In his sculptures, collages and films, Bojan Sarcevic explores the ‘ghost haunting modernity’: ornament and decoration
Issue 117 September 2008, frieze magazine By Jennifer Allen
No one tells ghost stories in Berlin. Bojan Sarcevic and I are sitting in his studio and wondering why we have never heard one, after living in the city for so many years. After all, someone died at every corner here in World War II. Near Senefelderplatz an entire block went missing when an Allied plane crashed with its full load of bombs. Then there are the Jewish Berliners whose names, birth dates and deaths in concentration camps are commemorated in compact golden plaques encased in the pavements in front of the houses where they once lived. Sometimes even the houses are missing. Digging in empty plots or gardens can unearth unpleasant surprises: undetonated bombs and skeletons of the fallen or the hastily buried. Yet how can so many dead be so silent? Don’t they haunt their old habitats? Bang doors? Appear in the night? Among the living, no one talks about such apparitions, let alone rituals to calm them. ‘Berliners don’t need to negotiate with the dead,’ says Sarcevic, ‘because they are always present.’
A strange presence seems to hover in Sarcevic’s series ‘1954’ (2004). One day the artist was looking around in the Karl Marx bookshop – which has since closed – and picked up a collection of the old West German architectural review Baumeister (Master Builder) from 1954. The fading black and white pages showed images of sleek interiors of buildings constructed across the country in that year, both domestic and public spaces, from living-rooms to lecture rooms. Every interior is devoid of people. Sarcevic took a penknife, carefully cut out a set of geometric shapes from each picture – diamonds, circles, triangles, squares – and then glued them back in new positions. In so doing, he made each paper image into a kind of jigsaw puzzle with the pieces assembled the wrong way. Once moved around, the modular pieces create kaleidoscopic configurations that both belong and do not belong to the interiors. The shapes cut out of the photograph come back to hover in a tight symmetry, like a whirling mass that moves according to its own logic. My favourites are the triangles propagating from apex to apex across the shelves of a living-room library and throwing all the books into disarray, like a little tornado. Or a poltergeist.
Sarcevic’s handiwork gives each interior two lives: a static room captured for ever by the camera and a dynamic surface pattern unsettling the harmony of the room with its own structured logic, which appears to perpetuate itself in the imaginary infinity of mathematics. These are pictures of history, as well as the eternal return of something that escaped the lens. Sarcevic – who speaks English, French and German in addition to his native Serbo-Croat – calls these surface patterns ‘engouements’, in the sense of the obstructions that can block arteries or pipes. But he speaks of them in relation to W.G. Sebald’s collection of essays Luftkrieg und Literatur (1999; literally, ‘Air War and Literature’, although the book’s title was translated as On the Natural History of Destruction, which suggests that bombs fall as naturally as precipitation).1 In the book Sebald describes not only the impact of Allied bombing on German cities but also the subsequent failure of most German writers, in both the East and the West, to address this collective experience in postwar novels. ‘The period of reconstruction after the war was meant to obscure this irrecuperable past’, says Sarcevic, who sees parallels in the brutal dissolution of his native Yugoslavia. Although what initially intrigued him in the antiquarian copies of Baumeister was the contrast between the brand new interiors and the yellowing pages of the magazines, 1954 also caught his eye as the ‘wonder’ year: when the Federal Republic of Germany won the soccer World Cup in Bern: one victory after a decade of reconstructing the ruins from total war and then total defeat. ‘Memory and heritage did not exist any more’, says Sarcevic. ‘Even the people are missing.’ Since no one is in the images the interiors appear as empty signs of progress rather than actual places to be inhabited and used. It’s as though architecture had become a pristine symbol; its functionality purely decorative.
Patterned Surfaces Finding the decorative in the functional – confounding the ornamental with the architectural – are gestures that run throughout Sarcevic’s oeuvre. The Viennese art historian Alois Riegl once defined ornament as nothing more than ‘a pattern on the surface’.2 The patterns in the pictures of post-WWII West German interiors are the result of not only surface work but also repetitive handwork. ‘1954’ may recall Photoshop effects – sending a geometric ripple through the plane of a photograph, like throwing a stone into a calm lake – but each work is precisely made by hand, with a repeated gesture that erases traces of authorship. Who was it that designed the triangle? In the projection Miniatures (2003) the artist’s hand actually appears, making yet another pattern, this time on a fogged windshield. The glass becomes a compact maze, only to evaporate back into its original function as a windshield, offering a clear view outside the moving car. However haphazard, this work also resonates with historical obstructions. While Miniatures refers to the Christian tradition of illuminated manuscripts with decorated letters and figurative icons, the artist makes the square kufic pattern in the glass – a pattern that takes its name from Kufa, a city south of Baghdad where 12th-century scholars developed the squared Arabic script that was used to adorn the façades of mosques.3 In the 13th century the pattern suddenly migrated from Muslim buildings across Anatolia and Central Asia to the needlework of aristocratic women in Christian central Europe. Like the miniature, squared kufic is both a functional and a decorative text. Unlike the miniature, the pattern is a non-figurative one, which could be easily scaled to fit a building or a piece of cloth. Drawing the square kufic pattern in the fog with a finger, Sarcevic evokes a trajectory that begins with ink, solidifies into brick, moves into thread and then disappears.