Jasmina Cibic’s The Nation Loves It (2015) comes to the Crawford Art Gallery excised from its original setting. The film was made as part of a larger presentation called Spielraum: The Nation Loves It, which itself was the first of three ‘Spielraum’ exhibitions. Each of these exhibitions was a kind of gesamtkunstwerk, combining video, performance, and installation, drawing on the architecture and cultural history of the Palace of the Federation (now the Palace of Serbia) in Belgrade for the series’ unifying motif. The film’s dislocation here, however, is especially fitting, and serves to poignantly embody its overarching themes, as well as its timely relevance.
In The Nation Loves It, we see an anonymous woman (actor Cathy Naden) walking across a stage of abstract shapes and colours, delivering an address comprised of extracts from various political texts. The film lasts for just under sixteen minutes and Naden’s monologue is at points interrupted by footage of her interacting with the various geometric set-pieces of the initial installation space. In her speech, Naden discusses the forthcoming construction of a building which will purportedly express her nation’s ideals. It will be, she says, ‘like the sun’: ‘shining bright and clear, warming our nation and those around us’, and ‘visible from a great distance’. The building and its construction are clear and overt metaphors for progress and the fortification of national identity, particularly in the face of globalisation.
The central irony, of course, is that this speech about cultural uniqueness is gleaned from numerous, almost indistinguishable, speeches of this ilk. The result is that, by weaving together so many threads, we are left with an indistinct blanket statement. Naden refers constantly to ‘our nation’, but there is no indication of which nation this might be. The literal abstraction of the space in the film externalises this indefinability, making it impossible to identify where we are, or when this might be. The only signifier to which we can cling is Naden’s English accent, but even that is destabilising: firstly, we might note that Cibic herself is Slovenian, and so the actress is serving as a literal mouthpiece for both the artist and the many unnamed politicians (and speechwriters) from whom she is quoting; secondly, in popular culture, British accents have long been exported worldwide as the dialects of fantasy worlds, such as in J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones.
Similarly, while the original exhibition setting included many of the set-pieces from the video in its installation, giving more weight to the idea of a shared physical space between the viewer and the speaker by playfully manifesting the ‘here’ she repeatedly discusses, the film’s isolation at the Crawford makes more obvious the transferability of her words. The unifying rhetoric used by Naden’s character is powerful and persuasive, but it is revealed as just that: empty rhetoric. The speech she gives could be given by any politician, from any political party, in any nation. The amalgamated script, which was edited by writer and artist Tim Etchells, purposely keeps the origins of its words obscure. While we might assume Naden’s character is a benign figure, her affiliations are never revealed, and it is equally easy to imagine these words being used for malevolent purposes.
At the heart of Naden’s speech is the idea that, as she says, ‘every nation, every country, every population, no matter how big or small, has its own unique and specific qualities which don’t exist in other nations’. Though this dictum is lampooned – made almost paradoxical by the anonymity of the ‘nation’ in the film – it does highlight the universal search for a tangible, unique identity, and its rhetorical strength cannot be undermined. Indeed, although the piece was originally made in 2015, it is nearly impossible to watch ‘The Nation Loves It’ now without seeing in it the ghosts of recent political events. The piece speaks eloquently to the nationalistic drives that motivated Brexit and Trump’s presidential win, campaigns which hinged on ‘us’ and ‘them’ narratives and promises of re-invigorating a dormant but intrinsic national identity.
To a lesser extent, the piece is haunted, too, by the spectre of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Naden’s figure is dressed in a buttoned-up shirt and trousers in the same colours and pattern as the set through which she walks; her hair is severely parted and tied back in an ersatz masculine crop; and her makeup is minimal and natural. Cibic’s choice of a woman to play the key role is significant, and her masculinisation hints at the ways in which women are frequently required to suppress their femininity to be ‘taken seriously’ in politics. In the course of her recitation, Naden repeats certain phrases with differing intonations, re-emphasising certain words or swapping them for more impactful synonyms, in a way that suggests the artificial, studied spontaneity of political rhetoric in general, but also the careful, softening self-editing that is required of female politicians in particular.
Punctuating the paragraphs of the speech are scenes in which Naden engages with the extended environment of the original exhibition. Many of these interstitials can be read as playful abstractions of political processes. In one, she scrapes a geometric golden mobile until it creates a tinny cacophony, an audio-visual metaphor for the combined voices of democracy. In another, she strategically arranges triangular shapes on a table to form a larger pattern. Set to electronic background music that is at once nostalgic and futuristic, these cutaways recall the educational films made by the BBC in the 1970s and 1980s, which sought to simplify complicated ideas by explaining them visually.
Often humorous (‘I’m very glad – I’m very…thrilled? I’m VERY thrilled – I’m proud – I’m proud to be here’, Naden rehearses) and always visually appealing, Cibic’s film is both playful and serious. Its installation in the Crawford cleverly restages the destabilisation at the core of the film in a way that emphasises its underlying conceit, while also giving it a more slyly satirical – even, perhaps, nihilistic – slant that feels particularly appropriate for our current moment.
Jasmina Cibic’s The Nation Loves It was on view, 30 March – 8 July 2017.