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body as a negative: sensations of return
An interview with Izabela Jurcewicz.
Photographer Izabela Jurcewicz's work reflects on a body as a living archive, using personal perspective to approach issues regarding identity, body, memory, and health and disease. Her first monograph, Body as a Negative, will be published by Yoffy Press in 2022. She spoke with Viktor Hübner ahead of the book's publication.
In this work, Jurcewicz revisits memories and experiences that she endured as an inter-organ tumor patient. Her situation was one of 300 cases worldwide where science had few answers to the causes of her condition and how to proceed. The medical procedures performed upon her body during the initial nine-hour surgery live as a photographic negative in her life. This deep somatic memory is called to visibility in this work, externalised through the photographic surface.
By returning to these traumatic memories and re-performing them under controlled studio conditions, she transforms them on a cellular level, so her body can regain balance. In this act of return, she replaces the invasive surgical instrument with her camera as a receptive device to register, merge and enable a ritual of healing. It is this process of empathic engagement that brings dimensionality to the body and self again, and grows a capacity to join with the suffering of others. From this work she then embraces her father’s situation, supporting him through his own cycle of trauma, as he is treated for fourth-stage cancer.
The work consists of 33 photographs taken between 2016-2019 and an installation of glass sculpture merged with negatives lit by medical light, as well as a photobook.
Viktor Hübner: I have had the pleasure of knowing you and your work personally since our time together at RISD (Class of 2019). I learned early on that your work is a very intimate and personal portrait, very much related to your spiritual development and self-healing. Looking back now at the beginning of this project, what are your thoughts about it?
Izabela Jurcewicz: The first images I was taking were just for myself and I really was not thinking that they were part of a work that I would be sharing with anyone. I was making them just to see myself and to have a different perspective. To understand better what was happening with my Dad and maybe to gain some empathy for what I was going through.
VH: How has your perspective changed from taking the first photographs compared to the images towards the end? And what do you want the audience to see? You mentioned that you want to create empathy – is that what you want the audience to experience?
IJ: Well, the first images are very candid, not staged at all. There are some self-portraits there that were taken when I'm literally crying in the middle of the night. And I wasn't really thinking too much about any conceptual framework – it was a document of the moment. Only later I began staging – constructing them – I was re-creating the traumatic memories as a patient in the safe, private space of the studio.
In setting the studio stage, I assembled a hospital room, the medical bed and the surgical apparati like the ones used to perform the surgery, kind of to hint the viewer to what it is about. On other occasions, I photographed myself triggered by hospital-related objects, which become indexes for the memories, pointing back to experiences from the Western medical treatment. The camera became a witness to moments of replaying difficult experiences, on my own terms and under my conditions. Each print functions as my mirror. When I was re-creating the traumatic memories I was getting really close to them, touching them, familiarizing myself with them. So I think there was a very different way of working between the first and the later images. But somehow they go together well, because they're touching authentic feelings and events that happened to me.
Sometimes, looking directly at my father was like looking into a mirror. I saw myself reflected in his experiences and responses. However, to understand better what he was going through, I observed him. I studied him. I was trying not to lose our connection. I didn’t want to become an outsider to his illness. For example in the photograph Sitting Up, (After My Father), I physically place myself in ‘his’ spaces and positions. I photograph myself as if I were him. This allowed me to process what was happening to him and to better communicate with and support him. In his medical bed, I was trying to sit up while looking at medical stockings he had to wear to counter the side effects of chemotherapy. Though I empathized with him previously, this experience performed for the camera of half-lying-half-sitting, forced me to honestly confront his physical limits.
What did I hope for the audience? I think there is not enough conversation, and definitely not before COVID, about "what does it mean to be treated? What does it mean to be a patient?”, especially from a first-person experience in photography.
I wanted to try to put it out there in 2019, hoping some other people would connect and see that it is important to have empathy towards patients. People were moved by the work and they read it being about the psychology of what the patient is going through – feeling very alienated, isolated, hopeless; not just about the physicality of the sick body. But even in those difficult medical situations, where someone is among strangers in secluded, cold spaces – one can be looking to find the inner energy to confront what's happening.
VH: Where did you drew strength while going through all of this and who did you look up to do this project?
IJ: I was looking at the Jewish Polish sculptor Alina Szapocznikow. Illness greatly influenced Szapocznikow’s work. After spending 6 years and surviving incarceration in two ghettoes and a series of concentration camps, her health was seriously affected. She has almost died of tuberculosis, and the illness resulted in her loss of fertility. She also suffered from breast cancer. As a result of these experiences, her artistic practice is very focused on the body, multiplying her body parts: lips, breasts, bellies. She was fixated on the experiences and limitations of the body, as well as its vulnerability.
Her insistent and repetitive casting of the body was her attempt to figure the reality of human vulnerability, struggling to present the body as unique and its experiences as collectively shared.
Interestingly, Szapocznikow has focused on both casting and photography, as they both function as a proof of the thing that has been. She believed photography was an indexical twin to casting, an imprint of herself, of memory and of history. She has started merging photography with casted sculptures, using the photograph as a testament to the unspeakable horrors she experienced.
