Visual Arts Alumna Vesna Pavlović ’07 Presents ‘Stagecraft’ at Harriman Institute

Mădălina Telea Borteș
November 17, 2023

In Stagecraft, a survey of photographic works by Visual Arts alumna Vesna Pavlović ’07 on view at the Harriman Institute until December 15, 2023, one encounters a time capsule of emotion—a strange experience, for there are hardly any people in these photographs. Known for her “unique treatment of the photographic medium, in which a photographic moment is expanded to include the conditions of image making, production, documentation, and representation,” Pavlović draws focus to the structural aesthetic of public life in 1990s Yugoslavia.

Most of the photographs in this exhibition depict empty spaces: There are convention centers, executive council buildings, hotels, news agency storerooms housing reels of film, offices, escalators. Some of the photos are staged and nearly all of them present an incredibly flat and compressed visual plane. 

The colors pop out at you and each texture, whether that of a rug, a wood paneled wall, or a pair of velvet upholstered seats, is treated with an equal degree of focus. When shadows are present, they do not extend the depth of field. Instead, they punctuate space to the same degree as the architectural lines of the modernist buildings themselves. As a result, the surface of the photograph feels impenetrable and simultaneously immersive.  

In the artist’s note to Stagecraft, a monograph covering two decades of her work, Pavlović explains that this compilation of works is “an intimate exploration of my documentary aesthetic of highly charged ceremonial spaces of Yugoslav socialism.” 

Pavlović optimizes and extends the innate charge these spaces hold through a series of interventions. For instance, in Protocol (30” x 40,” archival pigment print, 2019), an archival image depicting the late president Josip Tito and his spouse, Jovanka Broz, being ceremoniously escorted out of a convention building as young men and women stand bearing flags, Pavlović has punctured the surface of the image with hand stitched thread, outlining those flags on the image’s right side and inserting a section of drapery on the image’s left. The resulting image, then, is an image of an artist’s intervention as much as the content the image itself contained. 

Thereafter, in constructing Fototeka (Projection Still VI) (16” x 24,” archival pigment print, 2015), Pavlović explored a more straightforward invocation of the Cold War era’s Iron Curtain by projecting an archival photograph of an official State meeting held in London onto a curtain and photographing the ensuing image. From a distance, one notices slivered black lines interrupting the scene captured—eighteen men, each wearing a top hat or a military fatigue hat, crowded together—and upon closer inspection one sees that the slicing captured in the image comes from the curtain itself. 

The charge in these photographs extends beyond scenes associated with politicized narratives, however. 

In the photographs spanning the “Hotels” series, the charge comes from Pavlović’s “ironic approach [to] what we consider the ‘normality’ in Belgrade during those times,” when a flurry of media correspondents from all over the western world traveled to the region to cover the three months’ long NATO bombing of the Yugoslavian territory in the spring of 1999.

One of the photographs from the “Hotels” series, Herzlich Willkommen in Hotel Hyatt Belgrad, April 1999 (digital color print, 30’’ x 45,” 1999), depicts a robed foreign news correspondent lounging on a chair by the hotel’s indoor pool, his legs crossed at the ankles, his right hand raised, holding a small antennaed cell phone, his chin tucked and his eyes fixed on the phone’s very small screen. Just behind the man’s head, which is toweled in a lapis blue, is the tail end of another lounge chair, suggesting, for a moment, that several more iterations of this man exist, lounging, focused on a cellphone not yet equipped to receive text messages, as a war raged on outside. The Hyatt Hotel, where this photograph was taken, “was clearly not a target in the war,” art historian Branislav Dimitrijecić points out. By capturing these moments of tranquility available, almost exclusively, to “the Serbian nouveau riche and the foreign media journalists,” Pavlović brings forth “an equally relevant ‘truth’ about the war,” namely, that these privileged moments of tranquility “were not the other side of the reality [in Belgrade]. They were reality itself,” writes Dimitrijević.  

Vesna Pavlović is a recipient of the 2021 Current Art Fund Grant, the 2020 Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship, Fulbright Scholar Award in 2018, George A. and Eliza Gardner Howard Foundation grant in 2017, and Art Matters Foundation grant in 2012. Pavlović exhibited widely, including solo shows at the Phillips Collection in Washington DC, the Frist Art Museum in Nashville, the Museum of History of Yugoslavia in Belgrade, and the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento. She participated in a number of group shows, including the Untitled, 12th Istanbul Biennial, 2011, Turkey; MAC – Metropolitan Arts Center, Belfast, Northern Ireland; Württembergischen Kunstverein, Düsseldorf, Germany; KUMU Art Museum, Tallinn, Estonia; Zachęta, National Gallery of Art, Warsaw, Poland; New Art Gallery Walsall, UK; Bucharest Biennale 5, Romania; Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago, USA; NGBK, Berlin, Germany; and Photographers’ Gallery, London, UK. Recent publications include Vesna Pavlović, Stagecraft (Vanderbilt University Press, 2021), and Vesna Pavlović’s Lost Art: Photography, Display, and the Archive (Hanes Art Gallery, Wake Forest University, 2018).