„Eroding Traditions, Eroding Presence” 2013-2015 – text

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Traces of the old Oman
The photographs of Oman which Jerzy Wierzbicki took over the recent years do share traits with his previous work and yet remain distinct. In such series as Gdańsk Suburbia (1995-2004) or Post-Indutsrial Silesia (2001-2006) his camera captured locations which suffered the adverse impact of economic downturn. Though his attention was drawn to derelict architecture and general temporariness of situation, showing people associated with those places was equally important. It was through them that the lugubrious and dispirited scenery gained life, manifesting its vitality and openness to interaction, despite everything. Also, the exquisitely applied black-and-white aesthetic of portrayal neutralised the unequivocal pessimism that it may have evoked. Meanwhile, the difference of Wierzbicki’s depictions of Oman lies, among other things, in the complete absence of people; all one sees are interiors of abandoned dwellings. The expressive use of natural colours encountered there sets them apart as well. The inside of houses which once saw life are intriguing in their powerfully saturated hues, vibrant despite the stigma of decay, which clashes agonisingly with the brilliance of the sun, piercing aggressively through the holes in the walls.
As the author explains, such a state of affairs is not the aftermath of some cataclysm brought on by war or elemental forces; in fact, it was due to the sudden prosperity that descended on the erstwhile inhabitants of those houses. The proceeds from the sale of oil enabled the Sultan of Oman to provide generously for his subjects, so that all could move to modern buildings in cities, offering much superior living standards. Thus they left their traditionally built homes behind, along with most of what they once contained; the photographer captured those very interiors as they fade away into utter annihilation. Recording a transient state is a fundamental impulse for every master craftsman wielding a camera, which is why they can appreciate the mundane manifestations of the present and the unique remnants of remote past in equal measure. Economic boom may dull the human need to tend to their own history and make it possible for their traces to be destroyed. It often happens that the outsiders happen to notice such traces of the past, as they seek to find inspiration there rather than shed its burden.
The interiors photographed by Jerzy Wierzbicki certainly hold nothing that their owners could boast of in the contemporary world, where people prize universal and easily replaceable qualities. Still, one feels that the remnants of furnishings harbour the imprint of needs, customs and hierarchies of people who had used them. Will they be able to uphold and nurture the defining elements of their identity elsewhere? Circumstances permitted them to relocate to more promising places and no longer struggle for survival in their former abode. Hence we see how nature retakes possession of the space it once had to yield, and breaches into the dwellings with violent bursts of the sun and elements which only hasten their erosion.
In a perverse fashion, the tenor of these photographs may draw upon notions that the mode of still life in art usually evokes. Not infrequently, such a manner of depiction was designed to engender philosophical reflection on the impermanence of worldly possessions and the inevitable flow of time, although it simultaneously highlighted the beauty of the world and the allure of existence amidst luxurious objects. This kind of moral teaching through art used to be religiously motivated and intended for the elites, but it has long been replaced by forms of communication associated with mass culture and mechanisms of democratic consumption of goods. The now absent inhabitants of the old dwellings in Oman are likely to have been tempted by the vision of life so heavily endorsed nowadays. One cannot but recall Richard Hamilton’s famous 1956 collage entitled Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, in which the artist amalgamated reproductions of various, universally desired artefacts of contemporary life. The title question still remains valid, as the ever new ranges of consumer goods foster its continual recurrence. However, Jerzy Wierzbicki’s photographs do not show that new reality; people and the attractive new life they have attained are somewhere else, with only the image of spurned past left to be seen. The author, who in his previous series focused his gaze on the symptoms of crisis and disintegration of diverse forms of social life, appears to convey a critical assessment of the entire category of contemporaneity. The latter, moulded by the last two centuries of industrialisation, urbanisation, automatisation and standardisation, has gone through a number of stages which brought about successive upheavals. At each stage, people were compelled to surrender the already established lifestyle only to adapt to yet another set of rules of modern life and avoid marginalisation. Each time, contemporaneity brings a promise of approaching the much sought-after ideal of life, yet there are numerous grounds to assume that the abandoned forms of existence retain many more genuine values than the bright new era pledges to ensure. There is hope that in time people will manage to recreate those values in the new conditions, even though they may offer a less favourable environment for them to thrive.
Adam Sobota
National Museum in Wroclaw.