photo: courtesy of Irena Knezevic; pictured: Das Gelubde (The Oath)
Irena Knezevic, a 26-year-old Hyde Park-based artist, seems constantly consumed by art and ideas. She draws inspiration from her youth in Belgrade, Serbia, and from movements like Russian Futurism and Afro-Futurism. On April 4, she opened her installation, The Summit (2007), at the MCA's 12x12; it runs through April 27. Fusing historical and contemporary figures that have made a Faustian pact with the devil, Knezevic combines overhead projects and objects with portraits of German romantics, Russian Satanists, Sun Ra and death-metal youth, among others. Even though the show sounds dark, she isn't interested in the apocalypse—a painfully overused theme in art—instead striving for something much harder: imagining the future.
Tell me a bit about your background.
I was a student organizer until I was 17, until 1999, and we demonstrated resistance against [Milosevic]. And I got a scholarship and I came here, because everyone in Belgrade was getting beat up or arrested. I went to Columbia College and then the University of Chicago, and then UIC for grad school. I studied math at U of Chicago. In the installation there's a mathematics element. I feel that I quit math because it couldn't aid my art, but I didn't want to quit my art because it couldn't aid my math.
What drew you to Sun Ra and Afro-Futurism?
I scanned the broadsheets that Anthony Elms of WhiteWalls [who edited the recent book, Pathways to Unknown Worlds: Sun-Ra, El Saturn and Chicago's Afro-Futurist Underground 1954–68] printed, and there were these super satanic poems about the government that genuinely scared me. I decided that there's something more there in Afro-Futurism, which can be connected to Russian Futurism, which is connected to the black square paintings by Kazimir Malevich. It's about the conception of a police state or projection into the future, like imagining your future, communist future, that's why they call it Futurism...
...[German philosopher] Hegel wrote that with the conception of every state, there's a dark romantic force; romantic in the sense that you dare to believe that you can shape the future…Like it's easier to imagine the apocalypse, the end of the world, than trying for a better future, which is really curious to me. So I wanted to go back against that. I was sick of looking at apocalyptic art. I think the apocalypse should be something we look at as the end of what we do to the planet. Imagining a better future has its risks—futurists sort of started fascism. But there's also the ability to do this, to make things better…Sun Ra, if you hear the music, sort of illustrates that gesture. And his writing is also outrageous, but also dark.
So, if I were to come to your neighborhood, where would you insist I visit?
I live at a co-op; it's called Gamma Alpha, a graduate school co-op. It's a great, intellectual community of PhDs. But there is no place to go and have a coffee, so really I hang out at the math library, Eckhardt Library. We have the Third World Cafe but, like, I never go there because it's so pretentious! Usually when we hang, we hang at Skylark. And when I'm on the North Side I go to Zakopane, the Polish bar.
Tell me the best Chicago-related advice you've ever given or received.
Go to 49th Street Beach in Hyde Park, well it's between 47th and 49th Street. It's one of the most beautiful beaches. The rocks there—it looks like the Mediterranean.