My Polish residency officially expired yesterday, and I mourn its passing. Nevermind that my non-renewal of this residency status was due to pressing US concerns and according to original plan. I’ve been back in the US for four and a half weeks (which is a vague approximation of a particular and specifiable quantity of hours of which I am all too aware). My US house is delightful. My critters are happy in their garden. I’ve landed a new freelance gig and started a new (small) business, the combination of which makes the US bills do-able. I’ve embarked on a new arts project that I’m excited about. I’m also tending to those pressing concerns. But, “home” remains in Warsaw. How is this possible?!?
At my pożegnanie, my farewell gathering, the one in which, after many months of struggle with the “world’s most difficult language,” I busted out with spontaneous Polish—my brain and body too attached to let go, too committed to hold back—someone said, “Since you say wracam (return) when you talk about Warsaw and not ‘visit,’ perhaps this is your place.”
Yes, against all contemporary and historical odds, and although I arrived in Warsaw a year ago, with one contact, no Polish, and no substantial knowledge about, or historical association with, Poland, perhaps it is my place. Perhaps, it is home. What a preposterous concept! I can manage Polish only more poorly than my youngest Polish friend, who is four. Yes, I have lapped up Polish history and contemporary Polish experience like a thirsty dog in the last twelve months and can hold my own in conversations about Poland, Polish history, and contemporary Polish experience (providing the confab is conducted in English), but how is it possible to claim a home there? Particularly when I have lived all over the world and might as well claim a home both anywhere and nowhere.
I suspect it has to do with transparency. A kind of honesty I can relate to. An honesty I have found nowhere else. “How are you?” in Poland is received as a genuine question. The American auto-“fine” does not apply. Instead, the question is answered with forthright integrity. Poles are humans I can relate to. Despite linguistic obstacles, the Polish brand of transparent honesty speaks to me. I can also relate to the way this honesty manifests in Polish art.
I will have to consider this angle more thoroughly before I can say anything worth standing on or quoting, but preliminarily, the fundamental difference between US (and Western) art and Polish art is the assumption, the given, in Polish art of the inseparability of the social, the historical, and the political from the fundamental artistic premise and practice. The social, historical and political are inseparable from the aesthetic. In US (and Western) art, I might preliminarily say that the fundamental and inseparable artistic premise for all but (potentially) social practice, is the sale. It is a premise of Commerce. Conversely, Polish art—though commerce is part of the mix—is derived via a premise of honest human expression, representation, provocation, and accountability, none of which are extricable from the social, historical, and political context.
No slights, insults, and misrepresentations intended for my US-artist kin—my beef is with the structure in which we all create and not with the creators in a flawed, to my head and heart, and inordinately capitalist-inflected US context of creation—and I hope (intend?) to expand on this difference in greater detail later, once the requisite years or decades indicated for cogitation prior to mammoth pronouncement have honorably passed, but these are my prelims. For this moment, let’s just assume I’m reasonable, am correct, and that the dichotomy is accurate and given (with necessary apologies).
If given, then this fundamental presumption of the social/historical/political is what makes me Polish, both generally and in the art I make. That, and the requisite honesty that accompanies this acknowledgment of an inextricable social/historical/political context. An aesthetics that is not positioned as a binary opposition to the lived and experienced real context in which objects and art emerge is at the core of what makes me (and my art and experience) Polish.
So, how are you (I invite/wish you to ask)? Well, I’m fair to middling. I love the house I designed and built, the one I’m currently fortunate enough to occupy. My critters are happy. I am engaged with my work and the everyday of gardening and upkeep and teaching and making a living and creating stuff. But, profoundly…
I miss a human connection that validates how I approach and live in the world, a connection that I find hard to come by in the dollars and sense USA, in the super size me capital of the world, in my homeland as far back as the 17th century. Yes, for all objective intents and purpose, I am home. Yet, for all that I know and stand for, I am in, have returned to, exile. Exile has been coded into my genes since Louix XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes. It is familiar. It is more a given than not. But. I yearn to wracac.
originally appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review Blog on September 1, 2014