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Politics of Memory: Unmasking the Image of History

Branka Benčić

Citing the past, does not mean re-memorising dead languages but de-archiving the rebellious signs of official cataloguing, not so much bringing to light the object of remembrance as that which it (with its reappearance) renders invisible or removes. In this sense it is possible to talk about the politics of memory—claims Marco Scotini.[1]

Focused on the mechanisms framing space and time, place and identity, Jelena Jureša’s art practice, seen in the context of her recent works Aphasia (2019) and Mira, Study for a Portrait (2015), represents the enactment of unmasking the image of history. It focuses on the position which speaks differently about the processes of undoing such a hegemonic image, the ethics of power and the politics of representation accumulating heterogeneous social temporalities, as projections and spectres which create a sort of unease along the thin line between the past, the present and the future.

Jelena Jureša’s work reflects the practices of the artist as a historian and archival researcher, acting in a specific manner, in the sense, as Hal Foster remarks, of the practices of archival artists that are trying to make historical information, often lost or displaced, physically present.[2] In a time of the collapse of ‘the grand narratives’, artistic archival research and an interest in historiographical practices can re-examine production methods, i.e. memories of the past, and can propel many artistic productions within the domain of contemporary art. Artists’ works here presume opening new perspectives, new readings, and creating new meanings, dealing with the past through different forms of archives as tools for a re-examination and reconstruction of history. It is the accent on what exists hidden from sight that enables the production of history, and archives are seen as a contingent tool making continuous processes of de-archiving and re-archiving possible.[3] It is the archive as a critical methodology—forming new knowledge, explaining how meaning is redefined and how the circumstances of discourse are recontextualised.


Establishing connections with the past, mostly through images as memory tools, Jelena Jureša interweaves a series of spatially and temporally loosely connected and distant moments, trying to unfold the social and collective ‘remembrance of history’. Following up on the research of memory limits in the way she constituted and structured her own practice in the two-channel video installation Mira, Study for a Portrait—a comprehensive piece of almost epic proportions, affirming to be ‘a story about one woman, one family and three wars’—an all-encompassing visual exploration is formed, leaning on the examination of the representational (in)capabilities of ‘image’, spanning almost the entire 20th century as a combination of private, individual (hi)stories and social relations in the former Yugoslavia.
In her most recent work Aphasia, Jelena Jureša continues to cultivate an interest in the politics of oblivion. From the personal, individual narrative present in Mira, in the new filmwork these histories are refracted in the social, political, geographic domain. They expand to the constructs of national identities and the compartmentalisation of history in a broader, international and European context, with an accent on wars, conflicts, violence and traumas as demarcation points, again spanning the arch of the ‘long’ 20th century. It is a collective historical time, in this case called the 20th century, whose spine is broken, claims Agamben, reminiscing of Osip Mandelstam’s[4] poem Century, whereas along the line of the same metaphor Badiou highlights the ‘broken backbone’ of the century.[5] It is the disjointedness and fragmentariness of space and time, the fractures, the discontinuities, the metaphor of the broken backbone of time, that in Mira and Aphasia become a place of potential transformation and imagination, pointing to the fragility, uncertainty and instability of customary narratives, as well as the fragmentary and constructed character of identity.
The contemporary is he, claims Agamben, who firmly fixes his gaze on his own time so as to perceive not its light, but rather its darkness. The contemporary is the person who perceives the darkness of his time as something that concerns him, as something that never ceases to engage him. The contemporary is the one whose eyes are struck by the beam of darkness that comes from his own time.[6]


Museums of fine arts are a natural place for corpses, like cemeteries.
—Branko Vučićević: Paper movies[7]

