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Rewriting a vanishing time

Text by Bárbara Lissa
A dialogue with artist Jolanta Dolewska

Reservoir (2013-2015), by Jolanta Dolewska, a polish artist who lives and works in Glasgow, Scotland, is an artwork developed from the negatives inherited from her late father. While the work begins from archive images, it does not return to them. It seems that the artist’s intention is not to simply narrate these photographs' memories, but to use them as a springboard to create new images and new narratives.

The photographic negative was thought by Freud as an analogy to the unconscious. Freud uses the model of the photographic camera to show that every psychic phenomenon passes first and necessarily through the unconscious phase, through darkness as well as the negative, before yielding to consciousness, to develop in the clarity of the positive. By accessing family archives -composed of technical documentation, school photography and portraits put together with photographs taken by her as a child- Jolanta Dolewska took the negatives as she unrolled flashes of her father’s non linear memories. According to the artist, since the work brings photographs taken in different times and geographic locations and by different photographers, it raises themes such as alienation and displacement, since the images are decontextualised.

Jolanta Dolewska, Reservoir, 2016.

The photographs as traces of something that happened in the past are, as Derrida (1974) says, nothing more than vestiges. If their origin is nothing but a trace, and if the trace is the negation of the origin, since it is only a residue, one cannot speak of the origin itself. As Dolewska states:

As the ownership of imagery migrates by default (without a written last will), from one realm (parent) to another (child), from the dead to the living. I use these photographs as the departure point for my personal inquiry in considering different possibilities and interpretations, with a desire to develop a discourse around found images; images which fall upon me and I absorbed and transformed them.

Exploring vestiges as a way to open possibilities for narrating them, rather than to simply explain their origin, the artist imbues this archive with a new temporality. Thus, as viewers we create our own narratives which arise from the associations we make between the images.

Jolanta Dolewska, Reservoir, 2016.

As a development of this work, in Untold, Retold (2018), Dolewska uses objects and clay together with the photographs from her father’s archive. Lying on the tables, photographs disappear underneath the clay, a material as delicate as skin, but with a weight. The image of clay over photographs brings to mind the mass of earth above bodies under the ground.

Jolanta Dolewska, Untold, Retold, at Altered States exhibition at Kunsthalle Exnergasse WUK - Austria, 2018.

In this work, we cannot see the whole images, only fragments. This leads us to ask, why reflections on memory so often use the image of the ‘trace’ According to philosopher Jeanne Marie Gagnebin, it occurs because memory lives the tension between presence and absence, between presence of the present, which remembers the vanished past, but also presence of the vanished past that irrupts into the evanescent present.

I remember your words of regret because of your failure to record and share all those fleeting moments of life before they merged into darkness. You doubted the purpose of it all. For a long time the thought of you being no more was so abstract for my untested mind. We spoke on the phone just a few hours before you left and you agreed for strange women to wash your body the next day. There was no tomorrow. Jolanta Dolewska, Glasgow, 2017

In this fragment of the poem At Last (2017), written by Jolanta Dolewska, we can almost hear the artist’s voice talking to her father arising from the poem’s strong autobiographical content. The fading photographs too seem to record and share fleeting moments of life before they merge into darkness.

Jolanta Dolewska, Untold, Retold, 2018.

In my dreams we talk. Once you asked me if I continued to photograph. I do. Does it suffice though? Will it help me to understand why we are here? Or will it prevent us from disappearing after the inevitable leap into the night? Jolanta Dolewska, Glasgow, 2017

The images surrounded by a dark atmosphere, or covered up by clay, seem to refer to the remembrance of a presence that no longer exists. Like memory itself, photographs run the risk of being extinguished. However, as the artist gathers the tracks to narrate new stories and images, this archive is an open work since it prompts new associations to build new futures. As attested by Walter Benjamin, in On the Concept of History, “Articulating the past historically does not mean recognizing it the way it really was. It means appropriating a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger.”

