Ex Oriente Lux – Documentary Project from Poland

Photo: Lukasz Wolagiewicz

At the end of the spring term ECLA of Bard welcomed members of the Club of Philosophy from the University of Bialystok, Poland and their – in the words of Katarzyna Chocha (chairman of the club) – “institutional and inspirational” tutor, Bartosz Kuzniarz, and their “non-institutional, but inspirational” tutor Piotr Nowak, both Doctors of Philosophy.

Polish guests  acquainted the ECLA community with two artistic projects that took place in Poland and many compelling issues and themes that those projects elaborated in their own way.

On Thursday, June 7th Katarzyna Chocha, Michal Krot, and Maciej Dulewicz presented the social-documentary project Ex Oriente Lux and gave a lecture titled Between Eastern Mysticism and Western Rationalism. The Spirit of the Boarderline.

Ex Oriente Lux is one of the largest photography projects that took place in Poland (with contributions by twelve photographers, among them Grzegorz Dabrowski, Jakub Dabrowski, Andrzej Górski, Adam Kardasz, Andrzej Kramarz, Rafal Milach, Piotr Niemczynowicz, Pawel Supernak,Piotr Szymon, Lukasz Wolagiewicz), one of whose aims was to try to capture and give a comprehensive account of the everyday life and spirit of the region of Podlasie in 2002 before Poland’s entry into the European Union.

Podlasie is a historical region in Northeast Poland that borders Belarus and Lithuania. As, historically, Poland was partitioned by Russia, Prussia, and Austro-Hungary, it has not been simply a ‘western’ or ‘eastern’ country, but rather a “borderline” between the two. The spirit of the region of Podlasie, however, appears as a smaller “borderline” within “borderline” Poland.

As most of the population of Poland is Catholic, Podlasie appears somewhat separated from the ‘west’ by its significantly Eastern Orthodox spiritual character. This said, the multi-ethnic richness of the community, in which the everyday reality is shaped by the common beliefs and activities of Orthodox Christians, Tatars, Jews, and Muslims, it becomes increasingly difficult to speak of a separation of eastern and western spirits, but instead possible to contemplate the particularity and uniqueness of one spirit – that of the borderline.

The spirit of the borderline that the photographs depict has a common religious spirit. One of the main themes of the project is that of the sacred, its everyday reality and the daily practices in which it is carried out and preserved. Somehow, even the most mundane experiences seem to be conducted with some regard to the spiritual.

One may see this evidenced by the figure of the cross, frequently encountered in the shots, or the very expressions of the people as they work: there is a certain serenity in the human glances in Podlasie – the serenity that stems not from comfort, but from the peace of the mind that does not see the divine as separate from the earthly.

The documentary portrayal of the execution of routine daily activities shows that these are endowed with the kind of spiritual quality discernible in the particular religious ceremonies and rituals recorded by the photographs. The care that the people take in their work, in their ‘boring’ everyday lives, is not distinct from that taken in carrying a cross up a hill.

I have a particular picture in mind (perhaps my favorite from the project): a boy, or rather, a young man carrying a cross, being stumped by its weight. The reference to the Passion of Christ, or the Christian aesthetics of the photo is not the only component that makes this still fascinating, but rather the fact that we need not see the face of the boy to interpret his gestures, his sentiment, internal world, spirit.

Somehow the very act of carrying the sacred object reveals much more than the idiosyncratic expressions of the countenance; we somehow see much more of the essence of human emotion when it is paradoxically concealed by the act of devotion. Many, if not all, of the photographs reveal the human in his devotion even in the smallest and seemingly insignificant details of his daily life.

Although the theme of religion is undisputedly one of the main subjects of the project, the spirit of the borderline is revealed also through Podlasie’s artistic and cultural richness. The depiction of various festivals, particularly of music, offers the viewer another aspect of the ‘everydayness’ of the region. While some of the events are tied to the religious character of Podlasie like the festival of “Orthodox Church Music”, others are devoted to the secular aspects of life that often are in tension with the sacred – “The Contemporary Art Week” in Bialystok and the festival of Belarusian Rock Music in Grodek.

The idea that music reveals a spirit that is both secular and sacred, eastern and western is preserved in the black-and-whiteness of the photographs. The sharp division between black and white, like that between east and west, or between mysticism and rationalism, become complicated through our perception of the photos: even though the pictures are black and white, they leave a colourful mark or sentiment; they contain a multicolored spirit within the border of the non-colors.

Perhaps the social documentary quality of the Ex Oriente Lux cannot be explained in terms of a ‘depiction’, ‘portrayal’, ‘document’, but as a conversation, a plethora of subjects and themes, a whole social world that the photographs offer to the viewer – a multifaceted spirit captured between the black and white of the photo, and between the work of art and the viewer.

By Maria Androushko (1st year BA, Bulgaria)

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