New Europe, Old Monsters
Issue #73, April 2005
The European Union has intervals of lucidity. It has opposed Bushland (the Bush regime in the U.S.), withdrawn the commissioner candidacy of the anti-secular, misogynist and homophobic Rocco Buttiglione, and inscribed (and sometimes realized) a non-discrimination principle into its Charter of Fundamental Rights: "Article 21 Non-discrimination: 1. Any discrimination based on any ground such as sex, race, colour, ethnic or social origin, genetic features, language, religion or belief, political or any other opinion, membership of a national minority, property, birth, disability, age or sexual orientation shall be prohibited." The Charter forms part of the EU's first Constitution whose adoption is currently being debated: the Constitution is regarded as the foundation of a new Soviet Union by Poland's League of Polish Families in the European Parliament. This party represents the extreme right, not uncommon in "New Europe" - the handful of post-Communist countries that joined the European Union on May Day 2004.
Agnes Heller, a Hungarian-born Professor of Philosophy at the New School University and a former student of Georg Lucacs, is right when she says that the European Union is an empire. But to my mind, it is a multicultural, tolerant, enlightened empire - a counterweight to the globalized "Pax" Americana and to localized tribal phobias. The European Parliament did not disband when the League of Polish Families called it to do so, calling it a hostage of the Eurocrat gay lobby. For me, a gay in fundamentalist Poland (as Joe Lockard, Pawel Leszkowicz and Tomasz Kitlinski have previously reported in Bad Subjects), the Charter with its ban on discrimination is a dream come true. As little or as great emancipation possible, my love, my subjectivity - disrespected in Polish law, despised in Polish praxis - is recognized in the EU Constitution. In my view, the Constitution is transnational, socially-oriented, open to women and minorities, secular, and postmodern. Even if it is bureaucratese, bureaucratic and grandiose.
Struck by a meteorite, the pope took a tumble. He survived and was ready to lead his flock onwards, holding his cross firmly and sporting a still spotless fetish-cassock. This installation by Maurizio Cattelan was shown in post-Protestant Basle and London's Apocalypse - to only mild excitement. But exhibited in the pope's native Poland, it sparked controversy and rekindled anti-Semitism.
A man ran through the rooms of Poland's National Gallery, Zacheta. He reached the statue of the pope and removed the meteorite. A rush of footsteps, shouting. Wardens struggled to stop him, but were flashed immunity papers: the man was member of the Polish Parliament.
"It was heavy," said M.P. Tomczak, "the meteorite was not made of styro as I'd expected." In his young days Tomczak painted May Day parades. Today he is a Catholic and a right-wing activist, a leader of the League of Polish Families. Next to the statue, Tomczak left a letter in which he berated the Gallery's director, Anda Rottenberg, calling her a "civil servant of Jewish origin." Why is Ms. Rottenberg not realizing her ideas in Israel, for the money of Israeli taxpayers? he asked. A hallucinatory phrase followed: "in the National Museum of Israel she could show a figure of a recumbent Great Rabbi crushed under the foot of Stalin or of Yasser Arafat or by the dome of the temple of Muhammad."
Tomczak is now a member of the European Parliament. The League of Polish Families came in second in the June 2004 elections to the European Parliament. On January 12, 2005, Tomczak staged a protest in the European Parliament against the European Constitution and waved a placard reading "This Constitution is Europe's death." He violently opposes the Constitution's lack of reference to God and Christianity.
A week after Poland joined the European Union on May 7, 2004, skinheads in Crackow from the All-Polish Youth attacked a peaceful demonstration of gays, lesbians and their supporters with slurs and stones and caustic acid. On November 20 in Poznan, the All-Polish Youth fired tear gas at the feminist and anti-homophobic March of Equality. Chauvinist prejudices are mounting, too. Gays, women, and Jews are othered and abjected in Poland. Abortion has been criminalized since 1993. Within the EU there was no broad reaction to the All-Polish Youth attacks. If only the non-discrimination principle of the EU Charter were realized here. Only the Panth?res Roses of Paris protested against the attack in Cracow: "Tant que les exigences de l'union européenne seront revues ? la baisse en cédant ? la pression de différents groupes réactionnaire dont les lesbiennes, trans, gais et femmes seront menacés par les violences sexistes."
