It’s been a few months since I’d been to an exhibition that made me think, reflect upon and decide to write about it. When I read that Sylwia Kowalczyk’s photography exhibition launching at Summerhall was inspired by Lethe, one of 5 rivers of Hades from where people that just died drank to forget their earthly life and head to reincarnation, according to Greek mythology, I instantly felt intrigued by the intricate theme of memory and oblivion. Maybe I was just looking to see how one of my favourite things to talk about when songwriting could be represented through a different type of art; a visual one. I decided not to do any research on her before seeing her work, in an attempt to get a deeper experience in the actual environment and the way each artwork next to the other would invite the audience to be part of what it was seem to be a very promising exhibition.
When I walked on the Meadows Gallery, I was captured by the artist’s collages; I always find it more fascinated when other media are recruited to amplify the power of photography. Her multi-layered imagery varied in its subjects; landscapes, animals, objects and people presented themselves in torn pieces; a beautiful narration of memories integrated and joined back together, simplistically faultless. I particularly enjoyed the fact that the artworks were not framed or covered by glass because they felt even more intimate as such. All details were boldly exposed making me think that what was actually illustrated was the artist’s naked truth; in Greek, truth translates as aletheia, which essentially means not to forget and has the same root as the word Lethe. Recreating these fragmented realities through reconstructing memories was evidently a very personal thing to do; yet it remained very easy to relate to.
How much power do we have in holding on to our own past and what is that qualifies certain memories – bad or good- to follow us forever? And to what extend is erasing memories a subliminal procedure? When do we let go? Do we let go? There are some memories that re-surface when triggered by our senses; a smell, a photo, a song. Sometimes that’s when we realise that specific memory was gone for a while but it had to be reborn for us to re-evaluate our history and possibly learn from it. As the artist states ‘’as important recollections slips from our memory, this loss brings its own kind of grief’’ and I think that ironically it’s exactly that moment a lost memory comes back that gives us that sense of mourning for what’s gone.
One of her portraits depicts the back of an aged woman dying from brain tumour; her memories dying with her too. In cases like this what actually happened in one’s life is interwoven with fictional realities and memories become realms of distorted subjectivity that in itself creates new memories for people experiencing what it’s like having a beloved person suffering from this disease. These ‘fake’ memories are a puzzle; did they happen? Did they not? Regardless, they are certainly very brutally real for the observer as they become their own recollections of someone else’s memories and oblivion.
We tend to forget; we tend to alter what we keep with us in a way that it feels comforting and that’s our reconciliation with past; a copying mechanism for it. Sylwis Kowalczyk multi-dimensional artwork depicts our multi-dimensional consciousness; Lethe is the way we float to forgetfulness and hopefully, forgiveness.
This exhibition is on until 17 March 2019 and available to see Wednesday – Sunday 1100-1800.