Text by Iwona Kurz, Afterbeauty, Biala Gallery, Lublin, Poland, February 2019

Post pictura. Photo-bio-graphy

1.

„Talented, conscientious and hard-working,” a first grade elementary school teacher wrote about Marta Zgierska in the midyear descriptive assessment. The teacher’s handwriting is very neat, almost a bit childish, as if the evaluation was made by the student herself and not by her mentor. As a result, it is difficult to determine whether this description is a portrait or rather a selfportrait, which says a lot more about its author than about the person who is being assessed. And if it is actually the portrait, then how accurate is it? Who would agree to be reduced down to the image seen at school, from the perspective of the teacher’s desk? In the first grade? And yet, on the other hand, the mask that we put on for the purposes of the school procedures and school grades stays with us for the following years, educing a certain entity embedded in an educational institution – a concrete image, which trails along behind us like a grimace permanently glued to our face.

A page from a checked notebook, along with the description it contains, is a souvenir. Its status raises the moment it becomes part of the exhibition and is displayed in frames. It is the result of the processes of thinking and writing, a material sign of a certain social, perhaps also personal, relation. Hence, for the starting point of her exhibition – of her autobiography, the artist chooses an object, and not a photograph of an object. This object is only seemingly unequivocal. It rather provokes questions about identity than provides answers. Furthermore, from the very beginning it, in fact, challenges the obviousness of raising such questions. However, such an attempt has been made and we find ourselves in a position of incessant negotiating between the experience and the observation, the internal process and the view from the outside, between what is underneath the surface and the surface itself, the face and the mask.

Marta Zgierska had found the paper in some family stuff just before the accident which became a new “starting point” of her life. Everything that happened later is referred to as “post”. Therefore, this page with the assessment is not only a school certificate that everyone possesses (even if not everyone has been an exemplary student), but it is also a point of reference to a certain experience in the artist’s biography, which is paradoxical in the sense that it has not been lived through, but, still, it has left a mark (trauma) and turned a normal course of life upside down.

What is directly related to the accident is the oldest series presented at the exhibition, namely Post. The title is ambiguous. The photographs refer to the event from the artist’s biography, and some of them even document its traces. However, the event itself has been neither photographed nor documented in any way. Instead, the artist is searching for a metaphorical point of reference to her nonexperience. Not only is this a “post-event”, but it is also a post-image, a product of the traumatized imagination rather than of memory. This is the image which is like a broken mirror – fragmented into a myriad of pieces. Each of those pieces is sharp: clear, reflecting – even symbolically – a part of “self”, and, at the same time, hurting. Sharp objects emerge from the white with unusual violence, painting deformed, trapped figures. Is it possible to put the pieces together and make them whole again?

2.

And what if there is only the surface? The photographer Lorne Liesenfeld strongly defends the “façade” of a photograph claiming that this is the surface that is the only truth about the image.1

The assessment paper marks the beginning also in a different, socio-biographical context. It refers to the moment when we become part of the society, along with its existing norms and rules. It can be perceived as the starting point in the process of becoming, oscillating between two extremes: conforming and opposing, taking roots but also raising above and going beyond. In this sense, the accident should not be seen as an occurrence, an encroachment of fortune into life, but as a concentration and reinforcement of processes characteristic of life. It is both a trap and liberation.

This tension is visible in the subsequent series by Marta Zgierska, in which photography meets with sculpture. However, before the tension is created, a lot has to happen. New works require arduous processing of the matter, struggling with substance and physicality, accompanied by incessant references to corporeality. Afterbeauty uses old beauty masks, applied on face to the risk of losing it. Numbness presents a collection of face casts. In Drift, the face leaves its imprint on the fabric, in the blackness of the canvas, evoking associations with the negative, which Witold Kanicki describes as “the blue pole of photography.”2 These series function on three different levels of “I”. Afterbeauty has found its inspiration in modern canons of beauty, in internalized cultural codes connected with the ideal of femininity. In a sense, the photographer detaches them from the concrete, transforms into abstract, used forms, and hence neutralizes them, even though the final effect takes the glamour form. Numbness operates on the level of emotions. Their ephemerality, changeability and elusiveness, expressed by a momentary contraction or a facial grimace, have been preserved in the sculptural matter, on the rough paper, providing strong sensory impressions and provoking the desire to touch them. These pieces have a very tactile potential, which is developed between the author, working in and on the matter, and the viewers touching the rough surface of the prints with their sight. But will the gallery allow for the real touch? Similarly, the sight wanders over the canvas on which the works from the series Drift were printed. In this case we enter the realm of the unconscious, which uses dreams and fantasies, and immerses “I” in the sea of blackness. The biographical allusions are still present here, as the series refers to a coma into which the artist sank after the accident.

