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JAN ŚWIDZIŃSKI. Talks on a kerbstone. A memory

JAN ŚWIDZIŃSKI. Talks on a kerbstone. A memory

JAN ŚWIDZIŃSKI. Talks on a kerbstone. A memory

Władysław Kaźmierczak, 2014-09-13

In the 70’s and 80’s, Jan Świdziński lived in Warsaw and I lived in Kraków. These two places were worlds apart and almost did not communicate with each other. To a certain extent it has stayed this way till today, as in many cities in the world. In 1981 in Kraków I organised the first festival of Polish performance art entitled “Manifestations / Performance”. I was the curator of this event and when I invited Jan Świdziński to Kraków, I had never met him before. But I knew that someone like him existed.

The festival provoked great interest. TVP2 recorded all the performances. The atmosphere was dynamic, serious and extremely tense. This was recognised immediately by the more experienced performers who suggested through their performances an ironic, comic and at the same time somewhat reflective attitude towards art. Anastazy Wiśniewski, Marek Konieczny and Jan Świdziński performed as a spontaneous performance art trio. Sitting on chairs, they all simultaneously spoke. Each artist was saying what he wanted. Chaos changed into a powerfully disturbed selectiveness. This was the way I met Jan Świdziński live. After 1981 Poland was dominated by a military regime, a state of martial law and each of us fought for our existence in Poland or abroad. As artists we did not have contact with each other and I did not see Jan Świdziński for another 10 years.

Our second meeting happened in September 1991 in Sopot. Jan Świdziński invited me to participate in the gigantic international performance art festival entitled “Real Time – Story Telling” featuring 125 artists from the entire world.

Świdziński’s festival radically changed the situation of Polish performance art, because at that time what we lacked the most was direct contact with international art. Today hardly anyone remembers the unimaginably difficult beginnings of art in the 90s when post-communist countries joined the free and democratic world. In our notebooks we had only a few names of artists from abroad and also only a few in our own home countries. Jan helped all of us to start existing within the international art scene and he accelerated this process by a few years. At that time it was a valuable and surprising gesture. Świdziński as an artist and art theoretician and creator of the theory of contextual art could indeed have done otherwise and done nothing.

His artistic stance as the stance of a performer was a very important signal for all of us. The hiding of business cards, the hiding of one’s own contacts and dealings with the West and secret departures to events in capitalist countries were an inherent feature of the life of artists under communism. Jan Świdziński announced in Sopot that that time was over and that we have to live and create another manner.

But my most important meeting with Jan Świdziński was in Korea in 1996. It was an exceptional festival, place and country. While I was there I began to understand that artists as a matter of fact can not get to know each other better as they don’t have time. Art openings, some short meetings, short festival trips, smiles and nods, do not provide us with an opening towards another person. The meetings are very superficial and in fact all of us have something totally different to say.

An invitation to the “9 Dragon Heads” Festival to Korea in August 1996 was something unique. The organisers bought every participant a ticket for Korean airlines. For three months I kept checking the reservation to see if we were really going. Perhaps it was some sort of apprehension which foresaw a total catastrophe of a festival. Even when everything was 100% set, my intuition told me to call KAL in Berlin once again to check what was going on. Boris Nieslony who believed the claims of the organisers showed up at the airport in Frankfurt two days later and “kissed the door knob” (there was no one home). One could have written a book about the complicated procedure of our travel coordination. Nice Janet from the Korean Airlines office in Berlin added, that for sure it would be a best-seller. So I called Jan and said – “you fly tomorrow”. I didn’t see Jan at the airport in Frankfurt and KAL’s counter was closed. Hour after hour I was becoming more and more anxious. I started to talk with the airport information service saying that I was looking for my ticket and also for a 73-year old performance artist. The issue was serious. During my phone search I heard Jan’s voice in the background and after a few minutes we met. Świdziński said: “I came earlier from Warsaw, you can’t smoke anywhere, coffee is expensive so I went upstairs to the offices. These Germans are even very nice people but they calmed me down. The departure is OK. About you they said that you were well organized and you had a sense of humour. And someone called Janet wished me a pleasant flight.”

After a dozen hours we found ourselves in the very middle of South Korea in a small town called Munui with an artificial lake known as Daecheonaho. We were accommodated in a very lavish recreation centre run by the Korean airport. After a short conversation we were placed in our rooms. I was to stay with Jan, but he wasn’t there and the Koreans were waiting to take us to a great welcome party in a small town. Jan wasn’t there either. I thought about him what he thought about me. On the next day in the dining room I still did not see Jan and I said aloud that maybe something bad had happened which caused panic among the organisers. Then someone had an idea that perhaps yesterday’s volunteers took him to the other part of the hotel, which was marked in a similar way, but was of a lower standard. And indeed this was what had happened. Jan slept in an empty room with bunk beds, without a bathroom, with only a sink and cold water. It took a few moments to move Jan to “our” suite but in the meantime all cars left. We stayed on our own in the huge, empty hotel. So we relaxed and let others worry. Jan valued himself, his time and his own rhythm of life and he did not care about the hectic behaviour of the organisers.

