Text by Emma Bourne, Jungle Magazine, London, UK, November 2016
“Grey… It’s a very sad colour. It’s the colour of resigning. Of silence”
Grey is a colour that we see every day: grey clouds, grey rocks, grey dust, grey concrete, grey pencils. Coincidentally, as I pause and look out of the window adjacent to my desk I notice that a light, single toned and inoffensive grey colours the sky. Unlike blue skies that offer us warmth and possibilities, or dark grey skies that carry the excitement of dramatic rains, or even the night sky that conceals us, light grey skies can undoubtedly seem somewhat murky and ambiguous.
The sense of a ‘grey’ unsettledness can also be found psychologically, within us when we are faced within our own moments of life’s uncertainties; for Marta Zgierska it was the feeling of a grey emptiness that formed the basis of her photographic project Post. This project was first realised when the artist came across a 1995 school report, written about her when she was seven years old, by her primary school teacher. The report read:
“Schoolgirl Marta Zgierska is talented, conscientious and hard-working. During lessons she is very active and focused. She has a rich vocabulary and a large body of knowledge. She can build a coherent, complex statement, correct in terms of material and grammar. She reads fluently and expressively. She writes very nicely and accurately in terms of language and spelling. She is fluent in mental arithmetic. She solves simple and more complex text exercises. She can apply in practice acquired knowledge. She is interested in phenomena occurring in nature, she knows their causes and effects. She shows extensive interests and talents. She has good manners. She is friendly and liked by other children.”
When discussing this report, Zgierska commented “It says that I am a very good pupil with many friends and successes, but it was not how I remember feeling in that moment or twenty years after when I found the note… it was different to how I saw myself on the inside”. Zgierska explains, “a few years before finding the letter I started to have some psychological problems; anxiety neurosis and some fears. I had trouble being in groups and being around people. I was able to take part in some events but it was very difficult for me and not so easy to get up and start talking. I would over-think a lot.”
For Zgierska, the act of taking photographs allowed her to begin to contain some of these feelings of uncertainty and anxiety, however a few months into the project her work was put on hold as she suffered life-threatening injuries in a car accident. Zgierska confines, “I was a passenger in the front of the car. My friend was the driver. The car on the opposite side of the road moved lanes in front of us and we had a head-on collision at high speed. I was one person who had serious injuries during the car accident; other people were in better condition…” With a broken backbone and problems with her stomach and lungs Zgierska was put on stabilizers and confined to intensive therapy. Zgierska notes that the year following the accident brought a series of both physical and mental challenges, “I had to learn to walk after hospitality. I felt pain in my whole body and had problems with simple movements. I still have pain in my back but I don’t think about it as something bad, as after a few years it became something normal for me. I’m still don’t feel good at being in cars. I don’t want to be a driver because I think that I could make a mistake like the people who made the mistake I was a victim of… my life also changed during this time because after being in a relationship for 7 years I had a breakup…”
The car accident brought on the return of many of the feelings of anxiety neurosis that Zgierska had struggled with years earlier. After a few months, during recovery Zgierska began taking photographs again. One of the first images she took after the accident was of a pile of her own light brown head hairs that she had arranged into a neat cocoon-like ball. Zgierska explains, “This is hair from one day. After hospitality, intensive therapy my hair fell out… I was afraid about it. I didn’t know what had happened. As a visual artist I intuitively felt I must do something, so I collected it and in the end I used it in a very abstract way.”