To frame the forms of representation by which she is trying to establish a critical dialogue, in Aphasia Jelena Jureša appropriates different ‘dispositifs’—film, photography, museums, their formal, aesthetical, conceptual, technical and institutional frameworks, in order to re-examine the strategies and methodologies, politics and poetics of display and the contexts shaping them. A photographic image is the starting point of her creative examination of otherness, be it the media of photography, video or audiovisual installation.
The camera’s voyeuristic gaze captures the scenes of stuffed African animals held captive in museum holdings, or frames the emptied display rooms of the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren. The museum is being renovated. The holdings look like a warehouse. The found documentary footage offers scenes of natural landscapes, reactualising what the anonymous eye has already captured, and are exchanged in an interplay of images with the photographs of the museum set-up. This exchange reveals the first part of the film installation, framed with colonial aphasia. In the correlation between nature and captivity, we identify the representational contours of the Belgian imperial colonial past. Through this juxtaposition we identify the politics of power inscribed in the representation of the other, and the museum as a propaganda tool.
The diorama is a landscape designed to contain, confine and conserve, as well as to exhibit  / The diorama is a landscape designed according to the visual relations of power and dominant ways of seeing, utters the voice of the narrator.[8]
Natural history or ethnography museums can be seen as dystopian places. Based on the ancient opposition between the principles of nature and culture, they are an attempt at cataloguing and organising the loot—the objects, as material evidence, and the politics of collecting. Musealization as a process of taming and objectification, and as an act of submission, reshapes unfamiliar objects as carriers of identities into understandable categories. Photography, museum, diorama, taxidermy are paradoxical dispositions, bordering between the animate and inanimate. Procedures, strategies, places, spaces of musealized nature or life, the interspaces between life and death, all shrouded in a melancholia filling the void. In this sense, photography, as a scene of fixing the gaze on the museum set-up, and the museum itself, uphold the state of ‘in-betweenness’, in between evanescence and the preservation of traces in time.[9]
Recording the holdings of the closed down museum in Tervuren, Aphasia seems to operate along the lines of the ‘critical museum’, an intervention, as Pioter Piotrowski sees it—as the optical unconscious of a museum made possible precisely by the media of photography and film through a backstage aesthetics, meant to unmask the mechanisms of representation and the contexts in the background. ‘A critical museum is an institution operating to the benefit of democracy founded on discussion, but also a self-critical institution revising its own tradition, re-examining its own authority and the historical-artistic canon it established itself.’[10]
In the film, the establishment of criticality is implemented in three episodes, three chapters mapping several historical and geopolitical moments in the European context, structured around its role in constituting national identities, tracing the line between Belgian colonialism, Austrian anti-Semitism and the war in Yugoslavia.
Outlining the museum holdings, scenes of stuffed animals, packaging and shelves, drawers and display cases, the camera directed by the artist’s vision in part one of Aphasia points to the criticalness aimed at dismantling the customary paradigms, focusing on the denaturalisation of the museum as an institution, attempting to demonstrate that its cornerstones, organisation, events, collections are not ideologically neutral.[11] Objectifying the historical narrative and values manifested as a canon, the musealization practices and the lack of public discourse, they mainly focus on camouflaging the social hierarchy—exploitation, mass murders, and cannibalistic economy[12].
At a time of constituting a new museum canon, a space systematically and consistently working on memories and tackling the traumatic past, Jelena Jureša creates a fragment of a visual essay focusing on framing device dispositions and their dismantling. In contemporary art, the critique of museums as institutions was first begun by artists, with their imagination, sensitivity, rebellion and utopia.[13]


Aphasia—a film echoing the inability of correct verbal articulation—can be perceived as a complex visual essay on the unspeakable. It is about the possibilities of the representation of trauma, through the photographic and cinematic representation of images, and about the position of the observer before the scenes indicating past sufferings which we experientially perceive in different ways. Outlining the space and time of history fragments, disclosing how one could perceive the invisible correlations spanning three historical, geographic, i.e. geopolitical moments, Jelena Jureša has established a broad and deliberately fragmented historical and contextual framework.
Aphasia detects a web of relationships stretching across decades, across distant regions of the European continent, across different states and political and social contexts. It reflects moments and paradoxes of social and political constellations, indicates crises and omissions, redefinitions of the notion of the nation-state, of national identities. It reminds us of the transformative potential of solidarity, of the possibility and duty to speak about the unspeakable, the forgotten, the traumatic. It is in the re-examination of the need and the ability to speak, to take a critical stand, as a potential for articulation of suppressed, that Aphasia is formed. Giving voice to those who no longer have the ability to speak, Jelena Jureša points out the responsibility of artists and the potential of art. Aphasia is giving us a chance to face the historical truth and collective silence.
Through the use of photographs and videos, still and moving images, counting on the tension between document and fiction, Jelena Jureša re-examines historical positions, matters of truth, identity, memory, trauma and loss. She highlights the almost instinctive need to discover the truth that was lost or hushed and to try to reconstruct it. In that sense, the practices of processing archives underline a need for a new reading and a correlation with the past one.
In chapter two, the genealogical trajectory pushes ahead, focusing on the disclosure of repressed Austrian anti-Semitism following the lead of the documentary film records of racial experiments conducted by anthropologist Rudolph Pöch, and the making of plaster casts of war prisoners’ portrait busts, filmed to prove their racial theories. It continues across the role of Heimat films, a representation of Austria’s picturesque landscape in the construction of national identity, to the TV version, the staged court trial of Kurt Waldheim, since the real one never took place. The intensity of the documentary material leaves us speechless. We are stunned by the used fragments of a true record of the world, the fragments and spectres of events past. Authentic documentary scenes demonstrate the potential of moving images making it possible to unmask invisible mechanisms in the production of images and meaning. They take part in creating the critical potential and status of images in the social and cultural domain. The object of critical interest of the representation is the different power positions which steer and denude social realities, giving shape to politics, discrimination, violence, and injustice. Aphasia reveals how art and moving images take part in creating our political and social reality. The found footage was used as a strategy with emancipatory potential for a much broader, universal sphere of the political and social struggle which is just as necessary and pertinent today in the global context. This is the strength of works like Aphasia, which is trying to present both an actual historical document and a comment, and a relevant critique of modern-day society. Using historical material seeks to re-address past questions and ask new ones.


