Dragana Jurisic is the author of Yu: The Lost Country. In Yu (one of the best books of 2015) Dragana traces the path taken by Rebecca West in her classic travelogue, The Black Lamb and the Grey Falcon, to return to the former-Yuguslovia and find the place that she once called home is home no more.
In addition to Yu, Dragana has also made 100 Muses, a series of 100 nudes made over a period of 5 weeks. 100 Muses will be part of a major show in 2018, and is also part of Dragana’s ongoing My Own Unknown project.
We caught up with Dragana to hear about still more projects (including a spy story, a spaghetti western and a graphic novel), to learn about her family, and to get a taste of the Charisma Express that attendees at Photobook Bristol 2016 will have the pleasure to hear speak.
Without further ado, here are the aphorisms of Dragana Jurisic.
The Day Our House Burned Down
The day our house burned down in September 1991, that is when everything changed, when there was no return back. My parents now live in the same apartment but it is not the same apartment. We lived in a hotel for six months, I was sent to school and then I was sent somewhere else because the bombing was so bad, so I never actually went back to live in the old place. And since then my life has been very, I’ve been moving a lot since then. I didn’t have any other place that I considered home.
I think there was a definite part of my life where I felt very unstable from not having a home and kind of trying to shoehorn myself into this idea of home including a failed marriage and a mortgage. And it was in Ireland during the boom time and the mortgage was like 30 years of slavery of paying two grand a month. It was a frightening exercise.
But now I’m quite settled. I find Ireland is sort of my home because I feel comfortable here. It’s the opposite of where I’m from; you’re relatively free to express your opinion without anyone threatening you, nobody really cares about it so much, there’s nothing dangerous happening like in Paris. It’s really comfortable to live, or to use as a base because I travel so much. It’s a good place to come back to and get some air and write.
Actually, with home, you find that people build these strange constructs around themselves to make them feel more comfortable, less scared of what’s out there. I was just thinking of this idea that we are just this jetsam and flotsam in the universe and that we are these specks of light existing in this infinite darkness, but we hold onto this idea of boundaries; this is my room, this is house, this is my country. But it’s kind of ridiculous when you think about it in the grand scheme of things.
Once something traumatic like happens that takes away your home, you become really aware of how everything is in flux all the time, and that things are not safe all the time – home, family, country.
And history is something else I find I have no belief in because I saw how the history books (in Croatia ) were rewritten literally in the space of a few months. The whole language was reinvented in a couple of months. I remember I had friends who studied IT in the 1990s and after Croatia declared independence, most of the words for computers and their components were words adapted from English words.
But because there needed to be this assertion of nationalism there needed to your own (Croatian) word for ‘keyboard’ or something. So words were invented very quickly. I remember at college we would get drunk and we would take these notebooks for IT students with these new words in and we would laugh at how ridiculous it was. But within two or three months these words we had found so ridiculous were part of this new language and everyone was using them.
History has also been rewritten. I don’t even dare think about how history is taught now. I remember when I was at school sometimes some really hardcore communist teacher would ask who went to the mass and then give them shit and joke about how stupid it is to believe in god.
After I finished university, I used to be a psychologist and I worked in a primary school. My office was next to the religion class, it was a Catholic school so it was a catechism class; I remember hearing the catechism teacher punishing people who didn’t go to class which is a complete flip of the situation. You realise how scary and fascinating it is that people are so adaptable, that they forget how they can be so easily re-programmed.
On Recreating Rebecca West’s Journey
The Rebecca West journey was really quite a lonely journey. I didn’t really engage with so many people, or have in depth conversations with people because you really don’t know who you’re talking with there and nationalism is so rife and people are still so full of hatred that you really don’t talk about the war because it can cost you your head.
Just now in March I had an exhibition in Sarajevo. There are two daily newspapers in Bosnia. One is a right wing pro-islam one, the other is the liberal one. I said to a journalist from the liberal one that the Croatian government still has a big element of fascism in it as it did in the 90s, and then ( I received this email from my mum going crazy saying ‘are you fucking nuts! You don’t have to live in this country!’ You forget that people still live in fear. Now I can go around and say anything I want without any danger to my life while there the situation is different.
On the Yugoslav Utopia
Yugoslavia was a wonderful Utopia the way it was sold to us. We were programmed to think we were the best. It’s the opposite in Ireland where it’s ‘don’t think above your station’, there’s this false modesty.
But in Yugoslavia we were trained like narcissists; “You are the best! The Cleverest! The most beautiful people who ever lived on the planet.” It was a programming. We all had to train twice a day at some sport. It was kind of like living in a Utopian society.
