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Allan Sekula

Polonia and Other Fables
September 20 – December 13, 2009

 
 

Polonia and Other Fables

 
Revised notes 02-09-09

Aboard the container ship
Hanjin Budapest,
as it parts the Red Sea,
enroute Singapore to Rotterdam
via Suez

And further revisions
airborne and terrestrial
up to the very last minute.

(Subject to further revision
without notice)



A FEW HELPFUL EPIGRAMS

As to the action which is about to begin,
it takes place in Poland?that is to say,
nowhere.


?Preface? spoken by Alfred Jarry
before the curtain at the first
performance of Ubu Roi at the Th??tre
de l?Oeuvre, Paris, 10 December 1896.


Did you hear about the Polish Admiral who wanted to be
buried at sea when he died? Five sailors died digging
his grave.


Polish joke


Beside any old secondhand sea.

Nelson Algren, Chicago: City on the Make, 1951



A PARTIAL SCRIPT FOR AN EXHIBITION

Let?s set the scene, as if for a silent film, or for a passion play of the Stations of the Cross:

Near dusk, low light from the west cutting across the north-south axis. On the left, the Chicago elevated, southbound above Wabash. On the right, a northbound tram on Warsaw?s Marzalkowska Street. Both give the same destination: Polonia.

If these were two photographs, they would be titled Celestial Railroad.

Two graves, side by side. Autumn or early winter, frost on the bare branches of trees, here in the former coal country of central Pennsylvania. Focus on the gravestones only, otherwise indefinite widening circles of confusion. Here lie Wiktoria and Pawel, the artist?s grandparents, with a small difference is the spelling of the shared surname cut into the modest granite slabs. A slash crosses the ?l? for Pawel and then doesn?t for Wiktoria. It is as if the second stonecutter was a typesetter in a language without diacritical marks. Die later, die elsewhere and the sound of your name changes forever.

The underground celestial railroad. Down with the discarded books in the swamp.

False memory. I find the photo in the chaos of my non-archive, made on a visit to the graves in the winter of 1997. It is my uncle?s headstone that drops the slash that softens the ?l? to a ?w.? The stone bears the incongruous American familiarity of his nickname: ?Fox.?

My older cousin, who served as an artillery officer in Viet Nam, remarks upon the barbarism of the French in Indochina. An unwanted war inherited by good-hearted Americans. Lunch in DuBois before the visit to the cemetery: everyone drinks coffee with their meal.

Brzezinski notes the friendly names of American presidents, emulated in other ?populist democracies.? ?Jimmy? and ?Bill? beget ?Tony.? Mexico has already had a Fox

(in the henhouse).

Saecula saeculorem.

Opus Dei.

A middle-aged man, cadaverous, prays on his knees during Latin mass at St. John Cantius church on the near northside. A woman veiled in black lace returns from communion. A time machine.

Another middle-aged man holds a yellowed envelope with a meticulously penciled list: the names of rabbis sharing his presumably Roman Catholic surname.

False memory: the list was made or remade in 1979. The yellowed envelope: pure invention. A trip to the Sacramento public library to peruse the Brooklyn phone directly.

A day at work with my father. He pulls a one-gallon container out of the laboratory cabinet:

?There is enough cyanide in here to kill everyone in Los Angeles.?

I remember this when I see an early Paul McCarthy video in which he tars and feathers the Los Angeles phone book, turning the pages with a nonstop maniac?s cackle. Genocide begins with the phone book. My sister becomes a vegetarian after one too many times listening to my father recounting battle scenes from Tolstoy and Sienkiewicz at the dinner table:

?I look down at my spaghetti and he?s going on about horses in the ditch.?

My sister has the sensitive soul of a Nietzsche. She drives a truck for FedEx, and being a good mother, is more interested in her son's American heritage than his Polishness. Dark skin can be a liability in America. She's got more to worry about than the Battle of Vienna.

My own response to my father's storytelling is more akin to poor Jerry Lewis in The Disorderly Orderly: wind the spaghetti around your forearm until you look like a hapless Popeye.

Popeye and the legendary ?Mazurian fist.? Was Popeye a Pole?

1970: Lunch with my father at the Officers? Club at Miramar Naval Air Station. He?s been unemployed for more than a year and is eating cheap on his reserve officer privileges. At the bar, pilots are bragging about napalm raids on the Central Highlands. Drawled scraps of pl;ace names drift across the room: Quang Tri, Bu Dop...as unreal as a briefing map. The story goes that these guys are really crazy. They are said to fall on the floor and feign epilepsy, to chew glass on a dare. Somehow?a minor miracle of matter over mind?I eat my lunch.

A series of black and white photographs made in 1976. A mid-winter Greyhound bus journey from San Diego to Chicago. Young passengers collect cacti from the desert.

A Yaqui Indian making the typical sojourn from res to res engages in a friendly and flirting chat with a white woman. They share a bottle of Manischewitz. The driver stops to make a call and no sooner than you can say giddup the poor guy is hauled off the bus by Texas Rangers in ten gallon hats.

A black guitarist in his twenties is underdressed for the northern winter. From behind thick glasses, he claims to be perfecting his own version of the ?wall of sound:?

?I will knock you to the floor, and you won?t be able to move.?

