Thursday, January 1, 2009

Goodbye Riga

My mother has very little memory of her arrival in Gdansk from Liepaja but does recall arriving some time in the morning and being taken by train almost immediately to a huge camp where there were thousands of other refugees, all sleeping in giant barracks on tiered wooden bunk beds, about fifty people per room. She had thought the camp was not too far from Gdansk, but Valters Nollendorfs, the director of the Occupation Museum in Riga, is almost one hundred percent sure that the camp is the same one he passed through one month before my mother’s family arrived there. He says the camp was in Stargard Szczecin, a satellite town of the larger port of Szczecin (Stettin under German occupation). While I can’t absolutely confirm that this was the place my mother went to, his description and my mother’s are so very very similar that I am convinced he is right and so I change my itinerary to include a stop in Szczecin.

Before my mother’s family can enter the camp, they are deloused along with all the other refugees because almost everyone has become infested during their long journeys from various Eastern European locations. They take off their clothes and hang them on racks to be fumigated and then go into large open showers where men with hoses wash them down with some type of disinfectant. I ask my mother what this experience was like and she says that because everyone was standing together, in a long row, and they were all being hosed down as a group, it was not so bad – it was something you had to accept, in a matter of fact way, as part of the new and unknown rules of life as a refugee.

The camp itself is a type of transit station where people get dispersed to other places. My mother’s family are on their way to stay with relatives who live in Leszno, a small town south of Posnan, but they are unable to leave the camp for a week or so because my mother becomes ill with dysentery. This may also explain why her memories of the camp and its location are so vague. There is no medical centre, but she is given some medication. When my mother has recovered sufficiently from her illness, they head for Leszno, where Elina Bonke, my mother’s cousin lives. Elina is my grandmother’s brother’s daughter, and she lived in Sarkandaugava until she married and moved to Poland. The photograph, which I also included in the posting on Sarkandaugava, is of her confirmation, with my mother seated on the floor in front of her parents. Gunars, her brother, is second from the left in the front. (As a child, I was always a little disturbed by the shaved heads of young boys in these old family photographs. It was the 1960s when I first viewed them with any real understanding of their content, a time when everyone was growing their hair long. For some reason I associated the shaved heads with something a little sinister - a type of undisclosed punishment.)

Elina Bonke's confirmation in Sarkandaugava. When the family escape
Latvia, they go to stay with Elina and her husband in Leszno, Poland.

I can’t follow my mother’s journey from Liepaja to Gdansk by ship as there are no ferries or boats running the route. I could make a longish digression by catching a ferry to Sweden, then a train to a specific city on the Swedish coast where a ferry does leave for Gdansk, but such a trip would take quite a number of days and while I would like to do it, my time is limited and I am presented with an alternative option. A friend in Hobart, the artist Liz Woods, introduces me to Jarek Lustych, also an artist and based in Warsaw who would be happy to show me around the city’s contemporary art scene. I had not originally planned to go to Warsaw, but this seems like too interesting an opportunity to miss, so I decide to fly there to meet with Jarek, and then catch a train to get to Gdansk.

* * *

I leave Riga on the 25th October. During the week before I go, I make several trips to the post office by taxi and send about eight parcels back to Australia. I have accumulated a lot of stuff – books, catalogues, old magazines from the 1920s and 30s, maps, art work trials and various other things that have become a burden because of their bulk and weight. The apartment looks spare and minimal again, as it was when I first arrived, and I feel a pang of sadness about leaving it. I have become accustomed to living here, in this huge space – it feels like home – and I am also a little scared about heading off into Poland to a series of places I have only ever visited on the internet.

My home in Riga for two months

The night before I go I have dinner with Anda Klavina in Osiris Café. It is hard to say goodbye because I have grown very fond of her over the last seven weeks. She has been more than just a very helpful project officer for the residency, she has become a good friend. I will miss our talks about art, life, relationships and what it is to be Latvian.

Anda Klavina, the et+t residency project office, and me. Behind us are some
of my works in progress, digital images printed on a canvas-like material.

My cousin Mara and her husband Viktors take me to the airport. They truly feel like family to me now and have been incredibly supportive during my stay. They have had me over for dinner, collected my mail from Australia and have helped me find materials for art works. Mara also phoned me almost every day to check that I was ok and, of course, we both travelled to Moscow together, which was a great adventure that still seems like dream.

