16.04.2021. - 07.05.2021.

Bojan Mrđenović, The Spa

The Spa – a photography of dialectics

From 2011, through his camera’s lens, Bojan Mrđenović has been examining the Daruvar Spa complex, built in 1980 on the location of thermal springs known since Antiquity.
A spa is a space of communal care: a place where patients come to rehabilitate, but also where the weekend visitors come to have some fun, where friends meet and children learn how to swim. Because of their social function, the health resorts in times of late capitalism seem out of joint – as relicts of another time hidden in the pockets of reality, in the forest and fog. In a world galloping towards complete commodification, especially in the areas of entertainment, healthcare, and tourism, Mrđenović’s photography seems phantasmagorical. At the same time, the spas are real and tangible. They are filled with human bodies, with activities that enable their functioning, with the materiality of architecture. As we walk through the exhibition space, we walk through the space – both interior and exterior – of the spa; we shift angles, we notice details and we assemble the whole. However, this whole, as is usually the case with the work of the artist in question, is something new in comparison to the sum of its parts. Whenever we think we have noticed a message or an idea with which we can summarise the whole exhibition, then the next photograph or its detail dismisses it, a part refuses to fit; to each attempt of delimitation, the photographs reply with the interpretative excess that always directs the gaze elsewhere. These images are full of inner tensions, co-existing opposites – a photography of dialectics. Here we come to the basic topic of the Spa: the thesis, merely postulated, immediately produces its antithesis. This dialectical game underlines the sequence of antagonistic couples: public – private, natural – social, individual – complex, workers – guests, form – content. 
  
Individual – complex
Who are the people who spend their days in the spa? Bojan Mrđenović offers their portraits, with just a few traits of their social status; the usual signals – hair, make-up, clothes, and shoes – are barely there. The guests are almost completely unclothed: they have their tattoos, jewellery or nail polish, the rest remains unknown.  Despite this, they are deeply present; Mrđenović does not romanticize them, nor does he reduce them to a ‘type’; rather he gives them dignity. He is trying to catch the diversity: from children who learn how to swim to older people who are waiting for their therapy; from young, socially desirable bodies to those non-normative ones, such as the old or disabled bodies. Some of them do not differ from those on billboards, others we rarely have the chance of meeting.   
At first glance, this approach seems ethnographical, as if the photographer uses his camera only to report what he sees, but that impression is deceiving. Bojan Mrđenović is also a brilliant and unobtrusive interpreter. The artist unpretentiously brings the observer deep into the narrative, while building the depth of the characters like a playwright. The persons are imposing their individual presence, but at the same time they function as roles, marked by the network of relationships, both interpersonal ones, but also the ones with architecture and nature: the spa appears as a big symbiotic organism. People are not atomized individuals; they are parts of a bigger picture. In the series of portraits, they occupy a similar position like the scenes of the forest or architecture: we see faces, but they also disappear under the surface of the water, the attention is dedicated to the architectural details and scattered items. The bodies acquire different proportions, in places they almost dissolve, they become indivisible from the water. At the same time, a man is present in their own absence: empty waiting rooms in which we see slippers, waking canes and clothes, a table for physiotherapy with traces of water left by a body that was lying on it. 

Public – private 
Still, we are not in a private space. On the contrary, the spa is the ultimate example of public space, enabling the encounter of older patients and younger visitors, a space in which we expose our intimacy – bodies covered only by bathing suits, routines such as taking a shower – and we remain anonymous while meeting complete strangers. There are not a lot of spaces within which it is possible to meet so many different bodies as it is the case with a spa (and the Spa): the late capitalist society is becoming increasingly ghettoized, forming little bubbles in which we only meet those like us. The remaining spaces of encounter are public transport and public healthcare offices (even though these types of spaces are also becoming fewer as private cars and private doctors become the norm for the upper classes).    Precisely in this notion of a public realm, where we meet in one of the most private and most intimate states, lies the core of Mrđenović’s work.  
The spa complexes, which are quite numerous in Croatia, were built carrying different meanings and functions from the ones in which they are now trying to be squeezed in. The big complexes of the socialist period, built to ensure the access to rehabilitation to an ever greater number of people, now lead double lives: this service still needs to be provided to the users of Croatian Health Insurance Fund (whose number has been decreasing because of the galloping pressure on the public financing of the healthcare system), but at the same time these health resorts are expected to transform into some kind of exclusive oasis and spa centers, luxurious and accessible to only a few. These few, who are able to afford going to the spas as a luxurious weekend getaway, do not want to meet users who come from other worlds: the patients for whom the object was primarily built.  In parallel, ‘the weekend getaway’ purpose has existed from the opening of this complex but was conceived more inclusively – not as an exclusive space of intimacy, but as a communal space of encounter. 

