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Danica Dakic's 'Isola Bella' reveals stories of a masked society

By Vy-Vy Dang-Tran

May 18, 2011 2:36 p.m.

Danica Dakic
Through Aug. 7
Hammer Museum, FREE

A skinny man wearing a jester’s mask over his eyes and forehead walks onto an empty stage. The stage is dark, heavy with shadows and made all the more mysterious because the viewer cannot determine where he is looking. The unidentified man wears navy blue track pants and a dark red sweater that reads “TALENT” in capital letters across his chest. His voice echoes against the silence ““ he doesn’t speak English.

“Where is the audience?” the subtitles read.

Behind him are the lush illustrations of a wallpaper scene referencing Isola Bella, a tropical island off the coast of Italy. As his peers, their faces also hidden behind paper masks, shuffle into the makeshift theater’s seating area, the man continues his brief monologue: “Where are the actors?”

This is the opening section of Bosnian artist Danica Dakic’s video “Isola Bella (2007-2008),” currently on display at the Hammer Museum through Aug. 7.

The characters on screen are residents of the Home for the Protection of Children and Youth in Pazarić, located outside of Sarajevo ““ a place that has survived the area’s long history of war and political turmoil, a place whose inhabitants are as alienated and forgotten by society as their home is by the rest of the world.

“The performers live in a very insular society together, sometimes for many years,” said Anne Ellegood, senior curator at the Hammer Museum.

According to Ellegood, Dakic’s video targets the viewers’ global conscience by creating an otherwise unavailable channel of communication between the mainstream society and the lives of the non-actors on screen.

“I think the participants in the video are performing for each other,” she said. “It allows a museum-going audience to sort of connect and think about people whom otherwise they wouldn’t know about or even whether they exist.”

The masks, designed in the style of the Victorian era, transform the performers’ faces, turning ordinary men, women and children into the likes of Marie Antoinette, a Native American chief, Napoleon Bonaparte and the Chiquita Banana girl, among others ““ while their bodies remain garmented with blue jeans, T-shirts, sweatpants and sneakers.

“I liked the idea of the masks,” said Angel Diaz, second-year engineering student at UCSD, who watched the video while sitting on the floor in a corner of the showroom. “(The characters) were all hiding behind a masquerade.”

Diaz said that he felt a sense of remove and distance between himself and the characters, since the holes in their masks allowed the characters to see him, while he was not able to reciprocate.

On the other hand, Emily Gonzalez, curatorial assistant at the Hammer Museum, praises Dakic’s work for its ability to evoke sympathy and touch audiences on a very human level.

“(Dakic) is just trying to get to know these people,” Gonzalez said. “I think there’s a political undertone, but Danica’s personal views are more subtle than that.”

The performers speak in short vignettes. Despite covering a range of personal topics, their stories are held together by an overall tone of loss and isolation. One woman sings a song about love and then follows with an account of how her mother threw her out in a trashcan when she was a little girl. Another woman, sitting on a chair on stage, waits for a bus that never comes.

Dakic’s current exhibition is a part of the Hammer Project series, a program designed to call attention to relatively unknown artists. While Dakic has held prominent shows overseas, “Isola Bella (2007-2008)” marks her U.S. debut.

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Vy-Vy Dang-Tran
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