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A modest aluminum panel covered in silver paint hangs at the top of the stairs. A narrow vitrine cantilevered through the back wall contains four mute, simple ceramic objects; a piece of black paper, a dark purple stick and a speckled black foam block rest on top.
A large mirrored case balances on peach metal legs at the center of the gallery, empty save for a gray ceramic brick and a shallow ceramic dish. Sometimes, a white and yellow albino boa constrictor lounges in the case and drinks from the bowl, but it wasn't there on the day of my visit.
Looks, however, can be deceiving. The Red Cross found nothing deplorable at the Jasenovac Concentration Camp when it visited in June , and yet the Croatian facility, among the largest camps in Europe and the only one not operated directly by the Germans, was notoriously barbaric in treating its Serbian, Jewish and Roma prisoners.
Between 80, and , victims were exterminated there via methods so gruesome that even members of the Gestapo wanted it shut down. Visitors to Knezevic's "Night of the World," which has been extended through mid-January at Alderman Exhibitions' crisp new space in the West Loop, could be similarly duped.
They might think they've wandered into the fastidious, elegant showroom of a pricey young designer who specializes in pretentious home decor. Whether misled, superficial or in denial, those visitors would hopefully be approached before leaving by gallerist Ellen Alderman, an assistant or, as happened the day I dropped by, Alderman's husband, Garry, who owns the bespoke bicycle shop downstairs. The exhibition catalog, as explicit as it is reserved, functions equally well as a guide.
What is eventually revealed, either by docent or written word, is that Knezevic, who was born and raised near Belgrade, Serbia, and who moved to the U.
And not just the text but also the printer cartridges, silk-screens, test strips and other materials she used to create the artworks. It's an exceptionally tasteful and meticulously incomplete whitewash, with as much care given to its thoroughness as to the subtle cracks in the paint that hint at the filth underneath.
Stand so the light hits the silver wall panel just so, and fragments of text become visible. Look where the snake has slithered round and see words appear in the wake of worn off paint. The mostly hidden text is Knezevic's direct translation from the Serbian of "Jedenje Bogova," the ostensible diary of a chief officer at Jasenovac.
It describes in the most precise, intense and elegant language a series of sadistic experiments performed at the camp, including the mutilation, preparation and eventual consumption of a human being. The volume was first published in by the writer Goran Cuckovic and reprinted several times, lastly in Its title means "Theophagy" or "Eating of the Gods" in English, and it is now generally considered a work of fiction.
But when it initially appeared, Knezevic explains in her exhibition catalog, it was taken as a primary historical document and helped inflame Serbian public sentiment in the lead up to the Yugoslav Civil War of the early s.
More horrifying books surely exist, but Cuckovic's volume must rank among the most atrocious, both in content and consequence. The question of what to do with something so potent, so vile, so masterly lies at the tortured heart of "Night of the World.
Should it be censored, all traces of its existence removed, as if something so grotesque had never occurred? That's what the Ustase did. The ultranationalists who governed Croatia during World War II burned Jasenovac to the ground on the eve of their defeat, obliterating every structure, all records and any remaining prisoners.
When the partisans arrived to liberate the camp, they found only smoking ruins, molten glass and skeletal remains. Should it be consumed, sacrificially taken into certain chosen bodies, to rid the world of sin and pain through digestion? That's what the Jasenovac camp guard in Cuckovic's novella believed he was doing. It's also what those who eat off of Knezevic's "Black Dinner Dining Set" would be enacting, albeit symbolically.
Fashioned after a fictional all-black dinner described by Joris-Karl Huysmans in his novel "Against Nature," Knezevic's porcelain dinnerware — a small example serves as the snake's water bowl — connects with certain avant-garde artistic tendencies to both revel in and reveal the darkest depths of the world. Looks deceive: Irena Knezevic's powerful new show.
Goran Čučković Jedenje Bogova
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Jedenje Bogova Jan Kot
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Looks deceive: Irena Knezevic's powerful new show