Title: 8630 Mariazell

Publisher: fotohof

Photograph by: Erwin Polanc

Design: Christian Hoffelner

Text by:  Ulrich Tragatschnig

Language: dt. engl. / Ger. Eng.

Format: 29,5 × 22,5 cm

ISBN: 978-3-902993-44-1

Price: 35.00 €

The recent book of Erwin Polanc "8630 Mariazell" explores the life of a Austrian small town called Mariazell. As a matter of fact the whole photographic production of Polanc deal with the Austrian territory, small towns and it's inhabitants. I had a chat with him in order to better understand his artistic practice and what lies behind this geographical choice.

Elena Vaninetti (E.V) - What was your aim when you approached the town of Mariazell for the first time? It is a very famous place of pilgrimage in Austria; how much did this impact on your way of looking at this place?

Erwin Polanc (E.P.) - I’m interested in outlines, in the incidental, the everyday: Things that occur within a local structure in the contingent flow of people, objects, places and time. I like to focus on certain people, on specific details, on fragmented constellations of objects, or the informal. 

I had of course built up huge expectations right from the outset, as you would. Mariazell’s surface appearance, especially as a place of pilgrimage, is overlaid with a series of clichés: Fabulous façades, contrived arrangements, hotels with names such as “Himmelreich” (Heavenly Kingdom), “Goldenes Kreuz” (Golden Cross) or “Weisser Engel” (White Angel). On almost every street corner you can buy plastic toys, traditional costumes, gingerbread, Madonna statues, schnitzels, and bottles or canisters for holy water.

It took me a while to get beneath that surface. These photographs do not depict any wonderfully contradictory narratives about the location; instead, they depict something which has not yet appeared as an image elsewhere and been understood as such. This approach also describes a process of exclusion. An omission, but one that for me does not represent a deficiency or a loss, but a productive method. Metaphorically speaking, these are all slices through different cakes. Viewed as individual fragments they do not allow an overall picture. But you might find yourself being tempted into wanting to reconstruct such a picture. If I provided ready answers, such as a photograph of the basilica, it would be less productive for the purpose of my work and, in my opinion, just as inadequate in terms of image value; after all, I'd be able to find such “stock images” using any search engine.

What impacted on my way of looking at this place was the constant ambiguity. Mariazell thrives on this ambiguity; it is an almost impenetrable mix of reality and fiction. A location where certain concepts and strategies are drawn up, pursued and staged in order to meet the expectations of many individuals. The place itself is about a practice of representing expectation, as it were. For me, depicting several images of one and the same motif was a logical step towards the question of location and the avoidance of fixation.

(E.V.) - How much time did you spend in Mariazell when you were working on this series?

(E.P.) - I visited Mariazell continually for a year and a half and studied the literature and image archives. Time is important because I always try to avail myself of the knowledge that is to be gained or extracted from what lies between the images, the history, and the compilation of image series. This could represent a search for constituent elements crucial for the narrative. 

I found a specific connection to the subject matter through the so called “Zellfahrten” (“Journeys to Zell”), which I came across in the course of my research for the project. In the past, secular courts imposed so-called “punishment journeys” to Mariazell as atonement for certain crimes. This idea appealed to me a great deal, and so I imposed on myself sixteen of these “Journeys to Zell”, lasting two days each, in order to force a sort of limitation mode on myself. Between each of these journeys I had time to prepare myself anew, to re-order myself. After a while my work gained the necessary depth. It is important to let some time pass between the moment an image is captured and the contemplation of that image, in order to disregard any efforts and hopes that may have briefly flared up.

(E.V.) - Your research is mostly focused on towns and places located in the Federal Province of Styria, Austria. What lies behind this choice?

(E.P.) - The focal point of my work is Styria. I try and process or address many of the things I am interested in myself, or that concern me directly, through the choice of location, so that the whole thing becomes more tangible also for myself. After my hometown of Neumarkt, a small rural community, and (the old mining town of) Eisenerz, a place shaped by industrial upheaval, I became particularly interested in Mariazell as a traditional place of pilgrimage. 

So, if you like, my work is generally about an exploration of provenance, of upheavals, of the consequences of industrial and socio-cultural change. In that sense I see Mariazell as a laboratory, as a topographically ideal type for the subject matter of pilgrimage per se. Through its morphology the town allows me to address issues relating to religion, pilgrimage, tourism etc. Why do thousands of people go on a pilgrimage there? What are my expectations of such a place? How does it work? That in turn raises a whole range of questions for which there are no quick or simple answers – if any. So that is enough of a challenge in itself.

(E.V.) - People are a fundamental part of your work. How close you go to your subjects? Do you try to get familiar with them?

(E.P.) - As I mentioned at the beginning, I like to focus on certain people, on specific details, on fragmented constellations of objects, or the informal. The interspersed images of people are crucial for the narrative. The character strata should create a new mental space through the interplay of the image with the viewer’s individual understanding of it.

When I’m working on portraits it is a matter of acting spontaneously and intuitively. Sometimes I find myself asking people if they mind me taking their photograph before I have even thought about their portrait. If the person agrees, I have a very short window of opportunity in which to work with the utmost concentration. I try to benefit from a fragile moment. This method precludes getting familiar with the people I’m interested in.