The choreography of violence

Is an image more evocative than a word? the artist asks.[14]

Part three of the work opens up with a scene completely different from the footage documents we are used to seeing in the piece. The central place of forming a visual narrative is held by a juxtaposition between two scenes of related elements of formal visual language acting in a correlation both as the same and as different. Both outline a female character, a young woman with fair hair, dressed in an olive-green shirt. The scenes are similar in terms of atmosphere. They are set in a relatively neutral black box, occasionally with a touch of suspense, two scenes in a visual dialogue—one shows a woman from behind in a performance, her corporeal motions are both fluid and tense, and the other portrays her en face, sitting, performing a monologue which seems to stem from the documentary interview method, or a testimony in the first person singular. Slowly we identify the parallels between the scenes acting as doppelgangers. They are complementary, they enhance each other, comment on each other. Through different visual languages and formal tools, they speak about the same thing. Through visual translation we feel how the performance movement emphasizes or implies the content of the uttered.
The starting point of Jelena Jureša’s interest in the evolution of a narrative constituting the final episode of Aphasia is a single photograph, which is never shown in the work, but its presence is almost tangible, heavy, almost to the point of materialising before our eyes. We identify it in speech, we identify it in motion. It is heard, but not directly seen. Present in the spoken word, in the tension of the performer’s kicking foot, body torsion, and posture.
The subject is the famous and emblematic photograph taken by Ron Haviv in Bijeljina on 2 April 1992, at the very beginning of the war in Bosnia. The photo was amply distributed, described, and published. In Regarding the Pain of Others it was described by Susan Sontag:
From behind, we see a uniformed Serb militiaman, a youthful figure with sunglasses perched on the top of his head, a cigarette between the second and third fingers of his raised left hand, rifle dangling in his right hand, right leg poised to kick a woman lying face down on the sidewalk between two other bodies.[15]
In Croatia, the same photograph is featured on book covers—the Croatian edition of Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag and They Would Never Hurt a Fly (Oni ne bi ni mrava zgazili) by Slavenka Drakulić, a book about how ordinary people committed terrible crimes in wartime in the territory of the former Yugoslavia, while most of her case studies concern alleged Serbian outrages. She locates stories of individual evil while in a broader picture it echoes issues and perspectives about silence and the truths about terrible ethnic conflicts, how individuals and societies might deal with accusations, trials, guilt, atrocity, killings, justice, memory…
It is described cinematically by Godard in this short video essay Je vous salue Sarajevo (1993), through repetitions, panning over the disintegrated image surface, stopping on fragments and details, it is disassembled and reassembled in editing. A cinematic collage as an accumulation of physical fragments, a series of close-ups of soldiers and their victims—heads, boots, hands, weapons…[16]

In his text Hidden Camera in Bijeljina 1992, Boris Dežulović meticulously depicts ‘the most atrocious of all the atrocious photos of the Bosnian war’. Dežulović’ painstaking comment brings us to the perpetrator who ‘completely relaxed before the world and before history walks the eerily desolate streets of Bijeljina and kicks dead human heads’, only to leave ‘Bijeljina and the war with the same carefree gait.’ [17]

