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Clothes for Death

By: Margareta Kern

Clothes for Death is an ongoing project in which I photograph women in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina who have prepared clothes in which they wish to be buried.
In 2006, I received R&D Grant from the Arts Council England. In 2008 I received the photographic bursary from the National Media Museum to continue working on the project in 2009...this Blog is a reflection and the record of my thoughts and notes...

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Margareta Kern, ‘Clothes for Death - Julka (Banjica, Bosnia & Herzegovina), 2007’

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Margareta Kern, ‘Clothes for Death - Julka (Banjica, Bosnia & Herzegovina), 2007’

Margareta Kern, ‘Clothes for Death - Rosa (Banjica, Bosnia & Herzegovina), 2007’

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Margareta Kern, ‘Clothes for Death - Rosa (Banjica, Bosnia & Herzegovina), 2007’

Margareta Kern, ‘Clothes for Death - Mila (Banjica, Bosnia & Herzegovina), 2007’

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Margareta Kern, ‘Clothes for Death - Mila (Banjica, Bosnia & Herzegovina), 2007’

Margareta Kern, ‘Clothes for Death - Jovana (Nevesinje, Bosnia & Herzegovina), 2007’

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Margareta Kern, ‘Clothes for Death - Jovana (Nevesinje, Bosnia & Herzegovina), 2007’

# 22 [7 June 2007]

So, yes, I have made the selection (for now at least) from 450 images!!! Posting here are a few of the selected images...

# 21 [7 June 2007]

Yesterday I heard that Marija, whom I photographed last year, and visited this year (see 9th April post) has died. I felt a sudden thump in my belly and a sense of loss that has stayed with me...She died one month ago, so it must have happened soon after I visited her to give her the photographs...Time is an odd thing and I was glad to have made the time to visit her before her departure...

I am thinking about this connection I have now made with the women I photographed and with their families, it is a strange and wonderful burden to bear...one I am still trying to work out...

I will add some images in my next post...

Margareta Kern, ‘Cvijeta - Clothes for Death (Gornja Pilica, Bosnia and Herzegovina)’

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Margareta Kern, ‘Cvijeta - Clothes for Death (Gornja Pilica, Bosnia and Herzegovina)’

Margareta Kern, ‘Rosa - Clothes for Death (Gornja Pilica, Bosnia and Herzegovina)’

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Margareta Kern, ‘Rosa - Clothes for Death (Gornja Pilica, Bosnia and Herzegovina)’

# 20 [14 May 2007]

...something odd is happening with this blog, I can't edit the last post or add images, let's see if I'm luckier with this one...

A week ago I visited ICIA – Institute of Interdisciplinary Contemporary Arts at the University of Bath where I have been offered a solo show, with Clothes for Death project, starting in September this year. The exhibition will open as part of an international conference ‘The Social Context of Death, Dying and Disposal, and as my abstract got accepted I will also be speaking at the conference. More info on the exhibition and conference prep closer to time…

I’m still in the process of looking through, sorting and choosing images. And I’m not even sure why I say still, it’s as though I imagined it to be a quick straightforward thing and it isn’t.
I am going through a process of negotiation between my initial gut reactions and what could be perceived and termed more distant, conscious decision making. Which makes me wander about the relationship of physical and psychological space-closeness-distance to image making and image viewing.
Having spent some time looking through the magnifying glass, enlarging the image 8x, I could get to see quite a bit of detail, face expressions, their gazes…I feel as though I fall back into that space; I remember the whole space not just what the camera captured, and I don’t think I could ever step further then the confines of the room. On one level I feel freer to now observe the image for as long as I want, free from the pressures of the social interactions, and gentle tensions which are present (at least in me) upon entering their homes.

Currently I’m scanning some of the contact sheets so to have another way of looking at the image; and am posting here one of the photographs of Rosa and Cvijeta with their Clothes for Death.
I’ve also decided to book uber-neg-scanner at Photofusion for £35 an hour (ouch!) so I will have to make clear decisions soon as no time to fluff about at this rate!

# 19 [14 May 2007]

A week ago I visited ICIA – Institute of Interdisciplinary Contemporary Arts at the University of Bath where I have been offered me a solo show, with Clothes for Death project, starting in September this year. The exhibition will open as part of the international conference ‘The Social Context of Death, Dying and Disposal, and as my abstract got accepted I will also be speaking at the conference. More info on the exhibition and conference prep closer to time…

I’m still in the process of looking through, sorting and choosing images. And I’m not even sure why I say still, it’s as though I imagined it to be a quick straightforward thing and it isn’t.
I am going through a process of negotiation between my initial gut reactions and what could be perceived and termed more distant, conscious decision making. Which makes me wander about the relationship of physical and psychological space-closeness-distance to image making and image viewing.
Having spent some time looking through the magnifying glass, enlarging the image 8x, I could get to see quite a bit of detail, face expressions, their gazes…I feel as though I fall back into that space; I remember the whole space not just what the camera captured, and I don’t think I could ever step further then the confines of the room. On one level I feel freer to now observe the image for as long as I want, free from the pressures of the social interactions, and gentle tensions which are present (at least in me) upon entering their homes.

