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The Battle for Poland’s Identity: Piotr Uklański’s Photos Capture A Nation Conflicted

A 50-photograph survey at the National Museum in Kraków explores past and present-day nationalism in the artist's homeland

Seen on an evening after All Saints’ Day, the village cemetery is a glowing patch within a mosaic of autumnal fields. While romantic, this sight is quintessentially Polish, its title, Untitled (‘Yes to Joining Europe, but Only Together with our Deceased Ones’) (2015), a reference to a book by literature scholar Maria Janion published in 2000 that anticipated a debate on the country’s accession to the European Union four years later. This is one of over 50 photographs that make up ‘Poland’, a solo exhibition of work by Piotr Uklański presented at the National Museum in Kraków.

While their descriptive labels are contained within an exhibition pamphlet, the images – both monochrome and colour and arranged in a frieze on a single wall – trigger a cascade of associations and déjà vus for the Polish viewer. National monuments and memorials, landscapes, natural scenes and architecture shots: all is familiar. At times, these images align and produce micro-narratives, as with the unlikely encounter of Roman Dmowski, the nationalist statesman hailed as one of the founding fathers by the current far right, whose statue (Untitled [‘I Am Polish, Therefore My Obligations Are Polish’], 2015) appears to be contemplating a memorial commemorating Jews, which was erected after Dmowski’s death (Untitled [Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, Warsaw], 2016). To his right, two aerial shots of crowds amassed beneath billowing smoke record recent marches celebrating the anniversaries of Poland’s independence and the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.

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Piotr Uklański, Untitled (Monument to the Heroes of the Red Army at the Cemetery of Soviet Soldiers, Bielsko-Biała), 2015, silver print. Courtesy: the artist and Foksal Gallery Foundation 

Just as Uklański’s series, ‘Joy of Photography’ (1996–2007), took as its point of departure a pre-existing Kodak handbook for amateur photographers, ‘Poland’ constitutes an imagined photo album assembled from genuine constituents that portrays the country through its landmark sites and symbolic sights. Much like the many photographic series that were produced after WWII and sought to consolidate a new Polish identity using romanticized imagery, Uklański’s album was compiled while travelling across present-day Poland. Replete with quotations from poetry, prose and popular culture, the titles and extended captions frequently sit in contrast to the images, steering the viewer away from the apparent interpretation. There is little claim to completeness, here, let alone veracity. This is a selection of images compiled by a Pole who looks from a distance; a polonus: an old-fangled émigré harbouring own concepts of tradition. Uklański hints at this in one of the few images shot outside his homeland: Untitled (‘Wladyslaw Jagiello, Victor over the Germanic Aggressors at Grunwald, New York’) (2018), which nonetheless fits seamlessly in the frieze. Yet this conceptual distance is precisely what lets Uklański cast things in an uncompromising, sharp relief.

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Piotr Uklański, Untitled (Book of Exits 3.5), 2015, photography. Courtesy: the artist and Foksal Gallery Foundation 

Reading the extended caption to the cemetery scene, I unwittingly pause over the name of the village: Stodoły. ‘Stodoły’ means barns, a word that took on a sinister connotation in Polish in 2000, with the publication of Jan T. Gross’s book, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. Released in the same year as Janion’s book, which lent its title to the image, Neighbors recounts a 1941 massacre of Polish Jews in a small village by their non-Jewish neighbours, in which some 300 people were forced into a barn that was then set on fire. Commenting on both books in 2001 in the Warsaw newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, the author Marek Bieńczyk wrote: ‘If we won’t settle the score with our deceased ones, they will come out from under the earth, as they did in Jedwabne, to haunt us and wreak havoc’. This is one of many images of Poland depicted in Uklański’s album, but the deceased do indeed return, either as those never duly mourned for or those revived to fight in Europe’s newest conflicts. Albeit quiet, Poland is still a battleground.

Piotr Uklański, 'Poland' runs at National Museum in Kraków, until 30 December 2018.

Main image: Piotr Uklański, Untitled ('Bulwark of Christianity.' Stronghold in Kamieniec Podolski, Kamyanets-Podil'skyi, Ukraine), 2018, colour photograph. Courtesy: the artist and Foksal Gallery Foundation

Krzysztof Kościuczuk is a writer and contributing editor of frieze. He lives in Warsaw.

Issue 199

First published in Issue 199

November - December 2018
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