This series of photographs looked into two important art collections, The Chase Manhattan Art Collection, in New York, and the Palace of Federation, in Belgrade, Serbia. Both collections are important to the idea of the post WWII cold war culture. Both were established with the idea to beatify the working environment, but also establish system of power, in two different social, political and economic systems. After many attempts to gain permission to photograph inside the Chase Manhattan building, in downtown Manhattan, in itself a famous architectural monument, I found out that the art of the collections has shifted to different locations, following the logic of capitalism and technology of rapid change, whereas the rooms and collections of former Yugoslav republics stayed intact, facing an unknown future of concession among former republics.
With her series of interior photographs of the Belgrade Hyatt during the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999, Vesna Pavlovic began an exploration of moderrn architectural spaces and their structural “pre-event” or “post-event” neutrality in relation to contextual and symbolical implications. Her photographs reveal a certain spatial and anthropological aspect which might be defined as a non-place: a non-symbolized space, the place without organic coherence, or, in Mark Auge’s words, a zone where “the individual feels himself to be a spectator without paying much attention to the spectacle”. She investigates the contrast between the recognition and knowledge as well as between involvement and detachment in her seemingly deadpan images of furniture arrangements and various impersonal interior decorations ranging from indoor plants to artworks, patterns and colours of carpets, curtains and wallpapers, sleek and shiny surfaces in natural or artificial light. Pavlovic’s images offer us an atmosphere of melancholy, but also a certain status and prestige towards which we may establish an ironic approach.
What may be the connection between the Chase Manhattan Bankbuilding at Chase One Plaza in Manhattan and the building of the Palace of Federation in New Belgrade? Both sites illustrate a tendency of the post-war world in which modernist art began playing an important political role in the Kulturkampf of the Cold War. The notion of cultural and artistic freedom was promoted as a means of fighting totalitarian legacies, of both Fascism and Stalinism. The two buildings were meant to be highly symbolical working spaces that housed significant collections of modernist art meant to inspire employees and to offer a new symbolic context for representations of power in the 1950s and 1960s. On one hand, there was David Rockefeller (a paragon of post-war Americnacapitalism and culture) building the Chase collection to enhance the working performance of the bank employees, and to beautify the modern corporate office spaces with works by the most significant artists of the time. On the other hand, there was President Tito and his comrades (who wanted to find a new identity for their anti-Stalinist political stance and for their goal to create an internationally integrated socialist society beyond Cold War divisions) “decorating” the huge new building for the Yugoslav government with works of art referring to the anti-fascist struggle of Yugoslav Communists in WW2 but also with works of art referring not only to the anti-fascist struggle of Yugoslav Communists in World War II, but also to the notion of “autonomous” artistic freedom tougted in modernist abstraction.
Obtaining, after many attempts, a permit to take photographs of the interior of the Chase Manhattan Bank, Pavlovic realized that major artworks had been allocated to other bank offices; the interior of the Palace of Federation, by contrast, has remained almost intact since Tito’s death in 1980. Both buildings thus function as symbols of the political systems they extolled. The idea of changing the interior conforms to the strategy of capitalist entrepreneurship, which must constantly evolve in order to satisfy its inherent need for mobility and development. On the other hand, the Palace of Federation is now an almost abandoned building with uncertain prospects. Too big for the country in which it is now located, it functions rather as a mausoleum for the ambitious social project of a nation that has since disintegrated. Yet both interiors in Pavlovic’s photographs are empty, deserted. We recognize them as similar not only in their original ambition, but also similar in the atmosphere they generate. They look like vacant stage sets for some play that was once performed there, or sites of modern archaeology that bring us back to a time when progressive modernism was to become a language that transcended ideological boundaries. This language is now just a relic, although it still shapes the topography of our imagination. The photographic images of Vesna Pavlovic are striking visual essays about the vague distinction not just between architecture and politics but also between observation and imagination.
Branislav Dimitrijevic is Senior lecturer in Visual Theory at the School for Art and Design and Associate Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, both in Belgrade