Critics’ Picks

Tobias Zielony, Chronic, 2009–11, color photograph, 27 1/5 x 18 1/5".

Tobias Zielony, Chronic, 2009–11, color photograph, 27 1/5 x 18 1/5".


Tobias Zielony

Kow Berlin
Brunnenstr. 9
February 4–April 15, 2012

It’s hard to tell what came first: the tattoo or the scar. Both are spread across the taut stomach of a young man in Tobias Zielony’s photograph Chronic, 2009–11. Gazing down from a porch, he pulls up his shirt to reveal the inky mark, which spells out the word “chronic” in big letters. The last letter is inverted, and the scar, which runs from his chest to his navel, cuts through the “o.” Central to Zielony’s exhibition is the man’s heritage: Part of the aboriginal community in Winnipeg, Canada, he is a first-generation descendent of a population brought up in the Residential Schools, which were created by the Canadian government to systematically reeducate the nation’s indigenous people, attempting to remake them as “white” and “good Christians.” Beginning in 1874 and ending in 1996, some two hundred fifty thousand children were forcibly taken from their families and sent to live at these educational centers. Prohibited from speaking their native language and cut off from their culture, many suffered from trauma and sexual abuse; forced sterilizations were widespread, as was a lethal vaccination program. Zielony’s body of work predicates itself on this history, using photography to examine a community that, disconnected from its past and living on the peripheries of society, seeks an identity between old and new myths of resistance, between tribal roots and urban gang cultures.

The photograph’s title, Chronic, builds upon the meaning of the work, implying a level of fiction that goes beyond documentation. While not all of Zielony’s photographs possess the punctum of Chronic, each share the same ambiguity between intimacy and distance, staged portraiture and street photography, empathy and documentary. The subjects often have a tender indifference to the camera that seems to reject voyeurism and factual interpretation. Instead of photo-journalistic approach, Zielony makes each a protagonist in an open-ended story, implying both the search of an interrupted history as well as for the myths of today.