I presume that these verses, melody, voice, and the scenario of the video clip are quite familiar to you:

They call me The Wild Rose
But my name is Elisa Day
Why they call me it I do not know
For my name is Elisa Day

From the first day I saw her I knew she was the one
As she stared in my eyes and smiled
For her lips were the colour of the roses
That grew down the river, all bloody and wild

When he knocked on my door and entered the room
My trembling subsided in his sure embrace
He would be my first man, and with a careful hand
He wiped at the tears that ran down my face

On the second day I brought her a flower
She was more beautiful than any woman I'd seen
I said, "Do you know where the wild roses grow
So sweet and scarlet and free?"

On the second day he came with a single red rose
He said: "Will you give me your loss and your sorrow?"
I nodded my head, as I lay on the bed
"If I show you the roses will you follow?"

On the third day he took me to the river
He showed me the roses and we kissed
And the last thing I heard was a muttered word
As he knelt above me with a rock in his fist

On the last day I took her where the wild roses grow
And she lay on the bank, the wind light as a thief
As I kissed her goodbye, I said, "All beauty must die"
And lent down and planted a rose between her teeth

It is, of course, Where the Wild Roses Grow performed by Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue, from the album Murder Ballades (1996), a song that has become a world hit immediately after the single was released. As for the verses, Cave has commented: “I’d wanted to write a song for Kylie for many years. I had a quiet obsession with her for about six years. I wrote several songs for her, none of which I felt was appropriate to give her. It was only when I wrote this song, which is a dialogue between a killer and his victim, that I thought finally I’d written the right song for Kylie to sing. I sent the song to her and she replied the next day.”[1]

Where the Wild Roses Grow is Cave’s version of the traditional Appalachian murder ballad Down in the Willow Garden, also known as Rose Connelly, which tells of a man facing the gallows for the murder of his lover, whom he gave poisoned wine, stabbed her with a knife, and threw her body into the river. It supposedly originated in Ireland and is dated to the early 19th century. The murder ballad as a subgenre emerged in north-western Europe in the mid-17th century, when texts describing in detail mythical or actual murders were printed and sold in the form of leaflets. The iconography of the video clip Where the Wild Roses Grow, directed by Rocky Schenck, undoubtedly pays homage to the famous painting of a co-founder of the pre-Raphaelite fraternity, Sir John Everett Millais: Ophelia from 1851. It shows Ophelia lying with half-closed eyes in a rivulet, singing before she drowns herself. The model for the painting was Elizabeth Siddall (1829-1862), a poet and painter known in art history for her pale complexion and rich red hair, which made her a pre-Raphaelite muse and model. She was wife to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who entangled a collection of his unpublished verses in her hair while she was lying dead in her coffin, but regretted the act some years later (because of the verses, of course) and performed a secret exhumation. In Schenck’s video clip, Kylie Minogue sings while lying with semi-closed eyes in a rivulet, a huge snake crawling over her body, and Nick Cave, still holding the rock in his hand, puts a red rose between her slightly parted lips.

Early in the 17th century, in 1606, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio completed his commission for the chapel of the Roman Carmelite church of Santa Maria della Scala in Trastevere – the altar painting depicting the Death of the Virgin, but in a way which was considerably detached from the established iconographic canon for showing the Virgin on the catafalque. Caravaggio’s Virgin is a young red-haired woman with bare feet, one arm stretched towards the space beyond the painting, other resting on her belly. The commissioners rejected the painting not only because of the “indecent” bare-footed Virgin, but also for suspecting that the painter modelled her on the dead body of a Roman prostitute drowned in Tiber.