When we reach our destination, two checkerboarded gigantic Chicago cops approach, and ask in a friendly way, ?Where you going brother in that thin jacket? You gonna freeze to death in ten minutes. You got a place to stay??

The ride back to California. A young black girl braids the hair of a blond woman. With the braids she looks ?Polish,? or else like a tough kibbutznik ready to drive a tractor. The day before, the same woman posed--her face in profile--in front of a Michigan Avenue art gallery. She points to her nose. A sign in the window reads, ?Jewish Artists of the 20th Century.?

No, don?t use the photos from 1976. Maybe some other time.

Foley sound: high heels and a wooden leg on linoleum, as in a Division Street flophouse hallway late at night. A cheap room doubles as an emergency exit. The film is no longer silent. Mary Magdalene has left the scene,with one less foot to wash.



?PRELIMINARY? NOTES (Or How Not To Get a Grant From the NEA)

?The exhibition is neither a sociologically-grounded documentary nor an autobiography, but rather another attempt to make something with photographs, video, graphics and text that functions like a historical novel gone crazy or a fiction film with erratic epic scope, stopping once or twice too often to linger on the details, as is often the case with photographs.?

Here?s an idea: yet another ?homage? to Robert Smithson for the art-historically challenged. A double-sided mirror, with a pile of potatoes on one side and a pile of empty vodka bottles on the other.

?For reasons that hopefully will become clearer as the project develops, the two very different films that inspire me for now are Kubrick?s Dr. Strangelove and Wajda?s Ashes and Diamonds.?

Walking on water and running on water.

(as in Knife in the Water)

Komeda?s score. The most beautiful film music ever.

Polonia is the imaginary Poland that exists wherever there is a Pole. Rousseau imagined this as a collective internal remedy for Polish subservience to powerful neighbors. Polonia is everywhere and nowhere at the same time, likely to pop up without warning in Warsaw or in Chicago, just as it has popped up in the Crimea and Anaheim (well before Disneyland), and then give way to more forceful specters of ?America? or ?Europe,? or ?Asia.? Or even ?Africa,? as it has in the writings of the great Polish journalist Ryzard Kapuscinski.

Or think of Conrad, who had to become English to embrace the sea (or vice versa) and who understood the intrigue of nations better than most writers of fiction. Or?stop me before I go mad with examples?think of shipwrecked Malinowski, ethnologist of the world?s greatest seafaring peoples.

The hope for a free Poland took the anchor for its symbol. Polonia finds itself by biting into the sea floor sediment. There are no shipworms in the Baltic, and a fragment of the true cross would last forever in that icy deep.

I was told by my father, only half-jokingly, that we were probably the descendents of Tatars or Mongols. This was, in fact, a shopworn szlachta country-aristocratic fantasy that he must have picked up through reading, rather than through family lore, and is consistent with the romantic nationalism of Poland?s first ?national? poet, Adam Mickiewicz, who was the archetypal resident of Polonia, having never lived in Poland.

Thus in my father?s version of the national family romance, he is no longer the descendant of Galician peasants, but has moved up to the petty nobility.

My family romance: the Polish avant garde. Maybe so and maybe not. What about Joseph Roth and Henry Roth?

A question posed in Warsaw, 1990:

?And your wife, what is she??

?American, from New York City.?

?No, what is her background??

We mongrels. Every one.

E pluribus plurum

Czeslaw Milosz complements my father for his refined Polish.
A language nurtured in solitude.

Some explanatory scenarios:

1. Having an illiterate father encourages the habit of reading.

2. An illiterate father encourages the habit of reading.

3. A literate mother encourages the habit of reading, in light of the limits reached by the illiterate father.

4. A blacksmith works with words. Words and phrases fly from the anvil as the hammer hits the soft red steel: ?hammer and tongs,? ?strike while the iron is hot,? ?mind- forged manacles.?

Sienkiewicz?s emigr? lighthouse keeper, somewhere on the Panamanian coast, who enters a fugue state after reading Mickiewicz's Pan Tadeusz for the first time in years. Disasters ensue.

Sienkiewicz?s racist descriptions of American blacks.

The celestial underground railroad.

Polonia is riven closer to home by anxiety over religious and ethnic purity. The line between Jew and non-Jew is often indistinct. The slander of secret Jewishness is always on standby, ready for activation. Walesa campaigned for president against Mazewieczki in 1990 as a ?real Pole.? Where do Polish Jews, living and dead, figure in the long-running drama of national identity and nationlessness? Was the Zion of the first Zionists invented as a mirror image of Polonia?

Because of the destruction by the Nazis of a European Jewry that lived most numerously in Poland, it has often said that Poland has remained the headquarters of a peculiar ?anti-semitism without Jews.?

Gromulka channeled this undercurrent when he ordered a purge of the Jewish minority within the communist party and the professions in 1968, in the wake of the 1967 Israeli-Arab war. Certainly this ?objectless? antipathy survives at the right flank of Polish politics, in the paranoid sermons of Radio Maryja, for example. And on the other side, a new generation is drawn to philo-semitism, to the revival of klezmer music, for example.

And the ?new? Poland lines up with Israel and the United States in foreign policy, more pliable than the western European states. Will a Polish squadron of Lockheed-Martin F-16s someday assist in an ?Israeli? bombing of Iran, as if in repetition of Jan Sobieszki?s winged knights repelling the Sultan?s janissaries outside the walls of a besieged Vienna? Will the ?simple hearts? of devout Poland again save Christian Europe, as both Polish and German popes have hoped?

