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Photo by Christopher Grabowski
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“Nothing so invisible as a monument.” —Robert Musil
For most of her adult life, my mother, Danuta Rago, was a professional photographer in Poland. In the early seventies she travelled to the Asiatic republics of the USSR and to Siberia. Her assignment was to take portraits of happy members of the collective farms and pictures of the greatest industrial projects of the Soviet empire, such as the massive hydroelectric dam on the Angara River at the town of Bratsk, to be used as illustrations in heavily censored Polish publications. When I looked through her archive recently in preparation for an upcoming historical exhibition of Polish women photographers, I found among her negatives of that time several images of monuments to the fathers of the Bolshevik Revolution that stood out from the rest of the material: slightly skeptical shots of Lenin, Marx and others, towering over irreverent native populations. Such images could not possibly serve the intended editorial purpose and would perhaps even jeopardize the careers of her editors if published at that time.
I imagine that my mother was surprised to find such familiar monuments at the farthest reaches of the Soviet empire. They looked exactly like those she knew from her trips to East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria, and those that I grew up with in Warsaw. They were not really commemorative: local populations regarded them largely as territorial markers of the empire, not unlike musk and other substances that serve the same purpose for animals.
These bronze, cast-iron, stone and concrete imperial emblems have all but disappeared from Warsaw’s public space, which is now crowded with commercial imagery on an unprecedented scale. In the autumn of 2007 , faces of Pierce Brosnan, many storeys high, loomed over almost every street in the city centre, several of them wrapped around the former headquarters of the now defunct Communist Party. The only text on these ads was the brand name Wolczanka, which is a clothing manufacturer. My first reaction to the uniformity and sheer size of these images was perhaps similar to my mother’s response to the mountainous effigies of Lenin in the past. Was I encountering titanic forces marking the territory and claiming ownership of its inhabitants? Or, as Marx once predicted, had history returned to Warsaw’s public space to replay itself as a farce?