PHOTOGRAPHY AS TESTIMONY OF PLACE AND TIME
* Miha Colner (Ljubljana)
In 1991, after some years of precipitated national(istic) propaganda, Yugoslavia collapsed like a house of cards. In parallel with the establishment – or better still restoration – of hate speech, which ultimately led to the disintegration of the federation and towards a civil war, a new social and economic system was gradually introduced. Indeed, following the lead of other East-European countries, an attempt to introduce a particular type of market economy was made in 1989 through the reforms of the then Yugoslav Prime Minister Ante Marković, but the process was interrupted by the deteriorating situation in the country and was only re-launched in the context of the newly-formed states. In addition to the ideological, economic and value transitions of the countries of the Socialist Block, Yugoslavia was fatally marked by a brutal interruption ofconnections (economic, political, cultural and almost everything relating to everyday life) between once closely connected territories. Thus the transition process left profound scars on the physical as well as mental environment.
1991 represents a sharp cut between new and old; a decisive ideological division and marks the beginning of a new era. The birth of new states brought also a re-writing of history and the emergence of nationalist ideas and often violent modifications to cultural identities. As a result, art practice was confined to working within renovated social contexts. This very division gives ground to the idea of the Aftermath. Changing Cultural Landscape project which provides an insight into contemporary photography in the former Yugoslavia region over two decades after its disintegration. It is focused on photography that both reflects and comments on the tectonic movements in society and the immediate environment. In the search for common figures in what was once a closely connected cultural space, this subject makes a logical choice; indeed, it was the change of social systems that radically marked this territory. The new state of mind immediately triggered reactions in the field of art and photography.
“The mental shifts of society, supported by the tendentious activities of the mass media and new propagandists, occurred at numerous levels of cultural, political and ideological life” writes Dubravka Ugrešić in her essay The Culture of Lies, and continues: “The Great Manipulators and their well-equipped teams (composed of writers, journalists, sociologists, psychiatrists, philosophers, political scientists, and generals) composed a new vocabulary of ideological formulas: democracy, national independence, Europeisation, and created new symbols: parliaments, emblems, anthems; they changed names of streets and markets, and inhabited the same buildings. They dismantled the old system in order to build a new one from the same elements.” This new nationalistic discourse originated from the very top of the cultural and intellectual movement and yet, a number of influential intellectuals fled abroad, so the question is who are the protagonists, who are the sensitive and critical observers that can reflect the phenomena of this altered cultural landscape through their artistic productions? Usually they are marginal voices within an ideologically divided and materially stratified society, who, with their original artistic statements have no influence on the general state of mind, but nevertheless testify to the existence of a determined social opposition that firmly defies the new mass ennui.
In 1991, the rock band Ekaterina Velika released the album Dum Dum, that in a visionary and critical manner predicted the forthcoming tragic events; it was their final attempt to prevent what subsequently happened. In 1992, part of this same group, together with some other Belgrade musicians, joined a group called Rimtutituki to perform in public actions against militarisation, nationalism and conscription. Both initiatives in favour of peace failed to significantly change the course of events. Equally marginal and limited over the past twenty years have been the artistic attempts to critically illustrate the new economic reality – society’s stratification and the so-called wild privatisation of public property. A socially engaged cultural work can represent the universal experience of individuals trapped between opposing ideologies and ethnicities, between different traditions and views; it can tell stories of people who couldn’t or wouldn’t blindly accept the new social norms which entered the territory of former Yugoslavia as blind dogma. In Slovenia, it was the marginal artists in the main that directly commented on the profound changes in the social fabric.
The principal role of art should be in addressing, reflecting and commenting on the state of mind of the place and time in which it is produced. How was this achieved in the field of contemporary visual art and photography? In the early 1990s, when the paradigm of profane postmodernism was implemented in the dominant artistic discourse, art world embraced the photograph as never before and photographers now consider the art gallery or a book a natural home for their work. However, its expressiveness and approach are completely different from some other photographic genres – such as photojournalism or advertising photography. The subjects addressed by artist-photographers in the former Yugoslavia region are often closely related to the turbulent changes in the social, economic and cultural landscape – in a physical (direct) and a symbolic (figurative) sense. As an autonomous medium of expression, contemporary photography addresses various phenomena in its immediate environment, be it war, the manipulative function of mass media, the visible consequences of a collapsing economy or the visual manifestation of national ideologies. The images of these photographers reflect a changed way of working and an aspiration for specific results that include a high degree of ambivalence and self-reflection. Thus Aftermath does not illustrate events, but testifies to the long-term consequences of these same events, and the artists draw attention to the relativity of social phenomena and historical facts. Indeed, ambivalence is inherent in contemporary photography because such a non-explicit way of working in a world saturated with images and communications may cause a reaction adequate to subject. Images often become even more horrific, and more effective, in their absence.
