ART / CATHY CURTIS : Paradise Found a Documentarian : Victoria Vesna Has a Singular Take on Modern Conceptions and Orange County Life


* A bare-chested young Vietnamese man wanders through the vast empty lobby of a steel-and-glass office building in an Irvine corporate park. A notice posted outside warns visitors that substances inside the building may cause cancer.

* Ducks paddle peacefully on an artificial lake elsewhere in Irvine as the Vietnamese man is heard calmly reminiscing about running out of food during his family’s perilous escape from their native land: “That was the first time we experienced near-death. We were really thirsty . . . .We took a nap. . . . The rain woke us up.”

* Fish swim in a pool in Fashion Island. The Vietnamese man sits alone on a bench. “It’s definitely a new experience,” he says. “For once in a long time we got free. . . . We don’t have to do anything at all.” These are moments from a “Another Day in Paradise,” a video-in-progress about Orange County by Victoria Vesna, a 33-year-old Laguna Beach artist.


Another of her works--”Sometimes a Cigar Is Only a Cigar (Freud)”--is at the Long Beach Museum of Art through Nov. 22. The piece consists of two columns and a pyramid--all covered with aromatic tobacco leaves--that house TV monitors playing a video about the origin, manufacture and mystique of cigars.

Vesna, speaking in lightly accented English from across the dining room table in her spacious ocean-view home, discussed both projects and how they reflect, in different ways, the outlook of a diplomat’s daughter who spent her formative years in Indonesia, New York and Belgrade, Yugoslavia.

Vesna has several vivid memories of her early childhood in Indonesia: playing barefoot in the rice fields; watching men and women with red-stained teeth chew tobacco; witnessing the ritual killing-by-fire of a dead man’s wife; nervously observing then-President Sukarno’s military police on patrol; and being overwhelmed over by the vividness of the natural world that surrounded her.

“The butterflies and the leaves of the banana trees are enormous; the colors are really bright,” she recalls. “When we came back to Yugoslavia, nature never had that luminescence, that grandiose feeling to it.”

At 12, Vesna moved with her family to New York and eventually enrolled in the High School of Art and Design, where she switched from fashion to fine arts after a serious illness. She continued her training--as the youngest student and only girl in her class--at the tradition-minded Academy of Fine Arts in Belgrade.

But she missed New York and dropped out of school to return. It was 1979, the height of the punk movement, and in less than a year Vesna had formed a band called Crazy Hearts: “I had short spiky red hair, and I was just anti-everything and very experimental.”


And what did she do in the band? “I screamed,” she says, laughing. She also wrote a steady stream of lyrics and designed numerous video-and-slide shows--the beginning of her work in performance art.

After four years of punk rock, she left the band and New York to return to the academy in Belgrade, where she began making installations--a novelty there--and holding impromptu performances.

“It was an exciting period before (the Yugoslavian government) became very oppressive and nationalistic,” Vesna says. By 1984, she was back in New York. She eventually found a dingy, smelly studio that happened to be in the back of a cigar factory, where she was astounded to see immigrant women smoking cigars as they made the pungent tobacco product.

“To me, (cigars) have always been the symbol of this big, fat boss saying, ‘Honey, what do you want from me?’ ” Vesna says. “These women were totally destroying that stereotype. I started off with the idea of just documenting.”

One night her husband, Bogdan Maglich, took her to Club 21, where she saw a cigar saleswoman wearing a tuxedo with a little bow. “Here was this really pretty girl who smokes cigars,” Vesna says. “And that’s how the whole thing started.”

With imagery ranging from New York to Nigeria, the video steeps the viewer in the sensual and spiritual side of cigar lore, particularly their ritual use in Santeria, the Afro-Cuban religion that mingles polytheistic Yoruban rituals of Nigeria with references to Catholic saints.


Extravagantly red-lipped, Cliopas appears in the video luxuriously licking and smoking a cigar as she enumerates its mystical powers. “Instead of inhaling it, I put it in my mouth and I blow out; that’s the way you communicate with the saints,” Cliopas remarks at one point.

The project seemed to fall into place almost by chance, Vesna says. One day, she walked into a film-editing suite where a woman was working on footage of Yoruban rituals. While studying drumming in Africa, the woman had became a Yoruba priestess. The priestess in turn introduced Vesna to a Cuban anthropologist who filled in historical details. She used both in the video.

“Basically I felt myself an observer without any kind of judgment,” Vesna says. “I really felt there needed to be a balance so (the piece) can’t be accused of being flaky and weird.

“I always understand every side. That’s my strong point and my problem. I feel that as an artist I have to be above (the issues). . . . When you paint a portrait, you have to look at the person from all angles.”

To accommodate an overflow of cigar-related myth, history and intense personal memoir that wouldn’t fit into a video, Vesna also wrote a book with the same title. On one page, she describes attending a downtown New York church service years earlier, on a whim, only to become the subject of an exorcism that mysteriously caused her lower body to be covered with blood.

