The Story Teller - Time Machines by Tatjana Stefanovic
Exhibition Essay - Whitespace Gallery, Auckland, Jully 2006
Tatjana Stefanovic 's art is nostalgic, but cheerfully so. It is a world of colours and noise; bright, vibrant and larger-than-life. It evokes memories of childhood, when everything was new and strange, bright and colourful, bigger and more exciting. The viewer gets the sense that the artist has never quite given up this view of the world to a more adult, more serious, less wonderful gaze. Born in Yugoslavia, the artist emigrated to New Zealand twelve years ago, at the age of sixteen, leaving behind many tangible symbols of her childhood, carrying memories that inevitably change and fade. Her paintings, sculptures and installations explore this concept of memory and time, how the past shapes the present and how it is preserved and changed over time through ritual, stories, art and memory.
In her first solo show since graduating from Auckland University's Elam School of Fine Arts with a Masters degree in 2005, Stefanovic has created an intriguing body of work that draws from the breadth of her experience in a variety of fields. On completing a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 2001, the artist went on to study stage design in Wellington, taking part in a number of productions there and later at Auckland's Silo Theatre. She has also worked with costuming and in the interior design field. Stefanovic created a major public work for the 2003 Bounce Festival in Wellington, for which she produced an installation in Civic Square made of hundreds of coloured balls forming swirling towers. Like this work her current show embraces space and colour and the ability to transform the environment with imagination.
Stefanovic's background in theatre design is particularly evident in Nomadic Wonders, like huge shepherd's crooks wrapped in bright wool, timed to tinkle their bells every few moments. With these stage set-like pieces, there is a sense of creating a world into which the viewer can enter. Like the theatre, the works draw the audience in, create an environment which makes them believe in another world beyond their reality.
Tatjana Stefanovic believes in this world, the dream space to which the viewer can be transported. Through her work she explores physical space and time, the ways in which their physicality can be stretched and altered, how a memory, a story, a play or a work of art can mentally transport the viewer to another place, how these places and the real world meet and collide through memories and the imagination.
The theatre is primarily an arena for story-telling, and this is an underlying theme of all Stefanovic's work. Whispers contemplates the passing on of stories, the way in which they change over time in a game of Chinese Whispers taking place through generations. The artist is also interested in the environments of story telling, the way in which the context controls and alters the tale. References to spinning and weaving throughout her work, especially in the loomlike central section of Honey Bunny Southern Cross suggest women's circles, groups more social than productive in reality and a traditional gathering for telling stories, spreading gossip which grows more exciting and scandalous with every telling.
Fairy tales are the embodiment of Stefanovic's interests. They are told by almost every parent to their child; from that child to their children when they grow up, and so on. They are universal, a part of our collective memory, but also unique personal memories of our own childhoods. The child believes in the fairy tale, is scared of the wolf or ogre in the way that Stefanovic is seeking to return to, more open to the magic she is capturing in her art. The concept of play is integral to this experience. Why shouldn't an adult play? Why is imagination expected to end with childhood?
Stefanovic's art is fundamentally an exploration of the self, beginning with the idea that she is a product of her past; her identity and personality are based on events that she carries as memories. As such the process is, for the artist, equally important to the finished product. Stefanovic speaks of the experience of creating, winding wool endlessly in an act that becomes secondary to thought, conversations and everything happening around her. The artist relates this to mandalas, the Buddhist sand paintings that are intricately created then left to be swept away by the wind, suggesting that creation is a spiritual, rather than productive act.
In keeping with the spontaneity and openness of her work, the artist finds materials and objects she considers beautiful then brings them into her work. The two brass Fighting Cocks and pieces of jewellery in Honey Bunny Southern Cross reveal the artist's sense of beauty and exploration of form as a journey rather than a fixed destination. Stefanovic is, as the works so clearly celebrate, playing. The materials she uses, predominantly brass, wood and wool, carry a sense of tradition, a suggestion of 'old world charm' and her own Eastern European culture. Conceptually the materials underscore the artist's interests. Brass references time, pendulums, clocks, energy. Wool suggests spinning and weaving as an act, the spinning of a tale, weaving the fabric of time.
Stefanovic's work is multi-layered, apparently simple, fun and colourful, but full of double entendres and deeper meanings. The concept of time is layered through her pieces. They deal with the passage of time from childhood to adulthood, through memories which hold the past through the present, through generations of story telling, the time consuming experience of making the works, and the significance of the ringing bells which mark time in Nomadic Wonders. Above all, this is art that will not be pinned down. Like the elusive memories and stories which the artist chases, Stefanovic's art work is open, full of changing meanings and receptive to the many personal interpretations and memories it inevitably evokes in the viewer.