Reading the Weeds
Solemnly and slowly
To climb like that, to stretch
I guess it hurts.
There is a suffering in nature
Of growing and enduring
Happy is that only
Which into non-being leans.
Julian Tuwim, Spring Day 1
1. Julian Tuwim, Spring Day, in Wiersze, vol. 2, Warszawa: Czytelnik, 1986, s. 160.
‘In addition to the feeling that nature is close to me and yet larger than I am, landscape also gives me the feeling of being at home. The sky, the smells, the lighting, the colours and shapes – the landscape of my childhood has become part of my flesh and blood and when I return to it, I am coming home. Landscape also contains history. People have always lived in landscapes and worked in landscapes. Sometimes the landscape suffers from having us live and work in it. Nonetheless, for better or for worse, it is there that the history of our involvement with the earth is stored. And that is probably why we call it a cultural landscape. So, along with the feeling that I am part of nature, the landscape also gives me the sense of being connected to history.’ 2 2. Peter Zumthor, Architecture and Landscape in Thinking Architecture, Basel: Birkhäuser, 2005, p. 95. In these words by the Swiss architect and architecture theoretician, Peter Zumthor, the relationship between history and nature appears both dynamic and basically cheerful, which is why it can sustain the vision of the landscape as our home. Yet, looking at landscapes on which history has left its mark, one can hardly resist the impression that the concatenation of human history with natural history usually takes on a tragic, even apocalyptic, shape. For it shows not only the destructive power of human activity but also its permanent imprint in the work of nature, its peculiar continuation in life.
‘Language has unmistakably made plain that memory is not an instrument for exploring the past, but rather a medium. It is the medium of that which is experienced, just as the earth is the medium in which ancient cities lie buried. He who seeks to approach his own buried past must conduct himself like a man digging’,33. Walter Benjamin Excavation and Memory [Ausgraben und Erinnern, ca. 1932], trans. Rodney Livingstone, originally published in Gesammelte Schriften, IV, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1991, pp. 400-401. wrote Walter Benjamin in his short, posthumously published, essay, Ausgraben und Erinnern [ Excavation and Memory ] (1932). A similar observation seems to have informed Karolina Grzywnowicz’s project Weeds, as part of which she has decided to exhibit a piece of a meadow from one of the villages in south-western Poland that were subjected to ethnic cleansing after the Second World War. Grzywnowicz not only treats memory as a space of field research, but literally returns to the depopulated spaces, treating them as excavation sites. The proper medium for exploring the past here is vegetation, left to its own fate after the people had gone, but still carrying indelible traces of human history.
In his essay, Benjamin notes also that memory work, construed as a form of archaeology, should involve persistent returning to the same places, figures, themes. For the experience of the past can never be reduced to simple conceptual pairs, such as memory/oblivion, presence/absence, centre/margins and so on. What has once been said – once remembered – does not automatically become embedded in tradition, just as talking about something does not mean absorbing it. ‘Above all, he must not be afraid to return again and again to the same matter; to scatter it as one scatters earth, to turn it over as one turns over soil. For the “matter itself” is no more than the strata which yield their long-sought secrets only to the most meticulous investigation.’44. Ibid., p. 400. In other words, memory work has to be based on an intimate knowledge of specific areas of memory, their material history, local variety and all kinds of turbulences that have made it what it is. Just as good orientation in terrain requires many years of practice, so contact with the past calls for previous training and an ability to take advantage of local conditions.
For Benjamin, what the archaeological explorations of memory revolve around are ‘images that, severed from all earlier associations, reside as treasures in the sober rooms of our later insights – like torsos in a collector’s gallery’.55. Ibid., p. 400. A meadow transferred to an art gallery – snatched from its natural context, revealing its peculiar glow in quite a strange space – can be considered as such an image. But this image wouldn’t glow at all if it had appeared in a new context solely through the gesture of exclusion and separation. A meadow reveals its secrets only when it carries to its new location the entirety of its connections, references and meanings. In other words, when the plants growing on it have to be carefully read and re-read, just like an archaeologist watches the surface of the earth in search of lost objects.
