Influenced by the aesthetic of New Topographics, Croatian photographer Bojan Mrđenović brings an interesting perspective to his work. Budućnost, which means “The Future”, is the name of a state-owned chain of department stores in Pakrac, Lipik and surrounding villages. Founded in 1954 as part of a new socialist Yugoslavia, the buildings are now left abandoned. These centres of commerce act as reminders of an unpredictable future.
Joe Faulkner spoke to Bojan Mrđenović to find out more about his methodology and how his work acts as a memorial for former Yugoslavian people.
JF: How did you first became interested in photography?
BM: I remember I liked photography from an early age, but at that time it was nothing more than an interest. Once I took my parent’s camera without telling anyone and went to do some experiments. I enjoyed the process. In a way, I liked the result as well, but I didn’t know what to do with these photographs. I didn’t even see the purpose of showing them to anyone so I just quit. It took me a while to realise what kind of photographs I wanted to make and show to others.
JF: How did you first become interested in the subject?
BM: I have always had an interest in history and archeology that could be traced back to my formative years when I could be found digging around the places where I’d heard there might be an ancient or medieval fortress. I’ve been made aware of a BBC series called Detectorists about two guys with metal detectors seeking their fortune in the fields. I recognise my childhood ambitions in this plot.
When I started to take pictures, there was always a sense of personal experimentation and adventure within my practice. It would include travel, observation, research and some kind of investigation. These journeys gradually started to become more precisely articulated. I noticed a shift in the interest from historic towards more recent and contemporary subjects. There is still a presence of the past within my work, a feeling of a change.
JF: How well do you think the dilapidated buildings tell the story and failings of the former republic to a Westerner?
BM: If the question is how this can communicate to the Westerner, then we are talking about cultural context. I think that to understand all the layers of a project, one should have knowledge of the culture where the work originates from. In case of Budućnost, everyone could understand it on a formal level, but I suppose that knowing the context would bring more layers of reading to the images. Artists’ (especially photographers’) work that is meant for an international audience is often trying to present simplified versions of exotic subjects for Westerners (to be more precise, for the global art community/ global art taste), which is shaped by the “Western” standards.
It seems that a majority of artists’ production is directed towards privatisation of ideas. I am more attracted to the works and practices that put their emphasis on contribution to the common knowledge, particularly the ones that are using global awareness to make a contribution in a local cultural context.
JF: Do you feel these buildings are important as a memory of what has happened to your country and a sign of perhaps an uncertain future within the region?
BM: I think they are important as a memory. They also have a strong symbolic potential. The idea of future has to do with certainty. Uncertainty within the region is rising proportionally with globalisation. Post-socialist transition in a Southeast European context means restitution of capitalism, privatisation, change of economic, social and cultural paradigms. They were systematically introduced and presented as an adaptation and integration to the Western and European standards. We were ready to leave all the socialist values that were built and fought for in 20th century. We have accepted uncertainty within the pack of these new values that we were about to implement.
JF: How is Budućnost balanced with the ideals of socialism?
BM: Commerce is a capitalist bedrock, but the idea that it is inherent to capitalism only leads us to a dangerous conclusion, which we’ve heard many times, where capitalism is the only possible solution. If we look at commerce in a wider context, context of economy and exchange, we would probably find out that it is present in all civilisation in different forms. The question is which one would suit us the best.
The question of balancing socialist ideas with the idea of commerce in Yugoslavia is an interesting one. In 1948 there was a break with the Eastern Block and Stalinism that occurred, which resulted in strengthening Yugoslavian relationships with African and Asian countries, forming the “Non-aligned Movement” with countries that did not want to accept the Cold War division of the world.
A self-managing system of economy was introduced. It is a particular Yugoslavian model of cooperative work where the workers are at the same time co-owners of their companies. Yugoslavia had very good connections with the Western countries and the influence of liberal economic ideas was gradually rising. There were some restrictions, such as imports, to strengthen the local economy. Then everyone was being seduced by the ideas of the market and unlimited choice of products coming from the West. In the 1990s the socialist project started to decline in both Eastern and Western Europe. We have entered the new era of global, neoliberal capitalism.
JF: Is there a feeling among the Bosnians, Croatians, Kosovans, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Serbians and Slovenes of importance, nostalgia or memorial connected with these buildings?
BM: This is a small example from a small town in Croatia – outside of that region nobody knows. However, it is so emblematic that it might appear familiar further away. Generally speaking, the memorial function of buildings from a socialist period (even those who were built as memorials) has vanished. There is a term "yugo-nostalgia", which used to define regret for Yugoslavia as an idea of a strong State where you were taken care of, which is expressed by the people who use to be part of that system and who still identify with it. Today the term has got another meaning within younger generations who are starting to discover their recent past. It seems to now be connected with a sense of nostalgia and a romantic relationship towards something that has vanished and that belongs to the past. Something like a romanticist idea of history.
JF: Do you see these buildings as a sign of a failed social experiment?
BM: They belong to history, but at the same time they belong to the present. They are standing in between two experiments: a socialist experiment that built this infrastructure and the neoliberal experiment that followed, which is loose and uncertain and seems to be falling apart as well. These pictures are a sign of a decline but there are so many questions that can be related to this decline. How is this legacy treated today and why has it become taboo in a public sphere? Why are we staying away from making a constructive analysis of it? The Yugoslavian project was an integral modernist project, progressive in many aspects. In the current narrowed area of freedom and limited democracy, it is important to look back and rethink these emancipatory ideas and practices. Not just as a part of history, but as a challenging idea that can be relevant now.
— Joe Faulkner