September was when we had the opportunity to visit the “Attention! Border” exhibition, a ‘duplicated’ event simultaneously organised in the two biggest cities of eastern Poland – Lublin and Białystok. The event was co-organised by Galeria Labirynt in Lublin and Arsenał Gallery in Białystok. The exhibition curators were directors of both galleries, Waldemar Tatarczuk and Monika Szewczyk. The main topic of this collective exhibition were territorial borders. The external border of the Schengen Area was of particular interest since it is located on the eastern side of Poland. Many of the artists invited to present their works at the exhibition were born and raised in Eastern European countries. In their works they emphasised that although borders are an absurd and artificial phenomenon they have a real impact on the existence of millions of people. This exhibition was aimed at providing a valuable commentary on nationalist attitudes which have been gaining ground recently and on the popular declarations regarding the reconstitution of state borders in Europe. Moreover, the event can be perceived as an attempt to tell the story of Poland – a country situated on the border between the East and the West.
Michalina Sablik talked to Waldemar Tatarczuk, the director of Galeria Labirynt in Lublin and co-curator of the “Attention! Border” exhibition.
Michalina Sablik: The exhibition “Attention! Border” is divided into two parts. One of them is presented in Galeria Labirynt in Lublin and another one in Arsenał Gallery in Białystok. Can you tell us why, together with Monika Szewczyk, the director of Arsenał Gallery, you decided to organise a joint project based on the cooperation between two institutions? How did you come up with the idea?
Waldemar Tatarczuk: The artistic programmes of both galleries are similar to a certain extent. When I designed a programme for Galeria Labirynt seven years ago I took Arsenał Gallery’s programme as a starting point, which may be the reason for the current similarities. The theme which is the most visible in the activities of both institutions is art from the East. Both galleries invite artists from Ukraine, the Caucasus and Asia on a regular basis. The galleries’ representatives also often travel to these parts of the world. Thanks to these journeys we are perfectly aware of what it means to cross a border. From our own experience, we can tell a lot about problems with transporting works of art to be presented at exhibitions organised on the other side of such borders. We constantly see how patronisingly the citizens of non-EU countries are treated at the Polish border checkpoints. Artists are constantly telling us about bureaucracy and complex procedures which are a real obstacle for those who want to get a visa to Poland or the Schengen Area.
M.S.: How important are the two cities where your exhibition is organised for the presented topic?
W. T.: We could have organised the exhibition in any two cities. However, the story of Lublin and Białystok, i.e. the cities situated in the vicinity of the state border adds a lot of authenticity to the whole concept. Dividing the exhibition between two places is a crucial aspect. I hope this proves that there is never a single point of view on any topic. If anyone wants to learn the full narration of our exhibition, he or she needs to make an effort and visit both galleries, which are located more or less 250 km apart.
M.S.: Where did the title of the exhibition come from?
W. T.: These particular words can be seen as warning on the warning boards which can be found next to state borders. They are written in various languages but they always mean the same – if you read it you are standing in a place where human rights and citizens’ rights are limited to a significant extent. Obviously, these rights are limited “for our own good”. Border protection is a priority for every state. We accept this convention because state authorities claim that such protection makes us safer. But is this really true? Someone said some time ago that a border is a place where wars begin. If you think about these words, the ominous warning boards become even more terrifying.
M.S.: We live in the European Union, which is “a better part of the world”, and that is why we can be easily misled and think that there are no borders in the contemporary world. Nevertheless, through your exhibition you show visitors that clearly delimited borders really exist and that they influence the way people live. The very notion of ‘border’ can be interpreted in numerous ways. What kinds of borders did you want to present in your narration?
W. T.: We were mostly focused on political borders. At the beginning we were obviously tempted to present the broader meaning of this word. Borders, crossing borders, overcoming obstacles are really attractive topics from an art perspective. Nevertheless, after a bit of thinking we came to the conclusion that in order to make our message unambiguous we had to focus on a single, specific aspect. The fact that nowadays state borders, their protection and impenetrable character are among the favourite topics discussed by politicians, definitely helped us make up our minds.
