May/June 2006

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Serbian photographer Vesna Pavlovic was recently in Washington, D.C., to install Collection/Kolekcija at Fusebox [January 7÷February 11, 2006] when she talked with George Howell about the exhibition and her work as a documentary artist.

George Howell: Could you talk about your concern for the relationship of art to architecture, and how artifacts define space? Where did this come from?

Vesna Pavlovic: It came from research into the ways different groups present themselves to the public gaze. You could say it was an anthropological inquiry into particular social groups. Sculpture Gardens delved into the artifact collections of a particular minority group from Eastern Serbia. The Watching project was about basketball fans and their reactions to the game. When I started research for Casual Friday, which was an attempt to learn about the working life of Americans, I found this building, Chase One Plaza, a sixties architectural monument built by the firm of Skidmore Owings and Merrill. I was interested in the decision of this particular group of people÷bankers and architects÷to use art to beautify the work place, and in the subsequent relation that developed between workers, the work place, and the art on the walls.
       During this two-year research, I also started photographing the Palace of Federation in Belgrade, a presidential palace now used by the government. I discovered that it had an art collection, which was established at the same time as the Chase One collection in a different political, social, and economic setting. I felt that this was a compelling parallel story.

Bank Lobby, Chase One Plaza, 2005, pigment print on watercolor paper, 24 x 36 inches, edition of 5  (courtesy of the artist and G Fine Art Gallery, Washington, DC)
Salon Serbia, Palace of Federation, 2004, pigment print on watercolor paper, 24 x 36 inches, edition of 5 (courtesy of the artist and G Fine Art Gallery, Washington, DC)

GH: I noticed an image that could be from the U.N. building. The art could be located in Belgrade or New York. A viewer won't know from a casual glance at the photograph. What can this mean?

VP: I decided to show the two series together, with no titles, to allow the audience to make their own decision about the identity of spaces. The undecidability you just invoked suggests to me that a similar kind of monumentality prevailed over the idea of presenting art in the sixties in the United States and in Serbia, where society was trying to find a position between East and West. I think that the art of the Palace of Federation reflects this idea.
       After many attempts to get into the Chase Plaza, I learned that the art has been allocated to different branches of the bank. There were fewer works than I had expected to find in this famous building. Once the most famous executive floor, the sixtieth floor had just moved. The executive officers who originally selected this art took it with them to other spaces. Somehow, art travels around these spaces.

Vista, Chase One Plaza, 2005, pigment print on watercolor paper, 24 x 26 inches, edition of 5 (courtesy of the artist and G Fine Art Gallery, Washington, DC)
Double Doors, Palace of Federation, 2004, pigment print on watercolor paper, 24 x 26 inches, edition of 5 (courtesy of the artist and G Fine Art Gallery, Washington, DC)

GH: The art collection was not originally meant to be displayed for the employees, was it? Weren't the works to adorn public spaces like the lobby?

VP: I think that the original idea was to display the works in public spaces and in private offices, yes. The buildingās interior designer conducted interviews with Chase executives at the time to know their personal taste. Office Taste, this little book Casey Smith and I have done for the show, tells a little bit about these conversations between the curators of the collection and the executives and the employees, who were not always eager to adopt modern art in their offices. They had to live with it and adjust to it, and in some of the stories they grew to like the modern art, and wouldn't let go. It was a great attempt, actually, to find an alternative place to present art in the sixties. To beautify spaces and enhance work performance simultaneously. I canāt say if it did enhance the working performance, but the bank is still there!

GH: One of the criticisms of formalist abstract work is that it was designed for large white spaces removed from the world. Aren't you describing a situation where it becomes a living artifact in a living space?

VP: I also think that modernist, abstract art is controversial because it was used in an effort to present the idea of the liberal society to Europe after the Second World War, to oppose Fascism and Stalinism. I think it had an effect in the former Yugoslavia where artists picked up on the idea of freedom. In the Palace of Federation you had a very important collection of the former-Yugoslav artists who picked up on revolutionary painting during the Second World War, but who also became more abstract. So the image that you were referring to is this huge abstract piece, but you can't really tell where it is placed if you didn't know the context.  Through both art collections, we discover a very similar idea, and this show brings that idea to the surface. Now that the bankās space is left to itself and possibly some other bank will inherit it, and the other space of the palace in Belgrade is facing an uncertain future÷it somehow comes to the same end.

