Mickiewicz Comes to Life in Istanbul – Interview
Max Cegielski, the curator of the Adam Mickiewicz Migrating University in Istanbul, speaks about the lessons that Mickiewicz can teach to modern-day Turks, as well as his significance to the contemporary gentrification of one Istanbul district. An interdisciplinary series of lectures and artistic interventions has been launched featuring both Polish and Turkish participants.
Mikołaj Gliński: On November 26th, 1855, Adam Mickiewicz died in Constantinople in rather mysterious circumstances. You are the curator of the Migrating University of Adam Mickiewicz, created in order to remind people in Istanbul about this story, as well as the poet’s heritage – some 160 years later. What is all of this about?
Max Cegielski: Mickiewicz is a character which we were tortured with in school – a very used-up figure, and thus a worn and shallow one. Much like a marble plaque in antique cities and churches, Mickiewicz is a bit worn and weary, burdened with both official and 'heretical' narratives, and he has lost his shape. We wanted to change that.
A lot has been written about Mickiewicz in Poland, and a lot is still being written. He certainly isn’t a monumental figure.
MC: But these 'heretical' approaches never made it to the mainstream. Stos dla Adama (The Stake for Adam) by Krzysztof Rutkowski, and works by Prof. Michał Kuziak and Stanisław Rosiek, who studied Mickiewicz's death in Istanbul. Those are the narratives that inspired us.
The time that Mickiewicz spent in Constantinople stirs heated emotions in Poland
It’s the phase of his life that has been written about the least. The sole fact that the Bard died so suddenly already makes this period mysterious. Even if the question posed by Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński, "Was Mickieiwcz poisoned?", can be judged as exaggerated, the story is still interesting. Marek Rymkiewicz, who can hardly be called a tabloid personality, even conducted a sort of investigation in this matter.
When I began studying the Kronika życia i twórczości Mickiewicza (Chronicle of the Life and Works of Mickiewicz) by Ksena Kostenicz, wherein she describes each day of the poet’s life, the last pages about the Istanbul period read like the script of a crime film. It made me curious…
One day before his death, Mr. Adam was studying Ottoman Turkish, which was written in Arabic script. Some think that Mickiewicz came to Istanbul to die, and to 'create' the performance of a Romantic poet’s final journey. But it’s hard to believe that someone who is expecting to die actually takes up studying a difficult language written in a very difficult alphabet. His death on the following day is all the more mysterious, and surely symbolic.
That is just a starting point for the Migrating University project. What is its main idea?
The Migrating University encompasses academic lectures, and also discussions and artistic interventions in the Mickiewicz Museum in the Tarlabasi district. I am interested in contemporary art, because it’s eclectic, and it makes up frames for our events, everything can be made part of its narrative – at present, it’s the most open medium. And the 'university' as such isn't in play here as an archaic and stiff institution, but rather as something that’s alive, free, and independent like the "Wolny Uniwersytet Warszawy" (Free Warsaw University) or the historic "Flying University". Ours is a 'migrating' one because it can be organised in the Mickiewicz Museum in Tarbalasi, but also somewhere else – Warsaw, or Paris, for example. The name is also a reference to Mickiewicz's life as an immigrant.
The events that you have planned are nonetheless connected to the district of Tarlabasi. What kind of place is it?
The more we read about Mickiewicz’s stay in Istanbul with the co-curator of the project, Justyna Chmielewska, the more it seemed to us a kind of prototype for contemporary events. Perhaps the reasons were also ideological – he moved into the lower part of the district, where all the sewers find their end, and where everything was cheaper. Nowadays, Tarlabasi is also a gutter, or at least, it is perceived like one: not only is it located at the foot of the hill, but it’s also cut off from Taksim, Pera, and Istikall – the city centre – by the Tarlabasi boulevard.
Tarlabasi has maintained its ambiguous character on the urban map. It seems as if people still find themselves there for reasons similar to those that once drove immigrants from Poland. Today, refugees from Syria settle there and the district has became the focus of global conflict. Many old buildings are being torn down as part of efforts to revitalise the district, with facades often left unfinished and Syrian refugees immediately moving into the incomplete structures. Tarlabasi seems to reflect all contemporary conflicts, including the issue of gentrification, as many students and artists also move into the area.
But what could Mickiewicz have in common with the gentrification of Tarlabasi?
Turkish artists such as Ozgur Demirci and Vahita Tuna take part in the project because they have their studios in Tarlabasi, they couldn’t afford a studio anywhere higher in the city. Janek Simon also alludes to the figure of Mickiewicz as a poor artist in his work that he presents as part of the MUM. Refugees from Syria, Kurds, and Roma dwellers of the district have found themselves there for reasons similar to Mickewicz, who was also an emigrant. And thus, a figure which is so Polish in theory triggers various local issues.
You didn’t concentrate on Mickiewicz as a poet, precisely… Which elements of his biography did you find especially inspiring?
Surely those of an emigrant, but also his life as an activist. Because in Poland, we tend to forget that from a certain point onwards, he was first and foremost an activist. The Legion formed in Italy – that is an example of his activism as a citizen. Mickiewicz becomes a prototype figure for all those artists who will later abandon the word in favour of the act – we find things like this in contemporary art, too. More and more frequently, art becomes an action, an organising, a creating of bonds, an attempt to change the world. Mickiewicz thus becomes very contemporary, with his "La Tribune des Peuples", and his mission in Istanbul. That is what was important for us.
Mickiewicz didn’t arrive in Istanbul as a tourist.
