Given its typically secondary role, it's rare for narrative to make such a radical difference to how we read a piece of art. Narrative is a form of secondary payoff which means we don't pause to look at a mere pretty landscape. Beauty carries a price and in the case of the narratives of Ula Wiznerowicz, it is a very high price. Is it significant that the pictures were taken in Poland? They could have been taken anywhere, and therein lies their communicative power. The destructive power of addiction knows no limits and is immune to the wealth of nations.
There is a curtain and a world behind the curtain. The title Behind the Curtain brutally transports the viewer from an aesthetic experience to an existential one. It suggests that the images carry a double meaning. We are confronted with the first circle of (Dante's?) hell. Beautiful landscapes introduce a visual dissonance. Cruel nature, indifferent to human fate and the losing battle fought by the subjects (often absent from the images) against their own weakness. Nature doesn't judge or assess value. Intruding into this record of the external world we find still life images taken indoors - spaces seen through the eyes of an artist. These compositions, while made up of modest everyday objects, can be beautiful too. These modest items are bare living essentials. No one has arranged them or shifted them around. Their owners won't throw them away. They are placed where they are needed.
The lens records the fading colours, a well-used gas stove, a cat looking for a comfortable spot amidst clouds of cigarette smoke, perhaps some leftover food. Occasionally people make their presence felt in the images, people who are powerless in the grips of addiction. There are also the landscapes which they do not see. And there are the women who never lose hope.
"If this is an exhibition about alcoholism then I'm the queen of Sheba." So began an exchange I overheard between two newly-acquainted photographers on the steps of London's Polish Cultural Centre (POSK). "Go and look for yourself, I challenge you to find anything in there on the subject."
The photos presented by Ula Wiznerowicz on 25 November at the POSK Gallery showed no bottles, vomit-strewn carpets or the iconic elderly alcoholic struggling to mount a bicycle in the mud of a country lane. There was also an absence of images of enlarged livers, faces full of swollen teeth or photocopies of invoices for nights spent in the state drunk-tank.
I don't think, however, that such images are really worth looking at. And anyway, such artistic motifs are already being used by the UK Department of Health as health warnings on cigarette packets. All the paper used to convince us of the terrible effects of drinking alcohol could no doubt be used to wrap up the whole planet. It doesn't look like those publications have ever successfully helped anyone to kick the habit.
Is it compulsory for an exhibition to shock? At least once a week I'm shocked by the excesses of my drunken neighbours outside my window. It's no secret that my chosen form of stress relief is to sip a dark ale wittily entitled 'Bishop's Finger'.
The images presented by Ula Wiznerowicz are, instead, a window onto a distant world, nearly forgotten by the majority of emigrants. It is a cruel world, an empty void in which the only cure for our painful grey of existence is alcohol, a wretched world devoid of content. The artist has made this world more palatable with a subtle palette of colours which sometimes make it hard to tell if we're looking at a photograph or a painting.
I must admit I was surprised by the maturity of these images which seems at odds with the young age of the artist. I don't how old Jacek Kaczmarski was when he wrote the song Encore One More Time, but I was reminded of its words when I considered the subject of the exhibition. Somehow these two modes of expression seemed to chime together. They revealed an image of reality seen through the eyes of a man who lived life under the pressure of terrifying loneliness. In between alcoholic trances he saw himself standing on the precipice of his unfulfilled dreams. Perhaps it was only when I connected the words of the song with the images that I was able to see clearly. I don't know if Ula Wiznerowicz also had so clear a vision of what she wanted to express or whether she only intuited the existence of a certain state of consciousness, a state that seems very distant from the young, pretty and ambitious Londoner.