The Aftermath project is focused on artists critically addressing social processes in their local environment often resulting in extremely subjective emotional narratives. Their use of the photographic medium creates a massive deviation from the (once) predominant paradigm that photography ‘always tells the truth’. Indeed, the current representation of photography is one that both derives from and confirms the suppression of the social function of subjectivity. As a result, changing social conditions often prove to be the motor of production; they are used by numerous artists to express considerable scepticism towards the predominant historical, national and political discourses. It seems that the traumatic and turbulent recent history enhances the need by artists from former Yugoslavia to address these processes, but at the same time they are fully aware that the transition in these territories not only results in the collapse of socialism and the emergence of nationalism, but also reflects a considerable dose of omnipresent global trends from the contemporary world – gentrification, stratification, increased control, propaganda and commodification at various levels of life.
What was the art photography created over the past two decades within the territory of former Yugoslavia like? Following the heterogeneous social and political conditions within individual administrative enclaves, broader cultural and specific photographic production can be divided in two parts: the first and the second decade. The 1990s are a time of interrupted connections, the period when artists were forced to work on their own, more often than not in isolated contexts. Always explicitly aspiring to the western world, the Republics of Slovenia and Croatia immediately accepted the offer of political discourse leading towards an ideological shift; toward democracy, the free market and consequently, a new cultural policy. On the other hand, whilst Bosnia was plunged in the chaos of total war, Serbia and Montenegro and in part Macedonia, officially preserved the impoverished models of a former socialist social and economic system. Thus former Yugoslavia was actually divided in eastern and western blocks that didn’t have much communication.
Over the last decade, the post-Yugoslav territory has again been unified under the brand of a uniform political and economic system. After ten years of political instability the last ‘features’ of socialism were finally eradicated and the area became completely open to ruthless economic exploitation. From this perspective, the photo series Occupation in 26 Pictures by Darije Petković says it all: indeed, it exhibits views of Croatian cities marked with the principal symbols of national identity and icons of global corporations. The visual metaphors allow him to question the purpose of patriotic struggle for independence and the consequences of economic occupation. Though local, his story holds a universal truth; cultural landscapes of Slovenia, Macedonia or Croatia have become identical; filled with testimonies to the new economic order and national symbols. Today, the images of the centres of Belgrade or Zagreb’s share the visual identity of any European metropolis.
What are the common features of these selected artists, whose social environments and life experiences are so different – and yet similar? Indeed, the cultural milieu of former Yugoslavia is somewhat different from the rest of Eastern Europe, an area which Boris Groys claims has the experience of communism as its only common cultural identity. The former Yugoslavia region possesses specific common cultural characteristics based on extremely contemporary genres and styles, such as pop music, film and photography, whilst their creators employ similar models to their colleagues internationally, just adapting them to their own place and time. For example, the genre of topographic recording of abandoned spaces created by changed economics and a collapsing industry was developed in the 1960’s within the USA and Germany by Stephen Shore and Bernt and Hilla Becher. But this approach only became of interest in the former Yugoslavia region during the collapse of the socialist economy. Thus the attitude of artists to the transition process is never completely indifferent; their views are self-reflective and critical, although their works do not offer ultimate value judgements. They are attentive external observers and commentators on a world that is irrepressibly changing, whilst bringing into their work an expression of ambivalence and scepticism towards the generally adopted discourses. As a result, their engagement is manifested in particular in the stimulation of an individual’s cerebral activities.
- Padraic Kenney, The Burdens of Freedom: Eastern Europe since 1989, Zed Books London / New York, 2006; p. 26
- Dubravka Ugrešić, Kultura laži, Študentska založba Ljubljana, 2006, p. 104
- Ibid. p. 55
- Charlotte Cotton, The Photograph as Contemporary Art, Thames & Hudson London, 2009, p. 7
- David Levi Strauss, Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics, Aperture New York, 2005, p. 94
- John Berger, Another Way of Telling, Penguin Books London, 1982
- Boris Groys, Contemporary Art in Eastern Europe, Artworld, Black Dog Publishing, 2010