The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

back to the castlePosted on 20th February, 2011.

Ujazdowski Castle was first constructed at the beginning of the 17th century on top of the escarpment, looking out over fine views of the river Vistula and used as a summer residence for the King. You can eat on the terrace here at a restaurant Qchnia Artystyczna. I’ll recommend the potato cakes with wild mushroom sauce, but there’s no time for that today – and it’s not the time for dining on the terrace. We’re here for the art.

The castle has been rebuilt many times, before being burnt to the ground in the Second World War. It lay in ruins until 1954, when the remaining walls were demolished. It was not reconstructed until the 1970’s as a two storey square castle with four towers around an internal courtyard. The six lane Łazienkowska highway runs nearby, in a deep cutting towards the river. There are plans to redevelop this with a Museum of Polish History spanning the highway, and constructing a ‘culturepark’. An architectural competition was announced and a shortlist drawn up, but no-one knows how long this vision will take to realise, with other large construction projects in the city facing delays.

It is now home to the Centre for Contemporary Art (Centrum Sztuki Współczesnej Zamek Ujazdowski), established in 1985. It has a new Director, Fabio Cavallucci, following an open competition, the first international curator to run a Polish institution. It has a permanent collection, which has been re-interpreted by curators Grzegorz Borkowski and Marcin Krasny under the title of ‘Things Evoke Feelings’. Starting with work from Martin Creed, the exhibition presents such themes as Passion for Construction, the Trauma of Ideology, Breath, Women’s Revolt, Patience, and the Oppression of the Everyday. Here, we bump into a tutor from the University, who is walking with the aid of a stick. He explains he fell off the sofa while adjusting the Christmas lights. He insists no vodka was involved or any other kinds of shenanigans.

We are really here to see the exhibition ‘Fragment’, a gathering of the video works of Mirosław Bałka. It’s receiving a huge amount of media coverage. While I am not a fan of most video work, and I have seen some of these pieces individually in other shows, together they have a powerful effect. In a series of reconstructed rooms we enter into a huge sculptural space lit only by almost colourless projections on the walls and floors – grey wintry images of concentration camps, almost indistinct fragments of history and experience, spinning, turning, moving, blurry, all shot in a ‘muted twilight’. The inside of the building is as chilling as the snow dimmed landscape outside. In the castle bookstore, which is warm and cosy, overhearing the sensitive discussion about the unexpected danger of Christmas lights, I buy the catalogue to Balka’s Tate Turbine Hall show ‘How it is’, which provides a great review of his work if you care to investigate further.

Balka prepared a film programme to accompany the exhibition under the title ‘Sculpture film club’, presenting films by Pier Pasolini, Rainer Werner Maria Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Béla Tarr. He started with ‘Come and See’ by Elim Klimov, and ended with ‘The Ascent’ by Laria Shepitko, both set during the Nazi occupation of Belarus.

I recall meeting Balka on a warm July day some years ago in Wrocław, at an event organised by the Borderland Foundation, where he is watching his concept unfold from a drawing on a sheet of A4 paper into physical reality.  A tightrope was set across the path that led to the door of the White Stork Synagogue, a building in the process of restoration after decades of ruination. Sitting in a courtyard behind Włodkowica, in the District of Good Neighbourhood, this was a neo-classical building that dated back to 1829. Participants at the ‘New Agora’ event gathered here one evening to learn to walk the line, guided gently yet firmly by circus artist Ante Ursic. Eyes focused on the end of the rope, balancing on one foot, then changing to the other. Ante said, Let your toes guide the way, grip the line – this is a line that vibrated with a particular intensity. Ante coaxes the participants across. If you fall off, don’t worry, it’s not so far to fall. Get straight back on the line and continue; again and again until you reach the end of the rope. You have to get back on the line and finish, even if you are only 10 cm away from the end. Sorry, Ante says, but I’m traditional. Find your balance and walk – or no supper in the Rynek, they joke (or perhaps not). You then assist the next person, walking alongside the apprentice rope walker, hands barely touching in the air – as Ante insists, you do not hold on or grip.