A former MIG pilot who test-flew the first F-16s to arrive in Poland: ?The Poles don?t know how to make business. The warranty on parts is only six months.? His successors in the ready room are quiet, professional, polite, so unlike the American ?top guns.?

A Russian former Tupolev bomber pilot drives a cab in Los Angeles. As he drives he holds up a photo album in both hands, turning to face the back seat. The leather helmet, the cockpit, the smiling flight crew, a runway in Minsk. ?Today is my fiftieth birthday.? He looks sixty:

?Look at eyes: pilot!?

He puts his daughter through graduate school at the University of Southern California. The cold war may be over. History will judge. NATO and the Warsaw Pact were joined at the hip.

Zbigniew Brzezinski as a winged hussar. Imagine him with a shaved head and topknot. A kung fu fighter.

Bring me my bow of burning pitch
We?ll throw the Turks into the ditch


Mel Gibson as Jan Sobieski.

Jan Sobieski as Mel Gibson.

Nicholas Szarkozy is interviewed by Adam Michnik for Gazeta Wyborcza. The Poles are a Christian nation with a special duty to defend Europe against the Muslim hoards.

A Turkish friend, an architectural historian, is insulted and prevented from getting a visa to France by the new consul, a close campaign advisor to Szarkozy.

Bring me my bow of burning pitch
We?ll throw the Turks into the ditch


Nicholas Szarkozy as Jan Sobieski.

Nicholas Szarkozy as Nicholas Szarkozy.

The Passion of the Christ on Polish televison. I force myself to watch, thinking, ?where better than here, alone in a socialist-era hotel, looking out on Marzalkowska street, in the self-proclaimed ?Jesus Christ of Nations??

The usual Polish method of presenting foreign films by having a single reader provide a Polish version of the original, with both versions audible in the sound mix, is abandoned for subtitling. Out of inordinate respect for the original Aramaic, one imagines.

Why can?t those goddamn immigrants speak Aramaic, so we can understand?

My mother, who has a good heart, tells me that she has seen the film five times.

A blood-stippled pointillist Christ.

Mel Gibson is the Gr?newald of Hollywood. I prefer George Romero.

Despite ecumenical claims for a common Judeo-Christian project, touristic Warsaw reminds me of a farmer?s corn maze in the Midwest, with one entrance for Polish-American Catholic visitors, and another for the descendants of Polish Jews:

?This way to the memories of the uprising, ladies and gentlemen.?

But, which uprising are we talking about, 1944, extravagantly well-remembered? Or 1943, remembered, but less well--or rather, better and perhaps more fiercely, more insanely and misplaced-revengefully remembered by fewer people? Die you Palestinian Nazi fuck! Critics? extravagant praise for the latest Quentin Tarantino film. How will it play for young Israeli soldiers, raised on the mother?s milk of victimhood? As if they need further encouragement or a lesson in film appreciation.

As Poles become fully European, able to migrate freely for work in Britain or Ireland, the lure of the United States fades, especially as that frightened country creates new obstacles for visitors and immigrants. And, now, as the global economic crisis deepens, mobility within Europe may well be restricted for simple lack of work.

The migrant workers at the Shell station on the far north side are now mostly Ukrainian, or Mexican. A few older Poles continue to show up with their wide leather worker?s protective girdles and tool bags, ready to play the jack-of-all-trades. They complain about the younger men: ?They dress for trip to beach!? A Mexican mumbles: ?los Polacos?.?
The Punjabi gas station owner had not expected to be hosting an informal day-labor market: ?They buy nothing!?

I go back to a portrait made back in 1994. A Greek ship is carrying parts of a disassembled American steel mill to China. The electrician aboard, Marek, a Pole from Warsaw, shares his profession with the then-president of Poland, hero of the Gdansk shipyard. Marek has no clue where the ship is going after the stop in China, since it is an unscheduled tramp steamer, picking up cargo charters as opportunities arise. He is very curious about the exchange rate for the dollar, a curiosity he no doubt shares with the ship?s owners. His seafaring is an excuse for small-trading on the side.

As William Petty put it in one of the founding texts of political economy: ?A seafarer is worth four husbandmen.? Unlike the Norwegians and the Finns, the Poles did not become farmers in America.

?The exhibition will include one previously realized historical work: the slide projection Walking on Water (1990-1995), chapter 9 of Fish Story (1988-1995). This work traces a path from Warsaw to Gdansk and back to Warsaw over a period of about two weeks during Poland?s first democratic elections in the early winter of 1990.?

?The University of Chicago location of the Renaissance Society is ideal,? since it is the historical site both of the Chicago school of urban sociology and of the Straussian political philosophy and Friedmanite monetarist economic program that supposedly ?triumphed? with the end of the Cold War, the war that found its ultimate pivot point in an anti-communist worker?s movement in the shipyards of Gdansk. The workers? movement to end all workers? movements, in the gleeful private fantasies of Margaret Thatcher and company, who paid an immediate visit to an obsequious Lech Walesa, who, for all his valor, may be said to have had no idea what he was getting into, that Poland was about to endure a version of the ?shock therapy? that had been visited on Chile by Friedman?s ?Chicago Boys.?