In 1986, British director Derek Jarman released his masterpiece Caravaggio, in which he meticulously reconstructed the dramatic chiaroscurotypical of that painter, as well as the genesis of Caravaggio’s emblematic naturalism. The narrative structure of the film focuses on the relationship between the painter and his favourite models: his lover Ranuccio Tomassoni and his unwed consort, prostitute Lena, whom Tomassoni drowned in the river “out of love for Caravaggio.” In Jarman’s dramaturgy, the confession of the murder results in Caravaggio’s “crime of passion” as he killed his lover by cutting his throat with a knife. The consequence of that incident was that the painter had to flee Rome, since his powerful admirers from the highest ecclesiastical circles for once denied him protection. Jarman’s film describes in detail the process of creating the Death of the Virgin, today exhibited at the Louvre, and Caravaggio’s adoration of the lifeless body of the prostitute on which the Christian Virgin’s figure was modelled.[2]

Four centuries after Caravaggio and the emergence of the murder ballad as a subgenre, photographer Sandra Vitaljić appropriated the dramatic baroque chiaroscuro for her series of twelve photographs to which she gave the title Beloved. Recalling that the still life as an autonomous genre in the early modern European art first appeared in the age of baroque, I would claim that Sandra Vitaljić here literally photographed a still life. Her photographic performance focuses on the cultural use, or rather the aestheticization and discursive dissemination of the dead female body that is a consequence of a sexually motivated crime. In doing that, she does not exhibit a photographic image alone, but an extremely aestheticized, massive object into which the photographic image with two equal faces, that is, with its front identical to its reverse, is literally incorporated. Photographic prints, made in a format that corresponds to the object’s natural size, have been inserted, or rather squeezed in between two prisms made of completely transparent, colourless Plexiglas. The exhibition layout presents these aestheticized objects almost floating, resembling the illuminated segments of the dramatic staging in Tenebrist paintings. The photographed motifs are what the medical argot would call anatomic specimens. Organic matter immersed into formalin in glass jars, dead objects that used to be living human beings. One of the specimens, shot from various filmic angles, is the head of a young red-haired woman, her eyes and mouth half open. In another glass prism, one can see a human heart pierced by a bullet, in the third a piece of human breast pierced by a knife, in the fourth a hand with obvious cuts, in the fifth a piece of skin perforated by bullets, in the sixth a partly shaven, red-haired head with an open wound in the back. All these which Sandra Vitaljić’s photographs show as anatomic specimens, as they are commonly found in forensic and anatomic institutes in the role of didactic tools, are segments of human bodies that have been sung and eroticized in love poetry.

I had a heart, a childish heart,
A heart that ached, ah, ached so badly!
I had a heart, an aching, aching heart,
And when it left me, I no longer cried.
I was almost happy. But then, in a night
Of anguish my aching heart – a small bird
Found me in the darkness, stood above my head
And tinily chirped this tiny song to me:
– It has been one whole year, every single night
That I’ve served a naked lady as a troubadour,
Guiding her dreaming soul through a wondrous land
In love stories and in soothing moonlight.
But last night – alas! – the chanting stopped,
And fell on my breast like a comet:
Last night, my brethren, I gave my soul to the devil,
Ah people, it died, my heart has died![3]

The lethal wound functioning as a referent in each of the photographs that Sandra Vitaljić posits as an aestheticized fetishist object likewise relates to the psychoanalytic notion of a narcissist wound, associated with the fear of castration and implicitly with fetishism. Based on Freud’s statement that we subconsciously react to an art photograph, as it can be something that we may want to hold in our hands or draw closer to our faces or bodies, Victor Burgin has observed that such fascination with the “glossy” (of the photographic paper) invokes the famous case of Freud’s patient who fetishized the Glanz on nose, concluding that the photographic look is ineluctably implicated in the structure of fetishism.
[4 ] In her almost classical text Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1976), Laura Mulvey has considered the fear of castration in the context of its performatives, manifested as sadism or as fetishist scopofilia, establishing a relationship between the gaze (including the photographic or cinematic one) and the patriarchal structural violence.[5] That violence is permanently reproduced through the public discourse, through the so-called “high” and “popular” cultures, where its vaguely seductive aestheticization only too often keeps it below the threshold of perception.

