Image Worship

Image worship, parody and image destruction in Serbia in the 1990s
by Anna Schober, Austria, 2004

Parody and irony, it is repeatedly asserted, have become ineffective forms of political speech and display since the end of the 20th century, because they have become a socially dominant way of talking and representing. Parody and irony are depicted as empty forms, that can no longer have any political explosive force . This text opposes this widespread opinion with a historical study of a milieu where, at the end of the 1990s, in a time of social crisis and of political upheaval, irony and parody were taken up euphorically by diverse actors, became linked to political claims and were involved in a kind of ”image-struggle”. A re-emerging image worship in Serbia in the 1990s, and the renewed effort to use images and media for political purposes, provoked a range of aesthetic responses, which engaged with and against each other in a struggle for recognition. In this ”image-struggle”, the aesthetic vocabulary of the avant-garde presents itself as a tradition that can be taken up and be used by different sides, that can constantly be re-actualised and linked to new demands, throwing up completely unforeseeable, milieu-specific articulations and relations.

Three photographs: 1990 – 1980 – 1999

Serbia 1990. In a photograph, taken during an unidentifiable gathering (picture 1), we can see a threshold, a passageway occupied by a lot of bodies in a rather run-down building. Out of the crowd squirms the robust body of a young man, who moves elastically up and is on the point of kissing a poster with a portrait of Slobodan Milošević, hanging from the door-beam. The accentuated, sporty, almost ”ragged” get-up of the unshaven young man in light track-suit-trousers and a turquoise sweatshirt, as well as the dynamically upwards turning movement and the simple portrait of the politician hanging form the door gives this scene the appearance of a spontaneous image-worship. With his eyes almost closed and the two hands as well as the mouth gently brought up to the portrait, the young man is completely caught up in an devout action. But his sporty get-up, his unshaven appearance and the stained clothes are in sharp contrast to this gesture of devotion. Above all, his appearance stands out against that of Slobodan Milošević’s, who is shown on this half-length portrait carefully shaved, with neatly combed hair, in a black suit, white shirt and narrow tie. Despite this contrast in the features of both of those involved in this act of worship, they are linked to a dynamic figure, which cuts the picture horizontally: the jumping body, the hands and the absorbed face of the worshipper forming a unity together with the smiling upwards inclined face of the image being kissed. The spontaneity and casualty of the action is also enhanced by the fact that all the other people present in this passageway are paying no attention to this scene; they are passing on the side, without in any way relating to it. Only for the photographer Dragan Petrović does this scene seem to have had something important enough for him to photograph it and add it to a collection of photographs he made in Serbia in the 1990s, almost incidentally, as a kind of annex to his regular work. Because officially, in those years, he was on the road trying to earn a living at public events, Christmas festivities, huge family meetings or private gatherings of the newly emerging upper-class. And in parallel he produced images of such confessions, of the emergence of new power-structures, but also of strange identifications and performances of the self. With images like this one, Dragan Petrović mutates from a contract photographer to a documenter and ethnologist. And we as viewers can read these photographs then as evidence of forms of the mise-en-scène of the self as well as of political power. For this we can also bring them together with other information, for example the tip from an insider pointing out that in the early 1990s the young man’s sweatshirt being stuffed into the elastic waistband of his trousers would generally have been seen as a sign of support for the then president.
This photograph documents a homage to a politician, as it took place in Serbia in the 1990s. A decade earlier, another series of photographs was produced, which also documented the worship of a politician, but which also opens up a difference to the picture by Dragan Petrović. Goranka Matić’s collection Days of Grief and Pride (1980) which emerged out of the three official days of mourning, records the later so famous mourning mise-en-scènes in the shop-windows in Belgrade’s shopping streets after Tito’s death. (picture 2) In every shop-window and in some of the sales-rooms there was a portrait of the marshal in civilian clothes or in military uniform with a black mourning band over the right-hand corner. In some cases red carnations had been arranged in front of the portrait and red cloth and/or the Yugoslav flag imaginatively draped around it. This always similar mourning mise-en-scène in always different shops sometimes led to almost surreal contrasts: Tito’s portrait sparkled for example from behind piles of artistically arranged shoes or between red-and-white sports wear; from one angle it dominated a whole arsenal of boxes of jewels, it was encircled by a lot of ”dancing” brides in white veils, surrounded by tailoring accessories, typewriters, candle-sticks, cakes, southern fruit, lamp-shades, pieces of meat or cosmetic articles. And sometimes it competed with the pictures of women advertising lipstick.
In contrast to what is happening in the photo by Dragan Petrović, here we are dealing with an officially ordained homage. The portrait of the deceased ”father” of the nation appears in numerous places emphasised by pedestals, drapes and tricks of mise-en-scène, but nowhere does it seem to attract such spontaneous homage from passers-by as it can be seen in the ”kissing-photograph”. On the contrary: the passers-by visible in these photographs all go hurriedly past the windows adorned with the Tito-portrait, and it is sometimes noticeable that the shop-assistants in no way relate to the image of the person being mourned. This is not to imply that there were not other, more or less spontaneous outpourings of grief: thus one repeatedly hears the story, that some people have cried for three days after the announcement of Tito’s death. Nevertheless, these images seem to document a gap between the ordained discourse of power on the one hand, and the experiences that people make of their situations on the other.