When I was writing Oko świata (The Eye of the World), I analysed the things that Mickiewicz’s contemporaries wrote from Constantinople – Chateaubriand, LaMartine, Amicis, and also Polish authors like Sienkiewicz. The letters of our Bard are not the descriptions of a tourist – he went there in order to work. That is why we also invited Janek Simon to take part in the project – when he travelled to India or to Nigeria and ran actions such as the Polish Year in Madagascar, he touched upon the problems of colonialism and an exotic perception of places. He travelled to these places in order to work, and that changes one’s perspective. If you come to a place and you want to make money, you are forced to make contact with people, to make deals with them, and to accept them. A tourist with a lot of time on his hands who only watches things takes on the role of a distanced observer. Mickiewicz does not take on this role because the Istanbul streets reminded him of his family hometown.
What was the reaction of Turkish artists to the figure of Mickiewicz?
When they found out that he was a poet in the 19th century who first took to forming an Italian legion, and then a Jewish one, and who also published a newspaper, then they thought that his idea of abandoning art in order to act was very pertinent to the contemporary situation. Especially in the Turkish context, where we have to deal with very sharp political conflicts. Many Turkish artists face the same problem today – because what is the meaning of exhibiting at a gallery when such strong art forms are created in the streets, forms that are entirely performative. It was interesting for them – and it was then that we were sure that this was the kind of Mickiewicz that could be of interest to the Turks as well as to us.
Who did you invite from Turkey?
The aforementioned Vahit Tuna and Ozgur Demirci, who know the area well. That was important to us – we wouldn’t take an artist from Warsaw’s Zbawiciela square and have him work, say, in the Praga district. Istanbul has 13 million inhabitants and it’s easy to act with such a colonialist approach. Someone who lives on the other side of the boulevard will look onto Tarlabasi 'from across the border'. We took those artists who are actors but also the victims of these processes. They are creating gentrification but they are also aware of its process.
Both artists have prepared films which, at first glance, resemble social work. Vahit Tuna focuses on the change in rent prices in the district, but his starting points are the "Rubajjata" of Omar Chajjam, a mathematician and astronomer and also a mystic and poet. Ozgur Demirci juxtaposes Tsarlabasi with Society of The Spectacle by Guy Debord. There is also the film by Wojtek Doroszuk, with a concrete protagonist. The three films are a means of making the district present at the heart of the museum.
I suppose that not every resident of Istanbul knows that there is a Mickiewicz Museum in their city, located in the house where the poet once lived and then died.
Up till now, the museum was annually visited by about 300 people. Even the new permanent exhibit prepared by the Warsaw-based Museum of Literature will not alter this significantly. A Turkish friend and an urban planner told us that the museum has an excellent address and that an "Art and Research Centre" should be raised there. The point is to create a place that’s alive, a space for reflection, research and action. In this way, it can attract more people and it can truly become a Polish cultural venue.
One of the events which has already taken place was a performative interview with the Slavs and Tatars duo, which dealt with the issue of Slavic orientalism.
Mickiewicz was a friend and peer of an entire generation of Poles who became oriental studies specialists in the Russian Empire. Aleksander Chodźko, Józef Julian Sękowski – they were both Poles from Mickiewicz’s circle. Lelewel, whom we tend to perceive from the patriotic side, was an inspiration for these studies at the time. It was in a letter to Lelewel that Mickiewicz stated he may in the end take up studying the languages of the East.
At present, I am writing a book about Bronisław Grąbczewski, a 19th-century traveller in Russian service, a Pole who worked in Asia. When one compares Grąbczewksi with the English, whom he brushed shoulders with at the time, and when one compares Oriental scholars from Vilnius with the British orientalists – the difference between Russian and English colonialism is apparent straight away. The English made a spatial leap and a sense of strangeness was produced straight away. Things looked completely different when a colonial expansion progressed slowly, step by step. If Vilnius had Tatar Muslims, Jews, and Christians, all this variety, this multicultural aspect seemed completely natural. Without going into the excessive Kapuściński interpretation (the borderlands shaped me, the tolerance of the borderlands), we can still surely assume that this generates an entirely different approach. This kind of reflection is still underdeveloped.
Thus, for me, apart from the emigrant-activist motif and the Jewish one, Mickiewicz is also a model worth imitating as a positive possibility of "Polish orientalism" but not in the Said sense which mostly associates orientalism with power. Polish orientalists were, of course, servants of the Empire, but this aspect of power was not crucial for them. For me, this is an ideal model for approaching other cultures. And that is why I think that this multiculturalism was something obvious for Mickiewicz, and I suppose he would have felt better in Istanbul than in Paris.
And how did he feel in Paris?
In Paris, Polish emigrants were those strangers followed by the police, censored, watched, and considered to be dangerous public enemies. They were political refugees in France, and this is how they were treated. They were a bit like the present-day refugees in camps in Calais who try to make it through to Denmark. Although there were many intellectuals among them, generally, in a symbolic sense, they were still someone like the present-day political refugees in contemporary Europe. And just like nowadays, each Muslim emigrant from the East is a potential jihadist, back then they were also perceived as a threat. They were the democrats of the Spring of the Peoples, the "red", and people feared that they would start some kind of a revolution or riot. And just like the refugees of today, they sit in these camps, which is well shown in the book by Gyorgy Spiro – and everyone is really afraid of them, because they are a germ of anarchy, revolution, an unknown threat. Even this Polish Catholicism of theirs was something radical, like the perception of Islam today.
These are moments in history that we have gotten accustomed to perceiving in one predetermined way. But if we look at them from a different perspective, it may turn out that they are something completely different – something interesting and pertinent to our time.
The interview was conducted on October 14th, 2014.
The Migrating University of Adam Mickiewicz takes place from the 18th through to the 26th of October, 2014, at the Mickiewicz Museum in Istanbul. The events are organised by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute.
Edited by Mikołaj Gliński, translated by Paulina Schlosser, 20/10/2014