And I notice two days before the show opens that Balcerowicz of Poland and Becker of the University of Chicago continue to agree: the markets are reviving, back off from regulation. Maybe they should spend less time giving each other Nobel prizes.

And yet, under our very noses, nearly thirty years later a group of immigrant workers in Chicago occupy the factory that is going to fire them, demanding severance pay. Apparently they hadn?t received the Thatcherite news bulletin that ?there is no alternative.? At the very moment that the Chicago Tribune goes bankrupt, and the governor of Illinois is arrested on corruption charges, a form of workers? direct action invented and last enacted in the United States in the 1930s is suddenly revived.

Bordered in turn by prairie and steppe, Warsaw and Chicago have similar topographies, with winter light, when the sun is out, cutting fiercely across strong north south axes.



SHOOTING SCRIPT

(a purely still-photographic exercise, not to be confused with a cinematic treatment)


CHICAGO

Belmont Factory occupation, December 2008. A Palestinian cab driver recalls Haymarket 1889. The workers are Chivas fans.

May Day is re-imported into its city of origin from the south.

Polish-American Museum: details from history paintings: ?Pulaski at Savannah.? A lugubrious ?Balthusian? detail from a painting of Cossacks rampaging in the Warsaw streets during the third partition. A gentleman rushes to rescue a girl who has fallen beneath the galloping hooves. Knickers and kickers.

But what can beat the sheer Polonia-pathos of this: the contents of the 1939 Polish World?s Fair pavilion are stranded in America in after the invasion and ending up in a decrepit ethnic museum in Chicago.

The middle-aged African-American attendant at the museum, who is an serious amateur photographer and knows where to get good pierogi.

Koscuisko Festival, Labor Day 2007 and 2008: heavy metal, girl rockers, kielbasa, piwo, families, accordian players, lots of Mexicans and Central Americans. ?la fiesta de los Polacos.?

Piwo=cerveza (and that?s a historical sequence as well). Pilsen.

Haymarket Memorial, May Day 2008. Boeing headquarters in the background. A building guarded as it deserves to be guarded, with machine guns and dogs, against the rage of the wretched of the earth.

How about a bit of coral from the reef surrounding the American B-52 base on Diego Garcia, that?s ?polonia? for the evicted islanders. When it comes to blowing things up, Boeing does the job.

Virginio Ferrari sculpure, Dialogo, University of Chicago, shadow of hammer and sickle at high noon, May Day 2008 (sunny), 2009 (rainy). Spectators from both the right and the left. Is the spectre really dead? Re-stage this in winter snow with lights at night, as in ?darkness at noon.? Gothic Marxism meets gothic counter-revolution. Making sure the stake is well and truly placed in the heart.

Bukharin rolls in his grave.

Obama learned to be a milquetoast at the University of Chicago. O professors, you cowards?..how you drag a good man down. I?m sure there is a more subtle Aristotelian (or Machiavellian) explanation somewhere to be found.

Chicago Mercantile Exchange, floor trading the old fashioned way. Gestural semiotics.

Floor trader exalts in the corn pit, August 2007: ?the price of food is going up!?

Billy Goat Tavern, mausoleum of the tough guy journalist, right wing cop-loving pseudo-proletarian realism.

Ornette Coleman playing

Street photos on the Loop

Theatre patrons squinting in light from the west

Theatre patrons at night under marquee lights

(Despite the reputation of New York, Chicago should be designated the ?first city? of American street photography.)

Central Camera (another decrepit museum struggling to stay afloat)

Fred Hampton Swimming Pool

SLAUGHTERHOUSE!!!

?Yes indeed, Virginia, they do still exist, and the workers are having a barbecue on the second shift.?

Kielbasa in several variants. Smithfield is proud of their version.

Wintertime smokers in the Loop. ?American jitters? circa 2008.
A trader smokes outside the Mercantile Exchange:

?I?ve had a bad day.?



DUBOIS, PA

Grave of Wiktoria and Pawel Sekula with variation in diacritical marks


SACRAMENTO, CA

1980s photo of Ignacy Sekula with 1939 list of rabbis with same surname

Father Andrej, the priest who administered last rites to my father

My mother in the empty house


WARSAW

1944 Uprising Museum
insane nationalist propaganda
incessantly thumping heartbeats
Wajda?s Kanal of the kiddies
?This way to the sewers, ladies and gentlemen.?

Yalta as the great betrayal.

I guess the Americans and Brits should have kept rolling right over the Red Army.

Or maybe nuked Moscow.

Photo Fair at Stodola Club, Mokotow. Heavy metal psychedelicism. Claustophobic regressive cave-like fire trap. ?Viagra? ads for teenagers.

Street views: ?Polish types.?

The city draped in vinyl. One big shower curtain.

Body bags for all.


GDANSK

Shipyard, abandoned industrial interiors ?Smokers? graffiti (already photographed in 1994)


OTHER SITES IN POLAND

Proposed site for US anti-missile base, Baltic coast

Alleged ?black site? for CIA transport and interrogation of prisoners.

Blacksmith. Sudden overwhelming memory of the shed in my grandfather's backyard. My brother and me at the bellows.

Rural peasant butcher.