Poland's National Gallery is haunted. In 1922 the first President of independent Poland was assassinated on the main staircase of the Zacheta. A "Jewish president" elected by "non-Polish votes" who would bring not only "dishonor", but also "bad luck to Poland" - these punch-lines triggered "national anger." During an exhibition opening a frustrated painter-nationalist shot the President. Tomczak's anti-Semitic letter comes now as a reminder of this dark history; it also conjures up the ghosts of 1968 when Jewish intellectuals were expelled from Poland at the instigation of the chauvinist faction of the Communist Party.
Cattelan's installation of the pope had figured both in London's Apocalypse and then at the Zacheta Gallery's 100 year jubilee show, curated by Harald Szeemann. Avant-garde artists had been prohibited from showing in the Zacheta before and after the Second World War. It was Anda Rottenberg who reinvented the Gallery. Nationalists love to hate Ms. Rottenberg. Her offence? Inviting the world's best artists and curators, opening Poland to the latest trends in visual culture, putting Warsaw on the cultural map of Europe. In a macho Poland, Rottenberg broke new ground by choosing shows of two women artists for the Polish Pavilion in the Venice Biennale: Zofia Kulik and Katarzyna Kozyra. She was also responsible for an exhibition on xenophobia that featured Kiefer, Wodiczko, Finlay and Abakanowicz, titled Where is Abel thy Brother?
The controversy over Cattelan's pope installation is part of Poland's culture war. In this war, Catholicism is deprived of its mystique and coupled with chauvinism against any attempts to open up to diversity. The anti-Semitic letter was interpreted by a nationalist daily Zycie as counter-productive, another part of anti-Polish conspiracy to empower Ms. Rottenberg. Hatred of the Other with predictable rhetoric and violent acting-out? On television Witold Tomczak called Ms. Rottenberg a "foreigner" and a "stranger." His letter, with its hallucinations, reviled the stranger as abject.
East Europeans produce iconographies of disgust. We not only witness, but also participate in an explosion of xenophobic representations - full of abjection - in Eastern Europe today. Anti-Semitism, prejudiced assumptions about sex and class.... Iconographies of abomination are produced to represent the supposed stranger: Jews, Roma, women, the unemployed, and homeless - the violence of search for enemies within, conspiracy theories, and degradation of the marginal. Some artists and activists attempt to counter xenophobia - and I will write about it. There is an urgent need to found an ethics of openness and hospitality - "at a time when nations and continents tend to withdraw into themselves, a responsibility remains to adopt the cosmopolitan dream of the ancient Stoics: in the megalopolis of today, we are the inheritors of all traditions" (Julia Kristeva).
"The horror! The horror!" of our time and space. We change into beasts. Totalitarianisms. Shoah. Genocides. Humans disappear. Beasts remain. We tear to pieces, rape, lie in wait, kill. Our hatred of the strangers, our abjection is a tribal call. But it enters polite society: it is not only the youths with shaved heads who are the haters. Jews, women, and the homeless are regarded as offal in Polish culture. "They" produce phobias, nausea, attraction tinged with repulsion: sickening, beastly, hypersexual, rotten "them." Polish culture gives "them" a dirty look.
The subaltern is represented in Katarzyna Kozyra's work, Krzysztof Czerwinski, a portrait of a beaten homeless man. His body in livid bruises is depicted against the background of Poland's national flag. A typical comment: "Looking at this photograph the average Pole has the same feeling he would have if a pigeon fouled his coat."
East Europeans cultivate Gemeinschaft (instead of Gesellschaft), closed community. A violent overprotection of the invented blood and soil community was ironically commented on by a Polish artist, Andrzej Dluzniewski, when he installed a fence around a little piece of soil that in no way differed from the land around it. Sometimes the nationalisms are projected on the EU when it is being turned into a fortress. Candidate for the EU Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security, Rocco Buttiglione forced the mass deportation of asylum-seekers to his native Italy. Moreover, as reported by the BBC, "He has been a vocal supporter of Germany's and Italy's attempts to set up processing centres in North Africa for people seeking asylum in the EU." Buttiglione was feted in Warsaw, Lublin and Cracow.
