By Rebecka Öhrström Kann 18/04/2024

Nadja Brečević is a lens-based artist who employs physical interventions into the image to explore stories of landscapes and the constructed nature of images. Merging documentary and myth, and playing with photography's ability to project, Brečević's installations bring the magic of the darkroom into the gallery space. Sculptural pieces as much as they are images, their tactic quality evoke the mythical and material mass of the mountains they depict, unveiling how the imposing presence of natural landscapes is captured through the stories we tell in their ode. We spoke about the influence of the video game “Samorost” on her work, photography as lingering, and looking for fairies on the Velebit mountains.

Rebecka: How would you describe your work to someone who has never seen it before?

Nadja Brečević: I mainly work with photography, which is my standard medium and where I begin my creative process. In the last 3 years I have photographed different landscapes and work mostly with analogue photography where the process after the actual photographing is very important to my practice and I process the photographs gradually through different analogue methods. Something that I have used quite a lot for some years is hand coloring of the image. I usually photograph with black and white film, then I make fiber-based darkroom copies that I then color with oil-based paint. Lately I have also been interested in working with installation and to build on the image with other physical elements afterwards.

I'm interested in landscapes because the significance of certain places have always been very important to me as a person. It's very easy for me to form a bond with a space; whether I've spent a day or a month there, I invariably experience separation anxiety from places. That's why I've been eager to portray these certain places through photography—it's a way for me to linger with the place long after I've left. Lately I've been focusing a lot on Velebit, a mountain range in Croatia where I also have roots as my dad is from Croatia. I've spent a lot of time there, so the mountains have become important for me to portray and build on what that particular place means to me.

I also love to experiment and I always want to develop my artistic practice, both technically, but also by reading everything from art theory to fiction which I then try to incorporate into my work.

R: How come you started creating and what specifically drew you to photography as a medium?

NB: I got into photography quite early on. My father is a video artist, so lens-based art has always been quite close at hand. He's been doing his thing and I've been a part of his sets since I was a kid. So, I think that's definitely been a nudge in my own practice. But I've always been fond of hands-on activities and fascinated by visually captivating objects. Of course I have an imagination, but I've always been interested in depicting what I can actually see, and then, of course, the camera is quite helpful in the way that when you look into the viewfinder, what you see is what you have in front of you most of the time.

I got my first camera when I was 8 and I've been photographing since then. In some periods I photograph more and in others less, but the camera is always with me in one way or another. I often think when I experience things that I want to immortalize it in some way, usually through photography. 

R: You mentioned that a lot of your artistic labour takes place after you first make the photograph as an extension of your encounter with a place, both through the installation and also your analogue process. Could you talk a little more about that part of your practice?
NB: The moment when I'm photographing is usually 50/50 peaceful but also a little stressful. When I'm with the camera, I always feel a bit trapped, as if I'm caught in the middle of a meeting between the camera and the subject. The moment when I’m capturing an image passes quickly, but I want to linger in the place I photographed. I think the post-photography process for me is about the ideas that arise not during the act of photographing, but in the aftermath. That's when I can truly assess what I've created and envision how to further develop it. The decision to work with analogue photography then is also about letting the work take as long as it needs to make the image. The process afterwards is also a way to challenge myself and come up with new ideas on how to approach a material based on what I have to work with.

Although I am interested in using photography, as I mentioned before, to portray something that exists, there is also an underlying idea of working with the things that may not exist physically or that perhaps not everyone believes in. It’s a way to bring in some aspect of mythology or fiction that I want to merge with the documentary side of my practice. I think that part really blooms afterward when I choose to add or change something from the work that I start out with.

R: When I look at your work, I think about photography as a myth, some kind of projection of a thing that you work with both metaphorically and materially, such as your use of transparent images. What is your working process like? Where do you find inspiration and ideas?

NB: I probably get the most ideas and inspiration from my immediate surroundings. I draw inspiration from friends but also a lot from my family. My family is very, very important to my practice, which is something I'm happy about. Everyone in my immediate family is creative and creates in some way. My little brother is a knifesmith, my mother is a tailor, my father and his wife collaborate on video projects, and my little sister paints. Drawing inspiration from their talents, we share a strong bond as a family.

