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Vessna Perunovich

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The Diplomacy of Art


Hillary Clinton, Vanity Fair

In my line of work, we often talk about the art of diplomacy as we try to make people’s lives a little better around the world. But, in fact, art is also a tool of diplomacy. It reaches beyond governments, past the conference rooms and presidential palaces, to help us connect with more people in more places. It is a universal language in our search for common ground, an expression of our shared humanity.

That’s why Art in Embassies is so important. The Museum of Modern Art first envisioned this global visual-arts program in 1953, and President John F. Kennedy formalized it at the U.S. Department of State in 1963. Working with over 20,000 participants globally, including artists, museums, collectors, and galleries, this landmark public-private partnership shares the work of more than 4,000 American and international artists annually in more than 200 U.S. Embassies and Consulates around the world. These can be exhibitions, permanent collections, site-specific commissions, or two-way artist exchanges. Many remarkable artists have been involved with Art in Embassies, and this year we were proud to award the first biennial U.S. Department of State Medal of Arts to Cai Guo-Qiang, Jeff Koons, Shahzia Sikander, Kiki Smith, and Carrie Mae Weems.

Just think about what an exhibition of American and local artists means to someone across the world yearning to express herself or himself. Artists push boundaries and show what the human spirit is capable of, forming bonds of understanding with people they may never know. For over 50 years, Art in Embassies has showcased the best of this talent. I am grateful, as it promotes creativity, ignites collaboration, and builds on American diplomacy.

Related link: STILLS: Moments of Extreme Consequence

Primal Perunovich: Artist explores the deep tension between movement and stillness


David Jager, Now Magazine

Vessna Perunovich, like fellow Serb Marina Abramovic, is adept at making bold statements with sparse conceptual materials. Her new show, Stills: Moments Of Extreme Consequence, focuses on instants of tension between immobility and movement.

Judging from her use of materials, these moments are primal. Many sculptures contain her signature blood-red stockings stuffed with sand, stretched into amorphous objects that hover uneasily between the inorganic and the visceral.

She’s also fascinated by the way accidental events give way to pattern and form. Much of her painted work begins with spills of red or milky white paint.

Ripple, for instance, consisting of two canvases joined at the seam between the floor and a wall, is a white spill undulating on a black surface, over which a series of drawn graphite lines carefully retrace the paint’s geologic flow.

The Window Of Opportunity starts with a formal process to produce an image with metaphysical weight. On a giant sheet of black paper, the silvery graphite spiral (ending in a circular void at the centre) resembles a ghostly tunnel between worlds.

In performance, Perunovich’s statements can become much more literal and politically pointed. In A Sudden Appearance Of Many Magdalenes, a group of women dressed in white, each representing Mary Magdalene, appear in Last Supper formation at a table, performing choreographed movements that evoke the history of hysteria and scandal projected onto this controversial Biblical figure.

In the end, Perunovich, like Louise Bourgeois, addresses embodiment at its most mysterious level: subject to sudden changes, flows and limits, capricious in its richness and sudden pleasures.

Related link: STILLS: Moments of Extreme Consequence

Artist: Vessna Perunovich, Toronto, Ontario, Canada


Gareth Bate and Dawne Rudman, World of Threads Festival


Vessna Perunovich has established herself as one of Canada’s most compelling and adroit artists. With a fluidity and adept facility, her practice encompasses drawing, performance, video, sculpture, painting and installation. Individual, yet nonetheless inter-related, these aspects combine into an ever-evolving oeuvre that defies a simple categorization.

Consistently Perunovich’s subject matter grapples with issues of personal intimacy and of societal constructs. Her work is autobiographical and at the same time universal. It dwells emotionally and philosophically on the subject of boundaries, both physical and psychic, orchestrating a fine balance between confinement and content. Her art objects do not necessarily denote meanings. They are connotations of meanings, suggesting that they can wear the conceptual clothing necessary to expressing inexpressible feelings for things that are inexplicable.

A Toronto-based visual artist, Perunovich has exhibited at international biennales in Cuba, Albania, England, Portugal, Yugoslavia and Greece. She has attended international residencies in Berlin, Bursa, and Banff and will join an ISCP residency in New York in 2012. Her interdisciplinary survey exhibition has recently toured at prestigious public galleries and museums across Canada and in Europe. Perunovich is an artistic director of a multimedia Festival [FAT] Fashion Art Toronto. She is a recipient of T.F.V.A. (Toronto Friends of Visual Arts) award in 2005 and a Chalmers Development Grant in 2011 among many others.

