Ania Diduch&Wojtek Wieteska, photo: Maciej Niesłony

The Freedom of Looking Paradise 101 at the Manggha Museum

The exhibition entitled Paradise 101 by Wojtek Wieteska is an intellectual, sensual and liberating experience. Additionally, it poses important questions about the condition of photography. 

Paradise 101 is a summary of the artist’s 29 years of work related to Japan. Photographs taken at the time were showcased at various exhibitions, the first of which was the “Tokyo” exhibition in 2000, at the Manggha Museum of Japanese Art and Technology. This is where we can currently see Paradise 101. When asked about why Japan became such a long-term project, Wieteska answered:

“This is a question about life, about why I was in that particular place at that particular time, and not in any other place. Japan became a reality in which I was engrossed. Despite the complex human relations, it lead me to the very essence of things. For me, the visual and mental purity in art became such an essence. Japan taught me how to be attentive. Just as previously, many years of living in France convinced me of the relativity of this world and its entanglement, like in Proust’s writing or in the spiral of medieval towns. Then there was New York, where I adopted a different perspective, as the city clarified my outlook on numerous issues. After that, in Japan, I found out that there are sometimes simple things, which at the same time are very important.”

Paradise 101 is distinct from a standard retrospective exhibition. We will not find a simple story about artistic development or Japanese culture. To be honest, we will not find any answers at all.  The viewers can expect only open-ended questions instead. Right after entering the first exhibition hall, we will have to face the first fundamental question: what do we want to see and what are we able to see? The artist and Ania Diduch, the curator, provide us with flashlights , and allow us to bring the works out of the darkness ourselves. This part of the exhibition features black and white photographs taken between 1991 and 1996, and several coloured shots from 2008. They are works preceding the digital era, closely linked to their physical aspect — film and paper. They are showcased at the exhibitions in vertically arranged compositions on paper strips resembling contact print  (in this case it is the newest generation of Fujifilm Maxima Cristal Archive paper). The way they are organized resembles a photographer’s darkroom. The photographs are displayed both as negative and positive images. All this — the contact print, the darkroom, the negatives — reminds us of the physicality of photography and its roots.

Ania Diduch&Wojtek Wieteska, photo: Maciej Niesłony
Ania Diduch&Wojtek Wieteska, photo: Maciej Niesłony

We are moving around in the dark and walking through a space which partly resembles archives and, in some respects, the artist’s mind, where all the shots taken during the 29-year period have been hidden. That is why visiting the exhibition is an intimate experience. We have the impression that we have gained access to a sphere which is not open on a daily basis. Entering the sphere, we become the co-authors of the exhibition, we decide what to see and in what sequence. The structure of the hall does not guarantee a clear picture of the whole exhibition, nor does it guarantee control over the situation. Perhaps we will only see a part of the exhibition, or come back to the same object several times. After we walk up to the next floor, we reach a well-lit space full of large-print photographs. Monumental print-outs hang horizontally in groups of two or three. They are digital photographs taken in 2019 with the exhibition in mind. Here, the atmosphere and situation are different from the first hall and the viewers can move around the space freely.

Time is the axis of this exhibition. The understanding of time departs from the linear perspective. For Wieteska, time is not an axis along which we can observe change, or mark out Bresson’s decisive moments. Time is made of tightly bound layers, one next to another, just as in the Time Wash installation, which we can see in the first part of the exhibition. Such outlook on time is an integral part of photography itself. It allows us to relive past moments countless times, thus making the links between the past, the present and the future closer. Without a doubt, the perception of time through the changes taking place in nature, landscape or the human body is important for Wieteska, just like releasing the shutter records this one particular selected moment. But it is not the moment that is decisive for Wieteska, it is the further fate of a photograph and the viewer’s eye. Wieteska shares the conceptual definition of art through an intentional intellectual process, not a final outcome. He stresses that in the times of the universal presence of photography, we are past discussions about the fact that we have all become photographers. It is clear that with such technical capabilities, photography ceased to be the domain of a small group, and has instead become a universal method to experience reality. The question should not be whether we are all photographers, but rather who among us is using photography as a medium.

