SofijaSilvia: Dust to Dust

You begin in the middle, immersed right up close without warning or context. Your senses are enveloped by flowering clouds of pale pink. Light floods through the centre, between dark walls of foliage, to strike the slender stems of foreground grasses. The photograph spreads across both pages of the book, all the way to the margins right and left. There is no land to stand on; only the barest suggestion of sky. Where are you?

In her latest book, Dust to Dust (2019), artist SofijaSilvia takes us to the landscapes around Kuberton, a Croatian hill-top village on the Istrian peninsula. The book is the result of a residency undertaken at the invitation of Muzej-Museo Lapidarium, Novigrad-Cittanova, and Krinzinger Projekte, Vienna. We are not told how long the artist spent there. This is a book about place, both specific and in general. If it is also about time it is not reducible to the divisions of clock or calendar. As the title suggests, time here exists as fragile moments within the rhythmic cycles of life and death.

A repeated presence throughout the book is Cotinus coggygria, the smoke tree, a large deciduous shrub known for its cloud-like flowers. Botanists describe it as inflorescent, a term that refers to the clustering of flowers around the plant stem. In SofijaSilvia’s 35mm photographs, these flowers froth and flow, a thousand tiny threads or filaments, from rich violet in the shadows to pale peach in the bright white light. Sometimes the flowers obstruct this light, forming dark clouds in the middle distance; sometimes they are the light, a heady pink haze of coral or candy floss.

Within this self-contained world, created as much as observed by SofijaSilvia, are several unexpected moments. There is a derelict interior, the hard lines of the composition crumbling with neglect. Right up close, a dead bat lies face down upon a window sill. Paint peels, cracks mark the join between wall and frame. There is something in the fluffy texture of the bat’s fur that recalls the flowers of the smoke tree. Its limbs are dark and leathery. Particulate matter lies around.

Three images take us through a little graveyard, where low white crosses stand among blue and yellow wildflowers. Ahead a metal gate stands ajar, through which a pale low hill is just visible in the distance beyond the trees. Elsewhere, a strange light catches on hanging vines or seems to emanate from a wall of dark green. A close-up shows nacre-shelled beetles gorging on the nectar of fat white roses. At twilight, a path curls out of sight behind silhouetted trees.

Throughout, the tone is elegiac. SofijaSilvia is not explicitly an activist, but her work is undoubtedly political. She has long explored entangled relations between people and place, human and nonhuman, in works charged not with narrative but with mood: intense, ungraspable feelings of sadness or loss. About to Leave (2017) depicts plants as desperate prisoners within the old greenhouse of a Paris botanical garden; Pulsations (2015) shows taxidermied animals languishing in storage at a zoological museum; Urban Animal (2004-2019) presents the heartbreaking sight of animals (crocodiles, lions) condemned to live within the constructed naturalistic landscapes of city zoos. In each, SofijaSilvia stands in solidarity with the imprisoned. Via email earlier this year, she told me: “I believe beauty is a form of resistance today”.

SofijaSilvia’s largest body of work to date is Silent Islands, Brioni (2009-2018): multiple series of photographs produced over the course of numerous visits to a cluster of islands off Croatia’s Adriatic coast. This is an archipelago with a complex and fascinating past. SofijaSilvia’s work records the material traces left by successive owners (a Viennese industrialist; a Communist dictator; a newly formed nation) and occupiers (trees and birds, leaping squirrels and island-hopping deer). As tourism brings new changes to Brioni, these images become charged by the mourning of future loss.

Dust to Dust is more condensed than Silent Islands, Brioni: the result of a single residency rather than a decade-long investigation. The mood of melancholic beauty is similar but the specific histories of the place are less visible in the aesthetics of the landscape. This is a body of work as interested in global truths as local. The phrase, Dust to Dust, has obvious funereal connotations, but what loss are we asked to lament?

