Conversation with Dragana Jurišić by Sandra Križić Roban

Between text, photography and video – Dragana Jurišić



The exhibition My Own Unknown was held during September in the Zagreb Gallery Spot. We talked with the author Dragana Jurišić about the concept which includes seemingly different elements – photographs, polaroids, a death mask and notebooks – which help explore the questions of identity. Referring to gender and nationality in her project, the artist includes various female participants and the mysterious lady. All of this is the basis of her search for a recognizable truth.


Let’s start the conversation with an issue which appears often in your work, and that is identity. I would like to know how photography helps in the exploration of someone’s identity, that is in the creation of a potential identity if it is lost with time or for some other reason.

I’m going to refer to DubravkaUgrešić and her Museum of Unconditional Surrender. In that book people are divided into two categories – those who ran away with photo albums and those who left without anything. How important is that photographic recording of a family life even though it is in fact fake? Most photographs in family albums are optimistic and don’t show the reality of family life. I believe that a photograph has many similarities with exile because it is not fixed, but I’m not really sure that photography can deal with the issues of identity. I work in some sort of area between text, photography and video. It is becauseI personally can’t answer some of the questions I pose in my work simply with photography.

Are your family photos kept or lost?

Well, mostly they’re lost because our house burned down in 1991, and most of the photographs, taken by my father, were in there. He was an amateur photographer, but very serious. It was only then that I realized how important photography is to the building of an identity and creation of memories. I’ve forgotten most of the people I knew before I turned sixteen, the names of some friends and even of people from my family. That is maybe why I came back to the question of identity in my bookYU – The Lost Country.

You claim that family photographs did not depict real life, but on the other hand you miss them in a way. You miss the memory even though it is not complete. Are these the triggers of memories?

Yes, they are. Memory is very complex. I come from a kind of a psychological background, so maybe memory is fictional to me, false in fact. Every time a memory is drawn from that “bank” it is reconstructed, some data is lost, and other is inserted. It is like, for those who understand photography, a badly compressed jpg. In that way the photography parallel is somehow interesting.




To what degree was the decision to study psychology a kind of an announcement for what would happen when you start studying photography? Did psychology in any way help you better understand the things you wanted to work on?

I think that both psychologists and photographers observe the world around them. I see myself as an observer, this exhibition, My Own Unknown, deals with the issue that people don’t know themselves and how afraid they are to ask certain questions; they just live … You wake up, go to work, come back home and do something … life is very short, and most people do not wonder why they are here and what they will leave behind. I’m not talking about the material stuff – I’m talking about some sort of contribution to the overall knowledge of mankind.

Which important questions would you like to raise with the visitors of this exhibition? And which are the specific symbols or moments in these photographs that you use to convey the consciousness about the importance of that which you call photography?

There are two truly mysterious people in this exhibition, one isL’Inconnue de la Seine (Unknown from the Seine), and the other is my cousinGordanaČavić. What is interesting aboutL’Inconnue de la Seine? She is one of the greatest muses of the 20th century and in the exhibition she is shown with her death mask on. L’Inconnue de la Seine was a very young girl who allegedly drowned in the Seine at the end of the 19th century. Artists such as Rilke, Nabokov and Man Rayprojected some identities onto her because nothing was known about her. GordanaČavićleft Yugoslavia in the 50s and died in Paris in 1987. Her life is mysterious. What can be seen for now are the beginnings of my book about Gordana. By the way, everyone I’ve interviewed told me a completely different story about her. As if we were talking about twenty different women and not one.

