The series of photographs by Igor Omulecki is a virtual journey across different locations related to the cult of John Paul II, a documentation of the story, objects, and artifacts.
The peregrination begins in the north-eastern end of Poland, in a former Camaldolese monastery in the middle of Wigry Lake, the place which John Paul II visited during his seventh pilgrimage to his homeland in June of 1999. Until recently, the venue had also been the seat of the centre of artistic residencies. As paradoxical as it may seem, contemporary art was able to successfully co-exist here with the parochial Polish religiousness. Different forms of remembrance of John Paul II intersected at the monastery, as did different forms of mythologizing the Pope. Next to the trend of religious practices, which was mass in character with all its souvenirs and pilgrimage business, there was the realm of contemporary art - intellectual, hermetic, and presenting a critical attitude towards the folklore materialization of the papal cult. Although Omulecki is undoubtedly a part of the world of contemporary visual arts, he does not construct his story in opposition to the parochial reality here present. He does not subscribe to the dynamics of an ideological dispute. Instead, he scrupulously follows the traces left by the Holy Father among the muddy paths by the lake, visiting the same people and enjoying the same landscape.
The papal motifs have turned into a strange guidebook to the meanders of Polishness, which takes one on a trip starting from the rural, somewhat boggy idyll, and then through the private collections of papal gadgets (collected more for the fun of it than out of sheer respect), all the way to the Foundation of John Paul II in Rome, which holds memorabilia related to Karol Wojtyła and the gifts that the Pope had been given by believers over the 26 years of his pontificate. 10 thousand objects have been taken stock of thus far. These include letters, paintings, drawings, sculptures, relics. Most of these items are related to people’s private histories – family martyrdoms. We see rosaries made by the prisoners of concentration camps during World War II, a piece of tanned human skin (it does not shock as we’d already been exposed to human remains when visiting the room with relics). Then we see a figurine of a small turtle sculpted by a prisoner in a bone he had found in his soup. The most symbolic object exhibited is a copy of the collected works by Juliusz Słowacki, scorched and shot through during the Warsaw Rising in 1944. The volume contains the poem “The Slavic Pope” written in 1848. And though the rational mind revolts, one should admit that as far back as 160 years ago, the poet was right in his anticipation of the man to come.
God’s bell the Conclave's petty strife has stilled : Its mighty toneBrings news of Slavic hope fulfilled – The Papal Throne ! (…)To bear our load – this world by God designed – That power we need :Our Slavic Pope, brother to all mankind, Is there to lead !
Written in 1848.
English translation by Noel Clark.
We go on to see the shoes of John Paul II, then a crystal mace from Ukraine and an image of the Pope engraved in an elephant tusk from Africa. Igor Omulecki has skillfully exposed this whole collection of curiosities, bringing them to light in sensitive and emotional, if bravely set frames. Our interpretation of them can vary. We may see them as a record of sanctified objects or as crumbs of spirituality scattered in the Europe of today. Or perhaps as an analysis of the social phenomena. The process of beatification in Poland goes a long way back. It has recently gained momentum. Even before the Pope’s death there had already been 120 of his statues standing. The cheapest monument, made of artificial material, goes for 4 000 PLN. A four-meter monument sells at 12 000. There are also plans to erect gigantic mounds, arches of triumph or statues the size of the Statue of Liberty, at least. In light of all this (considering these pagan endeavors), the decision taken by Pope Benedict XVI seems to be by ways of extraordinary modesty, in absolute line with Christian spirit and marked with just a touch of hastiness. The sanctity, as do the monuments, destroy the memory of him. His humanity will thus disappear, as will his suffering, the simplicity, his white socks and brown shoes, together with his Slavic face which with years had become ever more resembling the faces of the folk installing his photographs in the windows of their farmhouses. All of this will disappear, locked up in bronze and lost in the scent of the incense. Nobody should try make him a saint. He should be left in peace, of all sanctities. He should be left to live in the folk legend as an illegal saint, as a saint who is unorthodox – to whom one can pray for things unacceptable by those who are saints ex officio. Or maybe things that can even be difficult to swallow by God himself. Amen.
In line with the postulate expressed some five years ago by Andrzej Stasiuk, Omulecki leaves the Polish Pope in sanctified piece
. He does not photograph statues, the state celebrations, or speaking politicians. Instead he catches some landscapes, dry leafs, or a teddy bear with a grotesque print of JPII on its back.
Andrzej Stasiuk, Ciało Ojca [The Body of the Father], in ”Tygodnik Powszechny” no 23/2005