"A City-Artist or the De-Construction of Violence"
On Dorota Nieznalska's exhibition "A City-Event. A Re-Construction of Violence"
Violence is the father of everything.
Dorota Nieznalska deals in her art – speaking very mildly – with the mechanisms of violence, re- and de-constructing them in their political and ideological dimensions, as well as those related to sex and sexuality. Her exhibition, "A City-Event. A Re-Construction of Violence", is the artist's first exhibition after her trial for offending religious feelings, formulated by the activists of the League of Polish Families party after her exhibition of "The Passion" at the Wyspa Gallery in Gdańsk in 2001. It also tackles these issues to a degree. However, this time Nieznalska finds a pretext for her artistic utterance in the dramatic events which took place in Gdańsk Shipyard on 16 December 1981, namely the pacification of Solidarity's occupational strike carried out by the force of fifteen hundred policemen.
It is through the mediation of those events that Nieznalska's hometown becomes the protagonist of her latest exhibition, created through events and being "an event" itself, as the artist wants it, alluding directly in its title to Ewa Rewers's considerations in her book, "Post-Polis. Wstęp do filozofii ponowoczesnego miasta"1. Rewers writes:
The histories of cities built networks of events occurring in time and space, onto which other networks overlap, joining small episodes and simple narration (...). The experience of the spatiality of a city is mediated by the experience of historical time, which, in turn, is subject to the principles and experiments shaping the form of historical narration. The name of the city, often imprinted in boldface on a page of a historical book, is an event focusing the process of reading. It is the event for which a historical narration and its de-constructive reading built a linguistic, interpretative context. A city-event partially stems from this context. However, everything indicates that the city as an event does not function in the historical perspective only.
It is difficult to resist the impression that the complicated history of Gdańsk and the artist's own history become on this particular occasion parallel layers, strictly linked narratives. (This impression is compounded by a famous photograph "No pasaran!", taken in the shipyard on 15 December 1981 by the artist's father, Bogusław Nieznalski, a photographer of Solidarity for many years). After all the experience of these two, the city and the artist, were the consequences of disobedience to the authorities and dependence (in the case of the city and its inhabitants and shipyard workers – political order, in the case of the artist – morality). That disobedience was a move towards freedom, which is realised in a gesture of a frequently helpless protest, as well as in a liminal experience and the flash of awareness which accompanies it (like the feeling of "being freed" from fear, of which Marian Moćko, a participant of those events in the Shipyard, writes in Edmund Szczesiak's book "Oko na wolność")2. This is why the "Allegory of Freedom" (Alegoria wolności) presented at the exhibition is the image of destruction (this was a temporary title of the work which is finally presented as "Re-construction of 16.12.1981"). In today's Free City, gazing at itself through past events, no other image would prove suitable – freedom is strictly linked to violence here.
However, neither the exhibition "A City-Artist or the De-Construction of Violence" nor the simultaneous correlation between the city and the artist herself, just mentioned above, begins with the reference to the December of 1981. They have their beginnings in different events, represented by two symbols facing each other, placed in a small, dark nook on the left of the entrance to the Gdańsk City Gallery. These symbols are a swastika and a crown of thorns. Both are shown in videos, reminiscent of digital reconstructions of lost or destroyed precious objects which we can see in museums all over the world. The swastika and the crown of thorns (entitled: "Jewellery, part 1" and "Jewellery, part 2", 2010 ) glitter with the shine of a fine brilliant encrustation placed upon them. In reality, however, the "brilliants" prove to be tawdry Swarovski glasses – and this is the first from amongst ironical accents, many of which Dorota Nieznalska put in her exhibition.
The juxtaposition of these two symbols is deeply meaningful. The swastika refers to the Nazi episode in the history of Gdańsk, formerly Danzig. The crown of thorns alludes to the situation in which Dorota Nieznalska participated herself in her home city many dozens of years after the Nazi episode, being charged with offending religious feelings, racing a court trial and a kind of stigmatisation and exclusion from artistic life for almost eight years. These two symbols, although referring to different times, ideologies and events, become one in Nieznalska's interpretation: pretexts for using violence.
Another work in the exhibition, the "Re-construction of 16.12.1981" reconstructs gate 2 to the Shipyard in a condition similar to that on 16th December 1981, that is shortly before it was rammed by tanks surrounding the Shipyard. What is interesting, the reconstruction of the left wing of the gate – still standing despite the hitting of the armed cavalcade – was done using historical photographs while the reconstruction of the right one, which was demolished, was only possible using the only available source, which was the narration of the December eye-witnesses. This wing has been reconstructed as fallen, with visible hollows made by the enormous pressure. and the form of the reconstruction itself brings the dimension of memory as the carrier of truth (or the reverse: untruth) into the exhibition. The method of the "reconstruction from memory" – similar to memory portraits and testimonies of eyewitnesses in court trials – fosters the question about the reliability of the source of information, which means the question: where is the border-line between the subjective and the objective, myth and fact? Nieznalska, reconstructing an object from other people's memories, seems to be aware of the blurring of this border. By doing so, she postulates – against her viewer's inquisitiveness – that both categories are inseparable and directs our attention again to the "city as an event", woven from memory as much as from forgetting, from the registered and the told.
On the wall, three photographs are mounted right behind the "Re-construction of 16.12.1981". Two of the photographs come from the archives of IPN3; they feature the original gate after its destruction. The third is the above-mentioned "No pasaran!", taken by the artist's father. The shipyard workers shown in the picture stand crowded, holding each other by the hands, thus forming a live gate, which is a terrifying augury of the force which would be used against them on the following day. The genuine motif of "a live gate" in the picture may bring to mind Jan Svankmajer's film from 1968 entitled "A Garden", whose main character becomes a span in a human bridge surrounding a mysterious residence. However, "A Garden" talks about a passive submission to the principles of a certain order (the allusion to oppressive, collective socialism is even too obvious) while "No pasaran!" bears something of Rejtan's4 gesture – there is disagreement and opposition in it, manifested with courage, although helplessly.