As forL’Inconnue de la Seine, I was thinking about the muses in western art, how unthankful a job that really is. They are used for inspiration but rarely credited because mostly the artist takes all the credit for the work. I wanted to turn around that relationship between the muse and the artist by giving my models the choice to choose which photographs will present them to the world. In principle, they are the polaroids from the 100 Muses series… I published an ad in the papers and on social networks, stating that I want to photograph a hundred nude women in my studio, age eighteen and up. The women who responded really opened up, became vulnerable in that situation. But I gave them the option to “direct” themselves in the photograph and choose a scene which will present them to the world. The only thing I asked from them is to look at the camera, because it was very important for me that they do not become objects. Because in many nude photographs women look aside, turning them into something like a tree or an object you can grab and eat. This series will be shown in its full dimension in 2018.




The story about L’Inconnue de la Seine is in fact a construction in which we do not know if it is truly a young woman who committed suicide by throwing herself in the Seine in 1880 or if it is a skillful manipulation of fiction. It is interesting that Döblin used the motif of her death mask when he wrote about Sander’s portraits of people and their professions in the 20th century. You use her in a very complex “game”, in relation to the identity of your cousin, but on the other hand it seems that her image and the mask are very important in your works where you investigate the identity of women and the way in which a woman reacts in modern society. Is it possible to have a muse today like an artist from the 19th century? It was a completely different time, slower, those women had a different identity from the ones who answered to your ad.

Yes, the times were different, everything is faster and muses are maybe recycled much faster. How did I go fromL’Inconnue de la Seine to those hundred nudes?On those polaroids everyone uses a mask as their face and in fact the question was how to use a hundred women to research the complexity of the female identity and reconstruct a person who we don’t even know existed. There is a story which I believe connects them all – L’Inconnue, GordanaČavićand most of the women on this table – and that is the fact that they are tales of oppression. GordanaČavić in 1954 ran away from a village in Slavonia as a young girl, without education, but she ran because she was a dreamer, she wanted a different life and to be free. In the end it did not turn out that way and she most likely ended up working for the government of Yugoslavia. And that whole story about fiction… Sometimes I think that fiction is much closer to truth than …

The truth itself.

We are all aware of what was happening on the territory of former Yugoslavia in the 90s, history handbooks are completely revised. And that made an impression on me as a teenager – that it is a written history and that I do not believe in it. But I believe when I read some fictional stories from that time, so that I might get an idea what it was really like living then. Even science fiction sometimes makes more sense…

It seems to me that there is a need in your photographs for recognizing some other space and a different way of life. In one conversation last year we touched upon the question of identity, to which you said that you’d given up on it in the meantime, in the sense of search that you’d begun several years before that. What did Ireland offer to you?

Well I can say that when I came to Ireland that state of exile was very problematic to me. What happened during the war, my “mixed” family, mother Serbian, father Croatian, making me ask myself what I am, and then there was the way people saw us in Europe in the 90s, like, as they say ‘subhuman’. I think that we might not have a very high opinion of ourselves, but when you move somewhere… you are not really accepted. Then I found it very important to deal with the issue of identity, national identity, and whether and how much I really need it. I somewhat dealt with that in YU: The Lost Country, because I understood that living abroad liberated me from the need to belong to any nation. I have the Irish and Croatian passport, but I don’t feel Irish or Croatian. In truth, it set me free.




In an artistic, personal or in both senses?

In all of them. I don’t think people are trees, and this need for knowing your roots which is forced upon you from birth, I really don’t believe in that. I think you can learn much more about the world when you free yourself from all those ideas forced upon you.

And Ireland as a space? I see that you got involved with some areas that are wonderful, and anyone who ever visits Ireland has to fall in love with the landscape. Did that move you towards some different type of research within photography?

I really love Ireland because it is an open space where you can breathe. Once the poet Ivica Prtenjača came to visit me. We’re friends from college. We took a walk through the town and he said – well now I know why you’re here, you’ve totally reconstructed the world to be as you want it. And in reality I also reconstructed my identity as I want it. So, yes, I really love living there. (laughter) Because it is on my conditions, not those of someone else.


The Interview held on 12th September 2016 in Gallery Spot.

Exhibition photos: Dragana Jurišić

This post is also available in: Croatian