»As an author; I sympathize, record, and share no matter whether it is an abandoned village, Croats in Stuttgart, my family apartment, a winery, or the people who are passing by.«
In the work of Zagreb-based artist Ana Kovačić, places like an abandoned village, a street crossing, or her family’s flat become witnesses to change in its many facets. Be it the economic and political transformation of a country like Croatia, or the story of people migrating in search of employment, the gap between a here and there, past and present is a recurring theme. In an interview with curator Mirna Rul she talks about the understanding of transience, home, and collective memory in her work.
Mirna Rul: Your exhibition For the People Passing By recently opened in VN Gallery in Zagreb. The exhibition is literally intended for passersby, as the video projection faces the street, but it primarily refers to transience. Time, transience, and memory are the themes that occupy you in your work. How do you approach these topics?
Ana Kovačić: I reflect on these topics in all my works. What’s common to these works is that they are about the space and people who, for some reason, have experienced a change in one way or another, and because of that change, have become aware of the time that passed, as well as the memory which time has inscribed in them, and thus the transience. In the work 1:1, I’m dealing with the space of an apartment where three generations of my family have lived. The change that has taken place here is my inner one, and from this new perspective I try to look at the way in which the family relationships have inscribed themselves into the space of that apartment and also into my body.
In Where is Jasenaš?, change comes from political and economic circumstances, so that there are fewer and fewer inhabitants and more and more feelings of time passing, and therefore their sense of transience has grown. In Marenda/Brunch, the change has come because a winery closed, and the workers lost jobs that they firmly identified with. The winery area remains empty, but with a lot of reminders of what once was there. After many years, former workers repeat the action they had regularly done before (roasting lamb on a spit), which creates a kind of time gap that feels like transience. I think I use a similar method in all these works, showing what is going on right now, and through that, I’m reminding viewers of what used to be. We feel that gap as transience.
For the People Passing By shows this method in the most explicit way, because in the video with the scenes from the intersection of Mandaličina, Ilica, and Vodovodna Streets, the spot where the gallery is located and which is intimately important to me, the text in subtitles speaks of the past and of the transience itself. There is also a rip between the time in which the video is recorded and the present time, which is constantly reflected on the diminished replica of the gallery’s windows.
MR: Where is Jasenaš? also speaks about transience and collective memories. Jasenaš is an abandoned village whose devastation and exodus occurred during the two wars –World War II and the Homeland War. Today Jasenaš is a village of ruined, abandoned houses and a few very old residents. Although you are talking about a specific village in the neglected part of Croatia, you hardly mention the name of the village in this work, apart from the title of the exhibition. Do you, in this way, want to emphasize the universality of the story and point at the problems of the disappearance of such villages in general?
AK: I think that no »little« human story exists. It is possible to put everything in a broader context. Nothing exists separated; our lives are the reflection of the broader context, although we sometimes want to believe they aren’t. Although I seem to be talking about »small« intimate stories in my works, I’m actually talking about bigger themes. Intimate stories are a method for the spectator’s easier identification with them. I started working in Jasenaš because it was available to me and it was somehow easy to collect the materials for my work.
I can’t claim that if another village would have been available to me in the same way, for example in Lika, I wouldn’t have done my work there.
When I started doing this work, I did not come up with a motif to address the problems of abandoning villages, but I was strongly intrigued with this kind of the post-apocalyptic look of the village, which of course exists in other abandoned villages, and somehow, we just got used to that as if it were normal. I was intrigued by what was behind the overgrown bushes within and outside the abandoned houses, and I had the feeling that it hadn’t always been so quiet there and that those old villagers have a lot of stories to tell. I think abandoning a village is a problem, but I want to mention that I do not begin my work having this problem in mind. As an author, I sympathize, record and share no matter whether it is an abandoned village, Croats in Stuttgart, my family apartment, a winery, or the people passing by.
MR: When we talk about the Where is Jasenaš? exhibition, I observe elements of magical realism, especially on the map of Jasenaš, which is partly realistic and partly imaginary. The forest that surrounds the village possesses an almost supernatural characteristic, because we have an impression that outside the village nothing besides that oversize forest exists. It thus creates an impression of even stronger isolation of the village. Do you put these elements into the story partly to detach yourself from the mere documentary approach?
AK: I think the introduction of such elements leads to the estrangement effect, which tells a viewer that nothing should be taken for granted and as something documentary that conveys the »truth.« But still, although it’s magical, it’s realism. Documentarism offers a broad spectrum of possibilities. Werner Herzog’s work is close to me, in that he creates closeness and understanding of the protagonists, and, at the same time, takes a distant and observational position.
MR: Although you are dealing with social and political issues (especially in the work about Jasenaš, where you talk about the suffering of its inhabitants during the two wars), your art is not explicitly socially engaged. Its engagement is of a rather subtle kind. Do you consider your work as socially engaged at all?
