Caption: Youth Credit: Courtesy of the Museum of Yugoslav History

Yugoslav revolutionary Josip Broz Tito’s star has never really fallen. Chalk it up to the successes of the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War, or blame it on the steep decline from his reign to that of Slobodan Milošević, but Tito’s presidency-for-life is still heralded as one of the most benevolent dictatorships of the 20th century. He was never known as a strongman in the mold of the Türkmenbaşy (Turkmenistan’s Saparmurat Niyazov), and not because a global cataract blinds many to his crimes (as with Atatürk in Turkey). Tito was nevertheless an authoritarian who clutched Yugoslavia with an iron fist in a velvet glove.

With “Participant,” a new exhibit at G Fine Art, photographer Vesna Pavlović takes to Belgrade’s dusty archives to investigate Tito’s rule, his travels, and his cult of personality. As a young girl, Pavlović played a role in one of Tito’s public spectacles, albeit a minor one: In 1979, she and several thousand other youths participated in a massive choreographed festival to celebrate Youth Day, which marked Tito’s birthday. An honor that would have made her the envy of many girls her age in 1979, her participation in that festival, and its broader depiction and signification, is the launching pad for Pavlović’s show.

The centerpiece of “Participant” is an archival video that Pavlović has obtained from the Museum of Yugoslav History in Belgrade. Picture rows and columns of dancers and performers, twirling and marching in joy and song. Given the role of façade and spectacle in Tito’s Yugoslavia, the archive that Pavlović is mining must be equal parts history and illusion. Certainly the newsreel snippet demonstrates how Tito’s cult of personality blurred the lines between fantasy and reality.

It is hard for us, as contemporary viewers, to grok the reason why dozens or even hundreds of runners would carry a baton across Yugoslavia in a literal run-up to Tito’s birthday. Or why thousands of young men and women would greet them with elaborate routines, which they performed dressed as all the colors of the rainbow, in a spectacle conducted annually at Belgrade’s national stadium, where Tito would receive the baton at the conclusion of the weeks-long Relay of Youth. Could Americans ever feign this enthusiasm for a leader? Or are we even more inclined to indulge in collective pageantry, if not for a cult led by Barack Obama, then one led by the NFL?

Pavlović’s curated 13-minute Filmske Novosti Beograd broadcast gives viewers plenty of jaw-dropping visuals. (Not least among them is the sporty Yugoslavian Apparel look that Belgrade was wearing back in 1979.) Still, it’s hard to watch the film without feeling a tinge of embarrassment about it. It’s normal to blush over anything so earnest and vintage. Somehow, though, a display of European children enjoining a cult display rivaled only by North Korea today is especially awkward, and almost worrisome, too, as if the line dividing Western democracy and the Hermit Kingdom is only an accident of history, one that can be erased by circumstances. I think that’s Pavlović’s reason for including the found film in this show.

What must that have been like, as a young girl, performing in a parade for a benevolent dictator? A curiosity lingers over the exhibit, and Pavlović both invites and answers the viewer’s unspoken questions, with subtlety, through her photography. The six photographic prints on view—four photos by the artist, one print from the Museum of Yugoslav History, and one print from a photo album belonging to her mother, plus a special photographic installation—help to edify the burden of the image in the construction of the state.

The artist is as much a librarian and historian as a photographer; for example, in “Illuminated Archive,” a concurrent show by Pavlović at the Phillips Collection that closes this weekend, the artist was invited to roam the museum’s vaults of documentary materials. She made the prints in the show by scanning negatives of archival images, playing up their transparency. Decades-old images of modernist exhibits by the likes of Mark Tobey, David Smith, and Alberto Giacometti overlap with pictures that highlight the building’s modern touches, from the Mies furniture to the (now-renovated) glass exterior of the Goh Annex. The eerie prints tease out all the ghosts in the buildings, but more importantly, a mod enterprise like photocollage is perfectly fitted to the history of the Phillips.

Pavlović’s photos at G Fine Art capture a bygone era by depicting the depictions of Tito’s Yugoslavia: They’re photos of the film reels themselves. “Years of War, Decades of Peace” (2013) is a close-in shot of a short-stack of decaying film reels whose cases are labeled with those phrases in Serbian. The decades of peace under Tito, of course, later gave way to conflict and eventually genocide, as the faults between the republics and provinces that made up Yugoslavia proved too fragile to closely hold in the decade after Tito’s death in 1980. Towers upon towers of tins captured by Pavlović in “The Archive” (2013)—a photo of hundreds, maybe thousands of film reels gathering dust—speak to the extraordinary lengths to which Tito went to hold this federalist fantasy intact. Today, this visual history of Yugoslavian propaganda treads on the edge of memory.

Pavlović sounds some sweet notes among the mournful ones. “Participant” (2014) is a print from one of her mother’s photo albums, a page that bears a small, stamped, official-looking card that reads “participant” in Serbian, with Pavlović’s name etched in by hand in careful Cyrillic. “Youth Day Celebration, Yugoslav National Army Stadium, May 25, 1979” (2014) is a photo that perhaps captures a memory for the artist. The presentation is tellingly austere.

Nationhood still presents some nettlesome questions for the former Yugoslav republics (or so I gather). This show understands the nostalgia that some still feel for the centralized state, or for its powerful leader, or even just for better days. I don’t believe that this show is of a piece with that nostalgia, though—and that’s because Pavlović has included “Fototeka” (2013). For this piece, a photographic installation, she projects an old slide tray of snapshots from Tito’s travels onto a heavy gray curtain with many folds that drape over the gallery’s front window.

The artist installed another curtain in a window on the stairwell in the Phillips Collection’s Sant Building; this one is sheer, a slight yet somber gesture that brings that show together (and a textile motif she would do well to explore). At G Fine Art, Pavlović’s curtain symbolizes the trappings of Tito’s authority and summons all the shadowy ambiguity of that “curtain” during his rule. Projected against its folds, the photos from his state travels are hardly legible: hard to reconcile with reality, harder still to grab onto and hold.

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