This feels a difficult question to ask – let alone answer – in the middle of a pandemic. When lockdown is a privilege, travel a thing of the past, and the carbon footprint of video streaming grows exponentially. Ordinarily I would mention SofijaSilvia’s forthcoming exhibitions: a group show, Space for Everything Possible, at the European Parliament, Brussels, and two forthcoming solo shows, European Eyes on Japan (touring Ireland, Croatia and Japan 2020-2021) and Equilibrium at Museum of Contemporary Art Zagreb, December 2020. But who knows which of these will go ahead? For now, a book is all we have.

SofijaSilvia’s work frequently reaches beyond photography. In 2017, she installed works from About to Leave in the street-level windows of the Institut Français de Zagreb, only just visible to passers-by through mottled layers of whitewash – as if the photographs themselves had been imprisoned. In her 2016 solo show, Resonance, at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Istria, furniture and television sets evoked bygone home interiors while images of animal skeletons projected onto a wooden armoire juxtaposed domesticity with the aesthetics of museum display. Dust to Dust is similarly – albeit more subtly – attuned to the material context of the photographic image and our bodily experience of it. The book has been designed in collaboration with Lana Cavar, with a richly philosophical accompanying text by poet Tatjana Gromača. On the cover, the artist’s name and the title of the book are debossed into pale pink cloth. Light catches at the edges of the letters and pools in the shadows: little hints of what lies within.

In the book’s brief foreword, we’re told that the phrase, Dust to Dust, also refers to “the entire environmental impact of a manufactured item, from the extraction of raw materials from their earth to their disposal as landfill”. But maybe this work is not only about loss; maybe there is hope here too or an image of some kind of future, a soft, calm, overgrown future. But is it a future in which humans even exist? I don’t know. SofijaSilvia’s work does not provide us with answers, but with places in which to ask the question. That is why her works are so enthralling, why I feel compelled to return to them again and again.

In the final two photographs of Dust to Dust, you are on your knees, or maybe lying flat against the earth, submerged in the slowly departing heat of a summer meadow. Your eyes are the level of the cow parsley, bobbing on a frothing sea of light and life, grass and pollen. There are russet brown butterflies and something pink and blurry just visible beyond – a house? But who lives in such a home now? Does it matter? You, viewing the world only from afar, will never know.

Dust to Dust

SofijaSilvia went to Kuberton to live for a time. It is a small place near Grožnjan, on the Croatian peninsula of Istria, almost invisible on maps. There, she lived in so-called monastic isolation, preoccupied with her own artistic work.

Preoccupation with one’s own artistic work is not, as it is usually and accusingly perceived, a narcissistic, egotistical preoccupation with oneself – at least not for those meticulous individuals who devote themselves to creativity with responsibility and conscience.

Quite the contrary; such preoccupation is an act of facing the world and, even more importantly, it establishes one’s own perspective as it collides with the perspective of the totality, the general essence of existence.

Behind such an act there is always a cause, and not only with this artist: the cause is, in the end, our very existence as thinking beings This demands both observation and examination, as well as profound consideration of our relationships with the others, with the world.

In such isolated work, without which there is no poetry, philosophy or serious science, one strives to arrive at an understanding of the web of life – which includes us as well – through a process of unfurling, dissolution and reflection. More than that: one strives, in addition, to stretch this web even further – to that immersive understanding not only of the times which preceded us and which – more or less – made an impact on the formation of our current, existing self and the selves of those around us, but also of the times ahead of us, into which we already delve, not as individuals but as members of a multitude – a species that still likes to call itself ‘human’, even though this often sounds like mere baby talk, like a careless euphemism.

Those are the times which the artist – a philosopher, a thinker – only surmises. They are foreshadowed by blurry but resonant flickers of a future that is still to come, that is on certain levels already created, that, as we know, is created and manifested by our current actions.

In such an environment – an environment of untouched, pristine nature, which records its own long history of sanctity and silence – on this woody hillside abounding in chestnut trees in particular, ever since bygone, ancient times, prehistoric mounds have borne witness. They recall the time when the inhabitants of this small, impoverished, agriculturally occupied place erected a church to St. Margaret. In such an environment, it is possible to think, if thinking is at all feasible, only in the context of totality, of perceiving the individual, perishable existence upon the great wheel of natural transformations, cycles, historical changes and finality – the history of widespread disappearance and extinction.

