Since the genocide of European Jews during the Second World War, the continued existence and function of art in the Western world has been an essential concern of art history and philosophy. For Polish society, war was a traumatic experience, and generations of artists have wrestled with this trauma in their quest for identity
In the ‘60s, the pioneers of Polish video art also referred to the Holocaust: Tadeusz Makarczyński, in the first Polish-found footage entitled Życie jest piękne / Life Is Beautiful, and Józef Robakowski in 6 000 000.
In relation to the artistic practice of Szapocznikow, the oeuvre of Magdalena Abakanowicz lies as if on the other extreme, for it is universal in character. In such cycles as Plecy / Backs (1976-1982), Tłum / The Crowd (1985-87) or Ragazzi (1990-92) an individual is not presented on his/her own, but as bodies in groups, faces in crowds. Her hunched, indistinguishable, as if hurt, figures, the inhabitants of the world after Auschwitz, are disabled, inhuman, deprived of identity, and marked with a scar, with loneliness and abandonment.
Plecy / Backs (1967-80) by M. Abakanowicz
"Some of the sculptor's figures seem as if they were capable of any kind of cruelty - of stoning the infidel, robbing or denouncing a neighbour, of operating a gas chamber", writes Michael Brenson.
Abakanowicz's work is sometimes viewed as constantly returning to the cruelties people inflict on each other, to history aiming at atrophy and sinking into mindless violence. The artist's works from the ‘70s and ‘80s are claimed to be an expression of the impossibility of narrating experience at all. By creating silent, lonely figures, completely deprived of individuality, similar to the Holocaust victims but taken out of this particular context, the artist takes part in this unique artistic discussion.
In Władysław Strzemiński's series of collages entitled Moim przyjaciołom Żydom / To My Friends, the Jews (1945)6, the crucial element is the tension between the victim and the witness of his/her tragedy, a witness forced into passive participation. Moreover, the witness is an artist who is not used to being passive, and whose work is influenced by the events either observed or experienced. This series is treated here as a kind of "artistic document" created by a mature artist, educated and intellectually formed before the war. This oxymoronic phrase - "artistic document" - seems to be very fitting for this particular work.
The Second World War, which Strzemiński spent in Łodz, witnessing mass deportations, executions, and other cruelties by the Nazis, coincided with the crisis of the avant-garde paradigm (Cubism, Purism, Neoplasticism) that had shaped Strzeminski's artistic attitude. In the ‘20s and ‘30s, the artist was an advocate of the autonomy of art, and the right to "laboratory clean" artistic experiments. During the occupation, however, he created a few cycles of drawings depicting the horror of war (Białoruś Zachodnia / Western Belarus, Deportacje / Deportations, Wojna domowa / Civil War, Twarze, pejzaże i martwe natury / Faces, Landscapes and Still Lives, Tanie jak błoto / Cheap as Mud, Ręce, które nie z nami / Hands That Are Not With Us). The above series, together with the "Jewish series" for which they provided source material, were treated by art historians and critics as essential to the artist's oeuvre.7 They are exceptional because rooted in a particular historical moment; they are documents of a time, the artist's reaction to the current political and cultural situation. To My Friends, the Jews consists of ten collages on white, grey or brown paper: the artist's war drawings, at times deformed or placed differently on the sheet, combined with documentary photographs depicting ghetto scenes, transports, concentration and death camps. Each collage was given a separate, metaphoric and sometimes extremely extended title (ex. Śladem istnienia stóp, które wydeptały / Tracing the Existence of the Feet That Trod; Oskarżam zbrodnię Kaina i grzech Chama / I Accuse the Crime of Cain and Ham's Sin; Lepka plama zbrodni / Sticky Stain of Crime; Puste piszczele krematoriów / Empty Shinbones of Crematoria).
The very title of the series juxtaposes an individual experience (pointed at by the phrase "my friends") with the mass murder of the Jews. This juxtaposition of intimacy with the anonymity of mass murder becomes very significant. The scale of the experience depersonalises not only the victims but also the witnesses. As Marek Zaleski stated:
"One does not have to repeat that the anonymous and mass character of death - and related to this, the dehumanisation of its representations - is a basic difficulty facing intellectual and artistic reflection on the Holocaust."8
Strzemiński does not allude in an unambiguous way to the issue of Polish-Jewish relations. He touches upon this problem from an individual perspective. What arises here is the notion of a witness's very specific kind of obligation towards the victims. He has to testify, provide evidence, and remember. By means of his very intimate dedication, Strzemiński announces that he is fulfilling his duty towards the dead.
