From the Archives
“Instability, fragmentation, and brokenness”—these words could easily refer to the current global political situation, yet here they specify the 20th-century regime of Josep Broz Tito, a Yugoslavian revolutionary whose later presidential reign was marked by repression and human-rights violations. In street protests, as in galleries and museums, citizens around the world are turning to imaginative expressions of their fears and objections, and we are reminded of the power of visual interpretation to articulate a political position—addressed here in author Jordan Amirkhani’s review of work by Vesna Pavlović. This article was originally published on October 13, 2015.
Oscillating between archival research, anthropological studies, conceptual photography, and documentary film, Lost Art—Zeitgeist Gallery’s current exhibition of the work of Vesna Pavlović—examines the artist’s deep engagement with institutional resources, specifically slides and photographic ephemera culled from university libraries and the Museum of Yugoslav History in Belgrade, Serbia. Founded in 1996, the museum is the result of the integration of two other institutions: the Museum of the Revolutions of Yugoslav Nations and Ethnic Minorities, and the vast Josep Broz Tito Memorial Center, a repository of historical, photographic, and personal materials that document the life and career of President Tito. Despite Tito’s successful resistance to European Fascism during World War II, his strict policies of anti-alignment with Stalinist Moscow, and the mandates of Western capitalism during and after the Cold War, Tito’s reign is blackened by some of the darkest human-rights violations of the post-Soviet era—an issue that animates his historical legacy with tremendous ambiguity, unresolved conflict, and controversy.
The unsettled nature of her country’s past can be felt in Pavlović’s images of warped canisters and dusty reels located in the depths of these institutions. Years of War, Decades of Piece (2013) frames the act of remembering through the aged ephemera and the slippery slope of Tito’s rule that remains broken and uncohesive for former Yugoslavians. Known as a great socialist revolutionary as well as a “benevolent” dictator, Tito does not rest easy in the hearts and minds of those who thrived and suffered under his rule. Pavlović had firsthand experience in the late trajectory of the Tito administration—which shifted from pomp and circumstance, love and adoration, to the horrors of the civil wars in the 1990s—and she seizes on the complicated emotional and political contexts of the Yugoslavian socialist era by mapping the individual within a realm of “lost” images and ideologies.
The collection of images presented in Lost Art asks the viewer to examine the difference between photography as a documentary device and a re-presentation of history. While the black-and-white scale of the photographs speaks of the distance of the past, the images resist romantic nostalgia or sentimentality through a decentering of the forms, symbols, and materials of Tito’s rule. This is captured most compellingly in the fabric-based works, which borrow from the iconographic and textile materials of state propaganda (the thin gleaming fabrics of national flags, banners, and boutonnieres) to speak of the former Yugoslavia’s political past. Elements of the Choreography (2013), a deflated composite of the national flags of Yugoslavia gently affixed to the white surface of the gallery wall, grips the viewer with its dark irony and clever theatrical employment of socialist signs. Drained of color, the flag shimmers with the breezes circulating within the room as if it were a stage curtain—an “Iron Curtain,” perhaps. And yet the flag also registers bodily, drooping and spreading across the floor of the gallery like so much dead weight—the deflated, drooping weight of a lost national identity and political purpose. This theme is expressed again in Pavlović’s installation of four archival prints across a pleated gray curtain. Flickering and twinkling, the specter of Tito and the spectacle of his regime flutter against the fabric—an effect re-presented within Pavlović’s images themselves as a way to embody within the image-matter the instability, fragmentation, and brokenness that marked (and continues to mark) this period in Balkan history.
Just as the collective history of the 20th century in the former Yugoslavia cannot be pressed firmly into the neutralizing vice of history, Pavlović’s own personal history and individual participation in Tito’s socialist project cannot be affixed firmly into the artist’s own understanding and reflection of the final years of his reign. After searching though televised footage and radio commentary of the 1979 “Youth Day” celebration in the Tito archives in the Museum of Yugoslav History, Pavlović was able to rescue her own image out of the infinite landscape of recordings and documents, thereby piercing the opaque and abstracting veil of history with the tender image of schoolchildren overwhelmed by the exciting theatricality of the event. An archival print of the certificate of participation sent to Pavlović’s mother by the Yugoslavian government complements the stoic, detached, drained images that surround it, another powerful gesture of the loss of pride and tenuous relationship to Tito’s ideologies and legacy that continue to inform the landscape of Serbian memory today.
Vesna Pavlović: Lost Art was on view at Zeitgeist Gallery in Nashville, Tennessee, through October 31, 2015.