Bronia Iwanczak: The artist as mental ecologist

Bronia Iwanczak, Defence Rhythm (detail from installation), 1997, eggshells and chrome spray. Courtesy the artist

Bronia Iwanczak is a mental ecologist, a monitor of the pervasive cultural toxicity that characterises contemporary life in the West. Her art practice is motivated by a profound concern for what might be called the soul-sickness of current Western society – including the turn away from spiritual values, the fracturing of the self, and the disavowal of grief, that manifests itself in cultural and psychic pathologies, such as emotional alienation and increasing ethnic and racial intolerance. Her work has also consistently addressed the role that technological mediation plays in this cultural landscape. In her complex installations, Iwanczak does not work literally nor ethnographically, but through spatial and aesthetic strategies that suggest links between personal, cultural and political phenomena, that focus the viewer’s attention on the relationship between their inner subjective worlds and outer “objective” worlds.

The artist is concerned to uncover ways of exercising freedom of a kind amid this toxicity; for example, by developing world-views that transcend the limits of reason and rationality. An important aim of her work is to explore how the fusion of imagery and form might offer access to the unconscious, and activate the viewer’s imagination in a potentially transformative way. Often steeped in beauty, Iwanczak’s work invites us to re-conceive of history through empathetic, or spiritually enlivened, modes of thinking to imagine an ethical path through the minefield of globalised first world terrain. Iwanczak’s process entails wide-ranging engagement with historical events and political conflicts, as well as intense dialogues with cultures outside Australia. Her sensitivity to contemporary cultural fracturing has been sharpened by her own experience as someone whose family history – with its roots in Poland – is marked by war and migration, dispossession and atomisation, and by ambivalent, often contradictory, ideological stakes.

Bronia Iwanczak, The Path of the Accident, 1995, video of edited footage taken in New York, Warsaw and Adelaide, synchronised with footage from the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Courtesy the artist
Bronia Iwanczak, The Path of the Accident (detail), 1995, video of edited footage taken in New York, Warsaw and Adelaide, synchronised with footage from the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Courtesy the artist

Iwanczak’s art portrays an acute awareness of place, and of the connection between bodies and territories, both psychic and geo-political. The same eclectic use of media – object-making, installation, photography and film/video – that characterises her later work, is also evident in her early practice, although her themes and aesthetic strategies have grown in scope and complexity. Early works, such as The Condensation Chamber (1993) and The Path of the Accident (1995), have been inspired by social and personal history, addressing the insights inherited from her father’s wartime experiences as an insurgent in the 1944 Warsaw uprising, a history racked by the cross-currents of communism and capitalism.

The theme of survival, and the unholy compromises it may demand, is a regular presence in Iwanczak’s work, as exemplified by Defence Rhythm (1997), an installation comprised of hundreds of eggshells assembled into reticulated configurations, emerging from the darkness as slater-like cyborgs. This work suggests that despite the ethical and political vacuum that characterises late modernity in the West, life continues albeit in corrupted hybrid forms forged out of expediency from whatever is at hand: a veritable transformation of the cracked and useless into the impenetrable. Iwanczak often links survival and psychic well-being to a type of energy that escapes the instrumentalisation of reason. Her practice has for some years engaged with those value systems and practices that are taboo to the Western mainstream, such as the rituals and sacrifice of the occult, voodoo, and magic.

Bronia Iwanczak, Border Sticks. Courtesy the artist
Bronia Iwanczak, Border Sticks. Courtesy the artist

These rites harbour within them an unrecoverable almost carnivalesque energy that fascinates her. In a series of works exhibited in Los Angeles and Sydney, Exit/Salida (2002), she raises the possibility that such energy could paradoxically engender self-transformation and cultural regeneration. Tap: Hunting Power (2002), for example, maps the psychic and political energy levels of the gang territories of LA, as if harnessing that energy for the purposes of transformation. Border Sticks and Directional Weapons (2002) – a collection of implements fashioned from wood, earth and a mixture of symbolic and everyday materials, suggests a range of cultural identities that reminds us not only of our pathological inclination to mythologise the other, but also propose a possibility of a ritual action that might assist us to move from one cultural identity to another.

Giving material form to this possible ritual through an object that the viewer can touch is key to Iwanczak’s aesthetic strategy. Indeed, the artist employs touch as a vital element in predisposing the viewer to activate his/her physical, imaginative, emotional, even para-normal repertoire of understanding. Touch creates what the artist describes as a biofeedback loop whereby energy travels to the projected physical location to have some transformative effect. This very strategy is at work in Timebinder (2004), a series of artist’s books that the viewer was invited to handle. The central piece of the series was Timebinder itself. Inspired by a visit to the sites of the Nazi death camps in Poland, in this work Iwanczak attempted to craft new ways to represent the unrepresentable.

Bronia Iwanczak, Timebinder, 2004, artist book, archival inkjet on archival rag paper (Boxed). Courtesy the artist
Bronia Iwanczak, Timebinder, 2004, artist book, archival inkjet on archival rag paper (Boxed). Courtesy the artist

She was well aware of the dilemmas inherent to Holocaust studies – the ethics of representing the pain of others; the debate over whether commemoration is best served by observing the silence that acknowledges the failure of language to capture the immensity of such trauma, or by documenting “what happened”; the natural incredulity that such horror took place. Yet, to her, the personal dimension to this historical trauma, together with the pervasiveness of its effects in contemporary world politics, made it an inescapable preoccupation. The primary element of Timebinder comprised of several objects that the artist retrieved from the site of Auschwitz–Birkenau, including a piece of barbed wire, a rail peg, and a shard of glass.

