by Branislav Dimitrijevic
"...anyway - here they are - romantic, sexy, deathly, intimate, posed, bucolic, disappointed, suspicious. When I was taking stuff, or even when I felt I couldn't take stuff, I wanted to escape the urban grit and aggressive posturing of western photography in Belgrade and try and pick at a romantic sensibility - hinting somewhere near a commercial/shampoo ad. Please let me know what you think even if you can't bear them..."
(Phil Collins in an e-mail )
Well, yes, I can hardly bear them. They appear too intense, too close, too physical. But what I think I cannot really bear is the gaze from their eyes. The eyes of people lying down, resting their heads; a gaze you encounter only in the most intimate situations.
On the other hand, for a trained art historian, the myth of Narcissus immediately comes to mind. One can almost smell the pool just a few metres away. Unfortunately, since I know where these photographs were taken, the magic might go for me. But does not.
The photos were taken in a rather busy Belgrade park, no pools nearby, only uncut grass and poorly maintained trees and bushes. In the city famous for... - whatever it is famous for - the sentiments of intimacy and sensuality escape even us who live there. These are the remotest notions possible in a context where private life has been utterly influenced and directed by political events. Have I said anything new or just confirmed the dictum that everything private is political? Either way, the rediscovery of an image of intimacy in Belgrade struck me a year ago, when I saw a video by Phil Collins that was shown in Ljubljana at Manifesta3. The video was a low-tech recording of tales told directly to camera by three young Belgraders (in fact the very same three that are now in these photographs). They reply to different questions that put in motion relations between their most intimate living and the world that surrounds them. They sound disappointed but accustomed to it, there is a touch of melancholy but, confronted with the stubbornness of the camera, the overall impression is very poignant without being tragic. I have to admit that I was unexpectedly captured by these photos. The whole story of what happened in the place I live in, and in places all around me, became poeticized for the first time. In other words: I took it quite personally.
There is no sense of detachment now that I see the 'sequel' to the film in the form of a short photo-play consisting of these images. Now the 'story' has finally gone: there are not even the subtlest references to war, isolation, poverty, guilt... There is nothing that defines the images as they were in the video, there is nothing that yells out: This is Serbia, this is the place where Slobodan Milosevic was in power for more than 13 years, this is the country where at the beginning of the 90s the majority of inhabitants authorised military intervention against neighbouring nations, this is the place where there are still many people who do not have any sense of shame for atrocities done in their name, this is the place where the average salary is under £50, where the remains of industry were destroyed by NATO air-strikes, and where reports say, that the accomplishment of a sexual life among the young has acquired a most uninspiring shade of grey.
These real-life Belgraders in the photographs are in their 20s. Yet they disclose a kind of sexuality that is almost adolescent. There is a 'retro' mood about them, they look stuck in their youth, and aware of it. This most striking aspect of these photographs hits an interesting spot in the peculiar social sphere that can be observed in contemporary Serbia. Collins openly expresses his intention 'to escape the urban grit and aggressive posturing of western photography in Belgrade'. That is indeed the case. Usually, visitors to Serbia who make it their mission to take images of a hot spot, aim their camera at two common sights. The first is to look at ruins. Ruins as a sign of social collapse, for those who want to show that the sanctions against Serbia really worked; ruins as a sign of an unjust bombing for those on the Left who want to show that western countries heavily participated but did not solve the conflict in the region; and ruins as a sign of 'Art' for those who attempt to achieve a sense of sublimation, by taking these images and making them looking 'artistic'. The other sight is the 'urban culture' of Belgrade. This was invented by admirers of Serbian opposition movements, of the activities of the Radio B92 and by all those who believed that there is such a thing as 'the other Serbia' visually manifest in rock 'n' roll bands playing in smoky garages or 'western-looking' kids in gritty urban landscapes. Collins took a look at something else, something just half-discovered: at faces not surrounded by explicit cultural and social settings, at sexuality without aggressiveness, and, at some firm disappointments affecting all of us here... He captured a fascinating feature that defines the psychic structure of that urban culture that has been portrayed so many times as something that is 'good in itself' because it's shown an alternative to the dominating political framework of Milosevic's Serbia. Collins captured something I might try to define as suspended adolescence in the country where youth is extended up to the point when people suddenly get old.
There are mostly economic and social reasons behind it, of course: unemployment, no committed relationships, conservatism at universities, and so on. However, there is also something eternally narcissistic about this position. It is cherished, it is a part of a self-construction; of sexuality, of rejection of maturity. The pictures reveal narcissism as the core of their sexuality, they are 'sexy and deathly', reposing as lovers and corpses. There is no pool where their images are reflected, but the camera plays that role. 'It seems very evident that another person's narcissism has a great attraction for those who have renounced part of their own narcissism and are in search of object-love', wrote Freud in On Narcissism. As observers we share this position with the person who took the photos. Our position is impossible, we are either looking out of the pool (as the corpse in Sunset Boulevard) or share the same grass with someone who is there but looking through us. We can hardly bear these images because the gaze we encounter is directed towards us but not reaching us. We are faced with a sexuality that is entirely self-absorbed, echoing the lines from Ovid's Metamorphoses describing Narcissus' self-deception:
Himself admiring, by himself admired.
Lover and loved, desiring and desired.