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Jelena Jureša, lithographs

MIRA, Study for a Portrait

Jelena Jureša »

A long-term and layered project, MIRA, Study for a Portrait (2010–2014) takes multiple forms: a video meant to be projected as a large two-channel installation, a series of photographs, lithographs, and a book. Across these forms, the work moves through a succession of memories as Jelena Jureša conveys the family history and life story of her protagonist Mira, who we come to know through cropped images, shadowy portraits, and the video’s descriptive voice-over narration.

Mira’s story includes bucolic and horrific episodes in recent southeast European history. The first channel of Jureša’s video narrates, through images with an English voiceover,[1] the story of Mira’s parents, their Jewish and Muslim backgrounds and lives in Bosnia before the Second World War, their meeting as Partisans during the war, and their years together until Mira’s birth. The second part of the video picks up at the event of Mira’s birth, and moves forward from there to convey her biography in starts and stops: her childhood in Belgrade and move to Sarajevo, multiple marriages, the birth of her children, her work and life leading up to her death in 1990, “when she died in a car accident near Pakrac, where riots soon broke out heralding the beginning of war in Croatia and the fragmentation of the former Yugoslavia.”[2]

Throughout Jureša’s video details of personal biography intersect with sweeping moments in twentieth-century history: the formation and dissolution of Yugoslavia, the destruction of thousands of lives in concentration camps. Most of the story is narrated in the third person, with Mira addressed as the second-person “you.” In the second section of the video, the narrator names himself Mira’s son, becoming an “I” with a clear relation to the “you.” Like his accent, which is hard to place, his narration feels alternately suspended from the events he describes and very close to them. The curator Branka Benčić writes that both the act of narration and the narrator’s voice create a “referential space.”[3] Paired with the text subtitles that periodically name a scene within the video (i.e. “Bijeljina,” “Semlin Judenlager,” or “1990”), the narration style recalls social documentary and works of historical fiction: precedents for collectively remembering the events of the Holocaust. Within this space of commentary the narrator’s British accent and seemingly natural pronunciation of Serbian place-names convey a sense of inherited history and an accompanying knowingness (“Death was constant and daily;” “You and your brother would rise together, missing attention, withheld”).

Memory works in concert with images and against them. In MIRA, images sometimes act as a trigger to memory (at one point her narrator explains, “Photographs can make strong breaks in the mind. My memories rely on photographs”). A series of photographic images from personal archives bridge the different forms that Jureša’s work takes. These are treated as unstable documents, held alternately at an arm’s length and under a magnifying glass. In MIRA images also act as memorials, sometimes in indirect ways. A still shot in the woods with sunlight coming in through trees marks the place where Serbian, Roma, and Jewish exiles once hid in fear. A flamenco dancer performs alone against a backdrop of filmic darkness, making eye contact with the camera as she moves slowly to soulful Yugoslav music.[4] Throughout this work, there is a tension between what can be shown, what can be suggested, and what can be described with language. Jureša’s narrative and characters are very specific; their details often feel intimate, like a mother’s tiny feet, or the way a son can never remember his mother having shouted (“Do you even know how to?”). Her work asks, what happens when this specific story about specific people intersects with the Holocaust, or with specific places like Jasenovac or Laborgrad? The audience who reacts to the word Holocaust might not react to the place-name Jasenovac, or Laborgrad. Jureša’s narrator helps fill in those gaps, succinctly recounting the horrible things that took place at these concentration camps. At the same time, her work respects these differences in perspective, questioning how much meaning we can attach to a name, or how much meaning we can attach to a view into the woods, with the word Jasenovac typed out as a header. Which is more evocative, the woods or the word? Which is more evocative, and for whom, Sajmište concentration camp or Semlin Judenlager?

In Jureša’s work memorialization occurs through absence, by looking at something else—not exactly remnants, but expressions of what is left behind. Several years in the making, this project led Jureša to travel through the landscapes the work depicts. Her process of travel and research parallels the process the work takes up in its viewers, the movement between the named and un-nameable. MIRA internalizes the skepticism around naming the events of the Holocaust (and skepticism of over-cautiousness) as outlined by Giorgio Agamben, who writes that, “to say that Auschwitz is ‘unsayable’ or ‘incomprehensible’ is equivalent to euphemein, to adoring in silence, as one does with a god.”[5] Jureša both names events and provides ways around naming, identifying the power of a name to vary in meaning—even that of Mira, whose portrait is cut with alternate etymologies.


[1] In a conversation Jureša identifies the power of English to perform as Esperanto.
[2] Jelena Jureša, Introduction to MIRA, Study for a Portrait on the artist’s website, http://jelenajureš
[3] Branka Benčić trans. Tim Kerslake, spaces of memory (Elektrana – Center for Development of Electronic Arts and Culture and Contemporary Gallery Zrenjanin, Biblioteka Matice srpske, Novi Sad: 2014).
[4] The performer dances to a song sang by the Yugolsav singer Jadranka Stojaković, who is known for her gentle voice. “Some still quarrel whether it was a Bosnian, Serbian, or Croatian song (it does sound like Bosnian sevdalinka songs, but it is definitely the sound of Yugoslavia). It is a song about absence and longing.”
[5] Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (New York: Zone Books, 1999), pp. 32–33

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