Yugoslavia is a place that doesn’t exist anymore, except in the memories of those who once called it home. An entity pieced together from the remnants of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire following the First World War, it imploded toward the end of the last century amid brutally nationalistic conflict - as a consequence, all of our maps had to be redrawn. But for its inhabitants, the victims of history, coming to terms with how an entity so notionally fixed as a country (consisting of peoples, of values, of institutions) can just stop being there has not been so straight-forward. There are, of course, very real and substantial reasons for what happened, but the experience of that loss, a kind of permanent exile, surely cannot be understood in political and geographical terms alone.
Dragana Jurisic has a very personal stake in the other history of these events, as demonstrated by her exhibition YU: The Lost Country, on show at the RHA, Dublin until September 26. Densely clustered around the gallery in a more or less unbroken progression, the pictures chart her attempted rediscovery of a place that now exists only in the imagination. In this task she is guided by her own recollection of life in that lost country, naturally enough, but also by an account of a similar trip made across what was then still Yugoslavia by Anglo-Irish writer Rebecca West in the 1930s. Here Jurisic is using West’s insightful narrative as a prism to reflect her own experience of displacement, at once personal and historical - or rather, the points at which these two spheres continually overlap.
Societies are composite entities, with multiple and often conflicting views of what makes them up. Jurisic is especially adept at highlighting the tensions or fractures in a social landscape that actually has these discontinuities as its defining feature. More than that though, it the sense of a place and a people living against the burden of a lost history that animates the pictures - and the journey that motivated them. The relationship between photography and memory is, of course, a common-place, but in this case it actually highlights a persistent and irreconcilable sense of loss rather than a spurious unity, suggesting that memory is a territory that cannot be remade in the present. But, on the evidence of Jurisic’s pictures at least, people can and do live in these circumstances.
The series is structured around West’s classic, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, so Jurisic’s contemporary journey across what was once Yugoslavia becomes a measure of what exactly has been lost - and also of what could not have been sustained. Jurisic’s own images of this present day landscape are broken up by photographed spreads from a well-worn and heavily annotated copy of the book. On these pages selected passages have been underlined and Jurisic has added detailed commentary about her own trip. Whatever the benefits of this strategy, it also presents a number of difficulties, primarily the tendency to read the pictures in reference to the marked passages as if these were captions and the photographs illustrations. Likewise, Jurisic’s own insightful and poignant commentary is constrained by the necessity of viewing it in this form.
Such considerations aside, however, the work is still a vivid portrait of a place and its history, seen through the eyes of someone who understands the experience of exile all too well. Here the inevitability of loss offers no possible closure and so the pictures continually circle around that defining absence; this exile is metaphorical as well as actual, a condition of feeling. The result is personal, but without ever losing sight of the larger historical narrative that frames it. If Jurisic is undoubtedly aided in this by the example of Rebecca West’s writings on Yugoslavia, her own experiences and observations are not subordinated to the example of the book. Rather it anticipates her sense of displacement and gives it a context. Jurisic is obliged to create a new map, to balance the tension between what no longer exists and what stubbornly remains.
(Dragana Jurisic, YU: The Lost Country, The RHA, Dublin, September 5 - 26, 2014).