Paradise 101 is a remedy for stories someone tells for us — with the use of exhibition narrative, curator’s texts or audio guides. The curator skilfully uses such tools as texts and additional information. No one takes us by the hand and makes us “buy” the proposed narrative. It is reflected in the location and arrangement of works in space, which affects the way the viewers move around the gallery. The photographs in both halls fill up the space, forming a kind of a labyrinth in which the visitors move around. There is no specific direction, no specific path to follow. Nothing has been placed on the walls, so the traditional pattern of making a circle while moving around a hall does not fit here. I can imagine that if we could draw the lines along which the visitors at the Paradise 101 exhibition walk, we would see a highly irregular, entangled pattern. Everyone chooses their own path here, so each line would be totally different. Finally, the photographs themselves invite us to follow a peculiar choreography. There is no single recommended distance from which we can look at the photos. The landscape changes as we move our eyes closer to or farther from the photograph. We can see their different registers. Wieteska operates the scale freely. We can view various shots at the exhibition. Often they are macro close ups which blur the meaning of the photographed objects, changing them into abstract forms. There are also cityscapes and takes of speeding trains. In terms of the forms of photography, the exhibition is heterogeneous, with distinct forms coexisting alongside one another. The tension between them builds an internal dialogue between the photographs. This style is characteristic of Wieteska’s works, combining the narrative quality and the sophisticated conceptual form. The photographs run a mutual dialogue. Placed in sets of two or three, they provoke questions about why such a particular layout was used.

“There are many artistic devices here that only work as sets. This is effective in the general perspective. But if we come closer to a given photograph we can see the details, the texture of fabric or the reflexes on the surface. As for the sets we held long discussions with Wojtek about the choice of photos and the links between them. There might be no single right answer, so they were placed in this particular arrangement. The links can have a different meanings for everyone,” stressed Ania Diduch.

This is one of the most interesting characteristics of the exhibition. We can read from the sets as much as our knowledge of the world allows. The proper story behind every photo, though interesting, is not the focus here. Anyway, we do not have the chance to hear the story, unless we take part in a meeting with the artist or a curatorial guided tour. Stories behind photos are not placed anywhere within the exhibition space. It is not an exhibition about moments recorded within photographs, but rather one about the moments of our interaction with the works. In some ways, it is an exhibition about ourselves, which is perversely highlighted by the medium. Our silhouettes reflect in the shiny photographs, unexpectedly incorporating us into the narrative. The photographs become portals which take us inside of them. At the same time, just like in the ancient Japanese woodblock print art, ukiyo-e, everything around us at the exhibition undergoes transformation. Shiny surfaces ripple and change their positions slightly, and the silhouettes of people moving around make the exhibition look slightly different each time.

In Wieteska’s hands, art has a liberating power. Using art, we can contradict the common patterns and paths that were designed for us to follow. Beatriz Colomina wrote that contemporary humans are entangled in a tight web of design. Everything we live in has been designed, and many of our activities are the outcomes of algorithms in our lives. Looking from this perspective, Wieteska’s art gives us the opportunity to take control and step out of the framework which was prepared for us.

“An algorithm is averaging which performs well in the communication or utility sense. But in the area of art, we should try to liberate ourselves from the algorithms, and treat them more like plasticine or building blocks,” said the artist.

In that sense, this may be paradise, a place where the artists gives us his hand and where we can look at the world freely. To be more precise, it is an indefinite number of paradises – as everyone has their own.

Written by Helena Postawka-Lech

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Wojtek Witeska's exhibition: Paradise 101, Muzeum Manggha, Kraków, photo: Wojtek Wieteska
Wojtek Witeska’s exhibition: Paradise 101, Muzeum Manggha, Kraków, photo: Wojtek Wieteska

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