"They’ve dismantled everything / except the smell of iron bars. / It stayed on my palms / and returned in the dreams"
"How do we articulate these feelings and this new way of experiencing the world so that we can communicate it?"
When I read Tanja Softić's essay, I realized that my experience being a foreigner in the U.S. may actually be beneficial for the first time. That was really surprising when I thought about it. Often people talk about the disadvantages of being an Asian women or immigrant in the U.S.
"These days, we have all become immigrants: we can clearly see the destruction of life on the planet that is our home, by the forces that seem overwhelming."
Indeed, in this dramatically evolving society -- tremendous technological developments & our short attention span with longer life span -- how we find who we are and how do we adapt new methods into our old habits to create a better society?
Immigrants who experience multiple cultural backgrounds have experience with this process, because for them, adapting to American life means they have built new life methods onto their comfortable, familiar foundations.
In other words, immigrants are really ready for this future normal.
Therefore, I understand why Softić introduces Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing (American anthropologist) and Lebbeus Woods (American architect) the way they did. Tsing sees human community as a fungal network, and Woods observes how we make homes by adding new material to distorted buildings after wars.
Artists often find an idea from unrelated things. Artists are scholars, like Isaac Newton who compared a falling apple with the moon and crafted the theory of gravity.
Softić is masterful at connecting those dots -- disintegration of her native country of Yugoslavia, Japanese-washi-paper, Covid-19, American social issues, chicken foot in a street drain -- to create her visual masterpieces.
Landscapes for the Last Century
My visual art work combines the media of printmaking, drawing, photography and collage. I started writing poetry in my mid-forties. I should probably say “again and, this time, in English” because I used to write it in my youth, in Serbo-Croatian. Depending on who you talk to, this language is now called Serbian or Croatian or Bosnian or Montenegrin—I choose to stick to the nomenclature of my school days.
An immigrant to the United States from Bosnia and Herzegovina, I have been working with the ideas of memory and migration for about twenty years. When I came to US in 1989 for what I thought was a three-year graduate program, I came from the country called Yugoslavia.
So, while I am fascinated by questions of cultural identity or cultural belonging on an intellectual level, I have a personal experience of what Edward Said called the contrapuntal reality of an exile: I have transitioned through three citizenships in addition to one period of being a citizen of no country. In both my new and old homelands, outdated notions of national and ethnic identity and belonging continue to shape the politics and the society.
Unlike many people affected by the current pandemic, by storms, fires and crop failures due to climate change, by capitalist boom and bust economies, I have had a privilege of having the safe, creative haven to process the events, record my thoughts and make work that is informed by the situation.
Perhaps this privilege is not something that I would have noted some decades ago, but I am acutely aware of it now, and I am grateful for that awareness and sobered by it. Thinking about death, survival and their meaning in the larger cultural and ecological contexts and witnessing what may be the first death throes of the neoliberal world order, I have been working on Plague Diary, an ongoing series of collages on small sheets of kozo paper. The shapes I kept coming back to either embodied nature's ever-adapting ways of insuring survival, or cartoony visualizations of disaster.
These days, we have all become immigrants: we can clearly see the destruction of life on the planet that is our home, by the forces that seem overwhelming. Each action we take and every contemplation of the natural world is tinged with sense of loss of our world as we know it and knowledge of how much we are losing every day to the climate change. How many autumns do we have left to observe the splendor of of turning leaves? How many species will disappear this year? How long before homes of millions of people and the territories of entire nations become submerged under rising waters?
There is a sense of anger, despair and even helplessness in the face of inaction of world leaders. How do we articulate these feelings and this new way of experiencing the world so that we can communicate it? And how do we turn them into something actually useful, a new, creative way of looking at and reorganizing the world?
Dreaming of the perfect past and simpler world is tempting, but it is fanciful: exactly whose simple past are we talking about? It is also useless. What if we learned to think about the loss not with nostalgia and mimicry, but aiming to understand the forces that shaped the culture and society then, in order to understand the inertia and fear that prevents us from seeing the value of alternative views or solutions to existential problems we are facing?
The processes used for creating images for Plague Diary and my larger works on paper, involve material labors of walking, collecting, repairing, cutting, transforming and connecting, generally speaking. Specifically, I travel, hike and explore memory sites in order to create photographic material, I create photopolymer etchings from my photographs, I collect biological illustration, elevation maps, things like visualizations of meteorological data or geophysical forces, I cut and reassemble photographs and found images into collage works that are then further developed in drawing, print and collage.
Almost always, I work on Washi--Japanese paper-- because it will hold the most delicate drypoint or aquatint mark as well as the densest mezzotint. In drawing, I use it for its versatility and its strength. Because of the length of the fiber, Japanese paper will endure the handling and folding that would turn any Western paper into a pulp.
The processes themselves, the physicality of paper and drawing media, writing poetry, the visual sources I use all inform these works. While my poetic text is not obviously embedded into images, there is a vital connection, a symbiotic relationship between them: either the images generate poetry or the poem-writing provides insights that guides me in developing visual works.
