Diana Lelonek: Liban i Płaszów––nowa archeologia / A New Archaeology for Liban and Płaszów
Museum of Contemporary Art, Kraków, April 28-June 18, 2017
Photography is, at its heart, an art of severances––the cutting-down of space and time into frames and moments––and so an art of fragments, which is to say potentized fragments, pieces that conjure patterns, parts that stand for wholes. In this sense, photography is close in spirit to archaeology, and it is no wonder that a photographer should bend her artistic process toward the act of digging, collecting, and installing the results in vitrines. This is precisely the case with the photographer Diana Lelonek, whose new exhibition Liban i Płaszów––nowa archeologia / A New Archaeology for Liban and Płaszów consists primarily of scavenged artifacts from Płaszów and Liban, two alter-sites in contemporary Kraków.
In Lelonek’s display boxes, you will find, in loose organizations based on size, shape, and approximate age: computer motherboards, Jurassic fossils, ceramic transformer bushings, moss-covered shoes, and inscrutable objects without clear names. Accompanying these displays are a handful of photographs of other found items––an encyclopedia, an industrial fan, Cretaceous-era bivalve shells––plus a looped, slow-moving video showing a fake but realistic overview of what the Liban site might look like were it slotted for redevelopment.
Apart from the curator’s statement, no information accompanies Lelonek’s discoveries, a withholding that apparently marks the difference between science and art: the archaeologist proper feels the obligation to append objects to explanation, while Lelonek as archaeologist feels no obligation to explain anything. The curatorial text by Gordon MacDonald makes only passing mention of “the site’s use as an internment camp in the Second World War,” and speaks vaguely of “difficult recent history,” without providing even a cursory account of just why Płaszów and Liban are distinctly charged locations.
To state concisely what the exhibition does not: approximately 150,000 people passed through the Płaszów camp between 1942 and 1945, mostly Polish Jews; forced laborers at Płaszów, and at satellite subcamps including the Liban quarry, numbered some 30,000 at the camp’s height in 1944; some 10,000 died in the camp––by disease, starvation, exhaustion, sadistic beating, and firing squad. The exhibition will also not tell you that unlike other major former Nazi camps in Poland, Płaszów today is used mostly for leisure and recreation, especially in the warm months, when it is a popular place to stroll, sunbathe, picnic, and drink. The contemporary uses of Płaszów were the subject of extensive research that I conducted in 2015 while a fellow at Kraków’s International Culture Center, the results of which are summarized in my report Site or Non-Site?.
The decision to omit even a skeletal statement of the site’s history is wrong, for at least two reasons. First, the lack of historical explanation short circuits the artistic labor these objects are meant to perform. Aesthetic imagination needs information, and without it, these found objects remain below the threshold of meaningful evocation. Second, there are any number of other places in Kraków where the ethical stakes of creating a historical potpourri of “natural and man-made traces” are much lower. Without clearly communicating the ways that genocide marks Płaszów, it is ethically questionable to assume a position of disciplined neutrality toward the site’s artifactual remains, as if to equate all periods of its history, and to liken the remnants of mass murder to any other sort of buried junk. On the contrary, it is precisely because of mass murder––because dogs taken to run at Płaszów and gas company workers are still uncovering human bones, as happened just last year––that other objects found there become auratic and worth contemplating.
With clear explanatory text about Płazów's genocidal history, Lelonek's installation would read quite differently. As it is, Lelonek apparently believes that the natural processes of physical erosion loosen a site of genocide from its specific history, and deliver it to an indistinct imagination of an increasingly undifferentiated past. If so, uncomfortable questions follow. I feel compelled to ask her: why unearth fragments of Płaszów and Liban while effectively keeping the location’s wartime history buried? What exactly is the difference between an absence of explanation and a refusal to explain? What distinguishes omission from denial? What keeps Holocaust minimization from sliding into Holocaust disavowal? Does artistic research unwittingly provide a license for ethical indifference that scientific research does not? What are the ethical obligations of artistic archaeology anyway?
May 21, 2017, Kraków