As soon as it collapsed, the (former) state of Yugoslavia became a myth: the myth of an extravagant, liberal socialist state forever lost. After realising that the romantic period was most definitely gone, people from different social and economic backgrounds alike were gripped by nostalgia. The ones who had lived in Yugoslavia and had complained about it soon became aware that what came afterwards was even harsher. The ones who hadn’t properly experienced Yugoslavia as adults felt they had unjustly missed out on it. Over the past fifteen years the ‘Yugoslavia’ phenomenon has been an inexhaustible topic in academic and artistic discourse. Several artists have focused on that time-specific phenomenon, exploring it as an example of artificial political formation different from nation states in the West, or to express and revisit their personal relation to it. There is also a certain fascination with the idea that one could be born in a state that no longer exists (which is the case for most people from this area born before 1991). The time has come to reflect on the past and to analyse the period that once was but has gone forever.
In 1970s and 1980s Yugoslavia, at a time when its cultural and artistic production had probably reached its peak, its photographers didn’t really explore–systematically or even topographically–their own, immediate surroundings. Moreover, some of them were fascinated with the Western half of the then polarised world, reflecting the collective aspirations and expectations of the people of Yugoslavia and the Eastern Bloc regarding the West. During that period, globalised popular culture had made the American lifestyle and cultural landscape very familiar to masses through mediated images. The West appeared great, that is until it came to the doorstep of former socialist states.
But there was/were (an) exception(s). Bojan Radovič, a photographer in his late twenties at the time, started an ambitious project that systematically and consistently documented Yugoslavia during the late 1980s while the state was still seemingly stable and peaceful. The working title Images from Yugoslavia suggests the ongoing project did not lack ambition, being reminiscent of other substantial projects of the type in the history of photography. In the USA photographers such as Dorothea Lange in the 1930s, Robert Frank in the 1950s and Stephen Shore in the 1970s repeatedly took on huge topographic projects documenting the cultural landscape gripped by change and turmoil.
Radovič’s approach however is more personal and without an obvious political or ideological agenda. In his photographs, he neither adhered to a particular topic nor did he document any obvious significant landmarks of this culturally diverse area. Rather, he simply photographed the things he saw on his way. His approach at the time was based on instant snapshots and placing great emphasis on the details. As a result, one can often only see the scenes in his photographs partially be they grand socio-political events or the photographer’s own intimate stories. So, even in terms of their formal aspects, the photographs are challenging since the viewer only ever sees excerpts of events and motifs. Therefore, even though they are essentially narrative, the photographs often remain thoroughly ambiguous.
The result is a series of vignettes from Yugoslavia: pictures of people and places, street life and public events, folk customs and urban culture. The project began in 1986 (though some pictures are even earlier) and continued to 1990 documenting a period when certain signs of ideological and national fracturing were beginning to show signalling the slow disintegration of the state that followed, and the project came to a standstill when the armed conflict started in 1991: the dark decade of the 1990s was not a good time to reflect on traumatic events of the near past. The materials were released as a whole only in 2014 when the photobook (in limited edition of 40) was published; the selection of pictures from the series was later exhibited within the frame of the exhibition entitled The Most Beautiful Place on Earth, in Klovićevi dvori gallery in Zagreb, Croatia, in 2016.
Even the selection of the much bigger body of work conjures the flavour of the period from a very non-spectacular point of view. Radovič focused on small and seemingly insignificant events that took place on the margins of society, events that are always significantly different from the ones propagated by mass media. However, nowadays, these events might appear to have been a blueprint for the forthcoming turmoil. The YU & ME series thus observes the gradual changes in society from the very personal point of view of an ordinary man.
There are photographs from the artist’s family album, pictures of his friends and random events taking place around his home town of Novo mesto: a photograph of two People’s Army soldiers taking a walk downtown; a photograph of a traditional event taking place, the setting up a maypole–a pagan custom that survives even today. There are visual fragments of ethnic and social upheaval in the autonomous region of Kosovo in the late 1980s, however, the photographs are not very revealing as one cannot see any decisive moments of the conflict. There are shots from the so called Slovene Spring in 1988 when people took to the streets of Ljubljana in support of detained army personnel and journalists who apparently revealed high security pieces of intelligence. Some pictures show the harbingers of the upcoming “democratisation” process and the decisive cultural turn towards the West while others reveal the time capsule of late socialism. There is a photograph of children playing around a hanging towel with the motif of Rambo printed on it right next to an image of state officials in their bureaus with the indispensable picture of the deceased lifetime president Tito in the background.
This subjective topography thus gives great insight into the period, which is nowadays often mystified and idealised. Radovič was not, and still is not, pathetic about it. He just captured what he saw and experienced, however unspectacular. Because real life is never spectacular. But the fact is that nowadays, after the bloodshed and turbulent changes in former Yugoslavia, one can understand and interpret the images in a radically different way than at the time they were made; several metaphors for what was about to come can be found in the photographs and this, indeed, is one of the most challenging aspects of the work. The element of time is crucial as it defines the way one sees and understands the photographs. The meaning of a photograph always relies on the given context and the viewer’s knowledge of what is being looked at. However, the fact is that in Yugoslavia, a significant part of population – including the artist – did not anticipate the forthcoming events until they actually happened. From that point of view, the YU& ME series of photographs is a (empirical) reminder that huge ruptures and changes in the society might as well come unexpectedly. And, that a few years are long enough to change a place of peace and prosperity into a war zone.
© Miha Colner, October 2016