Our goal was also to challenge the delusion that we live in the world where borders do not exist. The Schengen Area created an opportunity of free travel through a large part of Europe but, on the other hand, the conclusion of the Schengen Agreement gave rise to a new iron curtain. This time the iron curtain is more about economic aspects of human existence rather then ideology.
M.S.: In his book “Globalizacja” [Globalisation] Zygmunt Bauman divided people into two distinct groups – ‘tourists’, i.e. the rich, enjoying the opportunity to travel and do business without restrictions, and ‘vagrants’ or ‘mutants of postmodern evolution’, who are being forced to move from the places they live in to find jobs, permanent shelter and earn money for daily bread. Crossing borders is a pleasure and privilege for one of these groups, while for the other, this activity represents their struggles for survival and dignity. Your exhibition focuses on the second group I mentioned. Why was it so important for you to present the problem from this particular point of view?
W. T.: It was probably because I started getting really annoyed with the fact that the European Community and its underlying concept were gradually becoming just well-worn platitudes. The Treaty of Rome emphasised the need to “remove borders dividing Europe”, which, unfortunately, is nowadays interpreted in a really selective manner. Mercenary attitude towards the European Union is clearly visible in the activity of politicians from certain European countries. Such an attitude is also a basis for the activities of the political groups which are currently in power in Poland. Community ideals are losing their significance. Furthermore, the opinions of European institutions, e.g. the Venice Commission, the Court of Justice or the Council of Europe are no longer respected.
M.S.: You invited artists from Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Romania, Turkey, etc. to present works at the exhibition. Does the division between the centre and peripheries still exist in the world of art? Are the lives, careers and creative strategies of artists influenced by the place they come from?
W. T.: Jadwiga Sawicka questioned this division in her work presented at the exhibition. The artist prepared flags to be placed in particular (central?) places. The flags bear the inscription “the heart of the country”. They were presented to a dozen cities.
When it comes to the place an artist comes from, it definitely has an influence on his or her whole life. However, there are other equally important factors determining his/her future, i.e. upbringing, education, the surrounding reality. This has nothing to do with the division between the centre and the peripheries. It is more about certain characteristic features of a given place.
Of course, it all depends on how we understand these two notions. I am of the opinion that we live in a multicentric reality and every one of us decides for himself where the centre is. We can understand the centre in a traditional way – New York, Berlin, London but at the same time we can imagine the centre in any place on the map and there will be nothing strange about it.
M.S.: The exhibition is not only about physical borders. It turned out that divisions are often present within states, villages, they go across the dinner table.
W. T.: Here I would like to mention the work by Barbara Gryka entitled “Nie we wszystkich państwach istnieje miłość” [Love doesn’t exist in all countries]. The artist presents maps of states, cities, towns and communes where intolerance, hate and homophobia manifest themselves among the locals. For sure, every one of us would be able to add other familiar places to this map.
M.S.: Can the exhibition also be perceived as an attempt to tell the story of contemporary Poland, a country “on the crossing” between the East and the West and about the identity of the Polish nation so strongly influenced by moving state borders?
W. T.: First of all we tell our visitors that borders really exist. The Schengen Area does not cover the entire world. It is only a certain part of Europe. I would be really happy if Poles realised this paradox.
M.S.: The exhibition “Attention! Border” is organised at a very special time when discussions about the migrant crisis, growing nationalisms and chauvinism prevail in the media. Should artists “put in their word” too? Are you supporting socially engaged art?
W. T.: I would never tell artists what they should do or what topics they should present but, in fact, I am more interested in art which “reacts” to the surrounding reality and in works of artists who critically assess it. I am a proponent of the ideas of the critical institution, which were put forward by Professor Piotr Piotrowski. This is why Galeria Labirynt tries to express opinions in the debate and present topics which we think are crucial.