Empathic Images

Whose eyes are staring at us from the cover of the latest issue of Widok/View? The attempt to make contact is quickly interrupted – the image is impossible to gain control over, our gazes diverge. The encounter, however, pits us against a chaotic arrangement of flickering horizontal forms.

Joanna Rajkowska, Samobójczynie (“Suicides”), March 22–June 10, 2018, solo exhibition at the Trafostacja Sztuki gallery in Szczecin. Photo by Tomasz Koszewnik. Courtesy of the artist

The work adorning our cover, courtesy of artist Joanna Rajkowska, draws on a particular breed of optical illusion-driven images, which date back to at least the 1500s – as evinced for example by brilliant comparisons penned by none other than Shakespeare1 – and grew popular throughout the seventeenth century. These tabulae scalatae, as Athanasius Kircher first called them,2 were made up of long wooden three-sided prisms, arranged either horizontally or vertically, with two different pictures painted on either visible side. The resulting three-dimensional, ladder-like picture has often been called anamorphic, despite the fact that unlike traditional anamorphic projections it does not in any way distort the produced image. Instead, it relies on a simpler approach – it fractures the form, but offers perfect clarity from a specific perspective. Either picture can be seen only from a certain angle, which forces the viewer to shift their viewing point and precludes them from grasping and recreating both representations simultaneously.

And so Rajkowska crafts a “dual portrait,” blending photographs of female suicide bombers - detonating explosives in a variety of locations across the globe, including Iraq, Yemen, Nigeria, and Russia - with self-portraits. Recasting herself as the suicide bombers, she re-enacts each event, but replaces the flesh torn apart by the force of the explosion with a body full of life. Although at first glance the environment and the arrangement of the elements in the pictures seem identical, we soon realize that they depict different people. The women manifest themselves in their entirety as we pass them by. Pictures flash by, alternating right and left; it’s enough to turn your head ever so slightly, as if sneaking a furtive glance at an accident in a crowd, not wanting to be caught rubbernecking in public. Like passersby, we move within the safe space of the art gallery. The women’s motivations and the political contexts seem less significant, but identifying their presumed similarity is not the central issue here. The duality embedded within the pictures does not eliminate as much as lay bare the irreconcilable difference between the Artist and the suicide bomber from Yemen, consequently exposing the inherent difficulty of building empathic relationships using visual means. And it was precisely this difficulty that we, along with the various authors of the texts featured in this issue of Widok, had to face when preparing it for publishing.

The issue of empathic reactions carries within it the weight of discussions accentuating the ethical dimension of (over)identification – the risk associated with erasing difference and appropriating the experiences of others.3 Often used instrumentally, it suggests the possibility of transcending and, consequently, neutralizing specific structural social issues, such as class-, race- and
gender-based hierarchies and conflicts. Although it seems a genuinely personal reaction, it can easily be caught up in power relationships and entangled in acts of appropriating others’ experiences. Conceived as false identification, it manifests itself in the form of pleasure derived from assuming a position of passive observer or moral complacency – remaining in the sphere of the private, limited to individual gestures (such as acts of charity). At the same time, however, understanding or even registering the emotions of others is considered a fundamentally human instinct – after all, empathy is the very basis of any and all social relationships. Thus, the category is simultaneously interpreted as fraught with risk and still considered essential to building relationships driven by concern and solidarity, as well as to the development of representations that reinforce them. This dichotomy, typical of contemporary critical theory, can even be found as far back as in the writings of Bertolt Brecht, who – despite his explicit rejection of empathic identification between audience and character as the primary mechanism underpinning bourgeois theater – also asserted that 
“the rejection of empathy is not the result of a rejection of the emotions, nor does it lead to such.”4 Hence, Brecht did not seek to eliminate emotion-driven identification altogether, but to reject empathy contingent on similarity of experience between audience and character. Because “emotions are in no sense universally human and timeless”5 and “have a quite definite class basis,”6 to be effective, political theater must necessarily penetrate all the way to the social origins of emotional attitudes and reactions re-enacted on stage. In Brecht’s epic theater, empathy rooted in similarity was supposed to be replaced by critical distance, as well as emotional reactions that take the diversity, complexity, and lability of the portrayed characters into consideration.

It is this very empathy rooted in affinity, this ability to conceive of being another person, that Joanna Rajkowska interrogates in her work, veering toward “a feeling for another that entails an encounter with something irreducible and different, often inaccessible,”7 an interpretation also offered by Jill Bennett, herself informed by the Brechtian tradition. In an excerpt from Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma, and Contemporary Art (translated into Polish by Łukasz Mojsak), which opens this issue’s
Close-Up section, the author investigates empathy framed as a way of seeing and suggests that art is capable of changing perception. She believes that affective relations engendered by interacting with an image, as well as with the emotions instilled in an image, effectively “facilitate the thinking process.” It is emotional engagement, she argues, rather than rational vision, that elicits a more profound reflection.

