Ana Prvacki at UMOCA 

Neutralize Negative Feelings analyzes etiquette

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Ana Prvacki’s Neutralize Negative Feelings looks at the code of etiquette that governs the theater of the social. Using familiar objects like embroidery, ceramic hearth plates and public-service announcements, her art, showing at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art this month, dissects the everyday. The difference between Prvacki’s work and that of others who gaze into what might be called the “abyss of the commonplace” is that hers helps people in a practical sense.

Performance artist Marina Abramovic may seem to have cornered the market on using awkwardness and uncomfortable situations as raw material to create art, but Prvacki (pronounced “Pri-vatch-key”) is an expert at discussing difficult social interactions in her work, and may even help viewers find a smoother path through the tangle of social intercourse.

Prvacki was recently commissioned by German contemporary art survey dOCUMENTA 13 to create a series of PSAs, shown in urban locations and on German TV, about subjects like navigating personal space, and what to do about spinach stuck in your teeth.

“Etiquette is a perfect mini-performance that we act out daily,” Prvacki says. She notes that social interactions are often about power dynamics, and often tragicomic. “My background has made me very sensitive to the subject—half-Serbian, half-Romanian, raised in Singapore—so figuring out how to behave in a way that does not alienate oneself and others has been a lifelong practice.”

The 36-year-old artist admits that using the methodologies of advertising and marketing can be subversive. “The PSAs in the show were produced with (commercial art director) Shane Valentino,” Prvacki says, “and it was very important that there be this slickness and stickiness to it; I think it makes the idea more aerodynamic, especially as etiquette is often considered tedious or even frivolous.”

The public has thus far responded to her videos well. “It transforms the stress and awkwardness of situations with lightness and humor,” she says. The light and relaxed approach is helping get across politically loaded as well a humorous messages, as with “At Your Fingertips (Towards a Clean Money Culture),” in which she cleaned gallery spectators’ paper money with a wet wipe.

Although Prvacki appears to tackle the subject of etiquette in earnest, placing the objects of this installation in the seemingly neutral setting of a gallery might lend them the air of irony—a kind of postmodernist distance between the literal content of her message and the context, as if to say, “Look how quaint our social mores are.” There is a double take the show gives on the subject: that, yes, etiquette is a social construct, a “code” in a sense, but we are social animals, and the language of interaction is significant and important.

The title of the show itself sounds like it might be intended with tongue in cheek, but Prvacki looks at “negative feelings” philosophically. “Rather than acting on impulses, it is our responsibility to transform and sublimate them,” she says. “If antagonistic sentiments are neutralized and balanced out with congeniality, it is more likely that a person will respond cooperatively if we show humor and restraint, even a little naiveté.”

The show includes a unique kind of interactivity with the Embroidery & Etiquette Club (Fridays, 6-8 p.m.), a combined effort between Prvacki, UMOCA and LAXART (the Los Angeles-based curatorial initiative). The club gives the public insight into the traditional relationship, especially in Utah culture, between needlework and social manners. Implicit in this is a critique of traditional femininity and etiquette—but her work is utilitarian, and may serve to bridge the distance in postmodernism, where art is always about someone else.

The embroidered totes’ designs include bees, a symbol of our state, but also a perfect symbol for Prvacki’s project. “[Bees] embody the practice of etiquette and the equanimity it requires, uniting without tension two very different ideas of behavior or what is ‘natural’ or expected—the primal with the mannered,” she says. “On one hand, they are the wild animals, pollinators greedy for honey, and on the other hand, they are selfless, industrious, responsible workers, well-behaved and restrained.”

There is a kind of leveling in the use of etiquette, that is somehow consoling in a world that can often seem chaotic and overwhelming. Vartouhi Keshishyan, the etiquette instructor in Prvacki’s videos, once told her, “You can’t have two sets of manners, two social codes; one for those you admire and want to impress, another for those whom you consider unimportant.”

ANA PRVACKI: NEUTRALIZE NEGATIVE FEELINGS
Utah Museum of Contemporary Art
20 S. West Temple
801-328-4201
Through April 27
Free
UtahMOCA.org

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