Haunting Images by Karol Jóźwiak

Whate’er thou be, or shade, or very man!
Dante, Divina Commedia, Inferno, I, 66.

Images from abroad. From the journey to an unknown land, which has become a sort of journey to afterlife. A familiar detail of the Bulgarian cities, the routine of affixing a huge number of obituaries, took me to the meditation on the deep meaning of persistence of the images, in which the ritual, rebirth, mummification, cult of the dead, are the basis of the iconographic production. Today, surrounded by virtual images, we tend to forget their symbolic and metaphorical meaning, bound up to death, transcendence, mystery of incarnation and transfiguration. Sheets of paper that, as the bodies of the portrayed deceased, fade, rot, disappear under layers of other obituaries.

Their documentation has become a sort of metaphorical journey into the underworld, where I met the eyes of the dead and understood the end hidden under the striking image of the departed.


I survived the night, cowering in bed to wait the morning. At least the sheets seemed clean. Dressing, I peeped into my shoes and, to my resignation, found two large insects there; I don’t know whether others got into my clothes. They were running everywhere, giving this let-down flat the aura of decomposition. I cursed the previous evening when I decided to stay there overnight. Never again in such place – I didn’t care I had paid for a week in advance, I craved to run away as quickly as possible. I grabbed my rucksack and left hurriedly. I dropped the keys into the mail slot. I didn’t want to have anything to do with that place any more.


Why did I go there, what was I looking for? Bulgaria fascinated me: this neuralgic spot on the frontier of Europe where various influences, cultures, religions and nations intermingle. What a myriad of threads join and interweave here: Ancient Greece with Slavic hordes, with Christian Byzantium, Islamic Ottoman Empire, and the never-fulfilled communist utopia… The history of these lands is continuous struggle for survival, with so many different cultures trying to found their dominance with force and blood. Who would have expected that after five hundred years of Turkish subjugation and fierce Islamisation the Orthodox state would be restituted. Christianity and Bulgarian culture somehow survived, concealed within the nation. Doesn’t Greek paganism still persist there, mysterious, not ingrained in ancient ruins, but still alive and waiting for an impetus to be reborn? Wasn’t the short period of building a communist utopia such subtle stimulus? How and when will Islam come to act? What lasts in Bulgarian soul?


The flat was situated on the 13th floor of a socialist tower building. The staircase windows overlooked a panorama of the whole Plovdiv. I was relieved to see open space; even my disgust was giving way to curiosity. I ceased to be afraid of the surrounding and started to observe it, scrutinizing every corridor I passed while descending. Only then did I feel that I opened my eyes and began to look. Beforehand, my eyesight was a barrier which separated me from the area of threat and disgust, a means of distancing myself from the environment. I was gradually transforming the sense of sight from a tool for cutting off from the surrounding into one for opening to it. I began to search, investigate, cover the space with my eyes, touch it. I felt that, in a sense, I became part of it throughout the night.


Death – survival. Contradictory, yet strangely intersecting notions. They are fundamental for culture; we speak of the survival of traditions, rituals. Death, in turn, is perceived as loss, termination, annihilation, a destructive factor. Can it be contextualised otherwise? I am engrossed in the aspect of death which would correlate semantically with the category of survival, with a certain mystery of existence after life, out of life. The aspect which constitutes part of the basis of modern history of art – re-birth. Thus, how can we speak about re-birth without mentioning death? Modern culture, tracing its origin to the Renaissance, has been suffused with these issues from the very beginning. How then does the modern man, equipped with a camera and the ease of multiplication techniques, deal with them?


Opposite a glazed entrance to a corridor, on the door of a flat, hung a portrait of a woman. I realized it was a common obituary. It attracted my attention immediately, however. From behind the glass reflecting the staircase, the deceased was looking. In that building, which at night appeared to me like an enormous, enclosed tomb full of decomposition, worms emerging from each spot, the obituary gained a particular aura. It introduced unrest, as it physically expressed what I felt that morning, after that night. I felt I had survived that night, passed some breaking point, and were slowly going outside, setting myself free of the building, passing the image of the departed blurring in the glass… It was the first human face I had seen since the previous evening.


Aura – “a strange weave of space and time: the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close it may be”, wrote Walter Benjamin. What does this semblance of distance mean? Benjamin offers no precise answer, presenting either a metaphorical image (a recurrent impression of the mountains), or a technical equivalent, a technical determinant of the phenomenon of aura. Somewhere between this intangible imagery and the heavy, material technology lingers the meaning of this notion; it remains dialectically underspecified. Such underspecifying may enclose the sense of aura: on the one hand banality, materiality, and obviousness of technology, on the other intangibility, evanescence, and ambiguity of a metaphor.


There were about three yards between the glass door I was standing behind, and the obituary image of the woman. I don’t know whether the glass door was open, I didn’t check that. I wasn’t even thinking of passing to the other side, the glass barrier somehow posed an element of that obituary image. It separated me from the deceased woman’s likeness, constituting detachment, the semblance of distance. The pane dematerialized the obituary image, it quite naturally, through glints and imperfections of the glass, made me see it blurred; I couldn’t approach it, touch it. But it was the pane that let me see the departed woman’s image. Moreover, my perception of it was utterly different from how I had seen this type of prints, filling the living space of the contemporary man. The pane and three yards made obituary cease to be just an ordinary sheet of paper covered with paint. That was when a new sense of photographic medium emerged.