This unclassifiable volume--published in Yugoslavia with a text in Serbian and English, with funding from the Franklin Furnace (a well-known New York performance space) and the New York Council on the Arts--also contains video stills, photographs and Vesna’s expressionistic drawings and patterns.


Vesna has found Orange County a provocative source of material for her art since she and Maglich moved here two years ago. The area fascinates her, she says, because “this is the mental projection of what America is. . . . All the people who want to run away (from repressive conditions in their homeland) want an oasis like this. . . .

“All the secrets of (American culture) are here. . . . There is Disneyland in France. Irvine is imitated all over Europe. People in Russia dream about coming here. This is the future, and it’s frightening because it’s so dehumanizing.”

When Vesna began thinking about Irvine, she had no particular agenda in mind, she says. “Just a fascination with it. Because people really chose to live like this. They like this conformity. I just wanted to do a document of it, a kind of computer-graphics thing.”

Subsequently, civil war broke out in Yugoslavia and the Rodney King beating trial verdict provoked the Los Angeles riots. Vesna found herself contemplating the irony of watching violence and destruction--some of it half a world away, some just 40 miles to the north--from the relative calm of Orange County.

“I thought I should really juxtapose my feeling of watching the war on television and being in this beautiful environment,” she says.

The catalyst proved to be Vi Vuong, an engineering student at UC Irvine. He told her about escaping Vietnam as a 14-year-old and finally--after many setbacks and complications--winding up at John Wayne Airport.


As she learned more about Orange County’s substantial Southeast Asian population, her self-described “boring” documentary project began to have a focus--”kind of a modern (Giorgio) de Chirico, where there was this lone person in this empty, de-humanized architectural space.”

The Vietnamese immigrants came “to a real artificial oasis,” Vesna muses. “They came to the enemy to protect themselves. . . . Vietnam is almost like the subconscious in the American dream that no one wants to deal with.”

In the video, the only spoken words are those of Vi Vuong, and so far the most blatant editorializing consists of an extremely brief news clip of U.S. Army helicopters in Vietnam, juxtaposed with views of the vast empty spaces of John Wayne Airport.

To reinforce the Vietnam connection, the sound track--by Zoran Zagorcic, a Yugoslavian composer who collaborated via fax--at times acquires the plaintive twang of Southeast Asian folk music.

After visiting Westminster, Vesna decided to add clips of everyday life in Vietnam today (shot by video artist Kathy Brew) to play off images of Little Saigon’s East Asia Mall, which she found “just absolutely amazing . . . the products they sell, the Vietnamese music coming from stores. It’s an American (mall) set-up, it’s in Orange County, but it’s completely Vietnamese.”

Vesna conceives the video as a seven-part piece interweaving Vi Vuong’s experience in Orange County with illustrations of such concepts as the “artificial oasis,” “oil and war,” “money and morality” and John Wayne as an American hero. “If you want to read (commentary) into it, you can,” she says. “If not, it’s a very pretty piece.”


She says she dropped plans to use computer graphics when she first saw identical houses in an Irvine development that already looked computer-generated. But she wants to allow viewers to type in their own “dialogues” with the piece--responses that would be saved for others to read. Making the piece interactive in this way would require sophisticated and prohibitively expensive computer technology.

Vesna also dreams of getting a company that sells silicone-injected preserved palm trees--like the ones that decorate the lobby of John Wayne Airport--to donate several of the trees for an installation accompanying the video. She was incredulous to learn that prime specimens cost $100,000.

But she doesn’t fret about the delays and tactical problems involved in making her piece; she recognizes that the detours on the journey often are serendipitous. Her two daughters--now almost 2 and almost 4--were born while she worked on “Sometimes a Cigar . . .,” which she sees as ironic because, in her experience, cigars typically are passed out to celebrate the birth of male babies.

Vesna’s embracing, even-handed view of life extends even to the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which she saw through a frighteningly close lens during a visit to her grandmother and parents in Belgrade last month.

“I cannot take sides at all,” she says. “Nobody really wants that war. . . . There’s a little bit of feminist in me looking at it too. Women at this point are reduced again to mourning for their sons and daughters. Powerless. . . . To me the most symbolic thing in Serbia is the (area) where they found symbols of the ‘goddess’ religion from 30,000 years ago. On this spot is a nuclear power plant. To me, that says it all.

“I have to keep extremely busy so I don’t get depressed about all these horrible things happening in the world. . . . It’s so strange. You always wonder why me and not another person. Why am I watching this beautiful view and . . . my grandmother is watching genocide on television?”


* “Virgin Territories” remains through Nov. 22 at the Long Beach Museum of Art, 22300 E. Ocean Blvd, Long Beach. Hours: noon to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday. Admission: $2, children under 12 free. (310) 439-2119.