This particular activity takes place for two hours, so all participants can walk the line once, twice, and then back again. Mirosław seems happy with the way his concept is realised. There is a café and a bar here, in this courtyard, and these onlookers watch the proceedings pensively. Some join in with the conference participants. Here they sit and drink hot chocolate with cherries to celebrate this ‘action’, but what might this ‘action’ represent? To be persistent, to try again, to not try for one moment and then give up.  Or perhaps the crossing of a border, in between a physical space and a cultural divide, between the precarious balance and the effect of gravity, along the thin line between right and wrong, between competing ideas or groups.

Now looking out over the darkness of the bleak snow covered landscape, much the same monochrome as his videos, following the line of the river to distant Otwock where he lives, thinking of him sitting in the studio in the house that he grew up in, the stone mason’s yard outside, I read one description of Balka’s work – it has ‘a bare and elegiac quality that is underlined by the careful, minimalist placement of objects, as well as the gaps and pauses between them…’ Perfect for this kind of tired and slow day.

Stadion XPosted on 18th February, 2011.


I’ve been thinking a lot about the site of Stadion X. I’ve passed it by in all weathers. Of course, we can see all the cranes and the new construction rising in the distance, taking shape. It grows significantly in our consciousness, if somewhat sluggishly.

As the autumn began and the air was clear and bright, looking at it from the terrace by Castle Square – above the Trasa W-Z highway, which crosses the river, where shiny new trams begin to traverse the west-east axis and the old trams are banished to outer districts – it is becoming a landmark. I cast my mind back to my first visit there, almost a decade ago, when it seemed both desolate and busy, a place of contradictions. Vietnamese stalls and food joints at its lower end, Africans selling fake branded trainers somewhere in the middle, and Russians selling all kinds of stuff at the upper levels. Some Polish there of course; they had not all left back then to open a small sklep in England. We were carrying a large sunflower, bought from one of the food markets there. Put your camera away, don’t take photographs, our companion told us. Don’t attract attention. We bought some games software for a pittance, that we didn’t expect to work, but worked perfectly well. There was a stall selling old firearms. You want some bullets, you can get those too but not here. Come back later, over there. In good working order, yes. We guarantee. I was reminded of an old bazaar in Herat. I was not sure they were joking with foreign tourist. My Polish companions were not convinced either.

The ground here on the right bank of the Vistula, between old Praga and Saska Kępa, was once marshland, some farms and horses. It became a dumping ground for rubble from the utter ruins of the city after the war. At first, the 10th Anniversary Stadium – as it was officially called – began with an architectural competition for a sports stadium between the bridges to hold 37,500 spectators, with the option of expanding to 60,000. Warsaw was selected to host the 5th World Festival of Youth and Students, and needed a suitable arena for this socialist spectacle. So the stadium came into being, with seating for 71,000 and a capacity of 100,000. It was built between June 1954 and July 1955, the games starting soon after. It was named for the anniversary of the proclamation of the Manifesto of the Polish Committee of National Liberation in July 1944.*

In 1968, a 60 year old father of five, Ryszard Siwiec, set himself ablaze during a harvest festival event in the stadium attended by 100,000 people in protest of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.   The story of his death was finally told in a 1991 documentary film ‘Hear My Cry/Usłyszcie mój krzyk’ made by Maciej Drygas.

At the beginning of the 80’s the stadium, was more or less abandoned. No longer used for sporting events, by 1989 it had become a market – over and around it grew a remarkable plethora of open air stalls. It became known as Jarmark Europa, though people the people with me referred to it as the ‘black market’ or – perhaps more eloquently – as the ‘dodgy market’. Even then, I had a feeling this temporary space would disappear. Others did too. There was a series of remarkable cultural projects here, which included ‘A Trip to Asia; An Acoustic Walk Around the Vietnamese Sector’ (2006), a collaboration between Anna Gajewska and Ngo Van Turong, where participants were invited on a staged journey to explore this aspect of Hanoi that lived within the bosom of their city; or ‘Boniek!’ which was an one man re-enactment of the Poland-Belgium match in 1982 by performance artist Massimo Furlan.

Jarmark Europa is no more. God knows where this diaspora of people have now gone to (though you can find one of the Vietnamese vendors trading in a popular eating place on Chmielna Street in the centre). The new stadium, designed to be built over the old one (the original foundations of rubble being a little bit dodgy), will be open for business for the European Football Championships of 2012, which Poland co-hosts. At least, they say so… though the wastes around seem to fuel the rumours of delay and obfuscation that dog many large scale capital projects.