SofijaSilvia’s extraordinary photographs are the creation of an artist with her own sense of beauty, as well as of refined spirituality, which doesn’t lose sight of the generality of human experience and the importance of an ethical, philosophical stance as regards to reality. Inevitably, such a sensibility leads to a point where analysis of the self is imminent – in places such as Kuberton it is inhaled together with the air which – it should be stressed – is still not polluted.

Resisting her own pollution, and the widespread pollution of our historical and continuous present existence, SofijaSilvia and Kuberton – this remarkable place, its ancient dark grey stone blanketed by moist moss – enter in a dialogue of sorts whose aim is precisely a purification of total reality. Together, they approach an arrival at the essence not only of long-gone ancient times but also of the so-called – the arrogantly, conceitedly proclaimed – modern moment, in love with the power of its technological dominance which so swiftly and unconditionally removes us from what we are, and that is humanity.

However, a warning is uttered by the voices of the ancestors – here sensed through an eternal and omnipotent nature (still more powerful than technology), through touching and walking beside grave mounds of such pleasing modesty, which testify to those whose bodies were laid in the soil of Kuberton. These voices inform us that our existence can be elevated – and that it can be fashioned into the fulfilled and the real, the material and the actual like the monumental, sovereign land that breeds everything, and like the forest or the rays of sun or the moon’s changes that make everything grow and transform. But only through humility, through an equally material and tangible, expansive and all-encompassing awarenss that every individual life has its own limitations.

Hence the forest, the flora, the fragility and the gauziness of a flower that now exists, now disappears – because of the possibility of a luminescent instant of our existence which now, only a moment later, turns into nothing, into a graveyard.

Here in Kuberton this realisation is irrefutable reality. Drenched in forest mist and frozen in time, this is the realisation caught by the poignant photography of SofijaSilvia, with her artistic gaze and discreet, wise spirituality, which, incidentally, cares about the world, cares for the world. The photograph comes to us from not so distant Kuberton, the likes of which can still be found out there in the world, and with which it is good to have silent dialogues, like the artist here, simply to avoid losing not only oneself and our true reality, but also this whole world which we still wish to call a refuge. The task of the photograph is therefore to acquaint us here and now with the realisation of irrefutable reality, with a single, eternal objective and task, and to reawaken us to repressed, humiliated or forgotten beauty, without which our entire living reality can never become better.

One should also bear in mind that the quietness and caution with which SofijaSilvia approaches and records the objects of her observations and examinations bring us closer to our essence, as frail as our reality.

All this is caught in photography that in fact belongs to a time span infused with artistic touches. These are none other than alleviation, deprivation of the surpluses smothering our real world. An eye seeks a place of rest not to fall asleep on it, but to feed on its image and the meanings such refuges can create for a time. Such refuges build deeply hidden, subjective and personal spheres which, once unveiled, prove to be a sort of archetype, common to us all.

It should be underlined that in these photographs Kuberton does not exist in opposition to the world; here Kuberton is the world, in its final inner metaphysical bareness.

SofijaSilvia addresses nature as the final resort, as a place where everything begins, where everything ends. Perhaps this address occurred out of the inability to stop and permanently hop off the glittering wheel of the era of rush and possession of reality with what overwhelms the possibilities of true existence in the world today. Perhaps this address contains a need to return to the innocence that one forgets about, that one reaches for only in cases of emergency. Perhaps in this address we identify a plea for another chance to reveal the wondering self, the amazed self before the seemingly simple and in fact perfect aesthetic forms of nature. These unusually refined forms are the origins of everyone, us included; they are the source of a secret, the secret not even the most progressive of minds can fully reveal.

We don’t know this and, quite possible, neither does the artist herself. Perhaps these photographs are only a record of an obsession with beauty which today to us becomes elusive, from which we are detached, possibly more than ever over the course of our human history. Perhaps they are a record made in secret trepidation that this detachment will not be reversible.