Then there was the first important adventure with Jan Świdziński. After a few days in the hotel suite we knew that staying in this place wasn’t so great due to different customs. In Korean hotels one does not throw toilet paper into the toilet but into the garbage. We didn’t know about it because Korean signs did not have English subtitles. And what happened? On the third day the toilet was blocked and “water” leaked to the bathroom floor and then to the carpet on the hallway. It didn’t look good. We didn’t know what to do. Then we began to understand that that big garbage can in the bathroom was for something. And thinking about it we started to leave the room. While leaving we saw a young man dressed in a navy blue overalls (looking a bit Polish) in the hallway. He held three 2 m long metal rods. Jan addressed to him in Polish: “Listen friend, look, something is wrong here, maybe you would help us?” Our technician bowed beautifully and very quickly solved the problem. Everything worked perfectly and Jan added in Polish: “OK, and once you unclogged it, then maybe also clean it”. And the technician took a mop and two colourful water-absorbing rugs out of the closet and after 5 minutes everything looked new. Jan thanked him and the technician left. Then we just opened the window and everything was sorted. We left the hotel, got on the bus and after a few minutes Świdziński said: Look, the technician is also travelling with us. Then someone told us that this man was in fact a very famous Japanese artist who was making an installation at the lake. This new experience brought us closer together, Myself and Jan. I always had to wait until he fell asleep as his cigarette butts became spectacularly submerged in the bed linens and I could not sleep first because I had to act quick.

Jan helped me during the day. And a day in South Korea may mean a catastrophe. For example the opening of the festival was the most bizarre thing I have ever seen in my life. A four hour ceremony. Officials, then diplomats, then speeches. A short lecture about ecology in the very place where a few years earlier an artificial bay had been constructed by submerging dozens of old villages. Then a military orchestra consisting of 500 men dressed in white uniforms with gold braids. Then professional folk bands. Fireworks. A monumental show performed by Korean artists who participated in the event followed by a shamanistic ceremony made in the atmosphere of Buddhist concentration with the artists paying tribute to the earth, water and air. Then followed a picnic on the grass. Makoli drink (traditional alcohol white as milk, made of rice and yeast), sochu (rice vodka, 25%), whisky with milk, rice, hot algae soup, kimchee and “Korean pizza” which is an omelette with a lot of greens. We were shocked with the momentum and the propaganda of the media and authorities. I thought I would go crazy. Jan Świdziński reacted to the contrary. He had excellent fun during that pathos because he knew it from the 50’s. He already had seen it and he had also been a dancer. So when I saw an amused Świdziński, my radicalism deminished. Well, after all why would you be bothered, here it is what it is.

Later during an evening meeting with artists and organisers it turned out that there would be actually no money for fees, for materials, or for anything. The changed conditions of our invitation were written in such a way that only after the opening of the festival everything was clear. The enormous propaganda show had absorbed the entire budget. Everywhere there were posters, programs, prints, postcards, large banners and t-shirts which were good for nothing. Hundreds of imaginary costs reduced the help for artists and the artistic level of the event. So there was a commotion. An artist rebellion. The boss of the event Mr Park kept repeating “sorry” and it stayed this way till the end. But the “sorry” was very arrogant and sounded like: we are paying for your trip so you have to pay for something as well”. A lot of misunderstandings were explained by language errors. Each of us took out some private money. Jan from time to time by accident paid in Romanian leu. Koreans were so surprised that they laughed and Jan was getting things for free. Some help was provided by the local artists from Kong-ju, Pusan and Seoul.

We were at the other end of the world, we could not leave and it didn’t make any sense to stress out with the organisational ineptness of the Koreans. The festival’s boss behaved very badly, tried to command the artists, kept loosing track, did not have any plan. We helped him by setting a precise plan for the event in order not to get lost in this mess but one absurdity followed another. After all two weeks is not such a long time.

