Situated in the south of Poland, Katowice is the center of the Silesian Metropolis. A city shaped by a golden age of mining and industry that evolved during the late 19th century, its suburbs used to lie on the border crossings of three empires—the Kingdom of Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires—who all competed for the mines and factories of industrial Silesia. Now branded as the ‘City of Gardens’, present-day Katowice is a collision of different perspectives and myths: from the former glories of its mining past to the struggles of adapting to a modern western economy and the onset of globalization, its landscape is marked by layers of conflicting forces and histories.
Drawn to the myths and legends of the Silesia region, Ukrainian photographers Viacheslav Poliakov and Elena Subach took a trip west to explore the terrain of their neighboring country. The result is City of Gardens: a visual taxonomy that grapples with both how the city describes itself and what can be seen on its streets. A mixture of straight photographs and collage, the project delves into Katowice’s many layers, visual cultures and different historical traces to create an experimental portrait of the city—and a new, collaborative photographic language in the process.
A blend of two distinct photographic visions, City of Gardens is the pair’s first joint project. On what makes it work, Poliakov says they are “driven by the same demons.” United by a passion for setting off on adventures and discovering the faraway districts and provincial cities of Ukraine with their cameras, Poliakov and Subach share a strong bond with their homeland, which was evident as soon as they met five years ago and started travelling together to work on separate projects. “We both never got bored spending time between Soviet blocks in the middle of a field and in the mud of disappearing villages,” Poliakov recounts. “We were having fun.”
The pair were intrigued by the interaction between the Katowice’s past and its more recent transformations after hearing about Silesia from a close friend from the region. For Subach, who grew up in Chervonohrad—a town close to the border of Poland built exclusively for coal mining during the 50s, whose mining industry disintegrated in the 90s—the story resonated personally. While the similarities were there, leaving Ukraine, heading towards the West and encountering a place with fresh eyes was important for the duo. “Many people in Silesia are inclined to the idea of escape—escape to bigger cities in search of a better life,” explains Poliakov. “We, on the contrary, put ourselves artificially into a kind of ‘honeymoon’ mindset—to capture the sheer delight of discovering something new and different. A new city, country and language. We didn’t want to escape the reality of a small city, but to accept it in all its diversity.”
Working with a double set of eyes helped the duo capture the city from different angles and perspectives, as both artists are drawn to different subjects. The protagonists in Subach’s practice are people: their stories, rituals, tradition and ways of life. Her previous projects have taken an encyclopaedic look at life in the Ukrainian provinces, with a focus on the effects of post-industrialisation after the fall of the USSR, which she believes has led to a return to a life led by superstition. Poliakov, on the other hand, is interested in the spaces created by these people, particularly the makeshift, DIY structures that began to populate public space in the wake of the end of the Soviet era and the rise of globalization, as seen through the shifting visual landscape. Bringing these approaches together, the pair encountered the city intuitively, taking it day by day. “Every day we asked ourselves: what is unique about this place? What we can tell about the foreign country we do not know much about?” says Subach. “Our dialogue was the most important part of this project.”
The duo’s images show a visual landscape scattered with traces that express different facets of the city’s life throughout history, with the miner still at the core of Katowice’s public image. “The heroic epic nature of mining is still used in the region’s branding to this day. After all, a miner is regarded a hero who digs up treasures and goods from the subterranean world, which itself is often associated with hell—and people believed it, as they could feel the temperature rise the further down they went,” explains Subach. “Mining is an everyday battle against the forces of evil. That’s where the religiousness of miners and the veneration of their patron, Saint Barbara, originates from. There are many statues and depictions of her in the city, in old and modern districts.”
The symbol of white lace represents another dimension of this history. The duality of heaven and hell, of black and white, emerges more during the winter where coal is still used as a source of heat. While the coal leaves black marks on the ground in front of houses where it is unloaded, lace-trimmed curtains are visible through the windows above. “When men went underground, the women occupied themselves with earthly work: they weaved, tatted lace and tirelessly washed, because the smoke from factories caused white fabrics to darken,” says Subach. “It was an endless process—the men were fighting the demons that guarded coal underground, while women fought demons of their own.”
A somewhat odd counter image to an industrial past is the use of flowers and gardens in the city’s branding. “It reminded us a lot of Ukrainian industrial cities broadcasting the same message. For example, Donetsk: City of Roses. Of tulips and parks. The green city. The sunny city,” says Poliakov. “But, the funny thing is, the city is actually decorated with many flowers. And they don’t look like nature—they are more like an emphasized statement.” On a contemporary level, this decorative atmosphere offset Katowice’s reputation as the most dangerous place in Poland—another image of the city that Subach and Poliakov had encountered before travelling there. “This cool ‘New East’ image of working class fashion, rappers and gangsters, industrial ruins and brutal architecture is being ruined by cozy gardens, carefully planted by smiling old ladies,” says Poliakov.
In contrast to Ukraine, Poliakov feels that up until now, Poland’s evolution out of its Soviet past towards EU integration has been moving fairly quickly—and with it comes cultural homogenization. On the lookout for Katowice’s own aesthetics, the two photographers were drawn to spaces and communities that didn’t have enough time, money or references to copy from a global standard. “If you have no reference, you have to be creative,” he remarks. Finding a new form that encompassed the diverse elements they came across was the challenge. “We were trying to find things that were aesthetically unique in this region. Raw, sometimes kitschy, sometimes old-school, but strong and beautiful,” says Poliakov. “And classical photographic framing was not enough to share the image we had in our head.” Increasing the density of each image by layering objects onto each other, collage enabled the pair to arrive at a form that brought together their experience of the place—including both the invisible and visible elements of Katowice’s past, present and future.