Smithfield pig farm. They refuse to hire locals, and poison Mexico and Poland as they have poisoned South Carolina.

What happened to all the pink little Polish piggies, the cleanest and happiest socialist pigs in the world?

Pink pigshit lagoons, blossoming like Japanese golf courses all over the world.

They look at you and they are not stupid animals.


LINGEWAAL, NETHERLANDS

Polish women apple harvesters in a Garden of Eden on steroids.
(Save this for the film!)


ANOTHER FRAGMENT: RELIGIOUS RELEASE

The dour Polish priest, Father Slawik, calls roll in the dingy garage reserved for the weekly cathecizing of not-yet-confirmed public school Catholics:

Suck-(He pauses for a beat)-culo.

The Mexican kids laugh uproariously.

I am affronted. Deeply so. More or less. The one person who could teach me to pronounce my name properly has shamed and betrayed me--and our shared heritage, no less--for three seconds of popularity. A Judas?in a collar. A self-hating Pole.

Believe it or not:
Those were indeed my thoughts at the tender age of twelve.
And also this:

What a great story, and no one to tell it to.

But not yet this:

There is no god.

That took another couple of years, working at age fifteen in a waterfront restaurant with a couple of gay ex-Green Berets, who bragged about killing peasants and cows. They claimed to have amassed a small fortune in gold teeth, enough to pay for a Chevy Impala:

?If you had tits on your back we?d grab you and fuck you right here in the middle of the restaurant.?

A kindly waitress comes to my defense. (But all that?s another story, and god would have vaporized without it.)

Rushed and maybe masochistic, I queue outside Father Slawik?s confessional, avoiding the longer line of young penitents waiting for the tolerant, forgiving, football-playing Father Bebek.

Confession on Friday to clear the soul for sin on Saturday.

The leering voice through the screen:

How many times? Did white stuff come out?



OTHER FANCIFUL PROPOSALS, to be presented as texts rather than as realized works:

A ?painting?: phonetic variations on a surname. Lettered in a style reminiscent of the Hairy Who:

So Kool ahh see cue l? c?est cul l? suck culo sew culo

sec culo say Cola say culo see Cola say ku wa

sek yula say kula say Q La Sek ya la suh coo le

suk koo le suck Cola sek Q le sek Q la sec que l?

sea Kool Ah SeaKool LA See cool a su culo

su Cola su qui la Say koo Wa soy culo soy Cola

suh kula suh kuwa sea kuwa sea kula sek ulla

suck ola sock ul la sock Cool ahhh sek yool ah

sek yoo la

sec you la seck yoola C Kool LA sea coo la SEA Cool uh

Suh Kool uh See Q luh ? ? ? ? ? ?

This litany could, in addition, be sung or recited, with low background music from the Warsaw Village Band, or perhaps more traditional Polish ?hillbilly? music from the Tatra Mountains.

Decorations from a Polish party store. Polski Sklep on North Halstead. The flag is white and red, which averages out to pink, like chlodnik, the cold beet soup eaten in the summer

Fred Hampton as a Polish national hero. Don?t believe it? Read the Defender!

Hanrahan?s cops. A tally of ethnicities. How many Poles among the Irish assassins?

Hanrahan?s grave. Where is it?

The Poles in America: Theodore Kaczynski. A working class Pole from Back of the Yards goes to Harvard and becomes a mathematician, and look what happens. A crazy manifesto. A cabin in the woods. (bottomless source of inspiration for a few too many artists desperate for a connection to an enervated romantic ideal)

A Sasquatch-mad-scientist Thoreau. Or a Smithsonesque architect. Gordon Matta chop-em-up Sawsall Clark with a better way to do it. Go live in a sadsack splinteristic jerkbox confessional and Blow the fuckers up.

Haymarket.

Afganistan, Iran, and the ?crescent of crisis:? When did the ?arc of crisis? become the ?crescent of crisis?? The transition from the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the Soviet collapse of 1991.

Breczinski: ?We?ll give the Russians their Viet Nam.? A szlachta version of Kaczynski. The winged hussar of the Trilateral Commission.

Breczinski and Kaczynski.

Blow up the bear.

Blowback.

(And now we pause for a shift to ?cultural studies.?)

The Jews, the Irish, and the Africans: wellsprings of American culture.

What about the goddam Poles?

Kielbasa

?and hatred of the Russians.

All the movies and television dramas in which the Poles are stupid criminals who get played by the Greeks and the Irish: The Wire, You Kill Me. We specialize in alcoholically inept criminality.

Carved effigies of Pere Ubu, polychome woodcut marks on the rotund figure.

Bolivian polychrome mahogany relief of Pope John Paul. He?s lost a bit of weight, but otherwise looks fit for his age. A kitchen-god on the lookout for liberation theology.

Winnie-the-Pooh and Herblock?s cigar chomping atomic bombs.

Fat monochrome graphics on the wall.

The honey jar as the token of prosperity, of maternal abundance.

The Russian bear digging into the Polish honey jar.

A Yiddish translation: Vini der Pu

Sacramento (an inappropriately named city if there ever was one) The sacrament of grubby Midas, of Sutter's gold. Kanaka capos from the Hawaiian Islands, former seafarers, keeping an eye on the natives.

