In the Middle Ages, it was widely believed that pandemics, such as plague and cholera, were caused by breathing in impure air, poisoned by decaying matter, otherwise known as ‘miasma’. Interested in the stronghold that miasma theory had on public consciousness in the past (it was only discarded by scientists in favour of germ theory in the late 1800s) Polish-born Gosia Cwiech decided to resuscitate the obsolete hypothesis in a contemporary, post-truth framework.
Cwiech, who recently completed her degree at Belfast School of Art, has always been intrigued by the parallels between science and photography. “I’m not a science nerd. In fact, science has always been some sort of black magic to me,” she explains. “What interests me about it, however, is a naive faith in it as a means to discover more about the world around us. Similar to the way they look at science, people often tend to believe in photography as a representation of a truth.”
The 25-year-old describes her approach to photography as “pseudo-scientific”. Miasma evolved from a desire to photograph something metaphysical that can’t be seen, where its very existence is debatable. “My work was aimed at finding the meaning between spiritual perception versus scientific pursuit of knowledge,” she says. “By keeping in mind the idea of something that has two sides, divine and scientific, I was directed towards celestial phenomena and stumbled upon miasma theory.”
Drawing on her background in painting and sculpture, Cwiech set about meticulously fabricating objects and sets for still lifes loosely based on the research she had done on the theory. Over time, her visual strategy shifted away from pure documentation to a more absurdist approach, incorporating portraiture and landscapes.
In her satirical and colourful reimagining of this archaic belief, Cwiech suggests that the turbulent political events of recent times could be caused by a nasty strain of miasma, floating above our atmosphere. “Breathing in odour from rotting organic forms was believed to be extremely dangerous to general health. This perfectly relates to contemporary issues of propaganda, post-truth and conflicts with a sociopolitical background,” she says.
“In the course of time it was established that bad air didn’t cause any harm to our physical health, but it became the basis for improved hygiene, which in turn led to a better quality of living. Perhaps some sanitary activities could be a solution to current politicians being full of ‘hot air’.”
This article was first published in the August issue of BJP, which is available via www.thebjpshop.com