Since the beginning, Fotofestiwal has always intended to tackle seminal social issues and contribute to the wider debate on culture and society. As a fairly modern medium which dominates the visual sphere, photography harbors the potential for demonstrating a broad perspective on the current global shifts. Last year, dozens of art projects and group shows pored over the human relation to nature.
The upcoming 18th edition (13-30 June) of the festival encourages you to delve into the supernatural aspects of existence and reality, as well as into the speculative and hypothetical phenomena that defy explanation based on the purely empirical evidence. What does the supernatural stand for? How can we make sense of reality while departing from the scientifically validated knowledge and senses?
The supernatural element can be defined simply as the factor associated with the active forces other than the forces of nature. Commonplace understanding of the term pertains to religion, spirituality or paranormal activities. Nonetheless, a deeper interpretation ascribes the supernatural to the universal aspects of the evolution of human consciousness whose cognitive potential transcends the things we can specify and denominate clearly. A number of scholars followed this particular line of inquiry as far as their scrutiny of myth, religion, ritual and manifestations of abstract thinking, such as art, are concerned, including Mircea Eliade, Carl Gustav Jung, Joseph Campbell, as well as the advocates of the integral theory of consciousness – Ken Wilber and Jordan Peterson, who has gained a remarkable prominence recently. In that sense, the supernatural belongs simultaneously to the inner landscape and the external fragments of reality filled with phenomena we are now incapable of comprehending.
According to Jordan Peterson, a Canadian clinical psychologist specializing in culture studies, religion is a system of beliefs that aims to impose order on the chaos of the world while drawing on the familiar patterns of human behavior represented in the tales of gods and heroes. Balancing between the known and unknown gives meaning to one’s daily struggles and propels the human race forward. One’s immersion in the so called “latent” non-verbal part of existence, as well as reliance on the familiar and comfortable environment, would simply drive them insane. The supernatural can be therefore viewed as the missing link between the outer and the inner world of the unknown. In other words, people might come to terms with the state of their reality and psyche if they consider the supernatural as intrinsic to their life.
The origins of the earliest myths and beliefs are impossible to pinpoint. However, archeological findings indicate that the primordial peoples had practiced magic, engaged in rituals and conducted burials in the manner suggesting their faith in the afterlife prior to the homo sapiens’ dominance on earth. The ancient tribes had worshipped their immediate surroundings, living traditions and discerned laws of nature until the evolving attitude towards human existence precipitated the emergence of grand mono- and polytheistic religions portraying the deities as anthropomorphic figures. An experience of the world has always presupposed that certain reality aspects go way beyond its direct empirical observation. Communal rites and myths have fostered social order inside a community, forged the collective identity and consolidated a variety of tribes into a large society.
The notion of the supernatural does not necessarily invoke religion. Depending on an interpretation, religion can be deemed as global phenomenon or pertinent exclusively to the highly developed civilizations. The spiritual tradition in Europe rejected those belief systems that disregarded the presence of celestial beings. They were pronounced unreligious and thus unworthy of any study. The conjecture related to a marginal nature of religion is supported for instance by the Pirahã, the Amazon’s indigenous people. Their native language has no expression for describing the phenomena which aren’t witnessed first-hand or validated by the closest member of the tribe. David Everett came to the Amazon rainforest on a mission to translate the Bible into their language. However, the concept of the Christian god was foreign to the Pirahã people who were unable to comprehend the reason why they should even concern themselves with someone they can’t meet in person, which isn’t to say they espouse sheer empiricism. For their world is populated by ghosts which assume the form of humans and animals. Therefore, their experience of the supernatural involves a direct contact with the being reminiscent of an actual person. In addition, one could draw the conclusion that the category of “the supernatural” is only useful in those civilizations that advocate for the supremacy of humanism, secular nation and separation of an everyday reality from the sacred and spiritual spheres of life.
