Conversation with Hrvoje Slovenc by Sandra Križić Roban

Photographs in movements



We used the opportunity of the opening of the exhibition by HrvojeSlovenacin Gallery Spot and talked with the author, who has been living and working in New York, about photography, the influence of a specific music form on this artistic medium and other daily life situations which in some way influence his work. Very soon the artist’s monograph about this series will be published by EdicijaF11of the Office for Photography.

At the moment when you told me about a series called Croatian Rhapsody: Borderlands, my first reaction was confusion. There is a sacral meaning hidden behind the word rhapsody, but what we see has nothing to do with it. The series talks about the situation where you are displaced emotionally and physically, and finally, it depends on a completely different set of knowledge which influenced the work. Let’s start with what is probably a banal question: what is your opinion about Croatia after so many years spent in a different culture?

I think that emigration is much more different now than it used to be. For example, this is the first time that people who have emigrated in the past twenty years look back less and less at their homeland with an idealized image in their heads. I think that is precisely because we live in a world with so many pictures. For example, when someone left in 1880 from Ireland to some other country, he would simply keep an idealized view of his homeland.

And probably strong nostalgia.

Yes, nostalgia as well. Because of that people used to talk about prettier, better times, but now, however, people who left constantly log on to the internet, read information coming from their homeland, which means that things don’t get past them. The information is always here, it can always be accessed. For example, I wake up every morning and look at the newspapers, drink some coffee, and I simply know what’s happening. Which means that there is definitely no idealization. It is more of an objective view on the financial and political social reality.

Since we are mentioning Ireland and the end of the 19th century, the economic exile of that era had completely different connotations, and from that truly unfathomable hunger and destitution people went in search of a somewhat better tomorrow. Is the modern decision on emigration in any way connected to a better tomorrow? Does it even exist, somewhere else?

There is something different. Now if it’s going to be better or not… I can speak from my experience that whenever someone leaves, he leaves with a desire of finding that the new different thing is also better. Optimism probably always exists somewhere. And now, talking with people who tried to leave and then returned here… for some reason they did not succeed. It was probably reverse idealism. You idealize your destination and then realize it’s not as you’d imagined it. You don’t manage to get a handle on things, which I also went through, until you understand how people communicate, what their words really mean or what their hands are showing. Meaning there is a process of understanding the new culture. And it either suits you or not.

Opposed to this series of photographs, how would you, if you would and you were interested in it, interpret an American rhapsody? Experiences are very individual as are reasons, but the surroundings in which someone grows up is probably understood differently on an emotional and other levels than a new surrounding someone moves to. Is there actually a way of looking at a new place which would allow you to somehow connect it to some of the images we see?

I actually believe that my previous work was an American rhapsody, I just didn’t call it that. And only at the end, when I was finishing one work, then another, and another… I realized that it all speaks about the same thing and then I turned it into a whole which maybe, in its form, resembles this series. Mostly because there are many different photographs which should not really exist together, but they speak about the widespread confusion. Yes, I believe I actually made my own personal American rhapsody, even though it maybe sounds arrogant now that I say it. And I’m not really surprised by things there, I somehow acclimated and know what’s going on. I was never really interested in working on things which I think I understand. I simply don’t find it interesting. And this work here was “in the back of my mind” for a long time, but I simply didn’t know what to do with it.




There is a certain level of unease when we look at some of the photographs from this series, not in the sense of an unease of watching but of the connotations the photographs produce and which are not pleasant. For example, there is the series of the backs of human heads which create the feeling as though they turned their faces away from us (the observers). The recording from the television is so distorted and it is impossible for us not to ask ourselves why that figure is presented in such a way. The micro bacteria world we see in one nice, and to me very pleasan,t recording talks about body secretions. Alongside everything else, the series also follows your story, which is probably the most disturbing part of the series. When we read it, it almost leaves us breathless because it is full of sounds and a physical feeling of unease, an emotional feeling of not belonging to what you are describing.

What is that Croatia you depict? What is the image of the country you left, the country you look at, where there is a whole line of strong family, friend and all other kinds of connections? Did your view get warped or sharper with time?

Let me mention the story you were talking about… We are talking about a work which should be pretty upbeat, but is written through the vocabulary of rape. In a photographic series every once in a while appears a person who is either shot from behind, or with visible unease, with a handbook over their face so it cannot be seen, or it is a girl who is getting undressed and displaying her vulnerability. Meaning that throughout that work the feeling of some kind of vulnerability, nudity and rape is present.

