YU: The Lost Country
Yugoslavia fell apart in 1991. With the disappearance of the country, at least one million five hundred thousand 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 at the safe distance to 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, even if I wanted to – return ‘home’. During the 1990 census, I was also denied the right to be Yugoslav, the nationality I had identified myself with since birth. Being a child of a Croatian father and a Serbian mother, this left me somewhat confused. The census taker’s answer as to why this was impossible mirrored very closely something that Mussolini once said: “Yugoslavia does not exist. It is a heterogeneous conglomerate which 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. Realizing that to know nothing of an area that threatened her safety was a calamity, she embarked on a journey through Yugoslavia. The resulting body of work, initially intended as a snap book, spiraled into half a million words. It is a portrait not just of Yugoslavia but also of Europe on the brink of the Second World War, and is widely 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, and 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 it down and play with it. The reason she wrote half a million words about a country she knew would soon be only a memory, is because she did not want to forget anything about it, and because she wanted to preserve this memory for millions of Yugoslavs who would later live in exile. She thought of art as a reliving of experience.
YU: The Lost Country was originally conceived as a recreation of a homeland that was lost. 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 and a sense of exile that was stronger back ‘home’ than in the foreign place where I had chosen to live. Photography contains elements such as fleetingness, which allow it to capture that sense of rootlessness and dislocation with relative ease. Both exile and photography intensify our perception of the world. In both, memory is in its underlying core. Both 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 by using photography and text in an attempt to re-live my experience of Yugoslavia and to re-examine the conflicting emotions and memories of the country that ‘was’.