My parents lived very well. In the building where we lived next door there was a director of a big company, then across would be the cleaning lady from the company in the same-sized apartment. So as kids we grew up not really seeing these differences and that was also kind of beautiful about the ex-Yugoslavia. As a child. I don’t know what it was like to be a grown up in that kind of society.
My dad feels very nostalgic for it. That generation does because there was no unemployment, there was work found immediately for people, they got an apartment, they got married, they had kids. So it was a great culture for people who didn’t want to push too hard. I don’t know what it would be like for people who were really ambitious. It’s difficult to guess. It was an interesting experiment that lasted 50 years.
Ireland is definitely the opposite when it comes to how people are conditioned in childhood. Here it is almost like you are never good enough. There it is like you are the emperor of the universe. I think that’s the difference.
On the Book as a Map
For Yu, I needed a mark so I kept on going back to this book, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia. It’s still one of the most important books written about the ex-Yugoslavia. It’s on the Nato list of recommended reading, it’s read by every writer, poet or journalist who spends a significant amount of time there. People are still using it as a guide.
On each trip, I met half a dozen people each time I went who had this book under their arm. And I’d meet them by some kind of monument that she was describing. It might be very obscure folly that she’d played cards in. And I remember sitting in this folly and hearing this very posh English accent say and it was this gentleman with the book in his hand and he said “Are you here for Rebecca West?”
He turned out to be the classics teacher in Marlborough College and I kept meeting him. I kept meeting a few other people who were on the same journey. It wasn’t an original idea. It’s just that these people travelled and I was making work from it. It’s like a Lonely Planet that never goes out of date because all these places are still there.
On the Need for Constrictions in Work
I like to work with constrictions around me, otherwise I find it almost impossible. I’m writing a book at the moment and I find it so difficult. I know what I’m writing about but in the end it could go off at so many different tangents. The book is about my aunt who was a spy in Paris from the 1950s to the 1980s. She was allegedly poisoned with radium and there are some rumours that she ran three brothels as well. It’s more like a book than a photobook. That is my plan. There will photos inside but they will be more like illustrations.
It’s neither literature nor photography. I think it’s really nice to fall between the cracks. That way you are judged less harshly. That was the situation with my PhD actually, because in it I only talk about literature, and politics, and history. I hardly mention any visual arts at all. So it’s probably easier to pass. I like living in between.
Back to this book by Rebecca West. It was incredible because it really gives you an itinerary from the moment you wake up so you don’t have to think about what you are going to do with your day. It’s listed. I thought it would also be interesting to get the frustrations of getting somewhere and having a very short amount of time to capture this place, because she was there for like five minutes. And you want to stay longer.
Or she goes to Skopje and she stays for three weeks and oh my god, you’re like what am I going to do here for three weeks. It’s crazy. After three days, I was done there.
Everything about Kosovo was Awful
Everything about Kosovo was awful. I was with Michal (Iwanowski) for that part of the journey and that was a good move because otherwise they wouldn’t have let me into the country. I had a Croatian passport and a Serbian name, so they said they didn’t want to let me in because of security but then they realised that Mikhail was with me so they said, ok she’s travelling with a European Union Passport Holder.
But we were constantly followed, I think once there were 12 policemen with machine guns waiting for us when we stepped out of the bus. Usually I wouldn’t be scared of these things but war was so recent there in a way and people were totally paranoid. It was horrible. And then you see this country that is not spectacular like Macedonia or parts of Bosnia. It’s kind of like a dustbowl and there’s this horrendous fighting between Serbs and Albanians. And you’re just travelling and you think, why, why are they fighting?
But it was very funny because I never forget Mikhail was constantly saying “Isn’t it wonderful that we’re here.” And I was like, “What the fuck is wrong with you! It’s an awful place!” But he was just trying to keep our spirits up. So when we arrived in Montenegro, we arrived in this small mountain town just across the border from Albania and we had a beer. And he just looked at me and said, “I lied all the fucking time.” When we crossed the Montenegro border, I felt like Whitney Houston when she arrived in Israel. I wanted to lift my hands to the sky and say “Hallelujah, we are home!”
It was crazy. Even trying to locate where we were when we were travelling around Kosovo, there was a black hole. Google Maps would not tell you where you were. It was strange. It was a terrible shock as well. After we’d got to the place where the soldiers were waiting for us we decided to go to the monastery where my grand uncle started his career and they kicked us out of there. He was the patriarch of the Orthodox Church. He’s dead now and apparently he’s going to be canonised. I’ll have a saint for a Grand Uncle. He’s from my mother’s side, the Serbian side. Dragana is a Serbian name, Jurisic is a Croatian name. So I have a confused name.
