An Open Proposal for a Historical Intervention in Warsaw, Poland
“Philosophers agree,” writes Henri Bergson in his intellectual autobiography La pensée et le mouvant, “in making a deep distinction between two ways of knowing a thing. The first implies going all around it, the second entering into it. The first depends on the viewpoint chosen and the symbols employed, while the second is taken from no viewpoint and rests on no symbol.” In Bergson’s account, to grasp a thing from without is to understand it comparatively, relationally, contingently––a proliferating complexity mediated by language, signs, symbols, images. To grasp a thing from within, by contrast, is to understand it sympathetically, intuitively, non-comparatively––independent of whatever it shares or does not share with other things.
Bergson’s distinction bears not only on metaphysical problems––his own primary concern––but on historical problems as well. What is it to know a historical experience from the outside and from the inside simultaneously? And what is it to know a historical experience that is internally fractured, unwhole to itself––as for example the genocide of the European Jews? Is it possible to enter “into” an awareness of traumatic history by way of a questioning encounter with the world’s surfaces? Is it possible to intervene upon the everyday in a way that unsettles both the present and the past, with the effect of resettling each?
With Bergson’s words in my ears, I propose a public art project to link two locations that are at once antithetical and unexpectedly resonant––Warsaw’s Ogród Saski, and the Treblinka death camp some 80 kilometers northeast of the city. Ogród Saski was Warsaw’s first public park, and one of the earliest in all of Europe. First opened in 1727, its patterned flowerbeds, formal arbors, ornamental lake, Rococo sandstone statues and famous grand fountain––not to mention its erstwhile palaces––were and remain a source of beauty, peace, and cultural refinement for all of the city’s peoples. Largely destroyed during the Warsaw Uprising, the park has been partially reconstructed.
As is well known, some 300,000 Jews imprisoned in the Warsaw ghetto––approximately one in every four civilians in Warsaw during the war––were deported to the Treblinka death camp, 80 kilometers northeast of the city. There they were among the approximately 900,000 Jews who were asphyxiated in gas chambers, and whose bodies were burned and strewn in pits. The result was an urban and regional geography linked in ways equally direct and oblique. Just as Ogród Saski sat beside the massive prison-ghetto for Jews, and indeed served it––the Bruehl Palace pressed into use as the Germans’ administrative office for the ghetto––so too Treblinka sat beside the city itself, as if a dark planet in the city’s orbit.
By coincidence, the physical size of Treblinka II (the main death camp of the Treblinka complex) is very close to the size of Ogród Saski––the former between 13.5 and 17 hectares, the latter 15.5 hectares. The shapes of the two places are also uncannily similar, their trapezoidal contours oddly alike. The image above shows the physical similarities in contour and in scale between the two sites, by way of a superimposition of a contemporary satellite picture of Treblinka atop a contemporary satellite image of Ogród Saski. Of course, the physical match between the two places at the same time pronounces profound degrees of mismatch. Ogród Saski is a place of pleasure, culture and civilization, while Treblinka is a place of destitution, revulsion and barbarity. Ogród Saski is a place of historical continuity, while Treblinka is a place of historical rupture and loss. Ogród Saski, even as it functions as a gathering place for all the city’s residents, houses a key site of distinctly Polish national memory, the nation’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Notwithstanding the monument’s overt inclusiveness, its particular non-specificity, it is not unofficially also a Tomb of the Unknown Murdered Civilian, much less a Tomb of the Unknown Jewish Martyr, i.e. it is distinct from the Holocaust memorials found nearby, in the place of the former ghetto. Likewise Treblinka, even as it is a destination for all Poles and for international visitors, is signed as a specifically Jewish site of mourning that does not quite correlate with Polish national memory.
I ask myself: what would it mean to pull Treblinka in from its orbit, to return it (as it were) to the city to which it is so deeply connected? And what would it mean to do so not through a declarative gesture, for example a monument to the camp in the city, but through small, cumulative acts of memorial disruption? And could it be done in a way that registers both the park’s bright tranquility and also the camp’s dark tranquility? Do the contrasts between Ogród Saski and Treblinka, and the accident of their similar sizes and shapes, make the park ripe for artistic intervention?
This project would undertake just such an intervention, forcing the camp and the park into a searching relationship. My idea is as follows. I propose to walk the perimeter of Treblinka several times, and to photograph it carefully with a medium format film camera, making richly descriptive color images. Specifically, the photographs would picture the earth of my walk, what is directly beneath the feet––pine needles, sand, grasses, the things of the forest floor and whatever I must walk through to walk the camp’s perimeter. These pictures would not look like war or Holocaust imagery in any familiar sense, and indeed might not look so different from the things to be seen on the ground of the park itself. Rather these pictures would be simple, non-symbolic, factual accounts of a place entirely and exclusively defined by the genocide. They would show exactly what earth of the genocide looks like now, plainly and without commentary.
These photographs would be installed in Ogród Saski, in a shape that recreates Treblinka’s perimeter at its actual scale––as shown in the photograph above. The photographs themselves would likely be approximately 1.5 meters square, and would take the form of transparencies lit from behind, encased in durable metal lightboxes and placed directly on the ground itself. At night, they would form a trail of dots of light that could be followed. I imagine approximately 30 such images altogether, to describe the contour of the camp as brought to the park. Additionally, the installation would include informational tablets, several of them placed at intervals, describing the project, and providing comparative maps that would allow viewers to conceive of the camp in the space of the park before them, including marks to show where along the camp’s perimeter they would be standing were they in Treblinka and not in Ogród Saski.
If I am successful, the project will communicate to viewers on multiple levels. By bringing the camp into the city, as it were, and situating it in a public space of leisure not generally assigned the task of commemorating genocide, the work will recall the Holocaust as an inheritance that belongs to all of Warsaw, and belongs everywhere in the city, including its most beautiful and historic articulations of public space. This installation will not describe the genocide through an iconography of horror and misery. The blood and human ash of Treblinka are, of course, visible to no one. Rather the installation will suggest the presence of unhealed loss as an alternate quietude that has come to dwell in the park’s own quietude. The simple images of Treblinka’s perimeter, arrayed faithfully and non-confessionally to describe the actual scale of the camp, coinciding with the perimeter of Ogród Saski, will suggest to viewers that the park, with a squint of the imagination’s eye––in an act of imaginative sympathy, what Bergson would call intuition––is not merely itself. It is also the analogue of a place utterly unlike itself. By walking the perimeter of Treblinka as it will be laid out along the perimeter of Ogród Saski, looking at and into the pictures of Treblinka at their feet, viewers will simultaneously go around and “into” the Holocaust’s nearness, which coincides with its removedness. The park’s peace and grace will, if I am successful, be made to meet the camp’s null truths, in the everyday mind and heart of the citizen.
Jason Francisco, Warsaw, 2014
All images above, save for the maps, show Ogród Saski, 2014