Epitaph for a Time Put to Death
“Many writers since the nineteenth century have tended to see ruins in quasi-sacred metaphysical terms, that is, as the aestheticised and de-historicised landscapes that find their locus of fascination in the beautiful and melancholic struggle between nature and culture. This fascination produced what became known as ruin lust. German theorist and cultural critic Georg Simmel, at the beginning of the twentieth century, perhaps best articulated this view: ‘The aesthetic value of the ruin combines the disharmony, the eternal becoming of the soul’s struggle against itself, with the satisfaction of form, the firm limitedness of the work of art’.” The very process of idealising the past and lost world is not new, nor was it created in the nineteenth century. It was present in art (history) since the idealisation of Greek monuments by the artists of the Renaissance. The attraction of such spaces for artists lies in this duality of their nature. On the one hand they are a document and inevitable reminder of some past and irrecoverable time; and yet on the other, the ruins that time always signals anew promise eternal change, which is at once the hope that what is now is not final, and that nothing actually can be final.
In the new photographic series Display Windows Darko Bavoljak presents abandoned Zagreb shop fronts, the premises of failed shops and small businesses and thus creates memories of a past, a lost, a perhaps better time in the domestic space ravaged by transition, poor governance or perhaps only by the already mentioned inevitability of vicissitude. He allows classification of his work in a new photographic genre, popular in recent years, ruins photography or ruin porn, referring to photos that romanticise demolished, ruined and abandoned spaces, mostly urban in nature, drawing also on earlier trends in the older branches of art. In the words of Bavoljak: “The concept of the exhibition stems from my photographic research into abandoned commercial premises in Zagreb, and in a sense goes on from the series called Future, which documented the war-damaged and abandoned architectural and industrial heritage, and from Dubrava, which documented the graffiti-ravaged facades of buildings and other urban furnishings that only when put there together in the exhibition engendered some new meaning.” Bavoljak derives the maximum of aesthetics out of the scenes of dilapidation and ruin, and the results are flattened depictions, photographs of a fine and almost watercolour aesthetic, of muted chromaticism, bordering on abstraction. The found scenes in the gaze of the dedicated, aware and responsible observer/photographer become a proving ground for a subtle play of characters. Bavoljak is not interested in outright condemnations, and his images are not as aggressive as their contents. On the contrary – they vary from apparently neutral, abstract monochromes or geometrical abstractions to surfaces on which the remainder of some inscription or for example a snippet of an obituary, sticky tape or poster draws attention to the changes of meaning of the space. The category of time is brought in, of duration that covers all the phases of the existence of the space shot: from original, as the photographer stresses, “premises of small tradesmen who worked for years and provided a living for themselves and their families” to abandoned, gaping holes, the function of which has vanished, while the external glass of the display has become the primary vehicle of meaning, a kind of urban bulletin board on which anyone can stick an advert or anything else he feels like. The whole of the life cycle of the space photographed is compacted into a single shot.
Only looked at as a whole does the exhibition give the observer a complete and clear story of decline.
Interestingly, in the last few years a number of local photographic artists, of various generations, have taken up the theme of abandoned store and workshop fronts. Why exactly shop fronts, we might ask. Exactly why are they being chosen, deliberately or unconsciously, as the most patent symbols of downfall and alternation? Apart from the obvious reason that glass walls cannot hide the absence of anything behind them, in the right lighting, the glass window becomes a mirror. As well as showing the remains a former life, they mirror bits and pieces of the present. Once and now are joined into a picture that can be any way we want it: ominous, nostalgic, critical, condemnatory or simply nice.
Darko Bavoljak expands the basic meaning of this work with the deliberate use of the photographic medium. As academy-trained professional, he uses a pro camera and carefully composes images that, unlike the extemporary, everyday non-pro digital images accessible to and created by all, are susceptible of great enlargement. Making use of the possibilities that the laws of optics make available to him he uses a wide range of lenses from ultra-wide to very narrow focus, in order for the changes and phases of the spatial relationships and depths of field (in some scenes low apertures produce shallow depths of field, in others the whole of the image is sharply in focus) to be available for use by the dramaturgy of the scene.
In this point the form of the photographic series Display Windows overlaps with its contents. On the one hand, that is, Bavoljak shows the ruined traditional trades and shops that have become surplus to requirements in the rapid, contemporary consumer society. On the other hand, he shows his own art as professional photographer, and the capacities of professional photography, which in this same society of rapid attractions have also become, to the same extent, unnecessary.
30 photographs ink-jet print on Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Smoothie 235 gr. Paper
Camera Canon EOS 1 DS Mark III