According to Julia Kristeva, in Eastern Europe people turned into wolves. The specters of the Gothic that she articulated in her novel The Old Man and the Wolves are haunting Poland and Lithuania. Whereas Bulgaria did not carry out deportations of the Jews (see Tzvetan Todorov's The Fragility of Goodness), more and more episodes are being revealed of Poles' and Lithuanians' contribution to the Holocaust. In spite of public apologies, the two peoples are not ready and willing to mourn the Jews; witness the case of Jedwabne where the president of Poland acknowledged the participation of Poles in the pogrom, but the society denied any guilt. The past and present guilts of anti-Semitism are repressed in Poland and Lithuania alike. East Europeans are "ill with their own innocence."
In Eastern Europe the work of mourning has not been completed. Trans-generational hauntings continue. The debates over past guilts are heated and violent. Lithuania and Poland belong in "the haunted land" (Tina Rosenberg). In the heart of the baroque Old Town of Vilnius I happened on a concrete Soviet-style building, the Center for Contemporary Art. It was freezing inside: wardens donned fur-coats and stamped their feet. Ill-lit halls did not promise much. But sepia-toned photos loomed out of the dark: gothic, gallows humor, uncanniness, and the cruelty of the unconscious and of history. The artists responsible for the works and for dimming lights, Stanikas, conjure up the ghosts of Lithuanian and Soviet past and of the difficult transition.
They unearthed traumas: a xenophobic and Soviet past, violence, mafia; the difficulties in joining the European Union. All evidence distanced with sophisticated wooden frames. Ghost townscapes of Stalinism, nudes of teenagers, a giant picture postcard 'Vilnius, Soviet Union' presents a woman lying in state surrounded by artificial flowers in a manner not unlike the lavish funerals of Soviet leaders; a shot of Lenin's statue with an eerie aura.
The Stanikas is abject art, but it digs deeper into the unconscious and history than American abject art. The dark and dank images are shadows of Shoah. The Lithuanian city of Vilnius or rather Vilna, as Jews call it, formed a world center of Yiddish culture, Yerushalayim de-Lita (the 'Jerusalem of Lithuania'). "[I]n our modern rational society, at the high stage of our civilization" Vilna was murdered; in the words of Hannah Arendt, it became a city of apatrides. In the Holocaust 100,000 Jews perished in Vilna and its vicinity. The catastrophic suffering here equaled persecution and slaughter and resistance - Vilna fighters.
Derridean Mal d'Archive is at the heart of the evil, disease, fever of the twentieth century depicted by the Stanikas. Griselda Pollock's warning: "the archive of photographs that appear to be the historical record, the fascist shape of memory. These house the unmourned losses of the Jewish people and those exterminated in the camps for their sexuality, ethnicity or politics. It is often felt that the mere reproduction of the images of those on their way to the death chambers or starved to death, or executed and buried in mass graves revisits a second death, a second Orphic look that kills again. Faced with the horror, the people in these images too easily become abject." How to represent the Holocaust? Is the art of the Stanikas one of the ways?
Because the evidence of anti-Semitism and Shoah has been concealed in Eastern Europe, it is important to highlight it in the archives. As feminism "makes trouble in the archives," (Griselda Pollock) so critical research and art subverts archives in Poland. Poland's leading feminist, Maria Janion, reveals Eastern Europe's skeleton in the closet: abjection in not-belonging and anti-Semitism.
Maria Janion does not hide abjection in anti-Semitism. Likewise, the cultural initiatives of artists-educators admit the guilt and, moreover, endeavor to envisage a future of memory and toleration. A space which counters xenophobia is the Grodzka Gate Center - NN Theater Company, a municipal institution of culture housed in Lublin's Old Town. The Center is housed in a fourteenth-century Grodzka (City) Gate which formerly served as division and link between the Gentile and the Jewish quarter of the city. In its activities, the Center draws on the historic and symbolic significance of the Gate as link between nations, religions, traditions.
The Grodzka Gate Center collects the oral history of the inhabitants of the Jewish quarter of Lublin, survivors of the Holocaust. A number of students of Lublin's Curie University are involved in the project. The younger generation is also engaged as staff and volunteers of the Center in coordinating exhibitions about the history of multicultural Lublin which foreground oral history, and use a variety of techniques and media (three thousand photographs of the Lublin before 1939 were amassed, oral history was presented at the Center's exhibitions and broadcast by the Polish Radio). At the moment, a maquette of the Old Town, in particular of its Jewish district, is under construction at the Center.
