Text by Stephanie D’Amico
“Has it ever struck you,” asks Tennessee Williams’ eccentric heroine, Flora Goforth, “that life is all memory, except for the one present moment that goes by you so quick you hardly catch it going?” In a body of work that gives form to the fragility of memory, Ewa Monika Zebrowski offers a response to Williams’ question about the transience of experience. Of time, lost is a collection of photographs that evoke the forgotten history contained in abandoned interiors, melancholy landscapes, and unpeopled palazzi. Working with a small point-and-shoot camera, a device which she refers to as “the pinhole of digital,” Zebrowski produces images that encompass both the fleeting present and the elusive past.
The artist cites poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky as having influenced her practice, pointing specifically to his collection of lyrical and philosophical writings on Venice, Watermark. Like Watermark, of time, lost hinges on the theme of reflection, focusing in particular on instances where physical and cognitive reflections coexist. In Zebrowski’s ca’ d’oro (2010), for instance, an ornate mirror reflects a window with half-open curtains; a triangle of cool blue exterior light pulses near the center of the image. The distinction between inside and outside is undone; the mirror becomes a window, not onto an exterior, but rather into a pensive and intimate interior space. In the image, as in memory, certain aspects unexpectedly come into focus, while others are clouded like vague recollections. Demonstrating great sensitivity to the nature of memory, Zebrowski has fostered an artistic practice that is both phenomenological and poetic.
All of the images reside in an uncertain historical moment, and the lack of human presence results in precious few temporal signifiers for the viewer. Confronted with well-trodden carpets, worn chairs, and dull mirrors, we are left to imagine the years of (dis)use responsible for their present state. Appropriately, the viewer is positioned not as a voyeur, but as an agent of memory. Where the histories of these forgotten places end, the viewer’s creative fictions begin. In this way, of time, lost embodies an elegant paradox, namely, that a place where history threatens to perish is simultaneously animated by enormous possibilities for narrative inscription.
Large enough to enter, these photographs function as both canvases of singular moments and windows onto multiple pasts. The photographs depict subtle and aggressive movement, recalling at once the motion picture screen and the deft pictorial notation of impressionism. Exploiting the mobility and immediacy of her medium, the artist captures traces of human presence that imply untold stories and invite interpretation. Suspended between photography, painting and cinematic narrative, Zebrowski’s images achieve a poetic hybridity. In an instant, the artist transforms barren spaces into fertile grounds for the cultivation of memory, both real and imagined.
1. “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore” in Tennessee Williams Plays 1957-1980 New York, NY: Library of America, 2000. 525.