Yugoslavia fell apart in 1991. With the disappearance of the country, at least 1.5 million Yugoslavs vanished, like the citizens of Atlantis, into the realm of imaginary places and people. Today, in the countries that came into being after Yugoslavia’s disintegration, there is a total denial of the Yugoslav identity. Now, more than twenty years after the war(s) started, I feel distant enough to safely recall and question my own memories of both the place and the events I experienced.
I am calling myself an exile and not an expatriate because I can’t return “home” even if I wanted to. During the 1990 census, I was also denied the right to be Yugoslav, the nationality I had identified with since birth. Being a child of a Croatian father and a Serbian mother, this left me somewhat confused. The census taker’s answer to why I couldn’t identify as Yugoslav closely mirrored something that Mussolini once said: “Yugoslavia does not exist. It is a heterogeneous conglomerate that you cobbled together in Paris.”
Central to this project is British writer Rebecca West’s masterpiece Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941). “There proceeds steadily from that place a stream of events which are a source of danger to me,” she wrote in 1937. “That place” was Yugoslavia, the country in which I was born. After she realized that she knew nothing about the area, and that this ignorance threatened her safety, she embarked on a journey through Yugoslavia. The resulting body of work—initially intended as a “snap book” [i.e. completed in a short amount of time]—spiraled into half a million words. It is not just a portrait of Yugoslavia but also of Europe on the brink of the Second World War; it is regarded as one of the masterpieces of the 20th century.
Rebecca West thought of Yugoslavia as her motherland. This may be because, by its very nature, Yugoslavia was a land of displaced peoples. Rebecca West shared their fate. Born to an Anglo-Irish family, she never felt as if she truly belonged anywhere. “In any class, I feel at home, but I am never accepted because of the traces I bear of my other origins.” She said that she could only remember things if she had a pencil in her hand, so she could write them down and play with them. She wrote half a million words about a country she knew would soon be only a memory because she did not want to forget anything about it; she also wanted to preserve this memory for millions of Yugoslavs who would later live in exile. She thought of art as a reliving of experience.
I originally conceived “YU: The Lost Country” as a re-creation of my lost homeland. It was a journey in which I would somehow draw a magical circle around the country that was once mine, and in doing so, resurrect it, following Roland Barthes’ assertion that photography is more akin to magic than to art. Instead, it turned out to be a journey of rejection. My experience was one of displacement. Returning “home,” I felt exiled and separate. Suddenly, the foreign place where I had chosen to live felt more familiar.
Photography has the unique ability to capture a sense of rootlessness and dislocation with relative ease, thanks to its inherent affinity for the fleeting moment. Both exile and photography intensify our perception of the world. Memory is at the underlying core of both, and they are characterized by melancholy. In Easter 2011, in search of both the lost country and a lost identity, I started retracing West’s journey and re-interpreting her masterpiece with photography and text. The result is my attempt to re-live my experience of Yugoslavia and to re-examine the conflicting emotions and memories of the country that “was.”