Renaissance Society explores sirens, darkness, and non-violence in new exhibition

“My first thought seeing it was the Spanish word for ‘to be’ but after reading the program notes I realized it is more likely just an abbreviation of the title.”

By Andrew McVea

You never quite know what to expect when visiting the Renaissance Society. In the past, I have seen pieces ranging from a fully recreated whale skeleton to a room of bedazzled lampshades to an animated short film of a thumb being inserted into an eye narrated by a gorilla. Although certainly eclectic, the museum on the fourth floor of Cobb is consistently thought provoking and intriguing, even if it’s hard to tell what exactly is going on some of the time.

Irena Haiduk’s new exhibition—Seductive Exacting Realism—is no exception. More a piece of performance art than the visual art usually on display, the display begins once every hour from 10 a.m.–4 p.m. on the hour and lasts 35 minutes. Before entering the main room, participants sit in an airy waiting area. The white, flowy fabric gave the room an outdoor, tent-like feel highlighted by the light penetrating the thin fabric of the walls. On the wall leading to the larger room is a gold sign reading “SER” in large gold letters and framed by three gold lines. My first thought seeing it was the Spanish word for “to be” but after reading the program notes I realized it is more likely just an abbreviation of the title. After a few minutes of waiting, a siren—another recurring idea—declared the time and we were invited to enter.

The setup of the large room was by far the most striking element of the exhibit. The room was almost completely dark, as all of the windows were covered by white shades, and the lights were all completely off. Only a small rectangle of white light from the highest eastern windows illuminated the cavernous space. After my eyes adjusted to the darkness, they were drawn to a makeshift balcony at the front of the exhibit. Truly, it’s the only thing one could be drawn to. At first glance, the space is completely empty other than letters marking the south and east sides of the room. Atop the balcony sit eight “sirens” or female mannequins dressed in black dresses, wigs, and shoes. These mannequins are lying down or letting their feet dangle over the edge. While certainly a trick of the light, the darkness made it look almost like their feet were swaying casually.

Upon further exploration I discovered that each of the corners are equipped with two speakers and a bench. A seemingly more experienced Renaissance Society patron went immediately to one of the corners to sit, and after exploring the rest of the room I also took a seat. I then sat in silence—other than the air vents and the quiet sounds of the couple kissing in the opposite corner—for 12 minutes before the time was again announced and the program began.

For the piece, Haiduk interviewed Serbian activist Srđa Popović, an instrumental leader in the student led non-violent overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in the late ’90s. Using this interview she hired voice actors to recreate her conversation, which is then broadcasted out of the pairs of speakers in each corner. It’s a bit like being in on the conversation between the two, but unfortunately, the volume between the two parts was not consistent and although I could hear Haiduk’s questions—mostly philosophical queries about one’s place in history and non-violence in general—Popović’s responses are way too quiet to understand outside of a few scattered phrases. At one point I thought he might have been speaking French it was so incomprehensible and quiet. Perhaps this was the intention of the artist, but regardless it made for a rather frustrating listening experience.  

Even with the audio issues Haiduk’s piece was an immersive experience unlike any the Renaissance Society—or any local art venue for that matter—has put on in recent memory. Seductive Exacting Realism is free and runs through this Thursday, so catch it before it ends.