April 24, 2014, one of the most important, at least photographically, days of the year, at least in the tricity. The day of the opening of the Erwin Olaf exhibition; of the first in years exhibition of a true photographic star in this region. Of course, first of all I’d like to express true admiration for everyone who made it possible to bring this artist and his work to the tricity; it is a true achievement and titanic work. Thank you.
Now, for the swarm of flies in this little bit of ointment. The Polish realities.
- The open lecture of Erwin Olaf. The auditorium of the Academy of Fine Arts, one would think the one university that should be ready to host such a presentation. The auditorium is jam backed with people; some sitting on the floor, some on the window sills, some standing by the walls; this alone signals success. True, there are people in the crowd that simply had to come; one can see no interest in their case. Looks like at least one lecturer from the academy is going to check the list. Still, the vast majority clearly came of their own accord and are truly interested, trying to get as much from the lecture as possible. After all this is a rare opportunity. And immediately the first problem appears; the images shown by the speaker on a beamer appear to be 3D, only we have no glasses. The key word is ‘appear’ cause of course they are not 3D. The edges of each image are sharp, the centre desperately out of alignment. And all this is happening to Erwin Olaf photographs, known for their perfection, attention to every detail. This projection is a brutal, sadistic murder committed on photographs. Halfway through the lecture the artist notices what is wrong. He asks the organizers to fix the problem only to learn that ‘nothing can be done’. In a totally helpless and perfectly disarming gesture he turns his own small monitor towards the audience. Needless to say, the image is perfect there. This is simply pathetic! The Academy of Fine Arts, the temple of arts one would think a place that should set the standards and an image that is totally unacceptable, out of focus that bothers no one except for the artist and one member of the audience protesting loudly. Once, in the past, this sort of situation could be explained with the lack of money and this would be hard to refute, but not today. The auditorium is equipped very well, the two beamers are top class equipment each costing a small fortune. The problem is no one cares, no one bothers to align the screen, to make sure the image is displayed properly. If this is the model, how can we expect artists to pay attention to details such as quality of the image or its presentation? Or is this why so many graduates choose to take pictures that are out of focus?
2. Still during the lecture. Erwin Olaf speaks in English; a foreign language to himself but at the same time one that is commonly known. Nice of him that he didn’t choose to speak Dutch as this would be… well, Greek to most of us. Of course, there is an interpreter too but what a wonder she is! She makes one sentence out of ten, turns and twists the meaning of what the artists says, loses her trail and censors what he says. All his hairy jokes are lost in translation and it is so bad that at one point the artist himself notices that another little lewd joke is gone and asks in surprise ‘no balls’? What we should exclaim instead is what the f&#!? I understand that a competent interpreter costs money, I also noticed that the speaker was a typical interpretor’s nightmare giving no pauses. Still, what we heard during the lecture was some sort of sick parody that shouldn’t have happened. So bad actual, that at one point the audience rebelled and demanded that the interpreter stops interpreting at all.
The exhibition was another great achievement of the organizers. Perfect presentation, well considered arrangement of images, perfectly arranged space, excellent information about each picture including the technical data. What they did was in no way inferior to the Richard Avedon exhibition in Berlin. What also matters is that there was a real crowd. I hope the people in power draw the right conclusions and we get an opportunity to see more exhibitions like this. Unfortunately, this is where the good stuff ends; in order to buy the catalogue you need to wait half an hour; the task of selling the same book for the same money all the time is too complicated for the ladies emlpoyed. It looks almost like they never sold anything in their lives and don’t know what to do with all the sudden traffic. Might be so, of course. Never mind, the catalogue is gorgeous.
Unfortunately, technology beats us again. During the speeches the wireless microphones keep interfering with the speakers (or whatever else) and they keep producing weird sounds. Working audio equipment can easily be rented. At least here someone tries to react, correct the working of the equipment. Shame it was not done earlier, good that at least in the museum someone cares.
4. the exhibition continues. An ‘artist’ apparently educated in the academy tries to finger the baryta print. Thank Goodness it is behind the glass, but if Erwin Olaf had chosen to show his pictures the way Bogdan Konopka does, with no glass pane interfering, he might have been disappointed. The question that comes to mind is whether this ‘artist’ even realises what archival prints or baryta paper mean? Or, for example, that human sweat can compromise the longevity of silver gelatin prints/ I am afraid she doesn’t as no one thinks about or teaches things like that any more and fibre based paper sales count in single boxes per year (not joking).
5. And now, the saddest thing; the confrontation with the attitude to an outstanding artist as presented in Poland and the Netherlands. Yes, I realize Olaf is a big name and an important artist and we don’t have many of that standing. Still, there are a few important artists both among the older and the younger generation, many of whom decided it is only reasonable to have an English web page. At the Olaf exhibition in Gdańsk, three hundred kilometres from Warsaw (and the embassy) we had both the ambassador and the cultural attache. Some of the works on exhibition came from the collection of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The embassy also sponsored the catalogue and actively participated in preparing the exhibition. Accidentally, the interior of the embassy is normally decorated with Erwin Olaf prints and I dare suspect it is not the only Dutch embassy presenting his work or that of other outstanding Dutch artists.
Obvious questions come to mind. How many works of outstanding Polish photographers have been bought by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the last decade. How many openings of exhibitions by contemporary Polish photographers (or artists in generally) were attended by our ambassadors (especially if they had to travel 300km for that purpose)? How many exhibitions by Polish contemporary photographers were organized or partly organized by our embassies? How many Polish embassies are decorated with prints by Polish contemporary photographers (or artists in general) that were actually purchased for this purpose? And what action do Polish diplomats take to promote our artists abroad?
And thus an outstanding exhibition, an important event makes us realise why Polish photography is, and will for a long time remain in deep sh&#. Because it will until we start giving our future artists the best possible example, also when it comes to technical requirements, respect for the original, for the work of an artist and its presentation. It will until we stop saying that the idea itself, separated from its perfect execution and presentation will suffice. It will as long as we keep showing projections out of focus and claiming that everything is alright. It will, as long as the majority of photographers have no idea what an archival, collectible print looks like and as long as they think a portfolio comes in a minilab folder.
On the other hand, little will change if we don’t start searching for the most interesting artists and promoting them as is done by the Dutch and by many other nations. As long as openings are not political events co-organized by ambassadors, as long as embassies and diplomatic representations are not decorated permanently with the most interesting works of our own artists and as long as promoting our own art doesn’t become both a duty and a privilege of the elites, also the political elites. Because the best, truest support given to the artist is not a simple scholarship (though these are often needed and important), but promotion and respect, the sense that you are appreciated and what you are doing has a meaning.