darja bajagić's art is difficult to look at and difficult to look away from

Sex, death, violence, pornography, desire, fear and voyeurism all take centre stage in this artist’s practice.

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Mar 2 2018, 10:39am

This article originally appeared in The Radical Issue, no. 351, Spring 2018.

Darja Bajagić's art will confront you. It’s full of sex, death, violence, pornography, desire, fear, voyeurism. It is, in her own words, “difficult to look at and difficult to look away from”. It’s work of incredible emotional complexity and subtlety, and forces us acknowledge the darkness of life.

Darja grew up between Montenegro and Egypt and settled in the US, in Michigan, then went to Yale to study art. Her tutors at art school were so shocked by what she started producing they offered to pay for her to get counselling. Her art is unsettling because it resists puritanical judgements and moralising. It’s hard to place your emotional response (that’s the whole point). Anger, disgust, sadness, pity, outrage -- the lack of obvious moral standpoint of the author complicates -- all at the heart of the whole of her practice.

Photography Maxwel Tomlinson

You lived in a lot of different places growing up, right?
I was born in Podgorica, Montenegro, but grew up in Cairo, Egypt. It was great. We lived in Zamalek, surrounded by the Nile. It was a very diverse part of the city. I went to an Irish kindergarten and a Pakistani primary school. My best friend was Kenyan. I had several birthday parties at McDonald’s. Then we moved to East Lansing, Michigan, and that was pretty depressing. I thought we were going there on holiday but we never left. Growing up, people used to ask me if it was “weird” growing up in Cairo. No. It was a lot less “weird” than East Lansing.

Can you remember your earliest experiences of art?
Watching my mother paint. Her paintings covered all of our walls, alongside Orthodox icons.

What drew you to the subject matter of your work?
Even in my earliest artworks -- the minimalist paintings -- my goal was to make objects that prompted us to engage with things as they are and not as they appear to us -- to confront reality. Entering graduate school, I was making minimalist paintings, alongside digital paintings and zines that I hardly shared, exploring my other obsessions. I quickly realised that my two “worlds” were not dissimilar.

Studying at Yale I found all of the technical conversations about painting entirely vacuous and boring. I understood that I wanted more from art, and from my commitment to it. I wanted to implicate myself in reality in all of its extremes.

I’m just glad satan loves me (2016)

Does minimalism still inform the work?
Yes, I’m a minimalist at heart. I still apply many of the same principles. Before anything else, this is a result of my process -- before I paste any images onto the surface, the “body” is treated as a monochrome painting.

How do often do you get negative reactions to the subject matter of the work? Do you expect it? Understand it?
I hear about negative reactions secondhand, but hardly direct. For those that take offence to my artwork, yes, I understand -- that is, that it is, often, a fault of their hypersensitivity, which is encouraged nowadays. What is in fact obscene, offensive and oppressive is this hypersensitivity, imposing morality. But, as an empathetic person, I am able to feel pity for those who have, perhaps unknowingly, succumbed to becoming sensitised and sanitised -- may their lost souls, who have forsaken truth and forfeited freedom, R.I.P.

The Bianca Brust works, for example, are challenging, not just in the content, which is about a murdered girl, but in the way a moral guide is absent. Is it a tribute? A memento mori? An icon? Something loving in it? Or are we supposed to be incredibly outraged? The moralising gap is very brave, and obviously causes the work to be so powerful.
It is a three-part piece, centralised on Bianca Brust (which is not her real name), the everyman. The other two heads loosely symbolise the Greek Muses of comedy (Maddy O’Reilly as Thalia) and tragedy (Kali Michaels as Melpomene) -- in essence, as mirror images or negatives of the other.

In 2008, Bianca was murdered by a friend, Matthias Schoormann, who was a guitar player in Carpe Noctem, a black metal band, after she had rebuffed his unwelcome romantic and sexual advances. He strangled her and decapitated her corpse, photographing it and posting the pictures under the username “I H8 U” in a post he titled “Dead Whore” on a gore website. He wrote nothing other than adding smiley faces under each picture. After posting, he set fire to his apartment and drove off with Bianca’s head in a backpack, committing suicide by driving headfirst into a semi-trailer truck.

Other than that, I do not wish to comment on my personal feelings towards Bianca or any of the other characters, as it is unnecessary and useless. Love, outrage -- both are equally valid responses. What I will say is that in today’s society, drowning in excess information, the urge to over-define everything has resulted in the vapidness of meaning. I explore this in my artworks. At the same time, in this mirroring, they resist assimilability through collage -- putting together things that may have nothing in common. So, yes, in the end, the not-knowing is vital.

Frock of Penance (1) (2018)

That lack of judgement, the ambiguity, the refusal to dumb down or moralise or sanitise -- to me this is the most important part of your practice. It creates space for the viewer to actually think about what they’re seeing. It’s rare, there’s so much rush to judge and condemn at the moment.The experience, then, of coming across your work is so varied; tenderness, sadness, shock, outrage, disgust… strange and conflicting emotions.
It’s necessary to complicate binary readings of morality, and it’s unnecessary to moralise. As an artist, I want to see everything. Whatever negative feelings my research may elicit I welcome. It’s a small sacrifice in pursuit of truth.

Violent images matter. We must force ourselves to see. We are not bloodless. Violent images are not dangerous, but what is is the overwhelming effort to sanitise, delete our access to an unvarnished reality.

For the “righteous,” sinking in denial and their perverse wish to protect their untarnished eyes and minds, how can you refuse to acknowledge a mere re-presentation of a horrific event while others are forced to live through the horrific event itself?

The reaction to the work is so hard to place.
They’re difficult to look at and difficult to look away from. But the humanity/inhumanity of others -- right and wrong -- needs to be witnessed and understood. It is our duty to look.

Detail of The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die, starring Brittanee Drexel (2017)

What’s the attraction to using pornography in the work?
Pornography isn’t and never was a focus of mine, but it’s sometimes present, usually in its softcore variety. What firstly interests me about it is its potential to possess as well as estrange. These qualities are heightened in an art context, in the public viewing experience -- the simultaneous arousal of desire, fear. There’s a subversive power in that. The pictures I choose are ones in which the gaze is stoically reciprocated. This, yet again, magnifies the subversive power and, more importantly, secondary potential of rendering the whole apparatus of the pornographic image inoperative and inviting new, freer uses for the eroticism captured.

I always refer back to Agamben’s example, of the 90s French pornographic actress Chloë des Lysses, who also happens to be a photographer. In one scene, she is looking brazenly into the camera whilst getting double-penetrated and petting a cat. She doesn’t simulate any pleasure, nor does she affect any complicity with the viewers. She shows nothing but the showing itself. It’s this nullification that “opens” her -- emancipating her from a relation to an end.

How do you parents feel about the pornographic content of the work?
They like it very much. Here’s a picture of my dad reading my Sketchbooks book.

Thank you Darja!