I fly to Warsaw with Lot, the Polish airline, on a very small plane that only takes about 30 passengers. It’s a very smooth and uneventful flight, despite my initial concern about the size of the plane. As I’m waiting for my luggage, I ask two of the other passengers if they would like to share a cab into the city. Jarek has warned me that taxi drivers in Warsaw can charge outrageous sums for short distances, and I’m glad that the two women, Canadians who have been working in Latvia on a social justice program, are happy to join me. When we emerge from customs, we are almost immediately accosted by a private driver who wants to charge us 10 euros each for a 10 minute trip. I barter with him but he declines my offer of 5 euros each. We eventually find a cab driver who charges 10 euros for all three of us. The Canadians get off at the Hilton and I am dropped off at the Bristol, a commanding old art nouveau hotel on the famous King’s Way, right next door to the Palace and very close to the old town. I’m staying here because I succumbed to a fantastic internet deal and I feel a bit guilty. My room is plush and spacious, with antique furniture, a marble bathroom and views over the Palace courtyard. As I luxuriate on the bed, testing out the range of pillows and flicking through the channels on the big flat screen television, the guilt magically vanishes and I feel like a princess.

The Bristol Hotel, right next to the Palace

My first afternoon is spent exploring the very beautiful old town. I find it hard to believe that most of what I see has been reconstructed, brick by brick, after almost complete destruction during WWII. The buildings are richly decorated and I fall in love with the use of colour, floral patterns and touches of gilding. A restaurant in the main square of the old town is covered in vines and autumn leaves and looks like it belongs in a fairytale. In one of the smaller streets, I come across a busker dressed as the grim reaper. When I give him a coin he comes to life and rings a bell. Closer to my hotel is the university, large bookshops, some private galleries and a number of churches. I feel relaxed and happy, and also very safe here in Warsaw, and the anxiety I felt about going to Poland vanishes completely.

Views in the old town, Warsaw

I arrange to meet Jarek in the foyer of the hotel at 11.30 the next day and we spend all afternoon together, visiting two contemporary art galleries and the Palace gardens. As we walk, I ask Jarek about his art practice and he tells me he is working on a project I incorrectly interpret as being about ‘The Laugh’. I have trouble following the logic of what he is saying and eventually realize his project is not about ‘The Laugh’ at all. I confess that I have misunderstood and Jarek repeats that the theme of his work is ‘The Luff, The Luff’. And then it clicks and I get it - Jarek’s project is about ‘The Love’. We laugh about my misinterpretation.

I get to see one of Jarek’s recent projects on our way to the first gallery. It’s a site-specific work in an abandoned street display cabinet in front of some shops. Jarek has covered the cabinet with silver leaf and from its little ceiling hang the two rounded but separated halves of a silver heart. It’s a delicate and subtle work that transforms a small part of the street into something magical. Jarek likes to work outside the gallery system, surprising the public with his projects which he sets up in unexpected places - he has been using the heart shape – a universal symbol of ‘the luff’ - in a number of recent works.

Jarek Lustych and his art work

As we move on, trying to find a contemporary art space that has only recently been opened in the city, I get to see some of Warsaw beyond the old part of town. There is a very different aesthetic operating here – one that aims for grandeur, scale and monumentalism. We walk past the Palace of Science and Culture, a massive Soviet building that was completed in 1955 as a gift to the people of Poland. It is the tallest building in the country and seems impossibly huge and incredibly, bleakly Soviet in its design. There is a similar building in Riga – the Latvian Academy of Sciences - but it’s not nearly as big. It towers behind the central markets but is dwarfed by the truly massive radio and television tower, the highest structure in the Baltic states. I go back to Wasaw's Palace the next day, explore a little of the interior and take the lift to the 30th floor where there are great views over the city from an observation deck.

The Palace of Science and Culture, Warsaw

Riga's Academy of Sciences, with the radio and television tower in the background

Getting around Warsaw is quite hard work because all of the streets and boulevards are huge – so huge that it is daunting to stand on one side of the road and contemplate getting to the other side. In some cases, there is no pedestrian access on the surface and you have to look for specially constructed underground walkways that get you from one side of the road to the other. Jarek doesn’t like the grandeur of the streets – he thinks they are too big and too wide, and as a result, it’s difficult to feel a sense of intimacy with the city or with the people. By the time I get to day three in Warsaw, I agree with him.

We eventually finally find the new gallery, the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, which is tucked in an alleyway and appears to be in what was once an old office building. The floors and walls have been purposefully left ‘unfinished’, creating a look and feel that’s clearly been inspired by the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. (I’ve never been really convinced by this style of gallery because unless the work is site-specific, it often ends up competing with the space itself.) The exhibition is called Nie Ma Sorry, which is translated as Ain't no sorry. There are quite a few video works and we move from one to another together, discussing each before moving to the next. My favourite is a compelling video projection by Agnieszka Polska of a series of old black and white photographs of people undertaking rehabilitation exercises. Polska has animated individual body parts at a very slow and meditative pace – an arm gradually moves upwards, a hand strokes a neck, two legs are raised and lowered alternately. While the actions themselves are rather insignificant, there is something about these minimal movements that is utterly mesmerising. Jarek says its because the pace of the animation matches the pace of normal breathing but I think it is also the nature of the images themselves, which seem to bring to life subjects from a long gone past. The work is also accompanied by a series of small, still images that have been pasted to the wall.