Currently I’m scanning some of the contact sheets so to have another way of looking at the image; and am posting here one of the photographs of Rosa and Cvijeta with their Clothes for Death.
I’ve also decided to book uber-neg-scanner at Photofusion for £35 an hour (ouch!) so I will have to make clear decisions soon as no time to fluff about at this rate!

# 18 [1 May 2007]

This is Desa's clothes in which she wishes to be buried in, all wrapped up into a bundle. I quite like the way these pieces are folded together. One starts unfolding it in one's mind in order to work out what each piece is...

# 17 [27 April 2007]

It’s been now ten days since I’ve been back to the UK and as soon as I arrived I went to Manchester where my work was showing as part of Make It a Better Place exhibition, curated by artist Dinu Li. Had a wonderful time there, making that transition from one place to another seamless and strengthening that sense of on one hand placelessness and on the other a sense of greater and deeper centeredness. (do this ness words exist?) I quite like that time when one has arrived and at the same time not quite there, I find that I am both at the same time more alert to noticing minor details around me I never noticed before and at the same time am not quite present, as if my mind is still catching up, is somewhere else...

On the way back whilst sitting on a train, memory flashing back to the train journey from Banja Luka to Mostar I again jotted a few words down (see the impossibility of taking photographs earlier blog post…).

I don’t sense disaster in this landscape

it all seems calm.
people in their houses
lights on
dinner is being served.

I try to relax
as the train glides through.

Everything seems normal.

(could anything go wrong now?)

I half expect to see holes
in the terraced houses
lining up the street
(bullet holes that is)
and yet they seem intact
red
and white.
Fields seem in order
motorways too.

Outside it is slowly getting dark
and more menacing
as we approach London.


Yesterday I picked up my negatives and contact sheets – 47 of them! Well pleased and intend to post some images here soon.

Margareta Kern, ‘Bosiljkas pillow’detail, from her Clothes for Death

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Margareta Kern, ‘Bosiljkas pillow’
detail, from her Clothes for Death

# 16 [15 April 2007]

This morning I visited Bosiljka, whose contact I got from Duga (women’s organisation). Bosiljka and her husband came to Banja Luka in 1995 from Sanski Most as refugees, and lived with their son until they saved enough money to purchase the land and build a house. I thought they received some assistance from the government maybe through an EU or the Worldbank scheme, but they told me that they didn’t receive any assistance from the government. Bosiljka also told me that the first thing she packed as she was leaving Sanski Most was her clothes for death. She was very open and direct about her clothes, showing it to her granddaughters that were also present there. In her death attire she had quite a few hand-embroidered sheets, including the one made by Duga under her instructions. This sheet is called ‘pokrov’ and is usually placed on the top of the casket. She also had the same pillow I keep seeing, purchased in either in Germany or Austria, which seems to be an object often bought by the ‘gastarbeiter’ or the ‘guest-workers’ as they are known in those countries (seeds of another project as I am more and more intrigued by the guest workers aesthetics and value system as it is taken from the German/Austrian/Swiss society, adopted and transformed into the guest workers home environment…I interviewed my grandparents a bit about their experience of working in Germany from the 1970’s until 1990…fascinating stuff and room for more exploration…)

Margareta Kern 244

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Miljanovic Mladen, ‘Tank you’close-up

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Miljanovic Mladen, ‘Tank you’
close-up

# 15 [14 April 2007]

This afternoon I decided to visit the artist in the former army barracks and find out more about his project (wrote a bit about him in the previous post). After a bit of searching through the former military base which has now been converted into the University campus and after seeing some amazing spaces crying out to be made into studios or gallery spaces, we met Mladen. We struck a conversation and spent the following couple of hours hearing about his brilliant self imposed ‘art serving’. Mladen like most men in Bosnia and Herzegovina had to serve in the Army. Once he finished his army service he studied art at the Banja Luka Arts Academy, which during his studies moved to the former army barracks. He felt at this point that he needed to address this change in location and the whole narrative around the military service. In October last year he started his ‘art service’ and has not since left the University campus, lodging in the students accommodation and working either in his studio or in the surrounding area, which still resembles the military training ground. Every day he takes a photograph of himself standing and facing a point marked in turn on the map of the area. He also makes a piece of work every day, one of which he is holding in his hand in the photo shown here. Hope you can see his work and the image with text, I am also posting a close up of it. His work is really excellent, dealing cleverly with the army ideology, its position in the post-war society and incorporating a certain army aesthetic into his work by using for example helmets to pot flowers in, or old helmets with bullet holes with Xmas lights or creating drawing by shooting through the plaster boards etc. His site is www.iserveart.net

# 14 [14 April 2007]

My month of being in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia is nearing its end…I am due to come back to the UK on Tuesday and now I wonder if I am ready to come back…or rather would I be back this Tuesday if my ticket hasn’t been booked (see my 1st post)? I’ve begun to get used to the last minute planning that is a common way of operating and organising here and as much as it can be a bit frustrating it is also quite liberating. I used Banja Luka as my base, staying at my mother’s flat, which has been a bit like staying in a tailoring salon – she runs a made to measure sewing business from her flat and one of my current and ongoing projects involves me photographing young women for whom she has made a graduation dress, based on images of celebrities in magazines, Internet, TV etc – see Graduation Dresses project on my site.