The gold-crazed pick-and-shovel men of primitive accumulation call the Indians "diggers." A hunter-gather is not a miner. Projection precedes extermination. In California, as in Poland, the bones crunch close underfoot, near the surface.

After Christmas mass, Father Andrej asks:

Do you think your father is speaking Polish or English in heaven?

WHAT HAPPENED TO PURGATORY?

Maybe it?s in Chicago. Back of the Yards.

Simone de Beauvoir in a love letter to Nelson Algren: the little Polish bars, or as Algren would have it, speaking of meeting her for the first time at the Palmer House, ?zee leetle caf?.?

Kneelers. Are there stores that sell them?

Polish messianism: THE JESUS CHRIST OF NATIONS

Meanwhile, while we are waiting, along with the Jews with whom we pretend to share so little, life goes on?.

Oiko Nomos: the Polish housekeeper on the Gold Coast. August Sander portraits on the wall behind him. Taking the dog for a walk, reminding me of Sander?s pictures:

notary + dog,

country schoolteacher + dog,

all deadpan funny re-versions of young nobleman with Fido.
oiko nomos.

Mexican slaughterhouse workers.

A blacksmith in Poland.

A cleaning lady.

Polish seafarers.

Apple harvesters.

The foundry in Gdansk. Vodka at 6AM.

Bronze potatoes, a small mountain of bronze potatoes.

Or, better yet, more in the manner of arte povera, or Smithson, and less in the manner of Jasper Johns:

?a pile of potatoes, a double-sided mirror, and a pile of empty vodka bottles:

through the looking glass?

the little Polish bars


The big Russian bear.

Oldenberg: soft globki
Plaster drippy polychrome Store Days pierogi



APPENDIX-itis

Additional Notes
28 March 2009
en route Los Angeles?Amsterdam


On the repetition of certain motifs from the SS in the emblems of the Israeli Air Force:

Skull and crossbones.

On the degeneration of modernist design principles in the Polish Air Force:

Exhibit A: 5th Regiment c. 1939
Exhibit B: F-16 roll out commemorative badge 2007

Pictures that go together:

My mother,
who converted to Roman Catholicism
and learned to cook globki
from her mother-in-law

Father Andrej
who administered the last rites
to my father:
Father Andrej, again:

?Which language do you think he is speaking now: Polish or English??

If it?s purgatory: English.
If it?s heaven: Polish



BESTIARY

Dracula
Tarantula
Sekula



FACES
(to be projected on the ceiling of the Renaissance Society)


Ronald Reagan
Karol Wojtyla (rhapsode)
Lech Walesa (electrician)
Leo Strauss
Milton Friedman
Allan Bloom
Saul Bellow
Zbigniew Brzezinski (winged hussar)
Marie Curie (chemist)
Modjeska
Susan Sontag (North Hollywood High School, class of 1948)
Pola Negri



TECHNICAL NOTES

The attraction of using ?obsolete? cameras in Chicago and Poland

?The city of broad shoulders? = ?the city of square format?

Square format: no built-in motif-based pseudo-genre.
Landscape or portrait? Chicken or pasta?

A floor trader: That?s a camera from 1973!

Diminutive Krystyna Janda in Man of Marble, hefting a gigantic Pentacon Six after they take away her cinema camera. They used to sell these beasts at the Stodoloa camera show every Saturday but now they are gone, extinct.

From Shanghai to Dresden, once the panorama was about the imaginary collective--how many workers can we cram into the frame--now it is about real estate.

Square it up, I say.

Squares rise up from the flat earth.



PARTIAL BIBLIOGRAPHY

Simone de Beauvoir, America Day by Day
Nelson Algren, City on the Make
Neal Acherson, Black Sea
Adam Mickiewicz
Ryzard Kapuscinski
Upton Sinclair, The Jungle
The Polish Peasant in Europe and America

Rousseau, The Government of Poland
Frank Norris, The Pit
Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie
Bronislaw Malinowski, Argonauts of the Western Pacific
Alfred Jarry, Ubu Roi
Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent
Lawrence Weschler, The Passion of Poland



And so it goes?.




 

Walking on Water

 
PROLOGUE

They build churches so that people can pray for houses.
Joke circulating in Poland, 1990.

American conservatives like to believe the self -congratulatory myth that communism began to collapse at its weakest point, in Poland, because of a carefully nurtured secret alliance between Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, the former Cardinal Karol Wojtyla. In the United States, it is often noted that there is a more than political explanation for the affinity between the two leaders, the former actor and the former rhapsode. But beyond this shared theatricality, we should also consider Reagan's demonstrated love of the sea and the Pope's inheritance of a fisherman's throne. This is especially important with respect to Poland, a nation which takes the anchor for its national symbol. Poles also may believe this version of history, and may love the United States with more avidity and awe than many Americans, but they also were able to observe and endure and finally resist the blunders of the Polish communist nomenklatura at first hand. Thus Poles can understand internal and perhaps less magical explanations for the transformation of this, the ?Jesus Christ of nations.?

Conceding defeat, President Jaruselski is interviewed on Polish television, late on election night. Already he is elder statesmanlike, Nixonesque. He quotes Pope John Paul II on the triumph of good over evil, and speaks of the need to build democracy. Watching the speech, Malgosia Paradzinska, an English literature graduate student at the University of Warsaw, repeats over and over: ?This is a sick country. You are visiting a sick country.?