GH: I first saw your work in the exhibition Tandem: Passages, curated by Katherine Carl.  I had expected to see sociological work, documenting political events and social activism. I was surprised at how conceptual the work was. Was conceptualism a passport to Western Europe for younger artists in Serbia?

VP: We would have to go back to the seventies, when the conceptual art scene in the former Yugoslavia was one of the strongest in the world. Marina Abramovic, a well-known performance artist, came from that art scene. The younger artists in Serbia and the former Yugoslavia had a strong legacy to go back to in conceptual art. However, documentarianism was also a big influence, keeping in mind the wars and the things happening that had to be documented. There were art groups, like Frozen Art, who dealt with the moment in an immediate way.  I personally collaborated with a pacifist feminist group, Women in Black, for ten years, photographing their anti-war vigils and protests. I was interested in how people were experiencing every day life during those times. In an essay for the exhibition On Normality, a major survey of Serbian art in the nineties, Branislav Dimitrijevic, one of the curators, referred to me as an artist investigating "the other side of the event."

GH: You were part of a group called SKART. What was the Sadness project?

VP: The horrible history that consumed ten years in the former Yugoslavia started in 1992-1993. The Sadness project was an attempt to present our daily life at that time. It was a collaborative project with the SKART art group formed by architects Dragan Protic and Djordje Balmazovic, whom I joined for this project. They were publishing little cardboard books. Each book included a poem written by Protic. Each described a particular sadness he felt. We performed public actions in the city, to give away these books at a moment when everyone was facing every kind of loss.
       We started with the Sadness of Potential Consumers. We handed it to people coming out of the empty stores. Back then, when the isolation of the country was just beginning, there was nothing in stores. People were really surprised. We found the right context to present a certain aspect of life affected by the war. After documenting these street actions, we published ten photographic posters, which we put back on the streets again. The Sadness project brought the group to Atlanta in 1996, as part of the Cultural Olympiad. Seven Stages Theater and the Arts Festival of Atlanta organized a residency project, which caught the interest of the curator of Tandem Passages

The Sadness of Potential Travellers, delivering books at Belgrade Railway Station, 1993 (courtesy of the artist and G Fine Art Gallery, Washington, DC)
The Sadness of Potential Vegetables, delivering books at Kalenic Market Place, Belgrade, 1993 (courtesy of the artist and G Fine Art Gallery, Washington, DC)
The Sadness of Potential Landscape, delivering books at Kalemegdan Park,  Belgrade, 1993 (courtesy of the artist and G Fine Art Gallery, Washington, DC)

GH: Sculpture Gardens invokes absence, and the conceptual language of Western art. We have gardens and artifacts, but people are absent. You grew up in a Soviet-era society where freedom of speech was difficult. Was this use of elusiveness and indirection a reflection of both your experiences in a Soviet-styled country and the art world?

VP: You would be surprised at how little life was influenced by Russia in the 1960s and 1970s. The country was maintaining its position between two cultures. Apart from my Russian name, I don't remember being influenced by Russian culture as I grew up. I was more influenced by Western culture. In the 1970s, as I mentioned before, there was a strong conceptual response in the art world in Serbia towards the idea of freedom.  For me, this absence that you are noticing came somehow later. I put it as an omission of a certain element in the image, which makes the dramaturgy of the story more complex. It is a certain way I approach the different topics in the recent projects, that always analyzes whatever is happening from the other side. So, in 1992, 1993, 1994, I wasn't really photographing the front lines in the war itself, but I was photographing the impact of war. In the Sculpture Gardens, itās the omission of the people; the gardens depicted their status in the culture. In the Watching project, the audience tells the story about the sporting event, not the game itself, and here, the art collection tells the story about the particular tastes of a certain group. You could also look into these photographs as theater sets, where a play once happened. That's why "omission" may be the right word to describe this absence. It goes through all of my series.

