Przemysław Pokrycki. “Rites of Passage”, 06.09–06.10

A Photographer in the theatre of social rites

Tomasz Ferenc

Each period creates its own rites. They are essential to maintain a society and to keep an axiological order. Some of them disappear, other change their form and significance. There is, however, a set of universal rites such as incorporating a child to the community, marriage rites and the rituals of bidding the deceased farewell. Their momentousness results from a chain of biological, social and religious spheres of human life. Certainly they are also subject to change, their course and the ways of celebration are being transformed. Sometimes they become only a form deprived of comprehension and emotional involvement.

Przemysław Pokrycki in his cycle Rites of Passage photographs the secular aspects of religious ceremonies. Namely, in turn: a baptism, a Holy Communion, a church wedding and a vigil at the dead body. The key events in the biography of a Catholic which lead him/her to the successive stages of life and – as in the last case – to life after death. The rites are accompanied with the sacraments and related celebrations. The first, a baptism is a sacrament of Christian initiation, a beginning of a new life, then the Eucharist that is a first Communion and finally a social sacrament of marriage. Also a vigil at the dead body is connected with the Christian sacrament of the last rites. Therefore, it aims not only at consecrating a transformation but at enabling the individuals and the whole groups to undergo changes safely, if it is possible, of’ course. Then, which emphasizes Joanna Tokarska-Bakir, it compensates a tension inevitably connected with a change. Thanks to it the change is completed controllably and consequently we cannot talk about the irrationality of the rites. According to Arnold van Gennep every change in human life is accompanied with a rite of passage. It refers to all domains of life, its consecutive stages resulting form a biological development (from birth to death), the change of a social status (marriage, fatherhood, motherhood), advancement in a group hierarchies and even when we cross all symbolic or spatial borders.      

Pokrycki showing the social forms of celebrating those events creates a large collective portrait of the Poles. The cycle, however, poses many questions. They refer to the two fundamental issues, disclosed in the context of the theory of photography on one hand and a theory of sociology, on the other hand. The first asks about a status of a document with reference to considerations on a nature of photography and its presence in the world of contemporary art. The second deals with the social aspects of rites, ceremonies, holidays and more broadly with the whole system of cultural reproduction and the methods of researching it (which include among others photography). Therefore, we need both perspectives to perform an analysis. We have to recognize and characterize the convention employed by Pokrycki but we also have to take a stance on the meaning of his photographs. Let us start from the convention of documentary photography. As an introduction I would like to mention an interesting phenomenon. Namely, a documentary photography has been lately experiencing a great revival in Poland. The exhibitions of the documentary photographers are presented in the leading galleries and at the big collective exhibitions. We might have an impression that the documentary trend has dominated over Polish photography. It was possible, thanks to the change of context in which documentary photography was presented, as Zbigniew Tomaszczuk noticed. The documents were incorporated into art circulation.  

The photographic cycle of Pokrycki belongs to a photographic genre described from time to time as sociological. It has it own long and great history established by masters such as Eugen Atget or August Sander. In both those cases we were dealing with a total project.  Atget was methodically showing Paris and its citizens, Sander wished to create a collective portrait of a German society. This totality of the premises obviously cannot be transformed into the totality of realization. It does not mean, however, that the assumption of this principle is wrong, it marks out the course and the range (or should we say the immensity) of work. Pokrycki also wishes to create a great sociological record of the Polish ritual customs. He wants to reach all social classes, he photographs all over the country during selected ceremonies. The testimonial photography that Pokrycki practices, gains credibility thanks to the rules of repeatability, as well as seriality and the resemblance of shots, which constitute some distinguishing features of this kind of photography. Here we approach an important for the theoreticians of this medium discussion about a status of documentary photography. It is a trace of what was supposed to be photographed and what could have been recorded unintentionally. But at the some time it is a trace of the photographer’s work, his style, shots and his point of view. The play between what was indented and what was accidental constitutes a great “overgiven” value of a document. And the moment of an “oversight” is the most fascinating. It is not a matter of chance. A photographer aims the lens of his camera deliberately and intentionally in order to let “a situation” go inside a camera along with the whole richness, complexity and multi-dimensionality of the scene taking place in front of him. He himself initiates the game in which it is not possible to control all rules. And I do not mind in this moment, a Flusserian game between a man and a camera, but a game between a man and a reality grabbed with a camera. As Francois Soulages writes, every photographer is a director and every act of taking a photograph is a game. “A spectator of a photograph thinks that it is a proof of reality, whereas it constitutes only a sign of a game” . According to French theoretician every photograph can be considered as a form of theatricalization, which belongs to the world of art, it means the artificial world. In the case of a discussed photographic cycle, photographic theatricalization infers with the theatricalization seen as the social celebration of ceremonies.  Employing a dramaturgical approach of Erving Goffman we agree on using a theatrical metaphor and an entire set resulting from this notion. As Goffman notices “when an individual crosses the circle of a direct presence of others, he/she has a lot of reasons to attempt to control the impression he or she makes on others”. In this perspective every public presentation of an individual is determined by a performance consisting of a façade (a permanent part of an individual’s performance), a personal façade (the means of expression strongly connected with the performer) a decoration (scenery and the props). Everything takes place on a stage, which can be a banqueting hall, a flat a church. Analyzing Pokrycki’s photographs we may research some aspects of a personal façade such as: cloth, sex, insignia, posture, gesture and mimics. We should keep in mind, however, that there is only the initial moment, the opening of a ceremony in those pictures. Photographed people, except for the children breaking the conventions, pose within the frames of known rules of family photography, they stick to their roles, and their personal facades have the official and stiff character.

Pokrycki’s works show among others the appearance of new elements on the banquet tables and the indoor holiday decorations but also still present in Polish homes so called sainted images. The greatness of a project proves the stratification of a society and the diversity of celebration styles due to the material status, it depicts different lifestyles and standards of living after Polish transformations. The time of holiday understood as the time of play is a specific one and is governed by its own rules. Those rules according to Roger Caillois include: repeatability, separation in time and space, expressing in norms unproductiveness (during play people do not produce anything) and some tensions accompanying the games (e.g. happiness or sadness). Those rules operate also during the mourning. “A transitional period in a funeral rite is expressed by a longer or a shorter stay of a deceased (in a coffin or not) on a bier – in a vigil room, a chapel, en entrance hall etc. The mourning is a transitional period for those who stay on earth. It constitute a rite that starts with the excluding and finishes with the again integration with a society, which may put on a form of a feast after the funeral. This part of a project seems to be extremely interesting, especially in the times when the dead body is immediately taken over by the specialized company and when as Zygmunt Bauman writes, the death becomes the biggest Stranger of this world         

Pokrycki tells a story about us depicting ceremonies which we happen to attend. We know those rites from autopsy and the majority of us accept the social imperative of participating in them. The apparent banality of those photographs hides a huge informative content. Rites of Passage constitute an important sociological record, a document of a period whose value will be rising together with the passing time. A photographer in the world of rites carries out his work either for his contemporaries or for the continuators of our social games.

06.09 — 06.10
“Ў” Gallery

12:00 – 20:00, daily


“Ў” Gallery, 19:00