Of late, Ljubljana has been unfortunate enough to be the focus of horrible travel articles, declaring that “love is found in Slovenia” and it being recognized as the capital city of Melania Trump’s native land. It has become the favorite destination for your parents and first time American travelers adventurous enough to venture past Vienna. It has been sanitized to nauseating levels and has evolved into another generic Euro-destination spot not too dissimilar to Venice or Bruges. Luckily, “The Most Beautiful City in the World” is offering a counter narrative to this image.
“The Most Beautiful City in the World” is an ongoing project by Slovenian photographers Robert Marin and Matjaž Rušt in which they look to chronicle the scenes of their city. The title of the project stems from a quote by the city’s controversial mayor Zoran Janković. At the heart of their project is a concerted effort to break from the gaze propagated by the state, tourist agents, mass media, and others who reduce Ljubljana to some Disney-esque wet dream set in the Balkans. Though they state clearly that this project is not political, I do personally believe that it offers the ideal critique of the beautification of the city, oxygenating the narratives surrounding it. After kindly agreeing to speak with me, they told me that I was wrong, but nonetheless offered great insight into their project.
Ljubljana is held to be an anomoly of the Balkans. It was not dirtied by the Ottoman Empire and is a “normal Catholic” city. What is projected is a city that is in the Balkans but isn’t Balkan in the pejorative sense. Much of your work breaks from this sanitized image. What is it that hordes of tourists are missing? Does Ljubljana have more of an edge to it?
Robert: I think tourists aren’t missing anything. They circle around the city center, where everything is like they say, “Like a fairytale.” They eat “traditional” cuisines from South America to Asia for 10 to 20 Euros each and drink craft beer for 3 euros, which is still cheap for the hordes of Japanese, Germans and Brits. And while those fellas are having fun, “tourists” from Romania, Bulgaria and other eastern European and Balkan countries play them a song, join the party, and collect some change. Everybody is happy!
Matjaž: I think we are somewhere in between Balkan and the West. It’s like we can’t really decide where we belong to. It can be frustrating at times. You expect Balkan and you get Western, and vice versa. What our work shows is what we are interested in and what we see. As a tourist it’s harder to see things the same as we do. We live here. It’s the same as if I go to any other city abroad. I have to live in a place if I really want to understand and feel it.
Like many cities across Europe, Ljubljana’s economy is heavily based on tourism. As a result, some have accused the city of undertaking a process of Disneyfication to fit the touristic demand. Would you describe your project as an integration of this tourist gaze of Ljubljana?
Robert: It is important for us to emphasize the fact that we started this project without any political agenda. We just want to take photos. I just want to take photos of life around me. If I lived in Paris, London, New York or Ravne na Koroškem I would do the same. But I agree that the city center is undertaking a certain process to fit a certain demand. And everybody is welcome to contribute, as long as you have the money. Even gay people, black people and Muslims!
Matjaž: Ljubljana has changed a lot in recent years and tourism went high up. But our project has nothing to do with it. We basically started out of boredom and because we are friends and we knew that we both take photographs to visualize our daily lives. Of course, you can interpret the project the way you like and you can put it in a different context.
The concept of beauty is regularly justified as a means of exclusion and banishment. Many of the subjects of your work belong to the subaltern class of drug users, alcoholics, and homeless that is excluded from the popular image of what is Ljubljana. Within Ljubljana, does there exist a resentment towards this act of exclusion and limited scope of what is presented to be the city?
Robert: I think that voters are just happy that our mayor is Zoran Janković. He is like Joe Pesci in Goodfellas because he “gets things done”. He has cleaned the city center of graffiti, the homeless, and other junk. Ljubljana finally conforms to the middle-class taste of the local residents/loaded tourists that experience this fairytale for a day or two. Whatever doesn’t fit (t)his image of “the Most Beautiful City in the World” has been swept to the outskirts by the majority of votes in the city council. The soul of the city, which in the eighties made Nick Cave wonder if he should move to Ljubljana or to Berlin, is now on the outskirts. Most of the residents support Janković’s politics, otherwise he wouldn’t be in his position for ten years now, and I’m afraid he’s on his way to winning a new five-year mandate next year.
Matjaž: And many subjects are also my friends, people who I know from the street, or who I can relate to. We all have our problems, ups and downs. It’s life. Life is beautiful, right? But yeah, with all this new beautification of the city I feel that things have changed. Don’t get me wrong though. Some things are better, and some worse.
You quote the Mayor of Ljubljana in the title of your project, when he called the city “The Most Beautiful City In The World.” Janković has been accused of partaking in corrupt practices that looked to profit for his family, largely through major infrastructure projects contributing to the beautification of the city. In many ways, could one say the word “beautiful” has become interlinked with corruption?
Robert: I don’t think that’s the case in general public opinion. As I said before, I think that the voters are just happy that he “gets things done”. It’s true, that Janković is constantly linked to corruption affairs, but in court nothing has been proven. He’s obviously a Goodfella.
Matjaž: I think the way Janković speaks about Ljubljana is brilliant. It’s like giving a bone to a dog. It gave more immediate sense to our work and it can’t be more populist than it is. What he’s been accused of and how much profit he gained, I don’t really know. Sure, one can say “beautiful” became interlinked with corruption, but that’s been around for a long time and you can interlink it with many other nouns as well.