Text by Rebecca Travis
Upon stepping into Theta Rhythm, the first UK solo show of Serbian artist Bojan Fajfrić, one initially encounters dim lighting, shadowed walls and block plinths hosting boxy old television sets. A grainy monochrome newspaper image with a Cyrillic caption is plastered, billboard size on the wall. It is an oppressive palette of greyscale uniformity, immediately transporting the viewer to the Eastern Bloc.
Without any contextual explanation of the work, it is a difficult exhibition at first to comprehend. It is necessary to know that Fajfrić deals almost exclusively with the recent histories of his birth country, focusing in particular on the tumultuous break up of Yugoslavia in the late 1990s. This recent history is explored not through political leaders or societal heroes but through the everyday people and surroundings of the time, in particular through the experience of Mirko Fajfrić, the artist’s father.
One episode has specifically become a point of obsession. His father was present at the infamous 8th session of September 1987, a meeting now widely regarded as one of the most important in Serbian history. On broadcast footage of the session, Mirko is caught on camera sleeping, prompting intrigue around his failure to participate, and any differences that he could therefore have made in what was to be a cataclysmic turning point for the nation.
The piece Theta Rhythm (2010) therefore sees the artist painstakingly recreate his father’s daily routine prior to the session taking place. The aforementioned boxy televisions form part of an archive of found footage, interviews and newsreels, the low lighting a carefully considered level appropriate to this visual research library. Travelling through these segments of found material we then reach the intensely darkened arena of the main event. Theta Rhythm is highly cinematic and carefully staged; the HD quality particularly striking following the fuzzy footage of the archive. It is by turns intriguing and beguiling, part experimental, part documentary, and is meticulous in its execution – at times even supplanting the artist into found footage of the session itself. It not only raises questions around the events of the day, but of the patriarchal role. The film’s title is a clever reference to the states between sleeping and consciousness, addressing both the unfortunate napping of Mirko, and serving as a metaphor for the state of Yugoslavia itself – blissfully unaware of the troubles to come.
Elsewhere darkened annexes show earlier works The Dome (2009), a lucid camera documentary of an abandoned parliament building, and They are Calling Us (2005), the first of Fajfrić’s films to focus on his father.
This is an exhibition that demands time and understanding of relevant political and social contexts in order to fully engage with it. However, time invested will be rewarded with a highly informed and well-executed body of work, sparking interests not only in recent politics and history but also in modes of film presentation from the archival, to the cinematic, the documentary to the experimental.
Bojan Fajfrić: Theta Rhythm, is open between 28th September 2012 – 6th January 2013 at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead.
Rebecca Travis is an artist, curator and writer based in Newcastle.