In the Dark Forest

Thornton Hall prison - Vukasin Nedeljković

The road bends to the right, and the trees have been wind-damaged, burnt and broken. Following the bend, the forest closes in, and we can go Where the Wild Things Are. It is perhaps no accident that the creator of that famous children’s book, Maurice Sendak, came from a Polish-Jewish background. In the Bieszczady region, if you stumble on a rusting streetlight in the forest, it is not the entrance to Narnia, but a reminder of the horrors of Operation Vistula in 1947. Milošević and Mladić followed this example only too well, with the result that nearly twenty years later there are over 300,000 people in Serbia ‘of concern’ to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and more asylum seekers fled Serbia in 2010 than Afghanistan. 1 Vukasin Nedeljković’s recent art helps connect us to this dark core of European history, as the collapse of Utopian dreams into genocide can be felt in the apparent simplicity of his image, Thornton Hall prison (2011) (above).

Riegelnegg suggests that “the source of Nedeljković ’s pain, red tape and the threat of reprisals, is unfortunate, but in the casual, fretful details of his mother’s words and the daily aggravations of an asylum seeker, we hear echoes of the mingled universals of hope and loss.” 2 The somewhat glib ‘unfortunate’ elides what I feel is the key to Nedeljković’s work, the fact that he is a participant in, not just an observer of, these passages of history. His earlier work, such as Tea House (2002), while reflecting the ‘relational aesthetic’ popular at the time, incorporated a specific fear into the work, rendering it inacessible to those “not raised in the ambient installation which was the Serbia of the incredible nineties.” 3 Thus, despite echoes of universal pain and loss, Nedeljković’s art is rooted in a historicist attachment to the specific and the tangible, adding emotional depth to the work. This can be seen in the Urban Landscape (2006) series of photographs, which, while resembling the objectivism of photographers of the Becher Circle such as Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky or Candida Höfer, forms an oblique historical record of life in Milošević’s Belgrade. 4

Nedeljković took part in the protests and artistic ferment that culminated in the fall of Milošević in 2000. Following the assassination of Zoran Đinđić in 2003, he made a broadcast on Radio B92 in Belgrade which resulted in his having to leave Serbia. He arrived in Ireland in 2005, and subsequently spent almost three years seeking asylum, living in the Direct Provision system in the Old Convent hostel in Ballyhaunis, Co. Mayo. The body of work he has produced since continues his aesthetic strategy of combining historicist particularism with ‘objectivism’. This can be seen in works such as Railway Hostel drawings (2011), where the traces left on the walls of the shut-down hostel mirror the ‘architecture of absence’ found in Höfer’s work, while remaining fixed in the local experience. Such fragile indications of an oppressive history can be found in all abusive institutions, ranging from illiterate boys only able to write their number in toilet cubicles in St. Conleth’s Reformatory School in Daingean, to graffiti in Auschwitz. Each tells a particular story, yet shares a universal pain.

Virilio used Auschwitz as the starting point for his concept of ‘pitiless art’, what he describes as an aesthetic of disappearance. 5 He linked this ‘pitilessness’ to a shift from representation to presentation, first achieved in the mass media and set to reach its extreme in the virtual world. 6 Groys argues that there has indeed been a shift, but not in the way Virilio imagined. Rather, we now have “mass production and placement of weak signs with low visibility – instead of the mass contemplation of strong signs with high visibility, as was the case during the twentieth century.” 7 The ‘weak signs’ produced by Nedeljković link historical contingency with universal necessity, making them at once democratic and ethical. We can see this in a piece like 47 deaths in direct provision hostels (2011), which uses dandelions collected at the Railway Hostel to create a memorial to these deaths (including Brenda Kwesikazi Mohammed, who died of heart failure and malnutrition while in the care of the Irish State in 2007). These decaying dandelions, humble weeds with healing properties, have a direct physical connection to the world of the asylum seeker, that make them at once more poignant and transient than the lilies used in Ailbhe Murphy’s Once is Too Much (1995-9), a commemoration of women who died in domestic violence in Ireland.

There is a connection with domestic violence though, as living in Direct Provision is a re-enactment of the dynamic of abuse, according to Aoibheann McCann of the Galway Rape Crisis Centre, speaking in Nedeljković’s Power and Control (2011). While this may be true to some extent of all residential institutions, it is more extreme for foreigners seeking sanctuary in a hostile system. This raises issues of rights, especially the gap between those of the merely human and the full citizen. Rancière argues that this space is where people put political ideas to the test: “Not only do they bring the inscription of rights to bear against situations in which those rights are denied but they construct the world in which those rights are valid, together with the world in which they are not.” 8

This is particularly true when a son is told in a mother’s dying words: “Do not come back home for your own safety.” My Dear Son (2011) is a powerful video piece in which childhood photographs and autobiographical details throw light on human universals by focusing again on the particulars, the “ephemeral tracks and echoes of lives lived contained and waiting.” 9 Ignoring these particulars and treating the accidents of history as merely unfortunate may lead us yet again down the road to the dark forest, with no hot dinner at the end of the story.

Bibliography:

Groys, Boris, Going Public, Sternberg Press, Berlin, 2010.

Rancière, Jacques, Dissensus: On politics and Aesthetics (trans. Steven Corcoran), Continuum, London, 2010.

Riegelnegg, Curt, ‘The Gap Between Everything’, Public Gesture Essays, IADT, Dun Laoghaire, 2011.

Timotijević, Slavko, ‘The Incredible Nineties and Vukasin Nedeljković’s “Spare Area”’, Dvorište Zgrade=Courtyard, G.L.O.R.I.A. & Sonda, Belgrade, 2007.

www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/page?page=49e48d9f6 [29th July 2011].

Virilio, Paul, Art and Fear (trans. Julie Rose), Continuum, London, 2003.

http://vukasinnedeljkovic.tk/ [20th July 2011].

Notes:

  1. http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/page?page=49e48d9f6 [29th July 2011].
  2. Curt Riegelnegg,  ‘The Gap Between Everything’, Public Gesture Essays, IADT, Dun Laoghaire, 2011; online at  http://seanosullivan.ie/content/publicgesture-review.pdf [20th July 2011].
  3. Slavko Timotijević, ‘The Incredible Nineties and Vukasin Nedeljković’s “Spare Area”’, Dvorište Zgrade=Courtyard, G.L.O.R.I.A. & Sonda, Belgrade, 2007, p.72.
  4. For images, see http://vukasinnedeljkovic.tk/
  5. Paul Virilio, Art and Fear (trans. Julie Rose), Continuum, London, 2003, p.28.
  6. Paul Virilio, Art and Fear (trans. Julie Rose), Continuum, London, 2003, p.35.
  7. Boris Groys, Going Public, Sternberg Press, Berlin, 2010, p.117.
  8. Jacques Rancière, Dissensus: On politics and Aesthetics (trans. Steven Corcoran), Continuum, London, 2010, p.69.
  9. Vukasin Nedeljković, Artist’s Statement, http://vukasinnedeljkovic.tk/ [20th July 2011].