The essay analyses the body of work of Ljubljana-based photographer Bojan Salaj. It was first published in the Membrana magazine 66/67 (2016)
The final years of the 1980s saw a considerable widening of perception and expressive possibilities of visual art in museums and art galleries, which had previously been reserved for more or less conventional artistic media, with photography slowly beginning to gain ground. While photography had been recognized within the art field since the dawn of the 20th century, its presence had always been sporadic and marginal. Today it has become an autonomous field of visual creativity, a scene inside the scene, transcending the notion of photography as a medium of (indisputable) reality. Throughout this course of evolution photography opened to and mixed with other expressive means and approaches. In a manner similar to modern art, modern photography, too, is conspicuously eclectic, and sometimes light years away form its conventional representation.
This was also the time when Bojan Salaj – the artist who can be seen as an embodiment of the aforementioned shift in perception of the photographic medium among Slovenian photographers – made his first forays into the field. Salaj has never worked as documentary photographer or photojournalist; his authorial practice has always been primarily focused on the context of exhibition and against unconventional solutions.
This was supported by his outlook and field of reference. He first became acquainted with photography as a student of philosophy, only to later become a self-taught professional photographer. His beginnings were as a studio, theatre, fashion and concert photographer, and at present he works for the National Gallery of Slovenia, mostly in charge of photographing museum artifacts. He created his first art works in collaboration with the group Veš slikar svoj dolg, portraying with his camera ephemeral, fragile space installations. His first independent works began appearing at the beginning of the 1990s, but were, for the most part, published and presented with a few years’ delay.
Salaj is one of those photographers who are characterized by deep reflection of the meaning and perception of image from different, mainly philosophical viewpoints, while at the same time following the objectivistic principles of photography, established mostly by the artists of the so called Düsseldorf School. At a glance, his practice is extremely eclectic and post-modern, which is due to the fact that Salaj is not looking to find an individual and recognizable artistic voice; he dedicates his focus to individual projects, bringing into his work various different references and themes. Nevertheless, a central motive can still be perceived throughout his output. In the past 25 years Salaj has mostly been attracted to the here and now; this includes the fundamental problems of representation of photography in mass media, iconography of power structures – be it the state or capital, models of construction of history, and ways of establishing national and cultural identities. Not least, Salaj contemplates through his photographs the project of modernism, that key concept in understanding the 20th century, which managed, to a large extent, to subjugate art – as well as other social fields – to capital.
Salaj’s first independent project, Snapshots, was born in 1992 under the influence of the precarious political situation in the civil war-torn former Yugoslavia, which had overnight become a hot topic in mass media around the world. Bombarded with explicit media imagery of violence and suffering, stirring in the majority of viewers – despite, or precisely because of, its nature of a spectacle – effects of inertia and numbness, Salaj decided to remain in the safe haven of his home and take photographs of the TV screen. This was his way of highlighting the possibility of manipulation of the broadcast images, constructing, in the long run, the discourse of reality. The images of butchered civilians in Sarajevo and prisoners of war in concentration camps were created with the aim of eliciting a second look and analysis. What is the meaning of these images for a person following the daily news form a safe distance? What is their broader context? In a similar manner, this time online, Salaj later searched for images of key events in recent history and coupled them in associative diptychs.
Between 1994 and 1996 Salaj created a series of nameless portraits of people, sanitized of every social, political and cultural connotation. These are portraits of Slovenian citizens who are not ethnic Slovenes. The project opened up a sensitive chapter on nationality, belonging, and cultural identity as the inescapable companion of constructing a national identity. The artist’s intent is innocent enough at first sight, but subversive in its core. Until 1991 Slovenia had been a part of a multi-ethnic federation where nationalism was proscribed due to the policy of (as the popular slogan went) “brotherhood and unity”, whereas after the split from the former Yugoslavia, within a new social context, the genie got out of the bottle, manifesting in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina in the form of a bloody civil war, and in Slovenia in the form of a – long hushed-up – bureaucratic “erasure” of more than 25,000 people. In the time of the series’ creation Salaj, like many Slovenians, was not aware of the affair. His initial intent was thus not particular, but universal. His portraits stand as silent witnesses to inevitability of multiculturalism in the global village and of relativity of belonging to a certain group in a time when most identities exceed national and ethnic boundaries.
A direct experience of establishing new state structures and strengthening of private capital led Salaj to explore in more detail the social changes and spaces of power connected with them. In his cycle Interiors, which spans several years and utilizes, for the most part, the technique of large format analogue photography, he focuses on symbolic spaces of power, on visual iconography of religious and state institutions, as well as on the phenomenon of historiography; that is to say, on the key levers of social control.
In his Interiors I Salaj focused on the phenomenon of religious iconography, embodied in confessionals. These spaces of penance reflect a sociopolitical and cultural shift in the newly independent state, which began, as the 20th century drew to a close, actively bringing the institution of the Catholic Church into its public life. The confessionals seen in his photographs seem as entirely impersonal, generic architecture, cleansed from all superfluous contexts, which is why they make an excellent metaphor of social change.
In the second part of the series, Interiors II (2006), the artist turns to the traditional power symbols of the Slovenian state to portray the business quarters of the national Parliament, the Constitutional Court, and the presidential palace. The prints in large exhibition formats are, despite their voidness and monumentality, marked with details bearing witness to the functionality of the consecrated spaces and to the fact that authoritarian architecture is always calculated in such a way as to make the individual feel tiny when facing it. Salaj depicts it as cold and impersonal, without any additional commentary.
Interiors III (2008) are dedicated to spaces of big symbolic meaning for the local history, representing through creation of myths the very essence of the nation’s constitution. The gentle landscape motifs in the camera obscura technique, additionally made to catch the viewer’s eye through printing on canvas, are a subtle reference to Slovenian impressionist painting of the early 20th century, by artists who were later – by all regimes – recognized as national artists who had established the foundations of the Slovenian visual art identity. What seem, at a first glance, almost romantic images, nevertheless reveal, upon closer examination, the anxiousness of the construction of the – ever changing – official history and local mythology.
Salaj concluded his extensive cycle with a multimedia participatory and performance project Interiors-Correspondences (2014) in the National Gallery in Ljubljana, creating a space installation using four large format photographs of key spaces of power of which the inhabitants of Slovenia form an integral part – the European and the Slovenian Parliaments, and the assembly halls of NATO and the UN. He added the invisible element of the big brother in the form of a surveillance camera, constantly documenting and archiving the movements of visitors in the room.
In his recent work as well, Salaj – despite the apparent minimalism and formalism of his imagery – has embraced a broader sociopolitical context. In Blacks, Whites (2015), a work whose conceptual scheme goes back to the first half of the 1990s, he commits – through complex conceptual gestures – to deep reflection on the éminence grise of today’s society, the invisible and yet ubiquitous presence of capital. Blacks, Whites thus analyses the source of the modernist idea, which has – by reducing the image to a geometric field – forever changed the perception of art, and with it the status of artwork and artist. Namely, this was the period when art controversially stepped over into the domain of the insatiable market, where works of art, like the whole financial industry, have assumed wholly symbolic values, expressed in the dominant nominal currency – money.
Despite being current, Salaj’s approach to these social phenomena is distinctively metaphorical, free from direct commentary. This is hidden in the layers of the established discourse, and it is left to the viewer to recognize and reveal it. In a time of explicit images and unambiguous messages, the artist’s very gesture of rejecting direct rhetoric is that which is subversive. In its place, he offers the viewer bones and sets traps, which lead to committed discourse about the individual inside the eternally ambivalent relation to their own intimacy, society, state and capital.
© Miha Colner, November 2015