions transport us to a world where we end up questioning ourselves – like Robert de Niro in the famous mirror scene in Taxi Driver – at the risk of never knowing who we are, however much we might want to find out.

An interesting aspect of Sluga’s work is that she seldom repeats herself. Signature pieces may be good for the market, but inevitably become victims of their own success. Sluga, on the other hand, moves from one medium to another, from abstraction to figuration, without compromising the essence of her artistic vocabulary. While certain works hinge on an overt aesthetic – or, rather, a dysfunctional aesthetic, since it is used to bring out the crueller aspects of reality – at other times Sluga relies on figuration to paint an autobiographical view, or to portray a more socially committed picture of the world around her. In the recent series, Personally (2008), Sluga has photographed seven men of different ages, revealing how the ravages of time are manifested on a human face. Photographed in their bathrooms wearing nothing but a vest, the only clue to their identity comes from a number at the foot of the image: the number on their ID cards. The starkness of the composition, coupled with the ID number, lends the image the dispassionate air of forensic photography. Only on closer inspection do we become aware of how cunningly the artist has portrayed the different stages in life, from the youthful exuberance of a thirteen-year-old boy to the tired gaze of a man of eighty-six. Significantly, the older man is alone in wearing a shirt – a sign of deference to his age or a thoughtful insight on behalf of the artist adding deeper psychological weight? In the end, what informs and elevates this series of portraits is the ability to arrive at the bigger picture through an attention to detail.

More introspectively, Sluga has recently begun a series of paintings about herself and her immediate family and friends. Here I must again recant on my desire not to dwell on the identity of the artist. Two and a half years ago, Sluga had a child and took a year off to care for him, and this domestic hiatus changed the way she saw herself and consequently her work. She was afraid that ‘with the years, I wouldn’t be able to feel the same situations I felt in the past with the same intention again. So I decided to paint the people around me.’ She first painted her son in the form of a diptych entitled Theodor and Theodor (2007). For this she adopted a large format and a realistic style, because ‘that was the most suitable and affective way of doing it. It links with the purity and honesty of the child; you can paint everything and it still looks beautiful.’ The first panel of the diptych is a photo-based painting, while the second, totally abstract, represents the artist’s own reflection on the subject. The remainder of the ongoing series – Self and Self (2008), and Miha and Miha (2008) – make use of the same diptych format, although the photo-based panels are here reduced to an abstracting grid of mosaics or dots; a game in which presence and absence are practically indistinguishable.

We have now almost covered Ana Sluga’s entire artistic production. Not much in terms of quantity, and yet it is possible to learn more from these few works than from the plethora of vacuous art that we now find in many galleries. In 1961, in a book called The Long Revolution, the Cambridge philosopher and Marxist theorist, Raymond Williams, anticipated the Deleuzian concept of ‘contemporaneity’ through what he called the ‘structure of feeling’. Williams saw culture as a way of life, or common currency, through which the characteristics of a period or community are transmitted. With specific reference to the arts, he wrote: ‘It can happen that when we have measured these against the external characteristics of the period, and then allowed for individual variations, there is still some important common element that we cannot easily place.’ Each ‘new generation will have its own structure of feeling, which does not appear to have come “from” anywhere. For here, most distinctly, the changing organisation is enacted in the organism.’

Williams largely restricted his observations to the arts of the Western world, only touching on ‘other’ cultures from a socio-political perspective. But if we apply his concept of a structure of feeling to today’s globalised society, it illuminates how the small statements and observations made by individual artists can assume a universal resonance, a common currency found in, and holding significance for, different cultures throughout the world.

Maite Lorés
November 2008