Irena Bekić: Zrno–19, or Everything Unseen in the Photographs of Duška Boban

Zrno-19 is a series of photographic diptychs by Duška Boban that was first published within a web project of Split Art Gallery as a reaction to the radical transformation of everyday life in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Originating from the analogue photographs of Split architecture and landscapes that the author took a few years earlier and subsequently reframed and removed in space and time to her own prehistory, this series has expanded into the actual premises of two galleries: Prozori Gallery in S. S. Kranjčević Library in Zagreb, and Split Art Gallery. For each photograph, the author chooses a detail with an almost invisible human figure that she captured by accident, with no reason or intent, and blows it up to the same dimensions as the photograph itself; she is not only answering the question about the possible representations of a new social constellation, but also striking a conversation about the representativeness of photography and the nature of the medium. I will try to explain this by deliberately blurring the levels of discourse on the medium and the constructs of meaning. I believe that Duška’s series allows this – in fact, that it is based on a paradox created by constantly slipping between the force fields of meaning and media characteristics. The isolated human figure composed of the vibrating grains of an enlarged image has now become the sole protagonist of the photograph, a lonely and truncated (because disintegrated) agent of a new society. This simultaneous disintegration and promotion shows the same paradox as the one found in the intention of the artistic gesture of magnification. The characters accidentally caught by the eye of the camera are unnecessary; it is only by magnification that these surpluses are turned into positive values. Like a push-pull mechanism, the move to the zone of visibility is the only thing that reveals their empty spaces and turns invisibility into something visible. This is no longer about the absence of people – which was not the original intention of the author anyway – but about life throbbing behind closed walls, on balconies, on deserted streets.

Rather than what is seen, it is what is unseen that fascinates me about this series. The property of photography to represent, its suggestive power to convince us that it faithfully conveys reality, makes us naively believe that we recognize the actual world in the presented scenes. The author seduces us for a brief moment, just as long as it takes to recall the symbolic name of the cycle and understand the concept it clearly states. She complements the photographs with the data on the year of the snapshot, the authorship of depicted architecture and its past or present use, enriching the discourse on human loneliness with topics that characterise her art and activism – city dynamics, public space, senseless urban policies.

So what is it that we see? Whose eye guides our gaze? Contrary to the myth of the impartiality of technology, supported by hegemonic policies to create an illusion of necessity and cover up their own manipulations of ideologies, it was the semioticians from the 1960s like Barthes and Eco who taught us that the production and reception of photographic images is conditioned less by camera mechanics than by a web of language codes and ideological constructs. The photographic frame is always just a choice; what we see is a fragment of a whole that belongs to some other framework of reality. Even though we consent to see this spatial discontinuity as a whole, there is a certain frustration, a tension caused by the movement of the eye across the surface of the image. In fact, as the eye looks for meaning, it can move from one edge to another, but it cannot peek behind, outside, or below the scene to encompass what is missing. It follows that the practice of looking, like walking, is a spatial practice; it is realized in the physical space between the observer and the visible.[1] There are so many possibilities refracted in that cut-out space, with so many possible views! Let me recall here the words of Victor Burgin, who reminds us of the primary social importance of the notion that “the photograph is a place of work, a structured and structuring space within which the reader deploys, and is deployed by, what codes he or she is familiar with in order to make sense. Photography is one signifying system among others in society that produces the ideological subject in the same movement in which they ‘communicate’ their ostensible ‘contents’. It is therefore important that photography theory take account of the production of this subject as the complex totality of its determinations are nuanced and constrained in their passage through and across photographs.”[2] I like the reciprocity that Burgin speaks of, the possibility of inventing each other. Of filling a photograph like a map, where we write contents, knowledge, and ideologies. At the same time, we are created by it. This means that there is not just a single gaze, and that it is neither external nor neutral. If we accept that, we become aware of a different gaze and the gaze of another. And that is already a basis for respect among beings.

“There are, therefore, two centres that can organize the painting, depending on how the viewer’s attention flutters and stops here or there,” says Michel Foucault as he describes Las Meninas, the famous painting by Velazquez. [3] Duška’s photographs are viewed in a similar way. Just as the Baroque painter deepened and inverted space with the help of a mirror, she modified space by the process of enlargement. First she set up two opposing measures, simultaneously near and far, the detail and the long shot, directing our gaze. By singling out the detail in the second photograph, she makes us look for it in the first one, instructing our eye to rest and not to flutter. But the sudden closeness of the observed people, the ability to approach them unnoticed, to imagine their thoughts and build plots, causes a tension between power and discomfort.[4] Two women on the balcony of the Firule hospital, designed by architect Zoja Dumengjić; a fisherman on a boat below Villa Dalmacija, which used to be off-limits as Tito’s villa; the back of a man standing on the roof of a building designed by Fabris; a girl engrossed in learning on the balcony of the last floor of a skyscraper in Spinut, designed by Radić; someone wiping a broom through the window of Krstarica (the Cruiser), the 17-story building by architect Frano Gotovac that became a symbol of the 1990s evictions in Split… In this series of characters, only one directs his gaze towards us. Facing the camera, with his jacket over one arm on his hip, his leg slightly bent in a contrapposto as if posing, the man in front of the Križine hospital (the former army hospital, now partly a Covid-19 hospital, designed by Antun Ulrich) stares at us, grinning. Behind him there is a wall with a mysterious red graffiti: “The crane spreads its wings and then rotates.” There is something eerie in that direct gaze, neither hiding behind technology nor needing technology to see. He seems to be challenging the all-seeing and distant photographic eye, and even us, protected by another space, to a contest of strength. But the fight is fictitious and the fighters are evenly matched, as the constant repetition of a historically fixed gaze struggles against the viewer’s ability to withdraw. In spite (or because) of that, I see this photograph as the central point of a possible reading of the cycle. 

One final remark: this exhibition in Prozori Gallery, on the ground floor of a modernist building in Peščenica (a municipality of Zagreb), coincides with the energy renovation of the building. The temporary setup of the construction site around the gallery has become not only a matching environmental and aesthetic framework for an exhibition that examines urban transformations driven by changes in ideologies and city policies, but also a conceptual and actual spatial extension of the work. Furthermore, it seems to mark the end of an epoch as a genuine homage to the architecture of the municipal building, designed by Franka Odak. The new façade, lurking under the scaffolding and tarpaulins, seems set to replace the original concrete beams and projections, permanently depersonalizing yet another modernist structure from the socialist period. This is, after all, what the exhibition is about.

[1] See: Skender, L., “Problem perspektive i pogleda u videoinstalaciji Dalibora Martinisa: Pogled na drugi pogled”, Život umjetnosti, Vol. 100, No. 1, 2017

[2] Burgin, V., “Looking at Photographs”, Thinking Photography, Macmillan, 1982, p. 153

[3] “Il y a donc deux centres qui peuvent organiser le tableau, selon que l’attention du spectateur papillote et s’attache ici ou là.” Foucault, M., “Les mots et les choses”, Gallimard, 1966, p. 28

[4] The author invited the visitors of the gallery/library to engage in recognitions and new imaginings, drawing them into a forensic game where they reconstruct places, events, and other gazes. In fact, she asked them to write a story that could have happened to the enlarged characters at the moment captured by the camera and send it to a dedicated email address.

translation: Marko Maras