Vesna Pavlovic's exhibit Projected Histories at The Frist is exceptional. She's an artist with local ties — she teaches photography at Vanderbilt — and her work is some of the most thoughtful and intelligent contemporary art we've seen, local or otherwise. We've written a feature review on the show and picked a specific work as a pick of the day. But Pavlovic deserves all the attention she gets, and this afternoon she's giving an artist's talk at The Frist. We figured that was as good a time as any to post a recent interview I had with Pavlovic, where we talked about the exhibit, the difference between documentary and art, and how photography can sometimes show us more by what it leaves out.
Scene: The juxtaposition between your exhibit and Warhol Live works well. There seem to be a lot of parallels.
Vesna Pavlovic: People have made interesting comments about the relationship between the exhibits. I feel like I have a personal connection with Warhol, because in the ’90s I worked as a photographer for a music magazine in Belgrade, and I photographed a lot of concerts and authors and musicians and so on. The magazine was called Ritam, the Serbian word for “rhythm,” and I was assigned to photograph Nico. So it was nice to see photographs of her here, like I have this little personal connection to the Warhol exhibit.
People have noticed different things about the exhibit. They wander into my space, and think, “This is not Warhol!” But because of how things work as a display, people think that there is some connection. People notice a different type of spectacle going on: There's this loud spectacle with Warhol that has always been an aspect of his production — the idea of the spectacle and the audience — and with me there's more of a silent spectacle going on. Also in terms of how you look, you can relate them visually — if you stand in different spaces in the “Display/Desire” room, you can see reflections of the Warhol exhibit in the next room.
Scene: You've spoken of your work as being largely anthropological, and I think that stays true here. If Warhol's work was about participating in life, yours is more about observing and being detached.
I like that, the idea of the detached. I was just talking to someone yesterday about the idea of detachment and why documentation is so important to me, and why authors such as Robert Frank are my idols — in the sense that art rises from that simple observational documentary mode into something different. But where do we make these distinctions, and how? When does one type of photography become fine art? What does that phrase even mean?
I used to work as a documentary photographer, so the document in the work is important — that observational point, in terms of me looking, and in terms of the audience looking and watching and analyzing the phenomenon of being part of that whole silent spectacle. There's that idea that I'm a careful observer, but my conceptual work requires multiple visits to a certain site. And there's always a little change to that original documentary moment, an additional element that occurs.
Scene: Can you talk about the idea behind the “Watching” series? It's a collection of photographs of people observing sporting events, right?
It's always basketball, that's very important. I am myself a big basketball fan. In the words of my friend, a good basketball player, “Yugoslavia became modern with basketball.” A lot of people know about the country because of basketball. … It's a platform where all of the good and the bad feelings arise and can be interpreted in many different ways, and maybe misinterpreted.
I was working with an art historian — Vladimir Tupanjac — on this project, and it took four years to complete. We started by photographing people watching a basketball game, but watching it on a television in public spaces. So they themselves have this mediated experience of the sporting event. And that's visible on their faces, and that's why they're all sort of gazing up, that's why all of these black-and-white photographs have this sort of sacral feeling to them. We can look into the sport as this contemporary religion, and the arena as this temple where you come to see, and to believe in the victory, to look upon your heroes.
So we started to discuss the idea of watching and how the audience participated in the event what it means. We did “Watching II” with live games, and in 2003 we came to Sacramento, Calif., and got permission to shoot the NBA audiences.
Scene: What was the different between the live and televised responses?
There was more serenity, more anticipation and more suspension when you look at the screen and you have this mediated experience. Compared to when you are at a live game and you can shout you can be loud, you can touch the court, you can participate, and you feel more like a participant. But then you notice more details maybe when you're more detached. … For me “Watching” is about tackling the idea of the event, is the event the frontline, or is it something else? Is it the people or is it the game. For me, the audience was the event.
Scene: The “Hotels” series brings up a similar idea about public spaces being stages for interaction, but they're all empty.
I'm always curious about that idea of the stage, of the musician and the performer, that suspense that happens in the interaction. “Show Homes” and “Hotels” are the empty stages that we need to project something onto. Hotels are representatives of local socialist modernism. They do bear those architectural styles of Bauhaus or modernism — a lot of architects at that time were schooled in Scandinavian architecture, they imported those styles — but it was not the architecture that I was interested in. It was more about what psychology they produced in those spaces.
For me, it was always more important to reflect on that psychology of the Golden Age of Socialism, the 1960s and ’70s, through those spaces. They are empty, but you are invited as a viewer to project that feeling into these narratives. That to me was the feeling that would never go away... the dream was gone, and became this nostalgic reminiscence. Through the little slightly ironic approach of paying attention to details — broken lights, or certain pieces of furniture — the discomfort of certain levels would bring that nostalgic feeling of happiness yet artificiality.
Scene: It seems obvious to me that these are hotels, not homes. There's a distinct artificiality there.
Right. The photographs are an index about something else. For me they are about socialism and modernism, and about psychology. They're not photographs of hotels, they're not photographs of architecture, they're not photographs of furniture. They're about something else.