In Aphasia the photograph is described through the words of Barbara Matejčić, a research journalist and protagonist of this work. Barbara’s presence marks a return to the present, a transition from the historical events represented by the found footage score, into the real, a passage into ‘our’ actual reality. Her spoken words connect the past and the present, face us with the scene from Bijeljina and its consequences, the question ‘I wonder how much they know’ untangles an entire web of relations and responsibilities. The intention of facing and unmasking the consequences is, after all, Aphasia’s intention, and artists and artworks help societies to improve their memory. In this appropriation of an image which is not here, but is nevertheless present all the time like a spectre, the mimesis of the performative part constructs itself as a substitute for the missing scene. It is in the performance movement of Ivana Jozić that we identify the unstable permanence of the scene which appears like a ghost, fluid like a memory.

On a completely different, specific and functional level, on the level of forensics, the photo served as evidence at the International Tribunal in The Hague and the perpetrator was left unpunished. Only one photo perhaps cannot tell us everything we need to know about the war in Bosnia.[18] But it can speak in different ways, it can speak in court, as evidence or testimony, it can disseminate knowledge, inscribe in our collective memory as something never to be forgotten. Advocating for an ethical analysis, as opposed to the spectacular, Ariella Azoulay emphasizes our historical responsibility, not only to produce photos, but to make them speak.[19] The power of an image (a photograph) is to engrain something in our memory and to speak about the things difficult or impossible to speak about and thus to help convey memories.
In Mostar—like in Srebrenica, Sarajevo, Vukovar and the other war-torn cities of former Yugoslavia—’corps morcellé’ becomes an iconic image of the nineties. The breakdown of a country along ideologically imposed ethnic seams has produced a multitude of personal, photographic, cinematic and TV versions of murdered and mutilated bodies.[20] Modern-day life, in fact, offers plenty of opportunities for watching other people’s suffering from afar, thanks to the medium of photography, claims Susan Sontag, and remembering increasingly means: remembering an image.[21]

[1] Marco Scotini, ‘The Government of Time and the Insurrections of Memories’, Politics of Memory: Documentary and Archive (Berlin: Archive Books, 2017), p. 15.
[2] Hal Foster, ‘Archival Impulse’, October 110 (autumn 2004), pp. 3-22.
[3] Marco Scotini, ‘The Government of Time and the Insurrections of Memories’.
[4] Giorgio Agamben, ‘What is an Apparatus?’and Other Essays (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), p. 43.
[5] Alan Badiou, ‘Before even having begun, the Century’s spine has already cracked’, in Century (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008), p. 17.
[6] Giorgio Agamben, ‘What is an Apparatus?’and Other Essays, p. 45.
[7] Branko Vučićević, Paper Movies: poučne priče, (Belgrade: B 92, 1998), p. 46.
[8] Transcript, Aphasia, part 1.
[9] Irena Bekić, ‘Podrhtavanja’, 2015,
[10] Piotr Piotrowski, Kritički muzej (Belgrade: Europa Nostra Serbia, Centre of Museums and Heritage, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, 2013), p. 16.
[11] Piotr Piotrowski, Kritički muzej, p. 21.
[12] Vučićević, Paper Movies.
[13] Piotrowski, p. 19.
[14] Jelena Jureša, ‘It is Not Red it is Blood’ (doctoral thesis, Ghent University, Kask School of Arts, 2018), p. 14.
[15] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), p. 90.
[16] Pavle Levi, Kino drugim sredstvima (Belgrade: Museum of Contemporary Art—Film Centre Serbia, 2013), p. 196.
[17] Boris Dežulović, ‘Skrivena kamera u Bjeljini 1992’, 13 Septeber, 2012,
[18] Sontag’s broad point is that no image alone can reveal everything that viewer needs to know. In: Joscelyn Jurich, ‘You Could Get Used to It: Susan Sontag, Ariella Azulay and Photography’s Sensus Communis’, Afterimage: The Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism, Vol. 42 No. 5, March/April 2015, (pp. 10-15)
[19] Joscelyn Jurich, ‘You Could Get Used to It: Susan Sontag, Ariella Azulay and Photography’s Sensus Communis
[20] Pavle Levi, Kino drugim sredstvima, p. 196.
[21] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others.