Photography faculty SofijaSilvia publishes a book ‘Dust to Dust’, essay written by Tom Jeffreys and published in Photomonitor.co.uk.
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 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.
– by Tom Jeffreys, for Photomonitor
Tom Jeffreys is a writer based in Edinburgh. He is the author of Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on Foot (Influx Press, 2017) and The White Birch: travels through Russian art, landscape and identity (Little, Brown, 2021), and editor of online magazine The Learned Pig.
To purchase Dust to Dust: www.contemporary-art-vienna.at/kunst-buch-art-book/sofija-silvia
The Artist’s website: sofijasilvia.com