Władysław Strzemiński, Moim przyjaciołom Żydom / To My Friends, the Jews, courtesy of the National Museum in Krakow
To My Friends, the Jews is one of the first (artistic) gestures proving that in the face of the Shoah one must not remain indifferent. Strzemiński meets this challenge immediately. His reaction is direct, the monument he builds, one of the first. The verbal layer of the series (the titles) harmonises with its visual layer, complementing and reflecting at the same time. Metonymic images of legs, feet, hands, eye sockets, shinbones and veins render on the verbal, poetic level the extent of the destruction of a human being in the Holocaust. At the same time, they echo the photographic and film representations of the heaps of bones or starved corpses already known to the public. These photographs were drawn over with, as Andrzej Turowski puts it, "empty contours of nonexistence": meandering lines creating organic, amorphous shapes running nowhere and contouring nothing. The language used in these titles works in a similar way: it contours, but names nothing; instead of signifying, it misleads. Strzemiński renders not only the violence of language, but also its emptiness and limitations.
This cycle is an example of art aiming to save humanity in a world of genocide. Its documentary value does not diminish its artistic value. On the contrary, it strengthens the artistic value and gives it a completely new dimension. By making his collages, the artist juxtaposed document and abstraction. He showed, at the same time, how documented reality enters the realm of artistic reality. Strzemiński drew on the pre-war tradition of photomontage, allowing him to clash two poetics: the delicate line of a drawing and the barefaced exactness of a photograph. These photographs scar both the artist and his art. To My Friends, the Jews provides evidence of this scar, stigma, or wound.
Therefore, it seems difficult to agree with Doreet Le Vitte-Harten who claims that artists who testified created bad art. It was not because they were bad artists, but because the event they tried to represent was unprecedented and lacked iconography. They failed, striving to relieve the pain by invoking beauty.9 Art dealing with the Holocaust should be perceived, in my opinion, rather in the context of memory and a certain critical project, than in the context of beauty. Strzemiński, but also other artists stemming from the avant-garde tradition, participated in the discussion on memory and art, characterised by Turowski in the following way:
"...Holocaust memory is a monstrous paradigm of contemporary civilisation. This paradigm enters art as a project critical of its own culture. It is a critique of the society which defers/postpones catastrophe to the future"10;
This means stripping art bare, exposing the crisis of avant-garde thought. At the same time, it appears that the documentary and the artistic cannot remain separate. The tension resulting from this is a matter of artistic, but above all, moral responsibility; the responsibility of a human being obliged to answer the immense emptiness left by those who "are not with us."
The Architect of Memory
Another example I would like to discuss here is Oskar Hansen's project for a monument at the former Nazi Concentration Camp in Auschwitz, aided by his team (Zofia Hansen, Jerzy Jarnuszkiewicz, Julian Pałka).11 Although this essay concentrates neither on monuments nor museums, I decided to devote some space to a reflection on Hansen's project because it seems to me precursory and extremely important for the discussion at stake. As a monument, the architect proposed a black asphalt road (width 70 meters, length 1000 meters) crossing diagonally the grounds of the former concentration camp. The road would evade the main gate, leading among the remains of barracks, foundations, chimneys and fences, and end near the crematoria. The grounds of the camp were supposed to be left untouched, not rebuilt, and, with the passing years, to grow over with grass and weed. Hansen's project annexed the space of the camp, interfering with it only slightly.12
The project was based on the avant-garde theory of "open form".13 It totally rejected the idea of a figurative monument in favour of the inclusion of space within the artistic object, the inclusion of time and the experience of a changing human perception. It was an uncompromising attempt at reformulating the idea of the public monument. This gesture opened a debate on the decline of monumental representation as a dominant form of public remembrance, a debate usually situated within the Western context. The dismissal of this project was related to the fact that former inmates of the camp could not identify their memory and experience with such a negative, abstract concept. Hansen's project, though unfulfilled, writes Katarzyna Murawska-Muthesius, had an immense influence on thinking about the character of public monuments in Poland.14 Its subversive character, according to the author, decentralises well-known oppositions and proves that in the East, the reflection on the ontology of the modern monument with the idea of pure negativity as a demand of the new sculpture, emerged independently of the conceptualisation of the "expanded field" of postmodern sculpture, which took place in the West in the ‘70s.
This project, unlike many others at that time, faced the problem of a lack of Holocaust imagery, the crisis of representation, and the difficulties in rendering this unprecedented crime against humanity. Piotr Piotrowski finds Hansen the unquestioned pioneer of the consciousness of that time. The architect, according to Piotrowski, took up the challenge of searching for a means adequate to the event. The author claims, at the same time, that the winning and finally realised project was based on conventional ideas, such as the victims' heroism and the manifestation of history. Hansen, on the other hand, stressed the need to respect the exceptional experience of the victims. The project, that entered the competition in Auschwitz, was one of the first counter-monuments that, according to James E. Young, are painfully self-conscious spaces of remembrance.15 Such a counter-monument is a reaction to a deep crisis of representation, a reaction appearing after the traumatic events of the twentieth century. Hansen wanted to leave Auschwitz to its victims and survivors, and to the visitors years and decades later; he wanted to leave the possibility of experiencing the past, unmediated by either political, ideological, museum or didactic discourse. Such a freedom turned out to be unacceptable at that time. It can be assumed that Hansen was conscious of the destructive force of mounumentalisation and mythologisation, falsifying individual experience.
