You can never understand the present, even though it is the only thing you see – Tanja Lažetić
We talked with Tanja Lažetić during the opening of the Gasoline Stations, Again exhibition in Gallery Spot, about gas stations, Ed Ruscha, the sky, migration, travelling and the differences and things that connect architecture and photography.
I would like us to mention the Gasoline Stations, Again series which was like the Nine Swimming Pools Behind Broken Glass series, recently presented at the Slovenian exhibition of contemporary photography, The Most Beautiful Place on Earth, based on you being inspired by the work of Ed Ruscha. I would like to know how you arrived at him and why his work intrigued you, due to its significance in contemporary photography and especially in conceptual rethinking of media.
First of all, thank you for the call. It is not often that you get a call from someone who does not know you. You saw my book in Paris and because you liked the book you called me. That makes me very, very glad. Not because you know someone, but because…
Through work, in that sense.
Yes. When you are interested in books by artists you quickly find Ed Ruscha. Many artists take his style or reinterpret him. His books are special because between the title and the photographs there is an empty space, or a possibility of interpretation. For example, in the book Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations Onlythere are 26 photographs of gasoline stations from Ljubljana to Sarajevo. Ed Ruscha took photos of 26 stations from Los Angeles, where he lived, to Oklahoma where he lived in his youth. For me it was about returning to Sarajevo, to the place where my grandfather was born, but also about returning to the center of the collapsed Yugoslavia. I believe that if we want to understand what happened in the 90s, we need to go to Sarajevo. That trip was a kind of a return to childhood, similar as with Ed Rushca, but also different. And that was that empty space of interpretation and the reason for gas stations.
You travelled from Slovenia, through Croatia to Sarajevo. You examined the collapse of Yugoslavia only from one side, you did not travel through Serbia, Macedonia or Kosovo. In that way the collapse is primarily related to the story of your family and the fact that your grandfather comes from there. Could we say that?
If you want to understand Yugoslavia, you go to Belgrade, if you want to understand the collapse of Yugoslavia, you must go to Sarajevo. That trip and those gas stations speak of that collapse.
In what way are they symbols? You crossed some of them over with red color, directly on the surface of the photograph.
Why did I cross them over? I took the photographs from the car in 2010 on the road from Ljubljana to Sarajevo. We need to mention that in Slovenia there are only two companies, Petrol andIstrabenz. In Croatia INA is the largest and there are some others, while in Bosnia gas stations are like small “Disneylands.” Ed Ruscha said that gas stations are monuments when he made his book in 1962, it was an ode to the automobile culture of modernity. When I photographed stations with surnames such as Popović, Radić and so on, I was photographing monuments, because if we think about it we know that the owners after whom the stations are named are war profiteers. You could not make a gas station if you were not involved in the war and got money, and it’s well known where money can be found in the time of war. Here for example it says pump, and here station, which is a designation that speaks, it says that this is a place where people who say pump live and that is a place where those who say station live.
Besides the family story and the interest in the collapse of the situation we lived in, it seems that you are interested in interpreting distance. You photographed railway stations Between Vienna and Istanbul. I would like to know what is the difference between those two series, apart from the means of transportation, looking at the space outside, the speed…
In the book Train Station from Vienna to Istanbul in Alphabetical Order there is only one photograph and the names of the stops are alphabetically listed inside. It is not a book of photographs. Why travel?
Did you pass that way?
No, I transcribed the names from Google maps. I had an idea about marking distance in an alphabetical order and thought about doing it between New York and Los Angeles or maybe from Moscow to Vladivostok. Those are some of the romantic train rides, but the culture I come from has been influenced the most by Vienna and Istanbul, so I decided to connect those two places in my book. I did not travel, I “googled” the names and wrote them down. While I was researching I happened upon a train stop called Biser (pearl). I wanted to see what it looked like so I opened Google image and found a photograph of a decaying building. That building is the train station in Biser. It is the only photograph in the book, because travelling by train is just like a pearl, scraped and ugly on the outside, and a real “pearl” on the inside.
Apart from trips, those you took yourself and those you made over the internet, you also spend a lot of time examining and photographing the sky. The way you display your photographs is different. In one case you put the photographs on the table and people dug around through them and arranged them themselves. How do you decide how you will interpret them and when did you start making them?
I have several works connected with the sky. I photographed the trails left by airplanes because I like those compositions. I exhibited those photographs alongside a text in which I speak about the collapse of Yugoslavia and how when you look at the sky in Ljubljana, covered with those trails, it seems that everybody is going somewhere and only you are staying in place. In English there is a term, flyover town. Ljubljana is not a city which would appear on a world map. During the war, planes headed for Serbia from Italy constantly flew over us. I can still remember that sound I heard every night. That’s the thing – not being on a map isn’t always a bad thing.
