Illuminating Art & Ideas
‘YU: The Lost Country’ – Dragana Jurisic
In ‘YU; The Lost Country’, photographer Dragana Jurisic uses Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon as a guidebook, taking her on a journey back through her now non-existent homeland of Yugoslavia.
Listen to Deirdre Mulrooney’s ‘Journey to YU’ a documentary about ‘YU’ broadcast on LyricFM in November 2015 here.
Colin Graham on ‘YU: The Lost Country’ in Source, 75 (2013), 42-51
In Dragana Jurisic’s copy of Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon one of the earliest passages which she has underlined is the final paragraph of the first section, entitled ‘Journey’. In a book which is already, by this point in its unfolding, a dense web of allusion, digression and speculation, there is an almost absurd crystallization of one, persuasive and alluring version of Yugoslavia. West observes an elderly man running up and down the platform beside the train in which she is travelling, calling out ‘Anna! Anna! Anna!’ and holding out in front of him an open umbrella, which he hopes to give to Anna before the train leaves. West writes:
A ray of light from an electric standard shone on his white hair, on the dome of his umbrella, which was streaked with several rents, and on the strong spears of the driving rain. I was among people I could understand.
The final assertion here, one of absolute certainty, is quickly undone by the rest of the book, as West’s epic account of Yugoslavia, presented in the form of a travel book, but actually with the structure and sensibility of a great modernist novel, loops back on itself, creating moments of clarity and fears of dissolution. The man with the umbrella is cinematic, perhaps photographic, and West is fond of something close to moments of revelation. But they are always quiet epiphanies, and they never last.
Dragana Jurisic’s photographs follow in the paths of West’s journeys through Yuogslavia. For Jurisic this is to retrace her own history. But the echoes are much more than geographic, for Jurisic’s work pays homage to West’s writing, updates it and turns West’s vision into her own. West’s explanation for her fascination with Yugoslavia places her book consciously between two wars. Looking forward to the war she feels is to come (she was writing just before the outbreak of World War II), West returns to the origins of World War I and the politics of the alliances which ensnared the last days of the Habsburg empire. In her ‘Prologue’ West, just out of hospital, goes to see cinema footage of the assassination of King Alexander of Yugoslavia in Paris in 1934, and the shadow of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand is thus cast over the book, as if history is being repeated. West’s description of the assassination of the King is detailed, scene-by-scene, constantly conscious of the medium through which she views the events. Close as West might wish to be to Yugoslavia, she is never able to really, fully believe that she is ‘among a people’ she ‘could understand’, and the means by which that closeness might be achieved – primarily through sight and language – intervene to confuse rather than clarify.
It is this to and fro of proximity and distance which is replicated in Dragana Jurisic’s images. Jurisis is both at home in the former Yugoslavia and, in following West, is a species of tourist. Where West’s book presages war, Jurisic’s images trace its aftermath as a dying fall, wondering about what future is possible in this world drained of its previous identity, uncertain of its new one. Jurisic’s photograph of a monumental lion roaring, it seems, at the ‘new’ Macedonian flag, contains fear and wonder at the belligerence of the states which have arisen out of the former Yugoslavia, and which were only just contained in the tense and melancholy chaos of the Yugoslavia which West visited. And elsewhere across the territory Jurisic’s finds other muscular monoliths flexing their symbolic power, ready to face down the future.
West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is dominated from the start by what seems like a curious and unstated thematic. Wives and husbands, their relations and their ways of speaking to each, are threaded through the narrative, beginning with West and her own husband. In its variations on this marital metaphor Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is able to continually reconfigure isolation and togetherness, and to think about relations which are at once voluntary and legal, permanent and soluble. These stand then as a kind of metaphor for the strained federation of peoples which is held in tension in Yugoslavia. Jurisic’s vision of the current former Yugoslavia beautifully continues West’s gendered simile. In ‘YU’ older women and men are seen separately. A poignant and tender image shows an elderly man holding a dandelion clock, nature’s time-teller. He, like many others in this series, is letting the days pass by, so that while public proclamations of the new (or revivified) nationalisms of the former Yugoslavia project themselves pugnaciously into the future, the people represented by those national symbols, and the lands which they inhabit, seem exhausted and bleached of colour.
While men and women of older generations move with quiet melancholy in separate spheres, they are mirrored in an image which places a younger couple together in the same frame, dressed, its appears, in ‘traditional’ costume, caught up in the commodification of nationalism as a form of dressing-up, and a projection of ethnic authenticity for tourists. Between the silences which seem to envelope the older generation and the ennui of the young, Jurisic’s ‘YU’ is a landscape of still and mournful places, in which the weight of the past forces itself upon everything. Rebecca West valiantly fought to believe in the future of Yugoslavia. Dragana Jurisic traces the effects and aftershocks of its disintegration in the subtlety of her colours, her capacity for intimacy and the intelligence and empathy with which she sees what was once Yugoslavia. Jurisic’s ‘YU’ is still a place which, in West’s words, can induce a ‘bad, headachy dream’.