by Krzysztof Sienkiewicz

© Mateusz Palka, Epitaph

Why photography? How has it all started for you?

Mateusz Palka (MP): Relatively early, as a teenager, I started walking about the city with my Grandfather’s Soviet SLR camera. Its brand „Start” turned out to be prophetic. My thinking has always been focused on the past; categories such as memory and trace were important for me. I noticed quite fast that photography enables one to experience reality in a very different way, as it ruins the chronology of time. Photography enabled me to think of time in terms of space and this strong relation with matter remained fascinating for me all this time. Only after some time I realized how meager this language is.

What kind of a photographer are you? Tell us how do you use photography, what are you looking for while using this medium?

MP: I don’t want it to sound like a simple psychological formula, but to photograph consciously means to learn about ourselves. Apart from that I believe that visual reality needs a key that enables us to decipher it. Even though photography is a bit clumsy and helpless, it makes sense to try to establish a relation with the world through it. Especially if thanks to that photography will not give us too many answers, but will help us in formulating new questions.

In modern times, while living with illusions, too many things appear to be too obvious for us. I’m looking for photography that will enable me to confront with the world. That will knock me out of the secure aesthetics, oblivion, banality and infatuation. The attitude of photography towards the reality is quite ruthless, but in fact only because of this indifference in terms of wider context one can see sharper and clearer.

Furthermore, there is a number of cultural codes present in photography that appear in aesthetics, convention of representation and metaphors. That enables us to look back on our culture from a distance.

© Mateusz Palka, ‘Open’, 2013-14

In your series ‘Obsession’ you focus on the influence that the newly built skyscraper called ‘Sky Tower’ has on the landscape of the city Wrocław. Your photographs constitute a careful, methodical observation. Has this building become an obsession for you or there is something obsessive in its history that you noticed?

MP: In the context of rather low buildings of Wrocław this skyscraper looks ridiculous and expresses unrestrained need to build upwards no matter how the surrounding looks like. Obviously vertical symbolism is deeply rooted in culture, yet this uncompromising attitude in Sky Tower’s case is simply shocking and painful as well.

‘Obsession’ is a documentary project. I decided to use monochromatic aesthetic in order to better underline shapes of photographed architecture without referring to, often anecdotic, color. I wanted to evoke a feeling of additional distance towards the observed reality, although you might guess I treat this subject in a rather emotional manner. In fact I can openly say that “Obsession” emerged out of my concern for the city I live in.

© Mateusz Palka, ‘Obsession’

I still refer to this series as a project, as it is not finished. I am still able to find interesting places, mainly in the suburbs, where streets, pavements and simple paths are crowned by this only one in town skyscraper. In my opinion this is one of the most important changes in the architecture of Wrocław that happened after the War. But it is not only about urban planning – this change affected citizens’ mentality, as it created a primary referring point it the topography of the city and, finally, it generated its new center.

© Mateusz Palka, ‘Obsession’

‘New Center’ – that sounds pretty serious in case of a city as big as Wrocław.

MP: Yet the most important things happen in a much less spectacular way, at the end of the streets. The ones that haven’t had any particular, visual end so far, lead to the very same place now.

The presence of this skyscraper causes an ambiguous situation. On one hand it is omnipresent, omni-visible and because of that it visually haunts visitors and citizens. On the other hand it expresses investor’s delusions of grandeur. This is a true obsession…

At the opening of the exhibition in the gallery “Entropia” in Wrocław somebody asked if I was inspired by “6 metres avant Paris” by Eustachy Kossakowski from 1971. For sure this is a very interesting project that demythologizes this iconic city, but I think my photographs are much more autonomous, while Kossakowski’s ones are meant to constitute a coherent whole. I prefer trails in painting such as “36 views of Mount Fuji” by both Hokusai and Hiroshige.

Utagawa Hiroshige,  #6 Ryogoku, #25 Fuji on the left of the Tōkaidō Road © Licensed under creative commons

The meaning of Mount Fuji presented on these 19th-century woodblock prints was however sacred…

MP_ … but also based on the concept of time. Fuji symbolized eternality and stability, which was compared with limited and variable human time. The mountain is in fact an active volcano, so the relationship with it had to be ambivalent – built on fear and worship at the same time. Anyway, to see means to confront with reality. And we still do so today.

The photographic exhibition of ‘Obsession’ in Entropia Gallery was accompanied by poems that you composed. What are they about? How were they created?

MP: The subject of ‘Obsession’ was an aggressive architecture that dominates a big city, so my thinking was also directed towards other, often very similar, examples. The mentioned by you textual compositions are called “poetry” by me in a bit ironic way. They consist entirely of quoted archival either extremely negative or exalted positive statements about three objects: Eiffel Tower, Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw and Sky Tower in Wrocław. Among authors of these statements one can find poets, writers, architects and sometimes completely random people. These three pieces show how from veiled, full of sophisticated metaphors language of criticism, through language full of political ideology, we reached a rather simple and often pretentious language today.

© Mateusz Palka, ‘Obsession’, Entropia Gallery

What is, in your opinion, the connection between Sky Tower nad Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw?