Other works are presented in a room behind the "Reconstruction of 16.12.1981". On the right, an object composed of four huge knives joined in the form a cross is suspended from the ceiling to about one metre above the floor in a specially built, darkened box. This peculiar "ventilator" spins slowly so the beam of light falling from the top transforms its shadow into a black Nazi swastika against the red, blood-like background. In this way, Nieznalska shows the destructive machine of the criminal Nazi ideology (the title of the work is just "Crime", realised in 2010) which overflowed Germany (including Danzig, i.e. today's Gdańsk) and a great part of Europe in the 1930s, becoming the reason for war and the deaths of millions of people and the destruction of thousands of villages, towns and cities.
The purport of this work, perhaps a little too generalised (but nonetheless painful), especially when confronted with the previous one, so concentrated on a chosen historic event, made almost palpable thanks to the above-mentioned photograph and an eyewitness's (Marian Moćko) relation, mounted as a text next to the "Reconstruction...", is counterbalanced by the opposing object, closed in a glass museum box: "The Brown Book" (Brunatna księga) from 2011, covered in pigskin, like an exclusive edition of Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf". The "Book" is a list of more than two and a half thousand racist and xenophobic incidents (called "hate crimes") which occurred in Poland from 1987 to 2009. This index, kept by the NIGDY WIĘCEJ (Never Again) Association is the horrifying continuation of "The Crime" and the palpable proof that the ideology of evil keeps on harvesting its yield here and now. There are hundreds of records in this book, documenting acts of vandalism and transgressions, and there are also fifty cases of crimes (when human life was actually taken!), usually committed by Neo-Nazis. In the original "Brown Book", edited by Marcin Kornak, these crimes are printed in black, boldface. In Dorota Nieznalska's artefact, which symbolically alludes to that book, black colour spills over the entire pages, rendering any reading of them impossible. In this way, the artist comments on the prevalence of evil and pays homage to the victims.
Dorota Nieznalska shows two other works in the same room: a research project tackling the speech of hate, present on the walls of various neighbourhoods of Gdańsk which is a series of photographs, presented like a slide-show ("Lechia Gdańsk"5 2010/ 2011) and a video film entitled "The Speech of Hate" (Mowa nienawiści) from 2011. Similar to the "Brown Book", these two realisations explicitly prove that racism and xenophobia – followed and realised by football fans in the irrational way which makes references to fascist ideology – function in today's Gdańsk and today's Poland. The inscriptions documented by the artist in her project "Lechia Gdańsk" feature such incredible slogans as "Poland for Poles", "We do not like strangers" or "White Power" and they are the every-day reality of public spaces not only in Gdańsk. They gain an additionally grotesque reverberation in the light of press quotations, selected by the artist from a journalist of the “Gazeta Polska” weekly, Piotr Lisiewicz, who clumsily tried to "justify" the pseudo-culture of the hooligans. Here is a sample of his opinions: The circles of football fans (...) engaged themselves in the development of the patriotic awareness of young people. They are one of only a few organisations which are so large (hundreds of thousands of people) and for which this value is important.
In the four-minute long video, "The Speech of Hate", Nieznalska documented an inscription on one of the walls in Gdańsk "Your Honour, Your Race" (remaining there untouched for almost two years!). The faded letters in static frame gradually become saturated with black, while the background slowly disappears to finally become white. Next, the slogan itself, initially exposed in the "poster-like", forcible way, gradually disappears with only three letters ONR remaining. A subsequent slide featuring the encyclopaedia entry, the artist deciphers their meaning: Obóz Narodowo-Radykalny (The National-Radical Camp) which is an organisation founded in 1934 by the activists of the Camp of Great Poland – a nationalist and anti-Semitic political organisation. The artist also provides the explanation of the cross overlapping the letter "o" in the word "honour" – these two signs together composed the Celtic cross which is a Nazi symbol of "White Power", i.e. the dominance of the white race over other people.
The exhibition culminates in an ironical, although not obvious at first glance, juxtaposition of the caption "Your Honour, Your Race" with the inscription on the metal cartouche as if floating over the entire exhibition "Nec temere, nec timide", i.e. "Neither rashly nor timidly" ("Kultura w polu widzenia!" 2011). This motto, written in gold letters on the municipal coats of arms of the city of Gdańsk, is the ultimate indication of the direct links between the exhibition and Gdańsk. It is also a wayward testimony to Dorota Nieznalska's painful personal experience inscribed in a series of events, building her difficult relation with the city, full of tensions, and the co-dependence of the two.
Translated by ©Marzena Beata Guzowska
Proof-read by Tadeusz Z. Wolański
1. The English translation of the title is "Post-Polis. An Introduction to the Philosophy of a Post-Modern City" translator.
2. "An Eye towards Freedom", translator.
3. The Institute of National Remembrance [Instytut Pamięci Narodowej], translator.
4. Tadeusz Rejtan [Reytan] 1746-80, a patriotic hero in Polish history, who, in 1773, fiercely opposed a treaty leading to the partition of Poland. A famous painting by Jan Matejko from the 19th c. shows him throwing himself on the threshold to the negotiation room, tearing his clothing and trying to stop the negotiators by the gesture showing his bare chest, translator.
5. The name of a local football club, translator.