The scale of violent destruction immediately overwhelms anybody who has visited post-conflict countries. The causal traces of devastation are easy to document, witnessed by thousands of post-conflict photographs. A more difficult task however is to consider how to recover the dead, the lost voices, forgotten memories and ‘cleansed histories?’ described by Allen Feldman as ‘a vast secret museum of historical absence’. This question is explored through the discovery and subsequent re-circulation of a ‘found photograph’ rescued from the debris of a bomb-damaged classroom in Kosovo in 1999.
The largely ethnic Albanian Vaso Pashe Primary School in Pec near the Montenegro border had been used as a barracks by Serbian paramilitary forces between February and June 1999 during NATO bombing raids. Returning to Ireland the photograph was archived and forgotten about but, almost two years later, I came across it in again in my studio and was struck by its significance. In September 2001 I returned to Kosovo and revisited the repaired Vaso Pashe Primary School, where I showed the damaged photograph to the teachers; during the discussion that followed, the historical and symbolic resonance of this violated photograph emerged. The school headmaster had taken the photograph in 1973; he was an enthusiastic amateur photographer and printed the photograph himself in the school darkroom. It lay undisturbed in the school classroom for more than thirty-years, until contesting ethnic identities in Bosnia and Kosovo finally erupted in conflict. Working with the artist the teachers circulated copies of the photograph within the Pec community and accessed school records in an attempt to reveal the identity and fate of each of the pupils. Looking into the barely recognizable faces of the children in the photograph one is reminded of the Soviet Union in the Stalinist era, when the faces of prominent political figures were erased from history.
The spectator immediately speculates why the children’s faces have been scratched out? Was it an unconscious act of boredom perpetrated by an off-duty soldier, or was it a deliberate act of representational ‘ethnic cleansing’? The photograph was rescued from obscurity and subjected to a transformative process to reveal ‘hidden histories’. As Walter Benjamin comments, ‘articulating the past historically does not mean recognizing it “the way it really was”. It means appropriating a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger’. This appropriated photograph became a powerful metaphor for ethnic contestation and cyclical historical conflict.
Removed from the debris of a bomb-damaged classroom it was made to ‘perform’ variously, inside the pages of an artists’ book, as an aide memoire to stimulate discussion with primary school children in the UK, as a life-size projection in the courtyard of Centre Culturel Irlandais, Paris and in a touring art exhibition in the UK. Re-vitalising an archival photograph in this way finds resonance with Stuart Hall’s interpretation of ‘living archives’ as a field of… rupture, significant breaks, transformations, new and unpredicted departures’. For an artist, the re-reading of an archive is not only an academic exercise; it can also be a societal intervention, where historical narratives are ruptured and re-contextualized, generating an emerging critical and contested site of reinterpretation. By extracting and elucidating past histories and hidden information for critical attention; the re-reading of the archive in this way may be considered transformative.
Download a special exhibition catalogue edition by French publisher, les presses du réel: pdf Semaine no. 200