I have walked past here in early mornings, over the sobering Poniatowski Bridge, after a long night of vodka which usually ended in Café Szparka on Trzech Krzyzy, with frost heavy on the ground, or with spring freshness in the air, the migratory market workers leaving the first buses and disappearing into the tunnels underneath. They have all gone and what remain now is a skeletal shape, a fine background for a late night photograph on a cold night, after some nice Italian food in Saska Kępa
and a brisk walk between bars, as the future beckons.

*There is an detailed essay on this subject by Grzegorz Piątek: “A palimset inscribed on an ellipse on the stadium’s architecture’, published in ‘Stadium X: A place that never was.’

Photograph of a cold night courtesy of Anna Majewska.

The wheels just keep on turningPosted on 15th February, 2011.

She reminded me that the pedestrian subway near the contemporary art centre at Ujazdowski Castle hasn’t changed too much over the years. It still has those wonderful evergreens – a news kiosk, a 24/7 alcohol shop, a shop selling knickers and socks, another one with bags and two-parts, working supposedly under a slogan “be elegant even if you’re forty”. There’s a pastry counter and a book stall, a smell of damp and doughnuts – and a guard booth too, though I don’t remember that from other times. She told me, Sometimes think that the shops exist only thanks to the artists-in-residence that I work with, since it’s quite an empty zone here. There’s even no night bus going through. Two identical groceries – tiny, you’re buying your kefir from the window only – which have exactly same assortment and seem to be competing.

Elsewhere in the city, some of these subways are filled in and in other subways shops pop up and then disappear. Marking a current entrepreneurship which goes with the wind quite quickly usually, she said. Like the bar which was based on the idea that after you buy pierogi’s it’s so cool if you can microwave them on your own – in the shop there was a wall built up from the microwave ovens. Or Warsaw’s phenomena: grilled sandwiches that taste like Styrofoam. The boom was somehow connected with the fact that you could feel like a real conscious customer: choosing sauces (all mayo based), pickles or so called “fresh” greens, with onion or without. A shop with darkened windows – slot-machines and shisha’s. Right now it’s closed and sealed by police stamp. Those “service points” grew like mushrooms in warm rain last summer in Poland, when somebody found a gap in regulations regarding taxing the income from gambling – not applicable to one-armed bandits and similar stuff. Soon after that these became also shops where you could buy “dopalacze” – designer drugs that caused several deaths and the campaign against the shops that were selling them followed. And the last shop from this series: not so fashionable handmade jewelery of stones.

In this particular subway, out of the dull rain, the whole of one wall is still an elongated vitrine, stuffed full of paintings for sale. Or at least reproductions of paintings in vivid expressionist colours with strong brushstrokes, or the softening afterglow of Romanticism. They are less Stanisław Wyspiański and perhaps more like Apoloniusz Kędzierski.  Here you’ll see an abundance of Polish Hussars, along with Orthodox Jews, winter scenes and dreamy sun drenched landscapes, churches in the mountains, Stary Ryneks, a Łazienki Palace or two. Well, you know, she said, the memorable idea of art: what to hang over the mantle piece or rather on the wainscot. Landscapes which are the hundreth copy of Cossacks and Turner mixed together. A horse should be there for sure anyways. The portraits of Orthodox Jews – Poles keep them at home since there is a superstition saying that they bring financial success.

Where there is now an infestation of these portraits, patriotic themes of regional nature and historical scenes, back at the end of the 20th century, at odd times you could find a man selling posters from film and theatre productions from the 60’s, 70’s. 80’s. Here I first encountered poster artwork by Stasys or Jan Lenica, amidst a pile weighing down an old picnic table. They were ridiculously cheap by any standards. An artist colleague J- knew him then. He told me that this fellow used to work at the Castle (which also housed a cinema) as a kind of caretaker-technician and this selling on of posters was his sideline for many years, like all the sellers in the streets of Warsaw’s early capitalism. As time went by, he became more successful  and there was no longer a dodgy table, but his display of posters took over the display cabinets, one by one. Maybe he’s retired, or moved into the ornately framed painting business, or simply gone upmarket.