Jan had an idea and adapted the strategy: let’s not get involved. We have time. So after some symbolic breakfast and Hungarian coffee brewed using Korean tea, we sat down on a kerbstone opposite the festival’s headquarters. For a week. Jan was commenting: “oh, look, now these two are leaving, they’ll come back in a sec…”, “oh, the new ones came”. No one disturbed us or asked for anything. Towards the evening people started to panic and we were invited for dinner. During that 8 -10 hours a day, Jan told me about himself. We commented upon a lot of artistic events in Poland and abroad. At that time I started to get to know him as a man who slowly started to release some information about himself. He did not hide his emotions. He was telling about the military ballet in which he danced, about his absurd presence as a dancer in Budapest during the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. He told me about his family roots. He was from the Poznań area just like me. With the only difference that he was from the north-east and I was from the south-west of the area. We were talking about the poet Wisława Szymborska who had just received the Nobel prize. The Poznań stories were very strong. I was intrigued by why the artists from Warsaw remained tight-lipped when I was asking them what was Świdziński like. From our conversations on the kerbstone emerged an image of the artist as an intellectual, a human being who would have felt better in Berlin, Amsterdam or New York milieus rather than in Warsaw. “You know, in Warsaw I had most discussions about art with my aunts”. And I can believe it, thinking in a Krakow way. Our conversations took place in 1996 when Internet was just starting the revolution in communication. So we had a lot to tell each other. Jan never used the Internet in his life.

Coming back to Korea. A big change for the festival artists was moving out from the recreation centre to the homes of Korean families’. We went to stay with the owner of a gas station. In Mr Hong’s house we got a wonderful room – for two people but with one king size bed and golden, silk bed linen. I successfully watched Jan so that he didn’t put out his last cigarette in the silk. I admit, I was officious, I read something, I was making notes and all of the sudden sleeping Jan slipped out of the silk bed linen and fell on the floor. He woke up and said: “You think that you can kick me out bed because I’m old?” I replied: “Jan, think about it, what business would I have to kick an old man out from golden bed linen? No one would do it.” He accepted that answer.

Jan wasn’t only slipping out of golden bed linen, but was actually doing something worse: he didn’t want to say his age. After a few days we discovered that age is a very good currency in Korea. During every meeting Koreans give their age and it turns out that the oldest in the group has absolute power. Jan neglected that and when he was asked how old he was he was answering 18, because he felt that way. But in Korea it was not serious. So I started to respond by saying how old he was. In every group he was the oldest and therefore he was getting numerous gifts (alcohol). I only had one problem – I had to show on my fingers 73 quicker than Jan showed 18. Of course no one believed him. Then on I carried a piece of paper with 73 written on it and Jan didn’t have any chance to show off with his 18. Świdziński had a great sense of humour and no life catastrophe could kill him and I valued that in him a lot.

Jan Świdziński had been for many years a banner and a torch in Polish art. A torch not quite understood nor valued by the critics and artists. It was interesting that Jan Świdziński never crossed the line to turn his theory into the program of a subsequent avant-garde group. Just like conceptual artists. Contextualism was not a program. It was closer to holistic thinking, well known to us, performers.

Świdziński’s CV that one can find on the Internet paradoxically hides his true input in art. Almost all the information about Świdziński is as a matter of fact, information about the author of the information. And those who create the information do not feel the important points. It’s true, that contextualism has been recently noticed and valued. But it is not everything he did. Apart from the mentioned “Real Time – Story Telling” festival in Sopot, Świdziński facilitated a start for Polish performers’ artistic presentations in the entire world. No one writes that Świdziński was the first Polish performer invited to Japan for NIPAF’93 organised by Seiji Shimoda in Nagano. Then in 1995 I went there. Before I left for Tokyo/Nagano I had called Jan and asked what was Japan like and what to pay attention for. Świdziński answered: “Japan is like Japan, but landing on Narita is horrible, the plane flies over the Pacific, turns around and then it goes crazy while taking the flight path. It’s awful.” And it turned out to be true, but I still didn’t know much about Japan. Jan Świdziński was the first Polish artist who went to Korea. As the first Polish artist he made a career in Canada, Sweden and half of Europe during the time of communism. It was a great deed. His activity raised the bar for all of us but also opened the door.

The last meeting.

It is difficult to write about it. It was a touching meeting and parting at the same time. We met at the 10th Open Art Festival in Beijing in September 2009. The festival lasted almost 2 months and featured 400 performers. Jan was already 84, but still very bright and with a fantastic sense of humour. We drank Polish vodka together in a hotel. Świdziński had excellent fun with the phone calls from the check-in desk when some nice female voice was asking in English: massage OK? Jan kept repeating: yes, massage always OK. We remembered good old times. He was hungry for art and artists… there. We were very lucky to be a part of the festival curated by Mexican artists who were intelligent, warm and able to feel the global turmoil between the 1st, 2nd and 3rd world countries.

Jan Świdziński did a very good performance in Beijig. Probably one of the last performances of his life. It evoked an authentic enthusiasm among all the artists. He was an unquestionable guru for the international performance artists community. A guru who was kind and smiling, who was not patronising. He wanted to see the Great Wall. Jan was in many countries but wanted to see that wall which fed his imagination. When he was at the Great Wall I left Beijing with Ewa Rybska. It was September 28th, 2009. It was of course a coincidence that in Beijing we did a performance entitled Non-Violence, the same title as the performance that I did in Sopot during “Real Time – Story Telling” which ended on September 28th, 1991.

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