Describing the Indescribable
The intention behind the project titled “Missing Stories. Forced Labour under Nazi Occupation. An Artistic Approach.” is to comprehend and describe the indescribable.
Reflections on World War II and Germany’s Nazi past, the specific plan and idea of organizing and establishing labour camps both in the lands occupied by Germany and also in the territory of this hegemonic force, inevitably put us in a position of discomfort due to the experience of facing the radical and unthinkable. Several questions were raised when, as a curator mostly focused on contemporary visual practices, I received an invitation to recommend artists who could engage in analyzing historical facts and processing the life and existential drama of the individual, in an intimate and yet objective way, using artistic language. In art, primarily through documentary forms analyses, recapitulations and new understandings of historical facts (i.e. political and social events) are often utilized for mapping, processing and managing data with the goal of “etching” information into individual and collective consciousness by using a specific manner of expression. The question then arises as to why a historical fact, which is obvious and undeniable according to materialistic standards, should need to be additionally processed using artistic language. Moreover, who could be the artist that would offer an objective representation, bold and without sentiment.
The practice of writing history is not simple and cannot be one-sided. It is marked by the epistemological and moral issues dealt with by the historian–scientist. But, in order to observe events objectively and really contribute to a better understanding and analysis, it is necessary to equally convey – together with this authoritative voice, this impartial look – also a subjective and, in the domain of official discourse, often “silent” view. Documenting the past only on the basis of archived material facts and without any subjective “voices” in the end often leads to it being reproduced at the level of selective memory. Consequently, selective memory builds myths, which have effects on collective consciousness. Sometimes, there is also the question of what comes out of this vacuum between the historian’s authoritative voice and the subject’s “silent” position – if not a whole series of wrong interpretations, then at least of opposing views. How “objective” is, in fact, the writing of history? What is the right way to interpret history and, ultimately, who does it “belong” to? With the emergence of poststructuralism in the 1980s, reexamination of history and its relationship toward objectivity largely came into focus. In their works, theorists such as Jean Baudrillard, Fredric Jameson and Francis Fukuyama spoke about how history could be deconstructed as a subjective narrative in relation to past events and the archive itself. The authors agree that the contemporary image of the past has developed from our experience of the so-called fragments of history and subjective uses of archives, which also suggests that history is indeed a relative matter and a changing construct, rather than an absolute, unchangeable entity. Reconstruction and reexamination of the past become interesting if they originate from a position of personal experience, as a reaction to something that has passed. The reconstruction of past events can be achieved most easily by promoting individual recollections, which, as a consequence, are transferred to collective reminiscences about the past and the creation of records in collective experience. Within the practice of exploring history, around the middle of the twentieth century, together with the official voice of the historian – who is not just a “gatherer of facts” but a collector and conveyor of meanings – the intimate voice of the man and perhaps those close to him, who had been caught in the experience of events, could also be heard, recognized as crucial for creating an official strategy for the promotion of history. Sometimes equally important is the role of the unofficial narrator, who, because of their personal feeling and relationship toward life, promotes facts by reconstructing the past inside their art – be it fine art, film, literature – partly on the basis of artefacts, and partly at the level of imagination.
Artists Saša Rakezić (better known as Aleksandar Zograf) and Milorad Mladenović were invited to contribute to the “Missing Stories” exhibition and its subject, which refers to the practice and consequences of detention in Nazi labour camps in Germany and the occupied territories, precisely through two important aspects, at the level of the relation and the difference between memory and recollection. This also suggests the ways in which history can be passed on – whether through an archive, which in the form of a trace is capable of etching an event into memory, or through the ability to fixate a past period at the level of intimate experience and allow it to survive in time as a “material” trace.
Aleksandar Zograf is an artist who uses comics as a medium to visually portray his ideas and conducted research. His comics are often based on true events, especially those linked to the destiny of “small lives” caught within “great (all-encompassing) tragedies”. The artist is interested in cases where people have managed to overcome their, for the most part, tragic circumstances, leaving a lasting mark in history due to their actions, and managing to rise above this radical moment in life owing to their peculiar creativity as an extreme desire for life and the victory of beauty despite of all the horrors. In the form of a comic book, consisting of 14 comic book pages, Zograf reports and evokes in color the final moments of life and the death of the Jewish-Hungarian modernist poet Miklós Radnóti (1909–1944), who was deported during the Nazi occupation to do forced labour in the copper mines of Bor, in occupied Serbia, where he was eventually killed in a death march. While being held in the labour camp, Radnóti secretly wrote poetry in a notebook that was found among his belongings during the exhumation of a mass grave near a Hungarian village called Abda. Zograf, having taken an interest in the poet’s fate, starts exploring the archives and “digging” through documents and facts in the manner of an archaeologist, connecting information on the basis of which he would reconstruct the tragic life of an individual. In his desire to reveal this lost and nearly forgotten testimony of a life, in time, he makes almost “destroyed knowledge” come to life with a group of dramatic pictures, words and dialogues, in this way drawing our attention to historical responsibility and the need to remember. Zograf not only deals with forgotten documents, testimonies, archives, but with his imagination also contributes to an active pursuit of memory precisely by providing visual strength to the written imprint, which now, as a “strong impression”, forms at the level of a trace, a physical copy of the event. All of it together encourages us to believe that art (here, poetry and fine art) can be stronger than the strongest, in this specific case than the senseless ideological and political mission conducted by Nazi Germany. In the words of Aleksandar Zograf, “Could something as gentle as poetry overcome the heartless exploitation executed by fearsome men in uniforms? I like to think so.”