Tell us about your work?

In my art practice I work with issues around displacement, exile, the notion of mobility and transience. My work explores the interdisciplinary format that comprises drawing, sculpture, video and performance. My diverse artistic interests are regularly manifested within an installation context that is site-specific and addresses the architectural and aesthetic parameters of the exhibiting space, in a manner in which it can evoke and convey the main concerns in my work. Those concerns are primarily humanist and political in nature. In my work, I constantly weave multiple narratives of my own experience, interconnecting it with the larger political and social forces in the world.

My work is experimental in its approach, minimalist in its esthetics, economical in material use and labour intensive in its process. In my work I use techniques that make reference to female labour and handicrafts such as sewing, knitting and crocheting and materials such as thread, string and fabric which were historically designed as 'female' signaling an inversion of the traditional perception of 'high art' versus craft. The politics is sewn into the work as they are often monumental in size and subject matter (politics, critiques of consumerism, violence, religion, sexuality, etc.) and in that it departs from the old (but still present) perceptions that the art made by women is intimate in nature and modest in size. The play between hard and soft surfaces serve as a constant reminder of the fragility of the body, and its struggle to move beyond barriers imposed by different spaces, institutions, ideologies, or its own failures.

My overall artistic practice continuously explores the theme of boundaries and limitations enacted through building structures that imply entrapment and engage with the notion of mobility. The work also plays with the margin and the center, by often positioning the audiences interactively inside of the work. The visceral response to the physicality of these installations is something that ultimately marries the intimate and the public, the personal and the political, in my work.

From where do you get your inspiration?

I am profoundly inspired by the opposing dynamics inherent in human behaviour: our dreams, aspirations, conflicts, as well as limitations. I am deeply interested in how we, as people, exist in the world, in all areas of our human interaction; politics, gender, cultural and social dynamics. My work is largely autobiographical and it draws inspiration from my own experiences, my childhood, intimate relationships, family life, the experience of immigration and departure from my homeland of ex-Yugoslavia in the late 80s, my travels and the encounters of different cultures.

Materials in general are another very important inspiration in my work. Since I was a child, I was interested in fabric and clothes as a way of expressing myself. I am drawn to fabric mostly because of its ability to convey emotion and adopt human qualities. I often start my creative process from being engaged with the energy of a certain material, its esthetics, texture or colour. Elastic materials in particular, stretchy fabrics, threads, strings and ribbon that carry with them the inherent quality of being “stretched”, fascinate me. The use of elastic materials in my work, allows me to express the ideas around the ability to transform qualities such as flexibility, adaptability and resilience in human nature.

What do you think of us placing your work within the context of fibre art?

When I look at my overall artistic practice, it makes a lot of sense to be placed within the context of fibre art. Both materials and processes related to fibre art have been a constant in my work since the late 90s. Although some mediums that I work with don’t necessarily employ fibre materials or processes, they often tie in with fibre art conceptually. For example my videos, installations and performances are usually conceptualized around the physical qualities of fabric and thread, or the act of stitching and weaving. In my drawings, I use continuous lines of ink (Fencescape, 2008) or graphite (Homage to Mother, 2010), to create labour-intensive woven-like imagery of nets and fences, which directly reference processes such as knitting, crocheting and weaving.

How do fibre techniques and materials relate to your practice?

Since very early on, I remember being interested in fabric and garments and having an emotional response to those materials. I grew up in Serbia and as a child, women in our family who were doing handicrafts always surrounded me. My mother and grandmother were doing knitting, crocheting, embroidering, weaving and knitting. Women being involved with clothing and handicrafts were heavily imbedded in the Serbian society’s traditional gender roles. My current work reflects on these traditional handicrafts as practiced in my family. It draws the parallel between the memories of my mother’s and grandmothers craftwork and my own drawings with line, as a way of “stitching together” the division between traditional and fine arts, as practiced respectively by three successive generations of Serbian women.

How did you decide on this medium?

In Belgrade, Serbia, I enrolled in the Academy of Fine Arts to study painting, obtaining a Masters Degree in 1987. I immigrated to Canada the following year. In the early nineties I was mostly painting in the style of surrealism. After a decade of painting, I found myself unable to express what I was feeling through painting and became disengaged with the medium.