Other images in Post take a more visually direct approach to Zgierska’s experience of the car accident, such as the image containing the blood stained coat, which was the coat Zgierska wore during the accident itself or the crushed car that can be seen to represent the crushing of both the car in the accident and Zgierska’s body. A year and a half after the car accident Zgierska took a direct self-portrait for the series in which she stood with her back facing the camera, with four wooden chair frames pilled upon the delicate structure of her body. Zgierska notes, “… I am not in the best condition but I tried to do it. I was alone and had ten seconds between pressing the button on my camera and placing the chairs on me… so it was quite a difficult process, but I did it…”
In this image Zgierska’s body appears to be almost held up by the chairs beneath her arms. Her head flops down and to me, she appears to be somewhere between half-trapped and half-resigned to the confinement of the chairs. The angle of the chairs makes them appear as if they are falling into a jumbled, crushing stack on top of Zgierska’s body. However, the jumbled assembly, which seemingly traps Zgierska also appears to be so carefully positioned that the image takes on a very calm and ascetically pleasing appearance. This careful, precise and delicate arrangement of quite haunting objects or concepts can be seen across the breadth of Zgierska’s project; from the inviting appearance of a blood-strained coat to the delicacy of rotting teeth or the peaceful assembly of a dead chicken, Zgierska’s minimal photographic style welcomes and entices their viewers to the images.
When asking Zgierska about this technique she agreed, “the photos are very pure, very polished and this is also connected with me. The aesthetic form reflects my personality and my perfectionism. It’s also connected to the note… it is about how I was and am still a great pupil.” Similarly to how she carries herself, Zgierska’s photographs do not directly show the brutality of her anxieties and fears. The photograph of Zgierska’s hand particularly reiterates her sense of personal hidden imperfections; the thin, delicate cut upon her hand appears so minor that it bears only the slightest imperfection to her soft, clean skin. It appears painless and beautifully carved. Zgierska notes “… I was working with my body, looking for a border. Not so much was I looking for the border of pain, but more for the border of fear.” The incision of the knife across Zgierska’s skin acts as a visual metaphor for this fear. Whilst many people could not easily pick up a knife and carve into the surface of their skin, Zgierska’s reflections on the work suggest that the decision was part of a wider process that allowed her to reflect on both her own subjectivity and the fragility of human life, “Surprisingly, I don’t even shudder… I can see a little path, the lines of the hand – the path of life. I crave for it to be thicker, longer, better marked.”
Though the bulk of the works in Post were produced after the car accident it is important to note that many of the images do not refer to the imperfections that resulted from the car accident, but draw upon the wider anxieties and difficulties Zgierska carried with her throughout many aspects of her life. For example, when discussing her photograph of teeth, Zgierska mentioned, “I thought about the photo before the car accident and made some first steps toward the object… it links to the bad dreams and nightmares I had for many years”.
The dream of teeth falling out is one that many people coming to view the works will have experienced at some point in their lives. For me, Zgierska’s use of identifiable imagery and emotions allows the works to not only function as a personal reflection of her, but as a reflection of the collective vulnerabilities found across society. When discussing this with Zgierska, she notes that whilst some people may view the images purely as objects, her works can begin to “allow all people to find their own dreams, fears, obsessions. If someone asks me why did you use a chicken, that’s not a good question. It’s more about what do you feel when you see it?”. As a viewer I find myself projecting feelings of uncertainty into the image of the hanging rock. Appearing to be almost slipping through the ropes, its instability seems to softly disturb the silence of the surrounding grey space. The still physical appearance of the hanging rock is juxtaposed when thinking about the psychological strain of feeling drained by the tension of being under a ‘heavy weight’.
Throughout life, it is fair to say that everyone experiences their own share of grey cracks. These may feel connected to specific events and experiences or they may feel lost within the complexities of our overarching personalities and identity. Though our relationship to our imperfections and vulnerabilities can alter and our difficulties can fade, their existence can never be truly lost. They come to reside in a state of ‘post’, as Zgierska notes “like post-trauma” and when in that state the best we can do is to accept our experiences, reflect upon them and carry on.
“All the time there are the same things inside of me. Very deep things that couldn’t be changed through making a picture… but for me the best change, not only due to photography but also thanks to the car accident… is that I don’t have any shame inside me to talk about it… “
Emma Bourne, Art Editor of the Jungle Magazine