Both Strzemiński and Hansen, though in a totally different way, and on totally different grounds, expressed great sensitivity and artistic intelligence. They devised projects grasping the whole spectrum of issues related to the problem of Holocaust representation and its place in consciousness, memory, art and artistic reflection.
The generation of artists born after the war has transgressed the boundaries of art set by previous generations. Time and distance have engendered a more critical look, expanding the field of interest to concentrate not only on the victims but also on the perpetrators. In the ‘90s, as Stephen C. Feinstein16 observed, the model of mourning and remembrance in art became exhausted and turned from sanctification towards deconstruction and innovation. At present, artists seem to have an urge to constantly reconstruct the past, recall and reinterpret it and its representations for the benefit of contemporaneity. This does not mean, however, that this is the only strategy. Still, the art of remembrance's modest tone is produced. At the other extreme, there is an art that can be perceived as "critical art" which, according to Piotr Piotrowski, is an artistic activity aiming to expose the social, political and ideological mechanisms ruling the viewers' world, including visual culture; an activity oriented at demythologisation, and the questioning of what at first sight might seem obvious.17 It is an art that questions the viewer's automatic mode of perception and thinking, exposing (some of) the hidden structures and relations. These artists abandon solemnity and the poetics of silence in favour of interdisciplinary artistic practice; this practice is narrative, polyphonic, metaphoric, enigmatic and ambiguous. At the same time, the artists try to overcome the binary opposition of sanctification and de-sanctification that can appear in the process of Holocaust representation. Their attitude can be perceived as a kind of self-consciousness that forces one to ceaselessly refer the Holocaust to the context of its current (re)presentation, taking into account the fragmentary and contradictory character of the event and the difficulty in gaining a secure knowledge of the past.18
One of the signs of the change described by Feinstein was an exhibition entitled, Where is Abel, Thy Brother? (curator: Anda Rottenberg), in 1996 at the Zachęta National Gallery in Warsaw.19 The aim was to pose questions as to what extent art could (and should) deal with the problem of evil, totalitarianism, cruelty and pain. The main question faced by these artists born several years after the war was: where is the place for violence and its memory in contemporary life, and what is the artist's role in this? Artists born after the war belong to a group described by historians as "the second generation". They do not have any direct memory of the war or of the Holocaust. Marianne Hirsch named this generation as having a ‘post-memory', while James E. Young deemed it, "memory of the memory of the witnesses" producing a "vicarious past". Nadine Fresco calls it, "absent memory" or a "hole in memory", and Henri Raczymow, mémoire trouée or "shot memory". Post-memory remains an unfinished and ephemeral process defined by Hirsch as a very specific form of memory, taking into consideration its relationship with objects and always mediated, not by recollections, but by the artefacts produced by imagination and artistic creation.20 This does not mean that memory as such is not mediated, only that it is more directly connected with the past. Post-memory is characteristic of those who grew up in a world dominated by narrations referring to the time before their birth. Their "late" histories are dominated by the histories of former generations, shaped by traumatic events that can neither be understood nor recreated. Although the term "post-memory" applies mainly to the children of the Holocaust survivors, it can be useful to interpret other, similar cases. It is a memory of images (this seems essential in the context of visual arts) and narratives. The Holocaust trauma provides a constant emotional and intellectual challenge for these artists.
This art, though brought to life several years after the Holocaust, is capable of posing important questions to the culture of the post-Holocaust world, questions that have not been posed before, whether by science, history or sociology. It seems obvious in this context that the problem of references to the Holocaust is not dependent on national identity or personal involvement in the war. In other words, nobody has a licence to represent the Holocaust. From an ethical point of view, as Eleonora Jedlińska writes, the relation to the Holocaust is not a matter of artistic, but of moral choice. Christian Boltanski's words express the feeling of the second generation quite literally: "my art is not about camps, but after camps. Western reality has changed under the influence of the Holocaust. Nothing can be thought of without taking this fact into consideration". The artists discussed below took this fact into consideration. Among the young generation of Polish artists working in different media, the theme of the Holocaust emerges in many different ways.
Through the Body Towards...