I started experimenting with found objects and stretchy undergarments in the late 90s. I was surprised to discover that those new materials in my art practice felt so familiar and appropriate to express my concerns at the time. I began decomposing female undergarments and creating a body of work which commented on intimate relationships, sexuality, gender barriers and everyday life pressures. The series of work Intimacy & Beyond, Home Project, and Passion and Rage, created from 1997 to 2000 were mostly sculptural, combining a wide variety of found objects such as calipers, knives, projectiles, crutches, utensils, pins, plates and discarded furniture on one hand, and female undergarments such as pantyhose, tights and nylons on the other. To construct this work, I used simple techniques of cutting and decomposing the existing undergarments and reconstructing them in new ways. I used tension as a way of integrating the two materials together. By combining those contrasting materials, I tried to express the tension in intimate relationships, and opposing qualities like pleasure and pain, comfort and violence.

I think that I reconnected with my passion for fabric and the memory of my mother and grandmother’s practice in a certain moment in my lifetime when I felt most vulnerable and disconnected. I believe that introducing those materials in my work was a way of regenerating and re-inventing myself. It was a way of putting down my roots in a new country.

From 2000 onwards, I moved my attention from the intimate issues usually explored in my work, to more political and social subjects. This shift happened as I was starting to introduce performance into my art practice. My performance I Hug the World and the World Hugs Me Back from 2003 in which I offer a hug to passers by, proved to be instrumental for the shift of interest that took place. As the world in 2003 was becoming more polarized and global politics more divisive, I became passionately involved in the theme of physical barriers, such as fences and walls. I started using elastic bands, thread and string as a way of reflecting on the concept of barriers and borders. The materials I was using suggested flexible and transitory structures and challenged the solidity of walls / fences, rendering them permeable.

What other mediums do you work in, and how does this inform your work?

The work that I have created in the last fifteen years ties together as one interconnected body of work, where there is an ongoing dialog between pieces that were created over that period of time.

I work in drawing, painting, installation, video and performance and recently I also started to use sound in my work. I was trained as a painter, but practiced all of these other mediums more extensively than painting. The fact that I didn’t have any formal training in these other fields worked largely to my benefit. I think that because I wasn’t burdened by formal knowledge in these new disciplines, I didn’t feel obligated to do things in a certain way, and was allowed to maneuver in any way I saw fit. My general strategy, metaphorically speaking, is to go to this big “pool” of options and simply use the medium, which is best suited to express a particular idea. I learned more about how to use each particular medium as I went along. Because I am very easily bored with doing the same type of work all the time, this way of operating works best for me. It keeps me engaged and energized, generating new ideas in a more organic and less predictable way, and keeping the work playful and surprising.

Another strategy that I often apply to my art practice is re-using parts or elements of a previous work, almost as a way of recycling, and incorporating them in an entirely new way into a succeeding work. A good example of that is a net crafted out of thousands of elastic bands stitched together with staples. The net exists as an individual piece as well as an element in other works. It was originally created during my Berlin residency in 2009, for the performance piece Veiling-Unveiling. In the performance and a subsequent video work, I used the net to wrap and unravel my entire head in a continuous action. The same net became a sculptural installation constructed around the stairwell space of the residency, in the work entitled Spiral Descent, 2009. Lastly, it was incorporated as part of the multimedia installation entitled Open Ended in 2010, where it was stretched around a steal frame, transforming itself into a more rigid fence-like structure.

What specific historic artists have influenced your work?

I admire Renaissance masters like Leonardo Da Vinci and Piero della Francesca. There is something timeless and truly modern in their art that touches a cord with me. There is a real humility in their approach and a certain vulnerability, in spite of the grandeur of their subject matter. I was struck by Francisco de Goya’s etchings ‘Caprichos” and aquatint prints “Disaster of War” for their sharp satirical wit and his sense for the dramatic and theatrical. As an art student, I was influenced by Matisse’s collages, for the ingenious simplicity and his colour sensibility. I enjoy Fauvist painters Russo and Gauguin, for their rich imagination and their appetite for the exotic. I admire the inventiveness and humour of Picasso’s sculptural work and his immense talent for drawing and Romanian-born, French sculptor Constantin Brancusi for his exquisite elegance. Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades and the conceptual approach to art making inherent in these works, forever changed our perspective on what art can be.

