Solace Of Memory. How we survived communism and even laughed
Updated: Sep 4, 2021
Every Picture Tells a Story [Don't it?] 30 - only not my piccies this time - but an exhibition in Ljubljana, Slovenia - August 26 - September 24 (UPDATED with minimalist review)
I love this pic above: just imagine the older lady, who must have lived through the horrors of WW2 in the dismembered former Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, which must have been a harrowing experience in whichever part she hailed from. Meanwhile, in contrast, the new generation of sisters look on, smoking, sipping coffee, the one on the left brazenly swinging into the 70s in her mini-skirt. And all held together by the iron grip of Josip Broz Tito - at least for another decade or so.
I got an email this morning from the Photon Gallery in Ljubljana. It reads:
Participating photographers: Andrzej Baturo (PL), Vladimir Birgus (CZ), Janez Korošin (SI), Branko Lenart (AT), Zora Plešnar (SI), Anton Podstraský (SK), János Szász (HU), Lenke Szilágyi (HU).
Around thirty years ago, major social changes took place in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). During that time, some countries of the former socialist bloc also declared their independence. Slovenia was among them. On the occasion of celebrating thirty years of independence, we in Photon asked ourselves how photography recorded the time before these turning points – in the lives of ordinary people. With this exhibition project, we are not interested in fateful historical events and great personalities, but we want to offer an insight into everyday life and present some contradictions of the social system that built on a utopian vision of the future. To revisit the “family albums” of the former socialist countries, we are presenting some important photographers from the CEE region, who documented life in Eastern Europe in the 1970s and 1980s. All of them, even with different formal and aesthetic starting points, share a subjective and often humorous view of banal and absurd everyday life.
Similarly to other creative fields in the socialist part of Europe, social criticism in photography was adapted, camouflaged and transformed into forms and genres that were acceptable for publication. The reality of everyday life, and thus of culture, was determined by the ruling ideology with state propaganda, where the expression of criticism and ridicule of the authorities were not considered artistic values. Adherence to the rules of social status in the established hierarchy (e.g., Party affiliation, cooperation with certain state institutions), and related political rituals and economic privileges on the one hand, and considerable lawlessness and relative economic poverty of most people on the other, were frequent topics of socially sensitive authors, including photographers at this exhibition. There are visible differences between photographers who come from “harder” socialist (current “Visegrad”) countries with, for example, three authors who took images of the former Yugoslavia (Lenart, Korošin, Plešnar). Regardless of the systemic nuances between the countries on the east side of the Iron Curtain and ex-Yugoslavia, the images from the exhibition, be it documents of places, people, things or events, are placed in the general, collective memory of decades of social order. However, the exhibition also evokes completely individual memories that spontaneously take us back to the past, many to the time of our/their childhood and youth, in short, everything that is today a source of nostalgic memory of those times for a lot of people.
Social documentary photography was a widespread genre in the second half of the 20th century, but the socially engaged photographers in the West and the East often tackled such topics in different ways. Especially with photojournalism, photography has become for many creators and writers about photography, a relevant medium for mobilizing public opinion and promoting social change. In contrast to the more socially engaged photographers in the West, who often used photography to illuminate injustices, inequalities, marginalized groups, etc., the engaged-critical attitude which would explicitly emphasize social anomalies through the photographic image, was in European East in those days difficult to express due to media censorship. Of course, many photographers who created in the field of social documentary photography did not even intend to contribute to social change with their images, but were interested in the subjective, often poetic aspect of ordinary people’s lives. Both facets also considerably apply to the works and series presented by the participating artists. The majority of them use an approach where the subjective interpretation of reality comes first, while the socially engaged aspect is often present in the ironic, sometimes even sarcastic undertones of the portrayed.
The exhibition catalogue will be published on the occasion of the opening in Vienna.
Curated by Dejan Sluga
The project was inspired by the book “How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed” by Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulić, from whom we also borrowed the subtitle of the project.
Well, I can't fully agree with all this blurb, most particularly the bit about the difference between “harder” socialist (current “Visegrad”) countries with, for example, three authors who took images of the former Yugoslavia.
Yeah, this may have been the general view from the west, and even from Slovenia in those days - but maybe I'll find a photo one day from Banja Luka that I took on my first trip to Yugoslavia in August 73 to illustrate the story of just how "hard" the supposed "soft" communism of Tito's Bosnia was back then.
Suffice to say that I told the story to a hotelier in Novi Sad in 2014, and in the telling I said: "I felt my human rights were disregarded." At this point the hotelier nearly collapsed in a heap. "Human rights, in Yugoslavia? Ha ha, you must be joking!" was his response (or something akin to that - although it may have been a bit, well, more Balkan).
The exhibition includes some 50 photo from all across central Europe and former Yugoslavia, Dejan tells me - and the subsequent show in Vienna expands with another 10 images. ( Photon Gallery Vienna, 1.10. - 20. 11. 2021 )
Anway, I know there are a few regular readers in Slovenia, and indeed at least one British couple I know visiting right now, so I thought I'd give this show a plug, as it looks good.
Alas, I can't see me getting down to sharing a Laško with them or seeing the exhibition for its duration.
As far as I can tell from the website, https://photon.si/?lang=en it costs EUR 1 to get in (hey, you can't begrudge them that) and the gallery is in Šiška, at
Trg prekomorskih brigad 1
1107 Ljubljana, Slovenia
It's near the bus stop kino Šiška on the Number 1 line from central Ljubljana. (Or you could walk it.)
Which reminds me of this song by the great Vlado Kreslin (albeit from his more rocky youth with the band Martin Krpan) about the difficulties of buying some booze after 11.00 at night anywhere in the Slovene capital.
It's called Je v Šiški še kaj odprtega? which translates to "Is there anything still open in Šiška?" (It is kind of ironic, given that the Union, Slovenia's second largest brewery, is located in Šiška.)
Like the photos in the exhibition, I'm sure this will bring back fond memories for any Slovene over 45.
UPDATE: If you google "Vlado Kreslin, Slovenian folk rocker with staying power" it will bring up my profile piece on Vlado on ft.com written in, I think, 2012
UPDATE2: Two friends from the UK, Michael and Gill Leech are in Slovenia right now, and they visited the exhibition yesterday, sending me some pics and comments. This is Michael's favourite image, which he described as "the old and interesting dude with pics of Lenin, Gorbachev etc". (It struck me too, Michael, on my first look through the collection.)
Michael wrote: "Gallery. was in an old ministry building and was a bit hard to find on sat nav, but with our nose for strange places we found it . A famous and perhaps best photographer of Slovenia had popped in to collect a print and he was looking too. All the books in the gallery on various subjects were in English….it was an enjoyable hour BUT and gallery guy agreed, the locations should have been stated. Unlike yours, the locations were unknown although one looked like Red Square. Go and see the exhibtion when it goes to Vienna."
This was Gill's favourite, which also suggests a location in the former USSR.
I'm not sure who took these piccies - I hope nobody minds me posting them - not meaning to breach copyright of a fellow photographer in any way.