Workers – guests 
While we are watching the photographs of people in the Spa, the sense that we are watching something private, intimate, appears in the most unusual way. While this feeling is to be expected from photographs of people who are taking a shower or swimming, in reality they show the spa in its function: it exists for swimming and showering, the guests are doing what they are supposed to be doing, all visitors expect to see these scenes, they are public. The photographs that surprise us are the ones depicting female and male workers who are not only dressed, in contrast to most of the guests, but are also in their working uniforms – the people on whose work the whole complex relies, but who are often hidden. However, while capitalism provides tourism and service industry with the well-kept façade behind which workers really become invisible (in many hotels cleaners are not allowed to talk to guests, and waiters are not allowed to sit even when there are no guests around), in the Spa the situation is still different. The workers are seen in the moments of rest, while they chat over a cup of coffee on the roof of the building, while they are measuring the quality of water, taking care of the patients, or sitting at the counter. It is evident that the functioning of the whole complex depends on them. Their work is done behind the scenes but has not yet become invisible. This is depicted quite impressively on a photograph in which a cleaner in a pink uniform is standing at the edge of the pool and talking to a guest who is in the pool, over a meter below her.    

Natural – social
Although Mrđenović is primarily focused on photographing the complex and the people inside, his camera is also pointed towards the forest-park in which the architecture is located. The nature around the complex seems almost otherworldly, or at least it seems like it does not belong to this place, it seems like we are in the forest with geysers. The feeling the author achieves by photographing the park in late fall and winter when the steam of the warm outdoor swimming pool creates an ethereal atmosphere. At the same time, by being consistent in his dialectical approach, he does not allow the observers to drift into reverie. The moment they try to, they are confronted by an unexpected element which points to its own opposite. There are organic lines of water or drops of rain that negate the clear raster of the tiles, the concrete tennis tables in the forest, a dried-out lake with the remains of mechanization. The relationship is formally recognized in the clash of straight lines and sharp angles of the files, walls, or windows, and the organic, round, and soft lines of water and plants. This is particularly successful in the photographs in which both modalities are present: in the reflection of trees in the pool through which one can discern the geometrical raster of the tiles, the drops of rain change the texture of the floor, the water diminishes the clay.      
The health resorts are a product of a social need and a specific political and economic context. Their role is to govern the natural thermal sources, but they also depend on it. The presence of nature is inevitable: the moss is covering the baths, and the glass wall separating the outdoor and the indoor pool is dissolving into the lime scale, steam, and the reflections of the surrounding trees.

Form – content
The last antagonism that needs to be mentioned (even though every observer will surely find new themes in Mrđenović’s work) is the one between form and content. All previous conflicting couples derive from the content, the possible narrative structures, interpretations to which the photographs invite us. These interpretations would not be possible without conscious and careful formal choices: the chosen frame and lightning, the texture of the motives, the attention given to lines and surfaces. Mrđenović is purposely not making the photographs neat, devoid of excess: without the details that seem to crash into the frame and ruin the clear composition, his photographs would be cleaner, compositionally firmer, but much less interesting.  However, the form, again in consistency to the fundamentals of his work, is never a mere support of the content. The function of a line or color is not just to transmit the message clearer, the form sometimes turns out to be the basic theme of a photograph: in examining the raster, the effects of fog, the rhythm of architecture or coloristic encounters between red and blue. Still, in the moment when we are focusing on the form, a detail – an eternal excess in the rounded interpretational circles – reminds us that all those lines, surfaces and colors also represent a certain content. Mrđenović’s photographs are like optical illusions continually tackling the question of what a figure is, and what is a background, what is its basic theme, shape, or motif.  

If we follow the metaphor of dialectical reasoning, after a thesis creates its antithesis, a synthesis should follow. Mrđenović’s photographs, in line with Hegel’s understanding of synthesis, do not represent the halfway between the two antagonisms, but the level of mediation which includes both opposites while simultaneously abolishing their contrariness. The spa does not depict a bit of nature and a bit of social structure, the elements of public and the elements of private: it offers a completely new quality of occurrence, unpretentiously opening a way to the consideration of new steps – a synthesis becomes a new thesis. It encourages us to think about how to continue, how to examine reality, how to understand the relationship between work and consumption, to consider what public space is, and how nature is always also a construct.

By using the possibilities and potentials intrinsic to the form of photography, Bojan Mrđenović sets a frame for acquiring aesthetic knowledge, thus mapping a new dimension and quality of theoretical and political issues.    


Josipa Lulić, curator