What specific contemporary artists have influenced your work?

The contemporary artists that have influenced my work include British artist David Hockney and his continuously fresh approach to the drawing medium; American sculptor Claus Oldenburg, his soft sculptures and his optimism and humour; Romanian born, French land artist Christo for creating magic with his “Surrounding Islands”, “Running Fence” and “Wrapped Reichstag” building; Israeli born, British installation/performance artist Mona Hatoum, for her political intelligence and her minimal esthetics; British sculptor Anish Kapoor for his use of red, his incredible ambition and his acute sensibility; Columbian installation artist Doris Salcedo, especially for her work “Shibboleth”, a big crack carved into the ground of the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern and for tackling issues like racism and colonialism; German/American artist Eva Hesse for her installations with thread and her smaller experimental works, for introducing fragility into the art esthetics; French / American artist Louise Bourgeois for her strangeness and ability to express personal narratives and sadness so powerfully, especially in “Cells”; Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović for her early work in ritual, gesture and experimentation with body limits; Italian artist Mauricio Catalan and his quirky dark humour and ability to surprise; American installation artist Ann Hamilton for her use of materials to transcend meaning; Israeli video artist Michael Rovner for her thoughtful, ingenious and beautifully haunting work on human condition, identity and patterns; Albanian video artist Anri Sala for his poetry and economy of means and Canadian video artist Mark Lewis for his slow and precise camera movement and his enchanting poetry in motion.

What role do you think fibre art plays in contemporary art?

Fibre art was instrumental for introducing a female point of view into art making. Processes that are repetitive, time-consuming, labourious, obsessive and have roots in domesticity all originate there. I think that fibre art is often treated as a distant cousin to mainstream art mediums. However, the sheer number of contemporary artists who utilize fibre mediums and processes in their art is such, that it proves this art form to be very influential and important in today’s contemporary art discourse.

What is your philosophy about the Art that you create?

My practice is my playground. I create art because I get an immense kick out of it. I think that this is my way of communicating with the world; creating art keeps me engaged and connected. I also strive to create work that provokes thought and emotion and communicates on a more universal level. I seek to achieve beauty, elegance and magic with the economy of means, using every-day, and humble materials. I still remember the impact the Mary Poppins movie had on me as a child, the scene where the main character creates a magical moment when she pulls big objects out of a small suitcase. I would like to be able to surprise my audiences with some magic of my own, mainly creating big things using almost nothing at all.

When did you first discover your creative talents?

In primary school, I was first interested in dancing, then singing and later on, in drawing. I pursued drawing very passionately in my teens. I liked to design and make clothes and construct things, mostly to use ordinary things in an unusual way. In high school I stunned my art teacher with a portrait of my schoolmate and was encouraged to pursue an art career.

Please explain how you developed your own style.

The process of finding my own style happened very organically and over time. I developed as an artist following mostly my intuition and my instincts, developing strategies that allowed me to maneuver freely in between different art fields and materials. There is a lot of experimentation in the work; the trial and error approach to my art making is key.

How does your early work differ from what you are doing now?

The work that I was doing in the late 90s, when I first ventured out of painting as my main medium of expression and started experimenting with found materials and nylons, was sculptural and was constructed almost as an assemblage. It came about through the process of trial and error and was created effortlessly in a very short and intense period of time. This mode of working went on for 3-4 years until the early 2000s. Thematically this work was focused on personal intimate subjects and was directed inwards. The work which I am doing now is much more inter-disciplinary. I kept adding mediums with time. The work became more and more time consuming, labourious and obsessively repetitive, taking much more time to complete. The subjects that I explored previously also took a turn from the personal to the collective. The work became more political and engaged in social issues. I started using performance more frequently as a way of coming out of my “own shell”. I started looking out and becoming more interested in others, as opposed to my own issues and myself. However, all of those changes and shifts in my practice are not always so straightforward. I often go back and forth in my work. For example, I have reintroduced a painting medium into my art practice. My paintings too, went through a stylistic shift and the works on canvas, which I produce today, are no longer surrealist, they are rather more conceptually based. They mostly deal with personal narratives in the social context; they are sequential, often employing text and combining figurative elements with abstract form.

How did your work evolve into performance art? What was your motivation for trying this medium?