‘What the configuration and colour of the corolla reveal, what the dirty traces of pollen or the freshness of the pistil betray doubtless cannot be adequately expressed by language; it is, however, useless to ignore (as is generally done) this inexpressible real presence and to reject as puerile absurdities certain attempts at symbolic interpretation’66. Georges Bataille, The Language of Flowers, in Visions of Excess, Manchester University Press, 1985, p. 10., wrote Georges Bataille in his essay, The Language of Flowers, published in 1929 in Documents, a periodical he edited. ‘It appears at first’, he added, ‘that the symbolic meaning of flowers is not necessarily derived from their function’.77. Ibid., p. 11. Thinking about the significance of flowers one should, therefore, consider not only their symbolic connotations but also their sensory qualities or real effect. In her studies of vegetation in the Bieszczady region, which preceded the realisation of Weeds, Grzywnowicz meticulously catalogues the various reasons why certain species of flowers, trees or shrubs can still be encountered in the depopulated area. A website where the results of this research have been published states, for example, that the lesser periwinkle (Vinca minor) ‘symbolised immortality, which is why it was used to decorate Easter baskets. For the same reason it accompanied funeral ceremonies and was planted on graves. Unmarried women were buried in a periwinkle garland. At the same time, it was an indispensable element of wedding ceremonies: the bride wore a periwinkle garland and prior to the wedding, houses were decorated with periwinkle wreaths.’88. http://chwasty.com/barwinek-pospolity (access 14 August 2015). The wild daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus), in turn, was characteristic for home gardens, while blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) was commonly used for baulk hedges.
In the archaeological perspective in which Grzywnowicz operates, the symbolic meaning of flowers is transposed and complicated, gaining an additional dimension. That they are still there, enduring despite the disappearance of their original cultural context, is as important as what they mean or meant and what they were used for. Their symbolic or practical meaning has grown together, as it were, with a history that only memory work can unearth today. The plants are no longer part of the social order to which they once belonged; their natural vegetation notwithstanding, they are its trace. A living excavation.
‘The abundant growth of field flowers is nothing but a reverse of the human hecatomb utilised by this stretch of Polish land’,9 9. Retranslated from the Polish: Georges Didi-Huberman, Kora, trans. Tomasz Swoboda, Gdańsk: Wydawnictwo w podwórku, 2013, p. 76. Georges Didi-Huberman noted, walking around the site of the former Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. He found a place there where corpses, and then cremated human remains, had been buried on a mass scale. The wild colony of white flowers had thus grown literally on ashes; it attests to the history of the place no less than the surviving ruins of gas chambers, barracks or watchtowers. But it attests differently. These are, after all, ‘weeds’, a key term evoking the rhetoric preceding the extermination of the Jews or other ethnicities or social groups, as well as informing the rationale behind ethnic cleansing operations. The spontaneous flower colonies are, therefore, an evident sign that nature herself commemorates those who had been arbitrarily classified as redundant and sentenced to death. Looking at a meadow full of flowers, one can hardly fail to notice that they are a trace of both presence and absence; that is why they provoke anxiety. Just as the white flowers in Brzezinka testify to the absence of the exterminated through the disturbing fact of the presence of their ashes in the process of biological growth, so the presence of certain plant species in the area explored by Grzywnowicz points to the enduring character of now-absent human practices. And spreads a memory of them as if their history has not yet ended.
Thinking about remembering as a kind of archaeological work, one inevitably arrives at the notion of poetry as an archaeology of language, a persistent, tender, sometimes ruthless exploration of its material and spiritual contents. ‘Poetry is a plough that rips time apart, bringing its deep layers, its black earth, out to the surface. There are, however, such eras when humanity, not content with the present day, longing for the abysmal strata of time, covets like the ploughman the fallow land of history.’10 10. Retranslated from the Polish: Osip Mandelsztam, Słowo i kultura (1921), in Nieograbiony i nierozgromiony. Wiersze i szkice, trans. Adam Pomorski, Warszawa:
Wydawnictwo Open, 2011, p. 115. Yet it is impossible – in poetry too – to unearth the treasures of language without first going through the graves buried in it, without noticing the ashes; you cannot grow flowers without the weeds taking root.