Interpreting the two “trials of the century,” namely Eichman’s trial in Jerusalem and the American trial of O.J. Simpson for the murder of his wife, through the notion of the collective unconscious, Shoshana Felman has established that beating is a quintessential figure of abuse of power (both physical and moral):  

“As an emblem of oppression and humiliation, as a symbol of transgression of the other’s property and of invasion of the other’s body, beating is not just physiological but is inherently political. A radically offensive act, it is, I would suggest, the most rudimentary political offense and has the impact (physical and moral) of a political act par excellence. But seeing – as the essence of the cognitive activity and as the foundation of both consciousness and memory – is in turn an act that is not simply physiological; it can in turn be inherently, unwittingly political.” Felman thereby recalls Althusser’s observation that the invisible is defined by the visible as itsinvisible, its prohibited sight. For “to see this invisible... requires something quite different from a sharp or attentive eye, it takes an educated eye, a revised, renewed way of looking, itself produced by the effect of a ‘change of terrain’ reflected back upon the act of seeing.” Felman, however, takes a step further than Althusser, indicating that “the limitations of the possibilities of seeing, the structural exclusions from our factual frames of reference, are determined not only by (conscious or unconscious) ideology but by a built-in cultural failure to see trauma... as the abuse of power(beating) is inscribed in culture as a  trauma... trauma is precisely what cannot be seen; it is something that inherently, politically and psychoanalytically, defeats sight, even when it comes in contact with the rules of evidence and with the trial’s legal search for visibility. The political is thus essentially tied up with the structure of the trauma. It is to the structure of the trauma, therefore (and not simply to a different ideology) that our ‘eyes’ should be precisely educated.”[6]

Since the 1970s, feminist art practices have applied various performative strategies in the process of “educating our eyes for the structure of trauma.” In the early 1980s, for example, Jenny Holzer circulated her Truisms, among others the famous one that Murder has its sexual side, in various public spaces of the city, simulating the form of advertising campaigns typical of the consumerist society of the spectacle. The first version of her project Lustmordfrom 1993, which referred to the mass raping to death in concentration camps during the war in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, was performed in a mass-media format – as a weekly addition to the prestigious German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin. The mass media regularly inform us on what they call “the black statistics,” so that we know, for example, that every two seconds a woman is murdered somewhere in the world, mostly by her own partner, but these black statistics are published for the sake of spectacularization and commercialization of violence, rather than explaining the mechanisms of structural violence and the structural invisibility of trauma. Thus, the Croatian newspaper were raising their sales last year by reporting on the “new details of investigation” related to the murder of a young Mexican tourist massacred by a man from Split while she was taking a walk on Mount Marjan, or the case of a girl from Split whose entrails were torn by a fellow student in erotic rapture on a private party (organized to celebrate the liberating verdict for two Hague prisoners). The same media published as a brief piece of information an excerpt from a sociological research, according to which 40% of Croatian high-school students considered it normal that their partner should hit them. Of course, the mass media never engage in an analysis of the process of normalization of patriarchal structural violence, in which, in fact, they participate themselves rather intensely.

In his reflection on the  socio-cultural context of the artistic genre of still life, Norman Bryson has establish a connection between the still life and the genesis of capitalism, that is, the free market and its immanent element of colonialism. Indicating that the still life reached its pinnacle in the Dutch painting of the 17th century, Bryson concluded that the Dutch society, in the period of its rise from 1608 onwards, when “the Dutch became the richest nation the world had ever seen,” was the first European society to experience the serious problem of oversupply.[7] Modern society has experienced the problem of oversupplied images, including the images of violent acts and dismembered bodies. Things that used to be abhorrent and shocking have, in today’s visual culture, become commonplace and indifferently accepted. The normalization of the abhorrent has been achieved through the visual media, be it the so-called informative documentarism or the fictional formats of moving images such as the TV series. In the last decade of the second millennium, which is remembered, among other things, for the Gulf and the Balkan Wars, as well as the genocides of Srebrenica and Ruanda, popular culture has experienced a sort of shift in the paradigms of location and narrative, whereby the autopsy room has become the place of action and the forensic pathologists have replaced the detectives as the stars of TV thrillers. Thereby the spectators are forced to face the original Freudian trauma – the phantasm of a dismembered body preceding the processes of identification that the human subject is based upon, or the procedure of accepting one’s own body as a whole. Instead of that image, we as the observers and consumers of meanings, implied by the clusters of visual signifiers, are offered a view into the unimaginable: the image of ourselves in the role of potential “silent witnesses.”[8] For as Nick Cave sings, “All beauty must die.”

