VAN Critique Jan/Feb 2014: Dragana Jurisic, ‘Yu: The Lost Country’, Belfast Exposed

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Dragana Jurisic work from ‘yu: The Lost Country’

Dragana Jurisic
‘Yu: The Lost Country’
Belfast Exposed
25 October – 23 December 2013

‘Dragana Jurisic’s YU: The Lost Country’ is based on the book, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West. The exhibition re-traces the author’s steps through Yugoslavia in 1937. West was an Anglo Irish writer who identified closely with Yugoslavia and its people. Dragana Jurisic was born in Yugoslavia, but now lives and works in Dublin. She uses the book as a starting point, and the relationship between the two travellers – separated by 70 plus years – is fundamental to the exhibition.

Jurisic has used an original copy of the book and added her own contemporary commentary in the margins. Photographs of the annotated pages of the book punctuate the sequence of photographs, which are shown as a seamless stream of images in the gallery. As you walk into the space, a large map of Europe from 1937 faces you. To the right of this there is a small montage of image and text with the terse but poetic quote:

“Where do you come from? From Yugoslavia. Is there any such country? No, but that’s still where I came from.” This text by Jurisic acts as both a beginning and an end to the show. Walking into the gallery, I was struck by the pure visual impact of 44 framed photographs displayed continuously around the room. The photographs correspond with the locations in West’s book. The first photograph is of Modernist era building with a broken down sign saying “Yugoslavija”. Next to it is an image of a young man and woman in traditional costume, then a picture of elderly people waiting in an unpromising urban space. Each image relates, sometimes tangentially, to its neighbours and to the work as a whole.

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Dragana Jurisic work from ‘yu: The Lost Country’

Many of the images are beguiling. They seem to allude to ideas of the sublime, yet, when we see images of nature at its most seductive, we are brought sharply back to an awareness of history and trauma. In one image, Jurisic depicts a beautiful placid lake scene, with smokey blue grey water and glowing greenery. In this idyll, with his back partly turned to the viewer is a soldier in camouflage, blending in with his environment like a figure form a painting by Caspar David Friedrich.

Jurisic uses the photographs in a continuous band to create a clear linear narrative and at the same time a complex matrix of connections, allusions and suggestions. Taking out the gaps between the photographs changes the nature of the individual images, making them function as an installation. The effect is different from many installations, which rely on the simultaneous presentation of multiple images where each image retains its own character and power while still contributing to the whole.

West’s book, as an object as well as a conduit for ideas, is pivotal to the exhibition. The four copies of book placed in museum cases in the centre of the exhibition are a central axis around which Jurisic’s world rotates. The books in the cases have photographs intercut into them, for example one has the iconic bridge in Mostar pasted in. The bridge was destroyed during the Bosnian conflict in 1993 and recently rebuilt and defined as a UNESCO world heritage site. The weight of history is no more evident than in these small interventions, and rather than superseding West’s text they enhance and update it in a way that seems in keeping with her outlook and intentions.

The relationship between history and contemporary life is a constant theme throughout the exhibition. In one image, we see a seat on a bridge that was on the route of Franz Ferdinand’s ill-fated journey through Sarajevo in 1914. But a young man sits insouciantly – wearing shades – next to an old lady, who gazes somewhere out of shot. There is a friction between our expectations of profundity and the mundane reality in these historically weighted sites.

There is a frankness and immediacy in the handwritten commentary written by Jurisic in the margins of West’s book. On page 405, it reads, “Not even the magnificent nature could hide all the devastation. Visited former US Special Service base. Nothing left there. Only some horses. Like it never happened. Looking at the shops by the side of the road: curtains, garden gnomes, plaster swans and tombstones. This country is FUCKED.”

The idea of art based on other bits of art is not a new one and a lot of current work seems to relate to pre-existing works by other people. But this is different. The show has an emotional charge that is the antithesis of academicism. The exhibition uses the language of contemporary art to achieve something that is quite rare in lot of contemporary art: it is emotional, frank, autobiographical and honest.

Andy Parsons is an artist based in Sligo. He is the co-founder of Floating World Artist Books.

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