Lifestyles in Progress: Weronika Gęsicka’s Traces
With phantom images of idyllic home-life in the times of the economic boom, artists are waking up from the Western dream that the Poles also wished to share after the 1990s. In her works, Weronika Gęsicka takes on the American Dream.
Pass the remote
After the fall of the communist regime in Poland, American-made films, television series and adverts began to influence people’s imaginations. Although they had often been produced years before, they were welcomed with open arms as they appeared on a Polish market desperate for new images, behavioural models and lifestyles. That was the case with Dynasty, Beverly Hills 90210, The Bold and the Beautiful, Full House and 7th Heaven, amongst others. American soap operas occupied the collective imagination for many years. From the world’s leading economy, we imported liberal democracy along with a new concept of luxury and the perfect family.
Born in 1984, Weronika Gęsicka grew up in the 1990s and, as she admits in an interview, the American model accompanied her throughout that period. In her book Traces, published in November 2017, she evokes the social utopian ghosts of the latter half of the 20th century in order to compare them with what we preferred not to notice: oppressive authorities, discrimination and unpredictability.
Her works are based on digitally altered stock photos from the 1950s and 1960s. The images depict scenes from the lives of happy American families with suburban houses and mown lawns. They show the fulfilment of the American dream, which became possible thanks to the post-war economic situation. The exact origins of the photographs are unknown, as are the stories behind them.
In an essay from his book Mythologies (1957), Roland Barthes observed that French toys prefigure the world of adult functions. By the same token, playing with them is closely related to upbringing and cultural reproduction. The aim is to ensure social cohesion, not test the boundaries or go beyond the norm.
The evocative scenes of American life transformed by Gęsicka were equally convincing and complete when they were shot originally, during the post-war economic boom. In the photographs she has selected, the artist seeks cracks in this ideal picture. Her transformed images are incredible, seeming to be simultaneously familiar and mysterious. The artist behaves like a trickster, destroying in order to create something anew.
Her theme is the family and its internal dynamics. If one were to compare her artistic act to a guest sitting at the family table, it would be the aunt who does not raise a toast together with the others, and would rather dance on the table than chase down a cutlet with Coca-Cola. And good for her, because even if someone were to choke, at least such an event would shake the family out of its routine.
Her works also relate to the division of household tasks. A man mowing the lawn loses his head. A red hose impedes [a woman’s] movements. Working together in the garden ends up with a woman literally being planted there. Figures become absorbed by decorated interiors, losing their contours and growing into the walls and chairs. Personality disappears, to be replaced by a readymade lifestyle straight out of a glossy magazine.
Traces speaks to us not only through its images. The pleasantly soft, vibrant red cover feels like a restaurant menu or a bench from an American diner. A black-and-white spread is reminiscent of a floor from a similar establishment, or the Red Room in Twin Peaks. Another link to David Lynch is the persistent atmosphere of anxiety and secrets to be uncovered. The random page numbers below the photographs perhaps suggest fragmentation of memory or – referring to the title – losing the traces over and over again.
Gęsicka takes a stand against the automatism of images. Her pop-style book deconstructs a comfortably impeccable mythical world. Although the majority of the images may look amusing, the viewer’s smile quickly freezes, twisting into an ambiguous grimace. This ambivalence warns us against one possible product of the imagination – a dangerous desire for coherence.
Originally written in Polish, adapted & translated by MB, Jan 2018