Lublin's Gate prepares scholarly conferences designed for wider public. One of the conferences explored the Center's mission: Memory. Place. Presence. It was hosted by Zygmunt Bauman, the thinker who had returned to the country which exiled him and his family in 1968. The Gate teaches seminars for students of Curie-Sklodowska University who are invited to explore the history and the present of selected houses in the Old Town of Lublin with the aim of researching the urban landscape and municipal social policy. Data collected at the institutions of the city's local government are interpreted. At the same time, Lublin's cultural changes are examined, including the tragic end to its multiethnicity, and a need for remembering the former diversity is emphasized. A research project has been completed by now: it is concerned with the past of the house at 24 Grodzka Street. A group of students analyzed the documentation of the house (data from 1576 on). When the Nazis turned Lublin's Old Town into a ghetto, fifty-four Jews were placed in this house. The students interviewed the present inhabitants of the house who are unemployed and poverty-stricken; social workers who help in the house were also interviewed. The study conducted by the students will be used in exhibitions and research about the urban history.
In the Gate of Lublin an ethics of hospitality is unfolding with the younger generation's hands-on experience. In a similar vein, the Pogranicze Foundation, Borderland of Arts, Cultures, Nations was set up on the north-eastern region of this country where Poles, Jews, Lithuanians, Belorussians, Roma, Tartars, and Armenians co-existed. The Pogranicze (Borderland) Foundation rebuilt the White Synagogue and Yeshiva of Sejny near the Lithuanian border. Pogranicze's roots lie in the theater company where the founding member, Krzysztof Czyzewski, used to work in troupes with the theater-maker and anthropologist Jerzy Grotowski. Czyzewski admitted having discovered that Poland was "not Catholic and Polish only" thanks to his work in anthropology-inspired theater. The Borderland Foundation's emphasis is on educational programs. The functioning of the Sejny venue encompasses the following issues: "Meeting the Other" and "Classes of Cultural Heritage" (seminars and field trips destined for high-school pupils); "European Borderland School" (training for leaders and managers of cultural organizations); "Open Regions of East-Central Europe" and "Borderland Publishing House" (research and publishing on such melting pots of the region as Bukovina, Transylvania, Spisz). Krasnogruda is the magazine run by the Pogranicze Foundation that deploys the results of their intellectual and artistic research; an issue of the magazine was published in English and included work by authors from Ljubljana, Sarajevo, Skopje, Sofia, Vilnius, Warsaw, Zagreb.
Hope against iconographies of xenophobia lies in such initiatives as Lublin's Gate and Sejny's Borderlands, and also in the critical art of the Stanikas. Theirs is an ethics of cosmopolitanism that goes against xenophobia without hiding the violence of the unconscious and history. Artists and activists warn about the totalitarian temptation that lies in wait in the human being. Jan Tomasz Gross's book Neighbors about the pogrom in Jedwabne was published by the Borderlands Foundation. Apart from a potential for dialogue and hospitality towards one another, there is evil that inhabits us.
How to find in ourselves a love for strangers? If we do not, we loose our humanity, hate and kill the strangers - again and more vilely. I choose, after Julia Kristeva, the idea of strangeness in ourselves: we are all strangers. And this is a remedy for xenophobia. The critical work of a Polish-American artist, Krzysztof Wodiczko, is revealing here: he projected the image of a swastika on South Africa House in London, constructed a vehicle for the homeless in the United States and, last but not least, sculpted a staff titled The Alien's Spokesman by which a stranger, homeless or immigrant can communicate on the streets with passers by. Wodiczko's art can be regarded as part of transnational civil society. The pressing need of our age is to found a public sphere that would cherish subjectivity, where plural experiences of cultures would correspond to diverse inner lives. Being as opposed to belonging. How to care for strangeness? One's own and others'?
This is my reading, hidden in a series of East European narratives: in the beginning was xenophobia. Openness to strangers, philoxenia, is a work of culture. Eastern Europe today is hostage to hate and abjection and exclusion; we witness, nay, we participate in a ghostly return of anti-Semitism. At stake is one's disgust, abomination and violence against the not-belonging, against oneself. This is captured by Elaine Feinstein:
ANNUS MIRABILIS 1989
Ten years ago, beneath the Hotel Astoria,
we watched a dissident cabaret in Budapest,
where they showed Einstein as a Jewish tailor.
