Saturday, October 16, 2010

Dutch Theatermaker Dea Koert about Polish Artist Rafal Betlejewski

Some time ago an image of an art installation by Rafal Betlejewski started circulating on the Internet. In the photo a man is seated on a straight backed chair placed on brownish-green, un-mowed grass of a hillside. The man, at ease, legs crossed, his hands folded in his lap, appears to be waiting for someone to sit on the sheepskin hide draped across an armchair beside him.   
A building and trees in the background are obscured by fog and a slanted white text is superimposed on the imagery, graffiti on air. 

I miss you, Jew I miss you in Poland In all these villages and big cities You left a vacuum there Both in space and my heart I just wanted you to know that  
—POLAK—

On September 26, 2010 theater maker Dea Koert attended Betlejewski's lecture, "Coming out of the Jewish ignorance. The story of a regular Pole" at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam.
Guest blogger Dea Koert writes:
Rafal Beteljewski, who is not Jewish, was born in Poland in 1969. For me, having been born in the Netherlands in 1947 the paradigm change as presented by this young Pole's ongoing art project Tesknie Za Toba Zydzie (I Love You Jew) was striking.

He paints these words in graffiti style on walls in villages all over Poland. By using this seemingly simple text he reclaims the presence of Jews in his country. Rafal is an unprejudiced, relaxed kind of guy who seeks and longs for a connection with what he misses in Polish daily life. 
He'll place an empty armchair with a Kippah (skullcap) on the seat in streets of Polish villages and invites people tot sit down. Those who agree then have their photograph taken.
He asks them: "Jewish people, where are they?" 
Betlejewski fights ignorance (about the role the Polish played during the Holocaust) with his empty chair project and with the art installation/ performance  ''The Burning Barn" (triggered by a massacre that took place in 1941) which he presented in Zawada in July of 2010. 
Members of the audience/ participants wrote their names on a white pieces of paper (symbolizing negative thoughts about Jews that would be burned inside the barn) adding NO to ignorance and NO to further denying of the Polish past. By doing so they acknowledged missing them (the Jews) as well. Like Rafal, they wished for a kind of Utopian connection that should speak to all people scattered around the world. 

That a barn burning can be problematic within this context is shown in photographs and videos and was apparent in the small meeting room at JHM in Amsterdam. Some people were really shocked,  they could not understand the underlying motive. 
"Why burning?" asked a lady who could have been my grandmother. "Rafal, why a burning barn? That burning is problematic for me - when the ghetto of Warzawa was burning, the Polish people pushed us back into the fire."
Rafal explained his intention. I can only hope she understood.


I myself visited Poland for the first time as a student in 1972. Everybody around me was going to the West, so I want to go East. What drew me was a theatre workshop lead by Jerzy Grotowsky in Wroclaw (now Breslau).
Having witnessed the major post WWII clean-up in the Netherlands in the 1950s, I was surprised by the visible remnants of that war all over Poland. A fascinating experience. Everything looked gray. I saw a lot of invalids in odd looking wheelchairs on the streets, ruins of houses, I witnessed an ugly political regime, and unhappy poor people. Poland was a country in mourning. But most bewildering was the total silence about the fate of the Jews. Before 1939 one tenth of the Poles were Jewish. The ignorance was complete, there were no signs, no memorials. The scarce remnants of Jewish burial sites had been transformed into dumping grounds for garbage. People overtly made anti-Semitic jokes. But not a Jew to be seen. What's going on here? I wondered back then. 

With a bunch of Russian fellow students in a bus, more or less clandestine (I did not speak one word of their language) I visited the camps of Auschwitz. 
I can still hear the echo of their partisan songs amidst the barracks. 
In 1980 I used my experience in Poland for the theater piece "Nagalm" or Reverberation,  a co-production with Jenn Ben Yakov at the Mickery Theatre in Amsterdam. 

Now, in 2010, all of a sudden there's a third generation, with Rafal Betlejewski (my gosh, even the word Jew is embedded in his family name) who makes such a fantastic art statement. 
This is hopeful, I presume.

Can art change perceptions, can art change the world? If yes, how?
 
Dea Koert, born in the Noord-Oost Polder, the first reclaimed land province in the Netherlands is a theater maker, actor and drama coach. She's known for both intimate and large scale productions, often triggered by her emotional reaction to injustice.





Sketch of Dea Koert  ©Judith van Praag

This work by Dea Koert with Judith van Praag is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License

3 comments:

Huib Riethof said...

My answer is: YES. Art changes (sometimes) the world.

Judith van Praag said...

@Dea,
Thanks for the heads up about Rafal's work and your thoughts on the value of art in the post-war societies.
I spent some time on Rafal's site and was really impressed by the enormity of the Burning Barn project, but even the Empty Chair project is of a largess I hadn't anticipated.

I have to admit when I saw the image with the projected graffiti directed at Jews Online I was taken aback, didn't know what to make of it. I'm glad I've learned more thanks to your post and the links.

How do you think art projects like his effect the viewers/population?

deakoert said...

Yes, some examples have proven it. Rafal gives it a try in his way. Although I agree that you can be taken aback by seeing it for the first time as a single picture on the net. His art invites you for an interaction. It's a kind of installation art As a viewer you become a participant, when you are on the spot , f.i. nearby the "Burning Barn project". This Artform opens up a debate among the viewers streetwise. At least the sentence "I Miss You" on several walls will infect you even as a passerby - unless you are blind.

"The disasters of War"
(1810-1814) of Francisco Goya which directly refers to the Napoleontic invasions in that period had a striking effect on me. It is all about cruelty but not missing. And.
"Quernica"(1937) from Pablo Picasso for the outbreak of Spanish Civil War. A repetition of an horrible war. And.
"The Wrapped Reichstag" building in Berlin (1995) by Christo and his wife Jeanne Claude refers to a finishing of a bloody, messy, cold epoch. ( I still wished I could have taken part in the wrapping activities, struggling with the immense quantity of white cloth. They need many helpers in that time). I remember and read the extensive and turbulent notes in the German Parlaiment after Christo had introduced his plans to them. The opening of new horizons during the debate in a democratic forum. All these examples refer to art as a carrier for political change. I don't believe in Art for Art's sake. Mondraan, his artistic developement is fascinationg, culminates in his "Victor Boogie Woogie"
(1942-1944), inspired so many other disciplines. Yes Art can do so. On Micro- and Macro level.
Rafal Betlejewski almost, personalized the shadows of almost lost people in Polish villages and towns. I am very curious in the future of his projects. What's the next step.