In Conversation: Danica Dakic Takes Off Masks


When Danica Dakic (abandoned her architectural studies in Bosnia to focus on art, it wasn’t the last time she would engage in producing spatial experiences. A former student of Nam June Paik, Dakic’s complex film, media, and material installations layer variable temporalities and linguistic tones to create rich, tapestry-like theatrical textures. Her work explores the formation of identity-especially among marginalized populations, sometimes in exile-with the intention to render the poetic dimension of human existence visible. Fraught content makes for difficult material, and Dakic does not shy away from  the political, with results that are often too easily read as didactic. But her film treatments have as much to do with the bodies of her non-professional actors as with the environments and landscapes through which they drift. Location is essential in Role-Taking, Role-Making (2004-05), which features live theatrical performances recorded in Cologne, Germany, and scenes staged with inhabitants of Preoce and the Plementina refugee camp in Kosovo. As the émigré director of the Romani acting troupe insists, “Theater is born from its architecture.” And if all the world’s a stage, Dakic plays with framing scenes and specific spaces of reality to real dramatic effect. The largest, most comprehensive retrospective of Dakic’s work from the last decade is currently on view at Düsseldorf’s Kunsthalle.

Danica DakiÄ?, El Dorado. Giessbergstraße, 2006/07 Courtesy the artist and VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

KARI RITTENBACH: As we’re in Düsseldorf-you mentioned in a previous interview that one of the reasons you came to study here during the 1980s was because of Joseph Beuys’ legacy. Looking back at your work from the last ten years, do you feel that influence? And what made you ultimately decide to stay here?

DANICA DAKIC: Yes, of course. It’s not easy for me to be precise about how exactly this happened, but being here has influenced me a lot. Anyway, I stayed because I married! I like Düsseldorf because it’s a small city-and a certain kind of art city. I travel a lot, and I also live and work part of the year in Sarajevo where my mother is. Many people I collaborate with are in Sarajevo, and the rhythm is quite different. The infrastructure here is very useful-and I love the Rhine! I start my day very early and bicycle along the river promenade to my studio. It gives me great energy to start the day.

RITTENBACH: Context and environment are essential to the constructed identities of figures in your work. I’d like to talk about landscape, then, as well as your use of panoramic wallpaper. Hubert Robert’s vision of the Grande Galerie du Louvre in ruins functions as a partial backdrop in Role-Taking, Role-Making as well as in the photographic series “La Grande Galerie” (2004). Is this particular image iconic for you?

DAKIC: I don’t work in a documentary way, you know. And I always love to bring things with me to project sites-I like to commission production props from my protagonists (for example, handmade Huichol table objects from Casa del Lago [2008-09]) but I also have to give something to the collaboration. The question is always: what can I bring with me? Role-Taking, Role-Making was about stereotypes, and in particular the discrimination of the Roma population throughout Europe. This stereotype is especially deeply ingrained; it is part of our cultural heritage. I thought a lot about what image to bring with me to contrast this situation. I felt the Hubert Robert would say a lot about history, and about today—it provides a connection and also presents two different concepts of  “ruin” that I wished to juxtapose with this film. There is the completely imaginary, very artistic ruin; and then there is the very real notion of destruction. The people I worked with, refugees, had only their bare lives. I also found a small, real ruin in Preoce that we were able to use because it was in a region where the Roma could be—they are not really allowed to go everywhere. It was very minimal, a house with one door and just one window. I used the house as a stage for the scenes involving the people of this community-they were not actors, but they played themselves! This was important for me, since the footage of the Pralipe Theater  was more like video documentation, and includedinterviews with the theater’s director.

RITTENBACH: The idea of “ruin” also raises the question (or problem) of preservation-both communal and political, and of personal rememberance. Despite avoiding documentary-style social reportage, did you have a different relationship to filming this project because you knew that the Pralipe Theater was closing because of insolvency?

DAKIC: Actually, I wanted to document the theater company’s work process . I had many conversations with the theater’s director while they were preparing a new production of Calderón’s Life is a Dream. My original idea was to film the preparation for staging this one piece. But during during that time they went into bankruptcy, so the concept changed. And so did the play-their final performance was Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding, which was the company’s most famous piece. It was the piece that helped them come to Germany, because it garnered a lot of praise. That’s when they came to the Mülheim theater (in Cologne). It was interesting to me-a small ethno-theater of immigrants inside the bubble of a larger theater. They were there for ten years, but then couldn’t continue. They found another stage in Cologne and were starting over as an independent troupe-that’s when I came in. It all happened within four to five months-they weren’t very experienced with financial management, and they didn’t survive. But for Role-Taking, Role-Making I documented the rehearsals and the final show; the director probably thought, okay, we will die as a theater but it should be documented. Everybody on our team was crying! But I do think that I may give some of my recordings that were not used in the film piece to the theater museum (in Düsseldorf), for their archive. Because it’s the history of this very important small theater-the only one in Europe.