Night Blooms series of collage prints, for example, has been developed at the same time as some of my “Sarajevo poems”, such as Sarajevo Parataxis. Photographs of memory places interact with other elements (parts of old prints, traffic signage, photographs of mushrooms) in a visual, semiotic and lyrical ways:
The city has a color in a way
I aim to create landscapes for 21st century, include the loss, displacement and impermanence, but include hope as well. The works are unsettled and without the center because they investigate the world without center, without solid ground, without permanence in the lives of increasing part of humanity. My graphic interventions on top of the larger backgrounds are a conversation with that reality, they are investigations of our priorities and they contemplate new ways of living, valuing and thinking in this new, rapidly changing world.
My visual work is also informed by the artist book formats I have observed and created, multi-channel video installations and other strategies to disrupt and alter the expected narrative. It is built as a result of digging into my own archives of photographs of mushrooms, invasive plants, memory places in Sarajevo and elsewhere, illustrations, decorative patterns, diagrams, maps, medical illustrations, microscopic imagery etc.
Ultimately, this new work comes from what has been the impetus behind much of my art and writing: what is it that emerges as fertile, as full of possibility when we look back at life and culture that has been lost. How can we recognize seeds of renewal in the midst of unfolding disaster?
For a couple of years, I have been working with images of mushrooms and invasive plants, incorporating them into my work as signifiers of the strangeness and interconnectedness of life and unexpected growth in unlikely places, as well as metaphors for displacement, migration, and assimilation.
Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, in her book The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, raises questions and offers ideas about sustainable life in the precarity of the Anthropocene through many distinct ways of looking at a species of mushroom, tricholoma matsutake: its biological symbiotic relationships, its role in processes of reforestation after disasters or logging, its vast underground fungal network, the communities and fringe economies it makes through foraging, trade, and global supply chains.(i) If I had to describe Tsing’s book in the ways one would describe a painting, I would call it a brilliant collage that plays with the notions of perspective that reveal not just deep mastery of it but also the need to escape perspective’s dictates and enter other means of envisioning pictorial space and what it is supposed to hold:
“Without stories of progress, the world has become a terrifying place. The ruin glares at us with the horror of its abandonment. It’s not easy to know how to make a life, much less avert planetary destruction. Luckily, there is still company, human and not human. We can still explore the overgrown verges of our blasted landscapes—the edges of capitalist discipline, scalability, and abandoned resource plantations.”(ii)
Another of my influences is the late visionary architect and artist Lebbeus Woods. In his book War and Architecture,(iii) he uses the term “scab structures” to refer to additive repairs to a broken building that call attention to war trauma and serve a distinct purpose, enabling new forms of habitation while witnessing the processes of destruction and repair. In terms strikingly similar to Tsing’s, Woods not only offers critique of capitalist architectural and urban planning practices that are based on the concealment of trauma and brokenness but also offers a vision of the more complex, more collaborative world in the aftermath of war or a natural disaster.
“Architecture and war are not incompatible. Architecture is war. War is architecture. I am at war with my time, with history, with all authority that resides in fixed and frightened forms. I am one of millions who do not fit in, who have no home, no family, no doctrine, no firm place to call my own, no known beginning or end, no “sacred and primordial site.”
Both Tsing and Woods visualize a habitable, sustainable communal world where brokenness is acknowledged, openly mourned, and woven into the landscape. We build upon the past, they acknowledge, but they warn us that nostalgia, sentimentality, ideas of “innocence” of past cultures and societies are slippery grounds to build upon. Preservation of memory without resorting to outdating solutions and concepts is possible: attention, as Simone Weil has said, is a form of prayer.
And I would add, is the beginning of understanding, conversation and action. As an artist, I am hearing both Tsing and Woods inviting me to practice attentive, creative openness to a shifting terrain and its surprises—not unlike the kind of awareness one would need to forage for mushrooms, cross the sea to uncertainty in a flimsy boat, or set up home in the ruins. That is where the hope is. And that is how I hope to create the landscapes and portraits of precarious world-- decentered, polyphonic, surprising.
If we listen, carefully, to the stories of migrants, exiles, and refugees, not only for the sake of exercising our compassion but in order to learn ways of coping and rapidly evolving by witnessing the unthinkable. Popular culture is replete with figures of tough lone survivors in a postapocalyptic world, with a gun and a supply of food cans. Actual survival on the Earth will call for much more complex thinking and actions. In this work, I reach back into my visual archives, I try and listen to the present and envision the possibilities in the future.
(i.) Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).
(ii.) Ibid., 282.
(iii.) Lebbeus Woods, War and Architecture, trans. A. Wagner (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002), 1.
Tanja Softic´ works in the media of print, drawing, photography and poetic text. A recipient of the Pollock-Krasner Grant, Soros Foundation Grant and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, she is currently working on a series of works of paper that examine migration and entropy, both in nature and in the human society.
Her work has been exhibited and collected by museums, libraries and galleries worldwide, including the Library of Congress, National Gallery of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Department of State Art in Embassies Program. She completed print projects at Flying Horse Press, Tamarind Institute and Anderson Ranch Print Studio. Her work was published in Southern Review, Hourglass Magazine and a number of academic publications. She teaches printmaking and the art of the book at University of Richmond.