On Keeping Busy
All I want to do is lie in bed and watch TV. I’m really lazy and I’m always kind of surprised how much I have squeezed into a year considering I have a total propensity to push everything to the next day. But Muses are finished and they are going to be shown in 2018. There’s going to be a big exhibition in Dublin. My plan is to finish this book about my aunt by next year and then I want to be clear for 2018 because I want to make a spaghetti western. In Bosnia. With local people playing cowboys and Indians.
That’s my plan. Fuck photography. I’m going to become a spaghetti western maker. I have already spoken to some producers and they want to take the project on so that’s one possibility. The other is there is a really good grant in Ireland called Real Arts and the problem with this grant is it’s only 80,000 but with this 80,000 you can’t look for external funding. It’s a noble idea but it’s not easy to make a movie with just 80 grand – not a proper film. We will try at first to get proper funding, and if we can’t we’ll go for the grant. Because it’s a great story. I can’t tell you, but it’s a great one. I can’t tell you because my producer told me not to talk about this. Well, I can tell you, but you can’t tell anyone.
On Making a Living
I’m a part time lecturer so I only get paid during the academic year so I’m kind of on the loose for the next five months, but I’ve been very lucky in the last four or five years with funding and awards. It’s been incredible actually. With the book, that was a huge cost of time, but I broke even or even made a little bit of money, a very little bit. I do sell some work. It’s a combination of many things. I don’t do any commercial work and I’m very happy to refuse it as well. Even if I’m broke I don’t like to. I don’t like to work basically. The less work the better. I work on stuff that makes me happy.
I used to do some jobs for the Independent in the UK when they needed some artist’s photographs in Ireland. But I’d always try and get out of it and recommend someone else or say I’m busy. But they would say, “But we like you.” I mean, why would they ask me to photograph people. I don’t even like photographing people.
That’s probably one of the reasons I did 100 Muses to force myself to photograph 100 women, 100 naked women. I think that’s going to be a good exhibition.
100 Muses is also part of this project My Own Unknown which is made up of different chapters. It’s like I’m not working on one project, but I’m working on four different projects that are all connected. This deals with life and past fears. It’s difficult to say. It’s evolving, maybe bringing some of my psychology background into it. I also have a strange family history of women who are healers or witches so it’s also to deal with that part of the history. You have the grand uncle who was the patriarch, then you have my grandmother who was a wise woman, and then you have her other brother who basically lived in a tree house and wrote prophecies. So they were all interesting characters.
Actually something really weird happened yesterday. My aunt in Belgrade is a little bit like this and my mum was visiting her in Belgrade because it was the Serbian Easter yesterday and I rang my mum to say, Happy Easter, How are you and she said “Great, How are you? Do you want to talk to your aunt?” I said yes, and then my aunt asked me “When are you coming to Belgrade to visit?” and I said September and she said, “Oh, I’ll probably be dead by then,” and I started laughing. And then the conversation repeated again from the beginning. My ma came on and said hi. Second time around I thought maybe they just forgot that we just had this conversation with me. But the third time it was just too weird so I put the phone down and I rang them again and said, “Did you not hear that the conversation just kept repeating?” And they said no. It was like some weird déjà vu.
But every time I would laugh at my aunt saying she’s going to die, the conversation would start again. Maybe I should listen to an 80 year old woman who says she’s going to die. But she’s the best friend of the woman I’m writing a book about. The two of them were supposed to run away to Paris together but then she fell in love and stayed behind and the other went on.
On the Photobook World
The Photobook World is a weird world. I’m not really sure what the game is. I find it very interesting that so many photobooks are so redundant. They’re about nothing, they’re just like having a really nice design, or like playing an instrument and finding a really nice tempo but there’s nothing there. What is the point of this exercise. I think that’s why so many of them fail. Or they start saying something but they never really finish it.
But you get books like Fukase’s Ravens book, it’s so beautiful and you don’t have to know anything about photography to understand it. As you leaf through it, you feel the heaviness, you know intuitively what this book is about. And so many people try to do this without text, without any real story. It’s like emulating something without any real story to tell.
On Being a Real Artist
It’s very difficult to expose yourself. I really try not to censor myself because although many things happen to people, I find shame is a toxic thing. You have to own things. I had an interview recently with a magazine recently and I mentioned something about having a miscarriage between two trips and Rebecca West had one as well while travelling in ex-Yugoslavia and I said how it was strange overlap of a really traumatic event and people said, Oh my God you’re so brave to talk about having a miscarriage and I thought well this happened to me, why would I be ashamed? Because it made me feel less of a woman, I don’t know. I think if you want to be a good artist you need to be ready to fucking expose yourself.