However, there is no despair, no scream, no sentimentality in this poetry; there is more kindness and deliberation, attention to what exists, what is here and what needs to be nourished, even if it may be dead. An elegiac mood of transience and evanescence does not require heightened dramatic tones. Here, humanity is seen and understood, together with our destiny and our remarkable capabilities of destruction and disharmony, as part of a broader series of beings. This finally brings us to humility, which violence cannot take into account.

The presence of death, even of the mild ritual of departure and disappearance, is not meant to create an ominous threat, but rather preparation for the natural beauty of disappearance, for the moments of sanctity and nobility assumed by this fact, for the dignity every individual yearns for and should be given, enabled in their immersion into their own demise which, again, assumes the repetition of birth and life, albeit of a rose or a greenish bug striving to feed on the juices of its essence.

Finally, in these photographs we can quite certainly construe a yearning – at least when they are being watched – to celebrate the presence of gentility and fragility, vulnerability and sensuality in a world always more akin to the other, seemingly stronger side. The sensitivity to subtlety, because of which and with the help of which poetry perseveres, still lives under the threat of eternal banishment, trembling before the glory of strength and power, or before unscrupulousness which doesn’t choose the means to reach its goal. However, since these goals are in a contrast, in a profound misunderstanding with the very essence of totality and existence, the final outcome of this, bear in mind, permanent conflict is, as always, uncertain. Some thinkers put the burden of solving these struggles to our century, saying that the 21st century will either be a century of man’s approximation to the spirit, to the divine in himself, or…? What to expect, what to hope for? This, of course, depends on us.

SofijaSilvia / Resonance

Resonance is the name of the exhibition of art photographer SofijaSilvia at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Istria in Pula. Dictionaries define resonance as a forced vibration of a system under the influence of an external periodical force, and its level depends on the attenuation, i.e. the ratio of lost energy against total energy in the system. The reason for giving this definition should not be sought in the assumed desire to specify the terms and layers of meaning of the exhibition, but rather in an attempt to identify its elusive essence.

Faced with a tight budget, SofijaSilvia designed a site specific ambience, composed of connected micro‐setups. These are reenactments of fragments of photo series created since 2009, through which, as a constant preoccupation in her practice, she examines the zones of the overlapping of past and present: she explores the traces of past lives, memories and spaces of belonging. In the exhibition they function as landmarks of meaning or cores of essence around which associative layers crystalize. The photographs, in this case, are not the product, but rather an artistic means which does not only convey the subject of memory, remembrance and belonging to spaces which define us and are shaped by us, but rather, as they are presented in different levels of materiality, they are conveyors of the atmosphere which constitutes the work, which is the work itself, and which is shaped only in the visitors’ inconceivable and elusive individual perceptions and personal reminiscences. For this concept, Pula’s old print mill which houses the Museum, a derelict interior with emotional and physical traces of former functions, is the starting point, and its texture also imprints itself on the exhibition, becoming the final product or, more accurately, the particular (and perhaps unique) format of an essay-exhibition.

Apart from three analogue 150x100 cm manual prints directly attached to the wall, which represent fragments from the house Castell de Púbol, Gala Dalí’s last home, and a detail of castle Chaumont sur Loire, the only displayed outdoor space, as well as 11 framed small- scale photographs from the Pulsations series recorded in the archive of the Zoology Museum in Strasbourg and the gallery of Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy in Paris, the photographs are projected in space, on the wall or an old open wardrobe, or presented, like the images of the residential villas at the Brioni Islands, as slide shows on vintage TVs. Furnished with authentic furniture borrowed from the Austrian Naval Library in Pula or furniture from the Brioni hotels and villas, these spaces re‐enact imaginary science laboratories and homes from the past centuries. As composite blends of past and present, they form time gaps, non- temporal niches pointing out the incoherence of space/time. Besides, photography is, more than any other medium, capable of connecting spatial and temporal discontinuities. It is a direct impression of one space/time in another and a substitute for reality. However, instead of using a physical photograph, SofijaSilvia uses its virtual projection. By exposing the substitutive rather than mimetic nature of the medium, she places additional focus on its potential.