RITTENBACH: Let’s move to the question of the wallpaper. Your filmEl Dorado (2006-07) is about idealism and the search for happiness.  There was a certain imagethat I found very striking: a teenage girl carefully tracing an embossed, gold leather flower pattern with her hand without quite touching the paper. Especially in this piece, wallpaper seems to serve as a liberating force. This is in contrast to representations in feminist literature, for instance, which reads ornate interiors as oppressive. Can you explain this dichotomy? Was it your involvement in Documenta 12 which first spurred your interest in wallpaper?

DAKIC: It was actually kind of an accident. In October 2005, I was invited to make a proposal for a new piece for Documenta. At the time, I was researching another project and came across a black-and-white detail of El Dorado in a book. It was a fascinating image, but I forgot about it until a few months later when I picked up the same book again. The title and the small image, again. This time I looked it up: “El Dorado,” detail of the panoramic scenery from the German Wallpaper Museum, Kassel. And I thought, “Wow!” So then I called to find out whether the museum still existed. It did-and when I visited, I knew it was the place. It all started with an image, and everything else came after, step-by-step.

Because I wanted to develop the piece in Kassel, I didn’t want to bring anything with me. I also knew I wanted to involve young people and then found Hephata (a home for unaccompanied, underage refugees in Kassel, Germany). So first we visited the museum together, and because the boys and girls had never been in an exhibition and didn’t know what Documenta was, they didn’t know what I wanted from them.

RITTENBACH: How did they react inside the museum?

DAKIC: Very well. They were inspired—for example, Abdullah, who appears in the film in front of a section of modernist-style wallpaper (each teenager chose a location inside of the museum before which to perform). He’s from Kabul, a refugee from Afghanistan. When he saw that wallpaper, he was excited. He kept saying: “This is my place!” I asked what he wanted to do there. I wouldn’t tell them what to do or how to be, and slowly trust built up. I visited Kassel every weekend, it was a very intensive process. But we didn’t talk about concepts. Then there’s Robel, who runs through the museum in the film—he’s really a runner. He told me that running is his life, his only chance, even though he can’t participate in many contests because he’s from Eritrea and doesn’t have a German passport. The film only has a single narrative, but everyone performed his or her own story.

La Grande Galerie 1, 2004. Courtesy the VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2009 

RITTENBACH: Perhaps even more than El Dorado, Isola Bella (2007–08), which debuted for this exhibition, is about playing out fantasies. You mentioned that the residents of the care home who are featured had never even seen a piano before, although the film’s soundtrack is music that was produced entirely by them! Wallpaper is also extremely significant here). How did you choose the pattern? Is it also from the wallpaper museum in Kassel?

No, that I found myself through research. I was very happy with it. Because of course “El Dorado” is about migration and utopia. But the one I used here is about the idea of the island-there is no architecture, no traces of people. It’s a sort of paradise. At the time that I was working on El Dorado, a producer from Sarajevo contacted me to do a project. I knew that I wanted to use the background “Isola Bella” for it; the same designers and the same manufacturers also made “El Dorado.” In fact, they still produce it: Zuber & Cie. They’re very old, it’s very luxurious and they still make wallpapers in the traditional way. Jackie Onassis bought an antique Zuber for the White House dining room, about the discovery of America.

RITTENBACH: Since Isola Bella was made in Bosnia, did you also know right away that you would work with the care home for the mentally and physically handicapped in Pazaric?

DAKIC: In a way, yes. I had read about the institution in Pazaric five or six years before. I was impressed by how it survived, especially during the war, as a kind of island. So I wanted to bring together this utopian island and this socially isolated island-100 km outside of Sarajevo, in a more or less “invisible” region.

RITTENBACH: The wallpaper had an especially transformative spell in this space-what made you decide to use masks, in addition? It’s remarkable how the eyes of the masks are so well matched to the faces, physiognomically, that instead of covering or hiding they seem to produce completely new visages-a sort of wallpaper or even trompe l’oeil effect.

Videostill from First Shot, 2007/08. Courtesy VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

DAKIC: I wanted to use masks because of the performers’ disabilities—which was not the type of visibility I wanted to portray. So it was very important to me to have masks. I brought 300 or so traditional British Victorian masks in every assortment. I liked that they were half-masks; the mouths are real-they speak. And the masks became important for the protagonists, too, to comment freely in this context. We did all of the recording in a very small room. So to establish a tension of opposites, there is a confused dynamic between the audience and the stage. It’s clear that the performance is not theatrical, but the key question of the film for me is: Where is the audience? It’s the first sentence that the double-masked narrator says.

RITTENBACH: And because of the masks, it’s difficult for the viewer to tell who exactly is “playing.”

DAKIC: Exactly. And I wanted to extend this problematic to the installation—which is the reason for the cinema chairs. The viewer then becomes part of the actor-audience dynamic, as well, although it’s staged!

RITTENBACH: What type of audience do you hope watches Isola Bella?

DAKIC: It’s more about questioning—not about giving answers.

Work by Danica Dakic is on view through November 8. The Düsseldorf is located at Grabbeplatz 4, Düsseldorf.