However simple or actually prosaic, Karolina Grzywnowicz’s gesture seems profoundly poetic, and not because she gives herself over to some complex artistic games or an excess of ornate expression. Rather, it is the metaphor’s basic sense that matters here, denoting – etymologically – a transfer, transition or shift. Every population resettlement is actually a grand metaphor, snatching entire cultures away from one place to concentrate them in another. According to these two mechanisms – condensation and displacement, which for Freud represented the basis of dream logic – operates also the history of culture. It is full of stratifications and relocations that constitute its vitality. Yet dislodgement always leaves a void and a sense of pointless suffering. In this context, the question about memory, the ethical question that the author of Weeds poses, is ultimately a question about how to reintegrate the suffering in the sphere of metaphors, how to make it part of culture despite – or precisely because of – the fact that it was caused by barbarity.
The poeticalness of this project begins with listening to the silent protest of the earth that makes abandoned plants endure and grow in defiance of political decisions. The artistic gesture – the extraction of a piece of meadow and its transfer to the gallery – is preceded by research work determining the rationale of a simple and singular gesture. At the intersection of archaeological work and artistic practice is born something that could be called anti-metaphors. These are based on a polemic with historical displacements, those bad metaphors that grow on the living body of historical experience, marking it with unspeakable suffering. The work of anti-metaphors is, therefore, directed against history. At the same time, they are anti-metaphors also because they are no longer expressed solely in language – which is why research alone, without actually transferring the meadow to the gallery, wouldn’t have been enough. The metaphor makes very much material, biological, sense here, though it is replete with various meanings, spreading plant discourses that are both distant from, and inextricably dependent on, the historical tragedy.
Weeds are not about any kind of anamnesis construed as an attempt to return, an attempt that would revive the phantom of cultural or ethnic purity, an ominous paradise from before the confounding of languages and customs. In this sense, it is not about reversing the past. Rather the purpose of anti-metaphors is to provoke tectonic shifts of memory, to move earth so that to show in it both the ashes of the dead and the treasures of nature, sticking, as she does, to her own – or someone else’s really: human – ways. Migrating from the margins to the centre, the meadow thus resembles something of a flying carpet, only it is not an eruption of some magical power but the fruit of memory work, of the laborious and bold – though coded in a simple and decisive gesture – work of mining from the present-day landscape of south-eastern Poland the anti-metaphors of its complex history.
The act of transferring a piece of meadow to an urban gallery space can also be perceived not so much as an operation on the past as an attempt to provoke such a present in which the depopulated landscapes are not doomed to performing their own work only. Such a different modernity – and thus also the present and future – of big city in which there is room for weeds growing in the cracks of concrete was evoked in his reflections on poetry by Osip Mandelstam. ‘Petersburg is truly the world’s most developed city. It is neither with the underground train nor with the skyscraper that the course – the speed – of modernity is measured, but with the lively grasses shooting through from under the pavement. Our blood, our music, our statehood – all this will find a continuation in the tender existence of a new nature, a Psyche-nature. In this kingdom of spirit without man each tree will be a dryad, and each phenomenon will bespeak of its own metamorphosis.’11 11. Retranslated from the Polish: ibid., p. 113.
So perhaps Weeds are best discussed by referring to the language of poetry, by searching in it for equivalents of the natural anti-metaphors analysed and developed by Karolina Grzywnowicz. One of the speakers in such a project could be Jerzy Ficowski – a poet of memory about peoples migrating voluntarily or forcibly displaced, a poet of landscapes made desolate by the Shoah and of objects raising their lament to the empty sky. The poem Posthumous Landscape directly references the landscapes seen by Jews from the trains carrying them to death camps, but the title itself could also evoke the places abandoned by displaced residents12 12. Cf. Jerzy Ficowski, Krajobraz pośmiertny, in Wszystko to czego nie wiem, ed. Piotr Sommer, Sejny: Pogranicze, 1999, pp. 78-79.. Another piece, From the Former Lemko Land [Z Połemkowszczyzny], situates itself much closer to the contexts signalled by Weeds.
in the thickets of coltsfoot
in the clumps of speedwell
in the domes of their shells
stand as little churches
at their sills
the priestly choir still humble-bees
the pleading song
walked here turned back
the black roader
ran across his path 13
13.Jerzy Ficowski, Krajobraz pośmiertny, in Wszystko to czego nie wiem, op. cit., p. 173.
