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Exception is the Rule:

Jolanta Dolewska’s

series ‘Holding’

Johnny Rodger

In Kafka’s fable ‘Before the Law’, the citizen is

depicted as having their own particular gateway

to the courthouse and the machinations of

justice, but lacking the strength, the connections,

the insight and political subtlety to penetrate

thence to the interior. Kafka’s exegesis of his own

fable, put in the mouth of a captious and fatalistic

priest, suggests (–somewhat emblematically for

the rest of the novel, The Trial) that there never

can be any sentence that leads to a definitive,

singular and complete condition of justice.

‘Everyone strives to reach the Law’, recounts

the priest in his telling of it; yet ‘the Law’, in

this capitalised and fabulous abstract, is itself

entwined in the endless shifting coils of its

own would-be categorical omniscience.

It is labyrinthine, has sides to it; has approaches,

shades and tones to it; it moves, it traps, it

releases; it reaches around our every endeavour,

but ‘the Law’ has no finite interior: it is never

at home.

We are to understand with Kafka then, that the

operation of ‘the Law’ is aporetic – there can

be no final comprehension or even conception

of its workings and its sentences, other than by

use of metaphor and in fable (viz. poorly, in the

paragraph above). Language is thus improvised

to construct the House of the Law, but ultimately

we are only enabled to peer in the metaphorical

windows from the street, and to be dazzled by ‘a

radiance [that] streams inextinguishably from the

gateway of the Law.’

All of which cultural context makes for a

formidable deal of irony when we come to

consider the photographic work of Jolanta

Dolewska. ‘Holding’ is a series of photographic

images Dolewska made of actual Sheriff Court

interiors. She writes in her short introduction

about the intricacies, boundaries and limits that

surround the law and the legal system, and that

shape the space where knowledge and power

determine validity and truth. How intriguing

that photography – the two dimensional

artistic medium par excellence – should be the

chosen one to explore the interior aspects of

a problematic which the finest literature has

defined as indefinitely impenetrable!

The most immediate and mundane elements of

the implausibility of such a mission to the heart of

‘The Law’, however, must have been encountered

in the general injunction against photography in

the interiors of Scottish courthouses. Naturally

Dolewska must have sought special permission

from the Scottish Court Service to make these

images. On a practical level this would have

entailed examination of Sheriff Court timetables

(most courts are in operation for the full five

day working week), arranging and booking

for an extended period of free time, setting up

equipment, lights and choosing objects and

angles for shots etc. Given that the shots she took

are all of publically accessible areas and views

(i.e. apart from one image of a holding cell, there

are no shots of behind the scenes, none of jury

rooms, of shrieval accommodation, of circulation

etc.), we might wonder what is the nature and

the scope of that injunction on photography

in the courtroom?

The Scottish Court Service, transvested

metaphorically in the fur coat, sharp nose and

long thin Tartar beard of Kafka’s guardian, plays

an administrative rather than a judicial role in the

court system. This secular body allows the public

access to these interiors, to view and enjoy these

furnitures and fittings only while the process –

the engagement of knowledge and power in the

assessment of validity and truth, as Dolewska has

it – is in session, that is, underway and in performance.

A ban on photography while witnesses,

accused and defendants occupy these precincts

might be thought considerate, humane and

prudent given the seriousness of the business at

hand. Yet the ban here normally (i.e. but for the

evident Dolewskan exception) runs to the images

of the empty and silent room too. Just what would

the illicit images supposedly bring to the surface

of the citizen’s consciousness that is undesirable?

What does Dolewska show?

No doubt there is a ‘punctum’, a Barthesian

agenbite of inwit with its sharp, provocative,

unexpected call to our human and communal

sensitivities, in each of these ostensibly banal,

unmoved or unmoving studies. Thus, the telling

stalk of the microphone visible beyond the

concealing curtain; the sag of the taped up hose

pipe as it hangs over the dock; the reflections in

the reinforced glass screens which hint at depths

and distances, compositions and the author’s

pose. But why do the authorities effectively create

a mystique around the otherwise banality of

these rooms by their general imposition of the

ban on photography? Is there a lingering notion

that these secular, civil, public spaces (-albeit

hierarchized in terms of position, height, access,

sound and sightlines appointed to each party in a

trial) somehow contribute to that formation of the

ethical human community, which is the process

of the law, in a way that could be damaged,

devalued or prejudiced by a widespread exposure

of, and familiarity with the nature of their out-ofhours mundanity? It is an idea all the more bizarre when we consider that the taking of photographs in an empty courtroom is not prohibited in some other jurisdictions (eg England & USA), and that Lord Gill’s recent report and recommendations for great changes in the Scottish court system also recommends that filming and broadcasting of Scottish court cases should be allowed.

Dolewska may be inside the building, she may

have special permission to inhabit and capture

on film the interior of the courtroom, but does

this guarantee her - or us, the viewers - any

greater access to the law than the countryman

of Kafka’s fable? She tells us she aims to

‘investigate surfaces’. Those are indeed what the

empty courtroom offers to us with its screens,

its partitions, its curtains, its windows with

blinds drawn, and its timber panelled walls

and doors. In her art, by definition, we are

excluded from circulations with depth. We are

not introduced to the theatre of justice here, but

to an idle processing unit with its pragmatic

and compromised divisions of space. There is

no lightning flash of truth nor ringing bells of

revelation; just fitted carpets, painted cast- iron

radiators and the timber veneer of a vacant dock.

We remember that the doorkeeper had given

Kafka’s countryman a stool to sit on while he

waited for the admittance that never came. In

a similar way Dolewska’s images offer us small

particular reliefs: in the wordless interior our eyes

rest on the patched, haphazard stretch of the

hose, on the reflection on the glass, on the folds

of the curtains and the deliberate setting out of

their hanging frame around the witness box. It

is difficult to conceive how these banal details

can contribute towards the ‘regime of truth’.

For the law surely proceeds by a codification

of the exemplary rather than by a catalogue

of particulars and exceptions? Yet Agamben,

cited by the artist herself here, points out that

the exception and the example are ‘ultimately

indistinguishable’. Under any investigation, he

seems to say, the norm is always manifest as

a long list of both comforting and dismaying

exceptions. Thus, inside Dolewska’s courtroom,

as on Kafka’s judicial threshold, we wait amongst

exceptions that are the rule.

Text published in issue 54, The Drouth, winter/spring 2016

In my dreams we talk. Once you asked me

if I continued to photograph. I do.

Does it suffice though? Will it help me to understand why we are here? Or will it prevent us from disappearing after the inevitable leap into the night?

Glasgow, 2017

Breathless, 2017-2018