Essay for Miroslaw Rogala The Breath of an Image, catalog for a show of Rogla's work in The Art Gallery of Plock; Plock, Poland in 2013
Miroslaw Rogala: Portrait of the Artist in Motion
1. Polish Dance
The video opens with a man walking across a pebbly surface. You see only his legs striding away from you and the black shine of his loafers. The camera cuts to the side of his face as he spins away in a tight, circular motion to the left. An accordion begins wheezing repetitiously as the camera itself begins to move, turning counter-clockwise to reveal a panoramic roof-scape of industrial Chicago.
This character looks Eastern-European… is it the nose or the haircut? At first, I think of him as a confused immigrant who is searching for something as he paces back and forth and then suddenly spins with the avid futility of a dog chasing his tail. The constant movement of man and camera is somewhat dizzying as they wheel about in their respective orbits. It is as though the camera is constantly seeking his face, which he shyly or obstinately turns away so that it is never viewed head-on.
The whirling motion is interrupted briefly by a repetition of the opening scene and then resumes, more intently this time and with a more rhythmic cadence, in synch with the music. The act of searching itself has been found, has found its rhythm and becomes a celebratory dance.
2. The Tower of Babel
Polish Dance was created in 1981 by Miroslaw Rogala, his first video project in a career that would expand into pioneering works in interactive multi-media, productions that were often operatic in scale, deploying multiple video screens, musicians, dancers and even robots.
Although it could be viewed as the purely formal experiment of choreographing a dancer in a pas de deux with a moving camera, Polish Dance is above all a self-portrait that expresses the hope and anxiety of the artist’s experience after immigrating to the United States. He arrived in 1980, a time of great labor unrest in his native land and just a year before its Communist regime declared martial law. Residing in the U.S. promised greater freedom, but also entailed navigating an alien culture along with the struggle to understand and be understood in an entirely new language.
This theme is articulated more strongly in a subsequent work, Questions to Another Nation. I confess that I have seen only the single screen DVD version of this work, which was originally presented on four large video monitors, which I imagine, made experiencing it quite different. For one thing, a viewer is forced to choose which screen to pay attention to at any given moment, rendering it impossible to see everything at once and making each subsequent viewing significantly different, not to mention the dramatic impact of scale. This is also true for Nature is Leaving Us, which I will deal with briefly below.
At the beginning of Questions to Another Nation, we see the artist’s face obscured by a white rectangle. This suggests both the idea of a clean slate, of starting over, but also of being unknown, anonymous or even unknowable due to the stifling barrier of language.
Footage from the Polish Dance shoot is incorporated in several places in Questions. At one point we see the artist in a split screen, rolling on the ground rather than spinning, while the camera rocks up and down on each side, in an unsynchronized and distressing manner that evokes seasickness, while a woman (the artist’s sister) sings a melancholy Polish folk song: If Love Does Not Return.
Polish Dance is quoted again later on, re-shot in color and intercut with a break-dancer and a circle of young African American girls spinning about in a counter-clockwise echo of the artist’s dance. This is perhaps a moment of recognition, of discovering something comfortingly familiar in an alien culture.
Later, in contrast, we see a quartet of babbling mouths, rolling up and down like dials on a slot machine, that later transform into the heads of babies, the heads of cats and dogs and finally the heads of men all swinging back and forth in an apparent gesture of negation. Two of the four heads then become the eyes of a larger, monstrous head, as incomprehensible prattle continues to issue from its huge and leering maw. The artist has said that the cats and dogs in this section represent “yet another nation” whose languages we struggle to comprehend.
Nature is Leaving Us is an extremely dense work and would require an entire essay to tease out all of its many themes and leitmotifs. I only mention it because Polish Dance makes a brief appearance in its penultimate movement as the capering discordant duet of twin accordionists, but is also echoed in the many whirling and spinning elements in the piece: gyrating spheres and images of people and landscapes that cleave into rectangular solids and then turn in space. This is what the artist himself writes about this scene:
“That man playing the accordion over the freeway is myself, the artist. I have
injected myself into a landscape of my own design. Yet even I cannot control
the rush of planes and dimensions. There are frames within frames. The
video comes and goes, often refusing to perform as technologically intended.
A voice screams as the video image breaks apart.”
I want to conclude by discussing the series of computer-enhanced photographic transformations that Dr. Rogala has been producing for the past ten years and continues to explore, adding to previous series and developing new ones.
The computer program that he uses is called “Mind’s Eye View,” custom software designed by Ford Oxaal that functions somewhat like a fisheye lens that transforms any photograph into swirling arcs and bulging spheroids. The final configuration of the image is dependent on which coordinates the user specifies on an x/y axis. This “machine for making art” has a strange kinship with the “systems” used by minimalist artists, except that rather than deliberately exhausting every possible variation of a series and exhibiting them all, Dr. Rogala edits his results for aesthetic and expressive reasons. He usually arranges the individual photos into a grid so that the various permutations work together as one piece, displaying a serial transformation, or sometimes just subtle variations on a single image.
These series can vary widely in impact and feeling tone, particularly those depicting the Old vs. the New World. Two works from the Transformed Landscape series, when viewed side-by-side can serve as examples. A series of willow trees shot in Poland is almost gothic, resembling claws or monstrous faces, while in contrast, a series of images of wheat fields from the American Midwest dance in delicate arcs against a background of blue sky, suggesting a gentle breeze.
One of the strongest groups of work is the systematic transformation of the city of Krakow from the artist’s Transformed City series. If scanned from left to right, starting at the top, as one would read a book written in English or Polish, we begin with the image of a tiny circle of sky surrounded by the buildings and trees of Krakow stretched onto a squat cone, so that it seems like you are looking up from under the bottom of a vast dome. In subsequent images, the circular area opens up and the city begins folding back into itself like a retracting spiral until, in the last two images, Krakow becomes a tiny planetoid floating in space with a tower, a tree and a bit of cloth flapping in the breeze like a damaged flag, which on closer inspection reveals itself to be the blurred image of a crow. There is a wintery feel to this work that reminds me of certain paintings by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. The first picture in the Krakow series could be a view from inside Brueghel’s Tower of Babel.
In another series, New York City is depicted as a mirror ball, surrounded by a mirrored cylinder, transforming skyscrapers and lines in the street into curving patterns and organic towers. A sphere surrounded by a cylinder or cone is a common configuration in many of these works. Sometimes the edges of this central sphere resemble the event horizon of a cosmic singularity whose immense gravity seems to be drawing in and stretching all of its surrounding matter.
One of the strangest series transforms photographs of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia taken at night. Its illuminated dome and minarets, when twisted by Rogala, look like tiny arthropods viewed through an electron microscope or conversely, like gigantic robotic spiders wheeling in the vastness of space.
The spinning and twisting of these photographs harken back to Polish Dance in several ways: their obvious circular form, the sense of anxiety that they can evoke and in the way that they seem to deny the viewer a comfortable and stable perspective.
Both turning movement and multiple perspectives crop up again in two recent works: in the cycles of repeated symbolic gestures in We Stand In Motion and in the animated motion of fruits and vegetables in Transformed Garden. The latter work gives the already transformed photographs additional life with choreographed zooms and turns, accompanied by the vocal improvisations of Jazz singer Marek Balata. The dance continues.
February 9, 2013