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The Poetics of the ’Banal’

Arijana Luburić Cvijanović

Premenstrual syndrome or prehistoric monster syndrome, as it is known in a (jocular? spiteful?) pseudo-commercial intended for men, was traditionally seen as an imagined illness and one of the many proofs of woman’s mental and emotional instability, the foundation for the constructed representations of her as a lower being. In numerous cultures, from the Eskimo, via certain North and South Indian, African and European, to those in the Middle and Far East, menstruation was cause for gender segregation and myth-making about the supernatural powers of woman ’in that time of month’ who, like the one in postpartum, was considered impure, while justifications for her isolation, allegedly for her own good too, were frequently found in religious books like the Bible and the Qur’an.

Attempts to disprove superstitious beliefs about the curses which will befall people and food in contact with an ’impure’ woman, as well as to question the attitude towards PMS as an imaginary complaint, have lead to new problems as the need to recognise premenstrual symptoms as real brought about the view of PMS as a disorder treatable with a suitable diet, vitamins, hormones and antidepressants. In other words, this double-edged sword paves the way for potential abuse of this ’deficiency’ to keep women away from positions of power, so they again find themselves in the gap between degrading representations of woman as hysterical, neurotic, raging but, in actuality, demonised being, and the image of idealised femininity whose protocol instructs women to systematically negate PMS symptoms and place them in the sphere of the suppressed, the self-understood and banal.

To create a work on the basis of the everyday, the ordinary, is one of the most difficult tasks in art and there are few of those who, like Mario Vargas Llosa in the novel In Praise of the Stepmother, can usher an ear-cleaning ritual out of the increasingly congested domain of the trivial. This is precisely what the work Notes on PMS does when it takes a condition which is often waved away and transforms it into art. Through the most intimate confessions of habitually unspoken, hidden dark thoughts, urges and needs outside acceptable or polite behaviour, altered images of oneself and others, as well as one’s life, this work brings us close to the inner struggle of woman temporarily ’closed for inventory’, as one of the two interwoven video narratives phrases it. The protagonists of conspicuously different sensibilities, characters, dynamics and backgrounds, come together in an experience whose weight is reflected in the many repetitions and the very length of the work, while the established closeness is skillfully portrayed by the communication of colours, juxtaposed spaces and women’s movements in parallel projections.

The seeming uniformity of the hour-long projection composed of static takes, dominated by those in which the women gaze at the viewer, is cancelled by the salient power of empathy between the author and the portrayed women. Via the ’live’, moving photography, empathy is transmitted to the viewer, who is stimulated to contemplate an apparently insignificant topic. Attention is therefore held by both one’s immersion in the presented experience and the impression of communication between the author and the viewer. This heterotopian space of communication is made additionally appealing to the viewer by the fact that Notes on PMS, like previous projects of Jelena Jureša, focuses on real people and situations.

Every viewer will undoubtedly ask themselves why an essentially female story is told by a male voice. After a decades-long struggle to empower woman – in politics, literature, art – it might seem unfair to again deprive her of voice so her intimate (hi)story would be narrated by a man. The controversial choice of narrator can, however, be interpreted in an entirely different way. It affords distance for the female viewer in danger of too much identification, while it provides a man, the ‘usual casualty’ of the premenstrual calamity, himself imprisoned in the chains of imposed gender roles, with insight into an otherwise rarely available perspective, thus opening up a new space for understanding. The unexpected teller also offers the possibility to read these notes as a peculiar subversion of male, patriarchal order precisely because he recounts, in the first person singular, stifled, invisible female experience. More than anything, this voice, unmanned by his rapport with the narratives, gives a false impression that Notes on PMS erase the line between the male and female which we frequently stumble over – it is eliminated only insofar as the voice clears the way for understanding – revealing a fundamentally general and unceasing human struggle between the instinctive and socially imposed, the allowed and forbidden, the said and unsaid.