Introduction Matthew Jesse Jackson



Polite art wants to live, multiply, and grow.

There’s a basic assumption throughout Euro-America that the world is basically
getting better. Yes, there may be human rights reverses here and there, and
persistent environmental challenges, and, of course, misfortunes and disasters of
all sorts, great and small, organic and man-made, dance across our computers
with an odd, synchronized sameness, and, yes, an oozing blob of the bad and the
even worse seeps into every twenty-four hour news cycle, but, still, all in all,
when you get down to it, humanity is getting smarter and healthier. You can’t argue
with statistics: more people are becoming literate every year and these people
are living longer and sharing their collective wisdom with more people throughout
the duration of their ever elongating lives. A better blueprint for global betterment
has yet to be invented. In fact, there are, no doubt, United Nations’ websites and
scores of international organizations that can prove conclusively that ignorance
is down and clean water access is up, that global warming, human trafficking and
religious persecution will inevitably wane, and, eventually, the species will come
together as one to venerate the solemn gestures of The Invisible Hand in an Intergalactic
Empire of Capitalism and Freedom.


You can go to polite art, and return from it, like a tourist.

Our access to a jacked up, transmogrifying web of technological innovation is
the clearest index of our better future. Without these innovations glowing in our
peripheral vision, the evidence of onrushing mass amelioration would be much
less conclusive, much more disputable. Not that it really matters. Our casually
distracted, Northern hemisphere, urban, liberal minds think without thinking:
“Hey, if I can Skype simultaneously with curators in Jakarta and Lagos—for free
and at any time, no less—then there must be adequate access to education and
health care in Jakarta and Lagos, right?” In fact, soft technological self-delusion
guides so much of our thinking that we don’t even bother to track its contours.
It goes without saying that “a rising tide lifts all boats” and these generally darker
skinned, generally more indigent people will certainly benefit (if not now, someday)
from our self-reassuring technophilia. Unless, of course, they don’t and the
rising tide produces effects besides beneficial boatlifting, such as submerging
miles of farmland along the way, etc. etc. etc. Supremely personalized, lusciously
intimate, Hi-Tech invades our private sanctuaries of existential self-awareness
and he informs us over and over again that even though everything looks worse and
worse on all of our little screens, everything’s really getting better. He says it just
looks worse because humans love stories and they’ll always choose a gluttonous
diet of tragedy over adequate narrations of adequate lives being lived adequately.


Polite art attended History’s first dinner parties. The problem with History is that
it rarely admits those who are not invited, or late to dinner—whatever the circumstance.
History has a secret sense of bon ton. If you do arrive late, you have to
know exactly what History likes, its sweet teeth and sensibilities. You must bring
History a most exquisite dessert, one it will enjoy without having ever tasted it
before. Bring the dessert to an open window at the dinner party. Once History smells
it, the door will swing wide open.

Disjointed, dislocated, dis-nearly-everything, Irena Haiduk’s art exiles itself from the
familiar folkways that shape what passes for “contemporary art” and “contemporary
life” in the Global North. The official art of today—those chunks of soporific
mediocrity that fill the art fairs and biennials, those elaborate manifestations of
distressed vacuity that provoke piles of duly plastic-sheathed publicity—all of
this official production and its accompanying trustee/curator/dealer/institutional
scaffolding converts art into something that breathes only to be branded, merchandised,
and promoted with a precise amount of notionally intellectual razzmatazz
(and it’s important to note that art industry activity now frequently takes place in
countries where they wouldn’t know the difference between a democratic election
and a cake eating contest). Ideally, today, an artwork will exhibit just enough
divergent qualities so that it can be contemplated somewhat differently in a number
of slightly differing contexts, yet it should not be too discordant, too multifarious,
too difficult to understand as art. At its core, Irena Haiduk’s art aspires to be one
long, uninterrupted, quasi-inhuman yowl that no person who cares about art can
endure hearing for more than a few minutes without wishing to kill a functionary
within the art industry. Haiduk’s art does not aspire to be critical. It aspires to
be art that kills.


Polite art addresses life’s extremes, even death, in a very polite way.