"Bambi", 2003, fragment of video-installation "Winterreise". Copyright of the artist, courtesy of the Gladstone Gallery, New York
The dramatic directness of the first generation experience has been replaced by an individual experience of trace, memory and the remnants of the destroyed world. The art of Mirosław Bałka is rooted in a deep and attentive reflection of the present time. His artistic language is modest, quiet, minimalist, reduced to the simplest suggestion, his oeuvre is replete with intimate atmospheres, sensibility, nostalgia and spirituality. Soap Corridor (1993), first presented at the Venice Biennial and then at the exhibition, "Where is Abel, Thy Brother?", is an installation in which the strong smell of soap dominates. Walking through this corridor evokes childhood recollections of intimate, everyday washing, as well as the horror relating to the barbarity of the Nazi death industry. "After Auschwitz" almost every experience, including such an innocent event as washing, becomes stained with the most barbaric crime of the twentieth century. Bałka participates in the collective memory by building from the remnants his own history and mythology. Titles such as Bitte, Die Rampe, Ordnung, or Ruhe allude to the ambiguity of language; the objects he makes refer to a specific contamination of reality by violence and terror. Bałka's sculptures embody a past in which a human body and life left its trace. One of the artist's recent works, Winterreise (2003), is the result of a winter trip to Birkenau. It consists of three videos: Staw / Lake, Bambi 1 and Bambi 2. They depict the pond where the Nazis disposed of the ashes of the cremated victims, and a few wandering deer, approaching the barbed wire surrounding the camp. The projections of these videos were accompanied by Schubert's songs from the "Winterreise" cycle and by objects: slowly moving, flat circles on which the artist had placed empty plates. This work presented the contemporaneity of this threatening place. It is becoming more and more "normal", quiet, one could even say, it is getting prettier. In a former death camp, trees are growing, it is snowing, the deer wander in search of food. It is calm and silent. The whole scene was recorded by the artist with a hand-held camera and that is why it becomes a shaking, trembling image. The latter points even more to the dissonance of the situation: today's "normality" of the empty death camp is horrendous.
Dead Serious Toys
Zbigniew Libera, "Lego. Obóz koncentracyjny" / "Lego. Concentration Camp", 1994, Courtesy of the Raster Gallery
Lego. Concentration Camp (1996) by Zbigniew Libera does not suit the strategy of sanctifying historical experience. On the contrary, it aims at exposing the mechanisms of the present.
"It would be difficult to miss the critical potential of this work, which does not deal with the shades of history, but with all that we are constantly facing. An image of a Lego set serving to build a concentration camp provokes numerous questions on the consequences of the mindless banality of evil, the capability of culture to normalise it, the capability of the market to make business of it" said Bożena Czubak in a conversation with the artist.21
For Libera, as for many other contemporary artists, the returning history provides a source of reflection on the condition of humanity. The artist created Lego. Concentration Camp using more or less the original blocks of the Danish toy manufacturer. He built particular constructions and then photographed them. This work caused many controversies and objections among those who dismissed it as a peculiar representation that does not help us to understand the Holocaust; they accused the piece of being a provocative and scandalous work of art. In my opinion, however, the question should concentrate instead on whether a type of representation exists that would be appropriate and adequate for a depiction of the Holocaust experience. Libera's case is just one example of the possibility of overcoming the boundaries that guard the, to some extent, untouchable and sacred subject. What's more, the artist's choice of means allowed him to initiate a game between low and high cultures, between what is historical and contemporary, between the language and the metalanguage of art.
Toys, and the notion of play in art dealing with the Holocaust (Libera and others), were discussed thoroughly by Dutch scholar, Ernst van Alphen.22 Although toys are associated with childhood, lack of knowledge and naivete, they can also serve as a tool of artistic manipulation and help to overcome the distinction between the serious and the playful. Also, they operate in a reality different from that of mimetic art. Lego blocks encourage play, inspire imagination. Although Libera's blocks, as a museum exhibit, are not intended to be played with, we can imagine everything that could happen during such play. A person playing with these sets builds a concentration camp and, by doing so, assumes the role of the perpetrator. On the one hand, this is a threatening perspective, on the other, however, it provides a very interesting comment on both the Holocaust and postmodern civilisation. To a certain extent, the work seems to follow the intuitions of writers and philosophers describing Western civilisation after Auschwitz. According to Zygmunt Bauman, for example, the most threatening lesson of the Holocaust and what we found out about its executioners, was not the suspicion that it could have happened to us, but that we could have done the same.23 Libera's work exposes not only the mechanisms of modernity or postmodernity, but also, as a part of a larger cycle entitled Urządzenia korekcyjne / Corrective Devices, the mechanisms of educational systems, and, what might be the most important, of repressing and controlling Holocaust education and its concept of memory, but also the moral and political correctness of contemporary art.
In a photograph entitled Mieszkańcy / Inhabitants
from the Pozytytwy / Positives
series (2004), Libera drew on the convention of staged photography. A few reportage and historical photographs, representations of the traumatic history of the twentieth century, apparent in our collective memory, became the object of manipulation, of contemporary re-staging. Inhabitants
refers to one of the best-known and iconic representations of concentration camp inmates. The protagonists of Libera's photograph, contrary to the protagonists of the original, smile, and are a healthy-looking, happy bunch of people. Though they are dressed in striped uniforms, this time they are simply pyjamas, and the barbed wire has been replaced by innocent strings with rambling ivy. By doing this, the artist points to the following mechanism of culture: images of tragedy and catastrophes such as the Holocaust that became, in a sense, domesticated, their primal power nullified. Our everyday dealings with images of violence has made them an integral part of our visual experience, and history, with its traumatic burden, is dissolving in an ever less differentiated stream of images. Various representations distanced this unimaginable trauma of the real, thus hiding it behind the signs people use to communicate. The artist questions the fantasy of the inviolability and immunity of a certain kind of narrative, the history of the second half of the twentieth century. This history, combined with popular culture, will reappear in Libera's work in a project realised together with writer, Darek Foks, entitled Co robi łączniczka / What Does the Liaison Do
(2005), that deals with the memory of the Warsaw uprising.
