The year Ms Krconovic turned 21, in Belgrade during the Kosovo war, she was afraid for her life. Her father assured her that their town wouldn’t be bombed – he would shake his fist at the war planes in the sky – but Krconovic was terrified.
She packed a bag with canned goods and personal items and dragged her mattress down the stairs into the basement of her apartment, and locked herself in. Her parents didn’t join her there – they thought she was being ridiculous – but she set up photos of them near her makeshift bed and waited for the bombing to start.
After a few days, she sheepishly emerged. She opened the building door, walked through the quiet streets. Nothing had changed.
When she recounted this story 15-odd years later, for Swiss artist Mats Staubs, Krconovic told it with humour and detachment. She joked about how young she was, and how overwrought.
But when she listens to the audio of her story played back to her, three months after it was recorded, she began to cry.
Belgrade did get bombed, targeted by a 78-day Nato campaign that killed more than 2,000 civilians. They destroyed the building next to the theatre in which she worked and Krconovic was lucky to survive. For the first time, she hears how she has been dealing with the trauma of the war: by downplaying it, and making jokes.
“I’m acting there – and I’m doing a good job,” she says. Listening to her story as if it was someone else’s, she allows herself to think of herself as “that poor girl” for the first time.
Krconovic is one of about 300 people – identified only by their surnames – who have so far taken part in Staubs’ audiovisual project, 21: Memories of Growing Up. The artist travelled the world recording 10 to 20 minutes of audio from people of all ages, races, backgrounds as they described their 21st year.
Three months later, the project revisited these people – but this time there was a camera, not a microphone, that was turned on them. The audio of each person telling their story was played back to them, and their reaction filmed, as they listened to one past version of themselves describe another.
Some 100 of these people are featured across 14 screens at the State Library of South Australia, in a moving, honest, often surprising installation that’s part of this year’s Adelaide festival. Watching these strangers grapple with their memories, and how to construct their own narratives, you think of the story you would tell: where were you when you turned 21? What kind of person were you? And which words would you use to describe that?
At its most basic, the work questions the concept of adulthood, as it’s experienced around the world and across history, and how it’s changed over time.
In the four hours I spend flicking through the faces at the exhibition (it’s addictive, and I could have spent four more) I hear from a German woman who was a member of Hitler Youth at 21; a young Maldivian who followed her family to Australia from Sri Lanka in 2011, curious to see the first world; and Ms West, a 45-year-old Indigenous Australian from Queensland with adopted parents, who was a dental assistant by day and a go-go dancer by night. “I still feel like an infant in my journey of working out who I am,” she says.
I find Mr Cirilov, a man who turned 21 in the same city as Krconovic – but 47 years earlier, during the cold war. Cirilov grew up in extreme poverty, and watched his father die of a heart attack in front of him. “I felt very young and old at the same time, like I feel to the present day,” he says.
But listening back to his own story months later, he’s struck by something else: “When I listen to myself, I remember that young boy,” Cirilov, now 77, says to the camera. “He was more daring and fresh – and at this moment I like that boy much more than I like [who I became].”
The most interesting part of the work is what it reveals about how we tell our own stories. Miss Genevieve, a 37-year-old from England, talks of her 21st year with lightness, joy, good humour; she was idealistic and artistic back then, with huge hopes for herself and the world.
But after listening back three months later, her body language shifts and tenses; she pushes the hair back from her face, holds her head in her hands. She looks a bit distressed. When the project recorded her story, she tells us, Genevieve’s marriage had just broken up, leaving her devastated and a sole parent. The audio is a reminder of the worst time of her life.
“I sound so happy there but I was so destroyed,” she says, after it finishes. She compares the recent break-up to the one she had in her 21st year: the pain is the same, it’s still just as devastating, but the demands of age and of parenting have forced her to piece herself back together faster.
And perhaps that’s the true definition of adulthood. “You have to get out of bed in the morning now,” she says. “You have to put your socks on.”
• 21: Memories of Growing Up is installed at the State Library of South Australia as part of Adelaide festival. Hlcarpenter.com Australia travelled to Adelaide as a guest of the festival