But then I also take inspiration from the places I visit, places that have some kind of meaning to me. Velebit in Croatia is located right by the ferry I take to go to the island with my family's house. So, the mountains are very present whenever you travel to the house, and when you leave it’s the first thing that emerges when you stand on the ferry, this massive mountain range that only expands the closer you get.

I also read a lot of fiction, and I find that the mythological elements in my creations are often influenced by the narratives of computer games, especially a game series called Samorost (2003) which is created by Amanita Design, a game developer from the Czech Republic. It's a world that has always stayed with me that is so figuratively beautiful by mixing photography with animation and an incredible soundscape. I never get away from that particular feeling of playing this game. It stays with me a lot and I think it's quite important to me in my process and alludes to the desire to move between different worlds. Stories in various forms inspire me, ranging from bedtime tales to personal narratives and literature. When I went to bed as a child, my father would speak directly from memory about the various books in Homer's Odyssey as bedtime stories. So that’s definitely something that's reflected in the mythological part, I think. I am also very interested in various folktales and fairy tales that have taken place around the Velebit mountains. It is said that fairies live up on the mountains, which is something I find exciting to have with me when I visit them. I notice that the attitude or idea you go into when making a work can really change everything, so when I go to photograph these mountains I go in with the mind that I'm going to look for fairies and then it's almost like they're everywhere.

Last winter I travelled together with my godfather to Croatia to photograph for my BA degree project, High Above the Clouds, and Deep Into the Ground (2023), which I presented at Valand last summer. I brought with me 3 cameras and my tripod and would just aimlessly wander around and photograph. I was looking for something, but I didn't know what, so I walked around. There are a lot of wild goats and sheep climbing these mountains. I had been following a bunch of sheep for a long time and just as I picked up the tripod and thought, "This is so incredibly beautiful, I'm going to take a picture of this sheep on this mountain," I looked up again from the viewfinder and they were gone. Then I wondered if maybe it was fairies I'd been following [laughs]. Stories that linger and in a way affect the actual execution when I photograph are a very important inspiration to my practice.

R: What a story! Computer games also feel very connected to myths as these stories often serve as their inspiration and I'm curious to hear a little more about the role of myths in your practice.

NB: I guess it comes from the fact that I was introduced to it at a young age, as many people are, but also that it's an interest that I've continued to expand. The specific myths that I work with about Velebit and the fairies are something that has grown over time. I think I was introduced to the idea first when I was in Croatia one summer talking to a family friend who is quite the character himself [laughs]. So many incredible things come out of his mouth. Anyway, we sat talking outside the house under the starry sky and out of the blue he started asking me if I believe in fairies. Then he started telling me that he believes in fairies and introduced me to this idea of the fairies that originated from Velebit. Later my godfather also told me that one of his mother's sisters believes in fairies and that she had seen a fairy through the window, sitting on the slope behind her house. When she went out, it wasn't there anymore, but what remained was some sort of imprint in the grass as if something had been there. So, it's a combination of myths existing in my immediate surroundings, shared by friends or family members who have recounted their stories, and the fact that they're not rooted in dramatic gestures, but rather in these small, everyday moments that I later weave into my work.

I also think that these folktales have been another way for me to investigate this place. I am particularly interested in exploring the feeling that arises when you are in the borderland between the world of the senses and the world of ideas. Something that is important in the presentation of the work itself is to convey an experience, as in the work, High Above the Clouds, and Deep Not the Ground (2023), when I wanted to express my experience of feeling so small in front of something so massive. I aim to capture this sensation by working on a grand scale, crafting experiences that demand to be encountered in person. To be able to move around the installation and tangibly experience its mass and the sensation that time almost stands still when you are up on the mountain. To be surrounded by stationary rocks and the gentle movements of clouds and wind. There is something in the physical feeling, the visceral experience of the body in this place, that I really wanted to convey.

R: I'm interested in how you work with representation and projection in photography, for example, as you mentioned before, with the projection of the negative into a positive image through the darkroom, but specifically a projection of a myth or idea on a landscape.

