In his series Lives of the Unholy, Krzysztof Pijarski delves into the visual archaeology of Warsaw. He sees the city as a palimpsest, a constantly rewritten text filled with history and traces of the past. He seeks signs of former utopias and remnants of socio-political transformation.
In black-and-white photographs, he shows us empty plinths of bygone monuments, deserted squares, as well as fragments of archive photographs. He juxtaposes gaps in the urban landscape with photographs of monuments being erected. His photo-montages are composed of layers dating from different times.
The above work is made up of several photos, showing fragments of the Monument to the Fallen in the Service and Defence of the People’s Republic of Poland, which stood on Żelazna Brama Square in Warsaw from 1985–1991. The largest monument in the city’s post-war history, it was also the shortest-lived. Unveiled shortly after the declaration of martial law, it only survived until 1991. After being torn down, it was moved to the Warsaw City Highways Department headquarters in Żerań. Parts of the 60-tonne colossus are now on display at the Museum of the People’s Republic of Poland in Ruda Śląska, and its previous location is now occupied by a monument to Tadeusz Kościuszko.
Monuments can be instrumental in creating a specific vision of history – that of the victors. In times of social change, they are the first to fall in the cleansing process. Under a new order, symbolic verdicts against heroes of the old system are often pronounced without trial. Such operations respond to a desire to wipe the slate clean and start afresh.
Demolishing monuments or changing street names entails the construction of a new identity on the ruins of its absent predecessor. In the text that accompanies his work, Pijarski asks:
Is it a coincidence that both of these [symbolic] gestures of cleansing doom us to keep repeating the same mistakes? In that respect, lost monuments are always the ruins of former utopias, unrealised plans and orphaned histories.
The artist questions the logic governing the appearance and disappearance of monuments, seeking, as he wrote, 'the hidden grammar of the city, the mute language in which it speaks'.
Originally written in Polish, translated by MB, Nov 2018
This text is part of the project Metaphors of Independence: Poland In 100 Photos.
To coincide with the centenary of Poland regaining its independence, we have created a selection of photographs that allow us to understand both yesterday and today. A hundred photographs but so much more. Find out more.