It is interesting to me seeing how contemporary photography has evolved as a document when I look at it. From the beginning in the late 1820s, when people looked at a photograph as though someone had skinned someone alive, photography was the most realistic display of something that could be seen at a certain moment. I read an article from the 1860s in the magazine Atlantic Monthly, titled “Flaying – the act of skinning alive”. In it, the author Oliver Wendell Holmes through satire reinterpreted a Greek fable. In the original fable, after winning a duel, Apollo skinned the loser Marsyas alive. In the satire version Apollo valued his opponent so much that he decided to make a portrait of him. The skinning alive was a direct metaphor of the hyper-realism that the daguerreotype had at that time. Photography, it means, was a perfect representation of reality. In the late 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, photography as a document had a tendency to show what is wrong with the world. As an example I can use the photographer Jackob Riis who photographed the slums of New York and twelve-year-olds in factories, which even lead to some laws being changed. Then there was Szarkowski who commented on “artistic” photography, saying that people are trying too hard to turn photography into art, and connected it to a documentary function, saying that everything that portrays the daily life is art. For example,Egglestone’s open furnace. And that which documents represent today is some kind of an invented reality. And that is what I’m doing in this series. I am not talking about some truth or universal fact. I am trying to talk about that disjointed, confusing, unpleasant, raped vulnerability which I see here. Economic, political, any kind.

I am especially intrigued by the photographs “which don’t exist”, the photographs turned into code. You showed me what happens to a photograph when it is “translated” from one programming language into another. Is it possible for it to be and if so, to what extent at all is photography a closed medium?I’m interested in your opinion about the possibilities of this other photography, the one which does not exist, this non-photography which is called byvarious names by theoreticians?

What I find extremely interesting in contemporary photography is the feeling of relief felt when you understand you cannot take a photograph of anything new. And this desire people have – “let’s record something new, something that’s never been done before” – we all saw, numerous times, the valley, the head, mattress, body and face, and it is nothing new. I find the mixing of the symbols within the photograph exciting, the symbols which maybe shouldn’t exist together and then deciphering those symbols as well as the mixing of the scenes which should not exist together and then deciphering how they influence each other. The most obvious example: we have a photograph of a flower and a photograph of a wedding. The flower will be understood differently than if it were put next to an image of a grave. It is a banal example, but it is a fact that the analysis of photographs depends on their context. The other thing is the synergy of photography with other art forms. Sinergy exists in all other art media because nobody anymore expects painting to be only oil on canvas.In opposition to that, photography is still holding onto its traditional roots. Which is understandable if we look at the history of photography. Unlike painting which has existed for tens of thousands of years, photography appeared barely 180 years ago. It is a relatively new medium which has, since its beginning, been trying to get free of the shackles of painting and create its own original language. And people still have a feeling that photography is simply a print in a frame. So, I was in fact excited when I saw the completed work because it contains video, text, drawing, design, installations, sound – everything can be found here. Maybe this would be the best way to explain it: for example, how do we experience places? Let’s say I arrive by train in China, I get off the train, someone spits on the street, I hear someone yelling from the store, then some pigeon flies down and I notice it is limping. These are all unconnected images which are combined in my head into the complete image of what I am seeing.





It seems to me that the way in which you connect certain motifs, symbols or meanings themselves within one scene, and even the whole itself, remains partially incomprehensible to the observer. Are you bothered by the fact that the observer might not understand completely the whole of that meticulously arranged series of sounds, images and associations which you had in your mind, and which then cannot be read without you explaining it?

No, I’m not bothered at all. But I believe that when they see the whole work, in a book for example, when it is read, the photographs are seen, I think everyone will experience the same feeling, a feeling of weight. And it is actually important to me that people experience that. And whether individual photographs will be seen this or that way… I actually believe that the more open a work is, the more interesting it is, and the more obvious it is, the less interesting it is.

Several people asked me“why rhapsody”?The word comes from classical antiquity. In the time of the epics, people who sang epics were called rhapsodists. They talked about returning to the homeland, that country shrouded in a metaphorical veil. If I’m not mistaken, Franz Liszt was the first who put it into music. He did the same thing himself, he returned to his homeland and tried to explain through his rhapsody how he experiences that place. Apart from that, by definition a rhapsody is a song which is disjointed and in its form corresponds to this series. My series is a disjointed rhapsody.

Into movements?

Yes, into movements which encompass some things that’ve existed before. For example, Franz Liszt took the melody of the Roma and revamped it. Meaning that the melody existed earlier. In the series I include only things and images which clearly point towards others’ standards. For example, the series of fifteen heads is the Düsseldorfschool. The bacteria – that is a typical photo you would put in some nature magazine. Meaning that I include some photographs and types of images which have existed for a long time and try to turn them around a little. That is why I chose the word rhapsody.

Interview was held on 27th June 2016 in Gallery Spot in Zagreb.

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