Unfinished Business: ‘Dream House’ and ‘Bosnian Girl’
by Charles Merewether
Two works, radically different and yet profoundly united by being not only the work of one artist but, in their interplay, become too a story about Europe. (1) The first ‘Dream House’ (2002), a video loop projected on to a large scrim showing a building or barracks used as a refugee transit center in Rakovica near Sarajevo. The second work a photograph ‘Bosnian Girl’ (2003) was produced as a public project in the form of posters, billboards, magazines, ads and postcards. The image is of a young woman staring at the camera with graffiti ‘No Teeth…? A Mustache…? Smell like Shit…? Bosnian Girl.” written in black across its surface. Together, these works constitute the two sides to an ongoing exploration of the processes of both self-observation and the play of representation in the construction of identities that serve to marginalize the Balkan as the European other.
Combining still photography with time-lapse video ‘Dream House’ shows the transit center as the still point in the midst of the fluctuating conditions of the surrounding landscape and changing sky by day and night. at the same time, by virtue of being projected onto a loosely hung scrim in the middle of a darkened room, the image of the building seems to appear in a void, a shimmering unfixed image that suggests its very livelihood depends upon the flux of its projection. To this she has added a soundtrack of gentle breathing that, as we hear and watch the floating image, one can imagine the house as a form of living being, an organism that survives through the exigencies of the changing conditions in
which it is embedded: a metaphor then of the precariousness of the lives of its inhabitants.
‘Dream House’ depicts no one overtly, the building stands in for the collective anonymity of the refugee displaced, isolated from others. Signs of this community are found only by virtue of a loosely strung line of washing, small satellite dishes on its roof and telephone cables that stretch out beyond into the desolate landscape and beyond. To this degree there exists an outside.
These signs not only provide evidence of their survival but the dream of communication beyond the violence of their segregation. It becomes a house where what remains possible if not critical to their future is to assume for themselves the potentiality of dreaming. This becomes a way to define themselves against the imposed status of being neither here nor there, the limbo of the in-between; produced through forms of communication with a world imposed upon them. Kameric writes of it,
We are dreaming. They and I. Of different worlds, different circumstances. In our dreams, I am not a refugee shelter, they are not refugees. I am home, and they are people living in the home of their dreams.
While ‘Dream House’ intimates a violence that has precipitated ethnic segregation and the delegitimation of stable identities, ‘Bosnian Girl’ confronts the viewer directly with graffiti whose vulgarity exposes a local history of violence against women and a people. The misogyny of the graffiti is made all the more emphatic by virtue of photographing what appears like a cover-girl image of a beautiful young woman. Yet, the allure of the cover-girl who invites our gaze is disfigured becoming rather an object of abuse and denigration. As viewers we are confronted by an oscillating movement of attraction and revulsion. The portrait is moreover, that of the artist herself. She assumes the ‘body of evidence.’ She is the Bosnian girl standing in for all women in Bosnia, the disfiguration of a national identity. (2)
The fact that the graffiti had been found on the barracks wall in Potocari, Sbrebrenica of the Dutch army makes it al the more scandalous. The Dutch had been responsible for the protection of Sbrebrenica safe area between 1992-95. (3) However, in 1993, this safe area was overrun by Serbian forces who proceeded to massacre around 7000 Muslim men and boys and commit atrocities against the local women in the presence of 450 Dutch soldiers. To this degree, the transposition of the graffiti onto the image draws the tragedy committed by the Serbian forces together with that of the denigration of Bosnian women by European forces. As opposed to the projection of the ‘other’ as the object of violence, Kameric’s method of montage brings the issue back as an internal affair, a matter that makes of us accomplices. For while one may say this identity is imposed, Kameric’s emblematic articulation suggest too a self- absorption or internalizing of this phantasm as it has been projected by the gaze of the other, the Western European and Serbian alike. I am what you imagine me.
There is a belatedness to both these works insofar as they are produced some ten years after the event. What is critical to this is recognition of the trauma of the event as one that is not confined to the temporal occurrence of Sbrebrenica itself. In effect, ten years on, Kameric’s work addresses the effects of the war, an ongoing event that has never gone away but rather continues to live on as a remainder. She exposes its continuity and legacy through exploring the conflictual site of identity formation, albeit both national and personal. As Todorov remarks, it is the construction of the Balkans as in perpetual transition – the refugees and migrants of Dream House – and the denigration of the Balkan individual as uncivilized, the detritus of human life, an excremental identity about which Georges Bataille writes. In effect, both works speak to the construction of a people of not belonging, as an unwanted excess against which violence is exercised.
Kameric’s work, as of other artists from the Balkans, is not simply re-presenting themselves or articulating their condition but, exposing the fracture within the broader construction of European identify. Hence, the belatedness not only centers on the traumatic subject but, equally, serves as a means to indicate that it remains an ongoing presence, if not unfinished business that resides at the core of Europe’s understanding of itself. Hence too we may say these works are about the fracture exposed within the European project of self-definition and the reformation of the EU. That is, the refugee problem and the tragedy of Sbrebrenica was and remains not simply a Balkan problem but equally a European one.
As such, such an approach recognizes a broader political history implicated within the regional while, equally viewing the embedded relations of mimesis and alterity that serve as dynamics of modernity and through which racism and construction of otherness is produced. In defining the dominant trope of modernity we may say, the universal resides with the Western Europe while that of the particular rests with that of the Balkans, as with Asia or the Middle East. These are bodies whose identity and survival are constituted within modern economy of commodity exchange, objects of transaction – subjects without rights of sovereignty.
Kameric both uses and disrupts the conventions of both the modern forms of cinema and the poster. They are ‘given’ images and technologies that she appropriates. In ‘Bosnian Girl’ the artist uses the commodity aesthetics of modern advertising and the pin-up poster both provoke and defy the gaze of the West, while in ‘Dream-House,’ she destabilizes the conventions of modern cinema as much as disembodying the voice from that of the image and its embodiment as an image. She refuses, on the one hand, to mark or inscribe the body of the refugee and, on the other, intervenes on the construction of the pin-up girl through reinscribing it with a graffiti that exposes the Western projection of itself through the construction of the other. This provides the framework for the aesthetic parameters of modernity defined by what is excluded: that of the refugee – the abject subject of multiculturalism – and the orientalist gaze that castes woman as the object of taboo and transgression.
The work of Kameric seeks to participate in this discourse, to challenge from within the self-defining boundaries of the hegemonic discourse of Western modernity as opposed to internalizing its exclusion that would only serve to revalorize the conditions of marginalization which they endure. From this perspective, both works by Kameric seeks an aesthetics of emancipation not to some imaginary space outside that of history or the West but from within.
In writing this essay, I am indebted to both my conversations with Sejla Kameric and the writings of Ivaylo Ditchev and Natasa Ilic.
The phrase ‘body of evidence’ is drawn from the title of Josko Tomasovic’s catalogue essay Andre/Others, Sorlandet Art Museum, Norway, 2005. This subject is also explored Josko Tomasovic remarks on this process of self-observation in regard to a more recent work ‘Sorrow,’ commissioned for the Biennale of Sydney 2006. See catalogue entry in Zones of Contact, edited by Charles Merewether (Biennale of Sydney 2007), p….
The Royal Netherlands Army Troops were part of the UN Peacekeeping Forces UNPROFOR.
The Dutch army had requested NATO air support at this time but never received it.