Piotr Uklański, "The Nazis", 2000 and Dance Floor 1996, installations view, Courtesy of the Zacheta National Gallery of Art
and Maciej Toporowicz, in their work, presented together with Lego. Concentration Camp
in the exhibition, "Mirroring Evil. Nazi Imagery Recent Art", organised at the Jewish Museum in New York, raise issues of Holocaust memory and Nazi representations in relation to the media and mass culture. The latter, according to Saul Friedlander24
plays a more important role in shaping Holocaust memory, at least in the Western context, than literature, documents or historical research. Uklanski's installation, The Nazis
(1998), is an impressive collection of over 160 photographic portraits of popular actors in Nazi outfits, starring in films set during the Second World War. The artist used film stills or photographs prepared for advertising campaigns. The role of the artist was limited to the choice and composition of the images, while the idea itself seems quite simple. As Piotr Piotrowski noticed:
"By showing the faces of attractive actors, the artists wanted to stress the fact that popular culture blurs the boundaries between good and evil. Seducing the viewer with its attractiveness, it disarms the memory of the crime and neutralises the horror of fascism."25
A similar approach can be seen in Maciej Toporowicz's video work, Eternity
(1991). Exploiting the poetics of advertising, the artist points to the power it has in seducing the viewer-consumer with the use of signs and symbols alluding to the Nazi visual poetics. Toporowicz combines fragments of Nazi-era propaganda films, such as those by Leni Riefenstahl, with post-war films, the directors of which were influenced by Riefenstahl's poetics, such as Pasolini's Salo
or Cavani's The Night Porter
, and with Calvin Klein advertising films. By doing so, he referred to the phenomenon of "fascinating fascism" so thoroughly elaborated upon by Susan Sontag. The writer described the dangerous lure of the fascist aesthetics of corporal perfection combined with control, dependence, ecstasy and pain.26
Artur Żmijewski, "Nasz śpiewnik / Our Songbook", format DVD, master S-VHS, 11', 2003, courtesy of the artist and the Foksal Gallery Foundation
In a consequent and detailed manner, Artur Żmijewski's work concentrates on issues of memory, postwar trauma and Polish post-Holocaust culture. His artistic proposal, though ambiguous at times, seems quite coherent. It provokes controversy not only about issues of representation, but also about inter-human relationships in general. History, understood here as an experience of repressed trauma that demands a situation in which it will be able to return, emerges in Żmijewski's work in as violent a way as corporeality does. The artist seems conscious of the fact that in order to fully understand and experience the present, one needs to work through the past, in close relation to which the present has been shaped. What is interesting in this context, are both our perception of the past and our attitude towards it, and also how the past influences our perception of the world, and how it produces the myths that organise our cultural reality. The above issues are rendered by such video works as: Pielgrzymka / Pilgrimage (2003), Itzik (2003), Lisa (2003), Zeppelintribüne (2002), Berek / The Game of Tag (1999), Our Songbook (2003) and 80064 (2004).27 For Żmijewski, memory and histories "locked" in people and places are objects of fascination, and, at the same time, a challenge. His artistic practice could be summed up by the words of the Polish-Jewish writer, Henryk Grynberg, who wrote about himself:
"I go to visit neither countries nor seas, but people. Especially, if there is a painful story in them, which cannot be born [...]. I do not do it for them, but for myself, because it is me who speaks through these stories. Not by commentary but by identification with their fate."
Artur Żmijewski, "Berek", courtesy of the Foksal Gallery Foundation
The dominant theme of the works of Rafał Jakubowicz from 2002-2004 is Holocaust history and memory. His most interesting pieces include Seuchensperrgebiet (2002), Arbeitsdisziplin (2002) and Pływalnia (Swimming Pool) (2003). The latter concentrates on searching for the meanings of architecture, on the return of repressed, forgotten history. In Poznań, on April 4, 2003, Jakubowicz organised an artistic action in the municipal swimming pool on Wroniecka Street. He projected onto the façade of the building an inscription in Hebrew: בך׳נת־שחײה. It took place on the 60th anniversary of the day when, during the German occupation, the Synagogue was converted into a swimming pool, as it has remained until the present day. Jakubowicz, writes Jaromir Jedliński, is testing the possibilities of an involved observer, a viewer, who participates in what is common.28 The artist begins by checking whether there is anything left in common, then he examines the limits of indifference, of an escape from reality, and, what is more, from freedom. For his sensitivity to the signs of reality and to language's lack of innocence, he is indebted to Mirosław Bałka and Luc Tuymans, artists dealing with collective and individual memory.