At the top of the steps of the subway, past the guard, a huge crowd of birds, what kind I can’t tell, wheel above in the darkening evening. They scatter amongst the trees of the park, not waiting for a suitable painter to mark their progress. We hurry through the drizzle. Time to find some other art within the walls of the castle.

Thanks to Ania P.

Forewarned, forlornPosted on 1st February, 2011.

The snow lies on the rooftops of the old town. There are still Christmas lights strung along the narrow streets there and the length of Krakowskie Przedmieście and Nowy Świat. They will be gone by the end of the week, dismantled by argumentative workers with fork lift trucks. There is an exhibition of Polish Actresses standing on the pavement outside the Film Institute. Many of the panels have been vandalised, kicked apart or stolen, within plain of the guards by the Presidential Palace. The faces of Gabriela Kownacka and Hanka Ordonówna have been smashed in. Karolina Gruszka, Elżbieta Czyżewska and Lucyna Winnicka have gone and perhaps now adorn a kitchen wall in Gocław. Wrapped around the display, fluttering reams of red and white tape warn pedestrians of danger.

Late at night, the sound of Polish rappers engaged in a street battle drifted over the Barbican. Early in the frozen morning, a crashing sound of empty bottles being collected. We walk to Kafka for breakfast. A snowboarder speeds down the slope behind the university wall, leaping through the air to grind sideways along a large concrete pipe. He does this again and again. In the dreamy warmth of the café, we talk about the writer Andrzej Stasiuk. Last night, we watched a film based on his stories of rural Galicia* – Wino Truskawkowe/Strawberry Wine, for which he co-wrote the screenplay. These rural summer landscapes seem a distant fantasy – the sky here is a constant leaden grey, the visual representation of a gnawing headache, the daylight fading quickly. There is little magic realism to be found within the city boundaries. We find more of a resonance with the sad streets of Warsaw described in his 1995 book, Biały Kruk/White Raven.

This tells the story of a group of men in their mid-thirties, who embark on a foolhardy winter trip into the mountains of the south, near the Czech-Slovak border. Bored with their lives in a city slowly grappling with the conflicts of the free market, their journey becomes increasingly desperate as one of them gratuitously murders a militia policeman. On the run, they forage like imaginary and forgotten partisans, marching with closed eyes through snowstorm where all directions look the same. In the bitter cold, they seek refuge in the ruins of an old kolholz or in a youth hostel in the middle of nowhere. They find shelter in a shepherds hut or with an old farmer who asks no questions. They sleep under the remnants of a ruined church dome. Cigarettes are smoked, vodka is drunk, memories consumed, along with pig fat fried with onions, bread and some garlic. The snow keeps coming and they move higher and further into the mountains. The landscape is described with tenderness and beauty, while their lives are depicted without sentiment, almost brutally. Communism has fallen apart, and the bright new future is viewed through a dim light.

This is an enclosed world of bruised masculinity. The story flips between their present dilemma and past memories of growing up together, living in the ‘shitty suburbs’, learning how to match up to the men who worked in the Żerań car plan. Dispossessed nights spent drinking, boasting, dreaming. “Live or die. If you want to die, die” – is the philosophy of one of the characters, who has the idea to make this trip into the mountains. He suggests this in a bar called Crossroads, on one of their nights of heavy drinking. Outside, the city is pitiless. “Down the concrete gutter of Lazienkowska thoroughfare foamed a colourful sewage of cars, a stream of glistening vomit flowing from east to west and from west to east, while we sat in what felt like a terrarium, among people with dead faces and slow-motion gestures.”

Outside, midst the silence of black trees of the city parks, it’s easy to imagine no surrounding metropolis, no Palace of Culture lit by an eerie purple light, and to be wandering in those mountain ranges. “It was a strange mountain,” wrote Stasiuk, though I feel that the angst of masculinity is more likely to be rediscovered these days in salsa classes, hip-hop rhymes or even car sledging.

* You’ll find a nice essay by Stasiuk on the First World War battlefields and burial grounds of Galicia (where he lives) at signandsight.com, which also appears in his book ‘Fado’.

Sledging photo by Marcin Bas.