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Privacy of the public space

ALTHOUGH Illah van Oijen, a Dutch photographer now living in Slovakia, seems to be focused on the phenomenon of public space in this country, some of her photos, most of them concentrated in one room of the Central European House of Photography (SEDF), show how private this space can become. One impressive photo, also used in her book about this issue, shows two people hidden in a mulberry tree just outside St Elisabeth’s Cathedral in Košice. Though standing in the middle of the city’s Main Street, they certainly have a degree of privacy in the dense treetop, leading even to the obtrusive question: “What are they doing there, in their intimate space – plucking the mulberries, or…?”

The T-Mobile beach in Petržalka, July 2007. (Source: Illah van Oijen)

ALTHOUGH Illah van Oijen, a Dutch photographer now living in Slovakia, seems to be focused on the phenomenon of public space in this country, some of her photos, most of them concentrated in one room of the Central European House of Photography (SEDF), show how private this space can become. One impressive photo, also used in her book about this issue, shows two people hidden in a mulberry tree just outside St Elisabeth’s Cathedral in Košice. Though standing in the middle of the city’s Main Street, they certainly have a degree of privacy in the dense treetop, leading even to the obtrusive question: “What are they doing there, in their intimate space – plucking the mulberries, or…?”

Maybe it takes someone from outside to see Slovak public space – or spaces – in a different way than the ever-busy and tightly focused citizens, always rushing from point A to point B. The curator of the exhibition, Aurel Hrabušický, said something to this end. But the photographer herself corrected him slightly: “Mr Hrabušický asked me – Illah, are you in Slovakia as if on safari? And I had to confess that yes, I was on safari in a way, but maybe this was true for my first year in Slovakia, in 2005 – I travelled and made pictures like mad of everything that came in front of my camera. Now, however, I live here, have my family here, go to school, go shopping every day. The difference, of course, is also that I do not have a Dutch purse [i.e. income] any more… But what you see here is my work of five, six years in which I learned to know this country, to look at it – and I hope to continue. I think this is only the beginning.”

Van Oijen’s photographs were taken in several Slovak cities and towns, but have one thing in common: she manages to find surprising, witty, new sights, angles and corners, or catch them in a situation that might seem familiar but in real life we might walk past and miss the point, without ever taking notice. Now, taken by hand and facing them, we may discover a slightly new city we thought we knew all too well. And sometimes she finds beauty, fun and quaintness in outright ugly or banal still-lives or situations. The exhibition of Illah van Oijen’s photos can be seen at SEDF, Prepoštská 4 in Bratislava, until April 8, Tuesdays to Sundays afternoon.

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