Ambivalence … is much more vital and revealing than certainty and clarity
Increasingly, we are expected to live by numbers: the technologies that run on ones and zeros, and the Neoliberal obsession that reduces everything to an integer preceded by a currency symbol. Concrete data with fixed values. It seems our systems for living in a complex world demand that we behave ever more like machines: input/output, on/off, true/false, mine/yours, friend/enemy… But our minds are not like machines. There are more synaptic connections in the human brain than there are stars in the universe. Evolution has equipped us with an infinitely nuanced organ in a constant process of contingent flux. Much of its activity occurs beyond our consciousness, while nonetheless colouring our perceptions. Whatever the state of the external world, all we know of it comes through our senses and is given conceptual form in this organic universe inside our skull. Little wonder then that one of the conditions of being human is to navigate ambiguity, a task ill-suited to the ways of machines.
It is perhaps when the machine-like fabric of a society begins to fall apart that the underlying uncertainty of our existence becomes most apparent. For the artist Zelko Nedic the experience of growing up during the Bosnian War and the underlying political and cultural complexity of the region of his birth have imbued him with a profound sense of the ambiguity of things. This sensibility sits like an aquafer beneath his artwork, seeping to the surface in a variety of material, conceptual and poetic ways.
Zelko has already created an extensive body of work, but here I have selected three personal projects to discuss in our interview. These, I hope, will not only offer insights into his art practice but, looking through his images to the ideas and feelings that lie behind them, his darkly beautiful and very human sense of life’s ultimate ambiguity.
When did you begin making photographs and what sparked your interest in the medium?
I was the kind of kid that was more interested in art than sport. My earliest memory of making photographs was in primary school, but my older brother was also a big influence. He was in an amateur photography club and introduced me to the magic of the darkroom.
The civil war in what was then Yugoslavia started when I was in my first year of high school. We had to keep moving around country and I changed high school three times ending up in Belgrade. In my last year of high school I began an apprenticeship with a well-established hair salon in the city. Here I had an opportunity to assist a professional photographer for the first time, shooting fashion stories and music videos.
But my interest in photography became an obsession when, during the Bosnian War of 1992, we lost all the photographs of my childhood.
How did the idea for ‘The Bedroom Conception’ come about?
I read about a restaurant that served its food in total darkness. Their idea was that by removing sight the other senses would be enhanced. I began to wonder how I could explore that concept in my own work.
Why did you pick the bedroom as the location?
The bedroom is a private place, a kind of sanctuary. Being in another person’s bedroom can suggest intimacy… that there is no need to fear them. In that private space, enigmatic ideas become material, fragile and human. I became a seeker of personal truth, yet more than ever, confused by what that truth might be and by what means it might be acquired.
Blindfold, I isolated myself visually from the surroundings and gave to the subject full control of the situation. I did not give them any instructions before or during the shoot. I wanted them to be in control of the image. In the grace and intimacy with which they interacted with me, I was simply a participant, not the auteur. The camera’s eye was fixed, I had only the sounds around me, to which I became more acutely sensitive in the darkness of the blindfold. When I triggered the shutter by remote control, I sought to capture something that was invisible to my eyes, but not my mind.
Who are the people whose bedrooms you have entered?
I knew one of the subjects and I did the first photoshoot with her to see how it would go, and then she recommended I should approach some of her friends and invite them to participate. I remember one of the subjects I met in a pub. People always ask you what you do and, when I told her about my latest project, she offered to be part of it. I think once you have made a few bodies of work and have them on your website people are usually happy to participate, so I never had a problem finding people to work with me.
I am interested (as someone who uses words for a living) why you called this ‘The Bedroom Conception’ and not ‘The Bedroom Concept’?
If I used the word concept it would mean that I went in there with an established idea and I knew what kind of result I wanted. But I was trying to do the opposite, to give control to my subjects. By calling it ‘The Bedroom Conception’ I am suggesting this is something conceived in the mind, in the moment, while the reality remains unknown territory…
You have said that your uncertainty about what was happening at the moment you operated the shutter makes the images more vital and revealing. That perhaps seems counter-intuitive. What do you mean by this?
My aim was to venture into a pure, unknown experience. At the same time, the person whose bedroom I sat in knew that she was not being watched. The uncertainty of that situation allowed ambivalence to seep in, something I believe is much more vital and revealing than certainty and clarity. That ambivalence carries through to us as viewers of the photographs. We are invited to project ourselves intellectually into these intimate spaces, which in turn raises challenging voyeuristic questions. I think the images are mysterious, but also quite disorienting… usefully so.
How did the series ‘Underneath’ come about?
When we lost our family photographs during the Bosnian Civil War I felt as though my childhood memories had been taken away. I started to become interest in other people’s family photographs and began collecting them from Op Shops and market stalls. I guess I was looking for some way to connect their lives with mine and recover my lost memories.
What led you to select each specific found image from the many you have?
I still have one of those old Kodak Ektapro 7020 slide projectors, so I would often sit and look at those images of strangers. Most of the time they are photographs from their holiday trips to Europe. You could say it’s a bit voyeuristic, but for me it was deeply personal. I even founded one box with images from former Yugoslavia. I have to say it made me feel very excited, like I was gonna find my childhood in that box.
I wasn’t looking for anything specific … just something that would evoke feelings of familiarity and belonging – images I could relate to. Memories give you stability – they root you in the world. I was hoping to reconnect with my own memories by adopting those of someone else.
These images are tintypes – a nineteenth-century process. First, what is a tintype?