In retrospective, we gained a remarkable insight into a broad spectrum of theories attempting to elucidate the nature of reality, including suppositions formulated thousands of years ago, as well as those inspired by our contemporary predicament. An investigation into a variety of beliefs, rites, spiritual practices, scientific answers to metaphysical questions, as well as our fascination with magic, alchemy and paranormal activities allow us not only to retrace the human history along with its determinants, but also to acquire a deeper understanding of our need to register and explain the world.
Logically speaking, the evolution of science should have debunked any mystical doctrines or beliefs and reinforced the prime of reason and knowledge-based system of the global order. However, people soon realized that paradoxically there is an abundance of notions they can’t grasp and know about owing to an expansion of scientific study, especially development of quantum physics. In spite of the efforts to popularize the latest discoveries demonstrated by such great thinkers as Neil deGrass Tyson and Stephen Hawking, contemporary science still eludes our general understanding.
On the other hand, proliferating research into the origins of life on earth, the quintessence of consciousness or quantum activity does fire people’s imagination and encourage ruminations traversing the pre-established knowledge. To some degree, science employs a disparate set of tools in order to answer the questions that used to operate only within the domain of the religious and spiritual. Our decision to broach this subject derives from the artists’ exponentially keen interest in the shamanic and esoteric practices, as well as the biochemical and technological expansion of the limits of human consciousness, which we have witnessed for several years now. Moreover, we intend to explore the role of contemporary mediums, including photography, in creating the visual account of the invisible and paranormal experiences.
Through painstakingly scrutinized, the elusive sphere of spirituality and faith incites a vigorous debate that expunges the possibility of a straightforward documentation and simple portrayal. The projects we have selected will certainly spark discussions and reflections on the supernatural phenomena in reality. This year’s festival invites you to examine this universal quality of human existence through the prism of the European culture and artists’ own vision that utilizes not only photography, but also other art mediums, e.g. music and video, to evoke the context of anthropology, psychology and exact science.
The festival programme comprises eight solo shows and one group show that oscillate around the three main themes.
First of all, the festival unveils the projects related to spiritual communities, rituals and cultural roots of spirituality itself. These subjects are addressed primarily in two ambitious and geographically vast art projects: Piotr Zbierski’s “Echoes Shades” curated by Peggy Sue Amison and “The Cham Project” by Nicola Lo Calzo, whose presentation is staged in collaboration with Jeanne Mercier, a curator.
For almost a decade, Lo Calzo has conducted a visual investigation into the postcolonial heritage of the 21st century Atlantic region. The photographer travels to the historic sites in the North and South America, Europe and Africa to collect narratives and document the intangible remnants of the tragic past. Preserving their beliefs and identity constituted the last forms of resistance against the colonial oppression for hundreds of millions of people who were deported from the African continent to another geographic location and forced to perform the slave labor. Lo Calzo guides us through the spiritual traditions of Africa, conveys their daily manifestations maintained by the subsequent generations of slaves and demonstrates the power of collective experience to stifle the dramatic past. In addition, his project illustrates how religious rituals were transformed by the age of colonialism and slavery.
Whereas the visual essay compiled by Piotr Zbierski deals with the ceremonies slipping into obscurity, traditional cultures’ connection with nature and their distinct approach to mortality. One of the tribes that captured a photographer’s attention are the Toraja, whose members came in contact with the European civilization no sooner than in the early 20th century. As a result, their beliefs have remained almost unchanged for hundreds of years. Zbierski’s photographs portray the so called Ma’nene ceremony held once every three years. The ritual encompasses removing the bodies of close relatives from the graves and replacing their clothing, so that they can “return” to the world of living and spend a couple of days with their loved ones. The Toraja devote great care to the burial they spare no expense on, since death is always honored in their culture. They learn from birth that death is just another stage of one’s spiritual journey rather than the end.
