I recently received a text message announcing that two friends had given birth to a baby. They sent a photo: a tan and pink bundle wrapped in fleece. I quickly wrote back and asked for the baby’s name. The photo wasn’t enough. It didn’t matter that these friends live in another country and their newborn may be a toddler before I meet him. I needed a caption to accompany the photo, to turn over in my head, to be prepared to pronounce whenever we next speak on Skype.

Jelena Jureša’s MIRA, Study for a Portrait (2010–2014) traces the weight a name carries against the pull of history. Through multiple forms—a two-channel video installation, a series of photographs, lithographs, and a book—Jureša conveys the biography of her protagonist in starts and stops. Mira’s name, both its meanings and its sound, provides punctuation. Naming provides one method for measuring absence, as in my relationship to my friends’ baby who I haven’t yet met.

Jonatan, my friends wrote back the next day. We just decided.

Jonatan: my anchor in a possible future intimacy.

In Jureša’s video installation, we come to know Mira through cropped and shadowy images, the rooms and landscapes in which she may have resided, and the narrator’s steady English-language voice-over. The first channel of Jureša’s video tells the story of Mira’s parents, their relationship before her birth: their Jewish and Muslim backgrounds and lives in Bosnia before the Second World War; their meeting as Partisans. The second part of the video resumes at Mira’s birth: her childhood in Belgrade and move to Sarajevo, multiple marriages, the birth of her children; everything leading up to her death in 1990, “near Pakrac, where riots soon broke out heralding the beginning of war in Croatia and the fragmentation of the former Yugoslavia.” Details of personal biography intersect with sweeping moments in twentieth-century Southeast European history: the formation and dissolution of Yugoslavia, the destruction of thousands of lives in concentration camps. At every intersection, personal narrative and cultural history question each other: not, which is stronger or more important?, but, how does one help us know the other more—or less—clearly?

In both intimacy and historical narrative, names can remind us of the awful tension between second- and third-person points of view. Jureša’s MIRA video embodies this tension. Most of the video is narrated in the third person, with Mira addressed as the second person “you.” In the second section of the video, the narrator reveals himself to be Mira’s son (unnamed). He claims for himself a gender identity, a generational identity, an emotional stake; an “I” with a clear relation to the “you.” The voice belongs to Tim Kerslake, an English language teacher who has lived in multiple countries, and whose speech reflects that: cool English inflections, seemingly familiar pronunciation of Serbian place-names. His elusive accent seems at once suspended from the events he describes and very close to them. At once suspended and very close, Mira hovers between “you” and “she” (Mira)...

— Excerpt from “Ocean, Marvel, Strange, Rebellious,” published in Jelena Jureša, Mira, Study for a Portrait (Museum of Contemporary Art Belgrade, 2016).

More about Jelena’s Mira here.

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