C. T. Jasper and Joanna Malinowska create a cross-cultural universe inspired by ‘Fitzcarraldo’, Lilly Wei reports for Art News. My thanks to Judith Bettelheim for bringing this fascinating news item to my attention. Follow the link below for the complete report and a photo gallery.
Brooklyn-based artists C. T. Jasper and Joanna Malinowska are representing Poland at the 56th Venice Biennale. Jasper, who works in a variety of mediums, focuses on video and film and is best known for his investigations of cinematic history laced with sociopolitical issues, as viewed through a skeptical but romantic lens. He is concerned with the role of film, science fiction, and avant-garde utopian discourse in the shaping of the collective consciousness and imagination. Erased(2013) and Sunset of the Pharaohs (2014) are two such recent projects, based on a meticulous and sophisticated process of intervention, altering existing films that are often of cult status.
Malinowska, too, is adept in multiple disciplines, emphasizing sculpture, video, and performance. Her leanings are anthropological, art historical, and musical, with cultural collisions of particular interest to her. From the Canyons to the Stars (2012), a fantasy narrative about indigenous Arctic peoples creating a sculpture that suggests Duchamp’s Bottle Rack (1914), is one example, shown at the 2012 Whitney Biennial. Other similarly themed works from her 2013 show at Canada, the gallery that represents her in New York, include a large mound of dirt taken from the Yukon Territory, a giant bear reprised for an outdoor sculptural project at Columbus Circle (September 2014–April 2015), and a bust of Surrealist artist Meret Oppenheim wearing a Haitian mud-cake headpiece, foreshadowing the location for their Venice project. Malinowska searches for cultural connections as well as conflicts and, like Jasper, she is intrigued by the concept of the collective consciousness and the simultaneous appearance of ideas in far-flung, unrelated regions of the world.Jasper and Malinowska, who show regularly in the United States and abroad, do not usually collaborate on projects, although they are currently in a two-person exhibition, “Relations Disrelations,” at the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódz, Poland. They worked together on Mother Earth Sister Moon (2009), an enormous inflated version of a white space suit that was both a sci-fi sculptural installation and a performance space, first exhibited at Performa ’09 in New York.
The couple’s Venice project, Halka/Haiti 18°48’05″N 72°23’01″W, curated by Magdalena Moskalewicz, a postdoctoral fellow at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, owes much to Werner Herzog’s 1982 film Fitzcarraldo. A visionary tale of a madman fixated on the idea of bringing opera to the Amazon, the story (as well as Herzog’s equally mad directing of the film) fascinated them. “We thought of this almost five years ago when we were applying for a Creative Capital grant,” Malinowska said. “It was our starting point; we originally wanted to build a movie theater in the Amazon, a place for community gatherings, maybe like a branch of Anthology Film Archives. But then we came back to the idea of opera and decided to realize Fitzcarraldo’s obsession, to succeed where he failed.”
When asked why they chose Haiti, Jasper referred to the little-known historical connection between Haiti and Poland. “Polish soldiers were sent by Napoleon to Haiti in 1802 and 1803 to put down the slave rebellion,” he said, “but they joined the rebels. In January, 1804, independent Haiti was declared, and White people were prohibited to own property there—with the exception of the Poles, in gratitude for their defecting from Napoleon’s army. The Haitian Constitution of 1805 stated in Articles 12 and 13 that ‘no White man may hold land in Haiti apart from Germans (who had a small community there) and Polanders.’ Many of the soldiers settled down in Haiti and were given honorary legal status for their contribution to the revolution. In some villages today, over 200 years later, there are Haitians with Slavic features—blond hair, blue eyes—descendants of the soldiers. They look like people from a village in Poland.” And, as Malinowska noted, “Some look like people from Greenpoint [Brooklyn] with a tan.” Or, Jasper interjected, “like us. Many people we met said we were like them, like family.” Pausing, he added that he would love to believe that the Poles fought for Haitian independence, but the reality was more complex and perhaps not quite so noble: pragmatism and desertion also played a part, and their role as heroic liberators was overstated.Polish is an honorary language of Haiti. A study of surnames in parts of Haiti shows many that were Polish in origin but were Gallicized to sound French, with the final syllable, such as “ski,” lopped off. Poland and Haiti also share a religion, and the image of the Black Madonna, a Polish icon, is worshipped on the island, although the Haitians also practice voodoo, an instance of the consequences of cultural import and export, which is a major preoccupation of Halka/Haiti.The story of Halka is classic and was first performed in Vilnius in its entirety in 1848. Malinowska called it “a Polish Madame Butterfly.” A peasant beauty from the highlands, Halka is seduced by Janusz, a rich landowner who then abandons her. The opera begins with his engagement to a young woman of his own class and proceeds to its tragic denouement. “It lasts over three hours,” Jasper said, “but we cut it to its essentials for the performance we staged in Cazale, the village we chose for the production.
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Halka/Haiti represents the exporting of a foreign culture, an exercise in cultural colonization or cultural connection that is complex, fraught, and in flux. The choice of Cazale was deliberate—it had already been Polonized (or the Poles there had been creolized) at the beginning of the 19th century. In questioning the export of culture through their project, the artists wanted to discover what other bonds the two countries, with their histories of exploitation, partition, and marginalization, might share. They wondered what other, perhaps more nuanced, significance the exchange might reveal, and what conversation their modest, cobbled-together, outdoor staging of an obscure opera that originated in Poland, journeyed to Haiti, and then to Venice might initiate, translated from live performance to film.
Moskalewicz, when asked what she thought, responded that, coming from a very homogenous country—culturally, ethnically, linguistically—where national identity remains an urgent discussion, she has found it fascinating to take Halka to “such a different context and see what it can tell us about Polish national identity today, how we still define our national identity through 19th-century artistic forms, and how this influences our self-image.”While drawn to and touched by Fitzcarraldo and his obsession with bringing European culture to the Amazon, Jasper and Malinowska acknowledge the madness and arrogance of his romanticism. They force Fitzcarraldo’s consuming, essentially narcissistic passion into another context, one that is less epic and overblown, underscoring contemporary issues that are grounded in particular geographic, historical, and sociopolitical realities.Malinowska believes that there was something hopeful about the creation of this project and the bringing together of different cultures and geographies. “I’m having a fantasy of going back there, to continue our relationship with the villagers.” Jasper admitted that obsession has always interested him and that he is a romantic at heart, however much he might want to deny it. “I definitely believe in art, but I question the artistic ego and want it to disappear a little. It’s not an existential position,” he said, “but maybe it is, a little.”
For the original report go to http://www.artnews.com/2015/04/29/polands-venice-pavilion-explores-haitian-polish-connection/