To Iwanczak, these material remnants carry with them the memories of the horrors that transpired here. Yet rather than exhibit only the fragments themselves, she sought to elicit from them their “testimony”. Iwanczak took the objects to a number of psychometrists – the reverend of a Sydney Spiritualist church, a forensic clairvoyant, and a Maori who works with indigenous communities – who read them, measuring their emanations, and thereby forged a palpable if tenuous link or “binding” over time and space, between Sydney in 2004 and Birkenau in 1944. The artist recorded these interpretations in book form, displaying them alongside the objects in a cabinet.

This work is in part an experiment that explores how we determine what to believe. To Iwanczak, both the psychometrists and the viewers of this work, like anyone attempting to comprehend history, particularly one suffused in trauma, are at the ambivalent intersection between subjectivity and knowledge. To explore ways of comprehending and representing the enormity of the Holocaust, Iwanczak sought to actively stimulate non-rational modes of understanding. Such an approach does not seek to undermine the truth-value of documentary accounts, but rather seeks to spark “the truth” within subjective experience. After all, as the artist asserts, adherence to notions of a pseudo scientific nature, including religious faith, forms a far greater part of peoples’ belief systems than Reason.

Bronia Iwanczak, We Knew Each Other (page detail from bound book), 2004. Courtesy the artist
Bronia Iwanczak, We Knew Each Other (page detail from bound book), 2004. Courtesy the artist

Another book in the Timebinder series was We Knew Each Other (2004). This pocket-sized object records a list of first names, German and Jewish, commonly encountered in the Berlin of the 1930s and 1940s. Side by side, the names mirror the co-existence of individuals in that city. Iwanczak made the work in response to the perceived immutability and monumentality of historical memorials. Here, the commemoration is intimate and personal: naming brings a historical event to the level of the individual, insisting on the materiality of emotional and intellectual understanding.

In terms of theme and aesthetic strategy, Timebinder represents a significant precursor to Iwanczak’s most recent series. Many Fish Sacrifices (2005) is an elegiac work. Quiet, reverential and beautiful, its subject is the ugly social reality of untimely, unjust death and our cultural inability to meaningfully honour grief. The centrepiece of Iwanczak’s installation is a series of ledger pages (displayed as digital prints) that the artist has created listing the names of people, both unknown and familiar, whose lives were cut short by accident, bloody conflict, disease or murder. The artist has chosen whom to commemorate intuitively. Yet their names, together with their age, and place and cause of death, form a network of significant social and political events of the last century: AIDS, apartheid, Aboriginal deaths in custody, terrorist attacks, the Shoah. Amid the incommensurable horror of these historical happenings, Iwanczak has singled out individual lives lost, and, as a personal tribute, has granted each life an equivalent perpetual life-force as embodied in a species of fish native to the place where each life ended.

The choice of species is informed by careful research as much as by a profound empathy. Miss Sigrid who drowned in the sinking of the Titanic, aged 14 years, is accorded Frigate Tuna Auxis thazard. Zdzislav Dudca, a 40-year old homeless Polish immigrant who died in a fire whilst sleeping in an empty train carriage in Naples is accorded Rombo, Psetta maxima. The dead cannot be revived, nor their deaths necessarily reconciled, yet their life force might flow forever in their local seas and rivers. Iwanczak’s ledger suggests the possibility of a vast reservoir of unreconciled deaths: a deficit in the world that we can only hope to balance through ritual mourning. It is this process that Iwanczak aims to mobilise. As she proposes, could an untimely death be considered part of an unknown metaphysical scheme, where the death might be redeemed in the economy of sacrifice?

Bronia Iwanczak, Many Fish Sacrifices: Sea Perch hearing bone (Callanthias australis), 2005, chromogenic pigment print. Courtesy the artist
Bronia Iwanczak, Many Fish Sacrifices: Sea Perch hearing bone (Callanthias australis), 2005, chromogenic pigment print. Courtesy the artist

The other elements of Iwanczak’s installation augment the central motif of the ledger. There are the diaphanous, floating images of fish otoliths (hearing bones), magnified a thousand fold by electron microscope. These are images we never see; they evoke a world that we do not know, where the subtlest movement in dark underwater depths creates meaningful communication – a phenomenon that almost extends the sensory reach of the fish to the dead. The otoliths effectively visualize another dimension, a liminal space between the living and the afterlife, akin to the space termed in Tibetan Buddhism as “bardo”, the gap. This is not only the space entered into after death, but one we enter when we feel unanchored in life, unsure of our ground.

In the film component of the installation Iwanczak more overtly invokes ritual and sacrifice as strategies for honouring the dead and acknowledging the continuity between life and death. Sacrifices fall into two categories: supplication, which is intended to provoke good fortune, and expiation, which is offered to appease divine wrath. Here we see a world-weary young chef, his arm etched with the iconography of the Inca (a culture renowned for its sacrificial practices), honouring each fish as he prepares it for consumption. Through the simple of act of naming, the chef connects to the individual life force of each fish. That this act takes place in an ordinary kitchen suggests that not only is our contact with death an everyday occurrence, but more so, that the opportunity to enact a meaningful sacrifice is also present every day. Many Fish Sacrifices is an elegy for the countless dead we may never have known but whose humanity ties them ineluctably to us.

Throughout her work, Iwanczak weaves a web of associations, compelling us to follow many threads – personal, geographical, and historical. She is concerned to remind us of those opportunities when we can become cognisant of life’s worth, connect with the pain of others, and remember; when we can experience deep empathy and apprehend history in a mode enhanced by emotional understanding.

Bronia Iwanczak, Wishstick
Bronia Iwanczak, Wishstick. Courtesy the artist


Jacqueline Millner teaches in Art History & Cinema Studies in the School of Humanities and Languages, University of Western Sydney, and writes widely on contemporary art.