MP: I perceive the decision to build the Sky Tower in Wrocław in terms of politics – this is a visual manifestation of power and money. In this sense there is a significant resemblance to the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw that was built by communist authorities in the 50s. Despite different realities of political system and a clear contradiction with the doctrine - there was a cult of personality in countries of Eastern Bloc, so the government needed a self-assertion in the patos and greatness of architecture. Classicizing and conservative style fitted perfectly for that purpose. Therefore functions of these buildings have similar background – symbolic power over the city and its citizens.

I gave the exhibition a motto from Michelet: «Each epoch dreams its successor». We live a dream of the future, which unnoticeably turns into the past.

Just recently you have finished a project with Maciej Herman about one of the faculty libraries at the University of Wrocław. This project is very cameral in form, but very deep in meaning. Tell us more about it.

MP: The goal of our series ‘The Library – a multiple portrait’ was to take a look at a particular, small society. Members of this society work in a place, which on one hand has a huge meaning for the culture and on the other hand raises many questions. As every archive, a library is based on a decision made beforehand about what and what not to include in its collection. In result, it sets social normative order of things important and those negligable from the scientifc and knowledge of culture point of view. From this standpoint a library may be perceived as a mirror of culture. We are interested how will libraries be functioning in the future. How to save the cultural heritage? What is, in fact, a cultural heritage? What is culture – this is yet another thing worth asking. While working on the series one of the workers died. We didn’t  manage to take a picture of him. We were only able to photograph the desk he left. Because of that this project is also about life and death…

© Mateusz Palka, ‘The Library – a multiple portrait’

You have just started working on a project entitled ‘Negotiations’. This time, in contradiction to your previous series, you exploit color photography. Could you tell us what is this project about?

MP: The series that I started this year is devoted to the presence of prewar bunkers in Wrocław. These formerly German constructions often come from the first decade of the 20th century. They co-create the character of the city in a very strong, often unnoticeable way through their influence on the housing. Buildings have to adjust to these bunkers, they need to negotiate their place. These massive constructions, with which no one really knows what to do, shape the multicultural identity of Wrocław. I photograph them, just like every other mentioned in this interview cycle, with a large format 4x5” camera. Yet this time the pictures are in color. In private I call these constructions: “a subcutaneous layer of the city”.

I also work on another series about the architecture of power, justice and punishment. Architecture which has its practical rules but also aesthetics. There are prisons and arrests in Poland located in prewar German buildings. And that is somehow confusing.

© Mateusz Palka, Negotiations, 2015

© Mateusz Palka, Negotiations, 2015

Who or what inspires you? On what kind of photographs do you like to look at?

MP: The kind of photography that is important for me is the one that shows cracks in reality and its ambigiuity. I like to feel that the man, who stood behind the camera, had an intense relationship with the world. Photographic medium still requires redifining, especially in times of an overflow of images and digital photography. Photography can tell us things, which we are scared to hear on a daily basis or things we cannot express with words. Finally, it may sometimes speak for the ones who have no voice.

I admire Chris Killip for his technically perfect and socially engaged photographs, Jeff Wall for his sophisticated imagery, Hiroshi Sugimoto for his philosophy and attitude towards history, Joel-Peter Witkin for the way he presents matter and connects elements of life and death. Furthermore, I truly appreciate Bogdan Konopka for his wise and humanistic attitude towards photography, Josef Sudek for the fact that he remained an individualist, Brassaï for his dark mysteries, Roman Vishniak for uncompromised bravery and presentiment, August Sander for perfect portraits and Josef Koudela for his independence. Color photographs from the early 20th century taken by Siergiej Produkin-Gorsky fascinate me. I cherish Eva Rubinstine for her unusual sensitivity…

Probably photographers are not the only source of inspiration for your work.

MP: Obviously everyone has his or her own masters, but for me an equally important role play literature, music, theater and somehow it all goes along pretty well. Early Leonard Cohen had a great influence on me, as well as bands such as Nurse with Wound, Coil or recently uncompromising, brutal and hypnotically analitical Shellac. A huge inspiration for me was Walter Benjamin and his never directly specified theory of allegory, conception of language and philosophy of history. I think that equally important is the place where we grew up and where we live. Wrocław has a very rich, but complicated history that helps in releasing sensitivity. In the end photography is an art of looking and interpreting the world.

© Mateusz Palka, Wrocław, 2011

What do you think about Polish photography scene?

MP: We have a lot of great photographers. Some of them chose to emigrate because of political, economical or relationship-based reasons… However, I have the impression that in Poland we still haven’t coped with defining photography as an art. There is a significant division into usable photography (in polish: fotografia) and quite ephemeral, artistic photography (fotografika). The latter one still cannot reach a wider audience. Meanwhile there is only one photography. It has its own language and just like any other art it is entangled in many aesthetic processes, relations to the world or conventions of representation. Out of respect to recipients one should think of them more often. On the other hand we often lack visual education. Nevertheless, visual education doesn’t come from thin air and we will have to work on it for decades. I console myself that these problems are universal.


Mateusz Palka