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Vessna Perunovich’s tight squeeze 

The Toronto artist expresses ideas about home, space and displacement through her multimedia installations, performances and hugs. We embrace her retrospective show.

It's a foggy Saturday night outside Saint Mary's University Art Gallery, and a small crowd has gathered for Vessna Perunovich's performance, "I Hug the World and the World Hugs Me Back." The artist is tethered to a lamppost by three long, thick bands of elastic---blood-red against her black dress and white blouse. She stands, her body tilted forward at a slight angle, arms outstretched, until a passing pedestrian---a middle-aged, uniform-clad man with keys jangling around his waist---agrees to engage. He approaches and unleashes the best bear hug he can muster. "This is nice! I like this!" he exclaims mid-embrace. When it's over, he and his keys jingle away and Perunovich readies herself for her next hug.

This performed hugging---an act that has seen her interfering in the personal space of strangers all over the world since 2003---is all about challenging our notions of intimacy, boundaries, and public and private space. They are ideas that spill into most of Perunovich's painting, video work and mixed-media installations; a varied selection of which is on view at Saint Mary's University Art Gallery in a mid-career retrospective exhibition called Emblems of the Enigma.

Perunovich, a vivacious woman with blonde hair and seemingly boundless energy, was born and raised in Belgrade, in a country once known as Yugoslavia, and now called Serbia. She and her husband, filmmaker Boja Vasic, immigrated to Toronto (where they still live) with their young daughter in 1998, the same year she promptly set about making art about displacement, identity and the notion of home.

They are certainly the forces behind "Splitting Up," a well-worn iron bed frame strung with lengths of bright red, stretchy fabric, that's at the heart of the exhibition. There, balanced precariously on the taut fabric, is a long, old-fashioned double-handled cross-saw with large, jagged teeth. The effect is, not surprisingly, violent and vaguely disturbing.

Perunovich says that the work was created as former-Yugoslavia was breaking apart. "Married couples from different ethnic origins were splitting up, neighbours were turning against each other," she says of the time. She figured the bed (the place where we are born, spend a third of our lives and often die) was an intimate setting in which to explore these ideas. It's no coincidence that the fabric bands look like blood. "Blood ties can't be severed so easily," she says.

Perunovich admits that she still has an "ambiguous relationship to the word 'home.'" She says seeing Yugoslavia split apart was heartbreaking. "All of a sudden, you don't even have your home country," she says passionately, "and then you're an immigrant and you're coming to a new country---and you wonder...can this be a new home?" She investigates the idea of roots in works like "Continuum," wherein two sets of disparate boots are joined by a single pair of legs. In nearby "Foundation," a tiny pair of girly shoes is wedged into the gaps in a cement block, a simple manifestation of childhood in a country that no longer exists, or of the weak versus the impossibly powerful.

But as much as Perunovich's work deals with weighty issues, there is still an air of playfulness---or at the very least, a curiosity and openness---to her work. Indeed, the fact that she even works in as many different media as she does, even though she's only formally trained as a painter ("it's freeing to do things you don't know much about," she laughs), reveals something of Perunovich's fearlessness. In one of her video works, she brazenly carries a bundle of pink balloons through a village in Turkey, defying a call to prayer. In another, she builds a seemingly impenetrable wall out of string.

And then there's the hugging: a brazen act of affection and intimacy in our non-touching world. At her performance outside SMU on that foggy Saturday night, a shy student approaches cautiously, going in reluctantly for an embrace. "It's weird!" he says of the experience when Perunovich lets him go. "It's weird?!" she exclaims, fuelled by his reluctance, her eyes twinkling. "OK. Give me another one." And he does---without hesitating. For a moment, he looks completely at home.


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