The artist Milorad Mladenović employs a different method. Unlike Zograf, who uses the method of organizing archives and the visual reconstruction of events to establish a memory and produce a new trace in history, Mladenović chooses an internal view, a memory, as a level of personal reality which forms due to a certain connection between feelings and memories. As a sort of biographer, Mladenović recreates his family history at the level of an intimate perception of an unofficial family myth. Individual, “personal” memory is pursued down two lanes, following a line of erasure, i.e. of forgetting, and a line of recollection, or in other words recreation.
In his installation composed of two works, a diptych of paintings titled “I Forbid Your Soldiers To Enter My Vineyard” and a series of photographs called “Search”, Mladenović aims to formally present the position of remembering the past for an important trace in the present, which, as such, is a necessary prerequisite for creating a timeless connection between a series of events as an equally official representation of history.
The artist conveys his family experience. Indirectly, he refers to the experience of his grandfather whom he was named after. His paternal grandfather, Milorad Mladenović, had been captured by the occupier – the German army – and deported to the German labour camp Stalag XI A, in the village of Altengrabow, not far from Berlin. As a skilled worker in agriculture, he was sent from the camp to a wealthy landowner, at whose property he would stay until the end of the war, working as a servant. He returned to Serbia at the end of 1945. Beside this basic narrative framework, the main concept of the work is not so much the disturbing story of the artist’s grandfather, but rather the unimaginable and, in a broader context, invisible life of the artist’s grandmother Živana. Serbian women in times of conflict were often left to care alone for the children and fight for survival under the frightful circumstances of war. Here lies the tragic, yet within the context also quite natural situation, on the foundations of which the story develops further as a counterpart of a family myth. The diptych titled “I Forbid Your Soldiers To Enter My Vineyard” presents an imaginary scene. One canvas depicts a woman with children (referencing the artist’s grandmother Živana) standing in a deserted vineyard and looking towards the river, to the north, in the direction of Germany. In the other picture we see a woman, supposedly a German woman, who is looking at the observer and there is a baby in a cradle next to her. The artist’s grandmother was convinced that her husband, while away in captivity, had been intimate with the landlord’s wife, with whom he had also had a child. Although this was never fully confirmed, the photograph of a young German woman with a baby in her arms, which Živana found among Milorad’s belongings, served to build an unofficial family myth and shaped an awareness about equally possible events taking place somewhere out there, in unfamiliar circumstances. The artist, and this is interesting, is here concerned precisely with the “invisible” life of women in occupied Serbia. Metaphorically, his intention is to also point to female psychology, inside which in such situations a fighting spirit is often found crouching, not just as a natural desire for vengeance but also a desire to preserve the family, this important pillar of personal and collective identity.
The media chosen by the artist on this occasion – painting and photography, processed digital image – contribute in a conceptually interesting manner to the way in which something that is otherwise difficult to present due to its structure can be portrayed. The memory, the intimate feeling, the entire sequence of events, following this principle, are not easily presentable in a performatively and technically challenging and also time consuming process such as the one imposed by painting as a medium. In other words, with this act, the artist offers a converse postulate and intervenes directly in the process of memory. An insufficiently articulated myth now brought to awareness with the help of a physical image gains the significance of a fact and an official artefact, the role of which is to additionally clear up the invisible, unconfirmed and unsaid in a family, a community, or metaphorically also more broadly – a nation.
In their works, Aleksandar Zograf and Milorad Mladenović speak openly about the fate of individuals in the period of Nazi Germany. Building on top of official historical artefacts, they bravely plunge into layers of the unspeakable, the repressed, the intimately painful, fighting for the victim’s voice to be heard and against oblivion. Artists intervene in the field of memory, thus striving for a real “stratigraphy” of events that should metaphorically indicate what mankind is truly capable of, but also what it is that people have to nurture and preserve, this being their memory. At the same time, memory is here to remind us not only of a history of violence, for which there’s always a risk that it might return in some form, but also that art is here to bring to our attention, at an intimate and yet direct level, struggles that are often invisible and “etch” them into the official code of memory.
Translation from the Serbian: Maja Vojvodić
Una Popović (b. 1978) is an art historian and curator from Belgrade, Serbia. Since 2007, Popović has worked as a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade. She is currently employed as curator at the Salon of the Museum of Contemporary Art, a gallery devoted to presenting and exhibiting current and recent artistic positions, local and international alike. Her work is directly linked with explorations in the field of contemporary art, from historical conceptualism to contemporary practices. Her many projects – workshops, art exhibitions, presentations, and texts on artists – are characterised not only by the breadth and sheer extent of the knowledge and learning they demonstrate, but also by the specificity and depth of her critical approach. Popović has accomplished major collaborative projects on the regional and international scene, as well as organised international projects. In 2013, she was invited as a guest curator to the Tate Modern in London, where she co-curated the exhibition Inverted House at the Tate Modern’s Project Space Gallery. Among others, her recent projects in curating and co-curating include Formless-Fluid Reality in New Media Art, artist from Turkey and Serbia, international group exhibition in collaboration with Istanbul Bilgy University, Istanbul, Turkey; Ways to Overcome, an international group exhibition in collaboration with Künstlerhaus Bremen, Germany (2013); Fotodocuments 02 at the Salon of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Belgrade, Serbia (2012); What Happened to the Museum of Contemporary Art?, Museum of Contemporary Art, Belgrade, 2012; For Children and Adults, Wroclaw, Poland, 2011; Woman’s Corner, Museum of Yugoslav History, 2010, Belgrade, Serbia; In 2008, she travelled to New York for a study residence at the Whitney Museum of American Art.