Darja Bajagić is a Chicago-based artist who has become known in recent years for canvases that depict harrowing violence. Her works pull together fragments culled from a panoply of sources including pornography websites, religious iconography, murderabilia stores and sensationalized news reporting of grotesque murders. Brazenly explicit, these compositions hold a mirror to a sinister world that, despite its aspirations towards liberal advancement, is inflicted by the fetishism of cruelty and exploitation. Whereas others use their practices as platforms to assert political and social stances, Bajagić has been—and continues to be—steadfastly opposed to taking obvious moral stances in her work. While her intentional ambiguity often attracts misinterpretation and ire, the artist’s seemingly compulsive attraction to gore and licentiousness stems from a desire to amplify truths about human nature’s darkest inclinations.
Bajagić’s practice, unsurprisingly, provokes controversy. She first gained notoriety seven years ago as an MFA student at the Yale School of Art, where the faculty critiqued her appropriation of hardcore pornography and urged her to seek psychotherapy. Their derision, however, only emboldened the artist and it was at this juncture that she became increasingly fascinated with gruesome tabloid stories of young women who had been abducted, raped and murdered in monstrously obscene ways. Bajagić took interest not only in the brutality of these cases but also in their depiction by news agencies and on the Internet. She saw a likeness between the media’s pairing of horrific headlines with innocuous photographs of conventionally beautiful female subjects, and the iconic representations of Orthodox saints who were, in her words, “victims of tortuous realities.” The artist deepened her research by delving into gore websites where murderers and online bystanders peddle graphic portrayals of appalling homicides. Filled with such images, her canvases force viewers to encounter the most debased strains of 21st-century voyeurism.
Over the past few years, Bajagić has drawn further contempt, to say the least, for turning her attention to the global explosion of far-right nationalism. Her work Bucharest Molly (2016), which features a woman wearing ‘Heil Hitler’ jeans while holding a Swastika-labeled teddy bear, was infamously removed from a 2016 group exhibition at the namesake city’s Galeria Nicodim. She had stumbled upon the original image while casually combing the web for interviews with metal bands and appropriated it as a response to the exhibition’s objective of examining “the aesthetics of paranoia and evil across a spectrum of cultural skeletons.” Though the curator denied Bajagić’s public allegations of censorship, its removal begged the question: under what circumstances should a work be considered too offensive for public presentation?
Far more inflammatory, however, was Bajagić’s decision to participate in a two-person exhibition with Boyd Rice at New York City’s Greenspon Gallery in the fall of 2018. Rice, more widely known by his music moniker NON, is an incendiary figure who has been well-regarded within countercultural circles for seminal contributions to the industrial noise scene. The iconoclast’s decades-long tendencies toward fraternizing with white supremacists and engaging in misogynistic acts, however, sparked fury from an artist-run listserv, which in turn ignited heated protests and prompted the exhibition’s cancellation before it ever opened.
Bajagić’s Beate Zschäpe in Lonsdale, shrouded in intrigue (2018).
Although most of the public’s anger was harnessed towards Rice, the debacle caused an intense scrutiny of Bajagić’s personal background, calling into question not only her own duplicity in actively choosing to collaborate with the elder artist but also her possible ties to white supremacism. Slated projects were further cancelled; former supporters either voluntarily cut their ties or were pressured into doing so; she regularly received hate mail. The enmity caught Bajagić by surprise, as Rice’s monochromatic paintings had previously been exhibited and even received positive reviews without drawing any provocation. Of the backlash, the artist says, “I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus with specific examples but, even today, I do feel that I get treated as if I have cooties. [It’s] very juvenile, considering most of these people never saw the show (including images of the artworks) nor had they tried to learn about what was actually contributed—what the thematics of the show were.”
True to her defiant nature, Bajagić never issued a public apology and instead posted images of the censored works on Instagram. In hindsight, she feels that the scandal proved to be fruitful in that it provoked critical conversations about censorship within the context of the upending anger and disillusionment that may very well come to define our generation’s time, as well as about the current politicized climate of hyper-sensitivity. In an audacious move that is sure to further displease critics, she and Rice will be making a second attempt at exhibiting the Greenspon works, alongside more recent ones, this month at Oslo’s Golsa Gallery. To her, those who decried the original exhibition had failed to think critically before giving in to a collective knee-jerk reaction. The artist’s decision to realign with such a polarizing figure represents a personal stand against the art community’s rejection of practices that do not conform to a reductive mode of binary thinking. Bajagić found hypocrisy and danger in the perceived desire to “sanitize” and to “infantilize” complex subjects. Even in the face of intensely nuanced criticism, she rejects the notion that artists should only make creative decisions that can be easily digested and understood to have an uplifting, empowering or easily marketable political agenda.
A detail from the artist’s Screenshot at 13:49/15:02 of the NSU’s “Pink Panther” confession video (2018).
In actuality, the series of works originally intended for Greenspon highlighted the barbarism of far-right terrorists, in the same way that Bajagić’s earlier works uncovered humankind’s shamefully instinctive fascination with the extreme sadism of rapists and murderers. The series revolves around a woman named Beate Zschäpe, a member of a German neo-Nazi group who was convicted in early 2018 for executing ten racially-motivated homicides. Police authorities had discovered a gloating video created by Zschäpe and her accomplices, which merged grisly images of the murders with an episode of The Pink Panther cartoon. Whereas news agencies opted to use photographs that portray the trio as maniacal and calculating, Bajagić chose others from younger stages of their lives, where they appear eerily pedestrian. The artist framed these compositions with disjointed versions of the Greek key—a motif commonly used in architecture and design that also exists as an emblem for Golden Dawn, a different neo-fascist political party based in Athens. Though absent of any obvious visual cues that might decry her subjects’ wickedness, Bajagić’s intentions—to reveal the insidious ways in which normality often masks revolting malevolence—is projected by the works’ titles, such as Beate, the stony-faced nymphomaniac power-freak, projecting an aura of normality with Susann and Beate—helpful, kind, nice, obliging, primitive, subliminally aggressive and vulgar (both works 2018).
The argument that Bajagić’s lack of an easily discernible moral compass equates to not only a flagrant disregard for sensitivity but also a shirking of the artist’s—or, more profoundly, the white artist’s—responsibility to take a stance against traumatic imagery is certainly valid. Yet Bajagić’s practice may also rightly be interpreted as an anthropological study of human evil, not only of its manifestations but also of our collective reactions to its portrayal. While it goes without saying that our society should not tolerate white supremacism any more than it should the violent exploitation of women, Bajagić’s takeaway is that abhorrence can give new impetus to critical dialogue about sensitive topics, if we allow ourselves to meaningfully contemplate its existence. She refutes the presumption that stifling unsavory opinions and images will repress evil in this world; on the contrary, these forces thrive in the dark corners to which we turn a blind eye. Her work therefore deliberately confronts and offends viewers with the violence, hatred and depravity that most would rather not see. Ever merciless in her delivery, Bajagić’s practice is an assertion of a self-imparted responsibility to expose truth, no matter how unpleasant. As she puts it, “Provocation may be uncomfortable, but it’s necessary.”