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A little over a decade ago, I made some portraits of my children with their cousins while we vacationed in California. I scanned the black and white negatives and e-mailed a few copies to my sister, but did not make prints at the time. Three years later, my sister’s oldest son was killed in a hit and run incident, leaving us all bereft. Suddenly, I felt an urgent need to make those prints. Susan Sontag described photographs as “memento mori, and that to photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability.” There is perhaps a tragedy present in every photograph, yet we can often be oblivious to it. Not so for Sandra Vitaljic and Masa Bajc, two photographers from Croatia who have faced such life traumas head on. Death, violence and reclamation are the palpable themes presented in an exhibition titled “and there was evening, and there was morning.” This haunting show, curated by Pavel Romaniko and Renée Gonsalves-Lamontagne, is currently on view at the University of Massachusetts Lowell art galleries through October 6, 2018. Sandra Vitaljic and Masa Bajc will be giving a talk at 3:30pm in the O’Leary Library Room 222, and a reception will follow from 5 to 6pm on Tuesday, September 25, 2018. The University Gallery is located in Mahoney Hall at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.
The show features color prints from both photographers and a powerful installation titled “Beloved” by Sandra Vitalljic whose moving work is based in research and analysis. The installation features six images encased in plexiglass placed onto pillars in a room painted black. The images were made after autopsies of women killed by domestic partners, and include a wounded heart, hand and chest. In addition, one image is of a beautiful soft post-mortem face that compounds the tragedy of her brutal death. The artist writes, “Body parts that once aroused romantic and erotic feelings are depicted as dead, cold, damaged; and a universal symbol of love… the pierced heart – is given a completely different meaning.” The work is sculptural and can be viewed from both sides, recalling anatomical specimens, and yet there is a far greater emotional charge to this presentation of totemic pillars than that found in any clinical environment. These photographic sculptures speak to the nature of bodies as objects to be possessed or destroyed.
In an adjoining, freshly painted, bright gallery space, large color prints are presented without glazing from both photographers. Vitaljic’s landscapes from her series “Infertile Ground” explore places of profound trauma in her native land. Two of the photographs depict sites of violence from World War II, the rest are of locales from Croatia’s War of Independence in the early 1990’s. One landscape is drenched in fog, another is a tangled web of trees offering no hint of the horrors that occurred at each site, which are described in detailed accompanying text. One of the images, however, depicts mounds and hollows that could only be man-made and we learn that they mark the graves and buildings of the Jasenovac concentration camp where over 83,000 people were killed between 1940-45. Her statistics are sobering, but the images raise questions about the earth’s ability to absorb and heal these wounds of war, leaving no trace of the violence perpetrated in these places. One wonders what else might have happened here?
Masa Bajc’s color prints address the infirmity of bodies and nature in a more personal and poetic manner. Prints are presented in different sizes and heights on the wall and are derived from two series, “Uncommon Realities” and “After Silence.” The pictures are mysterious, a figure is flying… or is it swimming?… in a sea of green light. Another appears to be a landscape but as one approaches, there’s an eye – of a horse, perhaps? And those distant lights in the night? What are they? Most arresting is a portrait that is less mysterious visually, yet still raises questions. It is a facial close up of someone blowing a bubble; is she crying? Did he lose his hair to disease? Is it a man or a woman? Does it matter? The soft skin and delicate round bubble speak to the fragility of the human body and of the earth. Bajc writes that she is “exploring place as an ingredient in the production of poetic imagination. By creating places that blend the inner world with the outer, I contemplate space as an expansion of one’s intimate being and by extension, view the image as a place in itself”. “and there was evening, and there was morning” is unsettling, maybe even a little frightening, yet it is an emotionally rich examination of mortality, mutability and vulnerability.
Sandra Vitaljic and Masa Bajc will be giving a talk at 3:30pm in the O’Leary Library Room 222, and a reception will follow from 5 to 6pm on Tuesday, September 25, 2018. The University Gallery is located in Mahoney Hall at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.
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