Irena Haiduk’s art comes at you simultaneously from the not so distant future and
the not so distant past, and when these two temporalities smash into each other
the resulting noise exactly replicates the sound of The Communist Soul collapsing,
comatose, plunging through the five stages of grief toward The Pit of Decorous
Art. Her art aims to rescue Art from its supporting role in culture, its service as
semi-obscure divertissement for the bored rich and salaried institutional personnel.
Instead, Haiduk embraces the curse that afflicts all humans: Death. Of
course, to say that anything is a question of life or death is usually a prelude to
hyperbolic stupidity—but not here. The fundamental deathliness of Haiduk’s art is
to be discovered in the art’s pondering of the only two questions that have ever
really mattered: What is Human? What is Divine? Her art makes you realize immediately
that our walking-around conceptions of these categories are not only
inadequate, they’re so soft as to be silly. They say: that which is human is relatively
weak and inconsequential and that which is divine is relatively powerful and
consequential, but there’s more, so much more. The Divine not only can do things
that The Human cannot imagine, The Divine can imagine things that The Human
cannot imagine. It is in this space that Haiduk’s art lives its perpetually challenged
life: where that which we cannot imagine gets imagined.


Polite art creates needs that are satisfied immediately.

Divine Imagining need not be disturbing, vexing or terrifying, I suppose, but
most of the time it is, at least in Haiduk’s hands. Anxiety pervades this situation.
You see it in the work’s mixed media character—everything gets tossed into a
big, dirty pile, that is, psychologically speaking, and then each part plays its own
idiosyncratic role in an ensuing drama of self-annihilation: singing, dancing,
photographs, videos, drawings, paintings, sculptures, architecture, etc. “Nothing
that is inhuman is alien to me,” Haiduk’s art keeps saying. Even the blandest
objects and undertakings—work shoes and management projects—radiate malevolence
and catastrophe here. They whisper to us in a threatening undertone in a
Balkan dialect. What is the nature of this threat? It finds its essence in the human
being’s self-willed ignorance of its own capacity to bend the world to its desires.
Haiduk’s art seizes upon moments when the human creature acts at once in an
absolutely bestial manner, but with absolutely rational ambitions—this combination
offends every shred of our humanity. Think Marlon Brando in Apocalypse
Now (and I’m not talking about the bad acting). We can excuse bestiality as
something irrational and destructive, and we can lament a cold rationality that
exhibits no emotional awareness or empathy, but when bestiality and rationality
cohabitate, the horizon of negative sublimity opens up: a sunny spot where every
soul suffers infinite injustice.

Polite art asks for permission, so it does not have to apologize later.

Irena Haiduk usually doesn’t hit you over the head with Evil. You just seem to find
yourself wandering into the penumbra of wrongness, the vicinity of the sinister,
without ever really trying. In this sense, perhaps the touchstone for Haiduk’s art
is the NATO bombing of Belgrade in 1999. In the larger scheme of things, this
“incident” in the spring of Bill Clinton’s penultimate year as president would barely
get a perfunctory nod of recollection from most Americans. In the wake of
September 11th and decades of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, sundry market crashes
and rebounds, Obama’s election and reelection, a ninety day conflict at the close
of the last century is hard for anyone to remember, much less lament. However,
this did turn out to be the most persistent bombing campaign in Europe since
World War II, involving thousands of tons of explosives being hurled into the midst
of a large civilian population, and even to this day Belgrade hasn’t recovered
(architecturally or psychologically). Although, by the standards of W.G. Sebald’s
ruminations on twentieth century mass killing from the sky, this was one of the
most surgical, least invasive, and minimally destructive bombing campaigns ever
undertaken; the unfolding of the event was (of course) absolutely inhuman and
vile. This pairing, the union of vile innocuousness and innocuous vileness gets at
the complex infrastructure subtending all of Haiduk’s art. Everything in this
universe has nerves and blood and feels pain and exerts its claim of pain on others.
It’s as if a gelatin of extreme feeling, something like the atmosphere in Andrei
Tarkovsky’s Stalker or Solaris, has encased the world and nothing here can be disturbed
without something disturbing happening. Though there’s a robust industry
that churns out curatorial labors on memory and trauma, Haiduk’s art works the
opposite side of the street: sometimes it’s the erasure of any obvious trace of
memory or trauma that is actually the most terrifying situation of all (writes an
American citizen for whom the bombing of Belgrade was not the least bit memorable,
nor traumatic). Refined Schadenfreude might be the best description for
most of today’s ostensibly “political art,” in that it aims to allow First World
nerves to be jangled, briefly and comfortably, hitting you like a refreshing, steamy
ethical shower before you blow dry, deodorize, and put on your uniform for
another day of service in the ongoing privatization of the world. In this sense, Irena
Haiduk’s political art differs in two critical aspects from most political art today:
number one, it’s political, and number two, it’s art.

This art is a magnet that extracts psychic metal. Or as Irena Haiduk writes:

Polite art ties you up, but it doesn’t cut you.
It cuts you, but it doesn’t eviscerate you.
It eviscerates you, but it doesn’t massacre you.
It massacres you, but it doesn’t necrosodomize you.
It necrosodomizes you, but it doesn’t cannibalize you.
It does not cannibalize you.

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