INTERNATIONAL OPEN PROGRAMME – exhibitions of 14 winners of the international competition

There is no boundary separating the present from the past; the latter is still present here and now, what belongs to the past still persists, while time and passing are only delusions. This conclusion seems irresistible when we look at the images submitted for this year’s Open Programme competition under WARSAW PHOTO DAYS, with POST SOVIETICUS as its guiding theme. 

The traces of the past remaining in people and places are interesting attempts to look at the mentality and culture of the post-Soviet countries, now and before. The fact that young generations are interested in this subject proves that an element often pushed into oblivion continues to co-shape modern consciousness, which is a specific synthesis of the memory of the past and the image of the present.

Empty and deserted rooms of the “Edifice” by Karol Pałka seem to only wait for the arrival of those who have just left those rooms, but will soon return to fulfill again the rituals ordered by the system. Karol Pałka, a photographer, documentary film maker, brings us to the scenery of these rituals that would seem – still ready for the continuation of the spectacle.

There is no need for the scale of the performance to be so monumental, also on the level of inconspicuous details one can find truly meaningful gestures, like the pantomime of the hand in the “De jur, împrejur este patria” („Encircled by the Motherland”) by Andrei Nacu. An individual entangled in the state-forming symbolism of the emblem reveals here, discreetly but eloquently, the scale of reaction to this entanglement, which would hardly be considered an exclusive feature of the Soviet system.

A good example of how expressive small details can be may be traced in the project by Valentyn Odnoviun – a collection of photographs of door peepholes from KGB and Stasi prisons. Round illuminated objects seem almost abstract images, and yet they are a trace and witness to real and tangible human tragedies we, as viewers, can only guess.

Empty and deserted are also the interiors of Estonian photographer Triin Kerge’s project, providing a unique framework for portraying the outside-the-window landscapes changing with the seasons of the year, landscapes full of traces of the recent past.

Landscapes of the post-Soviet cities nurture that past, preserving it in their coarse grayness, mediocrity, indestructible temporality, so expressive in photographs by Tatyana Palyga from her hometown of Czerepovets in north-western Russia, where the artist returns after a long absence in search of her roots. Even the newly erected block-buildings on the outskirts of Moscow captured by Alexander Anufriev still seem to belong to a bygone era, at least to the spirit, if not form.

A bit different are mash-ups of Belarusian Minsk and its surroundings by Masha Svyatogor. The grayness of the places Masha visited breaks with colorful intrusion of her own figure and the figures from the world of imagination.

Urszula Janoszuk spread the streets of Vilnius with the ominous red spectrum of the recent past returning in the form of clenched fists, referring in its form to the aesthetics of Soviet propaganda posters.

The traces of the Soviet dream, French photographer Lorraine Turci found far above the Arctic Circle. The abandoned corpses of the Arctic city, a sign of a specific Promethean hubris of the Soviet system, rest in the barren landscape of the Norwegian archipelago Svalbard, like the huge remains of a monster left by the tide. Lewiatan, dead already, yet dangerous.

In spite of the cosmopolitan spirit of communism, we are also given an opportunity to see Sovietness with its local specifics, as in the projects by Doina Domenica Cojocaru or Kirk Ellingham, where much older, more respectable, Moldavian or Georgian traditions, are visible from behind the communist past – visible in funeral rituals or portraits of the Georgian Saints watching a coarse postmodern era with timeless tranquility.  

Ruined and deserted are not only the buildings and the cities, but above all human souls. Nostalgia for the lost paradise of ideological illusion can be really devastating, especially in the face of modernity that cannot be explained in simple terms of propaganda and which is so distant from the life habits inherited from the past system. This psychological devastation speaks in a very personal and individual way with words and pictures of Irene Jonas’ project. The project, inspired by Svetlana Alexievitch’s “Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets“  brings up – to places filled with memorabilia of the communist past – the words of genuine mourning after the system which was most probably ominous, but at least understandable. Nothing could fill the emptiness after the fall of the Soviet reality.

Collected under Jovana Mladenovic’s project, monuments erected during Tito’s time in the former Yugoslavia are particularly meaningful in this context, as they remain a silent witness to the extremely deep and devastating catastrophe of not only the ideology itself, but the break-up of the entire country, dissolved in the paroxysm of the cruel civil war. Girls embodying into the stone pathos of monuments are at the same time pantomime mourning after the vision, which was irretrievably lost.

In his project, Andrei Liankevich, a Belarusian photographer, delves into the myth of the Great Patriotic War crucial to the Soviet history, with all its ambiguity and complexity. Inspired by the fate of his own family,

he seeks to understand the meaning of those four years hidden behind the facade of official propaganda.

The illusive monotony and lifelessness of all the projects’ landscapes, both external and internal, should not confuse us. These places do not belong only to the past, they exist in our here and now, almost ready at any moment to come to life again…

Katarzyna Majak