Looking Back at Poland
Allan Sekula – Belfast Exposed
Review by Colin Darke
Allan Sekula’s show at Belfast Exposed is in two parts – Polonia and Other Fables is a selection of 18 photographs from a larger series and Walking on Water is a projection of seventy-eight 35mm slides. Both construct personal perceptions of the realities and myths of Poland, from his perspective as a third generation Polish American. The photographs are literarised through a booklet for each of the two parts, containing notes and quotes, along with quotations from various and often conflicting sources, scattered between images.
"Polonia" says Sekula, "is the imaginary Poland that exists wherever there is a Pole". He refers a couple of times in the exhibition’s accompanying booklet to that other imaginary Poland, the diegesis of Alfred Jarry’s Père Ubu, equating to a national identity so compromised by its long imperialised history (and at times by its internal anti-semitism) that it can be abstracted to the point of fictionalisation, outside of time and place. Like Mother Ireland, Polonia, the allegorical personification of the nation, follows her children wherever they may travel, a sentimental abstraction that contributes so much to the authority of nationalism. He also refers a couple of times to the films of Andrzej Wajda, the cinematic voice of Soldarnosc in the eighties, highly critical of oppressive Communist Party rule and a voice from another imaginary Poland, the future utopia of free and equal capital. Sekula’s survey, then, is of Poland’s past and present and of points where they collide, made with a sideways glance and with a detachment which often looks like cynicism.
The bourgeoisification of Poland in the past couple of decades dominates the show and perhaps the quotation most directly relevant to the country’s subservience to Russia in the past, and to America now, comes from the economist Michal Kalecki, writing in 1932, "a ‘wartime boom’… would greatly undermine the social viability of the present system and make the possibility of a capitalist overcoming of the crisis highly doubtful". This was placed next to images of Polish Air Force F-16 fighter jets.
Sekula’s visit to a blacksmith’s in Poland caused a "sudden overwhelming memory of the shed in my grandfather’s backyard. My brother and me at the bellows". The triptych of black and white images shows the blacksmith forging a new sickle at an old anvil. The hammer and sickle, blurred through the vigour of human labour, reveal the lie of the promises and claims of the Communist Party that served Poland’s workers so badly. The collection of newly-made agricultural tools suggest an ahistorical continuity of labour, while the reproduction of an old blacksmith’s shed confirms this through the transformation of those same tools into the hieroglyphs of a universal language.
A second image of manual labour is found in the triptych from CIA military areas. The arms and legs of an elderly man working on a field is reminiscent of a Millet peasant painting, but its title pushes us towards a fresh reading: Farmer threshing grass at abandoned airport used by CIA for transport of clandestine ‘high value’ terrorism suspects. Szymany, Poland, July 2009. The two accompanying images heighten the contextualisation, signage in CIA ‘black sites’ – forbidden military locations.
Another agricultural threesome is accompanied, unexpectedly, by a quotation from a book from 1918-1920, quoting a priest’s analysis of peasant sexuality, claiming unconvincingly that while masturbation and male homosexuality were rare, bestiality and lesbianism were fairly common. The three photographs are a worm’s-eye-view of a rye field, three pigs in a (wooden) sty and an aerial shot of an American-owned (brick) pig farm – the viewpoint changing as the Big Bad Wolf raises himself to huff and puff. The three pigs struggle against the bars of their enclosure, while Sekula asks: "What happened to all the pink little Polish piggies, the cleanest and happiest socialist pigs in the world?" – their pinkness the colour of the cold beet soup chlodnik, the averaging out, says Sekula, of the red and white of the Polish flag.
The photograph that most drew my attention was Detail from Stanislaw Batowski - Pulaski at Savannah, 1932, Polish Museum of America, Chicago, August 2007. Batowski’s history painting interprets the moment where Pulaski was mortally wounded while fighting for the Americans in the Revolutionary War. The description of the image as a detail is ostensibly correct, but it is very much a photograph of the painting, rather than a reproduction. A section of the frame cuts across the top-left corner of Sekula’s composition, its shadow cast across a glimpse of museum wall. The frenetic dynamic of the painting is arrested by the gilt frame and our perception of this movement is changed, the criticality of our viewing shifted. This gold decoration on dark museum wall clashes with the simple black frame and white gallery wall, creating a new historical dialectic which brings the moment of the battle into sharper focus.
The strength of Sekula’s show is its complex interplay of image and text which prevents its audience from formulating any definitive conclusion, echoing the reality of its content. The images bounce off each other and the contextualisation delivered by the quotations and notebooks serve to create dialectical readings, producing discomfort rather than straightforward explanation. The various forms of utopianism which have attempted to define Poland – nationalist, communist and capitalist – are dissolved into elements which battle against each other in the formation of its historical development.