The site-specific installation Letters by Ibro Hasanović, one of the most prominent visual artists emerging from the territory of former Yugoslavia, subtly touches on the notion of perception and representation of personal memory. His own intimate story thus only alludes to the tectonic social and political shifts that remained inscribed deep in the collective consciousness.
Almost symbolically, the installation was initially set up in a space marked by similar geopolitical changes – the Tobacco Factory in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Nowadays, the former Tobacco Factory is a ghost town and a place of memory. In 2004, the production of this otherwise highly viable company was terminated. Following the neo-liberal doctrine, the infrastructure and production have been moved to a more favourable environment – to an area with a cheaper labour force. Therefore the context of the Tobacco Factory reflects the (self)destructive economic and social policies of post-socialist transitional states. In Slovenia, for example, people still smoke the same brands of cigarettes for the same (or even higher) price; the only difference is that the Imperial Tobacco Corporation now intercepts the profit. Tobacco Factory is therefore a reminder of the transition process in the former Yugoslavia that started to exercise its agenda more than twenty years ago. Even though this process was different and specific to each entity of the former federation the results were similarly far-reaching: the break up of the multi-cultural federal state that triggered the uncontrollable rage of privatisation and establishment of new power relations. Both had a catastrophic impact.
Hasanović’s personal story is indeed marked by this impact. However, the aforementioned contexts could only be traced and read in the subtexts of his videos, photographs and installations. As a citizen of Bosnia and Herzegovina, he is not immune to the background and social implications of the tragedy that occurred there in recent history, at a time when this area was a subject to significant political and demographic changes. Instead of illustrating these events Hasanović deals with either their (much less obvious) profound causes or their far-reaching consequences.
Probably the most distinctive and renown amongst his works, the short film A Short Story (2011) shows how, with the help of propaganda, an ideology is able to adapt to every situation and to regenerate itself by propagating the existing myths and legends that surround it. The film is a local example of how mythology, which has always been a driving force of every ideology, is constructed. The film, set in Eastern Bosnia, relates to the rich local tradition of storytelling, which in this case regulates and manipulates the collective memory perpetuated through the oral lore.
The suspense is created by the idyllic mountain landscape, crackling logs and increasing volume of the audio, and by the figure of the passionate interpreter of a local legend from the WWII period. His tale is aimed at the group of curious children who – willingly or unwillingly – become bearers of tradition for following generations. The myth itself is about the returning shahids, Muslim martyrs who died in previous wars and become guardians of self-sacrificing defenders of the homeland in their fight against the invaders. The story is highly ambivalent, especially for those unacquainted with local history. It ‘predicts’ three fratricidal wars: according to the account, two of the wars have already happened while the third war predicts a fierce attack on Sarajevo by Russians sometime in the future. “The one who survives the last of the wars will eat with a golden spoon”, the legend says.
The prophecy, which is only partly historically accurate, ends with smearing of red colour over the screen. At the very end, the story switches from the particular to the universal context and suddenly this mythology does not refer to the history of Balkans and Bosnia alone but is reminiscent of the constant appearance of national myths globally. In a way, folk tradition could be very innocent and sympathetic, however, it has the potential to unleash immense terror. During the period of huge pan-European crisis characterised by an overall rise of intolerance and national hatred the story becomes a reminder of how short historical memory can be sometimes. The artist’s statement at the beginning of the film raises this issues: “it is not necessarily History that shapes a mythology but it is rather mythology that determines what becomes History.”
The phenomena of national ideologies, based on mythology that is implemented on the backs of ordinary people, turns out to be a natural choice of subject matter for Hasanović who came to Ljubljana as a refugee of war in the early 1990s. Aware of potential moralising and banality as a result of artistic aesthetisation of conflicts he usually deals with the topic of war only indirectly. The Letters exhibition thus bears witness to his intimate relationship with this geopolitical crisis and the bloodshed depicted in a rather fragmentary way and without sensationalism. As a twelve-year old refugee he could follow the news from conflict areas only through media reports and intimately, through the letters sent by his father who was a member of BiH armed forces at that time. Hasanović apparently wanted to protect his memories from ideology, ethic judgements, history and oblivion. If these stories were not brought to light, written down, recorded and therefore passed to another generation they would have vanished once and for all. The artist didn’t have a choice, hence the need to share them with the audience.
