In my opinion, Dragana Jurisic is one of the best artists working in Ireland today. A photographer based in Dublin, Dragana’s ability to blend narrative and technique in her work makes her practice both accessible and stimulating to viewers. Her openness in conversation made talking to her such a rewarding experience. I hope to do her justice in this interview.
Can you describe what an average day in the studio is like for you?
I get up early and do some exercise, get a coffee and I am at my desk by 8am. My studio is tidy, I like my work environment to be organised. I’m not a person who will have test prints all over the space – studio is where I think.
What does the camera mean to you?
For me, the camera provides a tool to better understand the world around me. When I studied psychology, I worked a lot with children on the autistic spectrum, and I would observe how many of the kids would need to have a support in the form of an object, an animal, a ritual, something to help focus, to open up and learn. I understand that need for separation from the world, in order to be able to see it with more clarity. This is what photography gives me. It’s a membrane that helps me filter experiences and make sense of them. Otherwise, life can be overwhelming.
I touch on it in Seeing Things, my first significant photography project, a Government commission to depict poverty in Ireland. My position in Irish society, at that time was one of an outsider. I used the symbolism of a bird flying in and out of the photos to illustrate the role of the photographer in these kinds of situations; we’re just flying in and out, we don’t have to live the lives of the people we’re portraying. I think Seeing Things represents my discomfort with being in a position of power, or should I say, discomfort with an intrinsic exploitative nature of photography as a medium.
A famous example of issues with social documentary is Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother. When Lange took this iconic photograph, she never asked the woman what her name was; Lange only asked her how old she was. And when she would talk about that picture, Lange would say that the woman allowed her to take photographs of herself and her children, because she knew that by helping the photographer, she would be helped somehow. Many years later, when the journalists found this woman and interviewed her, she was still poor, living in a trailer camp in Modesto, California. The photograph didn’t do anything for her. She was a face of one of the most recognisable images of the twentieth century, a face that made Dorothea Lange famous – but has done nothing for the person portrayed. Her name was Florence Thompson.
I wanted to ask you about your recent work Tarantula – can you talk about that a bit?
Tarantula was a commission by the National Gallery – Brian Fay, Maser and myself were asked to respond to the Vermeer exhibition [Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry, 2018]. The idea was to take three artists who work in Ireland and who are all very different, and try to see what they come up with.
I was interested in women in Vermeer’s work and also in how critics tried to diminish Vermeer by saying that he used camera obscura to make his paintings, claiming he was stencilling out of nature. But there are two main subjects in Vermeer’s paintings, women in domestic settings and light, and light is not something one can sketch by using camera obscura. That’s why I photographed a female figure over a number of hours, tracking the light in my studio and then made a composite image that consisted of multiple layers. The idea was to animate the pensive female character that features regularly in Vermeer’s paintings, and by doing so to capture the light dancing around the studio. The title ‘Tarantula’ was inspired by Ibsen’s Doll House. I used the seventeenth-century Dutch frame from the National Gallery’s collection – producing an object that to many appeared almost like a religious icon. People spent a long time in front of that piece.
Do you feel you will do more composite images?
Yes, I think so. I enjoy making them; perhaps because they take a lot of work! Some kind of magic has to happen for them to sing.
I also like the idea of movement inside of the image. I feel like a lot of work that I do is attempting to do something that’s not possible by nature… the photograph is still and two-dimensional, and what I’m trying to do is to animate that still image.
100 Muses is another work that uses that composite image technique – could you talk a bit about how that project came about?
When I started making the 100 Muses project, I didn’t know it would become what it turned out to be – for me, it was an experiment. It was an experiment to see if I, as a female artist, would treat women the same way they were traditionally treated by male artists. Specifically the traditional master kind of approach. That element of nameless, anonymous women who are only used as the subject of the work, but they are never given credit. When I started making 100 Muses, when the first person came in, I did what “they” do… I started manoeuvring women into position. And I realised very quickly, within the first session, that this was totally wrong. This is taking away the woman’s agency; she had no decision about what image is going to go out into the world to represent her. So at that point in the process, I realised that I can’t dictate how they move and behave. And then the project became about collaboration – I became a facilitator, not the maker. Women performed and directed themselves, and they chose their own image.