Inside the Museum of Modern Art, with Wojciech Kosma's Cross pulse counting, 2008

A still from Agnieszka Polska's Correction exercises, 2008

Afterwards, we have coffee in a restaurant close by and then catch a tram to the Royal Baths Park, a vast 76 hectares of Baroque gardens and buildings established in the 16th century and acquired by Stanisław Poniatowski in 1764 after he became King of Poland. The gardens are stunning and we stroll through the grounds with hundreds of other people - the trees are golden, the buildings ornate, there are ducks and swans in the lake and everything looks like a postcard.

A view in the Royal Baths Park, Warsaw

In the same grounds, up a steep slope, is the Ujazdowski Castle, which houses Warsaw’s major contemporary art gallery. It’s currently showing a retrospective of sculptor Marek Kijewski (1955-2007) who sadly died at the height of his career. I ask Jarek what he died of and he replies, ‘Too much hard living’. The exhibition, titled I'm All A-tremble When I Can Shower You with Gold, is a wild and highly individual mix of Pop art and contemporary kitsch. There’s lots of bright colour, gold leaf, neon light and fantastic creatures and objects that are partially constructed from children’s sweets.

Marek Kijewski (1955-2007) and an installation view of his retrospective

What strikes me about this gallery and the work in it, is that Poland doesn’t appear to have been left behind during Soviet occupation in terms of contemporary art developments in the West. There is a small survey of 1960s and 70s Conceptual art and it looks typical of what you would see in any Western gallery. The situation is quite different in Latvia, where contemporary art has had to go through a process of ‘catching up’ and still seems to be finding its own voice. Here, in Poland, the work appears to have developed without restriction and with a great sense of confidence. I discuss this with Jarek and he tells me that each Soviet republic was allowed to develop something specific to itself. ‘And Poland’, he states, ‘was given the licence to think.’ Again, I can’t help making comparisons with Latvia, which seems to have been so much more oppressed than Poland during Soviet occupation.

Jarek asks me if I want to walk the three or four kilometres back to the hotel and I say no, let’s catch the tram please! We spend an hour or so in a casual but groovy bar just across the road from the Bristol where you can have cheap meals with your drinks. We have white Polish sausages and mustard. Jarek has to work the next day, and is tired from being up all night playing a part in a Polish television sitcom, otherwise he would show me more of the sites around Warsaw. I too, am exhausted and look forward to relaxing in my swish hotel room.

In the groovy bar across the road from the Bristol. Jarek is below the
drawing of the whistling teapot on the wall

The next day I take to the streets of Warsaw on my own and walk to the railway station to book my ticket to Gdansk, negotiating huge people-unfriendly boulevards to get there. The Palace of Science and Culture is right behind the station, and I spend about half an hour trying to find my way into the building. It is so massive and contains so many different museums and offices that it is not easy to find the right entrance for the viewing platform. Inside, it’s a bit like a railway station – lots of pinkish granite and marble, high ceilings and stairwells. I buy a ticket, go downstairs to the lifts and then catch the express to the 30th floor. Here too, it feels impersonal and cold, but there is an impressive chandelier in the entrance and the views of the city are superb.

A view of Warsaw from the 30th floor of the Palace of Science and Culture

Later in the day I catch the tram to the zoo on the other side of the river to see the bears, which I find rather sad, then further out to the giant markets where I get a bit lost, and then back to King’s Way for a stroll around the university as it begins to get dark. In the morning, as I head for the railway station, I get my final glimpse of the giant Palace of Science and Culture before I vanish into the underground and settle into the first of many train trips that take me through Poland, Germany, Switzerland and Italy.


Sanjay dabke said...

Dear Brigita, your narration is extremely photographic. Am from India and vistied Warswa and Krakow a few months back to shoot historical places.. In my part of world, many people wonder where actually Poland is !! After my 3 weeks there it has become my 2nd home. I am planning to go to danzig or gdanks. After reading your blog have decided to go there this year.

Keep writing about your travels.


Sanjay dabke said...

Dear Brigita, your narration is extremely photographic. Am from India and vistied Warswa and Krakow a few months back to shoot historical places.. In my part of world, many people wonder where actually Poland is !! After my 3 weeks there, it has become my 2nd home. I am planning to go to danzig or gdanks. After reading your blog have decided to go there this year.

Keep writing about your travels.


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Brigita Ozolins said...

Thank you so much to Sanjay and to the anonymous writer for your kind comments about my blog - and please accept my apologies for replying so late! I am so please that my writing about the journey I made almost 5 years ago, is still of interest to you!

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