The exhibition space is treated as a simulacrum of intertwined realities appropriated and modified by each individual visitor, although they are mostly part of shared common histories and appropriations. And while some of them, like the Brioni interiors or the Riviera Hotel are, in their physical reality, trapped in time, ideology and economy gaps, some archived and museumised, and some active, bizarre is the presence of Tito’s parrot Koki, i.e. the recordings of his voice that fills the space. Still alive, this beloved pet of socialism, represents the past in its historical rather than temporal sense. We cannot determine when and in which life situations the words that we hear were pronounced - "Tito, Koki, How are you?, What is your name?... Unburdened by the context – historical era, interlocutors, political paradigms – they are in real life repeated in an endless loop. In the exhibition they function as a unifying loop, a temporal and symbolical frame of broken and unequivocal narratives, identity segments, individual and collective memories.

Memories, just like remembrances, are not zones of autonomous discourse or innocent look‐backs. Quite the contrary, they are changeable representations and constructions of reality dependent on the current power structure. Further examining the exhibition, we might make good use of the delimitation of the term definition suggested by Maja Brkljačić and Sandra Prlenda in the introduction to the collection of papers Kultura pamćenja i historija ('Culture of Memory and Histories') . However, when they define individual memory as a psychological process of adopting and safekeeping new content and individual remembrance as renewing the vision of the past in one’s awareness, they seem to ignore the complex class and gender relations we are much immersed in, and which they will respect in further delimitations. They describe collective memory as a collection of memories shared by a particular community, while collective remembrance denotes work on the content, i.e. an active practice of designing, structuring and reorganising memory. Being formed by human interactions, remembrance is always a political process, while collective memory is a “fragile fruit of a current consensus”.

Hence, collective places of memory, which are not only physical locations and spaces, but also other configurations – including Koki the parrot – are built through permanently renewing and changing interactions of ideologies and memories. Countries create them as institutional forms of memory to evoke a feeling of common experience and national identity, in order to define collective guilt or victory, re-enact collective catharses or attract tourists. They are consolidation points, intersections of structures striving for homogeneity. According to Pierre Nora, places of memory differ from all other methods and subjects of exploring history since they do not have a reference point in reality. They are like signifiers without the signified, a reference to themselves. In the sign structure they are expressed as surplus. Like a shadow, echo or mirror, without a true signified they are a mere echo. Or, in the context of this exhibition: a resonance of a frequency.

In an interplay between history and memory, there is always a certain amount of loss: disappearance and oblivion. The attempt to overcome loss in the surplus, in the remains of history or what is left after things, beings and relationships, in the interspaces and in between times, the fragility of being that makes us relate and connect to spaces, is the intent that defines us as cognitive beings. This is the idea the artist conveys in her set-up, steering it through intangible structures: voids, darkness, image projections, its disintegration, voice, atmosphere and objects she otherwise uses as triggers of the association process and not as artefacts.

SofijaSilvia is one of the rare photographers who conceptually approach photography. Depending on the project, she uses it as means, material or object, she manipulates equipment and set-ups, she adopts procedures from other art practices, she conquers space, draws the observer into immediate interactions, expands the decision-making space, making photography truly contemporary.

ⁱ Kultura pamćenja i historija (Culture of Memory and Histories) (eds. Brkljačić, M., Prlenda, S.) Zagreb: Golden marketing – Tehnička knjiga, 2006.

SofijaSilvia / Pulsations

In one of her texts, Susan Sontag reminds us of the fact that man does not possess reality, but merely images of it, while appropriation of the world through imagery implies re-experiencing of unreality and bringing to consciousness the remoteness of the real. More than any other media, however, photography possesses the ability to reduce the distance between reality and imagery. It is a material trace of content subjected to the technological process of photographing and serves as its extension in real space/time: it is a substitute for the bygone and transience, for what/whom we love, or what we yearn for… Moreover, photography enables the experiences of others to be appropriated as ones own, whereby it participates in the production of knowledge and construction of the world.

