Jasminka Babić: Photography as An Ambivalent Representation of Reality

The first time Duška Boban presented her series of photographic diptychs titled Grain-19 to the public was as part of the online exhibition project, A View from the Inside that the Museum of Fine Arts launched during last year’s lockdown. At a time when the notions of isolation and distance have started to significantly change the way we live and perceive our surroundings, Duška Boban has reacted to the new situation through the prism of her long-standing photographic practice aimed at the critical reading of urbanity. However, this time the artist focused on the currently most endangered segment of the city – its inhabitants. She reached into her personal archive of analogue photographs of the urban landscape of Split and formed diptychs by reframing the original photographs and enlarging segments that show the hitherto almost hidden human figure. Considering the fact that these are analogue photographs, the process of enlarging their details has produced blurry, grainy images. As the title of the series suggests, the visual dynamism and an almost palpable tension created by such photographic pairing corresponds to the changes in absolutely all spheres of contemporary life that have occurred as a result of the pandemic, which makes this work extremely topical and relevant in the context of how we perceive this new relationship between us and our environment.        

Although Duška Boban has, in the past two decades of intense artistic and activist work, particularly distinguished herself as an artist who carefully records and critically reflects on the endangered natural and urban resources in Split, such as the Marjan Park Forest or its rich architectural modernist heritage, this turn towards a person, or a citizen, that is visible in Grain-19 does not represent the first such example in her practice. Specifically, Duška is an active member of the KVART Association of Contemporary Art, which has been operating in the district of Trstenik in Split since 2006. On the occasion of Kvart’s first exhibition in 2006, the artist realized a project focused on the tenants, that is, her neighbours from the four-story building in which she then lived. She took photos of them standing at their apartment doors, a situation in which tenants of multi-storey buildings most often meet. These portraits, created at an intersection of the private and public space, offered only a potential insight into the way of life that takes places behind closed doors. Along the same lines, the artist took a step further next year when she displayed, on the façade of her building, a long strip with life-size photographs of the interiors located on the other side of the wall. Besides the aforementioned redefinition of the boundary between the private and the public, with this work Duška Boban embodied an almost instinctive need to get closer to something that we cannot clearly see. As early as 1935, the German theoretician and critic Walter Benjamin clearly articulated this tendency: “… the desire of contemporary masses to bring things ‘closer’ spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction. Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction.”[1] This brings us closer to the process by which the artist came to the recent Grain-19 series. In the enlarged parts of the diptych, Duška Boban put a spotlight on the human figure, thus turning them into a kind of documentation, but also a powerful artistic interpretation of city life and its citizens that normally eludes documentary presentation. So, the accidentally captured scenes show a girl reading on a balcony of a skyscraper in the district of Spinut, a person on the roof terrace in Table or a man almost completely obscured by the shadow of nearby shrubbery in front of the Križine hospital building, who are witnesses of a more or less visible life that takes place daily in private and public urban spaces, but they are also an example of the artist’s view that is open to different interpretations. Thanks to the blurry, grainy photographs, our need to get “closer” is only partially met. Some of the exhibited photographs, such as the one taken at Bambina Glavica, Marjan look like optical illusions, visions in which the human figure is barely noticeable. With this two-way process – bringing us closer but at the same time moving us away from the detailed representation, the artist reminds us of the deceptive nature of, both reality and its presentation through the photographic medium. We cannot help but refer here to the perhaps most famous film ever made about photography – the anthological “Blow-up” by Michelangelo Antonioni. Although the film’s narrative is based on finding evidence of a potential crime by enlarging the details of a photograph taken in passing, the uncertain outcome ultimately underscores the fundamental idea of the film about our perception of reality and the ambivalent role photography plays in that process.    

In our consideration of the series Grain-19, it is important to look at the original context of the photographs that the artist has selected for this exhibition. Most of them were taken as part of a photographic series called the Modern City, presented as part of the 39th Split Salon in 2015.[2] By selecting the notable examples of architectural modernism from the beginning of the century, as well as public and residential post-war architecture of High Modernism, Boban shows the urban development process that transformed Split into a modern city of the 20thcentury. The deliberate emphasis on the value of this architecture, removed from the recognizable and stereotypical readings of the city, is in line with the artist’s understanding of photography as a social and cultural practice through which she ascribes value to the less represented or neglected aspects of the city around her. Thus, for example, in the segment of residential architecture that the average citizen knows enough about to recognize the city district and nothing more, the artist names the architects, details about the building’s fate and the time it was built, in the exhibition labels. The significance of this basically didactic process becomes obvious especially when it comes to the architecture that no longer exists – in this case the demolished Hotel Ambasador from 1937, designed by the Czech architect Josip Kodl who was largely responsible for the emergence of modernism in Split in the early 20thcentury.      

Reflecting on the process of creation of these photographs, during which the artist zealously roamed the city in search of the right angles and frames, we are again reminded of Benjamin’s observations. Writing about Eugène Atget, an early 20th century French photographer who had systematically recorded the architecture of abandoned Parisian streets that were disappearing before the onslaught of modernization, Benjamin points out that Atget’s photographs, often compared to photographs taken at crime scenes, “… become standard evidence for historical occurrences, and acquire a hidden political significance. They demand a specific kind of approach; free-floating contemplation is not appropriate to them. They stir the viewer; he feels challenged by them in a new way.”[3] I would dare say that at some point the artist has found herself in the role of the said viewer. In the context of recent significant changes in the character of private and public space, photographs that she took with one intention now have a completely new potential for her, again at the intersection of the documentary and the artistic. In her own words, the creative process that she engages in represents “a starting point of the photographic idea – framing the observed and creating the scene – pointing to the possibilities of choice within a present moment, to the freedom to make a decision”. From today’s perspective – it is extremely important to remember this freedom, both in the process of creating a work of art and in everyday life.    

translation: Robertina Tomić

[1]Benjamin, Walter, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, in: Walter Benjamin, “Illuminations. Essays and Reflections”, Schocken Books, Random House inc., New York, 2007, p. 223

[2] 39. splitski salon “Prikazi podijeljenosti / Representations of Split”, 5 – 30 November 2015, ed. Božo Kesić, Dalibor Prančević, Boris Šitum. HULU Split, 2015

[3] Benjamin, Walter, Op. cit. p. 226