It’s a wet-plate collodion process that was invented in 1848. It is a fairly complicated procedure because, after the light-sensitive coating is applied, the surface must remain wet until the image has been exposed – a window of maybe ten minutes or less. When the coating is on glass it is called an ambrotype, but on metal it is a tintype.
So, why do you choose such a laborious medium in which to work?
Each tintype is unique because the plate that you see on the wall in a gallery it is the same plate that was in the camera. It’s almost like a painting… and, indeed, I like to push it even further by hand colouring my plates. I like the mystery that the combination of found images and the chemistry of this process can create. Back in the 1960s, when these family photos were originally made, people did not take hundreds of images like we do today. Maybe only one or two rolls of film over an entire holiday. Each image was precious, and I want to amplify that sense of value. It’s not just an aesthetic thing, it’s a risky process. There are so many things at each stage that could ruin the image. Perhaps that is something from my Eastern European background. If things are going smoothly we worry something bad will happen, so we tend to choose to do things the hardest way from the start.
Why do you call this series ‘Underneath’? What is below the surface here?
As [the art historian] Douglas Crimp said: “underneath each picture there is always another picture.” ‘Underneath’ represents the whole, but also the parts. The whole of another’s personal reality in time and space, and my re-configuration of it. Underneath those holiday snapshots made by strangers lie my feelings of familiarity, of things half-remembered. I project my memories into images of things they witnessed. As postmodernism has proposed, there is no authenticity, no ‘reality’, only the idea of reality.
The final series I would like to explore is ‘Golden Scars’. How did this series come about?
I often joke that it came from the garbage bin… I had been working with vintage large-format cameras. This required me to cut the metal plates from a large sheet of aluminium, which left me with lots of off-cuts. The sort of thing one might normally throw away, unworthy of further consideration.
I read an article about kintsukuroi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery using lacquer mixed with powdered gold. Thus repaired, the piece is considered more beautiful for having been broken. I began joining the off-cuts together – sometimes two panels, sometimes four – and what were once just leftovers sitting in the bin suddenly became beautiful little objects.
Sometimes life flows seamlessly from one perfect moment to the next, but oftentimes we face setbacks that leave us broken, and we wonder what will become of the pieces. I want to rebuild the narrative; and although, having been broken, the reality is not the same it bears a different kind of beauty. Kintsukuroi is a way to express profound esteem for the broken and the rejected; to give them the status of exclusivity and nobility.
[Left] © Zelko Nedic Untitled #1 2013 (two hand-coloured tintype plates) from the series ‘Golden Scars’
[Right] © Zelko Nedic Untitled #8 2015 (two hand-coloured tintype plates) from the series ‘Golden Scars’
How do you go about creating one of these works?
There are three stages. The first is when I decide the subject matter. The second is when the time, the light, the arrangements come together. The third is when I re-work the image into something more powerful. Most of the time this happens very late at night when no one is around. What I saw through the camera was perceived only by me, but I don’t want to stop there, I want to re-create what I perceived, spend time working on it. Every stage – the wet collodion process, the delicate kintsukuroi, the after-working – they take time and a lot of thought. I make preparatory sketches and keep running each idea in my head – it keeps me awake some nights.
There is an interesting interplay of psychological dark and light in your work.
I guess it’s partly inherited culture and partly from my life experience. As a teenage I witnessed the horrors of the Bosnian War, things I would not wish anyone to experience. I was too young at the time to understand or even think about how much those events would shape my creative expression, but it has definitely had a massive influence not just on my artistic vision but on my general view of life. You could say there is a counterpoint between control and risk-taking in most of my work. Having experienced a local hell, I had to find a way to escape into my imagination.
How do viewers respond to your work?
I definitely get a better response in Europe and USA. Australia is country of sunshine and summer. I guess there is not so much sunshine in my work – I could blame my past for that. Many gallerists in Sydney told me they loved my work but that there is no market for me here in Australia.
You have said that you are “a seeker of personal truth”. What personal truths have you become aware of through your artmaking?
I guess every artist is a seeker of something. The reason I see myself as an artist more than photographer is that, as an artist, one has the freedom to make mistakes, to experiment with different subject matter, different mediums. You are always searching for something, it could be personal truth or a way to deal with grief, or anything that keeps you awake at night.
I’m still searching for my personal truth. Maybe one day I will find it. Or I might just be scared of the truth and keep running away from it. Still, it’s important never to make work to please one’s peers. Praise is fleeting, but you have to live with what you create.
Zelko Nedic was born in Doboj in the former Yugoslavia (now Bosnia) in 1976. He emigrated to Australia in 2000. A self-taught artist, his work has featured in over thirty group and solo exhibitions across Australia and in Asia, Europe and North America. In 2010 he was commissioned by the Head On Photo Festival to document the Mardi Gras Festival in Sydney, subsequently showing at the Australian Centre for Photography. In 2011, 2014 and 2015 he was selected for the exhibition of finalists for the Moran Contemporary photographic prize and in 2013 and 2017 he was a finalist in the prestigious National Photographic Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. In 2017 he received the Seities Wet Collodion Award, Canada.
His images have been showcased in a number of publications including ‘An Imperfect Choice’ (Photo Soup, 2014), Blow Photo (Ireland, 2016), and The Independent Photographer (Germany, 2017), while the image above features on the cover of Lauren F. Winner’s “The Dangers Of Christian Practice” (Yale University Press, 2018). Zelko Nedic lives and works in Sydney.
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.