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What would a conversation with the past look and sound like? The new Fabrics of Socialism exhibit by artist Vesna Pavlović at whitespace is at least partly informed as a photographic and video narrative by using materials from the archives of the Museum of Yugoslav History in Belgrade. By using black-and-white and color photographic slides and projected color video from post-World War II Yugoslavia, Pavlović inexorably draws us to contemplate what is left out of the frame, something unknowable by the participants depicted in the archives: Yugoslavia’s calamitous, violent, and genocidal breakup in the 1990s.
The installation could be inherently daunting for a U.S. viewer, as Yugoslavia did not fit neatly into the bipolar Cold War conflict. As seen in this exhibition, Yugoslavians also marched in parades with outsized portraits showing Socialist heroes and bearing laurels around stars, hammers, and sickles. Youths saluted and they presented bountiful sheaves of wheat, while others steadied flagpoles in their hands.
Our invitation to see the fabric of socialism before the nation’s breakup gives Pavlović’s work an archaeological, sociological, reflective, and nostalgic bent. But the exhibition does not abuse us with clichéd, ironic, or kitschy Communist iconography, laughing portrayals, and knowing condescension toward the trials dictated by obviously ill-conceived and hopelessly doomed utopian projects. The U.S. Cold War experience might weigh against an appreciation of Pavlović’s work, as the Cold War was so totalizing that its presumptions, especially within the frame of interpreting Socialist history, often enter through the back door. It would be easy to inject the Cold War into interpretations of Pavlović’s images, slideshow, video, and objects, but Yugoslavia was not a Soviet satellite.
As Pavlović pored through the archives, she discovered a film of a performance she took part in as a child during annual Youth Day, on the 87th birthday of Marshal Josip Broz Tito in 1979 (his last). Just a little intersection of personal biography—Pavlović was designated a Tito’s Pioneer—and wider history, the last breaths of an old guard. The reds and yellows pop out of the film, which shows the Relay of Youth, a 62-day nationwide relay-run of Communist Youth of Yugoslavia that ended in Belgrade. There, about 10,000 youths gathered to present Tito with birthday wishes. In the film, they perform synchronized moves in athletic and ethnic dress for Tito, who is ensconced with other Socialist bigwigs on a viewing platform, beneath which other youths perform drill team formations with rifles in cooperation with the national army. We also hear speeches about the unity of the people, its strength and defense, and the building up of a nation from its occupied past, from its destruction, from its backwardness.
The enduringly strange thing about Yugoslavia, seen in hindsight, was Tito’s command over a common Socialist project in conditions seemingly inhospitable to the forging of national unity. While the proletarian identity was privileged under Tito and helped de-emphasize the different ethnic, religious and linguistic components of the nation, these later would be the very forces that helped tear Yugoslavia apart. In the video including footage of Youth Day 1979, gray-haired men honor Tito, and numerous others similarly make their way through the crowd to shake his hand. They have the shared expressions and camaraderie of war veterans, a shared history, and they gladly pay homage to Tito and to what he represents. Are we witnessing generational politics? Are these old warhorses the body politic of Yugoslavia whose passing presaged that of the nation? A large, digital, color-print composite photograph titled The Belgrade Conference (also the name for an event Tito headed to build the Non-Aligned Movement against kowtowing to either superpower) shows boxes of film reels from the archives on which Pavlović has overlaid another canister’s labels. One of the labels displays the words “Dubl Negativ,” meaning “dupe negative”—a photographic term, but one reminiscent of dialectical materialism, a strand of Marxism in which “negative” implies a critical force. Another large print shows a corridor where row upon row of film tins—reticent but for the carefully scrawled or typed titles on paper stickered atop them or along their sides—are stacked halfway to the ceiling.
On one wall of the gallery are two flags of Yugoslavia: shimmering cloth, grayed-out where there would be colors, drained of significance, almost as if you could drain out of politics its content, particulars, and specifics and be left with the same dull need for presentation, ritual performances.
On another wall, a falling drapery with vertical undulations mirrors the draperies depicted in an archival photograph of a large hall for the sixth Congress of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia in Zagreb, November 2, 1952. On this curtain are projections of images from Tito’s travels, including broken glimpses of the Taj Mahal, Egyptian and sub-Saharan Africa safaris, the Colosseum in Rome, a papal audience, the Tower of Pisa, Tower Bridge in London, and the U.S. Capitol, as well as political cabinet-style meetings and images of radio speeches being broadcast. The images distorted by the curtain could suggest the fabric of time breaking the representations.
There is little sense of “the individual” in the rooms here—even the immediate sense of an individual artist’s hand or mind interacting with the material seems rather faint—but that is, after all, the essence of any grand, choreographed spectacle. And it’s also the essence of the slow glacier-crush of time’s forward movement.