SLIDE CAPTIONS

1
On the train from Amsterdam to Warsaw. Article by Solidarity intellectual Adam Michnik, ?Why I Will Not Vote for Lech Walesa,?
De Groene Amsterdammer, 21 November 1990.

2 Double election posters for Lech Walesa. In front of the Palace of Culture and Science. Warsaw.

3 French television correspondent reporting on the Polish elections from Zamkowy Square. Warsaw.

4 Highway overpass near housing estates. Gdansk.

5 Housing estates. Gdansk.

6 Double ?Lechu? and ship model. Museum of the Gdansk shipyard.

7 Models of Soviet ships built in the yard. Museum of the Gdansk shipyard.

8 Late afternoon shopping. Gdansk.

9 Gdansk shipyard.

10-12 Work on a Soviet merchant ship. Gdansk shipyard.

13 Three shipyard workers.

14 Workers heading home past billboard listings ships completed.

15 Worker and Soviet merchant ship.

16 17 Woman sorting rags for painting crews.

18 Crane hook in the shape of an S.

19 Welders working in the privatized K 2 section on the Gdansk shipyard.

20 Machinist.

21 K 2 welders on morning lunch break.

22 K 2 welder.

23 Painting by a shipyard worker. Gdansk shipyard museum.

24 Professor Jerzy Doeffer of the Gdansk Technical University, Ship Research Institute. World renowned expert on shipbuilding who designed the first vessels launched at the Lenin (now Gdansk) Shipyard after the second World War. Speaking of the Polish economy, he remarks, ?It's a crisis, but the apes are not mine.? He believes nonetheless that ?Polish shipbuilding has enormous possibilities,? given the aging world fleet and the competitive low wages earned by Polish workers. On the one hand, ?the people have had quite enough of this slavery for forty five years, now they want to be treated as citizens of Europe.? On the other, foreign investors want to continue to treat Polish workers as ?white slaves.?

25 Jozef Goral, worker in the gas plant of the Gdansk shipyard and longtime Solidarity activist, at home in his one room flat in Shipyard Workers' Home Number 1, Gdansk. ?We use pre war machinery. The conditions make you cry. It takes one hour to prepare for eight hours of work. This is proof of a very bad organization of work... that's where we should blame the structure of communism.?

26 Shipyard apprentices living three in a room. Shipyard Workers' Home Number 1, Gdansk. ?The work is too much for what I am paid.?

27 Stencil depicting Lech Walesa as the Polish nationalist leader Marshal Pilsudski, with the slogan ?Electricity doesn't tick. Have you got him [your devotional altar] yet?? Warsaw.

28-31 Foundry. Gdansk shipyard.

32-35 Unemployment office. Gdansk.

36 Young man with baby carriage waiting outside unemployment office. Across the street from Gdansk Cathedral.

37 Commuters headed to work on the tram at five thirty in the morning. Gdansk.

38 LOT Polish Airlines ticket office. Gdansk.

39 Crow taking flight. Gdansk.

40 Crow tracks and footprints in the snow. Gdansk.

41-43 On the train from Gdansk to Warsaw.

44 Model of Warsaw in the second half of the eighteenth century. Warsaw Historical Museum.

45 Model of German dive bomber. Warsaw Historical Museum.

46 Model of Warsaw after the city was demolished by the Germans in 1944. Warsaw Historical Museum.

47 Museum of Technology at the Palace of Culture and Science. Warsaw.

48 Boys peering into a stereoscope. Museum of Technology.

49 Mannequin of a coal miner. Museum of Technology.

50 Industrial pollution exhibit with 100 zloty notes discarded by schoolchildren. Museum of Technology.

51 Exhibit commemorating clandestine Radio Solidarity. Museum of Technology.

52 Stencil depicting Jaruzelski and Walesa with the slogan: ?Passing on the truncheon.?

53 -56 News and tobacco stand. Warsaw.

57 Stencil: ?Walesa President. [Cardinal] Glemp Premier.?

58 Roumanian Gypsies begging next door to new sex shop. Marszalkowska Street, Warsaw.

59 Spray painted sign advertising new sex shop. Old Town, Warsaw.

60 Men selling pornography. Marszalkowska Street, Warsaw.

61 Woman selling brassieres. Marszalkowska Street, Warsaw.

62 Red Army paraphernalia for sale. Old Town, Warsaw.

63 Graffito in stairway leading from pedestrian underpass: ?Russian tanks into the Volga.? Warsaw.

64 Vendor in pedestrian underpass.

65 ?California Wine Saloon? in PEWEX hard currency shop. Warsaw.

66 Marriott Hotel. Warsaw.

67 Placard apologizing for cancellation of ?Beaujolais Nouveau Festival? as a result of ?outrageous turnover tax imposed... by the Polish government.? Marriott Hotel. Warsaw.

68 Maids preparing non-traditional Christmas tree decorations. Marriott Hotel. Warsaw.

69 Framed photographic portrait of the brothers Marriott. Marriott Hotel. Warsaw.

70-72 Funeral procession for a deceased Cardinal. Warsaw.

