We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
“Vesna Pavlovic: Hotels”
At Fusebox to June 2
The ’60s and ’70s were Yugoslavia’s Age of Now, as in “That’s very now, baby.” It was a boom time, and Tito (not the Jackson) got lots of things built, especially hotels. Party bigwigs needed groovy digs in which to hang out, bed down, confab, and fete, and a provincial brand of tarted-up modernism became the official style for tony lodgings.
Nowness didn’t last very long, of course. It might have burst on the international scene as a new way of thinking, but it quickly degenerated into just another style, soon superseded. It’s easy to look back on the highlights of swinging-’60s design and wonder why things couldn’t have stayed that way forever, or at least long enough for us to feel that the future was finally here. But nowness begot many bastards, and the bastards killed it off. Knockoffs proliferated, fabrics faded, paint chipped, resins cracked, and people started itching for change. The objects, most of which had never quite lived up to the rhetoric anyway, got pitched to the curb. The redecorators were called in.
Only in Yugoslavia, they weren’t. Tito died in 1980, the country started going to hell, and nobody thought gussying up the place was a big priority. The situation wasn’t much better elsewhere behind the Iron Curtain. Today, worse for wear, former hot spots such as the Brnolak Hotel in Bratislava and the Krajina Hotel in Negotin are still open for business.
Belgrade-based photographer Vesna Pavlovic is one of few tourists for whom the dilapidated showplaces still rate as destination attractions. She checks in for a night and documents the “spectacles of anachronism” they have become. Taking a cue from French ethnological theorist Marc Auge, she calls them “nonplaces.”
Anyone taking a trip is confronted by a nearly endless string of nonplaces, from parking lots to airport concourses to hotel lounges, designed not to be inhabited but to be passed through on the way to somewhere else. The most nonplace-ish of the dozen color photographs (all from 2000 or 2001) currently on display at Fusebox is Moskva Hotel, Belgrade II. Two modernist chairs, upholstered in a green floral pattern, are grouped tightly around a brass-footed ice-cream-parlor-style table. The green-marble floor faces off against a large, lighted, circular ceiling recess. A dual bank of radiators heats the room. There are no people, just as there are none in any of the other pictures. And there is no other furniture. A single lighting fixture hangs on the wall. The room gives off the same air of lack as the virtual environments of a several-year-old video game such as Syphon Filter, in which there isn’t, for example, enough stuff in the bank to make it truly banklike, to create the illusion that it hosted human activity before the shooting began. Just looking closely at the environment Pavlovic logs in this photo makes you feel that you’re asking too much of it.
Strict in her documentary intent, Pavlovic never rearranges things to suit herself, never culls objects to reinforce a tendency toward inhospitality. And the places she finds really don’t require any tweaking. In their natural state, they can seem bare and cluttered at the same time, as in Kasina Hotel, Majdanpek. An entire herd of brilliant red Naugas must have been sacrificed to make the chunky, foam-filled club chairs that crowd a pair of blocky wooden cocktail tables, as well as the scooped-out spherical barstools behind them. Creased napkins, unfolded and laid out diagonally so that their corners dangle off the edges of tables and shelves, are a precious but unfortunate touch, serving mainly to emphasize the slimness of the offerings at the bar.
If not a symphony of bad feng shui, Slavija Hotel, Vrnjaùcka Banja is at least a tautly composed chamber piece. At the center of a circular room seen from above is a raised fountain, dry and missing several tiles from its turquoise mosaic. Beyond its edge are two similar tables of different sizes, angled away from each other and bearing matching chips in their Formica tops. A pitiable water carafe and ashtray sit unused on the left-hand one. Both tables are too high for the row of low-slung armchairs pressed up against the wall in a halfhearted attempt to make a meeting place out of spatial trash. Square lighting panels, each with a diagonal of three large bulbs, zigzag on the wall above. Almost as many bulbs are burnt out or missing as are lit, producing the effect of useless, outsize Braille or electronic dice on the fritz.
Pavlovic has a knack for finding places that bear the signs of heavy use but are nearly impossible to imagine anyone having found accommodating. Persistent motifs are poor lighting, barked-up surfaces, intrusive radiators, water and waste pipes, inappropriate and unhealthy plantings, stylistic mismatches of the traditional and the would-be hip, forlorn decorations that don’t seem to fit anywhere (sunsets and scrawny trees being a frequent touch), and strong colors that seem more sad than bracing. Doorways are frequently botched: In Brnolak Hotel, Bratislava, no one bothered to align the pattern of two pieces of hideously candy-striped carpet at the threshold, and a banquet room at the Ambasador Hotel in Nis ends in a wall of gathered pink fabric that frames a door whose lettering reads, “OF_ _C_,” though the discoloring of the wood underneath the missing letters leaves the sign completely legible.
Pavlovic has made her career by being where the action isn’t. Or, rather, by being near where the action is and choosing to look the other way. She traveled to Atlanta for the 1996 Olympics and shot the crowds of onlookers but not the athletic events. She also went out into the suburbs and recorded the activities of people relatively unaffected by the hubbub downtown. In the harsh winter of 1993-1994, as Sarajevo remained under siege and sanctions stressed the Serbian economy, Pavlovic, unlike many young residents of Belgrade, stayed put. She continued her work with the feminist anti-war group Women in Black, and she shot The Winter Diary, a record of what remained of normal life in the city: steps clogged with dirty ice; a bird’s footprints in the snow; passers-by in the street; a couple of ordinary men, weighed down with luggage, smuggling contraband.
During the NATO bombing of Belgrade in 1999, Pavlovic took pictures at the Belgrade Hyatt, where journalists covering the conflict stayed. She puzzled over the “false security space” they believed the hotel constituted, despite the fact that they could look out the window and see buildings under attack. One picture captures a man in a robe, stretched out on a poolside chaise like a nobleman on a medieval sarcophagus, thumbing a cell phone.
The present series of hotel photos is less overtly loaded. They give no evidence that any significant event has recently transpired nearby. Even short wars have a way of making earlier times seem impossibly remote, and Pavlovic’s pictures obliquely measure that gap by taking us into environments that weren’t destroyed during the Balkan crisis, only passed by. Last year, Pavlovic hung a half-dozen photos of interiors from the Moskva Hotel in one of its guest rooms, available only to random lodgers. This year, she intends 10 more such installations in different cities.
It’s a perversely tautological form of display, placing secret groupings of images where they are least likely to stand out by feeding them back to their sources. It’s as if the portrait miniatures on European tombs have been replaced by pictures of the tombs themselves. And it seems perfect for photos in which dead space pays homage to a historical dead end. CP