Memory, even if you repress it, will come back at you and it will shape your life.
Whether we have had a direct encounter with the past based on our own memories, or it is shaped as mediated memory, through storytelling, modes of oral history, movies, or photographs, one’s opinions and attitudes toward the past are being revisited and reshaped in the present. In this way, social and collective “remembering of the past” is not only the result of facts and direct experience but also works as a narrative construction subject to individual reconsiderations. It is a process of reflexive understanding of the past, based on personal construction and the reinterpretation of (auto)biographical memory. By establishing a link with the past mostly through images as tools of memory, artists attempt to understand and define the time in which we are living.
The processes of undoing fixed understandings point to questions raised by ideas whose meaning is articulated in the gap between past and present. The image of nostalgia, as Svetlana Boym points out, is one of double exposure – a collision of the past and the present, illusion and reality.
Artistic research into archives and an interest in historiographical practices question the ways of constructing the past, becoming the catalysts for the large number of artworks within contemporary artistic production. This entails opening up new perspectives and constituting new meanings, dealing with the past through different forms of archives as tools for reconstructing history; events and texts are conceived as a space for the preservation of memory. It is about the archive as a critical methodology, constituting meaning, explaining how the meaning is redefined and how the circumstances of a discourse are recontextualised through memory.
To borrow images, stories, practices, and aesthetics from the past is often to create different narrative methodologies and to build bridges with the present, but also to raise awareness of alternative or marginalised narratives. Katerina Gregos points out the position of the “artist as historian”, while Hal Foster underscores “archival artists” who seek to make historical information, often lost or displaced, physically present.
All the seas of the world tumbled about her heart.
Similar to the quest for identity in the novel Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald, the video installation MIRA, Study for a Portrait (2010–14) by Jelena Jureša explores the quest for individual identity and the battle against amnesia among the shreds of memory. Jureša’s work is informed by the practices of the artist as historian and the archival artist. She embarks on a quest that attempts to re-create and reconstruct a historical narrative of one very unique individual, and relatively anonymous human life, giving it a voice and unveiling series of events and circumstances that are linked around it. In this way, MIRA, Study for a Portrait illustrates the intimate exploration of the boundaries of memory. “It is the story of one woman, one family, one country, and three wars” – as the artist explains.
Mira, in Sanskrit, means the ocean, the sea . . .
It is in still frames, frozen images, representations of the sea and the marine landscape that MIRA, Study for a Portrait opens up before our eyes, bringing before us affective, immersive, and overwhelming images. We feel like we are submerged in the darkness of the space where the projection is taking place – the gallery space. And we feel like we are experiencing the work of art not only consciously but by “osmosis”, through the skin. The scenes follow one another in silence, at first. After a few moments a voice-over narration begins, breaking the initial silence, over time unfolding the realistic narrative that it is based on truth constructed from memory, history, and documents.
The work is constituted as a travelogue that documents an imaginary, impossible journey in which we can experience haunting travel through space and time – landscapes, countries, ideologies, war – in a slow stream of images that float before our eyes: the Balkans throughout the twentieth century, in war and peace, marking the long history of tragedies, violence, different ethnicities, the Second World War, and the complex history of Yugoslavia. The installation ends by fading out and giving a premonition of dissolution, where Mira’s death in a car accident acts as a sharp cut – ending the life events, embodying the violent break that concludes the story.
The narrative follows the lives of Mira and her family from the period before her birth to her tragic death, using a variety of visual material and strategies – ranging from borrowed archival photographs taken from the family album to images from popular culture, newly recorded landscape scenes, video footage, and photographs. They revive the family history of Mira’s ancestors.
Mira, in Slavic, means peace . . .
The second part of the video installation begins by marking the end of the Second World War, the constitution of the new country, and the introduction of Mira to the story. Although the formative interest is on the character of Mira, she does not emerge until the second half of the work, when the narrative focal point, the point of view, is strategically shifted. Through such structuring, Jelena Jureša has established a wide and deliberately fragmented historical and contextual framework for the events preceding Mira’s life (in the first part of the installation), displaying a number of fragments of personal and collective histories and tragic fates.
The exhibition is shaped as a constellation of fragments, bringing together different formats – an artist’s book, a series of photographs, moving-image based works – and thus staging a dialogue between images and text. The monumental and absorbing two-channel film installation of feature-length quality occupies central stage and orchestrates different elements of the work structured around it, exploring its narrative, exposing gathered material. It is by similar actions of unfolding and reading the book and watching the film that we grasp the text and images brought before us.
