Polonia

Photography exhibition focuses the lens on post-communist Poland

Rather that simply a collection of images, Polish-American photographer Allan Sekula is most definitely trying to provide a narrative with his exhibitions in Belfast Exposed, whether it’s peppering his images with quotes to contextualise them, or even going as far as providing a script for the show as though it were an unrealised film project still in its nascent stages.

The most interesting result of this narrative impulse is the contrast that is thrown between the images, like a jump cut in film – the juxtaposition, for example, of a rustic blacksmith’s workshop, all rough hewn tools and gnarled, knotted worktops, set against a fighter jet as it rolls from an aircraft hanger, it’s smooth metal and perfect lines looking for all the world as though no human hand played a part in it’s construction.

It is precisely this kind of discord that Sekula plays with, and the greatest juxtaposition in this dual exhibition, greater than that between image and action, word and intent, is that of a world untouched by capitalism coming crashing up against the reality of a world ruled by it.

Sekula's subject is post-communist Poland, the place his parents left for America, with the connection underlined by photographs of his mother and father in exile making up part of the exhibition.

Downstairs there are a selection of photographs collectively entitled Polonia and Other Fables. Polonia, apparently, is ‘the imaginary Poland that exists wherever there is a Pole’ and ‘is often represented by the image of a woman – typically a mother figure – the traditional guardian of national values’.

In relation to the photographs on display, this textual precursor can’t help but seem to be something of a hollow joke, being that these surreptitiously taken photographs illustrate, in the main, the ways in which the war on terror has impacted on Poland. It is, for example (as halfway point between the US and central Asia) a choice place for black sites for the interrogation of suspected terrorists captured by the United States military.

Such ideas could conceivably be seen as old hat now that we live in a post-Osama bin Laden world. And yet Sekula's photographs work as a sharp reminder of how much the world has changed in the last ten years, exploring how events have warped the world in which we live in and how the relationship works between countries of differing economic and social status.

Upstairs is a slide show entitled Walking on Water, a travelogue through Poland as the elections of 1995 take place, once again highlighting the impact that the fall of communism wrecked on the country.

The last vestiges the old way pass into the new – posters on plaster peeling walls advertisie casinos with images of casual wealth; the incongruous brightness of a sex shop against the grey concrete of a block of council housin; the same old street sellers as there were pre-Glasnost, but this time openly peddling pornography; and the uniforms, badges and other detritus of their recent past.

These images all tick past in the dark, inundating you with the sense of a country in disarray, being run roughshod over, with repeated images of dilapidation and survival set against that of false aspiration.

It is an angry exhibition, no doubt about it. But, considering the subject matter, it is hard to see how it could be any other way. And yet, despite this, there are flashes of humour to be enjoyed – dark humour, yes, but then what other kind of humour would fit?

Polonia and Other Fables runs in Belfast Exposed Gallery until August 19.