I started doing performance in 2003, almost by chance. I proposed an action for a performance art festival in Edmonton and got accepted. I never did any performance work before that in my life, so that was a bit unnerving. In the performance, I offered hugs to passers by, while being harnessed to a poll with red elastic bands. This is when I Hug the World and the World Hugs Me Back, one of my signature performanceswas created. My first try at it was scary, but I experienced some tender moments and I felt a real sense of purpose by doing it. I decided to take this action around the world and since 2003 this performance was enacted numerous times in many different places and countries including in the grounds of the Tate Modern in London, England and Ponte di Academia in Venice, during the 50th Venice Biennial.

Doing performance work offered me a chance to respond to the urgency of the moment more efficiently, without the involvement of a third person, without institutions, galleries or a scheduled time frame. It allowed me to be in total control and to act quickly if I had an idea about something. I was also able to expose my work and my ideas to an audience that was not necessarily art educated. This was an incredibly powerful and challenging notion for me, to create work that would communicate with everyday people, and in the context of a wider society. This year, I got a Chalmers Development Grant to further develop performance practices in my work, through the mentorship program with an established Berlin based performance artist BBB Johannes Deimling. As a result of that program, I have started a new performance series entitled Borderline, involving thread and sound recordings.

What bridges the works that you have created in differing media?

Conceptual approach to art making, minimalist sensibility, the economy of means, a formal esthetic which strives to convey beauty and balance, reduced colour scheme, the use of humble, ordinary materials (found objects, fabric, thread, nails, elastic bands, graphite, ink, house paint), the use of tension to express opposing notions, a sense for the dramatic and theatrical, the use of humour, working in series, and finally the mobility of the work – the fact that both large scale work and small scale work can travel in the same size suitcase.

What project has given you the most satisfaction and why?

Personally, I got the most satisfaction out of the performance project realized for the Nuit Blanche festival in 2007. The performance entitled Midnight Mirage was an all-night ritual of food consumption and conversation set up as a “last supper tableau”. In the performance I was the host, feeding people with a traditional Serbian bean-dish and homemade bread from 7pm to 7am. A large projection was set up behind the table and sounds of nature were played throughout the night. The soft candlelight and soothing sounds provided a serene and calming environment in the middle of the city. Over 600 people went through the ritual engaging with each other. As the night progressed the audience kept moving closer to the “table /stage”. By the end of the night, the audience was leaning on the other side of the dinner table leaving no room for the separation between “us and them”. My guests, the audience and myself all became one. The experience was unexpected and strange, as well as deeply moving. We came so close to each other yet remained complete strangers.

Tell us about your studio and how you work:

The studio that I have at the moment is located at Liberty Village at 60 Atlantic Avenue, Toronto. I try to go there every day if I can. I usually walk to my studio, which helps me to prepare for the working day, to clear my mind and sort things out. In the studio I have a habit of working on more than one piece at a time and on more than one project at a time. I like being busy and doing multiple things this keeps me energized. At the moment I am developing a series of drawings, working on large-scale canvases and preparing materials for a residency in New York that is coming up in March of this year. Attending artist residencies in different parts of the world is a strategy which I practice, to set myself up for working in a whole new set of circumstances, including a new studio space in a new environment.

I also use part of my home as my studio. I have a little office space set up in my bedroom where I work on more conceptual projects, do video editing and writing related to my art practice.

Where do you imagine your work in five years?

It’s hard to tell. I would like to simply be doing work that fulfills me creatively and be able to do the experimental work without compromising. I think that my work might develop into an even more socially conscious practice. I certainly see the interdisciplinary aspect of my practice continuing, perhaps with the inclusion of sound and drawing more prominently. A couple of years back, I started working on artist books (Testaments, Decoding Script) and developing them over a long period of time. I am curious to see where that body of work will take me. I am increasingly focused on performance and believe that I will be even more preoccupied with it in the next five years. I have an idea that I want to develop which has to do with the service of food and rituals and which I would like to continue over a longer period of time.

Is there something else about you or your work that you would like us to know?

I have three catalogues published about my work. Two are extensive monographs distributed by ABC Books Canada:

(W)hole 2004 with the critical essay Indefinable Awareness by Virginia M. Eichhorn, ISBN 0-9735085-0-7, 128 pages, colour. The monograph was published in conjunction with three international Biennials, in Cuba, Portugal and Albania and two solo exhibitions at Kitchener Art Gallery, Kitchener, Ontario and Lonsdale Gallery in Toronto.