The central part, structured as a large-scale installation, invites the observer to dive in and follow the fate of this anonymous woman. Guided by the impulsive research of archives and stories, unique poetics and the sensibility of the artist, haunting and delicate, the work reflects both a human life and a century, “a single individual’s life and a collective historical period – the backbone of this age is shattered”. It is almost as if the entire fragmented century, historical events as pieces of its official historiography, were reflected in a series of small, individual, private, and invisible historic moments that are hidden and forgotten along the margins of existence. The cracks and fractures reflect differences in the relationships and the concept of time – the lifetime of the individual, and time as a time in history in general. It is between two conceptions of time – historical and subjective time, private and public – that lies the time of the work.
In MIRA, Study for a Portrait, Jelena Jureša deconstructs and reconstructs her portrait of Mira as a twofold process, taking into consideration, on the one hand, notions of the portrait as a fixed and coded art-historical genre, a complete, executed object, while on the other hand, in “a study for a portrait”, the artist underscores the process of building identity. Constructed by means of language and representation, identities represent not stable unity, but rather a shifting thread of ideological positions built as a temporary meeting point of subjects and codes on the crossroads of different social formations and personal histories.
Jelena Jureša engages in the act of narration and employs the voice of the narrator – along with archival and newly recorded photographic images and video segments as the conceptualisation of a kind of travel through the “fabric of space and time” – as if they were acting as a memento of an imaginary journey, as a quest for meaning, and as an attempt to contribute to the creation of an atmosphere of melancholy.
While the voice of the narrator unfolds the extensive biographical story about the history and the pre-history of Mira and her family over several generations, in the meantime the visual part sees the slow exchange of images. We are aware of mostly two kinds of image streams that follow one another in a parallel montage: archival family photographs and extensive landscape footage, still and moving, as frozen frames and video that document nature, framed closely or at a distance, mapping the territory of former Yugoslavia – rivers, woods, flowers, sky, butterflies, waterfalls… In long shots that point to the aspect of the scene’s duration, the landscapes are emptied of human presence. Jelena Jureša returned to selected locations in order to explore this encounter with the past, keeping in mind that the landscape may have possibly remained the same, with an openness to seeing and witnessing the same land that was viewed with different eyes in times past. Such images do not literally follow the narrative in order to illustrate the story but are meant to create a parallel visual universe, while almost simultaneously raising awareness or distracting us or functioning as stitches to intensely bind us while immersing us in linearity. They also underscore the uneasiness felt and depart from common perception, generating multiplicity and associative fields, while reminding us that the artwork is a complex fragmentary structure, where the relationship between form and content might be considered loose, almost arbitrary, but is in fact researched and well thought through by the artist. Segments of silence, the pausing narrative, in exchange with the voice of the narrator are strategically shaped to form dramaturgical points of suspense and tension, feelings of emptiness in contrast with factographic storytelling.
The second section introduces a closer focus on female characters, mostly aspects of their personal details. The private life of Mira and intimate, personal stories take up the majority of the narrative space. It also introduces images of interiors for the first time. Interiors are usually understood as private places of female identity, while public spaces are considered to be realms of male authority. Throughout its length, the work is structured in dichotomies: interior and exterior, private and public, sound and silence. This exchange between document and landscape, culture and nature, is at times interrupted by the presence of a female character, an unexpected appearance isolated against a black background – a flamenco dancer, a mirage, a dream sequence, a ghost, a substitute, a witness… Along with footage from the 1958 feature film La Violetera, this contributes to sensations of escapism and elements of the surreal. In the words of Walter Benjamin, it implies “a space informed by human consciousness that gives way to space informed by the unconscious”.
Immersive landscape scenes play a role in creating a “landscape of memory”. They alternate with various forms of photographic images, from the family archive of photos, to pictures of interiors, to images from the film, creating a collision at the meeting point of static and moving images. Through different media Jelena Jureša explores the complex relationship where culture, history, memory, the individual, and society intersect. Landscape as a model of the human conceptualisation of nature serves to reflect different moods and complex relationships; it becomes a place of questioning the relationships of space, history, memory, and identity. Representational models are created based on various fragments – layers from the immediate environment, elements of daily life, myths, stories, parts of history, culture, all of which build and shape the process of thought and perception, corresponding to the sociopolitical and historical context, while at the same time reflecting the internal situation, experience, history, or story. The work of art constitutes a new symbolic space implying some sort of epistemology of oblivion and reconstruction of the horizon. Throughout the work discussed here is the technique of the demontage of the intimate and ordinary relations connecting the real and the imaginary, the visible and the invisible, exploring the tensions between dominant and underrepresented narratives.