When emphasizing the difference in the performatives of Sandra Vitaljić’s photographs and the TV series in which forensic procedures serve as the axis of narration, I will once again use Bryson’s reflection on the still life. “While history painting is structured around narrative” – he writes – “still life is the world minus its narratives, or better, the world minus its capacity for generating narrative interest. To narrate is to name what is unique: the singular actions of individual persons. And narrative works hard to explain why any particular story is worth narrating... The whole principle of storytelling is jeopardised or paralysed by the hearer’s objection: ‘So what?’ But still life loves the ‘so what’. It exactly breaks with narrative’s scale of human importance... Its loyalty is to objects, not to human significance. The human subject is not only physically exiled: the scale of values on which narrative and history painting are based is erased also.”[9] Paraphrasing Bryson, I may say that the still life of Sandra Vitaljić is indeedBeloved, yet minus the narration in which the figures of the beloved ones are normally construed. Exhibiting images of literally embodied crimes, of these fragmented and nameless bodies that have become subjects of forensic procedures, is a performative act in which lyrical figures are thrown into one’s eyes like gloves before a duel; it means subjecting the metaphors to their real meaning, disclosing the language that, by blurring things, perpetuates structural violence. By establishing a link between voyeurism and sadism, Laura Mulvey has claimed that sadism requires a story and depends on something that is supposed to happen.[10] In the photographic installation of Sandra Vitaljić, nothing is happening on the narrative level, and that negation of the story expresses loyalty to the represented object, which voicelessly asks the very question of the scale of human values. Instead of a narrative, the installation of Sandra Vitaljić offers an event that is nothing else but an encounter between the image of a murdered body and the gaze that has been deprived of scopophiliac pleasure by the absence of the narrative. It is not clear who, where, and why. The only thing visible is how. The disembodied, controlled gaze of the observer is thus restored to its own body, where culturally produced meanings escape control – in the moment of personal, individualized encounter with the uncanny. For what Freud has termed das Unheimliche is indeed corporal.

Zagreb, September 2013                                                                    Leonida Kovač

[1] Wikipedia, (accessed: September 5, 2013).

[2] In Jarman’s film Lena is played by Tilda Swinton, herself known for her light complexion and red hair.

[3] Antun Gustav Matoš, Živa smrt [Living death].

[4] Victor Burgin, “Photography, Fantasy, Function,” in Thinking Photography, ed. Victor Burgin (London: Macmillan Press, 1982), pp. 189-190.

[5] Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in idem, Visual and Other Pleasures (London: MacMillan, 1989).

[6] Shoshana Felman, The Juridical Unconscious: Trials and Traumas in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2002), pp. 82-83.

[7] Norman Bryson, Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting, the chapter on “Abundance” (London: Reaktion Books, 1990), pp. 98-100.

[8] Silent Witness is a TV series in BBC production, broadcasted from 1996. The series was made on the basis of a concept made by a former detective from Nottingham’s Murder Investigation Department. From the first season until 2004, the main protagonist was a woman, the forensic pathologist Dr Sam Ryan, played by Amanda Burton, but later the role of the “boss” was taken over by Dr. Leo Dalton (played by William Gaminar).

[9] Norman Bryson, “Chardin and the Text of Still Life,” Critical Inquiry 15/ 2 (Winter, 1989), p. 228.

[10] Mulvey, op.cit., pp. 21-22.