The fascination for found images, images of a past threatened by finitude, arises from a desire for redemption in seeing them imbued with a new future. Thus, by an exercise of imagination for narrating decontextualised and fragmented memories, Jolanta Dolewska’s work invites us to give future to these images throughout our own narratives. Opening herself up to the various interpretations and appropriations of images, Dolewska searches for the archive where it is hidden.

Jolanta Dolewska, Untold, Retold, 2018.

Jolanta Dolewska, Reservoir, 2016.


Working with my late father’s photographic archive was part of my practice for several years. I enjoyed the practical aspect of exploring it - going through hundreds of prints and negatives which originated in places and times I didn’t witness. I let my imagination run, trying to understand the images, to comprehend their purpose, and to consider what the photographer had in mind when pressing the shutter. Some of the photographs in the archive were taken by me as a child, which adds another layer to the way I think about my own ability to remember things and how memories can be supported, prompted or altered by images - something each archivist is keenly aware of. The image archive is not an impersonal collection, it is my father’s. So the practical, and objective processes of working with it were interwoven with the personal and then conceptual aspects. Currently the archive is in the background of my work, as I’m focusing on sculpture and the moving image. In the near future, however, I’m planning to engage in a new project which returns to the family related archive - this time using film footage and objects. The moving images and objects will be the starting points, and the ideas would be formed by, emerge from and reflect this process.


In the last ten years my practice shifted from using solely photography, first images only taken by me, then in ‘Reservoir’ I incorporated images from my family’s archive, and in ‘Untold, Retold’ used images solely derived from the family archive, and have progressed to making an installation - working in a combined way with photography, sculpture and the moving image. Firstly, working with the family archive, I was drawn to the idea that the past is interwoven in the present, and to the understanding of history (or histories) as nonlinear structures. I was influenced by Craigie Horsfield who uses the phrase "slow history". By this he means a history of daily events, interactions, and sensations - "small" narratives about real lives lived. I started thinking about photographs as marks of lives once lived. I like how Horsfield worked with photographs taken 20 years before he showed them - so they lost his personal attachment to them. Working with my family archive made me think more about photographs as physical objects, their materiality, surface, and embracing the imperfections of analogue photography. This influenced how I continued to treat photographs (as objects) and also introduced sculptures and installations so as to invite viewers to physically experience my work versus thinking about photography as flat, sleek frames.


When I was working with my late father’s negatives, which most were rolled and kept in various poly bags, I did think about them as a reservoir of images, something which is not systematised and nor organised in a logical way. I was unrolling the negatives and taking glimpses through my father’s eyes which felt like getting into his head. The negatives were more like human memories and thoughts which are interlaced, non-linear, fluid and with unavoidable gaps. In that respect it echoes Derrida’s ideas from Archive Fever (or the original lecture ‘The Concept of the Archive: A Freudian Impression’) where he analyses the connection between archives and the structures of human memory. In ‘Reservoir' and ‘Untold, Retold’ I was trying to find connections between photographs and create narratives. In the former I approached this through adding images taken by me, and in the latter through a process of fragmenting, rearranging, concealing, adding empty (unmarked) frames and installing them together with objects. In both bodies of work, I take full control of the material. It corresponds with Derrida’s tracing the concept of the archive to the Greek word arkhē - meaning both commencement and commandment - but where Derrida treats this etymology as binding the archive historically to government, power and law, my work functions in the realm of personal and group (familial) memories, relationships and what remains, which memories and images become dominant after the loss of family members and when family structures change.


Working with my father’s photographic archive, which I inherited after he died in 2012, was a way for me to come to terms with his death, but there were also many funny moments when discovering different images. I found this repetition of an image of a horse toy on wheels, which must have belonged to my older sister, photographed in the flat which we grew up in. I laughed that my father must have attempted to replicate Muybridge’s studies of animal movement. The camera’s malfunction, where frames slightly overlapped each other creating one image, prompted me to fragment images and rearrange them into one in ‘Untold, Retold’.



Freud, S. A Note On The Unconscious In Psycho-Analysis, 1912.

Derrida, J. Linguistics And Grammatology, 1974.

Gagnebin, J.M. Lembrar, Escrever, Esquecer, 2006

Benjamin, W. On the Concept of History. 1938-1940


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