A Polish-German book inspired by a mysterious line from David Bowie’s song Warszawa brings together fictional stories inspired by Bowie’s Eastern European legend and succeeds in bringing the two cities even closer on the imaginary map of Europe.
In April 1976 (or was it 1973?), a train bound for Moscow (or maybe Berlin) with David Bowie on board, had a short hold-up in Warsaw. The artist took this opportunity and embarked on a short walk around the capital of Poland, a country at the time under a communist regime. The experience supposedly made a strong impression on the artist and was soon to resurface on Bowie’s breakthrough Low album. One of the songs on that record – written in a mysterious, made-up language – was called Warszawa. When Low came out in 1977, Bowie was already living in Berlin, that was as close as the Western artist could get to the Iron Curtain that divided post-war Europe.
Now a new Polish-German collaboration project revisits that story and attempts to establish new links between the two cities that inspired Bowie. ‘If Warszawa enigmatically linked the cities of Warsaw and Berlin for the first time in the history of pop culture, Helibo Seyoman explores this hitherto hidden common history of the two cities,’ write the curators. The book Helibo Seyoman: A Tale of Two Cities, quite appropriately premiered in Berlin and Warsaw, with simultaneous readings organised at Warsaw’s Warszawa Centralna and Berlin’s Zoo Bahnhof stations on 15th December 2016, closing a sad year for many Bowie fans, marked by the singer's death early on in the year.
In the course of preparing the book, the curators invited writers, visual artists and graphic designers from both cities to contribute their own stories inspired by Bowie’s Eastern European legend. Each author was requested to use the term ‘Helibo Seyoman’ – an enigmatic phrase from the lyrics of Warszawa – while telling a fictional story about a historical connection between Warsaw and Berlin. The only imposed rule for the contributors to observe, was to avoid any reference to David Bowie or the song itself.
Despite that caveat, Bowie remains a haunting presence throughout the whole book, all while it combines narratives, short stories, fictional biographical notes and a quasi-diary, as well as illustrations, drawings and photo collages.
In the most Bowie-fixated texts of the book, like Ulrich Gutmair’s I’ll Stick with you for a Thousand Years, we get a Bowie-like narrator explaining his drug-fuelled fascination with fascism, as well as offering some interesting hints as to the making of the artificial language of Warszawa. As Gutmair writes,
Heli-bo se-yo-man. I quickly wrote down what I heard. Sa-lavie dilejo. Like a child who listens to a song in a foreign language and can only reproduce it in a fantasy language. So-lovie mi-le-jo.
In another piece, Polish critic Agata Pyzik, composes a biographical note and possible obituary for Thomas Jerome Newton, a character Bowie played in Nicholas Roeg’s 1976 sci-fi classic The Man Who Fell to Earth. Pyzik draws up a possible alternative follow-up to Newton’s agonised life on Earth, which has the alien live in disguise as an old man in Warsaw’s Żoliborz district. In Warsaw, after a life of constant transformations, Newton finally develops tactics for becoming 'just like everyone else', he is now ‘walking his dog around Plac Inwalidów and Plac Wilsona, practising the fine art of negation’. (Note: the Żoliborz locations refer to the possible route of Bowie’s apocryphal Warsaw walk.)
And even in pieces which seem to lack obvious Bowie references, like Sandra Bartoli’s Taking Islands (in Tiergarten) – a story about nature, birds and environmental activists in several West Berlin on-water locations – we are bound to find a Helibo Seyoman smeared on the wall of an elevator, and a ‘passenger with sexy boots and no eyebrows’ is looking at Berlin passing past the other side of the train window.
Perhaps the most Bowie-distanced piece of the collection, is the one by the British-Indian novelist Hari Kunzru. Written itself in experimental, broken language, the piece seems a post-apocalyptic impression on social relationships in big urban environments. For Kuzru, Helibo Seyoman becomes a name of the excluded, homeless and useless inhabitants of big cities: a punk, possibly a refugee, and potentially a terrorist. Speaking in an incomprehensible language, Helibo Seyoman is 'the Other", filling society with dread and disgust...
Understandably, Bowie figures less prominently in the visual codes created in the works that were contributed to Helibo by artists and graphic designers. Yet even there – in Agnieszka Brzeżańska's photo collages which mix images of Warsaw with folk dancers, in the lipogrammatic (My Bean is a Hole) juxtapositions of Warsaw and Berlin imagery by Ariane Spanier, or in Jerzy Goliszewski's drawings of impossible (black)stars – Bowie fans will unmistakably find hidden traces of the Starman.
The publication of Helibo Seyoman: A Tale of Two Cities marks the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the town twinning of Berlin and Warsaw.
The bilingual Polish-English publication is free and can be ordered here.
Artists & authors: Sandra Bartoli, Agnieszka Brzeżańska, Jerzy Goliszewski, Ulrich Gutmair, Tymek Jezierski, Christin Kaiser, Hari Kunzru, Krzysztof Pyda, Agata Pyzik, Gregor Różański, Ariane Spanier, Olga Szczechowska, Andreas Töpfer, Aleksandra Waliszewska, Gregor Weichbrodt, Jakub Żulczyk
Curators: Martin Conrads, Franziska Morlok, Bogna Świątkowska
- Helibo Seyoman: A Tale of Two Cities, 2016, Bęc Zmiana New Culture Foundation, Warsaw 2016
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, 5 January 2016