Furthermore, this is also where the autobiography reveals its bios potential: body/face is subjected to a number of procedures; it is juxtaposed with the external substance, which not only encroaches on the corporeality, but also imposes its form on it. The photograph preserves and strengthens the form. Furthermore, in all these instances it has been used as a mask. The photograph is the final stage of a certain process – its culmination or, simply, its validation, as well as the physical record of the result of the process. According to Roland Barthes, the photograph should always come “after” the fact “that-has-been”. He seeks one of the most important features of photography, its sting, its punctum, which is time.3 However, as long as the series Post has been influenced by the accident, which Barthes refers to as the photograph’s adventure, nothing has been left to chance in the case of its artistic form. This is not a coincidence that Marta Zgierska’s art is dominated by portraiture – one of the genres that the philosopher found most compelling. His reflections developed in Camera Lucida revolve around the photos of his mother and take the form of mourning after her death. It is the portrait that reveals most strongly the tension between the particular and the contingency, between the pure event registered by this photograph (tuché) and the meaning understood as the product of a society and of its history, and manifesting itself in the form of a mask is assumes.

Sharpness and substantial tactility of the photograph serve the mask, whose final form is the death mask. Work on her own biography, along with the artistic choices made, led Marta Zgierska in a different direction though. Here the mask and the face remain in the relation of constant exchange. As Jean-Luc Nancy wrote:

Face [on a mask] is an illusion, not because it imitates something, but because it is created – produced, developed, molded, formed, colored, and decorated – in accordance with what it is supposed to represent, when it observes us and looks us in the eye: the appeal, invitation, spell, admonition, assignment of a certain role or a task, verification, waiting for an answer, credibility, commitment.
The mask engages in the relation and invites the face to join
.4

3.

The assessment is also a form of the mask. However, it is deprived of “depth” and it cannot be reversed, hence its relation with the face remains unclear, even broken. Still, it becomes the starting point for an infinite exchange of meanings between the face subjected to painful and draining procedures, the face (consciously) expressing and (unconsciously) reflecting emotions, and the mask, the surface, the permanent form of these micro-events, which it both preserves and puts to death.

This constant exchange, the never-ending oscillation between the “I” and its social form is also transferred to the ambiguity of the self-portrait as a form of autobiography. Paul de Man wrote:

Autobiography, then, is not a genre or a mode, but a figure of reading or of understanding that occurs, to some degree, in all texts. The autobiographical moment happens as an alignment between the two subjects involved in the process of reading in which they determine each other by mutual reflexive substitution. The structure implies differentiation as well as similarity, since both depend on a substitutive exchange that constitutes the subject.5

Therefore, not only life produces the autobiography, but it is also the autobiographical project that may itself produce the “I”; the subject takes actions “governed by the technical demands of self-portraiture.” Photography is a different form of “self-creation” than writing, but in the result of both operating the recurrent form and referring to the mask, it assumes the narrative character, or at least – the meaning. And it comes closer to it, the more distant it is from the individual experience, heading towards abstraction (the more the beauty mask fails to adhere to the face and becomes “a beautiful form”; the more the face cast detaches from a certain facial grimace; the more the imprint on the canvas covers the face). Hence the tension between the life of an individual and life individually experienced, as well as the forms of life, which are repetitive and shared, is constantly palpable and fueled.

Not only, then, is there the exchange between the face and the mask, as well as between the I and the autobiographical I, but there is also the exchange between the “I” of the artist and the “I” of the viewer. And that is because the most fundamental here is for the viewers to find themselves in this image. It is possible due to a sequence of transformations, which lead from the biographical, violent and dramatic event to what can be called new formulas of pathos: the material imprints of emotions. The term Pathosformel coined by Aby Warburg describes recurring, emotionally charged, visual tropes, which are the active force in the generation of style and forms.6 The term has been discussed and transformed many times, most recently in the writings and curatorial activity of Georges Didi-Huberman, where the Pathosformel stands for combining the affect and the matter – a formal, but also material expression that the emotional energy finds.

In Marta Zgierska’s art, the materiality first emerges along with the creative process, when the face leaves its mark on the matter. Then, it appears along with its effect – the photograph in a very clear substantial form. It contains both a model of life and the life itself. However, there is a traumatic force, which also demands to be unearthed and addresses the viewers. Just like Didi-Huberman puts it in one of his books under the same title: “What we see looks back at us” (Ce que nous voyons, ce qui nous regarde, 1992). As a result, Zgierska’s art combines different aspects of photography – the individual character of an event, visible and revised on the surface, and a hidden structure consisting of subsequent transformations of signs, as well as different aspects of life – with the form imposed on it and the emotional energy, which insistently bursts it from the inside.




1 Lorne Liesenfeld, Cicha obecność Fotografii, collaborative translation, Luboń 2013.

2 Cf. Witold Kanicki, Ujemny biegun fotografii. Negatywowe obrazy w sztuce nowoczesnej, słowo/ obraz terytoria, Gdańsk 2016.

3 Cf. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida. Reflections on Photography, tr. Jacek Trznadel, Wydawnictwo KR, Warsaw 1996.

4 Jean-Luc Nancy, Zamaskowany – zdemaskowany, tr. Wojciech Dudzik, Dorota Sosnowska, in: Paradoksy maski. Antologia, ed. Wojciech Dudzik, PWN, Warsaw 2018, p. 99–100.

5 Paul de Man, Autobiography as Defacement, tr. Maria B. Fedewicz, „Pamiętnik Literacki” 1986, No. 2, p. 309.

6 Cf. Aby Warburg, Dürer a antyk w Italii, in: thereof, Narodziny Wenus i inne szkice renesansowe, tr. Ryszard Kasperowicz, słowo/obraz terytoria, Gdańsk 2010.