The film is described
. . . as a chameleon and the figure of the artist as a secretary of the invisible. But it also works in reverse. The artist is the chameleon and film is the secretary of the invisible.
The video installation unfolds before us as an encounter with the past, with history. It creates a specific relationship to the past, where different narratives coexist simultaneously – a historicised plot, elements we perceive as romanticised or fiction-like, which in reality they are not. The field of melancholy that is shaped according to physical and temporal distances is a place where memory, time, history, interpretation, and imagination meet, where meaning is deeply rooted in the collective memory. These poetic and melancholic spaces become constant motifs of artistic interest, describing the ineffable and articulating visual language as a transfer between the subconscious and the visual, the image, while the flow of moving images draws us into the associative spaces that we may perceive as reality or fiction. With the use of photographic and video recordings, still and moving images, negotiating between the document and the dreamlike or surreal, Jelena Jureša examines historical positions, questions of truth, identity, memory, trauma, and loss. She highlights the artist’s almost instinctive need to discover a reality that is lost, doing so by processes of its reconstruction. The installation is revealed to us as a place of “impossible encounter” that embodies specific connections with the past, a “missed encounter with the real”.
Photography is closely associated with loss, claims George Baker; like an image of disappearance, it is a trace of the events that fade out and vanish before our eyes and from our memories. “It is a passionate embrace, to an object that is in fact gone, a connection staged around loss. For photography, this has always been the medium’s central condition, but it is a paradox we can only fully sense today, as the medium itself has been subjected to its own processes of death.”
On the other hand, the medium of video supports an extended temporal dimension of an image, for the purpose of the fictionalisation of time and space, to create scenes that fix our gaze or to enable dreamlike qualities in the work – qualities which, according to Gilles Deleuze, belong to pure optical characteristics, deprived of action, presenting ways of visualising time. The time, acquiring the characteristic of “liquid” (as liquid time), seems to be suspended between past and present, oscillating between reality and dream. In relation to works following such unique qualities, Fredric Jameson explains that video “is the only art or medium in which this ultimate seam between space and time is the very locus of the form.”
In the continuous flow of still and moving images, it is in the place and moment of their junction that emotional tension between the fictional space of the story and the physical space they occupy takes shape, enveloping the viewer in the darkness of the projections. The seam that connects the parts of a work of art is established by the fluidity of language, the flow of images, and filmic techniques.
Photography and video use their specific capabilities to record reality, to play back, rewind, pause, and stop time, a variety of conceptual and media tools and processes involved in the preservation of images and events, where the photograph itself is conserved as a representation of memory. These mediums are among the most appropriate for the deployment of narrative strategies upon which historical subject matter relies, and we consider lens-based practices to be records of things that were registered in the past tense.
Jelena Jureša places the appropriation of existing images, as well as their transfer and the processes of their mediation, at the centre of her interests – narrative and symbolic interests, but also those based on artistic and media research. The work that represents an image of an image, representation of representation, explores preserved scenes – such as the photograph itself – and is based on the appropriation of still and moving images: film/video, photography, frozen frames, video footage. These are fragments from the family albums, representing a private archive, recomposed, already framed scenes from bleached, faded-out photographs. Frozen in time, they witness the passage of time inscribed in the “found”, old, or new images of an almost archival character. They present a certain melancholy, like an impossible encounter with the past.
The resulting procedures of mediation – the process of transferring images from one medium to the other – becomes crucial in the structure of the work. It connects it with the past (of and through the media of mechanical reproduction of the image), emphasising a temporal dimension, the dimension within which a representation of the process of disappearance becomes possible. The dimension of disappearance, or the process of dematerialisation, irreducible to the image of death, is represented by the transfer.
The book Death 24x a Second by Laura Mulvey explores the role that new media technologies play in our experience of film, through reflections on stasis, punctum, life, death, and the digital disruption of linearity. Situating cinema’s prehistory in photography and post-cinema in the digital realm, Death 24x a Second brings the photographic still to the surface of cinema. The paradox between movement and stasis has haunted cinema from its earliest inception. In reference to stillness and the photograph, Mulvey discusses attempts to grasp various issues: the paradox of time, Roland Barthes’s this was now and André Bazin’s time embalmed as conceptions of the photograph as a record of the past reaching towards the future, the photographic index, a trace that, while signifying death, has a take on the future. In the same way that cinema was considered to give life to dead things, digital technology is now seen as giving new life to cinema, which is, paradoxically, haunted by death.