Emblems of the Enigma 2008 with the critical essay The Art of Vessna Perunovich by Donald Brackett, ISBN978-0-9735085-0-5, 214 pages, colour. The monograph was published in conjunction with a solo mid-career survey exhibition, which traveled across Canada to six public art galleries.

The third one is Borderless 2011, a catalogue published in conjunction with my touring solo exhibition by the same title. The exhibition was presented at six museums and public art galleries in two countries of former Yugoslavia, Serbia and Bosnia & Herzegovina in 2010 and 2011. ISBN 978-86-84773-84-7, 120 pages, colour.

What interests you about the World of Threads festival?

I am curious to find out about all the different approaches contemporary fibre artists might have at this point in time and especially in which ways the traditional and multidisciplinary approaches intersect. I am interested in learning about the wide variety of work that the festival features and generally finding out more about what’s current in contemporary fibre arts. Also as an artistic director of a multi arts Festival, Arts & Fashion Week, I am specifically interested in fibre artists whose work relates to fashion.

Do you have any upcoming shows?

I have a group show coming up April 21st to May 10th 2012, called TH&B in Hamilton, curated by Ivan Jurakic. This is its second outing and it takes place at the former sewing factory in an immense warehouse space. I will exhibit my recent multimedia installation, which among other aspects, involves the sound of an old sewing machine and an original Singer sewing machine from the early 1900s.

I am joining the ISCP residency in New York on March 1st until June 30th. As part of the residency I will show my work at the Open Studios Showcase in May of 2012.

In April 24th-28th 2012, I will be involved in a multidisciplinary Festival |FAT| Arts & Fashion Week in Toronto, as artistic director and one of the curators. The Festival is a multi-faceted showcase of forward looking art and design that features both local and international talent and merges disciplines such as fashion design, photography, video, performance and installation. The Festival is in its seventh year of production. Each year it puts forward a different thematic focus, which looks at the “fashion phenomenon” in a wider social and cultural context. (

In August, I will attend another international residency in Mileseva in Serbia and will exhibit work in Prijepolje Museum in Serbia at the end of the residency.

In December of 2012, I will have a solo exhibition at Angell Gallery in Toronto, showing my recent paintings and drawings. The show runs Dec 9th 2012 to in January 19th 2013.

In January 2013, I will have a solo exhibition at the Robert McLaughlin gallery in Oshawa, Ontario, as part of the touring survey exhibition of my video work. The first leg of that tour recently ended at Tom Thomson Gallery in Owen Sound. The exhibition will also be shown at Mac Donald Stewart in Guelph, dates to be announced.

Vessna Perunovich


Meredith Dault, Border Crossings

Vessna Perunovich is a fearless creator. Her work – From figurative painting and photography to symbolic sculpture and provocative performance – defies categorization, brazenly asserting itself in an artistic climate that often wants to tether creative accomplishment to a single medium. Instead, this mid-career survey exhibition, curated by Donald Brackett, celebrates the work of an artist who is driven to seek out different forms based on the ideas she needs to express.

The resulting exhibition is a delicious, full-sensory experience. In one corner, a collection of paintings in varying sizes depicts crouched figures, sensuous shapes and meandering lines to great effect. In another, amorphous red blobs made of stretchy fabric spill from unlikely containers (ancient fire-truck horns, fencing masks) and straddle aged silver vessels like growths, while a video on a nearby wall depicts the artist brazenly carrying a bundle of pink, breast-like balloons through an Eastern city, defying an audible call to prayer.

But as disparate as the works in this exhibition appear to be, the unifying force – beyond the artist’s inclination to work in a palette of red, black and white, regardless of media – is a common one. Perunovich was born and raised in Belgrade, in a country once known as Yugoslavia and now called Serbia. She and her family immigrated to Canada in 1988 just as her own country was breaking apart. The work she has been making since is infused with both tension and melancholy of displacement and the loss of home (in all senses of the word), as well as the struggle, and subtle joy, in establishing new roots, carving out a different identity and making it successfully through to the other side.

They are certainly the forces behind "Splitting Up," a sculptural work that anchors the exhibition. The piece is created from a well-worn iron bed frame that’s been strung with lengths of blood-red stretchy fabric. There, balanced precariously on the taut fabric, is a long, old-fashioned double-handled cross-saw with large jagged teeth. The effect, not surprisingly, is violent and vaguely disturbing – the bed’s innate comfort and intimacy caught up in the saw’s latent potential – most notably, its potential for severing what in this case reads as symbolic ties.