Jakubowicz opens public spaces to painful and difficult problems, and suggests the need for working through them, for the refreshing of memory. He causes discomfort, writes Jedliński, as if warning against an epidemic of amnesia and blissful peace. It seems that the artist understood the lesson of Krzysztof Wodiczko:
"[...] today, art is an element in a complex puzzle of power and freedom discourse which takes place in the space of the city. Silence would simply mean the acceptance of the disappearing of public space, that is, of democracy, as that space would transform into a private space of rulers and owners.
According to Jedliński, Jakubowicz mends this space, consequently mending collective memory.
Wilhelm Sasnal, "Maus 5", 2001, oil on canvas, 50 x 40 cm, courtesy of Sadie Coles HQ, London, Whitechapel Gallery
Another inheritor of Luc Tuymans' painterly imagination, Wilhelm Sasnal, in 2002, for the exhibition, "Zawody malarskie" ("Painterly Competition"), painted on the wall of Bielska BWA Gallery, a fragment of Art Spiegelman's graphic novel, Maus. Sasnal removed the drawings and left only the texts alluding to the war experience of the Jews in Bielsko-Biała. He presented the re-made 157th page of the book, in which Vladek Spiegelman and his wife, denounced to the Gestapo, are walking through the streets of Bielsko-Biała, near their family textile factory. Firstly, the painting was supposed to be placed on the wall of the Technical Museum located in a former factory (in Maus it is the Spiegelman factory). Unfortunately, the artist and the organisers were refused. Therefore, it was placed on the back wall of the gallery building that stands in the place of the Synagogue destroyed by the Nazis.
In 2003, for the exhibition, "Pokaż ręce. Chodź bliżej. Patrz." ("Show Me Your Hands. Come Closer. Watch."), at the Foksal Gallery Foundation in Warsaw, Sasnal presented works on various themes, such as modern sacral architecture in Poland, 'stage diving' during a rock concert, a character from Art Spiegelman's Maus, a landscape illustrating Tadeusz Borowski's prose, the lights of a graveyard at night. The title of the exhibition is a dialogue taken from one of Borowski's short stories that Sasnal had previously used in a comic strip. The exhibition was regarded as a contribution to the debate on Holocaust representation, or rather, the impossibility of a direct depiction of the event. It concerned both a reconciliation with the past and with living in a "deadly setting", but it was also of a critical nature, touching upon the problem of the Catholic indifference towards the past. The artist formulated a demand for Holocaust memory, for a kind of settling of accounts with the past.
"these issues are invariably difficult - wrote the critic Bogusław Deptuła - and there are no simple solutions for them, Sasnals' paintings being just one of the attempts. However, they become an important part of the dialogue on our past and present".29
The Desert of the Obscure
Miejsce nieparzyste / Odd Places (2005) is a series of large format photographs by Elżbieta Janicka. They are, at the same time, minimal in form and very elaborate. The photographs depict air (in Poland we breathe differently, says the artist), and the recordings accompanying the presentation are those of the sound of silence. Both air and silence were recorded in the former death camps of Auschwitz II Birkenau, Kulmhof am Ner, Majdanek, Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka. The artist poses a question: is that what we see, air or traces of the murdered wiped out of memory? Separately, Janicka presents sets of numbers, illustrating the scale of the crime: for example, "Oświęcim 1100000 (1 000 000), Chełmno 310 000 (300 000)", the numbers in brackets stand for Jewish victims. The inscription reading 'AGFA' on the frame of each photograph in a way involuntarily points to the problem of co-responsibility (during the Second World War, AGFA was part of I.G. Farben that produced, among other things, the Zyklon B used in gas chambers). These photographs and recordings, though seemingly empty, are full of meanings. The title of the series was taken from the infamous tradition of the "bench ghetto" during which the administration of the Warsaw University stamped the record books of Jewish students with "place in the odd benches", thus discriminating against them by sending them to separate seats. Death camps became for the Jews such an "odd place", this time however, they were cruel and fatal.
Joanna Rajkowska's project, Dotleniacz / Oxygenerator, (2006) is a pond, supposedly situated on Grzybowski Square, within the former Warsaw Ghetto. The artist wants to let in some fresh air, some oxygen into this space overfilled with meanings, and create a neutral, separate place that could be treated as a kind of sanctuary from the chaotic urban landscape. On one hand, the space would allow one to forget about everything, on the other, to concentrate on what is pulsating in this particular place, the living, though buried under the ground, neighbours' history. Another installation, Literatura patriotyczna / Patriotic Literature, depicts anti-Semitic publications, bought in the patriotic book store, Antique, located under the Catholic church on Grzybowski Square, and spread all over a couch. These books, however, differ from the originals. The text was printed backwards, as if reflected in a mirror. This project plays with stereotypes, it inverts the relation of anti-Semitism and its critique. The video, Maja Gordon jedzie do Chorzowa / Maya Gordon Goes to Chorzow, is the record of a 58-year-old Jewish woman's trip to Poland, where she was born. It is a trip in search of the past but at the same time, an image of the impossibility of return. The protagonist succeeds neither in finding her house nor in getting to know the truth about her origins. The artist strips bare the illusion of finding the truth, the true version of what happened, and what influenced the present. She exposes the fear of leaving conventional forms of memory trapped in anecdotes and family myths. Rajkowska grasps the dynamics of these processes. She places a mirror, or a pond's surface, in front of the viewer and encourages them to look inside, to discover themselves.