The complex relationship with reality, which emerged from the mimetic characteristic of photography on the one hand, and the potential of authorial intervention and technological manipulation on the other, serves as a basis upon which photography bewilders with its tension between documentary and fiction over and over again. It is exactly this duality that serves as a poetic marking of photographer SofijaSilvia. The images she photographs are, in fact, fragments of real functional spaces, but their realism dissolves in an unrealistic atmosphere and the immaterial and symbolic registers of chosen spaces. Specifically, they are topoi that are intensely present in collective memory, with strong symbolic and historic significance, and rooted more firmly in the past than the present, for example found in her images of the former residential complex on the Brijuni Islands or the Holiday Inn Hotel in Sarajevo. Partially emptied and eroded, these spaces inhabit intermediate time zones, and are not as much part of the present as they form a fragile connection with it.

SofijaSilvia also treats spaces within the Zoo or the Zoological Museum in Strasbourg in a similar manner. The photographs from Strasbourg make up the Pulsations. series They are curious hybrids of real spaces and artificial zones with special regime. SofijaSilvia often introduces motifs of animals into her work, thus activating their symbolic potential of cosmic, material and spiritual principles and powers. Scenes featuring taxidermy animals from the archive of the Zoological Museum embody new allegories, the meanings of which are hidden under a distinctive iconology established on site at the moment the shutter is released. They are almost apocalyptic re-enactments of halted worlds in which the author gives the ability of creation and the possibility of action to dead stuffed animals using the titles of photographs such as Contemplation or Escape. Death and life are halted within the same frame. Past, present and future are merged together in mutual timelessness. Should we accept the idea that space is not an unchanging structure, but is rather formed in an interrelationship of objects that constitute it – by motion or description (narration) – which exist solely in time, then this space, given its timelessness, is a utopia. Museums of natural science, however, are equally also dystopic places. Based on the ancient opposition of two principles – nature and culture – they serve as an attempt of the latter to catalogue and systematise its wild counterpart. In the process of taming and the act of submission, unknown identities assume new forms with comprehensible categories, while their elusive fragments are barely implied. This is, once again, a timeless tautological zone with taxidermy animals as silent and, therefore, flawed witnesses of their own lives, the space between life and death and melancholy that fills the void of the unsaid.

(Are the photographs from the Zoological Museum an allegory of fragmented identities of the subdued subject?) It is precisely the void that is being focussed on with the camera lens by SofijaSilvia, as it is ultimately analogue photography, and not the museum, that can capture the state between, between disappearance and preservation of the traces of time.

Silent Islands, Brioni ⎯ an introduction by Tom Jeffreys


A mile off the coast of Croatia, sheltered in the northern Adriatic, lie the Brioni Islands – a hidden paradise with a complex past. If the Brioni Islands are known at all, it is as the luxurious private retreat of Marshall Tito, the Communist leader of Yugoslavia until his death in 1980. But Brioni’s history runs deep, and many stories lie hidden beneath the surface.

Over the past decade, SofijaSilvia, one of Croatia’s most acclaimed artists, has returned again and again to the Brioni Islands: walking, looking, taking notes and making photographs. Grouped together in different series – such as ‘Abode’, Rooms', Lobby', ‘Landscape’, ‘Unearthed’, Crossings' and ‘Beauty of the Dead’ – SofijaSilvia’s images offer a series of poetic encounters with the islands as places of multiple pasts and overlapping presents.

Silent Islands, Brioni brings these works to an international audience for the first time. In doing so, the book not only provides a highly personal insight into a place of unique history, it also opens up wider questions about private and public ownership, about wildness and control, and about the never-ending process of negotiation between humanity and the natural world.