You mentioned that photographs are a kind of a journal for you.
Those are different photographs, a series of the night sky. We might think there is nothing in the night sky apart from the stars, that everything is dark, but every dark night is different. Last night for example, it was cloudy, the moon appeared and so on. Taking photographs of the night sky every night is a ritual of mine. Every night before going to sleep I go out onto the balcony and take one photograph of the sky.
I’m interested in how you turn that ritual into an exhibition or a book. How do you develop the idea of the project, how do you treat the photographs and decide which segment will end up in the exhibition? Is it one month, are we talking about a chronological period or something else?
I will take photographs of the night sky as long as I can, because it is my journal. But otherwise, it depends on the series. Let’s say 26 pages – you always need to know how many there are, there is always a reason for a specific number.
Yes, you have a series with four hundred photographs, one book had to be printed out in 100 copies. How important are these numbers to you?
I finished studying architecture and while I was making blueprints I had to choose some measures, the height of the stairs or the width of the path, for example. The number 60 is important in architecture, or 180, some numbers just appear more often. This repetition of numbers is important to me. For example, one of my works was based on a virtual trip which lasted for 28 days, which is one menstrual cycle. Last year I was in China. Using numbers, they can write down a lot more. For example, there is a number which signifies that something is second hand, the Chinese army uses the number 81 and so on. You can’t choose the numbers at random but I still prefer some more than others. For example, I would never choose seven, I’d choose eight or nine.
In what way did your education in architecture influence photography, if at all? Are you more aware of the space that surrounds you? You mentioned American modernism relating to gas stations, which reminded me of the eaves from the 50s which had tense lines which denoted progress, as opposed to these ugly war-profiteer ones. What do you consider as built space?
Architects would like to change the world. They want it more than they really influence society. As an artist you do not want to change the world or at least it is not your main motivation. When I’m working on an exhibition, I find lines of sight important, what is the first thing that will be seen, how someone will look at the exhibits. I got that from architecture. And I maybe also got the desire to make an influence, maybe change someone.
Do you have a different approach to your work or ideas depending on whether the works end up as an exhibition or a book?
Twenty-six Gasoline Stations Only was a book. Now there was a chance to turn it into an exhibition.
Many of the topics you deal with seem to be connected to the past. Are you interested in the past?
Which segments of the past inspire you?
What I now know about art I learned from theory and thanks to that I saw many exhibitions. If you learn about art that way, that leads you to conceptual art. And conceptualists deal with daily things. And if you want to understand every day you need to look back. You can never really understand the present even though it is the only thing you can see.
In a series in which you deal with migrations you asked about the level of an individual’s awareness of everything that surrounds him and which comes from other cultures, while at the same time people go out into the streets and protest against refugees. They want to keep untouched national communities and at the same time they buy things produced by the other.
I photographed food, fruit, vegetables, fish and spices which are not made in the EU. Then I turned two hundred of those photographs into black and white negatives, so that in the end there were four hundred of them. We do not think about the fact that pepper, for example, which we use every day comes from Sri Lanka, and that people from all over the world are in fact more connected than we even know. Through food, clothes.
Sandra Vitaljić: Let’s go back to the 26 Gasoline Stations Only series – you never explained why some of the photographs are crossed out?
The first crossed over photograph is from Ljubljana, Petrol. It was torn down just a year later. I wanted to know how many of them even still exist, so I went back to Sarajevo again in 2014 and I crossed out those which no longer exist, which changed owners and those which physically changed. Then I showed that crossed out series in a projection at an exhibition in Johannesburg in 2015. At that time there were six crossed out stations. Now, in 2016, there are ten already. What is happening? In Slovenia, Petrol is state-owned and Istrabenz was sold. The politician and director in charge of that sale should in fact be in jail, but he found a doctor who stated that his health is very poor and that he cannot go to prison due to heart problems. Fourteen days ago a video became public of that same person playing basketball. The process is simply postponed, waiting until enough time has passed so that he cannot be prosecuted. You know how Ina was sold much better than I do. The logo was changed which means the owners changed. There is information about the sail of Bosnian Energopetrol on Wikipedia. It is known which year it was sold, who profited from it, there is information about the deaths of some people connected to the sale and how the whole process went. And the small Bosnian stations? They are being bought out by large companies. You can find stories about some of them on the internet. Gasoline stations are always connected to stories about robberies, small or large ones, meaning privatization. There are many wars around the world being fought over oil. The war in Libya, Iraq, unrests in Iran, events in Venezuela, all of them are connected to oil. Gasoline stations – stops – are “monuments” of the transition of our time.
The interview with TanjaLažetić was done by Sandra KrižićRoban
The Interview was held on 10th October 2016 in Gallery Spot, during the opening of the exhibition.
This post is also available in: Croatian