The artistic group, Katarzyna Krakowiak, Dr Muto and Łukasz Szalankiewicz, created a fictive hypertextual object entitled Ashaver 220 (www.ashaver220.net/) (2006), consisting of fragments of narratives, sounds, and images, that reveal the wiped out memory of the Warsaw Ghetto. The project includes artistic objects placed within the city space, photographs, documents and a collection of recordings of witness testimonies and recollections. The Ghetto functions here on two levels: it is a state of mind separated from the dark past and a space in the centre of the capital. The aim of the artists was to awaken memory, to enter into its most repressed parts. In this project the mobile phone is the medium through which the viewer/participant communicates with the past. He/she leaves the gallery's space and enters the city's space, becoming in this way both a virtual and a real wanderer. Depending on where the viewer with a phone is standing in the former ghetto, divided into sections of a few hundred square meters, he/she receives fragments of hypertext ascribed to these spaces. In this way, a relation between the past and the present is established, and a non-linear, obscure narrative develops. Consequently, it should lead to the deconstruction of the process of historical mythologisation. Moreover, the participant should feel a sense of oppression and entrapment in history, and then the sense of liberty accompanying the coming to terms with memory. As the artists claim, an inspiration for this project was provided, among others, by the history of the lost sections of Emanuel Ringelblum's Archive.
Since 2005, the program of the annual festival, Singer's Warsaw, has included, on Próżna Street, exhibitions of artists whose works deal with issues of absence, memory and the Holocaust. Among the artists featured was Krystiana Robb-Narbutt who presented the installation, Księga pamięci / The Book of Memory
(2005) , a story of contact with past generations established on the basis of conversations, recollections, photographs, newspapers and books. For the artist, this was also a bridge to the past. The imperative of remembrance is present in her work in a very particular way. It is constitutive of Fuga pamięci / Memory Fugue
, an installation consisting of seven glass cases in which the artist collected various objects: a toy-carriage, teddy-bears, sugar, etc. These objects refer to dead relatives, while the captions suggest their fate: "A Train Rose took", "Toys, with which the twins could have played." The installation was accompanied by a quotation from Paul Celan: "I know it is not true we lived".
The voice of Krystiana Robb-Narbutt is exceptionally individual and intimate, just like the voice of Ewa Kuryluk, the author of the installation, Tabuś. In a room on the second floor of an old, grey house on Próżna Street, the author placed enlarged photographs of herself and her brother playing with a skipping rope and a wheel, both painted yellow, and a text:
"A street in Amsterdam
Anna Frank holding a skipping rope and her friend holding a wheel.
On the other side
Women and kids on the way to the crematorium.
Copies of newspaper photos
found by me
in Mum's things after her death.
Only then I understood
what she meant by saying:
'You had the same wheel
as Anna's friend.
And Peter had the same skipping rope'."
By evoking her mother's story, Ewa Kuryluk tells of the tragic fate of murdered and saved families. Every year, both the organisers of the festival and of the exhibitions repeat: we strive at saving memory.
Almost half a century after Oskar Hansen's project for the Auschwitz monument was dismissed, Jarosław Kozakiewicz's project won the competition for the "Park of the Nations' Reconciliation" that is supposed to be situated near the museum of the former camp in Auschwitz. The park will not be yet another museum, but a place for contemplation, both for the visitors and the inhabitants of Oświęcim. One critic called Kozakiewicz a "sensitive reformer of space"30 for proposing a project that denies the idea of a commemorative monument. The artist retains a respect for the past, while, at the same time, not allowing it to dominate the present. Two sides of the river Sola will be connected by a "ghost bridge", reminiscent of an extended Moebius strip, and symbolising the passage from life to death. Kozakiewicz employed many universal symbols in his project, and these are supposed to create a message beyond national and religious codes.
