A short essay about the series of photographs by Jaka Babnik entitled Why So Serious? which was released as a photobook, published for Rostfrei Publishing, and displayed as an exhibition at Miklova hiša Gallery, Ribnica, Slovenia. The photobook can be ordered here.
Although created consciously and intentionally, as a result of study travels, this series is not a conventional photographic topography. The object of study is all too vague and elusive. Jaka Babnik’s Why So Serious? series in fact represents the next stage of his study into the various purposes of living space. The main subject of his study are temporary or permanent (mostly architectural) structures that lost their original purpose somewhere along the way, or maybe never even had one, and are therefore considered to be paradoxes, foreign objects in the environment, some sort of outliers. They are an alternative to a common aspiration for rigorous, sensibly organised outside environment. The photographer focused on his own immediate environment, a wider area he lives in and is thus also well familiar with.
Its concept is based on the work of Akasegawa Genpei, a Japanese artist who developed the idea of Hyper-Art in the 1970s. Hyper-Art is not created with the intention of creating artwork, but becomes artwork due to lack of practical purpose. The idea stems from a notorious situation involving the Tokyo-based baseball club, Yomiuri Giants, who signed on – for a record-breaking sum of money – the American baseball star Gary Thomasson, only to have to bench him because of an injury. Genpei understood this as a metaphor for a poor investment and an unexploited resource, and then transposed it into the exploration of urban structures that serve no practical function and can thus be understood solely as art or as HyperArt Thomasson. He was astonished and also almost shocked at such foreign objects in the environment, which is partly attributable to a specific cultural code. In fact, he perceived irrational and non-functional objects almost monetarily.
Local traditions and cultural codes are crucial for understanding such phenomena. In the Balkans, which is considered to be a grey zone between Europe and Asia, a bridge between a „civilised“ and an „uncivilised“ world, such spatial paradoxes are nothing unusual and thus attract less attention. On the one hand, they are a consequence of dramatic social and economic changes that took place in the area after 1991 and, on the other hand, they are deeply rooted in the tradition of these places, which were industrialised and urbanised quite late and rather disproportionately. For this reason, Babnik did not adopt the idea of Hyper-Art literally but only as a starting point for exploration of spatial organisation in his immediate vicinity. He searched for and recorded the structures that, in his opinion, reflected the paradox in relation to their expected purpose and their surroundings. Spatial management is simply a reflection of the situation and the climate in society; therefore his images constitute much more than merely an ironic remark about the lack of consistency and rationality. Although he provides viewers with no information or comments and offers only images of everyday spatial situations, he has tried to establish a visual typology.
These are structures that reflect a big ambition that remained unrealised for various reasons; objects that are a result of purpose-related changes and that reflect traces of something that is no longer there; structures that indicate poor planning; structures whose function is purely decorative; situations that involve objects positioned into a place they do not belong to appearance- and purpose-wise. Babnik documented them without any pre-devised plans or limitations, on the basis of his own visual sensation.
Nowadays, a large part of the public often views such phenomena as immensely ridiculous, stupid and deplorable. However, in Slovenia and the wider Balkans area, which is full of such illogical structures and architectural elements, such condemnation and ridicule are absurd. In this respect, Slovenia affords an unprecedented opportunity for exploration, as it belongs to both the East and the West simultaneously; its outside environment is partly spartan and partly openly chaotic. The idea according to which the environment must be rigorously and systematically developed, which has been internalised by a large part of the local population, derives from a culture that certainly became global in the past century. Serving the interest of capital, sterile spatial development, which is often called gentrification, seeks to unify the space into a neat and uniform urban whole, to clean it of everything that is superfluous and to keep in under constant control. This principle has been successfully adopted in relation to the organisation of business districts, shopping centres and upscale residential neighbourhoods. But there is always an antipode to it: modest and self-developed folk creativity, which consciously violates the codes of the dominant taste, while making use of the most innovative tactics and the most unusual materials. People’s creativity knows no bounds.
The photos part of the Why So Serious? series, which were (only) partly taken in Slovenia, intentionally do not reveal their provenance, but explore the phenomenon of improvised and unplanned spatial development in all its universality. Thus, Babnik presents images that always appear native and familiar, while simultaneously pointing to phenomena that reflect broader social movements. In these images, one can recognise urbanisation of rural areas, proliferation of ornate structures into areas that were even not so long ago dominated by nature, ambition to achieve visibility and attract attention and transition from an industrial to a consumer society – typical characteristics of the modern world, here and now.
© Miha Colner, March 2017