Works like “Continuum” establish the searching for roots. In it, two sets of disparate boots – one pair child sized, the other on a more paternal scale – are joined by a single pair of legs. In “Foundation,” nearby, a tiny pair of girly shoes is wedged into the gap in a cement block – a simple manifestation of a childhood in a country that no longer exists, the struggle of the very weak versus the impossibly powerful.

The rooted/rootless idea continues in a series of photographs based on a performance called “Transitory Places.” In each the artist, tethered to the ground by a trio of thick, red elastic bands, leans forward into space at a precarious angle. She suspends herself weightlessly over everything from bodies of water to cobbled European streets, daring the earth to maintain its grip – and trusting that her self-declared roots will keep her from falling too far. In a related performance, “I Hug the World and the World Hugs Me Back,” Perunovich still tethered, leans forward into the arms of passing strangers, forcing a momentary connection and boldly upsetting the rules of personal space and intimacy in a non-touching world.

Perunovich’s work is driven by the senses and steeped in ritual, and she challenges her audiences to partake. In “Soul Searching,” for example, a small notebook sits open on a stark pew-like wooden bench, a handful of what look like blood-smeared surgical gloves in a bowl nearby. Donning the gloves, we are then invited to flip through the book, seeking out meaning on its pages, each one pricked through with thousands of tiny holes on a kind of reverse Brail.

Her ideas come together in the performance building of an ethereal red brick wall – the subject of a video work called “Negotiating Utopia.” In it, the artist constructs a convincing wall out of zig-zagging elastic bands. The resulting optical illusion enables the artist to walk, ghost-like, among the bricks. Unconstrained by barriers, she is free to go where she pleases. For Perunovich, it is a fitting metaphor.

“Vessna Perunovich: Emblems of the Enigma,” curated by Donald Brackett, was exhibited at the Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery from June 27 to August 2, 2009.

Show Runs Between Visceral, Ethereal


Portia Priegert, eVent

Red is a powerful colour that evokes everything from blood and violence to love and passion.

Toronto-based artist Vessna Perunovich uses it as a pivotal motif in her current multi-media exhibition at the Kelowna Art Gallery as she considers the nature of love, the search for home and the immigrant experience.

She pools and puddles red ink like blood in drawings and paintings. She dangles red strings like disembodied veins in sculptural work. And photographs of her performances show her standing on the street, restrained by thick bands of red elastic, offering to hug strangers.

So it’s apt that the catalogue accompanying her mid-career survey exhibition, Emblems of the Enigma, begins with a quote from the late American poet Robert Duncan: “Human blood is the ink of history.”

Indeed, it’s easy to see that Perunovich, who immigrated to Canada from the former Yugoslavia in 1988, has both a passionate heart and an acute eye for metaphor.

Her work walks a line between the visceral and the ethereal, much the way life, with its juxtapositions of beauty and pain or love and loss, offers opportunities for transcendence in periods of crisis.

While Perunovich uses diverse media in work collected here from the last dozen years, the show is surprisingly cohesive, demonstrating a mature vision that revisits key themes in original yet related ways.

For instance, walls figure prominently in Perunovich’s art. On one wall, Perunovich, who trained as a painter in Belgrade, presents an ink drawing of an obsessively rendered net that evokes thoughts of both sagging chain-link fences and women’s hose.

It is, she says, composed of a single line that winds its way down a long sheet of paper and back, again and again, echoing the process of crafts like knitting and crochet.

“I’m more and more drawn to these types of work that are laborious,” says Perunovich. Nearby, a video shows her building an illusory brick wall by attaching gridded strings of white elastic to a red wall. Another video shows a man and woman walking along the wall, passing each other without acknowledgement, then trying to connect

Her work often echoes her concern with what has been left behind.

“Once you leave your home, you’re in a perpetual search to find your home,” she says, musing that she actually feels most comfortable when traveling – particularly when she has left one place but has not yet arrived at her destination.

Liz Wylie, curator of the Kelowna Art Gallery, notes the ambivalence in Perunovich’s references to home, which can evoke both a sense of absence and a menacing presence.