Another pair of artists – Christoph Draeger and Heidrun Holzfeind – probes into the contemporary ways of communal living based on the mystical and humanist ideals. The eponymous Auroville denotes an experimental township founded in the 1960s in the south of India that drew on the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and his pupil Mirra Alfassa (the Mother). This social experiment, which lasts until this day, aims to build the site for spiritual researches of its community members who together could attain autonomy and self-sufficiency while paying no heed to their class, race and financial status. The ceremonious inauguration of the settlement attended by delegates from 124 countries took place over fifty years ago. Drager and Holzfeind decided to visit Auroville and verify whether the vision of the Mother has been implemented successfully, whether the ideas of harmony and joint spiritual quest have stood the test of time and survived among its current population of over 2500 citizens.
Another thematic section of the festival comprises a group of projects devoted to the intersection of scientific progress and metaphysics. The artists provide us with rational answers to the spiritual questions. “The Last Road of the Immortal Woman” by David Fathi unravels the story of Henrietta Lacks, an Afro-American woman who died of cancer in the 1950s. A sample of her cancer cells was retrieved without a consent of her family or hers. Ever since then, her cells have been multiplied, transported and utilized in a number of research and experiments. A documentation of this notorious medical case raises awareness of transgressions committed by scientists driven by the promise of a breakthrough. The project also touches upon the issue of boundaries of existence delineated previously by religion and philosophy. Currently, life extension and hence any attempts to grant immortality to selected individuals pose a great scientific challenge.
The discoveries from the field of physics and astrophysics made in the 20th and 21st century have ushered in a brand-new era in our understanding of the world alongside its spatial and temporal properties, which had been deemed absolute and linear. In his project “Hypothesis,” Henrik Spohler takes a closer look at the scientific inquiry into these notions, documenting for years the most prominent research centers specializing in the exploration of space and life of Earth.
Although we live in the times of dwindling faith and rising atheism or just a common ignorance of anything even remotely related to spirituality, a fairly impressive collection of people discovers spirituality on their own accord, outside any form of institutionalized religious system. It’s hard to state with absolute certainty whether the proposed paths towards spiritual enlightenment originate from honest intentions or whether it’s just an effective ploy to make an easy buck. At times, capitalism may render manifold spins on spirituality ridiculous, as we are frequently offered participation in rituals, healing treatments and magical objects, which are usually all underpinned by some pseudoscientific theories. Klaus Pichler addresses this precise subject with a hint of irony in his project entitled “This will change your life forever.”
The final theme, associated with imagining the supernatural phenomena and ghost encounters, explores the roles of an artist capable of extrapolating hidden meanings. Images wield the power to transfer the supernatural from the sphere of myths and dogmas into the pop-culture’s orbit. Films drawing on magical realism enjoy a tremendous popularity and stir up intense emotions among the audiences, especially features portraying some apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic scenarios of the human race plagued by natural disasters or other alien forces. “American Revelations,” Brad Feuerhelm’s exhibit, demonstrates the power of an image, in this case a collection of his own postcards and newspaper photographs from the early 20th century. Feuerhelm gathered the pictures that either illustrate directly or elicit the sense of an apocalypse. Even though a depiction of religious visions dates back to the origins of Christianity, it was the photographic medium that played a crucial role in lending credence to their representation. Since the beginning, photography has testified to the existence of the invisible element, for instance by registering the presence of spirits during seances.
A group show entitled “Rooms” curated by Franek Ammer pores over this precise function of photography, as well as the function of the image itself. The phenomenon of quantum photography, which allows you to capture the thing allows the camera to capture the object through remote light particles, marks the point of departure for a joint exhibit centered on the potential of an image to display the invisible. Special emphasis is placed on the concept of space conjured up or recounted by the artists. This space can be interpreted in terms of a vehicle for the supernatural, spiritual, paranormal and magical, as well as the mindset or visual symbolic representation of the inner transformations of consciousness. The pieces by Patrycja Orzechowska, Kuba Woynarowski, Alexander Gehring, Milena Soporowska and Carlo van de Roer fuse the sacred and the profane together, project alchemic transmutations and the potential convergence of the supernatural in a darkroom.
Fotofestiwal 2019 presents the juxtaposition of the human experience pertaining to the intangible, spiritual, sensory and esoteric with the cerebral and scientific outlook on the world and its depictions in photography. Is our most beloved medium capable of making the invisible visible?