73 Anti-abortion poster. Warsaw.

74 Advertisement for new chain of gambling casinos. Warsaw.

75 Monument commemorating shipyard workers killed by government troops in 1970 uprising. Gdansk.

76 Bookstore with neon anchor.

77 Neon sign for new casino and socialist realist figure with the name of Stalin obliterated. Palace of Culture and Science. Warsaw.

78 Crucified feet. Saint Anne's Church. Warsaw.


EPILOGUE

?You travel around the world?You write something specific when you want, and this goes well for you. You live! I do not live. I am locked up. I am surrounded and I am not a fool. I would prefer to be a journalist. I would prefer to fix someone?s washing machine or TV set. An electrician can have a drink or beer. I come here and they almost count every glass. Don?t be so clever and try to become president.?

Lech Walesa, quoted in Stephen Engelberg, ?Facing Strikes, Walesa Laughs at History's Jokes,? New York Times, 14 January 1992.


At the end of his first year in office, confronted with popular discontent and the revolt of many of his former Solidarity comrades, President Walesa imagined himself not exactly back at work in the Gdansk shipyard, but as a small tradesman, a repairman. The self-effacing modesty and wit of this performance is consistent with Walesa's ceremonial role as President of the ?new? Poland: he strives to maintain an avuncular and statesmanlike distance from the ugly details of the austerity program dictated by the international Monetary Fund. Meanwhile, in another room, the Finance Minister, Lescek Balcerowicz, has been busy administering the shock treatment. As Balcerowicz put it: ?The painful phase is a long one, and it will last for years.?1

In Gdansk, where the old workers' slogan understate socialism was always, ?We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us,? shipyard wages plunge to the equivalent of eighty cents an hour, the world's lowest price for shipbuilding labor. The crane driver Anna Walentynowicz, Walesa's former partner in the founding of the Solidarity shipyard union, leads a wildcat strike for ?higher pay? and ?quicker privatization.?2 Even militants have faith in vaguely formulated capitalist solutions.

But, as the crows of privatization hover, the value of the shipyard itself is indeterminate. Four million? Forty million? Four hundred million? All the old jokes about ?Polish bookkeeping? take on a new speculative meaning in this nation of master counterfeiters and nomadic traders.

Bertold Brecht's play, The Good Woman of Szechuan, has become the standard re-education manual for the democratically-elected leaders of poor, indebted countries. (This of course requires a ?pragmatic? and ?post-communist? reading of the play, allowing Brecht's cynicism to fully obliterate his old fashioned socialist moral.) Those who govern at the whim of the IMF and the World Bank must alternate between the mask of good and the mask of evil, just as the charitable deeds enacted by Brecht's ?good woman? require that she periodically masquerades as her unforgiving, hard-nosed cousin. This is the script for Walesa and his finance minister, just as it is likely to become the script for Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti, or for any popular tribune unable to play one powerful patron off against another, able to beg at only one door.

Those who play the good woman at home are beggars abroad, kneeling in a feudal hierarchy of supplication and noblesse oblige, in March of 1991, Walesa visited Washington to thank President George Bush for forgiving seventy per cent of Poland's foreign debt. Poland and Egypt, unlike Haiti, are favored debtor nations: Poland for its repudiation of communism, Egypt for its willingness to join the war against Iraq. (And now it comes to light that, already in the fall of 1990 under President Jaruselski, the Polish secret service was collaborating with the CIA in Iraq, disguising American spies as drunken Polish construction engineers, providing plans for Polish-built Iraqi installations. Poland, like the submarine ?Red October? in Tom Clancy's bestselling novel, wanted desperately to defect to the West.)3

When Walesa visited America, he came as both beggar and hero, roles superimposed in the widespread images of Polish shipyard workers on their knees, like peasants, but also like knights going into battle. Given Walesa's intractable working class mannerisms, his beggar role uncomfortably invokes that other figure in the complex American system of ethnicities: the moronic immigrant, butt of the ?Polish joke.? Walesa turned to President Bush and uttered a grateful line in halting English: ?God bless America.? Bush, with the paternalistic ease of his own social class, responded: ?Beautiful, thank you, so sweet,? as if a child had just presented him with flowers.4

So Lech Walesa wants his beer. In this he reminds me of my grandfather, an illiterate but clever blacksmith from the southern Polish region of Galicia. In 1909, Pavel Sekula sailed third class to New York aboard the Kronprinzessin Cecilie, built by Poles at the German shipyard Vulkan in Stettin (now Szczecin), identical sister to the ?fashionable ship of the North German Lloyd,? the Kaiser Wilhelm 11, aboard which, two years earlier and travelling in the opposite direction, Alfred Stieglitz made his famous photograph, The Steerage.

Uninterested in the view, my grandfather discovered the dregs of good first class beer in ?empty? kegs stowed in the ship's stores, next to the crowded steerage berths. Crossing the heaving Atlantic on the way to a new life, he drank himself into comfortable oblivion.

1. Stephen Engelberg, "Gloom and Economic Anxiety Overtakes the Poles," New York Times, 6 February 1992.

2."Solidarity Spark Runs Strike," New York Times, 19 March, 1991.

3.John Pomfret, "Derring-Do: How Poles Spirited Americans out of Iraq," International Herald Tribune, 18 January 1995.

4.Clifford Krauss, "Bush Greets Walesea with Debt Relief," New York Times, 21 March 1991.



 
 

   
   
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