Whilst in Banja Luka I made connections with some great people who are working hard on trying to map an interesting cultural landscape amidst an economic and political situations which does not always allow flexibility and fluidity needed and necessary for creative work.
Having seen and been impressed by a documentary film called ‘Posao Snova’ or ‘Dream Job’ made by Danijela Majstorovic, shown at the Riverside Studios in London, I decided to contact her (as I found out she lives in Banja Luka). We had a coffee and really clicked, sharing many similar interests and concerns regarding the culture and media in relation to the gender identities, specifically identity of the women in the Balkans. She is a bright, intelligent woman who works for the Philosophy University, English section, and who in turn introduced me to another bunch of interesting women amongst whom are Darija and Tijana who are organising first ever International Festival of Short Film in Banja Luka, and are putting their heart and soul into the project. The festival is called KRATKOFIL and more info can be found http://www.kratkofil.org/

I heard about a very interesting project, by artist Mladen Miljanovic, who has based himself inside a former army barrack for nine months – he said that “he has served in the army for nine months and now he wants to serve art for nine moths”. More info on his project “I Serve Art” can be found here http://www.iserveart.net (best to view in Safari or any browser other then the Firefox).

And just as I thought that all that’s left to do is pack all my films and camera equipment and get the suitcases ready I get a call from Duga – women’s organisation running ethno gallery and workshops for/by women. They made ‘Pokrov’, the white sheet that forms part of death attire, for a woman who lives near to Banja Luka and who agreed for me to visit and photograph her.
And as much as was pleased to have got a contact of a new woman wiling to be photographed, I was also very pleased to feel the support for the project. This is the support that I felt all the way through my stay here, from the people of all backgrounds, ages and professions offering their time, contacts and advice. I was – am very touched…

 Drinking coffee with Mila and Rosa

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Drinking coffee with Mila and Rosa

Margareta Kern, ‘Vukosavas pillow’from her Clothes for Death

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Margareta Kern, ‘Vukosavas pillow’
from her Clothes for Death

 ‘Mila’

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‘Mila’

# 13 [13 April 2007]

I have just returned from a three day trip to Pilica, near Bijeljina in the east part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, right on the border with Serbia. Zeljka, whom I met in London last year spoke to her grandmother about the project who in turn spoke to the women in her village. By the time I got there on Tuesday she told me that 6! women have agreed to take part. Incredible! Firstly we visited her grandmother, Mila, who lives in an old house alone. We chatted for a while with her, looking at the family photo albums which span from early 1940’s onwards (the best photo was of a Santa Claus in a red suit, with the five star on his hat, and a picture of Tito in the background) whilst polishing off a wonderfully delicious Easter cake. Mila guided us from house to house introducing us to the women and looking after us...

Whilst photographing I became more and more aware of the moments of stillness present between myself and the person I am photographing. Before pressing the button I allowed time for the person to ‘forget’ for a moment (or an 8th, 15th of a second) that they are being photographed… There was a process of waiting, not too long otherwise they start fidgeting too much, or wondering if I have finished. Waiting for them to become a bit more accustomed to the odd situation of there being a stranger in their home photographing them and their clothes, their dear and personal belongings…

Their clothing or rather the whole attire for death consisted of a hand made cotton and silk white skirt, a colourful cilim (kilim carpet), one woman had a beautiful black waistcoat which are made by specially trained tailor, hand knitted ‘priglavci’ - long socks, underwear, hand made ‘pokrov’ which is a white cotton sheet that is laid out underneath the body, candles, one woman even had a shirt for a priest, and pieces of textile clothing for the women who will wash and clothe her when she dies... Their pillows were interesting, one woman had a pillow from Germany (and I saw this at another woman’s death attire, I photographed last week in Banja Luka) which was made from velvet and had Oriental motifs on it.

For one of them this was the first time that they have shown the clothes to someone other then their neighbours (as quite often it is amongst the neighbours that the washing and clothing would happen), and some have never shown it to their daughters or closest ones…
There was a case that the daughters saw the clothes for the first time only by seeing the photographs (this happened with two women whose mothers’ I photographed last year). I asked them if they want to see the photographers, as didn’t want to impose such emotional subject on them…I have become a visual messenger, hopefully making it easier for the women I photographed to approach the subject with their dearest ones, and hopefully my intervention in their lives is not further unsettling them…

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Margareta Kern

Margareta Kern (b. 1974, Croatia/Bosnia-Herzegovina) is a London based visual artist using photography, video and performance to explore ways in which personal and intimate spaces are influenced by the socio-political movements. In her recent projects Kern has been using clothing and textiles as a way of opening and entering issues linked to gendered constructions of identity and its social, political and cultural contexts.

www.margaretakern.com