The process exchange of influences between culture, media, and history works in two ways. New media redefine the old, but they are also subject to the influence of more dated media. Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man explains that the content of any media is another media. Further, theorists define remediation, as the process by which new media technologies improve the flaws of earlier technologies. They point out a specific form of the transformation of the media, considered in a wide loop of relations that we refer to as strategies of representation, since what is at stake is a representation of one medium by another. On the one hand, the phenomenon is a transparent immediacy that seeks to “hide” the process of remediation in making a medium invisible, while on the other, there is a form of (hyper)mediation that is making visible the very process of remediation, a representation of one medium by another.
MIRA, Study for a Portrait develops as an immersive two-part video installation that dominates the gallery space, followed a by a series of images and an the eponymous artist book. Their narrative is not linear but rather structured in fragments. Projections are separated as spatial elements in the gallery. It is in these gaps and ruptures, in between screens, that a new meaning of the work is shaped, sometimes impossible to articulate verbally, but explored as a specific experience.
In multichannel video installations, multiplications of screens, and projected images, the dislocation (displacement) and the destabilisation of the fixed conditions of the viewer become ways of focusing our attention on the surrounding atmosphere and experiencing the work itself, its exhibition, reception, and the complex relationships of the contemporary subject in mediatised space and time. This “deictic turn” in the recent production of artists’ moving image production sees the projections as an event and the location of the projection as referential space. It points to the aesthetics and the practice of cinematic constructions, to the formation of subjective environments, to feelings of insecurity, and to the instability of the subject.
The notions of “seductive immateriality” and “mimetic engulfment”, used for describing gallery video installations, are characteristic features of image flow in contemporary visual culture. Multimedia installations develop new audiovisual forms by creating a fresh context in the production of subjectivity. Film and video installations in galleries emancipate the observer from the limitations of traditional cinema. A gallery projection is creating different spatial and temporal connections and disjunctions. Multiple screens represent spaces of discontinuity based on fractures and gaps between the screens/images, and the viewer is placed exactly there, among these fissures, physically present. For the observer immersed in a new space, it intensifies the embodied experience.
Today, the space between the visual arts and traditional cinematography is so saturated with crossovers and hybrid genres that it is impossible to trace clear boundaries between them. While some artists work with existing material through appropriation, with found footage/cinema as a kind of ready-made, others engage in the endless possibilities of film and installation, working with codes and conventions of institutions of art and cinema and exhibiting works in galleries. Since the artistic practices of expanded cinema in the late 1960s, the context of cinema as a conceptual, ideological, and institutional infrastructure in which films are exhibited has become a part of the critical discourse that relates to the institutions of cinema, archives, or museums, and it participates in the articulation of the ontological and cultural status of artistic production. In the context of such artistic practices, contemporary art seems to play a role in the parallel history and the future of moving images, a space to research the possibilities and boundaries of new cinematographic forms.
Gallery films are hybrid forms placed between the institutions of cinema and galleries, questioning their conventions and anticipating some new media practices. They record their historical location between media forms, formats, and institutions, their intricate relationship, by working through the dynamics of space and time.
Formed at the intersection of spaces of contemporary art and cinema, artistic moving images are a specific cinematic practice in between the systems of art and cinema, borrowing from different genres and practices: from experimental, documentary, or auteur cinema, with influences of installation and video art, performance, or photography – transforming itself into a slippery field of moving image practice without fixed definitions. Absorbing different practices and taking on a specific form of “narrative” video, artists are engaging with elaborate and complex cinematic relations and structures, layering dramaturgy and video image processing. The archive of photographic and filmic images of the twentieth century as part of the collective memory is maintained in the various works of artists, pointing to the role of contemporary art in establishing connections with history. Artists are using narratives that involve a reflection of the social or cultural context to create visually impressive works that feature cinesthetic qualities and an atmosphere of tension and melancholy engaging with film-making procedures and production conditions. The content of these works often represents a conceptualisation of travel across space and time and fields of imagination, shaping new worlds – known or imaginary. Images and stories in contemporary artistic films, videos, or video installations are immersive and poetical, exploring visual codes and cinematic language to foster complex relations between an individual and society.