Spring (Summer, Fall, Autumn) of Nations
„Spring (Summer, Fall, Autumn) of Nations, 2019, BWA Tarnów
The exhibition „Spring (Summer, Fall, Autumn) of Nations at the BWA Tarnów has used the posthumous fate of General Bem and the complicated homage paid to him to analyse necropolitics and different ways that history gets rewritten. The invited artists have used the motif of the panorama and the dismembered body – also in the sense of body politic, or nation state – to bring back the spirit of Bem so that his remains may tell another version of its history.
A soldier with a very contemporary way of thinking? A brilliant engineer? A multicultural pioneer? Or a hero of the Spring of Nations – a staunch fighter for Polish and Hungarian independence who converted to Islam to become a senior officer in the army of the Ottoman Empire? A noble mercenary, or perhaps a proto-freelancer?
General Józef Bem, aka Bem József, aka Murad Pasha, was different things to different people – and an example par excellence of how history can be re-written for political purposes. Because national heroes are rarely allowed to die once they are dead. In 1929 through Turkey and Hungary, Bem’s remains returned from Aleppo in Syria to Tarnów where he was born. They were placed on top of six columns as not ‘worthy’ of being laid to rest in consecrated land.
What is Bem today? An idiosyncratic, up-on-high mausoleum in Strzelecki Park in Tarnów. But also a monument in Budapest – at the foot of which the 1956 revolution started. It was there that students gathered to show their solidarity with the October events in Poland at the time. Bem is also the fragments of the Transylvanian Panorama – a 19th-century painting that it took seven painters under the direction of Jan Styka six months to paint, and when completed, it was 120 m long and 15 m high. But those who had commissioned the painting failed to pay the fee and so Jan Styka cut it up into pieces to try and sell them off individually. Today, only a few pieces remain – scattered through different countries – and BWA and Tarnów has been trying to reunite as many as possible. The truncated painting shows one of the finest episodes in the fragmented life of General Bem: a hyperrealistic panorama of the Battle of Sybin, or Sibu in today’s Romania. The actual piece showing the hero of the battle, General Bem, is still missing.
In Tarnów on June 29, 2019, the eve of the ninetieth anniversary of bringing Bem’s remains to his hometown, in BWA Tarnów, near the mausoleum where General Józef Bem was finally laid to rest, Dorota Podlaska performed a culinary performance „Body of the General”. Viewers literally “devoured” the national hero. Bem’s body, created by the artist from small pieces culinary delicacies, was to remind how we perceive a noble hero: as someone who always gives himself others, sacrificing himself for the common good, sharing himself with those in need.
„Body of the General”, culinary performance prepared with help of Donald Taber
„Spring in the Józef Bem Housing Estate”, Arsenal Gallery, Białystok
„Spring in the Józef Bem Housing Estate” is an exhibition with a focus on historical politics and necro-violence, whether targeting bodies (exhumed, transported, exhibited – as in case of General Józef Bem’s remains) or symbolic. Dead bodies are valuable to politicians as symbols: since they cannot speak for themselves (albeit some time ago they could), they can be imprinted with any words or ideas.
The phrase “historical politics” was coined at the turn of the 1980s and 1990s in Germany, a side effect of the so-called historians’ dispute. The concept of using history – employing assorted interpretations of the past as a useful tool in stabilising or destabilising political orders, preserving or overthrowing political power, changing cultural codes – is a long-standing tradition, after all. Consequently, one might ask what role is played by such “affective facts” today, in times of crisis, populism, and new media space?
The exhibition title references a Białystok housing estate clustered around General Józef Bem street, the name conferred upon the location exactly ninety years ago. Events accompanying the exhibition were organised i.a. at the Józef Bem Housing Estate
Dorota Podlaska created especially for for an exhibition in Bialystok work titled „General Healed – Reconstruction Embroidery”. The artist researched historical reports on the numerous wounds of general Józef Bem and the proposed to restore to him those parts of his body that he had lost (like a finger), or to symbolically “heal” his wounded or damaged remnants of bones. This time, artist focuses on the fate of people treated like cannon fodder: abandoned heroines_heroes whose no one is interested in corporeality after the war; veteran/veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder; mutilated people physically and mentally. When they return from a dangerous mission, they are greeted enthusiastically, like heroines/heroes – but they are often forgotten. Podlaska with reverence and Benedictine patience bends over the body of the mutilated Bem and “heals” him, restoring his original appearance and functions with the embroidery. However, this embroidery makes us realize that each a person who experiences war never returns to his original condition. Even if it is seemingly stitched together and decorated covered with medals, underneath she still wears scars and traumas…
Dorota Podlaska, „General healed – reconstruction embroidery”, 2020 installation, embroidery on cotton, 230 × 100 cm the work was created in cooperation with Marta Skuza and Piotr Matosek