Željava Air Base

Ismar Cirkinagic is part of Fotografisk Center’s exhibition Young Danish Photography ’13. In the exhibition (which is on until January 19) he shows his new series Željava Air Base. In the exhibition catalogue he gives a short Q&A about the work. Here you can red artist and curator Tijana Miskovic’s text about the series.

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Željava Air Base 2012
The border between Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina
A photo series by Ismar Čirkinagić

by Tijana Miskovic

During a period of twenty years between 1948 and 1968 a military facility, codenamed “object 505” was constructed in Yugoslavia. “Object 505” was an underground airport with five external runways, and supporting military facilities. The construction expenses were around 6 billion U.S. dollars, making “Object 505” one of the largest and most expensive military constructions in Europe at the time. Because of the ubiquitous fear of the Cold War, the internal part of the airport was built to withstand a direct nuclear hit of 20 kilotons. Its strategic importance at the time was kept under a veil of secrecy, resulting in grand mystification of the general public.
The fall of the Berlin Wall changed the geopolitical map of Europe, with Yugoslavia operating as a bridge between the two Cold War blocks. Being unprepared for the changes in the political climate, and because of increasing nationalistic tendencies, Yugoslavia gradually disintegrated in a series of bloody wars between 1991 and 1999. A similar fate befell the airport Zeljava (“Object 505”). During the 1992 withdrawal of the JNA (Yugoslav People’s Army), certain parts of the airport were destroyed in order to put it out of use. Military of Serbian Krajina, which subsequently took over the use JNA facility, completed the destruction of the airport during their 1995 retreat, by detonating 56 tons of explosives in the underground part of the complex. The aim was to render the underground complex useless to the Croatian army.

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Today the airport is abandoned. It has become a tourist destination for adventurers, but also ordinary people who are familiar with the area between Bihać and Petrovo Ličko Selo. Even though there are no specific access restrictions, the area is dangerous as it is still severely mined, and the surrounding forest is home to many wild animals. As it is situated on the border between Croatia and Bosnia and virtually abandoned, it is quite frequently used as a passage between countries by (human and drug) smugglers. The interior part of the tunnel is heavily contaminated by Polychlorinated Biphenyl and radioactive contents of Americium-241. Any venture deeper into the tunnels can be life threatening due to dangers like suffocating, instability in the construction and flammable gasses.

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Željava is not only a modern military ruin that stands as a reminder of the division of east and west by the Cold War. Nor is it just a symbol of the end of communism in Europe and Yugoslavian aspiration at the time. “Object 505” is all that, but under the surface it is something more. It mirrors our human condition, which is based on constant tension between on one hand the ambitious aspirations and on the other unpredictable irrationality. This collapse of belief characterizes us as humans, social beings and members of a society. If a rigid structure such as the military, suffered an ideological devastation of that magnitude, the effects on the fine and subtle civil beliefs were even grander. Now, only traces of these beliefs can be found in former Yugoslavia. Even though this case may seem isolated, it is the true image of the complexity human nature.
In Čirkinagić’s perspective, the ruins of “Object 505” are not only seen as the ruins of a military facility. In this series the ruins appear more like a corpse of a collapsed giant Cyclops, and through his dead eye, light reaches deep into the hidden corners where human irrationality sleeps.

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