I pre-ordered this photobook by Michal Iwanowski at its design stage, long before the printed artefact came into being.
Having heard Iwanoski speak at the OCA Landscape Symposium last year I was drawn not only to the final prints in this work, but more importantly to the rationale and artistic intent that underpinned the work. Landscape as a repository of history and memory is a theme I am developing in my own practice and Iwanowski has created a visually evocative work that to my eyes encodes two individuals epic journey in a desolate and hostile landscape, littered with ghosts of a recent and troubled past.
Clear of people records in pictures, the re-enactment and I choose this words carefully, of an epic journey made by two of the artists relations, his grandfather Tolek and Uncle, Wiktor. In 1945 they escaped from a soviet concentration camp in Kaluga and the two brothers made an epic 2200km walk back to their home town of Wroclaw in Poland. passing through several states they risked capture and worse very day o the three month odyssey.
The brothers walked at night to minis the risk of being seen, using remote and cross country routes avoiding settlements so the they did’t encounter people who might see them and report them to the authorities. This would have led to the return to incarceration or worse. Their journey must have been fraught with danger. There is nothing about this journey that is ordinary or easy. It is a concrete example of the triumph of the spirit over adversity. That spirit driven by notions of love, family, home and belonging. Interestingly like many war time exploits
Seventy years latter using a hand drawn map with notes given to Iwanowski by his uncle, he re-enacted the journey. Again avoiding people and travel through a landscape that still held close to the past Iwanowski has created a visual record of his version of the Tolek and WiKtors journey. He was questioned by Russian police during the journey and also felt the sense of isolation and challenge is uncle and grandfather must have felt, although he was not under the same pressure thy must have been. he also allowed himself the luxury of hotel accommodation. This doesn’t detract from the body of work he has created however.
The images in the book are haunting, some with a hint of foreboding, I have been trying to decode the elements of the images that give me a sense of foreboding, because this is a powerful tool to develop in my own work. In part it is the interplay between the text and the image. Iwanowski sets a clear and detailed scene and context for the work, so having read his introduction I know I am seeing the work through his re-0enectment of his relative’s journey. I choose the word re-enactment carefully because the artists sets out in his text how he tried to recreate some of the conditions NN and BB experienced.
The landscapes are a mix of sweeping vista’s desolate roads and ominous forests. Images of distant houses some ruined and others far away but just close enough to make out lights and humanity create a tension about Tolek and Victors quest for home, but threat of discovery and its consequences never being far away. Natural and man-made obstacles add to sense of the challenge of the journey. From quite a mixed collection of images there is a coherence created by the sense of a lonely and dangerous journey.
The book itself which was delayed in production is a simple but visually beautiful artefact. its simple card cover and ‘lay flat’ binding contains subdued colour prints. All rectangular images. some time a small image set against the background of a white tow page spread, other pages contact full spread landscape images that fill the pages. Near the end of the volumes there are very nicely copied archival images, family photographs of Wictor and Tolek before the war, letters, notes from the backs of photos and official documents. set against this is the sort of their family and the the journey. this is a piece of living oral history committed to pare in the life time of one of the travellers. The overall effect of this section of the book is simultaneously, melancholic , a hymn to a lost generation, but also deeply uplifting in the triumph of their spirit and tenacity to overcome the circumstances they found themselves in.
I am smitten by this work!
This is a work I will continue to return to in my own quest to improve my personal practice and find that elusive personal voice.
Iwanowski, M. (2016) Clear of People, Brave Books, Berlin
Clear of People: found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0_lBUl-3454 (Accessed May 2017)