History of Brioni

If one man shaped Brioni, it was Paul Kupelweiser, a wealthy Viennese industrialist. When Kupelweider purchased the islands in 1893, they already had a long history, still evident in the remains of luxurious Roman villas, a church built by the Knights Templar, stone quarries for the kingdom of Venice, and an Austro-Hungarian naval fortress. But Kupelweiser transformed Brioni from a malaria-infested wilderness into an exclusive health resort. He employed a pioneering microbiologist to eradicate the malaria before building hotels, restaurants, a casino and a golf course. He radically altered the islands’ flora and fauna too, introducing new species and reconfiguring the landscape to better fit his conception of a natural idyll.

Kupelweiser turned Brioni into a haven for artists and writers, intellectuals and the aristocracy. Gustav Klimt stayed here and Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Richard Strauss did too, as did George Bernard Shaw and Karl Wittgenstein (father of philosopher Ludwig). Thomas Mann was inspired to write Death in Venice by the journey he took to Brioni and onwards from Brioni to Venice. James Joyce celebrated his birthday here in 1905.

But even in Eden, politics is never far away. After World War I, the islands were transferred to Italy. Kupelweiser’s son Karl went bankrupt and committed suicide. After World War II, Brioni became part of the new country of Yugoslavia and Tito decided to claim the islands as his personal state summer residence. Here, Tito hosted film stars and heads of state. When Tito died and Yugoslavia began to break up, Brioni was transferred to the newly independent Croatia in 1991, designated a national park, and largely forgotten.

Today, native plants grow side by side with exotic flora, imported hare scamper over landscaped lawns, and deer swim through the salt water between the islands. Modernist hotel rooms lie empty and untouched. But, with tourism to Croatia on the rise, Brioni is changing again. SofijaSilvia’s beautiful, elegiac photographs therefore play multiple roles: they not only enact an excavation of Brioni’s multiple pasts, they also record the islands as they are today, in the face of an uncertain future.

Silent Islands

In the context of contemporary Croatian photography, but also the contemporary art scene in general, the work of Silvia Potočki (known under the pseudonym of SofijaSilvia) has been held in the highest esteem ever since her first solo exhibition, hosted simultaneously at three influential galleries in Zagreb in 2006 (Klovićevi dvori / Lotrščak Tower, Expanded Media Gallery and Križić Roban Gallery). Her work has been acknowledged by her colleagues, curators and critics precisely because of comparable levels of aesthetic and conceptual qualities it contains – in other words, this artist has managed to combine an almost nostalgic inclination to registering nuanced poetic qualities in everyday situations with a technical prowess in the photographic medium and impressive, communicative, but never superficial conceptual scope. The scenes created by this artist convey a powerful and evocative atmosphere, without much narration and explanation. All of SofijaSilvia’s photo series display an extremely detailed approach to each of the subjects they focus on, as well as an impeccable sense of the material qualities of the photograph as object, that she frequently presents in sequences and elaborately designed visual displays. Some of her works could be considered projects in the best possible sense, because they are planned, set up and executed with a great attention to detail. This is most evident in the series Brioni – Silent Islands, but also in Gardens and to a certain extent in Child’s Perspective cycles which is partly based on a predetermined point of view (more specifically, the one of a child). Silent Islands also testify to organisational and social skills of Silvia Potočki, since the project demanded a lot of work around obtaining all the permits and other documents without which parts of the Brioni reserve closed to the public could not be accessed and photographed. These skills proved crucial in the artist’s more recent work in the field of curatorial practice – in her hometown Pula, SofijaSilvia manages a small non-profit gallery called Singular, which quickly evolved into a propulsive culture point integrated with both the local community and the international art scene.

