Andrzej Tobis: A Fly

Ground rules / Andrzej Tobis:

The point of departure for the A–Z project was Bildwörterbuch Deutsch und Polnisch, an illustrated German-Polish dictionary released in 1954 in the German Democratic Republic, and its subsequent (second and third) editions, which introduced only minor changes to the original. The idea behind the project was to take the entries and phrases developed in the GDR and illustrate them anew, after more than 50 years. The new photos illustrating the entries from the original dictionary can be taken only around Poland. The situations and objects photographed are not arranged or digitally edited—they must be found. Each entry in German and Polish bears the index number from the original dictionary. The photo and the entry, which is placed below it on a white bar, form an integral whole.

So far about 550 entries have been found and brought to life since the beginning of the project in November 2006. The A–Z project is a utopian endeavour, if anything. It is unknown how long it will continue, although it is clear that it will never be realized in its entirety. For display purposes, each illustrated entry takes the form of a wooden, white-painted, glass showcase measuring 55 × 40 × 5 cm. The showcases are hung in one or two rows in alphabetical order (according to the Polish equivalents of the entries). The minimum number of works on display is 10 showcases. This form of the project is presented under the name A–Z (Educational Showcases).

To put it in the most general of terms, I can say that the A–Z project arose from a need to name, define, the reality I was experiencing. Where the need came from—that I do not know for sure. Probably, as is the case with any definition, which is also an attempt to control the defined, in this case too the project was a way to deal with the experienced reality, which was given to me in a shape over which I had no influence. However, despite the lack of influence over the overall shape of reality, I feel that the way we name what we see not only constitutes ourselves, but also changes the reality in which we live. These initially unacknowledged intuitions eventually revealed the principles underlying the approach to the project. Defining reality means an encounter with two qualities: the visual image of the world and language. Both of these qualities are infinite, in practice impossible to embrace. The subjective perspective naturally limits the scope of the visual image of the world. But stumbling upon the illustrated German-Polish dictionary published in 1954 in the GDR helped me to define the linguistic key I would use to redefine reality. This peculiar dictionary proved to be an ideal linguistic point of reference. The dictionary itself teeters between an objective view of reality and something that can be called a subjective distortion of perception, in this case related to the propaganda requirements it had to meet at the time. Its embedding in the ‘past system’ is of great value to me because when I began working on the project I was old enough to figure out that the first half of my life coincided with life in the People’s Republic of Poland, while the other half would take place in the ‘new system.’ The stretch between the two systems, in which words change their meaning, can be treated as an additional motivation to define the world anew. In my view, the type of defining that has any weight or meaning to it excludes the possibility of deliberate creation. So I decided to treat both the visual image of the world and the language (German and Polish), as two, or strictly speaking, three sets of readymade elements. My job was only to find the corresponding elements in these three sets and then combine them properly. Thus the situations and objects photographed were not orchestrated in any way. And that is why the captions for the photos remain unaltered from the ones in the original dictionary (including any archaisms and translation inaccuracies). Finding a readymade object in the field initiated the search for the readymade entry in the dictionary, and vice versa: a readymade entry from the dictionary inspired the search for an object in the field. There is no hierarchy either during the work or in the way the whole is arranged. All subjects, objects, occurrences and words are of equal importance. For this reason, as in the regular dictionary index, all entries, when they are put together, are arranged in alphabetical order (according to the Polish equivalents of the entries).

Working on another entry, I realized that every completed work is a peculiar triad of the entry in German, the corresponding one in Polish, and an image that often renders the meaning of the two entries unevenly, or plays with the meaning(s). This triad never meets at one point. Sometimes they narrowly miss each other, but it is always at three separate points. Thus, a specifically shaped triangle of meanings is created every time. The true meaning of a given notion—if there is such a thing—lies somewhere between the three vertices in the surface area of the triangle corresponding to the given notion.

Adopting an open method of work, albeit based on several rules that are closely adhered to, but free of any preconceptions, has resulted throughout the process in the appearance of unforeseen contexts and threads: linguistic, sociological, historical, aesthetic, philosophical, and personal. Some of the discoveries have been revelatory even to myself. And I accept them all. None of them exhausts the description of the whole.

To my surprise, I noticed recently that of all the entries completed so far, the first one in alphabetical order is ‘Africa’ (Afryka/Afrika) and the last is ‘giraffe’ (żyrafa/Giraffe). Perhaps this indicates that the whole reality contained between these two, which I experience, is very ‘African’ to me despite being seemingly close? Maybe my state of mind is the state of mind of a man who has found himself in exotic circumstances, and everything he sees around him seems strange?


A–Z at the PHotoEspaña festival

The showing of a fragment of A–Z at the PHotoEspaña festival is different from earlier presentations of the project. For the first time, the works are not displayed in alphabetical order, but grouped in interwoven categories defined by a more-or-less subjective key. The whole forms a kind of visual narrative, a visual essay about Poland, a country from the Spanish perspective distant and unknown, serving as a universal model of a place on the edge of recognition, whose shape defined by the relation of picture to language remains amorphous. In my view, the amorphous is an inseparable feature of the entire picture of reality created by our minds. In the case of the exhibition presented in Madrid, this characteristic is reinforced even more by the distance.

Andrzej Tobis was born in 1970. At age 20 he moved to Katowice, where he still lives most of the time. In 1995 he graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Katowice, where he runs his own painting workshop.


Museo Lázaro Galdiano, Calle Serrano 122, Madrid

Curator: Bogna Świątkowska

Organized by:
Bęc Zmiana Foundation / www.beczmiana.pl
Polish Institute in Madrid / www.culturapolaca.es
Museum Lázaro Galdiano / www.flg.es
Photo España

Funding provided by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage of the Republic of Poland.

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