AK: I can’t answer this question without asking myself what social engagement is. Even talking about something important to people is somehow engaged. There are different shades of approaching the subject; I would say that there is a quiet, quieter, and almost silent engagement, and loud, louder, and the loudest engagement – in the way the subject is handled, not necessarily in the message it conveys. I live and, as I said, sympathize, record, and share. If I’m pointing at the topics that are of social or human significance, I would say that my art is engaged, despite my, let’s say, more poetic approach to the way I handle the subject. But, personally, I don’t really think it and I don’t start my work with the idea that my art can really initiate great changes. I think it can maybe touch and encourage some viewers, and that is enough for me; it means a lot.
»The home in my works is always insecure, questioable, or at least re-examined. Does it exist? And if it does, where is it? Is it related to a certain place or not?«Ana Kovačić
MR: You presented the video work Where is Home at the exhibition in the final selection of the prestigious Croatian award Radoslav Putar. All the finalists, in some way, reflected on the theme of »home.« Obviously, that topic is quite present in the work of young Croatian artists? Why?
AK: The works I exhibited in the final selection of the Radoslav Putar Prize were all addressing the spaces that have somewhat changed, and for that change, I decided to gather the people who are related to that space with the aim of recording the present situation and to bring a slight shift into the situation through a meeting that is somewhat ritualistic. I would say that the other finalists were talking about the changed or vacant spaces as well, and the exhibition looked like a thematic group exhibit, which was extremely interesting because it was arbitrary.
I understand my personal reasons why this topic concerns me, but it is hard to tell why it is present in other artists’ works. It seems to me that the theme is more the loss of home and not the home as such. I suppose the political-economic instability that has followed since the 1990s and onward, the uncertainty of the precarious position of us, artists, or some personal loss could trigger interest in the subject.
MR: In your previous works, »home« meant your family, house, and family relations, while in recent works, in accordance with the tendencies of mass emigration of Croatians in search for employment, you work with Croatian emigrants and reflect on their perception of home. They have two homes – one in Croatia, which is often perceived idealistically, and the one abroad, where they currently live and work. Where is the home in your works?
AK: The home in my works is always insecure, questionable, or at least re-examined. Does it exist? And if it does, where is it? Is it related to a certain place or not? Beside the constant preoccupation with places in my works, I still feel very close to the answer of one of the protagonists in my video Where Is Home, which I will exhibit in Solitude: »And now I think that home is not outside of me but only within me. There. Now I realized that I could create it anywhere.« I think it can be seen in my works, when I talk about home, this simultaneous attachment and distance from home as a concept and as a place.
MR: Nostalgia is often present in your works. But that nostalgia is not always a longing for a particular place, but rather as Svetlana Boym sees it – it is »a yearning for a different time – the time of our childhood, the slower rhythms of our dreams.«  What is the meaning of nostalgia in your works?
AK: I think nostalgia in my works is present because of the process of the slow pace of the story and silence in my video works, and because of that time gap that I’ve been talking about, which I often emphasize. Nostalgia comes from a sense of time that is gone, and this is something that we all can identify with, because no one is immune to a loss. So, I think it brings the viewer into contact with himself because he can identify himself with my protagonists, so he may be less prone to judgment. It’s a viewpoint that I always try to keep in my works including people, so it’s important to me that the viewer gets it too. And that’s what the »small« stories are also for; stories of ordinary people who speak of great subjects. When the viewer identifies himself with a small story, he could hardly judge whether my collocutor is a Croat living in Stuttgart, a Jasenaš villager who is a Serb, a roast-chestnut man from For the People Who Are Passing By, a old winery workers who roast a lamb on a spit, or a member of my family.
MR: What will the exhibition at Solitude be about?
AK: At the exhibition at Solitude, I will show the video I recorded during my residential stay there, from October 2016 to January 2017. This video is based on the interviews with Croats living in Stuttgart I recorded. Baden-Württemberg is the province with the largest number of Croats in Germany, whose immigration started largely from 1960 and continues. Whether my subject came here for economic or political reasons, whether they moved to Germany or were born here, in the interviews we came across issues of belonging, home, identification, insecurity, memory of body and space. The title of the video is Where is Home.
MR: Which new projects are you currently working on?
AK: Over the last couple of months I have worked on finishing the video Where is Home and the installation For the People Passing By, and I plan to continue working on the themes in accordance with these two works. I would like to continue working with Croatian emigrants; expanding the story of Croatian immigrants in Stuttgart, but also elsewhere, e.g. Dublin, Pittsburgh, Argentina, and so on, because the story would be more comprehensive and diverse. When and how I’m going to do it depends on a lot on the production possibilities, because this is a very demanding project. Also, I plan to work on video travel essays, close to the video For the People Passing By.
- http://monumenttotransformation.org/atlas-of-transformation/html/n/nostalgia/nostalgia-svetlana-boym.html Atlas of Transformation, Svetlana Boym: Nostalgia