YU: The Lost Country by Dragana Jurisic
Dragana Jurišić was only sixteen years old when her family’s apartment burned down, a casualty of the devastating war that led to the dissolution of her birthplace: Yugoslavia. This event proved formative for Jurišić. Her father—who had been a passionate amateur photographer—lost thousands of negatives and prints and never photographed again. She explains, “[w]here he stopped, I started. The act of photographing, of looking at the world through the camera lens, helped provide a semblance of control over an otherwise unpredictable world.”
More than twenty years after the war, Jurišić returned to the Balkans—her camera in hand—to the separate countries that previously formed Yugoslavia: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia. Her pilgrimage was integrally linked to Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), British writer Rebecca West’s two-volume tome examining the complexities of Yugoslavia; decades later, readers marvel at her prophetic tone which seemed to anticipate the disintegration of this young country. Jurišić faithfully retraced West’s itinerary, providing structure for a project that might otherwise have seemed insurmountable. Beyond this practical framework, she felt a profound solidarity with West, another woman afflicted by a feeling of displacement, isolation, and alienation…of never quite belonging. Just as West relied on writing as a way of remembering, to preserve her memories, Jurišić turned to photography to try and give tangible shape to her recollections.
Throughout the book, Jurišić pairs her pictures and her own observations as she traveled and passages from West’s book. In one of the first images, two young adults dressed in archaic outfits stand on a street in Zagreb, Croatia; the scene feels more theatrical than reality based. Jurišić reinforces this disconnect, writing, “everything is so familiar but very distant. It feels like I have been given a new pair of eyes to see that things are not as one remembers.” In addition to places she distinctly recalled, Jurišić also traveled to locations specifically mentioned in West’s prose. Here, we experience disjuncture again, between West’s account and an often darker, more melancholic impression from Jurišić. She can neither locate her memories in this landscape and its people, nor those in those described on the pages of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.
This body of work is quiet and subtle; Jurišić’s is slip a heavy-handed approach. Even the sporadic images insinuating decay and violence maintain a muted tone. A sense of nostalgia and longing characterize the pictures she makes of the landscape and people. This visual language, together with her written words, suggests the palpable incongruence of her memories from childhood and experience decades later. Her words convey the frustration of recognizing little of her past—and West’s written record—in these places. The intermittent use of images of entanglement and tethered objects serve as a poetic metaphor for Jurišić’s experience—a forced connection that she cannot escape or take control of. It is heartbreaking.
The weaving together of text and images coupled with the small scale of YU: The Lost Country give a diaristic aesthetic to the publication. Through the book, we are privy to an intimate, private world. In this way, the book form is perfectly suited to the content and tenor of this work. I would be interested to see how Jurišić would preserve and translate this experience into an exhibition.
With Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, West aimed “to show the past side by side with the present it created.” In YU: The Lost Country, Jurišić realizes the challenge—even impossibility—of this kind of endeavor for herself, of detecting her past, her Yugoslavia, within the current landscape. She explains, “I was following a ghost on her travels through a country that had disappeared.” To understand this practically is one thing. Jurišić discovers that memory is a narrative we create, and one that must be painfully re-created or “corrected” from time to time.