The Letters therefore become a metaphor for remoteness and loss. The exhibition portrays this by using a handful of minimal elements. When entering the exhibition space a visitor is struck by a mural on the wall showing a stylised and idealised picture of Mostar with all its famous tourist attractions. The original wall painting, a collective work by young refugees from 1993, is still preserved on the front façade of the apartment blocks in Nove Jarše, a suburb of Ljubljana. The photograph from 1993 and the re-made mural from 2013, both part of the installation, testify on that collective action.
On the other side of the prefabricated bulkhead a home VHS video is being screened; the video was filmed and sent over by artist’s father during wartime. The footage was made for the purpose of keeping in touch with his family, showing his everyday life and a way of proving that he was alive and well. The viewer is confronted with scenes from a town showing signs of extreme conditions: masses of people on the streets, food distribution centres, bullet-riddled houses and the feeling of endless waiting which is an inevitable side effect of every war.
Although the audience is not directly confronted with the traces of armed conflict in this work, enormous suspense is nevertheless created out of the reality of life in a closed enclave in the middle of the war turmoil all around. The vague and ambivalent footage is first of all a document of ordinary life during a period of fear and shortage of basic needs. It conceals more than it shows. The eeriness of the footage derives from the fact, that in spite of the abnormal circumstances there are apparent traces of ‘normal life’.
In order to avoid direct references of the war Hasanović does not disclose information about the provenance of the footage but rather diverts attention and refers to art – to the tradition of European tabular painting. In a similar way Pieter Bruegel’s famous painting Children’s Games (1560) is also excluded from its wider social and political context in which it was created. At first glance the painting shows no more than an idealised picture of a big group of children while they carelessly play and the figures of adults while they carry out their everyday routines.
If the Polish filmmaker Lech Majewski, in his film-based installation titled Bruegel Suite, inspired by the same old master, managed to create a new historical interpretation of the events that inspired Bruegel’s famous painting, Hasanović – referring to the events from the era of advanced informational technology – decided to deliberately conceal most of the related historical contexts. Amongst other stories Majewski also created an explicit interpretation of brutal death of a peasant who was tortured and killed by catholic mercenaries. Majewski thus demystified the painting. On the other hand the historical implications and contexts of Hasanović’s work (the war in BiH) are much clearer and widely known but his video nevertheless doesn’t explicitly show its time, place and consequently context. However, there is a sequence where the name of the town could be glanced on the front façade of the local shopping centre.
The footage of the snow-covered town whose inhabitants do their best to enrich their everyday life looks almost like a fairytale. The video is a puzzle consisting of numerous parallel images and stories which testify on the non-linearity of life and history. After twenty years the artist was able to detach himself from the context and to see the footage without emotions and affect in order to express a universal consideration of memory, perception, and personal history.
With this particular work Hasanović establishes a discourse to explore the complex role political contexts play within the intimate world of an individual who often is unable to escape collective destiny. The photograph titled Situation, an appropriated family photo from 1993, is therefore inevitably dominated by the military uniform of his father. Without moralising, the artist is simultaneously questioning personal and collective roles of people during periods of enormous social and political shifts as well as issues of personal choice. The latter is extremely limited in war. In the video, innocent games of accidental protagonists serve as a metaphor for the immense determination of people to live a „normal“ life as while questioning ideological motives that are the cause of such extreme situations.
The Letters exhibition by Ibro Hasanović was showcased at Tobačna 001, Museum and Galleries of Ljubjana from 23 April to 7 June 2013.
© Miha Colner, May 2013 / proof reading Ana Cavic