Show in Brussels reveals ambiguous face of modern Poland

Summary

A radio journalist and a photographer from Flanders recently teamed up for an exhibition that shows the real but complex Poland behind the vodka and zealot clichés

Finding the essence

“If you want to say something relevant about contemporary Poland, it can only be blurry.” To illustrate the fundamental ambiguity of this European country, which is currently celebrating 10 years of EU membership, 15 years of NATO membership and 25 years of freedom (from Communism), Flemish radio journalist Marc Peirs recently gave his old friend Peter De Bruyne a call.

Peirs felt that De Bruyne’s trademark hazy style of photography would be the perfect metaphor for the project he had in mind. The results can be seen in the intriguing photo exhibition Wisła Stories at Atelier 34zero Muzeum in the Brussels district of Jette. An accompanying book by Peirs with stories about the changes Poland is going through will follow next year.

“Peter’s hazy images emphasise my point: We are sure that the cocoon of Polish history will produce a butterfly in the future, but we don’t have a clue what the butterfly will look like.” You could say that the outlines of that future Poland are as unclear as the Bruges photographer’s photos.

The two men first met at the Seaside alt music festival on the Flemish coast in the mid-1980s. Peirs was there to interview the new wave icon Anne Clark, and he asked De Bruyne, 18 at the time and with a camera around his neck, if he wanted to take some pictures. That chance encounter was the start of a closer collaboration between the two.

A perfect comrade

They later lost touch, until Peirs recently again came across the photographer’s work. He called to ask De Bruyne to accompany him on his trip to Poland. Just like that one summer day three decades ago, De Bruyne accepted the invitation, though he did hesitate a bit this time around.

“For my photo work, I usually travel to the US or Mexico,” he explains. “What did I know about Poland? Nothing, except for the clichés – grey, Solidarity and the pope.”

What did I know about Poland? Nothing, except for the clichés

- Photographer Peter De Bruyne

But for Peirs, that cluelessness made De Bruyne the perfect comrade. One of his main goals was precisely to do away with prejudices about Communist dullness, packed churches and moustachioed men drinking vodka. In Peirs’ view, the actual dynamism of the country has made such ideas outdated.

“I understand this misconception, since the Polish were hidden behind the Iron Curtain,” says Peirs, whose wife is from Poland. “For us Western Europeans they were mentally, politically and physically distant.  But the Polish didn’t experience it like that. They have a very profound historical consciousness and consider their bond with Europe far greater than those 50 years of Cold War.”

The two men focused on the Vistula river, Wisła in Polish, for their trip. “Its riverbed is the very heart of the country, moving up north from the deep south. It’s also the part of Poland that stayed Polish throughout the course of the history – also when borders in the west and the east were moved.”

But the river crucially also connects the three main Polish cities. With its source near Bielsko-Biała, it runs through Kraków, the former capital and the country’s most important university and cultural city, and Warsaw, the current capital and economic centre. It also passes Gdansk, Poland’s port to the world and the birthplace of Solidarity founder Lech Wałęsa, the place where he co-founded the trade union that would mark the beginning of the end of the Communist era.

Less is more

Peirs succeeded in his two-fold mission. De Bruyne was pleasantly surprised by the vibrant country he discovered. But, more importantly, the subtle, analogue photos he produced transcend the ambiguity of the country – squeezed between its past and future.

The pictures were shot at symbolic locations, with an old Poland distinguishable next to the new one. There are images of pre-war buildings with bullet holes and Communist landmarks such as the Palace of Cultures and Science next to newly built skyscrapers.

“This detail of the Stalin-era 'Sugarpie' towers reminded me of Metropolis by Fritz Lang,” De Bruyne says, referring to the classic sci-fi epic by the Austrian filmmaker. “And it’s simply incomprehensible why they put a modern tower of Babel on the spot of a demolished synagogue.” Depending on the colours of the houses, grey or bright, visitors to the exhibition can see whether the “subsidy sponge” from Europe has visited.

One photo shows a dead tree in a place where political prisoners used to be detained, with a threatening sky looming ominously. Even more unsettling is the blurry image of the fence at Auschwitz, with the sky as a sole witness (pictured top). “The only thing people saw there that was unrestrained was the sky,” De Bruyne says.

Pictured above, rom left: Marc Peirs, Peter De Bruyne en Koen Vidal at a recent talk in Bruges

“What more can they do?”

Suggestion has always been part of the appeal of De Bruyne’s blurry photography, at least since that one fateful day that he took an unfocused picture of a tree in Utah. “When I worked as a press photographer, my work was realistic and with sharp contrasts, but I felt that by offering fewer details and diminishing the sharpness I could better show the essence.”

Being a normal European country is something the people there really long for

- Marc Peirs

Changing the focus of his camera became his second nature, and with series like American Icons, American Stills and Décors, in which he explored Flemish suburban life, he has developed a very personal, instantly recognisable style.

When his pictures first appeared in the newspaper Le Soir 10 years ago, the editors had to reassure worried readers that the presses worked just fine. De Bruyne’s next photo in that daily came with a disclaimer that explained that the image was meant to be blurry.

In the meantime, Poland also seems to be doing just fine. With former prime minister Donald Tusk’s recent appointment as the new EU Council president and next year’s parliamentary and presidential elections, more media attention is guaranteed. “Poland is more and more like a normal European country, something the people there really long for,” Peirs explains.

“What more can they do?” he asks. “They’re militarily engaged in Nato, politically in the EU, and economically they’re the best pupil in the class. A few months ago, for the first time in my life, I saw gays walking hand in hand in the streets of Warsaw.” Even just three years ago, he says, that would have been unthinkable.

“But it’s particularly the Polish work ethic and booming economy – an average growth of 6% for 22 consecutive years – that makes other countries plain jealous.”

Until 25 January at Atelier 34zero Muzeum, Rivierendreef 334, Jette

Photo by Peter De Bruyne

The Wisla exhibition received financial support from the Polish National Tourist Office and the Polish embassy in Brussels cultural institute

A radio journalist and a photographer from Flanders recently teamed up for an exhibition that shows the real but complex Poland behind the vodka and zealot clichés.

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