“This is certainly in keeping with the overall theme and title of this exhibition, in which the individual works are seen as emblems for the emotions one experiences in dealing with the enigma of existence,” she writes in one of several catalogue essays.

The catalogue is a joint production of the six galleries hosting the exhibition. Four are in Ontario cities – Peterborough, Cambridge, Mississauga and Sault Ste. Marie – and one, Saint Mary’s University Gallery, is in Halifax.

The exhibition was organized by Donald Brackett, a Toronto curator and art critic, who says Perunovich’s multi-media approach allows her to evoke experiences of life that we all recognize.

“Her collective body of work, an impressive and internationally recognized one, is part of a personal narrative with broad cross-cultural implications, especially in the methods she uses to articulate certain key ideas relating to internal and external exile, time and identity, the body and its boundaries, the home.”

The exhibition continues to Oct. 18.

Vessna Perunovich's Tight Squeeze


Meredith Dault, The Coast

It's a foggy Saturday night outside Saint Mary's University Art Gallery, and a small crowd has gathered for Vessna Perunovich's performance, "I Hug the World and the World Hugs Me Back." The artist is tethered to a lamppost by three long, thick bands of elastic---blood-red against her black dress and white blouse. She stands, her body tilted forward at a slight angle, arms outstretched, until a passing pedestrian---a middle-aged, uniform-clad man with keys jangling around his waist---agrees to engage. He approaches and unleashes the best bear hug he can muster. "This is nice! I like this!" he exclaims mid-embrace. When it's over, he and his keys jingle away and Perunovich readies herself for her next hug.

This performed hugging---an act that has seen her interfering in the personal space of strangers all over the world since 2003---is all about challenging our notions of intimacy, boundaries, and public and private space. They are ideas that spill into most of Perunovich's painting, video work and mixed-media installations; a varied selection of which is on view at Saint Mary's University Art Gallery in a mid-career retrospective exhibition called Emblems of the Enigma.

Perunovich, a vivacious woman with blonde hair and seemingly boundless energy, was born and raised in Belgrade, in a country once known as Yugoslavia, and now called Serbia. She and her husband, filmmaker Boja Vasic, immigrated to Toronto (where they still live) with their young daughter in 1998, the same year she promptly set about making art about displacement, identity and the notion of home.

They are certainly the forces behind "Splitting Up," a well-worn iron bed frame strung with lengths of bright red, stretchy fabric, that's at the heart of the exhibition. There, balanced precariously on the taut fabric, is a long, old-fashioned double-handled cross-saw with large, jagged teeth. The effect is, not surprisingly, violent and vaguely disturbing.

Perunovich says that the work was created as former-Yugoslavia was breaking apart. "Married couples from different ethnic origins were splitting up, neighbours were turning against each other," she says of the time. She figured the bed (the place where we are born, spend a third of our lives and often die) was an intimate setting in which to explore these ideas. It's no coincidence that the fabric bands look like blood. "Blood ties can't be severed so easily," she says.

Perunovich admits that she still has an "ambiguous relationship to the word 'home.'" She says seeing Yugoslavia split apart was heartbreaking. "All of a sudden, you don't even have your home country," she says passionately, "and then you're an immigrant and you're coming to a new country---and you wonder...can this be a new home?" She investigates the idea of roots in works like "Continuum," wherein two sets of disparate boots are joined by a single pair of legs. In nearby "Foundation," a tiny pair of girly shoes is wedged into the gaps in a cement block, a simple manifestation of childhood in a country that no longer exists, or of the weak versus the impossibly powerful.

But as much as Perunovich's work deals with weighty issues, there is still an air of playfulness---or at the very least, a curiosity and openness---to her work. Indeed, the fact that she even works in as many different media as she does, even though she's only formally trained as a painter ("it's freeing to do things you don't know much about," she laughs), reveals something of Perunovich's fearlessness. In one of her video works, she brazenly carries a bundle of pink balloons through a village in Turkey, defying a call to prayer. In another, she builds a seemingly impenetrable wall out of string.

And then there's the hugging: a brazen act of affection and intimacy in our non-touching world. At her performance outside SMU on that foggy Saturday night, a shy student approaches cautiously, going in reluctantly for an embrace. "It's weird!" he says of the experience when Perunovich lets him go. "It's weird?!" she exclaims, fuelled by his reluctance, her eyes twinkling. "OK. Give me another one." And he does---without hesitating. For a moment, he looks completely at home.