05 August 2012

On Location: Re-Placement

When Orson Welles set about making his 1962 film adaptation of Franz Kafka's The Trial, he had originally wanted to shoot the film in Prague. Unable to gain permission to do so, his default location then became the city of Zagreb, which became the site for many of the film's outdoor sequences with a majority of the interior scenes being shot in various locations around Paris.

The decision to shoot in Paris was itself an 11th-hour default decision on Welles's part, when he found out that the sets being built in Zagreb were far behind schedule and wouldn't be ready in time for he and his crew's arrival. I'll admit that it's been many years since I've seen the film, but as I recall the differences between the two shooting locations ended up casting a strange, somewhat surreally disorienting feel throughout the film -- a disjointedness as scenes shift from exterior to interior spaces, the starkly modern architecture of Zagreb contrasting with the dark Parisian interiors, a fair number of which dated back to the 19th century. One could argue that this effect ended up improving the film, complementing and heightening the absurdist qualities of Kafka's narrative.

Which brings us to the images above, which are by Croatian artist David Maljkovic and taken from his 2010 series Recalling Frames. The series consists of photomontages made up of Maljkovic's own photos of various locations in the city of Zagreb as they look today, overlying and intercut with images of these same locations as they appeared in scenes from Welles's The Trial.

Looking over the artist's past work, there appears to be heavy hauntological thematic thread running throughout -- a varied sequence of revisitations to the past. More specifically, Maljkovic seems fascinated with the former Yugoslavia as it existed in its Tito years, back when the nation's Communist leadership promoted and pursued a progressively modern(ist) vision of the future. In that respect, a fair amount of Maljkovic's work could be considered as being the product of what's been labeled "Yugonostalgia," a cultural phenomenon of recent years running concurrent with the similar Ostalgie sensibility in parts of former East Germany.

In an article for the Guardian, Maljkovic explained some of the ideas that inspired the series. In particular, he spoke of the role of the state in the former SFRY, of how many of the buildings depicted in the film had been allowed to fall into disrepair as the present government of Croatia seeks to position itself at a distant end of the political spectrum from its Communist past. Maljkovic bemoans the fate of some of these architectural remnants and of the forward-thinking social initiatives that they signified. "Our heritage is disappearing," he says at the article's end.

That last assertion is problematic in a number of ways, some of which I won't go into. But mainly its the way it invokes a particular history -- particularly one pried free of its context. Firstly, there's the consideration that the history in question wasn't exclusively the product of socialistic, state-backed initiatives. The architectural modernization of major metropoles was common in the post-war era, often the result of the positivistic, progress-oriented mentality of the Modernist era as a whole.1  But of course those very same initiatives were doubtlessly perceived as being themselves destructive of certain histories. Ultimately, it begs the question of whose idea of heritage.2

Images: Recalling Frames installation,  [center] just another day at the office,  Tony Perkins 
in The Trial from a scene filmed on the grounds of the Zagreb trade fair, and [bottom] 
Giuseppe Sambito's Italian Pavilion  at the Zagreb trade fair, c. 1961

Maljkovic's choice of the word heritage is, however, pretty poignant in this instance. The notion of heritage was something of a cornerstone in academic studies on the nature of cultural nostalgia. I'm reminded of Malcolm Chase and Christopher Shaw's "The Dimension of Nostalgia," and their observation that "Nostalgia becomes possible at the same time as utopia. The counterpart of the imaged future is the imagined past." In that 1989 essay, Chase and Shaw explore the matter of nostalaia and the ways that it connects with ideas of heritage and invocations of the past. They write at one point:

"Tradition may be the most important encounter that non-historians have with what passes for history. The past is represented in their present through activities and practices, through ritual and ceremony, and through ideals and beliefs. Whether we consider the rites of passage in life of an individual, or of the public pomp of state ceremonial, traditions are represented as the means by which our own lives are connected with the past. Tradition is the enactment and dramatisation of tradition; it is the thread which binds our separate lives to the broad canvas of history."

[Raymond] Williams teases out one of the difficulties: 'It only takes two generations to make anything traditional...But the word moves again and again toward age-old and toward ceremony, duty and respect.' These two things...link the concept with nostalgia. For if tradition is a kind of substitute for history, the past can be mobilised and articulated to provide easy and comfortable answers in the present."

At any rate, returning to the hauntological aspect of the series: In the Guardian piece, the tone of baleful nostalgia is compounded by the artist's discussion on how he went about making the series, with Maljkovic offering a description of the technical aspects of its creation:

"I took photographs of the original film frames, and then went to the same location and took another picture from the same angle. Then I put the two negatives together, and produced another photograph. It was a complex process. No labs for processing film exist any more – the craft is dead – so I did everything myself. I constructed a lab in my studio and developed the pictures by hand. It would have been easy to do it all in Photoshop, but then the end result would have a completely different feeling. I don't want to say this is better, as each medium has its own merits, but this way worked."

Which amounts to something more than the usual analog-versus-digital polemic. Rather it seems to complete the litany of laments and underlying tropes so common in recent the cultural trend of fetishizing ruination and abandonment -- the recurrent themes of entropy, "creative destruction," and obsolescence in the telos of technological progress and late-capitalist evolution, the séancing of all that which has been lost in the face of pervasive uncertainty about the worth of what has been gained (if, in fact, much of anything of tangible or lasting value has been gained at all). Which in the end prompts me to recall a remark made by Susan Sontag in her essay "Melancholy Objects," her off-handed comment that perhaps "the true modernism is not austerity but a garbage-strewn plentitude." Maybe. Or maybe, instead, both at the same time.

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1.   Yes, in some cases these initiatives were very much political and institutional in origin and intent, devised as the architectural embodiments of certain postwar social-democratic/"welfare state" civic policies. One might cite the modernization of certain portions of Stockholm during the 1950s and 1960s as an example, or the emergence of Brutalist architecture in the UK during those same years. Yet as the architectural history of the U.S. in that same era indicates, such stuff ultimately had more to do with the notion of modernization itself, and was hardly the exclusive product any specific political ideology.

2.   In this case it's an especially slippery matter when you account for the fact that Maljkovic's work often invokes a period that predates the artist's own birth -- sometimes by a full decade or more.

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