Bennett’s essay is published alongside seven other articles offering different approaches to interrogating the category of empathy and the question of building empathic relationships by way of visuals and the practices of looking. Paweł Mościcki examines the origins of empathy – and the conditions of empathic participation in visual culture, among other things. Guiding us through these deliberations are Günther Anders, Emmanuel Lévinas, Jacques Lacan, and Fritz Breithaupt. Drawing on the categories proposed by Elisa Aaltola in Varieties of Empathy,8 Aura Nikkilä and Anna Vuorinne examine Hanneriina Moisseinen’s graphic narrative Isthmus, which uses a variety of visual and written narrative forms to help the reader establish an empathic bond with marginalized others, both human and non-human. Magda Szcześniak delves into two films by feminist filmmakers – Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames (1983) and Jill Godmilow’s Far from Poland (1984) – and investigates the tools used by the artists to reinvigorate and maintain revolutionary attitudes at a time of widespread exhaustion with politics. Szcześniak argues that both directors reject straightforward empathic identification in favor of attempts to build more complex and unobvious emotional relationships both within social movements and between their characters and their audiences. Aleksander Kmak writes about the controversial documentary Caniba (dir. Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel, 2017), which revolves around a notorious cannibal and murderer, pointing out how it demands an extreme reaction from the audience – not so much empathic attention as much as averting one’s eyes. Eliza Rose takes a close look at Józef Robakowski’s project From My Window, which saw the artist spend over twenty years (1978–1999) recording his neighbors as they crossed a concrete square outside one high-rise apartment block in a part of Łódź that the locals somewhat mockingly dubbed “Manhattan”. Rose offers up a provocative interpretation of the film that frames it as a prolonged example of “civic voyeurism.” Using the documentary
A Two-Year-Old Goes to Hospital, which explores the hospitalization of
two-and-a-half-year-old Laura, Justyna Wierzchowska examines filmmaking tropes and devices used to elicit empathy vis-a-vis a discussion of the profound changes that both medical discourse and morality underwent in the 1950s. Michał Piasecki looks at Harun Farocki’s 1969 film Inextinguishable Fire, interpreting it as an attempt, and one critical of Brechtian theory, to find a formula for 
radical – and thus political – empathy. To provide crucial context for these ruminations, we also include the Polish translation of Farocki’s brief 2008 essay, Einfühlung, in which the author delves into the question of how empathy functions in filmmaking.

Deliberations over the category of empathy continue in the Viewpoint section, which features the artworks of Liliana Piskorska (with commentary by Gabriela Sułkowska) and Ada Zielińska (with commentary by Marcin Stachowicz). Piskorska’s project Sourcebook/Książka źródeł seeks out stories of non-normative female sexuality and uses them to generate mixed media visuals depicting a range of practices relating to caring for the self and other non-normative subjects. The artist interrogates the prospect of building intergenerational bonds between non-normative subjects, seeking continuity where most see conflict and division (proponents of the successive waves of feminism being one example).
Ada Zielińska’s pictures from the photographic series Disaster Cruisin’ take us to a realm ravaged by climate change: massive wildfires in California and Australia, flooding in Venice. Zielińska recasts these iconic tourist attractions as a symptom of intense changes that are still barely visible in other areas of the world or, more often than not, forced, at great cost, outside the field of visibility and labeled peripheral (geographically as well as in the sense of the meaning that gets ascribed to them). Will those places survive climate change, or will the tourism industry simply assimilate the resulting destruction and remake it into just another attraction? The powerful emotional component introduced into the popular debate around the Anthropocene by the emergence of Greta Thunberg seems to dissipate here, its stark outlines softened against the California sun. It’s difficult to unambiguously situate empathy in such a landscape. How do we recreate the potential web of affective connections in relation to these sweeping visions of disaster?

The Panorama section opens with a translation of an excerpt from French philosopher Michel Serres’ 1980 book La Parasite, in which the author posits a theory of human relations that likens them to parasitism, i.e. existence at the expense of other organisms, human and otherwise. Serres’ concept of subjectivity, understood herein as a perpetually unfinished process of purging oneself of oneself, requiring the rejection of the self in favor of connection, may ultimately be of some help in attempting to exploit the radical potential of empathy. The section also features two essays on painting: in one, Justyna Balisz-Schmelz examines Urszula Broll’s Mandale series from the perspective of the theory of altermodernism, while in the other, Filip Lipiński investigates practices of textuality in American painting.

In Perspectives, we present two conversations centered around the political nature of artistic practice. In the first, Maja Głowacka and Zofia Sikorska speak with Dorota Ogrodzka and Igor Stokfiszewski, authors of the 2019 report
Kultura i solidarność [Culture and Solidarity], which examined the potential of using community-driven artistic and cultural efforts to alleviate social divisions. In the second interview, Katarzyna Bojarska talks with Miriam Cahn about the political character and affective ambiguity of her paintings. The issue closes out with Snapshots, featuring reviews of recent exhibitions and publications. In this section, Ewelina Jarosz writes about two exhibitions investigating the systemic nature of sickness (Kreatywne Stany Chorobowe: AIDS, HIV, RAK [Creative Medical Conditions: AIDS, HIV, CANCER], held at the Arsenał Municipal Gallery in Poznań, and HIVstorie: Żywe polityki [HIVstories: Living Politics], organized by Biennale Warszawa), Alicja Gzowska recommends Łukasz Stanek’s Architecture in Global Socialism, and Witek Orski takes a closer look at Nathan Jurgenson’s Social Photo.

Editorial team

1 Allan Shickman, “‘Turning Pictures’ in Shakespeare's England,” The Art Bulletin 59:1 (1977), 67–70.

2 For a more exhaustive take on the German Jesuit and his writings on perspective, see Jurgis Baltrusaitis, Anamorfozy albo Thaumaturgus opticus (Anamorphoses or Thaumaturgus opticus), trans. T. Stróżyński (Gdańsk: słowo/obraz terytoria, 2009).

3 Jill Bennett, Empathic Visions: Affect, Trauma, and Contemporary Art (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005).

4 Bertolt Brecht, Short Description of a New Technique of Acting which Produces an Alienation Effect, in: Brecht on Theatre. The Development of an Aesthetic, trans. and ed. John Willet (New York: Hill and Wang, 1997), 145.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Bennett, Empathic Visions, 10.

8 Elisa Aaltola, Varieties of Empathy: Moral Psychology and Animal Ethics (London–New York: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2018).