A Eulogy to Everyday Labors
Tanja Dabo is an artist based in Zagreb, Croatia, who works in performance, video and installation. Her practice is dominated by the simple ritualistic act of polishing. Taking advantage of this richly evocative act , she enacts her performances on a range of different objects and in a variety of spaces to invoke the complexities of intimate and personal and social and public relationships.
‘Polishing is an intimate act, a desire to get closer and to communicate’.
In 1998, before the official opening of the 25th Zagreb Youth Salon in Croatia, an artist was already in the midst of her performance. Tanja Dabo, a young artist born in Rijeka could be found on her hands and knees, polishing every inch of the 160m2 gallery floor in preparation for the impending arrival of the public.
This was the first in a series of performances and installations where polishing, described by the artist as ‘the process of giving or adding a shine to spaces and objects’ becomes the central metaphor in Dabo’s practice. Through this simple, repetitive and ritualistic action, she invokes a complex of intimate and social interactions, involving an entire cast of identities constructed by gendered categorizations and consummated according to unspoken public and private social contracts.
As Dabo herself says, ‘In its concept, the appropriation of a simple action from everyday life experience corresponds with the experience of two my roles as a woman: the housewife and the artist.’
Such a convergence can be found in the work ‘Earliest Reminiscences’ (2000), a series of four diptychs of pairs of shoes and boots photographed in the ‘before’ and ‘after’ formula of consumer advertising or fashion ‘make-overs’; before and after Dabo has polished them, that is. Two pairs of shoes, one men’s and the other women’s look as if they belong to an older generation; the other two, to younger people. Short, intimate texts disclose the identity of these absent owners: Dabo’s mother and father, brother and partner.
The artist has said that, ‘The concept of each of these works is based on the possibility of polysemic interpretation that originates from a real and/or symbolic/metaphoric interpretation of the act of polishing, depending on the realization within the intimate, private context, within context of social relations, or the relation between the artist and institutions.’
Indeed, while the act of polishing a public space such as a gallery might pertain to the maintenance of society’s standards of cleanliness, in this intimate work the gesture becomes one infused with love and care, and is expressive of Dabo’s sense of self.
‘When I polish objects which belong to other people or spaces where other people live,’ she says, ‘the act of polishing connects me on a symbolic level not only with those people, but with all my identities: an artist, a house \wife, a member of my family, a friend, a woman.
For Breda Beban, curator of the UK touring show ‘Imaginary Balkans’, one of the many exhibitions in which this work has been displayed, the work brings to mind Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’. ‘He writes that the horrors and pain of yesterday can in time be transformed and become a source of joy,’ she explains in a conversation with Chris Darke published in the show accompanying catalogue.
‘It also made me think of ‘Gravity and Grace’ by Simone Weil’, she continues, ‘where gravity and grace pull in opposite directions.’ For, she argues, ‘Dabo makes these pulling forces work simultaneously and transforms heavy and painful experiences from her life into a gracefully economical piece about compassion and forgiveness.’
In 2001, Dabo shifted again from the domestic to the public realm, this time setting herself the daunting task of polishing the floor of the Miroslav Kraljevic Gallery in Zagreb. This was not a one-off performance: Dabo was to polish the floor prior to the opening of each and every exhibition held there that year. The following year, she took her labor abroad in ‘Berlin possible/impossible’ and polished the doorsteps of 10 art institutions in Berlin.
Despite the public nature of the gallery as a site, Dabo is keen to de-emphasise, indeed, blur the distinction between domestic and civic spheres. ‘I am bringing the mechanics of everyday house work into the gallery space,’ she says, ‘My artist's desire of the shiny and beautiful in the gallery is actually a projection of the house \wife’s desire of the shiny and beautiful in the home.’
The choice of staging such performances in the gallery rather than any other public sites also indicates the parallel drawn between artistic and manual labor. As the artist has said, ‘In the works where I polish gallery spaces I have developed my thoughts about the position of art and the artists, and I have also questioned the meaning of art and the production of art works.
For Dabo, where the act of polishing is akin to the communication, her activities within the art institution becomes, as she says, ‘a reflection of my desire to overcome the distance which is present in the relationship between the institution and the artist’.
By bringing the private into the public, by making visible the usually degraded, unnoticed and unappreciated labor predominantly of women but also men, Dabo dignifies the act of polishing, and by extension, affirms the value of the everyday work of maintaining life, and raises it to the level of art.
'Imaginary Balkans', catalogue, Site Gallery, Sheffield, 2002