Spaces of Memory and Imagination
on Kingdom of Sand and Cement by Peter Bogaczewicz, Daylight 2019
There are several ways of approaching the photographs in this book. They can be read as historical documents, as social observation, or more subtly they can be seen as a stage, a space of memory and imagination. There is an essential tension between them: memory represented by the timeless landscape of the desert and the ruins of the history of its settlement that seem to have risen and now dissolve back into it, and imagination, represented by the new infrastructure and high-rise development that seem to have landed abruptly on it.
Peter Bogaczewicz’s images further accentuate this idea of a stage. His work as an architect has evidently sharpened his eye; his images are rigorously composed, every element aligned on an invisible grid of perpendicular lines. Buildings and mountains appear flat against the open desert sky, creating a sense of distance and detachment. His attention to the process of photographing architecture imbues the images with a certain gravity, a type of silence that is key to allow the drama between memory and imagination to unfold.
Kingdom of Sand and Cement was an opportunity for Bogaczewicz to develop interests one can see formulating in his earlier projects Layers of a City (2010–2013) and Shore Road (2011–2015). Throughout his work, consistent attention is paid to the expressive potential of the built environment. In Shore Road he focuses on the maritime character of Nova Scotia; in Layers of a City he deals with the complexities of a metropolis through the development of Toronto. In both series one can sense a preoccupation with how industrial and large-scale development can alter and eventually replace history and a sense of place. Traveling from his Canadian home to Saudi Arabia, he found himself confronted with this dichotomy at a colossal scale.
Being interested in photography of ruined architecture, I am aware of the dangers and pitfalls associated with it, especially the romantic representation of a distant past. In this work however, there is a respectful distance that doesn’t take sides. It is for the viewer to allow the stage to be filled with the memories hinted by the petroglyphs, the abandoned mud houses, and the old forts full of decorated walls and pillars.
And then there we see the appearance of the modern infrastructure, the high-rises and ambitious development. It is the realization of a desired vision of a future against the fading presence of what once existed. For me this is a universal story, one that reaches beyond the borders of the Saudi desert, but here it appears amplified. It is perhaps Bogaczewicz’s masterful use of scale that shows the magnitude of this invasion, new roads and buildings razing whatever stands in their way. Images like Expansion of the Al Haram Mosque. Makkah and Eastern Ring Road bridge. Wadi Hanifah tributary are good examples of this epic story, in his words recounting, “the conflicts and contradictions of the Saudi society.”
One of the images in this series has especially caught my eye. Family picnic under bridge. Wadi Hanifah has a particular timelessness, at the same time being incredibly contemporary. The scene has been around for millennia, a family sitting on the sand of the desert, having a meal together. One could think of the orientalist painters of the nineteenth century, the many studies of nomad life by Eugène Girardet come to mind. In this case there are no camels but an old car that lies parked a few steps from where they are sitting. They appear to be oblivious to the fact that the whole world has changed around them. An imposing concrete column supports a road that covers the sky. The desert itself has changed, it is now a wasteland of urban detritus—their space of leisure cleared in the middle of rusting corrugated hoarding—all as if signaling that there’s a price to pay for modernity.
As an art historian, especially one interested in the history of photography, I am excited by the connections between the images in this book and other photographs of the same places and landmarks taken in different moments in time. These coincidences offer the possibility of a dialogue across time, one which can unveil the underlying narratives of the past and present.
A conversation with Peter about this prompted him to show me a series of photographs by German orientalist Bernhard Moritz shot in what is now Saudi Arabia at the turn of the twentieth century. His images of the Mina Tent City and Al Haram Mosque at Makkah taken just over one hundred years ago attest to the original spirit of the place. They are a step removed from the romanticized landscapes in Girardet’s paintings, perhaps more faithfully upholding a connection with the past through the camera’s depiction of place and architecture. One can see traditional nomad buildings like the hundreds of tents across the pilgrim camp in Mina, but also get an accurate sense of the scale and elegant style of the low-rise buildings surrounding Al Haram Mosque.
Although Peter’s image of Kaaba is essentially taken from the same angle—only closer—everything around the solemn building seems to have changed. As with Family picnic under bridge. Wadi Hanifah, the people in this scene are absorbed in their prayers and thoughts, oblivious to the history around the Mosque that had recently vanished, replaced by colossal blocks clad in glass. Behind them loom dozens of construction cranes, the heralds of further development to come.
As we immerse ourselves in this particular vision of the Saudi Kingdom, there is an element that grounds us back to reality. Living in and working from Riyadh, he has been able to engage with local people who straddle the clash between the old and the new. The series of portraits included in Kingdom of Sand and Cement give us another way of relating to these uncanny spaces.
His journey starts with very wide and distant shots, gradually homing in until we find him up close and personal with the inhabitants of the desert. What we see through his lens yet again represents the confrontation between past and future, the essential conflicts at the heart of his project. We see humble people—workers on their way back home, and a camel owner with his daily companion—posing unassumingly for their portraits. But we are also shown gleams of another world, one much more sophisticated and luxurious. From the streets of the cities we are brought in to the lavish interiors of the new hotels, a dreamy contrast to some of the realities.
One final element present throughout the series is the idea of nature. It is reading these images as the evidence of a relationship with nature that one can bring the play to a close. We see the old mud houses crumbling down into the desert, and we see traces of ancestral civilizations on the petroglyphs found in rocks and caves. And then through Bogaczewicz’s eyes we see modern development framed by mountains of discarded tires, plastic bottles, and construction debris. There is a shift from a reliance on a predominantly natural landscape to an urbanized environment: contemporary and imposing. In this sense the Kingdom of Sand and Cement hides an inevitable premonition, that this vision for a future, if not managed, may likewise become a memory as cement erodes back into sand.