All the women on stage were elegantly dressed.
Their silken garments were cleverly slit to expose
illicit glimpses of delicate thighs and breast.
Einstein was covered with chalk, in ill-fitting clothes;
he was taking measurements, trying to please the rest.
At the climax of the play, to applause and laughter
they raked him with strobe lights and the noise of guns.
I was chilled by the audience euphoria.
Of course, I don't have a word of Hungarian,
and afterwards there were embarrassed explanations,
which left out tailoring and obsequious gestures.
Their indignation was all about nuclear science, while
I pondered at the resilience of an old monster.
Recently Poland's National Gallery Zacheta refused to publish in its recent catalogue a photo of Dorota Nieznalska's artwork Passion. Instead, it published a photo of the artist accused in court. Sued by the League of Polish Families, Dorota Nieznalska was sentenced to half a year of "restriction of freedom" (see Pawel Leszkowicz's "Feminist Revolt: Censorship of Women's Art in Poland" in Bad Subjects). At the same time, the National Gallery is showing Artur Zmijewski's video projection entitled Tag. The aesthetically and ideologically dangerous work represents the titular game of tag in a gas chamber.
As the anti-majoritarian intellectual, Maria Janion, puts it: "Democracy in Poland is male-gendered." Women and gays suffer from exclusions in Poland. The anti-abortion law is a tool, if not a toy, in the hands of theocrats. Polish-American feminist Elzbieta Matynia wrote: "Paradoxically, it is the country's accession to the EU - in particular the favor expected of the Church, to support the accession (and shortly before the referendum delivered) - that postpones any revisiting of the anti-abortion law." Alcoholism, machismo and domestic violence rules. The exclusion of women and of ethnic and sexual minorities follows the pattern of the nation-state as the "development of law in different countries has everything to do with the application of rights - and the law always forgets about women. It doesn't consider anything to do with sexuality or with the body, which are not even named in any kind of legal system" (Hélène Cixous).
The narrow political vision has nothing to offer to women and sexual minorities. Those speaking for women's rights must never forget about sexual minorities and vice versa as they are always related when a majoritarian tone sounds in the law, society and culture. That is why keeping the issue of gender and sexual orientation on the EU enlargement agenda is crucial. The protection of local morals means protection of local cruelties and prejudices. The media cherish popular pieties. On March 13, 2005 the fundamentalist Radio Maryja hosted League of Polish Families deputies to the European Parliament: they called the Constitution for Europe an anti-Christian, anti-family piece of Euro-trash, a foul fruit of the French Revolution. The same day the national television broadcast a ludic-educational talk show Europa da sie lubic: it derided the ideas of liberté, égalité, fraternité.
Poland is infatuated with U.S. militarism; neocons and their Iraq invasion in which Polish troops participated are heroes. Poland and the U.S. enact civic-warring sadomasochism (see Joe Lockard's and Tomasz Kitlinski's "Sex Slavery and Queer Resistance" in Bad Subjects). Is there an alternative in the European imperial superstate? "Under imperial rule, the members will, willy nilly, manifest tolerance in (most of) their everyday interactions, and some of them, perhaps, will learn to accept difference" (Michael Walzer). The EU - too imperial? Imperial enough? It is an international empire against the tribal imperialism of a U.S. or a Poland.
Graphics credits (in order of appearance) -- copyright and all rights reserved to the artists:
Maurizio Catellan, La Nona Ora
Katarzyna Kozyra, Krzysztof Czerwinski
Svajone and Paulius Stanikas, Look. Vilnius (Soviet Union)
Svajone and Paulius Stanikas, Our Eighties
Svajone and Paulius Stanikas, World War
Svajone and Paulius Stanikas, Fire Poems
Grodzka Gate in Lublin, 1930s, photo by Jan Bulhak
Model of the Jewish Quarter of Lublin, Grodzka Gate Center, photo by Marta Kubiszyn
My thanks go to the artists for letting me present their works. I would also like to acknowledge the help of Megan Prelinger in editing my text.
Tomasz Kitlinski lectures in the Department of Philosophy, Maria Sklodowska-Curie University, Lublin, Poland.