Artist and writer Nick Kline spoke with Katarina Poliacikova about hesitation, photo-graphy, and the artist book accompanying her current exhibition, Until we remember the same, at Open Source Gallery (November 9 – December 1, 2013). The artist book, which is a small edition, has a poem on the cover, and—aside from the colophon—the only text is a date on the page of each photograph always depicting the sun. In a chronological progression that spans a year, the book can be read forwards and backwards, punctuated by the same poem on each cover.
Nick Kline (Rail): Your book reminds me of Michael Snow’s Cover to Cover, both in structure and in a desire for a never-ending narrative.
Katarina Poliacikova: On Snow’s book, there is a photograph of a door on both covers. So once you open it, you are entering an intimate space. With my book, you enter a very intimate space, a relationship built page by page. And yet, in order to take all those pictures, we had to go outside and look up to an object in a space so far that one can’t even call it exterior anymore. So there is this contradiction of the personal and the universal.
Rail: This project is a collaborative effort with your sister.
The two of you met as adults, for the first time, four years ago. In an attempt to build a relationship, absent memories of a shared youth, you used photography to get closer. This is the intimacy you mentioned above, yet when I initially look at the images they’re not warm and inviting. You choose to hide the personal under the complex structure of the performance, and reveal it to a viewer, in a roundabout way, only after they work to understand more. I think this is like the extreme dynamic you describe of interior-exterior—one is revealed, while the other protects. The camera brings us closer but also distances us, unless we really care.
Poliacikova: Personal memories and family history occur in my work very often and, as you say, the form it takes is not usually warm and inviting, rather quite the opposite. Somehow, I believe that the emotion and the impact a piece of art has on a viewer can get even stronger in this roundabout way. With my work, it is when an almost indifferent form makes you wonder and then reveals an intense, emotional message. And, when talking about Until we remember the same, there is yet another contradiction within the medium of photography itself. A couple of days ago, actually right after we met at the gallery to see the show, I read this passage in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway: “She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time she was outside, looking on.” Out of the original context, I’d love to relate this sentence to the camera’s paradoxical ability you mentioned above.
Rail: The title of your series, Until we remember the same, is insistent. It reminds me of my father trying to teach me something that I just couldn’t get right. I wonder about two things that were an important part of your process: endurance and a desire for a solitary memory.
Poliacikova: I usually struggle when it comes to titling a work, though in this case it was clear from the very beginning of the process. Until we remember the same implies the endurance and desire you are talking about, in contrast to impossibility and failure. I think that my whole work is woven around this tension of accepting the unachievable and at the same time, never ceasing to give up. I think it also defines my approach to the medium of photography—constantly failing at understanding it, yet I never stop wondering.
We will never remember the same. We won’t be able to live our childhood again, together. But somehow we managed to build this, what you call “solitary memory,” that is not mine nor my sister’s, but exists somewhere in the space between us. Not so much in all those captures of the sun, as in the time between the shots, in between the pages one could say, staying ungraspable.
Rail: Photographically, I think of works that depict light having the effect of looking back at the viewer: Hiroshi Sugimoto’s cinema screens, Penelope Umbrico’s Suns (From Sunsets) from Flickr, even the serial killer in the film Peeping Tom by Michael Powell. However, maybe more appropriate to your work is Alfred Stieglitz’s Equivalents.
Poliacikova: The light has been always present in my work and, as I started to question the medium where the light is the most important source, I looked (literally) straight into the sun.
Stieglitz’s Equivalents are exceptional. Today, pictures of the clouds and sun might seem too obvious, but these photographs, abstract and free of any narrative content, were taken before photography was accepted as art. It was rather daring when he aimed his camera at the sky, and the sun—the origin of the medium itself. However, there is a narrative behind my clouds and suns.
Rail: Looking at the sun is an extreme activity to do everyday. On one hand, looking directly at the sun can be warm and comforting. However, it can also be blinding, and if it’s always under the clouds, depressing. With our busy lives we often fail to look up at the sky, and to see the bigger picture of life. If I were involved in this project, I’d become more aware of my climate and environment’s impact on me emotionally. Now that this project is complete, what kinds of emotional impact did it have?
Poliacikova: Yes, especially in New York, nobody has time to look up! During that one year, taking pictures everyday, I was conscious of every single moment when I did it. It was great to have this brief, yet precious time of self-awareness. I remember looking up all the time and being dazzled, in the middle of the street, for a few seconds after taking the picture. Elena, my sister, had this great idea of how to locate the sun when it was completely cloudy: look up into the sky, close your eyes and turn your face until you feel faint warmth. That’s what we did; it worked. When I look at the photographs now, in most cases I can recall the very specific situation and circumstances, the place where it was taken. I’m thrown back in time, reminded of something I would otherwise forget.