While it is fauna, not flora – as in Grzywnowicz’s project – that distorts and disturbs the flow of ‘languid time’ here, the effect is the same: a strange mixture of seemingly serene nature and peculiar remnants of tradition, heard in the religious kyrieleison, sung now only by the humble-bees, or in impersonal superstition that no one owns anymore. Even the church is no longer a building but a name for what goes on between the snails and the plants they visit. Ficowski’s poems make it possible to read these abandoned landscapes beyond the logic of ‘competing memory’, in which various attempts to evoke past injustices are often embroiled. That is why Village Landscape can simultaneously narrate about very different experiences, as if the histories of the repressed have been tangled in it into one inseparable rhizome.
the meadows of old battlefields
lie silently around
the river casts
shells and bones carefully ashore
sometimes a ricocheting wasp
shoots from between the burdocks
it’s here they once buried
them or not here
and as there is no hole in heaven
so on earth. 14
14. Jerzy Ficowski, Krajobraz wioskowy, in Wszystko to czego nie wiem, op. cit., p. 141.
There is also Tree Song, where at the right moment memory can increase like wind rustling the leaves and snatch with them the worn metaphors of poetic tradition, empty and indispensable like suddenly abandoned domestic utensils entwined with time by lush vegetation.
The sacred order continues in the forest clearing
in the butterflies flying flirting in pairs
in the patient stone
and in the formic needles
in the bolete’s cult circle it sleeps
There are no trees here anymore
and there are trees still
leaves falling off them
will be till we are
silent pears and
the few birches
swooshing in them and creaking.
in this clearing with the gravestones of stumps
there is a brief moment like this 15
15. Jerzy Ficowski, Pieśń o drzewach, in Wszystko to czego nie wiem, op. cit., p. 99.
Ficowski looks at familiar landscapes as one would look at heaps of rubble, all the more strange since they are still vital, still able to perform their primordial rituals. His purpose, however, is not to praise the eternally regenerating nature, but to show its work as if it were inseparable from his own work of ‘reading the ashes’. In one of his best known poems, this purely human ritual ends with another exodus to the desert, where the members of the decimated chosen people will be ‘sowing their stars near Sochaczew’.1616. Jerzy Ficowski, Odczytanie popiołów, in Wszystko to czego nie wiem, op. cit., p. 77. In her project, Karolina Grzywnowicz seems to be staging a similar ritual, at the crux of which is something that could be called the ‘reading of weeds’. Just as Ficowski’s memory work – and similarly to Freud’s dream interpretation (Traumdeutung) – her practice is focused on the stratifications of cultural history and natural processes, and on the shifts of memory growing from their mutual relationships.
Weeds can also find an interlocutor in another poet of complex memory, a memory that is not afraid to turn the layers of language upside down. This is Paul Celan, who in his youth even wrote a poem called Aschenkraut, which can be loosely translated as ‘ash weed’. In one of his more important works, the poem Engführung [rendered into English as Stretto or The Straitening], he evokes a posthumous landscape filled with ‘grass, written asunder’.1717. Paul Celan, The Straitening [Engführung], in Selected Poems, trans. Michael Hamburger, London: Penguin Books, 1996, p. 151. Writing about it means here combing it, parting the bushes in search of hidden remains of the victims, as well as – perhaps – an attempt to dig through language in search of the right words to describe the void left by those who are gone. This unspecified place of archaeological investigations keeps being haunted by words that carry a fatal condition:
Came a word, came,
came through the night,
wanted to shine, wanted to shine.
Ash, ash. 18
In Karolina Grzywnowicz’s Weeds, the plants are still alive, far from having been turned to ashes. But the more they grow, the more dynamically they claim the space left to them, the stronger they indicate the cultural catastrophe they are a trace of. They are like sown ashes that, against history and against nature, have grown above ground. In The Meridian, his poetic credo, a speech delivered upon receiving the Georg Büchner Prize, Paul Celan mentions the protagonist of one of the award’s patron’s short stories: ‘. . . it sometimes bothered him that he could not walk on his head’. He accompanies the words by a highly telling commentary: ‘A man who walks on his head, ladies and gentlemen, a man who walks on his head sees the sky below, as an abyss’.1919. Paul Celan, The Meridian, in Collected Prose, trans. Rosemarie Waldrop, New York: Routledge, 2003, p. 46. This is true. But he who walks on his head also has before his eyes field flowers like stars scattered across the sky. And these stars, glowing like ashes that have been deciphered, can sometimes illuminate the present, and even – who knows – point the way to a new, perhaps slightly better, earth.