Tygodnik  Powszechny / History for Internal Use / by Michał Wicha

History for Internal Use
by Michał Wicha
Tygodnik Powszechny
04.14. 2010
p. 42

English copy editorial Frances Kianka


The Centre for Contemporary Art, Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw. There was once a military hospital here; its history has inspired Monika Weiss’s art installation. There is something resembling a “memory room” in one of the spaces in the castle. When some people see the old syringes there and a rosary made from spent rifle shells, they mistake them for works of art. But among the artists showing at CCA, only Weiss has created work that refers to the castle’s wartime past. From March 12, in its cellars, we can view her installation entitled “Sustenazo.” . . .
In Poland Monika Weiss attended the school of music and graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts. She left 15 years ago, and now lives and works in New York City, but exhibits her work around the world. In the early summer of 2009 Weiss returned to Warsaw for a three-month stay as part of the Artist In Residence program.
Weiss combines drawing, video, sound, and performance in her art. The documentation of her action in New York City in 2006 leaves a special impression. Near the destroyed World Trade Center people are lying on the ground, drawing—in the photographs they look like insects lying upside down. Drawing becomes their trace, a notation of both movement and time. Drawing as trace—this is one of the recurring motifs in the work of this forty-six-year-old artist.
“I am not a historian,” she says, “but sometimes I begin by researching documents, going through archives, and talking with scientists.” The history that interests her most is the marginal, the unimportant, what is considered peripheral to the events. “Sustenazo” speaks of what happened on August 6, 1944, when, on the sixth day of the Warsaw Uprising, the Germans ordered an immediate evacuation of the Ujazdowski Hospital.
Coincidentally the most important tropes awaited just a few meters from the planned exhibition site—one only had to walk through the parking lot. A brick pavilion, once a surgery department, now houses a special collection, or medical library, that has been preserved. Monika Weiss found the hospital’s archives in its cellars: “These were not very important documents, and I am interested in such ‘unimportant’ documents. For many years the papers were kept in these cellars. Somewhere not yet archived. Postcards, medical correspondence, certificates, discharge forms… I spent many days there with my video camera.”
Weiss did more than go through the archives. She found living participants in the events and recorded their stories. She spoke of this during the press conference that was attended by several journalists, as well as a group of older people whom she had invited. “I wish,” says the artist, “that everyone would experience the work alone and for a long stretch of time. That’s why openings are the worst.” . . .
The cellars are the only original part of the castle—the rest was destroyed and dismantled in the early 1950s. Then, after a few decades, there began a meticulous reconstruction of the historic building. We are walking through a long, dark corridor. At its end, from a vaulted space, we hear a recitation. “It’s Paul Celan. He is very important to me,” reveals the artist.
The first video portrays a lamenting woman; nearby we see hands turning pages of faded type, pages from German medical books and poetry. Accompanying these videos are mixed sounds—overlapping voices in Polish and in German. “Lament,” says Weiss, “is outside of language; it denies the heroism of a narrative.”
The older people whom I had noticed earlier at the press conference are looking around. The artist approaches one of her heroes; the tone of her voice is almost apologetic: “I decided to use only women’s voices, so you are not here.”
“Oh, now I can hear,” a woman with crutches says with joy in her voice. “It’s me. I”m talking about how we found the cellar with the cabbages.”
“And this is a container for the needles.” The man looks at the screen where the images are changing. “We filled it with alcohol.”
“Ninety percent?”
“No, seventy was enough.”
“You were both here then?” I ask.
“I was carrying the stretchers with patients to Chełmska Street. We were four girls carrying them.”
“Then the Hospital went to Czerniakow.”
“With the sisters.”
“When the Germans bombed, people were set on fire in their beds.”
“I got shot then. I survived because someone carried me out on his or her back. You hear only the whistle of the bullets that don’t hit you. Did you know that? When they shot me, I didn’t feel anything.”
The older people continue recounting their memories, and the artist gives interviews. The voices in the exhibition overlap and alter, change into a murmur. . .
I look intently at the documents in the video. Images overlap; reflections of light run through the texts. I try to read names and dates but can’t. I talk to the artist about it.
“I didn’t create a historical work. It also has nothing to do with a sentimental approach to history. The work doesn’t violate anyone’s privacy. I don’t want to expose people’s destinies.”
“Do you believe one shouldn’t?”
“I think one shouldn’t use people in such a way. One can express a lot without using—literally ‘using’—people. The people whose voices I recorded have given me their permission. Above the background sound—a group recitation from Goethe’s works—one hears fragments of the story spoken by Krystyna Zalewska. We talked, we befriended each other. She knew that her voice would eventually be heard in such a fragmented way. She also knew she would not be identified as a specific woman. Her story would become universal, a metaphor.”
We enter the next gallery. Scattered about here are old medical textbooks, volumes of poetry, and a nurse’s handbag. In a black-and-white film we see a gymnast jumping in a double somersault. The walls are covered with drawings—pages that the artist has torn out of books by Goethe (printed in a beautiful schwabacher type). There is also a large photograph showing an elegant interior view as from “The World of Interiors.” This is Krystyna Janda’s bedroom.
“After the Uprising, the hospital ended up in suburban Milanówek,” explains Milada Ślizińska, the curator of the exhibition. “It was located in the former Gruszczyński villa. It’s an enormous house, built by the opera singer, who soon lost his voice. In Milanówek, where I was born, we all knew the story. From childhood I recall my mother and her sister telling us how they used to go to help the wounded.”
The artist adds: “When after many years the Gruszczyński villa was bought by Krystyna Janda, neighbors used to ask her if she was afraid to sleep in her bedroom. It was the most beautiful and quiet room, and that’s where the sick that were in the worst condition were placed. Many died there.” . . .
Two days after the exhibition opening I’m in the neighborhood again and join a tour organized by the Warsaw History Museum, whose building is scheduled to be erected soon, near Ujazdowski Castle. A young guide, outshouting the noise coming from Łazienkowska Highway, relates the history of the district: it was once a stronghold of the Mazowsze princes, with a hunting manor, the Waza Castle, a field hospital from the time of the Insurrection, and, finally, the Ujazdowski Hospital. “It’s good that the new museum will be built in this location. At last there’ll be an institution that will teach Poles to be proud of their own history.”
It’s hard not to agree with his statement. But I think about the fact that Monika Weiss titled her installation “Sustenazo,” a Greek word that means “lamenting together, in silence.” I find it important that there is someone who doesn’t try to teach us anything, but simply tells us about the helplessness of human language.
The exhibition “Monika Weiss: Sustenazo,” at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw, is on view through May 3, 2010.