Incorporeal creatures, surrounding us from everywhere, separated by a mysterious barrier of death, attempt to communicate with us taking the line of least resistance, that is through a medium, the connection between the two worlds – Maeterlinck reported in the beginning of the 20th century. How come today we use the notion of medium to describe the fundamental technological developments of the 19th and 20th centuries: photography, motion picture, television, and the Internet? Commenting on modern media, Hans Belting directly refers to the original meaning: “the cult of the deceased constitutes the ancient paradigm of medium”. For, despite being an expression of modernity and progress, they always sustain the encoded sense of a link between two worlds. In his treaty on photography, Roland Barthes wrote that every picture includes “the return of the dead”.


Leaving the building, I sighted a notice board dominated by images of the dead; nothing worthwhile hung there besides them. The place intrigued me even more, I felt the need to explore it , photograph and understand it. I stood in front of this enormous concrete edifice and looked around. It was a common residential area of blocks of flats, still something fascinated me there. When I set out with a camera in my hand I realized this fascination did not only regard this one particular spot, but all the living areas I reached later. I was gradually discovering that they were overflowing with obituaries. Through them, the city of the living interweaves with the city of the dead. Walls, doors, posts, trees – these are probably the most significant places where the abundant obituaries are hung; the city was flooded wit them.


While describing Paris, Louis Aragon pointed out to old, reliclike places which are “worth seeing as receivers’ hideouts where a lot of contemporary myths are stored”. It is contrary with obituaries, which are the modern hideouts for old and reliclike myth. This myth would be the communion of saints, the eternal belief in the presence of the deceased in the world of the living. This is the myth over which the contemporary man has no time to ponder, being preoccupied with more important issues. He thus stows the old idea of the co-existence of the dead in the world of the living in the modern hideout of photography.


I began wandering around the town following those obituaries. Streets and culs-de-sac became the corridors and halls of a huge gallery of images to me. These places were a living gallery where the portraits were undergoing continuous transformation and reconfiguration. Multiplied, glued one layer on another, torn off, melting, disappearing, more or less durable, they made up various photomontages. These compositions, only partly man-created, were left prey to the city and atmospheric conditions, were recycled, ornamented, finished off, refined, until they eventually disappeared from the material world. It was an exceptional, subversive creative process. The man, or rather his image, was just an object, while nature, matter, and time played the role of the creator.


Whenever I looked at yet another obituary, it was always surrounded by a certain pane and three yards, just like when I first encountered the phenomenon. They separated me from the obituaries – I didn’t dare to approach them, touch them, scrutinize them too deeply. I felt the need for a barrier and distance to remain, as the awareness of being surrounded by the images of the departed was appalling. I needed a certain pane and three yards to consciously co-exist with them in a single space. It was not only about the mythical aura I could feel around them, but also the tangible pane and three yards – the lens and focus area of my camera.


A few days had to pass before I noticed a certain regularity. I paid attention to places dominated by the obituaries of one person: there were five obituaries referring to the same deceased. Only then did I realize there were different dates on them. It turned out the image of the departed person is not displayed once only, at the time of the funeral, but many times. The period of mourning, remembering the departed, stretches across many years and is tied to a rite of cyclical hanging and solidifying memory in the reproduced image. The oldest obituaries I came across remembered people who died almost seventy years before. Hence, the first announcement of death is just a beginning of an enormous multiplication which is stretched across dozens of years. Supposedly, only the death of the last remaining relative can put and end to this maniacal commemoration. Then, the chain of memories starts anew, however.


"A ghost story for truly adult people" – that is how Aby Warburg, a German-Jewish art historian described his research. The result of this method was an album of images entitled Mnemosyne, which depicted man in an intermingled web of pictures, like the mythical Laocoön among snakes. The images entwine man with their mighty power which is manifested in delivering the ghosts of the past. Motifs, thoughts, concepts which became extinct in social cognisance survive retained in pictures. In this respect, the history of art Walburg pursues is a ghost story for truly adult people: it is a story based on images which, like obituaries, give evidence of people who are no longer alive, but through these images/obituaries still linger and act in the world of the living.


I stayed for a few days in a mountain village located in a river valley. It was surrounded with high, steep slopes. Whenever their peaks were not hidden in clouds, houses could be seen there from certain spots in the village. As it turned out later, they were half-deserted settlements, composed of a few stone cottages. Many of them were already ruins, falling apart, with sunken roofs. In a few of them stooped graybeards still dwelled, like gods on Olympus. These settlements revealed an apocalyptical world where ubiquitous obituaries, hanging on disintegrating human constructions, greatly outnumbered the remaining living dwellers. It was an image of postponing the inevitable desolation and ruin. There, on the tops of mountains, where nothing protects from strong wind and mountain frost, where shade to hide from scorching sun is scare, in a place so different from the comfortable valley, the power of the obituaries’ message is paradoxically strengthened by the awareness of the hardships of human life, in hac lacrimarum valle. A well-cared-for house seemed like a struggle to delay the inevitable faith of emptiness. Thus a run-down hut might signify the liberation of man from this battle. Obituaries put up on derelict cottages were the signs of this relief. Only then did I notice that obituaries were hung mainly on ruins.