Prahovo II, 2002, c print, 70 x 100 cm (courtesy of the artist and G Fine Art Gallery, Washington, DC)
Radujevac I, 2003, c-print, 70 x 100 cm (courtesy of the artist and G Fine Art Gallery, Washington, DC)

GH: What did Vladimir Tupanjac, your collaborator in the Watching project, mean when he talked about the parallel developments in the former Yugoslavia and basketball?

VP: In the former Yugoslavia, basketball was the ticket to the world. Many writers have stated that Yugoslavia became a modern country through basketball, when a team representing the country went out into the world and brought back all these gold medals from the Olympic Games. The Watching project evolved over four years. Vladimir Tupanjacās essays about basketball analyzed sport as a phenomenon. My images tried to portray audiences in close-up, black and white portraits of small groups, sometimes maybe two or three people, following closely their reactions to the game. We were trying to tell the story of the different contexts where basketball÷which we think is a universal language÷is being played, and to understand how sport functions in society.
       Photographing the Olympic Games where so many people come together to support their teams and their countries, we tried to touch on the utopian dimension of sport. When we started the work in 2003, during the Indianapolis World Championship, tens of thousands of people were watching the games in public squares in Belgrade, cheering for the team that beat the United Statesā "Dream Team" for the gold medal. Given our recent history, this was a big patriotic moment, a very symbolic victory. This patriotism is a strong part of sports culture and fandom. Then, in Watching 03 in Sacramento, we tried to highlight the capitalist cooptation of sport, and its role as entertainment and spectacle. We picked Sacramento because Vlade Divac and Pedja Stojakovic, two Yugoslav players, were important Kings players back then. In Serbia, people stayed up all night for the games. We strongly identified with this team, and yes, we were great fans, watching their games and cheering. For me, being part of that spectacle in Sacramento was a remarkable experience.

Untitled, Belgrade, 2001, gelatin silver print, 30 x 40 cm  (courtesy of the artist and G Fine Art Gallery, Washington, DC)

Untitled, Belgrade, 2001, gelatin silver print, 30 x 40 cm  (courtesy of the artist and G Fine Art Gallery, Washington, DC)   Untitled, Sacramento, 2004, gelatin silver print 30 x 40 cm (courtesy of the artist and G Fine Art Gallery, Washington, DC)

GH: You weren't a passive observer. You were a real fan.

VP: Yes, a real fan!

GH: I wonder how the viewer is supposed to position himself in relation to these fans. I'm not so much identifying with these people as making a judgment on them because of whatever association I might have about Serbs and ethnic cleansing. So, it's interesting to hear you talk about the series in terms of patriotism.

VP: Patriotism is fine. The meaning of the flag has become very twisted, and it is a sensitive issue in all countries where it is being used for nationalistic reasons. We should differentiate nationalism from patriotism. Working on this project, we discussed patriotism as a strong idea, as identification with a country, and as a certain pride in victory.
       Looking at these portraits now÷as plain as this might sound÷this sportās transcendence of the boundaries of place is what connects them. That was our wish with the project. In addition, we wanted to present the idea that sports does really connect and goes beyond national boundaries here in America. This is precisely what basketball is doing. You have kids playing basketball somewhere in China, you have millions of spectators everywhere, and their heroes are here. Somehow everybody is happy in this whole circle.

GH: What are you working on now?

VP: The photographs in the Watching project revealed the other side of sporting events through audience portraits. In the new work, I am trying to visualize the space between audience and performer, which is a very difficult position to occupy. I am using stand-up comedy as a very immediate, direct, and sometimes painful means of communication as the basis for this project. Once again, the work addresses the question of the audience, and how much we are affected by their feedback. Like my other series, it investigates the ways people present themselves to the public gaze.

George Howell is a Contributing Editor of ART PAPERS.

Vesna Pavlovic divides her time between Belgrade and New York. She is currently investigating American culture, and completing her MFA in Visual Arts at Columbia University.


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