Silent Islands, Brioni, the project implemented by SofijaSilvia over the past few years, is a thorough and long-term process of creative exploration and making records of different sites around the small Brioni archipelago, still mythical in public awareness. Although it resulted in hundreds of photographs, photo sequences and series, the project has never been fully displayed, primarily because of its monumental scale and ambitious concept that demands a different kind of set-up, more ambience-oriented than the conventional photo exhibition. Its segments have been displayed and exhibited, however the real depth of the author’s immersion into this mysterious, symbolically stunning and powerful space charged with historical, political and civilisation references, has hardly been touched upon. SofijaSilvia disembarked on the Brioni Islands at the exceptional moment, when the entire place was on the brink of great changes – decades of isolation made it possible for the local flora and fauna to establish their own life cycles, migrations and self-renewals, like a world of its own seemingly unscathed by human touch, control and regulation. Such a world is irrefutably vanishing. Right before the inevitable reestablishment of elite travel industry on the islands, this artist managed to capture life seemingly uninterested in human presence and time indifferent to our attempts at stopping it and shaping it to our pleasure. Like Zone from Tarkovsky’s Stalker, the landscape of Brioni, human habitats, traces of archaeological excavations, empty hotel rooms and luxury villas in these artist’s photographs seem to point to the capacity of nature and the world we live in to absorb our attempts at cultivating them and shaping them to our measure. SofijaSilvia approaches this space with a quiet, detached respect, just like the hero of the mentioned film, trying not to leave a trace in the landscape she moves around, observing from afar, avoiding too obvious paths, stalking its carefully hidden anomalies and subtle changes with each small shift in the point of view.

Frozen in time, in a state of delay between past and future and seemingly emancipated from their own vibrant historical and civilizational heritage, the Brioni are not only a place whose structure was designed by the human hand, but also a place where the future of the world as such was once upon a time designed. Owned by the Republic of Venice from the Middle Ages to its termination in the late 18th century, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, in 1893 the islands were purchased by Austrian entrepreneur Paul Kupelwieser. Kupelwieser designed an elite tourist resort which was to become a focal point of social life on the Austrian Riviera and to host members of the imperial family and other influential European aristocrats. After the Second World War, the Brioni became the summer residence of the Yugoslavian president Josip Broz Tito. In the period before his death, the Brioni were visited by around one hundred state leaders from all over the world – people who directly tailored the geopolitical circumstances in the critical Cold War times when a new disaster of global proportions several times seemed inevitable. In the post-war political climate, the Brioni islands were also the stage for an extremely important episode that made an impact on the course of history – at his residence, Tito hosted a meeting of statespeople of Yugoslavia, India and Egypt (the Tito-Nehru-Nasser conference of 1956) and they agreed on the outlines that would grow to become the first draft of the future Non-Aligned Movement. The movement, which would in the upcoming decades be joined by 120 member countries and another 17 observer countries, advocated a joint, solidary emancipation from the influence of the two greatest global powerhouses, and the values of respecting mutual sovereignty, integrity and equality. Although the political relevance of this movement vanished with the abolishment of the old division between blocs, its symbolism and the message it conveyed is very much alive in the today’s time of turmoil.

In that sense, the Silent Island, Brioni project has a prominent political dimension, but it is not superficially or didactically explicit as it often happens with art practices today. Quite the contrary, the photographs made as part of this project evoke the experience of authentic admiration and authentic chill, both in the scene of Brioni’s groves in the dusk, deer and does swimming from one island to the other, and the shadows and reflections of furniture in empty rooms of luxury villas and hotels. The scenes from the Silent Islands series convey what words cannot describe and image cannot directly illustrate, but what carries a powerful evocative effect, the ability to draw an observer into a mystical world that at first sight seems distant, archaic and literary, but feels closer and more intimate than we are able to rationalise. ‘State of the world’ and its incomprehensibility and inability of being represented by rational means is the topic of the cycle Silent Islands, Brioni on two levels. The first is quite obvious, because the artist comes to the Brioni to capture the appearance of the islands before the inevitable changes, the final restitution of the location to its tourist use. This is indeed a transitional period, because the islands have for decades been shrouded in a veil of mystery in the public eye and will undoubtedly lose some of its mystical (and mystified) aura. SofijaSilvia builds her Brioni photo story as an allegory in this transitional interval when such an allegory is still possible and while its metaphors are still vibrant. And this is the second, universal line to this subject – how the scenes of harmony, absence, purity, delay, life and death on the islands, light play in the corners of Brioni’s rooms, can motivate us to examine the state we are in, what preceded it and what follows.