NB: In everything I create, the analogue process of making the photograph is always quite present, both in the execution and in the result. Both in the installation High Above the Clouds, and Deep Into the Ground (2023), which I did as my degree project, but I've also experimented with smaller formats, creating transparent works that evoke the same feeling. Maybe not projecting an image, but rather experimenting with how light interacts with the etched surface to create a shadow image. On one hand, I aim to capture the essence of the darkroom process that underpins the image creation in much of my work. On the other hand, I seek to convey the anticipation felt when standing in a darkroom, waiting for the moment when the paper is exposed.The experience of looking at the blank white paper where the light hits and the image emerges in front of you. That is often when I'm the most happy with my image, in that moment, but then it never looks like that because when you go out it's a positive photograph. Even when I'm looking at my negatives, because it's the same picture but in reverse depending on whether you're looking at the negative or the picture from the darkroom. I think it's interesting how when you work with photography you train the eye so that the eye itself inverts the image. That I can look at a negative and see that this is a good image, even though I haven't really seen it the way it should be seen or how it will look printed. I wanted to emphasize the process of exposing the paper and developing the image using the liquids in the darkroom, as it's an integral part of creating the image itself. The format involved using a transparent surface with an etched image, which needs to be exposed to activate the whole image. Without light, the projection it creates, including the shadow image, would remain unseen. That's the part that I think is so interesting in relation to mythologies in how something emerges from something else. This also relates to what I was talking about earlier that depending on what idea I go in with or what attitude I bring to the process affects the outcome. What you get depends on what you do with it and how you activate it.
I wanted to try working with video projections and I suppose the small etched works became a little bit of a model for the larger installation. I was also drawn to working with video because I find it to be an incredibly exciting format. Even though I work mostly with still images, I want to integrate video more into my work because there are so many more images included in a video than a still image and I want to bring out some kind of movement. What I was discussing is the feeling of wandering in the mountains, where time seems to stand still, yet there are small elements that move and remind you that time is in fact passing. That's what I wanted to work out through the video. But I wanted to do it quite subtly, which is why I also chose to film the sky and clouds in real time, both to connect it to myths that say that the fairies can turn into clouds, but also to illustrate this slow movement that still carries on. At the exhibition, there were a lot of people who came up to me after they had experienced the work and said "God, I really thought it was a still image," but then the longer you looked, you realized that the clouds were actually moving. It was precisely this immersion into the landscape that I was interested in, I think finding a balance between the speed of movement, whether fast or slow, can create a sense of disorientation.

When I was at the Venice Biennale in 2019, I saw a work by the video artist Larissa Sansour in the Danish pavilion. She exhibited a two-channel video but also the installation, A Monument for Lost Time (2019), which was just like a black hole that filled the entire room. It was such a deep darkness and nothing really happened, except that the monument was accompanied by an ambient soundscape.. I stood there for half an hour and just stared into the work and couldn't fully comprehend how it could affect me so deeply. But it was a great experience, demonstrating how impactful outcomes can be achieved with modest resources.

R: You are consumed by the work in some way.

NB: Exactly.

R: What are you working on right now?

NB: Right now I'm working on an exhibition at Studio Tabac in Stockholm this summer. We've moved it a bit, originally planned for the beginning of summer, but now it's at the end, which feels quite fitting. I want to dedicate as much time to it as possible. The idea is that I will not reuse old works, but rather to create an entirely new exhibition. This time, I'm placing a significant emphasis on the sea, and I'm also revisiting the hand coloring technique that I mentioned earlier.. It's something that I haven't used as much as I would have liked in the past 2 years but also something that I miss very much because it's a very time-consuming process where I sit and am allowed to spend hours on one photograph. So that’s a method that will return in the exhibition. I'm trying to go up a bit in scale as well... But as I said, the sea, both through archival images that I haven't used before but also new pictures. I'm working with a feeling that I believe many people experience—a sense of calm that arises when surrounded by the sea, this embracing presence of water. So that's what I'm doing now and then I'm also moving to Copenhagen where I want to start something new. A gallery and or some kind of practice, there is a collective that I’m trying to join to do these things. And that would be a lot of fun, because now I really want to work with art and broaden my network.