The photograph Urn is the result of a collaboration between visual artist Paweł Bownik and the National Library. The object in the photograph symbolises cultural heritage destroyed during the Warsaw Uprising.
The urn contains the ashes of books from the Krasiński Library on Okólnik Street. Exactly which texts are contained in the photographed urn is unknown, since, along with the remains, it acts as a pars pro toto of the books, archives and other valuable collections that were destroyed.
The library building was burned down together with its contents on October 25, 1944, following the surrender of the Warsaw Uprising. This occurred despite an earlier capitulation agreement which had pledged to leave all monuments, libraries and archives unscathed.
Due to vibrations and movement, the urn’s fragile contents are crumbling. This ephemeral monument is gradually decaying (or perhaps “changing form” would be a more accurate description) and turning to dust. Evidence of the wartime events is fading with the passage of time.
The artist’s photograph of the object has been resized. The final print on display at the exhibition is an enlarged version of the original, which allows us to scrutinise it, focusing on details and noticing what is usually invisible to the naked eye, in a process similar to peering through a microscope.
In Bownik’s work, time is decisive, and in this photograph it has been frozen. The photograph embalms the evidence of the crime, symbolically preserving the symbol from further decay. He transforms the photographed object (the urn of burnt books) into something new and more durable that will exist for as long as the negative, the scanned photo, this very print, or other copies of the photograph survive. The time Bownik spent creating the photograph also adds a contemplative dimension, since he opted for a 16-minute exposure.
The glass case containing the remains of the old books stands in the Wilanów Hall of the Palace of the Commonwealth on Krasiński Square, Warsaw.
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.