In terms of photographic artists I was also looking at Jo Spence. She was making photographic work about the experience of disease from a first-person perspective, showing how important one’s psychology and general well-being are in relation to living with disease.
VH: The relationship between space and sculpture seems to be crucial for using the metaphor of body as a negative. How do you see that manifesting itself in an exhibition space?
IJ: In an exhibition I can take over control of how I want the piece to be presented, using space to emphasise the metaphor of body as a negative – highlighting the relationship between actual medical events and my photographic practice. It’s represented by the body cast with merged negatives to it, placed centrally in the room, illuminated with the medical light as a source and reason for taking all the photographs that are on the walls. In an exhibition I can also take control over the colour of the walls, making them very dark blue. This blue is a very important colour for this body of work as it represents the distance between where we are and somewhere where we are looking. It is a colour that refers nostalgia as well as a relationship with the past or a place that we can no longer reach. The work is about re-creating the past in the present moment, for as long as I needed in order to let go of it and move on. I was going back to traumatic memories, but also taking control over them and performing them under my conditions at this moment. In those recreations at some point I started feeling immersed in the present moment, right now – being able to let go of the memory. Usually traumatic memories work in a way that you feel that the past is always there with you in the current moment. So this project was actually very therapeutic – it allowed me, to a big extent, to cut off those feelings from the past – because by the end I felt like I'm more here, in the present than in the past.
VH: What role did light play in your installation?
IJ: I basically wanted to have the medical light as a source of all the information in the space. The images on the walls needed some more light though, so I have added some very minimal, very warm light on them. It seemed that somehow the light was coming from the print rather than the other way around.
VH: Would you describe the process of this project as a spiritual encounter or as a way of coming to terms with the past?
IJ: At the end of the book that I made, Body as a Negative, I'm actually writing about time and the different perceptions of it. We basically count everything, almost everything, in linear time, which is described as chronos. And for me, it was more about finding and experiencing this other perception of time – called kairos – which could be perceived as a time that is soul/ self nourishing. It's an Ancient Greek word relating to the moments and practices that would be focusing on emotional and spiritual life and experiences. So I think, yes, I was actually creating these photographs, putting up the lights, making space and focusing just on myself, on my memories and on my identity, on how I felt. You could say it was a soul-focused time. Probably in a way it led me also to making the new project that I'm working on right now, which I think is quite spiritual – focusing on the end-of-life doulas. I am conducting this current project as a part of the Hillman Foundation Fellowship Awards by the International Center of Photography. By undertaking it I am extremely curious to learn several things, including how end-of-life doulas help terminally ill patients, how they manage to work in such an emotionally difficult profession, and what is their gaze or perspective on the process of dying. After losing my father in 2019, being present during the active stage of his dying, it seemed for me a returning issue I needed to explore.
VH: The way you arranged even the tiniest details, from the light sources to the color on the walls, to the high quality prints – all of this combined essentially guides the audience through the carefully crafted space. What are your thoughts about presenting this project in book form?
IJ: The exhibition display and the book greatly fulfil each other. I think what the book has is the text that really adds on another layer. The book is divided into five chapters, referring to different stages of the body and my awareness of it.
The images and text in each chapter of the book are carefully selected. In the book there are many more images than I am usually able to present during the show. It’s a great narrative to follow. The book itself has been designed to reflect the topic and the narrative (it’s Swiss bound, Smyth-sewn with an exposed spine – a blue thread falling from it, and a die-cut cover mounted to the rear page, showing the actual scar from the photograph that presents a recreation of one of the surgeries; it has also a negative of the image showing the recreation of surgery placed in a negative slip). I am thrilled that the book will be published by Yoffy Press late summer 2022.
IZABELA JURCEWICZ's works have been exhibited in over thirty exhibitions, including such venues as the International Center of Photography, ClampArt, Baxter St CCNY, School of Visual Arts Flatiron Gallery in New York and RISD Museum. She is a recipient of Rita and Alex Hillman Foundation Award 2021 from the International Center of Photography, a laureate of Dior Photography and Visual Arts Award for Young Talents 2020 by Luma Arles & ENSP, a COCA Center for Contemporary Artists 2020 finalist, and a runner-up in New Delta Review’s Ryan R. Gibbs Photography Contest 2018. Her works have been presented at international photography festivals such as Unseen Amsterdam, Month of Photography in Bratislava (OFF), TIFF Festival in Wroclaw, 12th Fotofestival in Lodz, and the 8th Biennale of Photography in Poznan. Izabela graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2019 with an MFA in Photography and is currently a lecturer at the University of Arts in Poznan in the Photography Department. Her first monograph, Body as a Negative, will be published by Yoffy Press in 2022. The book is available for pre-order here.
VIKTOR HÜBNER's artistic practice stems from a deep natural curiosity for other human beings and their fate. He explores themes of community, displacement, ideology, and socio-political tensions using photography, audio-recordings, and written accounts. He was awarded the internationally renowned Fulbright scholarship for representing German culture in the USA. He is also the recipient of a Rosanne Somerson scholarship and a RISD Fellowship, among other awards. His photo essay, 82 Days on the Road, appeared in Issue #13.
(Image credits: all images by Izabela Jurcewicz, by kind permission of the artist.)