This Toronto artist built a swimming pool inside Artscape Youngplace during Nuit Blanche
Architect Novka Cosovic likes to embrace the uncomfortable—and the message of her first Nuit Blanche installation, The Museum, is that you should too. Her work is a recreation of a Sarajevo swimming pool that was used as a makeshift morgue during the Bosian War. We asked her to tell us why she created it, and what went into its two-day set-up.
What does someone see when they walk into The Museum?
When you walk in, there are wallpaper tiles all over the place, and there’s a huge skateboarding-inspired ramp that’s just over eight feet high. The space is meant for you to lounge in. Take off your shoes and relax. Stare at the empty wall, where there is a projection of moments and photos of trauma from war zones. Some of the footage is real and some I re-enacted at home—I tiled my own floor and had friends mimic photographs.
That sounds grim. What inspired the project?
Some time ago, I went to go visit my grandparents outside of Sarajevo, and took a swim in a pool at a student dorm. I later found out it was used as a morgue during World War II. After the war, they cleaned it up and turned it into a pool again. I felt invaded when I found out, but what else are people supposed to do? They can’t swim in a river that’s -25 degrees.
What do you hope to achieve by combining the pool installation with war-zone imagery?
Through watching the videos, people will understand what the pool means. The videos and photography serve as a narrator, like Virgil from Dante’s Inferno—Dante is walking through and doesn’t understand what an inferno is until Virgil talks him through it. The general public needs a narrator, though people who’ve escaped from scenes like these won’t. I’ve tested this.
You’ve tested this! How?
As a kid, I grew up in a Serbian community. I hadn’t seen some friends for 10 years, and they asked what I was doing in school and I showed them this project. While some of my friends who were born in Canada thought it was really cool, my Serbian and Bosnian friends were like, “What the hell is wrong with you? This is too much for me.” A couple of them laughed about it. Sometimes, laughing helps people when they’re really sad.
Why do you want to revisit that sadness?
I’m still connected to it. My parents would tell me, when I was three or four, that they’d just lost their brother or uncle or aunt or some other relative in the most horrific way. My parents taught us at a young age to not ever forget—it was really hard for them to separate from the stories from back home. I lost a lot of relatives in the Yugolavian war, and how they were lost is…very hard to deal with.
Are you worried that the installation could distress people?
Absolutely, but that’s a chance I’m going to take. I’m not comparing myself to Freud, but he did the exact same thing to try to get to the bottom of trauma.
How did you create the installation?
I planned all summer long. I looked into which plywood is best to build a skateboarding ramp. I went through four or five different types of wallpapers, and looked into which glue would be best to put it up. I got in touch with my friend Alex Wilson, a carpenter who owns Atelier One Five, and this project would not have been possible without him and his girlfriend, Sarah. We built the ramp together in less than seven hours, and then it took eight hours to wallpaper everything. I used 14 rolls of wallpaper, which, in total, was 790 square feet. I had four friends help me put it up. Including everything, the cost of the whole installations was about $8,000.
You must have spent a long time researching the imagery, too. How did that affect the way you digest trauma?
I’ve become obsessed by it. I relate so much to the topic. It’s come to the point where my boyfriend comes home and sees me going through these photos and he says, “You’re crazy.”
An earlier version of this post mistakenly stated the pool was used as a morgue during World War II.