I had to go back to vaults of difficult memories that I would have gladly put behind me: Paulina Otylie Surys on her IPA shortlisted series

Last few hours left to apply! BJP IPA 2019 deadline: 20 December, 2018. There will be NO extended deadline. 

The nightmarish series delves into the phantoms of her early childhood, growing up during the Polish People’s Republic. Using archival photographs of family scenes and portraits taken during the period, Surys combines Communist motifs, like ornate Soviet rugs, with unnerving images of red meat. The project marries nostalgia with fear, alluding to the memories of hardship experienced during the occupation through the eyes of a child.

Surys is a multi-disciplinary artist who merges the boundaries of photography, painting and mixed-media installation. Her projects are often autobiographical in nature, maintaining a focus on womanhood, memories and the development of society. Dreamatorium merges many of Surys’ interests and methods, using collage and digital manipulation to corrupt familial scenes.

From the series Dreamatorium © Paulina Otylie Surys

Can you tell me about your BJP IPA shortlisted series, Dreamatorium?
Although most of my projects have a slight autobiographical element to them, Dreamatorium is a particularly personal, cathartic project for me. It presents a hazy, oneiric, distorted world seen from the perspective of a child. To make this happen, I had to go back to vaults of difficult memories that I would have gladly put behind me.

Dreamatorium consists of vernacular photographs from Poland’s Communist period, manipulated to add an uncanny, nightmarish element. The series also includes recent images based on both amateur digital snapshots and traditional analogue techniques from a bygone era. The medium offers grainy, slightly blurred, low-key images. Soft, discoloured or distorted by time, found photographs haunt us with the ghosts of the past and remind us of the inevitability of death. The project is a dreamy fictional diary combining nostalgia with a sense of impending doom. It focuses on the concept of tradition and reveals a subcutaneous tendency towards instability and absurdity.

I exhibited the first part of the project in Poland as an immersive space installation. I wrapped an entire room in “meat wallpaper”. Meat plays quite an important role for Polish people, probably as a result of recent wars and the communist regime. Meat shortages and fear of hunger turned meat into a synonym of security – during the communist regime shops were literally empty and food was rationed. The marble-like red meat pattern and floor lined with red soviet carpets were quite overwhelming and resembled a womb, causing a feeling of claustrophobia.

From the series Dreamatorium © Paulina Otylie Surys

How long did it take to create this body of work?
I started the series during September and October last year. Since then I have managed to create some more pieces. I am going back to Poland soon to shoot another part of the project, as well as to collaborate with a local photo archive. It’s all very exciting! I really hope to be able to make the project into a book one day.

What inspired you to put the project together?
It started with me visiting Poland for the first time since I left it 10 years ago. The visit triggered lots of memories and allowed me to see things that before I would have taken for granted. It is a bit like staring at a patterned wallpaper for the long time, you stop seeing it anymore, and you need a distance to see it afresh. I will definitely be going back to make some more projects between Poland and UK.

How does this project tie into, or depart from, your previous works?
Dreamatorium is my most personal and important project so far. It has shown me the importance of working with the medium of space installation, which I feel somehow completes my work and makes it truly immersive, transforming the 2-dimensionality of the image into a 3D experience. I find installation extremely fulfilling and exciting. It’s definitely something I am going to explore more in the future.

From the series Dreamatorium © Paulina Otylie Surys

What is your next project?
Nothing specific yet, which is quite surprising as I usually tend to jump from one project to another pretty quickly. I want to “live“ with this one a little bit longer, develop it a little more and hopefully show it here in the UK, along with an immersive space installation, sometime this year. I have lots of fresh ideas regarding Dreamatorium. Working with space installation really gave me wings, and it was extremely rewarding to see the reactions of the visitors. Plus, I have very much enjoyed working with photo archives and travelling in the process.

What does it mean to be shortlisted for the International Photography Award?
It has definitely helped me to gain more confidence and faith in my work, as well as giving me energy to create new pieces – it is incredibly rewarding to get such recognition from the experts in my field. It’s also a great way of getting exposure to new curators and a wider audience.

Would you like to exhibit your work in a solo show at London’s TJ Boulting gallery? The deadline for applications for the 2019 edition of BJP International Photography Award is 20 December 2018 – 4pm GMT.  Apply now!