An Intense Experience of Limitlessness and Oneness: “Ocean Europe” by Ismar Cirkinagic

We live in a world that is defined by borders. The nation state is an entity that is absolutely central to our day-to-day experience. Of course, a clear division of the world into countries has rendered it neat and orderly to a great extent. But fixed geographic lines can also be the cause of great stress, desperation and disappointment.

Many a times you will find that a person is able to excel…not on account of exceptional ability or knowledge but merely because they were lucky enough to have been born in a developed country. While another suffers through no fault of their own…as their native land provides neither economic opportunity nor natural resource. When the latter attempts to make a move to the territory of the former, the result is often unneeded dissonance, and violence.

So much is said everyday about warring nation states but little is written about the demerits of the nation state itself. Till now, I have come across only two articles/essays online that challenge the very concept of the entity and its borders. One is from the Atlantic, boldly titled The Case for Getting Rid of Borders—Completely (October 2015), with the note: “No defensible moral framework regards foreigners as less deserving of rights than people born in the right place at the right time”. The second is from Aeon, called The End of a World of Nation-States May be Upon Us, declaring “Nation-states came late to history, and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest they won’t make it to the end of the century”.

Bosnia-born Danish photographer and installation artist Ismar Cirkinagic engages with the issue of the contemporary state and its boundaries in his own unique visual way in “Ocean Europe”, a camera-less conceptual photo project consisting of fifty monochromatic rectangles measuring 100 cm x 180 cm. The colours range from pink to red to purple to blue to green.

Ismar Cirkinagic (Credit: Darko Drazic)

Each rectangle represents the flag of a European country. In fact, it is the average value of the colours that were originally used on the flag. The is done by removing the files from the internet and transferring them to Photoshop, which, through certain commands, calculates the appropriate monochrome for each flag.

Through this simple act, Ismar dissolves the identities of individual nation states, revealing to us their impermanence, informing us of the man-made myths/narratives/ideologies that they are. The engaged viewer of the work undergoes a powerful psychological experience, arrives at an oceanic feeling wherein superficial divisions and differences are wiped away.

The artist explains: “This oceanic feeling is a short and intense experience, where an individual feels limitlessness and oneness with the world, where the boundaries of the ego are erased, as well as the subjective perception of the world. It is a moment of spiritual sublimity, a triumphal taste of eternity. In this rush, all existential doubts are destroyed, so is our concern for the last, and the final.”

Ocean Europe 1

“Why flags?” Ismar continues. “In times of crisis, when the stratification of society is accompanied with decadence manifested through media and consumerism, when xenophobia and Islamophobia are not marginal phenomena, but active elements in the political mainstream, the flags are nothing more than primitive objects for the accumulation of national feelings. They are used by the elite as a source of narrow-minded points of view on a far wider and more complex world that surrounds us, and which we are an indispensable part of.

“This somewhat poetically nihilistic act of art does not only introduce us to anti-authoritarian ideas but also makes us unavoidably wonder if the artist is questioning the legitimacy of the very structure that the symbol (flag) represents—the State. This line of thinking will lead us to the conclusion that the conceptual artwork is trying, in a subtle way, to re-open space for the discussion of the anarchist role in contemporary society.”

Ocean Europe 2

Ismar Cirkinagic hails from Prijedor, a small town in socialist Yugoslavia. He left Bosnia at the age of 19, arriving in Denmark as a refugee in 1992. In 1997, he enrolled in the Copenhagen Art School, and after three years, applied and was accepted at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. He has been working professionally since 2006.

Regarding his background, the artist says: “The dissolution of the Yugoslav state, and the summer of 1992, which I spent in Prijedor during the worst wave of ethnic cleansing in this part of Bosnia, left an indelible mark that later affected the choice of topics for my artworks. Running away from the war and leaving the Balkans, I walked into years of exile in Europe—a period of integration as an unwanted foreigner or even a second-class citizen. But I suppose that’s the way it is.”

Ocean Europe 3

The war and the exile, Ismar maintains, accelerated his mental maturation process and made him question existing social and political structures. His first projects were related to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity as he was then trying to meaningfully make sense of the incomprehensible brutality that he had witnessed back in his country. After more than twelve years of preoccupation with the topic, he came to the conclusion that there was no answer that could satisfy him and reconcile him with reality.

He adds: “These things do not end with the Orwellian conclusion ‘I understand the HOW: I do not understand the WHY?’ On the contrary, we quickly understand the system—the HOW—and slowly, over time we also realise the human factor—the WHY—but this is not the solution, not the answer that will get you back the long-lost peace. I assume that there is a German word for what you feel then, weltschmerzmelancholy and world-weariness.”

Ismar’s newer projects, he points out, have been influenced by a whole host of political events…the intervention of the EU member states in the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, the NATO spreading all the way to the Russian border, the collapse of the banking system, poor EU foreign and domestic policies, the growth of right-wing populists, terrorist attacks, waves of refugees, an increase in restrictive measures, surveillance and the pressure on civil liberties and privacy…

Finally, on the nature and purpose of the artistic enterprise, Ismar comments: “I do not know if I have managed, or if it was my aim, to communicate any direct message with my artworks. I believe that they are only a materialisation of some of my emotional and intellectual processes. These works are also comments on the state of society, abstract reflections, open to subjective interpretations. Unfortunately, I do not believe that art can change the world, at least not at the level that affects the collective consciousness. But surely it can change lives on a subjective/personal level. Maybe the real value of art lies in its abstract testimony of an idea, or era. When I say abstract, I think of that part of artistic expression that can only be experienced, and is impossible to translate into the written word.”

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Images used with permission.