What was your relationship to the muses?
I knew about eighteen of the hundred women I photographed. The rest were strangers. There was a great element of a surprise every time a woman who I did not know, rung the studio bell and came into the room. Once a person took their clothes off, the majority would tell you something very personal and intimate, they would share traumatic experiences from their lives. I guess when you disrobe in front of a stranger, you’re already feeling vulnerable so you might as well! So that was quite surprising at first, but also an incredibly intimate and powerful experience. It was a quite cathartic thing for them, and me as well. 100 Muses was a growing experience; every woman who told me something, I could see myself reflected in their story. It was a two-way therapy, a healing process. A lot of contemporary artists are scared of this idea of art as a therapy, but I really could not care about that. I have no desire to appear cool! Of course it was not all serious and intense, there was an element of play in the project as well, lots of joy – lots of dancing and goofing around.
The research you did is very evident in your work.
I enjoy research. At the moment I’m writing a novel and I love the research part – it delays you from actually committing words to paper, because to start making is to invoke self-doubt. I have very high aspirations, I set the bar very high for myself. So it is challenging to plough through that kind of treacle of self-criticism, in any kind of creative endeavour. For me it’s important to hash out all of the possible pitfalls of a creative project, before I show them to the world.
You’re collaborating with Paula on a project at the moment – do you mind talking about that?
Paula Meehan, what can I say? She is a wonderful poet. Dublin City Council commissioned the two of us, to respond to Number 14 Henrietta Street (a Georgian townhouse that went from being a family home to a tenement). Paula wrote her poems first, and I got to read them before I said yes to the commission – I mean, after reading them it would have been impossible to say no.
It was important to me I create images worthy of her poems. Luckily, I was collaborating with a very helpful and openhearted person – she was so generous with her time and her ideas. I’m not a poet so I don’t know a lot about structures of poems, but she patiently explained her process to me when writing Museum and that helped me unlock a way forward, a way to photograph. The book is out in July. It’s a beauty.
Looking at works like YU and My Own Unknown where 100 Muses comes from, I feel like there’s almost a through line in some of your work, a theme of birth through destruction?
Yeah, that is very interesting, I think you’re right – there is continuity in my projects. From YU that looks at loss of national identity and loss of a country, to My Own Unknown that takes the life of my aunt as a starting point (a woman who escaped Yugoslavia and became a spy in Cold War Paris), to pondering on a status of representation of female within the Western Art tradition (100 Muses).
A lot of my works seem to come from some kind of personal or societal devastation. I am attempting to use art as a way of putting back the broken pieces together, reassembling, reconstructing, making good. Like that Japanese art of repair – Kintsugi – where gold is used to fill in the cracks. Making broken beautiful.
Let’s finish by talking about influences.
I think the best exhibition I saw in the last ten years was Andrea Fraser’s retrospective at MACBA. She’s in her fifties now, and she has been working for the last few decades, so I am embarrassed to say I never saw her work before, or even heard about her, which is even worse! A lot of her artwork revolves around institutional criticism and also a critique of modes of representation. My favourite piece was White People in West Africa, where she photographed and collected photos of white people in West Africa. White tourists taking pictures of the exotic Other when they go on holiday, safari style; a pale guy in Birkenstocks dancing his socks off during a tribal dance! The last image was of a white rhino hiding in the bushes – brilliant. The work talks about the impact of colonialism and neo-colonialism on Africa, and at the same time is saying something about the art world too. She does a great job of parodying the cult of the artist.
Finally, I’m delighted that Vivian Dick is here in Temple Bar Gallery + Studios. I love her work. And it is nice to be able to become friends with someone you admire.
You can find out more about Dragana’s work through her website link below
thank you Adrian Mc Hugh for your work editing