Perhaps Marek Piasecki (1935-2011) is one of the most eccentric and visionary artistic phenomena in post-war Polish culture. During his lifetime, Piasecki worked as a professional photojournalist as well as an artist who worked across an extensive range of artistic media, including graphic arts and sculpture. As an independent art photographer, he was notably characterised with his extraordinary studio in Cracow which was described as a source of curiosities and an isolated fantasy world filled with a substantial collection of objects and pictures. Eventually, this place was a peculiarly inspirational environment to create his idiosyncratic photographs.
This small scale of Piasecki’s retrospective exhibition at Mummery + Schnelle Gallery in London selectively collects his critical photographic practice throughout the 1950s until 60s, during the period of his most vigorous artistic activity. This showcase consists of three distinctive parts, which present a series of heliographs and miniatures that are technical experiments devoid of lens-based media, accompanied by photographs about a central motif of dolls in his studio in Cracow. Piasecki’s work in this show reminisces about popular artistic trends in the 20th century including Surrealism in 1920s and 30s and Nouveau réalisme (New realism) in 1960s in terms of exploring the artist’s experimental manipulation in a photographic material and technique. The subject matter reflecting on the resulting work manifests his dark and enigmatic imagination often inspired by devastating influence and great depression of the Warsaw uprising which was a major World War II struggle by the Polish resistance Home Army to liberate Warsaw from Nazi Germany. In relation to this, the ongoing fundamental subject on distorted perception of a human body, particularly an objectified female body, incurs the reflection of loss of moral value and ethics which are investigated through the artist’s own tragic experience of the war.
The dominant characteristic of his photograph on display is captured at first glance with a physically fragmented personality of various kinds of found objects and images. However these tangible partial objects are conjoined in a physical set in a photographic installation and they are rediscovered as a fresh insight into an abstract or figurative composition in a two-dimensional camera angle. Distinctively his photographs of dolls in this exhibition present mainly a minimalist feature of an infantile female doll. It appears mostly dismantled; its isolated face focuses us on its empty eyes. It is illuminated by using contrast of light and shade. The atmosphere of the doll photographs summons a haunted quality yet overlapping bizarrely with an enchanted spirit.
It is inevitable to ask what might constitute the underlying significance of his performance of fracturing its body to make injured or anonymous objects and assemble them again. It is probably a source of the artist’s deconstructive perspective, which is the beginning of a process to shape an uncanny way of seeing reality in his imagination. Then the perspective seems to ironically lead to reconstruct an improvised perfection by recollecting, rearranging and piling up the fragments to capture a snapshot of a surreal cinematic status, which articulates the homeless and the hopeless mess, with reflecting his traumatic experience of World War II and its aftermath in his childhood. His act of posing them alongside various discarded things might serve a free-floating mindset of looking at the ruined world in a playful, curious and creative way.
That being so, what stands for the subject matter of his focused interest in fragmented female dolls in his photographic scene? They evoke the paradoxical nature of certain coziness with feminine texture as if he treated carefully the careless dolls, which are signified as materialised bodies that should not be obtained, and he gave a sense of their own importance and value to the wounded bodies by decorating, posing and highlighting them in his photographic stage. But also, concurrently it seemed to be uncannily mirrored in the artist himself performed as being a little child to see a neglected infantile universe in the war-torn life. This probably embodies Piasecki’s aesthetic on the female figure, rather than differentiating it from the associations it may have with voyeuristic fantasy of femininity through an enigmatic male gaze.
Apart from the above lens-based photographic work, Piasecki exploited unorthodox styles and approaches in photographic practice without using a camera. Hence, this exhibition features a series of heliographs which explores the artist’s experimentation with many different media and a variety of techniques to produce a photographic print.¹ Piasecki’s heliographs recall the “Rayographs” developed by Man Ray in the 1920s, who produced his own variant of the photogram to create unusual juxtapositions of every day objects. These included unanticipated effects of negative images by variations in the exposure time, depending on the type of a medium used, such as a single and moving object and a fine textured material.² Regarding process, Piasecki’s heliographs are not so different from “Rayographs” as it is essentially a photogram. However, his further experiments with heliography is an arbitrary transformation in terms of discovering and applying a diverse range of methods such as using spilled liquids, drawing with chemical agents and scratching directly onto photosensitive base like glass plate negatives. A composed image is subsequently transferred onto a photographic paper by exposure to light. The resulting picture appears that the areas covered by a material or substance remained white, but the surrounding part of the paper that is illuminated to light is total shadow. The variations in tone like grey and hazy effect can be created depending on the transparency of a medium and areas that are fully exposed to the light or not.
The first impression on the heliographs on display illustrates something between the feature of unrecognisable objects or elaborate abstract forms that are often associated with magnified images of micro-creatures. Without aid of the camera lens, there is no sense of spatial impression. Instead they are characteristically overwhelmed with trapped flat images in darkness with sharp illumination and brightness. It is perhaps that nobody can make a duplicate of the final outcome, since they are infinitely variable depending on different duration of exposing to light and skills in controlling effects of the various natures of materials. Thus the quality of each piece of the heliographs in the show is emphasised uniquely original and imaginative.
In comparison with the heliographic practice, the miniatures series features more pictorial representation such as various alien lookalike animals and the organs of the female body. The series was produced by partly employing the heliography but also combining with drawing with ink and chemicals onto a light-sensitive paper. The quality of the series seemed to be done intentionally by painting and treated as a piece of a mix media by adding some collage elements. He is drawing a distinction between the automatic impression of light in a photogram with the organic manipulation of the image through post-exposure modification.
The Piasecki showcase appreciates not only how the use of light, texture and material can effect the outcome of a photograph transforming ordinary objects into something completely different and unique. This also shows that film photography is not a mechanical copy but more than being able to take a picture, which emphasises its widely extended possibility to discover an unpredictable pictorial exploration.
¹Piasecki referred to his photograms of heliographs. They make use of a method made popular by a number of the avant-garde photographers such as Man Ray in the Surrealist and Dadaist era. ²The term “Rayographs” was made by Man Ray and he fused his surname with the idea of a ray of light and photograph. Written by: Miseongoa Shin