The time of solidarity
Community and togetherness seem to belong to a category of convenient terms which curators and institutions of culture sometimes like to rely on – they are something as safe and versatile as fuzzy enough to help avoid inconvenient following questions about the making of said togetherness, to discuss the shared aims but also unavoidable conflict which emerges anytime diverse people come along. This poses a danger of superficiality and empty talk to any art project – hence my initial skepticism at the announcement of the main theme of Fotofestiwal Łódź this year. But the superficiality of “fashionable terms” occurs when the notions have no chance to be put to a practical test; and in recent months, people of Central and Eastern Europe had to practice togetherness, cooperate and join in, under a shared threat and out of human kindness. This actuality sheds an entirely new light onto the theme.
In the recent months, international politics enforced a reality check on everyone, the art world included. Community ceased to be an idea pondered in theory and became, also in the case of many artists, critics and curators, a very real commitment. There is no surprise that Łódź invited fellow festivals from neighbouring countries affected by oppression and war, Ukraine (Odessa Photo Days) and Belarus (Minsk Photography Month). Belarusian photographers, often having to flee the country due to dissent against Alexandar Lukashenka’s rule, explore subjects of displacement, transience and loss (especially moving in the low key, personal diary of escape by Yauhen Attsetski). The Ukrainian perspective leans more towards the ominous, the creeping fear which has been the nation’s faithful companion since the collapse of the USSR, and now turned into the reality of war. Taras Bychko’s nostalgic snaps of places forgotten by time, or Oleksandr Navrotskyi’s typology of pigeon houses in Kyiv – a form vernacular and somewhat by definition temporary and unstable – under the conditions of violence gain an elegiac tone. The engagement of artists and activists from Ukraine, Belarus and Poland into humanitarian aid, community-building and the bonding energy released at political protests was also summarized in a small exhibition Solidarity, protest, care, whose slightly makeshift nature transfers the “temporary autonomous zone” energy of impromptu activist work. Viewing these exhibitions with an overview of the Institute of Creative Photography of Silesian University in Opava.one of the most important photography schools in this part of Europe, known by its trademark humane, empathetic gaze, is an interesting juxtaposition, or perhaps rather extension of the range of emotions displayed in a photographic image onto the sphere of grief, loss, loneliness, uncertainty. Regardless, the Central and Eastern European photographers whose oeuvre was gathered under one roof of OFF Piotrkowska definitely have something in common: a quiet, low-key tone they prefer to speak in, a choice of the intimate over the emphatic.
Themes of loss, grief, isolation and distance – the reverse of community, but also a potential seed of a new togetherness – connect many artists presenting their works in their open program, including its highlights. Santanu Dey’s brilliant, sorrowful and quiet Brackish Tears revisit the mass killings of Namshudra refugees in Marichjhapi in the 1970s, merging the personal accounts with the ancient epic of Mahabharata. The result is thoroughly moving, leaving the viewer with a sense of forcelessness against a repeated scenario of violence. Balázs Turós’s documentation of his terminally ill grandmother – and in fact a collaborative project with her – brings to mind Nobuyoshi Araki’s photographic farewell to his wife Yoko. Mateusz Kowalik’s Devil’s Rib, a small but powerful series, seeks the motivations of people who decide to live outside society and deliberately choose the challenge of a close-to-nature existence.
Speaking of nature, the COEXIST: Liberty, Equality, Biodiversity! exhibition deals with an environmental perspective, which extends the idea of community onto the entirety of living organisms, examining and reassessing human relationships with other beings. It’s a widely discussed subject and thus posing a danger of banality, but looking at Diana Lelonek’s humorous and utopian, nearly-solarpunk visions of seats of political power taken over by nature, or Mishka Henner’s visually beautiful images of farming industry dystopias gracefully escape flat conclusions. Marta Bogdańska’s photographs from the widely recognized and awarded Shifters series are not only a hit event, but also a challenging, thought-provoking exercise. Based on archive materials, the project examines the participation of non-human actors in human conflict; the body of documents showing animals as soldiers, as psychological aid for the army, as spies, as a living weapon forces to question the issue of agency and subjectivity, let alone the ethics of conflict (especially viewed alongside Małgorzata Gurowska and Agata Szydłowska’s portraits of animal refugees).
Environment and non-human entities prove to be a subject which still leaves a lot to be told. The same cannot be said about other themes common in photography in the recent years; the best way to find out about it is to look at emerging artists, who always receive a lot of focus and space at Fotofestiwal. A reflection coming to mind after viewing the Karasses and Granfallons exhibition is that the era of the body and identity in photography is about to end; the subject appears to be, for the time being, thoroughly explored and there’s not much more to be added. That said, another interesting exercise is an exhibition as bodiless and shifted away from form as possible, The Happy Death of Images at the Grohmann’s Villa (Museum of Art Books). The uncanny space corresponds perfectly with the conceptual nature of the radically anti-photographic exhibition, which focuses on the process and shared action, strongly echoing Fluxus and the famous 1970s Łódź conceptual art festival, Construction in Process. The building itself, with its old New York decadence aura, could have as well hosted Fluxus artists in their heyday, and seems to be made to fit fleeting, transient and ephemeral art.
The main task of a photographer during in the times of crisis has always been to document, to persuade, sometimes to spread propaganda, but also to bring people together. This year’s edition of Fotofestiwal discusses all these facets, but focuses – out of obvious necessity – on the latter, in its most convincing moments making the best of photography’s potential to make viewers co-empathize and, hopefully, support the cause of solidarity. After all, the term solidarność has been known as one of Polish trademarks for years.
Fotofestiwal Łódź ran from 6 to 26 June under the title Communities.