Sculpture Gardens

“Sculpture Gardens” (2002-2003) depicted the gardens of the Vlachs, a minority group in Eastern Serbia, and their eclectic “guest-worker” taste. “Sculpture Gardens” is an inter-disciplinary project, initiated in the summer of 2002, and finalized as a series of photographs presenting the private Vlach gardens as visual representations of their status and wealth. These gardens have significant meaning in the cultural identity of the Vlach. As working-class people, they have appropriated the elements of high aristocratic culture from European society and translated it into their own cultural codes. Gardens are also observed here as specific collections of artifacts.


Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.

(Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library”)

All of the photographic projects of Vesna Pavlovic are anthropological: Hotels explored the process of developing modernity in socialist Yugoslavia; Watching examined the structure of basketball supporters and sports fandom; and Pavlovic’s most recent series, Sculpture Gardens, is a study of the idea of luxury and its visual expression in the Vlach gasterbeiter (guest-worker) community of Eastern Serbia. As an ethnic minority, Vlachs have been living quietly beside other more dominant cultures for centuries, but due to economic migration, Vlachs spend most of the year away from their homes.


An artificial fawn, gnomes and classicized female figures, swans and lions are all part of the strange collections and complicated displays of the Vlachs gardens. These artifacts are installed on expansive green lawns framed with shrubbery; walks are arbored with flowers. Behind these gardens are massive, voluptuously decorated houses, and behind them are the remains of pastoral households. The Vlachs design their gardens themselves, and Vlachs alone maintain them. The function as public gathering spaces during family feasts and ceremonies.
Historically, formal gardens are known for their sophisticated narratives, a fusion of nature and culture. Gardens are idyllic leisure places, hidden oases protecting their inhabitants from the evils of the outside world. At the same time, they are pseudo-mythological creations, projecting the power and refinement of their owners. These places are at once open and closed, deeply intimate but exposed to the public eye – functioning as both invitation and barrier.


Traveling around the villages of Eastern Serbia is an excursion into the exotic. Negative stereotypes of Vlachs frequently appear even in newspaper headlines: morbidity, incest, an atmosphere of conspiracy, and black magic characterize the representation of Vlachs in the popular imagination. A “who’s got more” competition among neighbors is highlighted by local TV stations, which are often invited to broadcast the grandiose weddings that take place in these gardens.
But the social reality behind the Vlach culture is more dismal than alluring. These are working-class people perpetually toiling abroad in order to establish themselves back in their homeland as members of the leisure class. Their houses and gardens are luxurious edifices – facades of prosperity and fairy-tale dreams of wealth – achieved through hard labor, long hours, stoic saving and restraint, and living in closed gasterbeiter communities, isolated from modern public life.


Pavlovic’s Sculpture Gardens isn’t just a photo safari into exotic territory; it is an exploration of what lies behind these scenes. Pavlovic’s low angles and focus on staging and detail out the observer in the position of a visitor to one of these collections, which recall curio cabinets, once used by the nouveau riche to display their social and cultural advances.
Most Western collections were based upon separating exotic objects from their original contexts and integrating them into a newly assigned narrative, creating the illusion of an accurate representation of the world. An important aspect of the Vlach gardens is the subversion of this process. Their conception is based on the appropriation of images of a familiar aristocratic culture – the spectacular gardens, estates, and castles of the most popular destinations of Europe. These elements are unabashedly absorbed into their own distinctive cultural pastiche.
The Vlach gardens can be seen as a culture written in space, testimonials that their absent inhabitants are still present. In addition, for an ethnic group with no written language, this visual representation has become the dominant model to ‘speak,’ not only to their own people, but also to their broader cultural surroundings.

Jelena Vesic is curator of the Center for Contemporary Art, Belgrade, and visual editor of Prelom Magazine.

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