The works discussed above can be treated, on one hand, as part of the critical discourse on memory producing counter-narratives, and, on the other, as part of the discourse following the remembrance imperative, recreating and regaining histories. This artistic discourse, though heterogeneous, finds its reference point on the international art scene, in what is nowadays considered the canon of contemporary art. I am thinking here of artists such as Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer, Hans Haacke, Gerhard Richter, Christian Boltanski, Frank Stella, Barnett Newman, but also of the representatives of "the second generation", such as Christine Borland, Frédéric Brenner, Rudolf Herz, Roee Rosen, Tom Sachs, Alan Schechner, Vera Frenkel, James Friedman, Matthew Girson, Erich Hartmann, Mikael Levin, Pier Marton, Rachel Schreiber, Susan Silas, Marina Vainshtein, Jeffrey Wolin. The visual sphere of official discourse, embodied by the visible signs of memory - monuments and museums - is not meaningless for Polish artists taking up the challenge of Holocaust representation. They allude to it either directly or indirectly. In this country, recollections of the horror of war, historical politics and manipulations, pathos and heroism, the rule of the Romantic paradigm, everyday life, all have a very specific status: they shape collective memory, the source of a lasting national battle.
Author: Katarzyna Bojarska. Edited by James A. Hopkin, January 2011.
After: Piotr Piotrowski, "Znaczenia modernizmu. W stronę historii sztuki polskiej po 1945 roku", Poznan, 1999, p. 10.
See: Eleonora Jedlińska, "Sztuka po Holocauście", Lodz, 2001.
See: Fragments of the interview with Dlubak were published in Obieg 1/2006, pp. 52-60.
"Magdalena Abakanowicz", Warszawa, 1995, s. 3.
See: "Art from Poland 1945-1996", red. Jolanta Chrzanowska-Pieńkos, and others, Warszawa, 1997, p. 259.
The title of this series is sometimes translated into English as "To My Jewish Friends". For the purpose of my analysis and this article, however, I would like to introduce my own translation of the work, that, in my opinion, is less restrictive for the interpretation.
See: Andrzej Turowski, "Budowniczowie świata. Z dziejów radykalnego modernizmu w sztuce polskiej", Kraków, 2000.
Marek Zaleski, "Formy pamięci", Gdańsk, 2004, p. 158.
See: Doreet LeVitte-Harten, "Przekładanie bólu na kolor", in the exhibition catalogue of the Zachęta National Gallery in Warsaw: "Gdzie jest brat Twój, Abel? / Where is Abel, Thy Brother?", Warszawa, 1995, p. 14.
After: Jedlińska, op.cit., p. 12.
I would like to thank Prof. Piotr Piotrowski for pointing out this project to me.
See: Piotr Piotrowski, "Auschwitz vs Auschwitz", Zerstörer des Schweigens. Formen künstlerischer Erinnerung an die nationsalsozialistische Rassen- und Vernichtungspolitik in Osteuropa, Köln, Weimar, Wien, 2006, pp. 515-530.
See: Oskar Hansen, "Towards Open Form", ed. Jola Gola, Warszawa, 2005.
See: Katarzyna Murawska-Muthesius, "Oskar Hansen and the Auschwitz 'Countermemorial' ", 1958-59, www.artmargins.com/content/feature/murawska.html, 01.12.2006.
See: James E. Young, "At Memory's Edge. After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture", New Haven and London, 2000.
Stephen C. Feinstein, "Zbigniew Libera's Lego Concentration Camp: Iconoclasm In Conceptual Art About the Shoah", in: "Other Voices", vol. 2 n. 1 (February 2000).
See: Piotr Piotrowski, "Obraza uczuć. Odbiór sztuki krytycznej w Polsce", "Res Publica Nowa", 3/2002.
Dora Apel, Trespassing the Limits: "Mirroring Evil – Nazi Imagery/Recent Art" at the Jewish Museum, "Other Voices", vol. 2, no. 3 (January 2005).
See: "Gdzie jest brat twój, Abel?/ Where is Abel, Thy Brother?", op.cit.
Marianne Hirsh, "Family Frames. Photography, Narrative and Postmemory", Cambridge Mass. and London, 1997, p. 22.
Sztuka legalizowania buntu – Bożena Czubak talks to Zbigniew Libera, Magazyn Sztuki n. 15-16/1997.
Ernst van Alphen, "Playing the Holocaust", in: Mirroring Evil. Nazi Imagery Recent Art
, ed. N.L. Kleeblatt, New York, 2003.
Zygmunt Bauman, "Modernity and the Holocaust", Ithaca, New York, 1989.
Saul Friedlander, "Memory, History and the Extermination of the Jews in Europe", Bloomington, 1993, p. 47.
Piotr Piotrowski, "Obraza uczuć...".
Susan Sontag, "Fascinating Fascism" in: "Under the Sign of Saturn", New York, 1980, pp. 73-105.
See: Artur Żmijewski. "Co się stało raz, nie stało się nigdy / If It Happened Only Once It's As If It Never Happened", ed. Joanna Mytkowska, Warszawa, 2005.
Jaromir Jedliński, "Reperowanie przestrzeni publicznej (przez Jakubowicza)" w: "Magazyn Sztuki" on-line.
Bogusław Deptuła, "Obrazki z wystawy", Tygodnik Powszechny, Nr 18, 5.05.2002.
Anna Cymer, "Kozakiewicz. Wrażliwy reformator przestrzeni", Obieg 2/2006, p. 56-61.