Many thanks to arts writer Jane O’Sullivan for her excellent essay on the ‘Memory Betrays Everybody’ exhibition.
Lighting the way home
Memory betrays everybody, especially those who we knew best. It is an ally of oblivion, it is an ally of death. – Joseph Brodsky
I visit on one of those crisp Autumn days when it feels like the sky is about to shatter. It’s been hot for too long, but the weather has finally turned and my body hums with it. This is what it should be like, this is what I remember. It’s a physical relief. Perhaps home is just the familiarity of knowing how things work, or what comes next. It’s a strange way to walk into an exhibition about exile.
Memory Betrays Everybody brings together the ex-Yugoslav artist and writer Dragana Jurišić, who now lives in Dublin, with the Croatian-born and Sydney-based installation and multimedia artist Biljana Jančić. It’s dark inside, and the first thing to break the gloom is a long table spread with documents; photographs and texts that are spot-lit like artefacts in a museum display case. At the far left there is a thick paperback book, Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. Published in 1937, West’s book is a kind of extended travelogue through Yugoslavia and a portrait of Europe on the brink of war. Jurišić took a copy of this book with her when she was finally able to return to the home she had left as a teenager. She loosely followed West’s path, effectively chasing a ghost through a country that no longer existed.
As she went, Jurišić took photographs and wrote notes, later piecing her experiences into the acclaimed photographic book YU: The Lost Country. Excerpts from this project are presented in Memory Betrays Everybody. One photograph on the table shows the notes Jurišić wrote in the margins of her book. Still so many burnt houses. Fuck.
Another photograph focuses on an old man holding a dandelion. There’s an oblique sadness to the image that gains shape in her notes. The man is grieving for a young child killed by passing car. He has been waiting hours for someone to come and collect the body.
Perhaps one of the most disturbing images is of a puddle of blood on top of a boulder. Jurišić’s notes, placed alongside the photograph, explain it as part of a history of animal sacrifice in the region. She seems to consider it largely in terms of cultural attitudes to hope and violence, but it also reads as a visual metaphor for a land recovering from war. The blood has yet to seep into the cracks.
While they’re documentary, these images are also part of a meditation on photography, memory and power. Behind the table, playing on a large screen, Jurišić talks frankly about her experiences losing her home, her country and her national identity when Yugoslavia broke apart in 1991. She says that her father was an ardent amateur photographer and when their house was burned down, thousands of his negatives were destroyed. She became, she says, “one of those refugees with no photographs, with no past”.
The impact of this moment speaks to the way that photographs can dominate or even override our own memories, at times seeming more solid than the unreliability of our own minds. For Jurišić, taking her camera back to her former home seems to have given her a sense of distance and control. She says it was like disowning a home that had displaced her.
In a curtained alcove to the side, Jurišić lays out her memories of what happened when she was a teenager. TV monitors hover in the shadows, stacked on top of each other. Some are in colour, some black and white. They play the same footage of a woman, out in the cold. The wind blows her hair and the fur of her hood across her face. The words of the voiceover are like strobe lights, illuminating small, sudden moments from the past.
I remember grabbing onto her until all my nails broke.
She says that about her mother.
I remember the soles of my red converse shoes melting.
She says that about returning to her home after it was burnt down.
I remember walking out.
These memories are voiced in a spare, matter of fact way, one flash after another. As they accumulate, the experience with the work takes on a fragmented, dreamlike quality. This is also mirrored in the dramatic installation of the exhibition, with screens and objects appearing to float in the shadows. Biljana Jančić’s large-scale photographs, which are exhibited in the central exhibition space, seem at home in this world of light and dark, even though they engage with very different ideas.
Rather than looking at the lived experience of exile and diaspora, Jančić’s practice considers displacement in visual and spatial terms. Past site-specific projects have seen her inserting sculptural elements into exhibition spaces, or placing coloured tape and light projections on the floor and walls. These interventions engage with and disrupt the way we see these spaces. Her projects often prompt questions about borders and demarcations, and highlight how unquestioningly we occupy and move within our physical environments. In Jančić’s work, space is not just an empty void to be filled, but something already shaped and imprinted by architecture, culture and history.
In Memory Betrays Everybody, Jančić presents three abstracted photographs from her 2018 series Concrete (variations). The grand scale of these works is at odds with their everyday origins: a box of tissues, lit up by the sun. Jančić has photographed them so that the tissues appear to be alternately reaching up like candle flames or buckling like the tin walls of a fire-damaged shed.
Texture is hard to discern. The surfaces are reduced to planes and facets, and the folds in the tissue are sometimes only captured in the palest of greys. These white shapes are set against flat, black backgrounds, letting Jančić play with ideas of negative space and form, pressure and resistance. There is a tension to these images. The forms feel both monumental and too fragile to last much longer. They are just soft tissue, after all.
In a political climate that seems to be gathering around the old monoliths–nationalism, idols, monuments–the work presented in Memory Betrays Everybody takes on added significance. On the main screen, Jurišić talks about what being an exile has meant for her, and how it has reshaped her whole way of being. She is alert and watchful, “constantly observant,” she says. Perhaps, among all the things she has lost, is the ability to ever be completely at ease.