Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Travels in Rural & Municipal Britain: Patrick Keiller in Self-Retrospective

[alternate version of a review of Patrick Keiller's Tate show from ICON #110]

From a foreigner’s point of view, it is hard to find an artist more parochial, more English (not even British) than Patrick Keiller. This filmmaker, researcher, former architect, polymath, obsesses over Britain, the relation between the land and economy, but strangely, it is not making him provincial, because it’s hard to be provincial, if one’s obsessive topic is the logic of western capitalism, hardly a local phenomenon. But Robinson, the character he created, is himself a kind of an exile, an outsider, a queer, and this is precisely, what allows him to see “the problem of London”, problem of the UK and subsequently, the whole western world, increasingly endangered by the food and natural catastrophy.

The current show in Tate Britain is a complex course in Keillerism and Robinsonism, but already so advanced and multilayered, such a rhizomatic net of references, varying from general, historical and political to extremely personal, that a novice may have easily get lost in this construction. It’s as if it was trying to imitate this arch-English novel, Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, with the complicated, impossible storylines displayed as paintings, books fragments, photographs and scattered data (which makes you wonder what kind of architect Keiller could have been if he didn't drop it years ago; we know he was in the team designing famous London brutalist estates, Alexandra Road and Thamesmead); as if begged by his fans, Keiller made a map of his brain and way of thinking. But no worries: it’s a very rational, very logical brain: even English romanticism was rational, and in dealing with the monster of the late capitalism, one should be rather cool-handed.

The exhibition itself is divided in eight sections, each a small platform, like a dry herbarium, with screens, canvases and memorabilia. And as if straight away answering the “but I haven’t seen any films of his” dilemma, he, the most ferocious chronicler of the present financial crisis, makes a shift and retraces us to the very beginning, the start of industrial revolution. One of the first objects in the show is the threshing machine, one of the first ever technologies introduced to the countryside, forerunner of mechanized production and the object of Luddite movement’s hate and destructive attacks. It’s huge and heavy – hardly a precursor to an Ipad. In his Robinson film trilogy, Keiller examined the tension between the rural and industrial Britain. Where has the 500 years of capitalism led us and what maelstroms happened on its way?

We come back to the prehistory of modernity: the land enclosure changed everything on those isles and in the perception of the world as such. The show documents many movements of resistance to this act, mutinying peasants, who saw it as a seizure of their freedom. From now on it’s impossible to imagine common land with no possessions, where people live together and share, although the show also documents attempts at independent communities. Since then everything becomes a potential profit-maker, open to the speculations of the market. Keiller shows how our thinking would be impossible without this revolt, with signs of melancholy, even nostalgia after an unmechanised, rural world, a ‘biophilia’, as he calls it, to the most basic forms of life. But it is in a landscape after the humanity: we exploited everything, we had massive food crisis, we disappeared, leaving behind the scorched earth. But even at his most ‘biophiliac’, Keiller is not Tarkovsky gazing melancholically at the Zone, but an ironic, politicized observer. With what delight and suppressed anger must have he displayed the screens with the war economy (multiplying maps of the war zones, photographs of roads, lanes, closures, private accesses, warnings). Maps of Oxfordshire and Berkshire, primal locations of his films, overlap with maps of Iraq – because maybe the truth of one can be found in the other. Robinson believed he can best explore the world by walking, as if then the land unfolded itself in an act of political-economical transformation. We can also only do as much, images at the show haunt us, as if staring at them intensely enough, we could see the molecular basis of the historical events.

This obsession pervades his work. In London (1992) he looked at the UK capital of the late Tory rule, where, interestingly, only capital itself is left: we see what happens, if all the social relations are gradually stripped of any additional meaning than monetary and reduced to generating income. We see the strife of London of the early 1990s, with the systematic destruction of declining socialist infrastructure, IRA bombings, and other sinister effects of the Tory period. The city there was becoming a dark, independent organism, slowly decaying amongst the technocratic negligence. Then, in Robinson in Space from 1997, he went outside the city to see what happened to the countryside, finding the non-architecture of corporate sheds, retail parks & military zones. This was where the machine was still working, unnoticed. It anticipated the New Labour, also in terms of their architectural legacy: sheds, speculative, shoddy and expensive housing, symbolising the “boom” and what came after the bubble cracked.

In Robinson in Ruins (2010), after his tormented and ferocious Robinson is released out of prison, put there after he invaded a closed military zone, he relocates to a caravan, where he collects all his previous research and then mysteriously disappears, leaving his legacy to the Institute. The film itself, narrated by the person from the eponymous 'Robinson Institute' (after the real death of Paul Scofield, role took up by Vanessa Redgrave with a perfect, emotionless, flat voice), previously involved with the now deceased Robinson's ex-lover, is supposed to be fragments of his own film-reels. What a beautiful way of building another level of mystery and shaking off rules of autorship Keiller takes his final epopey's element to, denying himself not only the auctorial voice, but also any involvement in what we see on the screen. And what we see is filmic rudiments, stripped to absolute basics: no music, not any non-diegetic score, only nature's images, in long, neverending shots, eternally contemplative, and, one could seriously ponder, an anti-thesis of Tarkovsky's wistful, metaphysical approach to static filming of nature.

And so in the latter, we feel the presence of God, who is 'looking' and 'directing' the image, when the human is absent (nature is never solitary, remember), it is left in its eternal "beauty and mystery"; but of course, we know: we feel such an immense, stubborn presence of Tarkovsky's own eye and sensibility, that we cant really stop thinking about it. Keiller is not giving himself this luxury of rich directing. Of course, like only the great ones do, he is capable of 'directing' the nature, but in his films there's no one looking. Nobody watches, God's dead (sic), people disappeared, even work as such is dead, replaced by machines, there's nothing, only a very uncanny presence of machines (let's not forget the lichens too, of course); and the anonymous, deadly Production going on, that could seemingly go on even after we're all dead (at this moment of crisis, which may also become a serious food crisis, so and so megatonnes of food, it's said, mostly oil seed rape used as biofuel, was not meant for human or animal consumption). Invisible hand of the market at play. Tricks of the trade. Nature's pure relentlessness.

'Robinson's Institute' is also such an erudite delight all along - Warhol’s portrait of Goethe with Kippenberger’s The Happy Ending of Franz Kafka’s “Amerika”, novel, from where Robinson was born; Richard Hamilton intaglios of uncanny agricultural equipment, looking rather like some medieval miniatures, fragments of Quatermass series – and dozens of books. But something tells me that the copy of Borges’ Labyrinths is there less important than, say Engels, Marx, Hobsbawm or Karl Polanyi. And the ultimate message of the show may be to read and use this knowledge against the state of things, rather than attend a psychogeography evening.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Kapuściński The Biography - the best novel about post-war Poland so far?

[a much longer version of an article first published in the Guardian's Review in print on 4.08.2012, an online version in here]

Ryszard Kapuscinski has been the biggest cultural Polish pride abroad, a rare example of internationally recognised name, like ‘Milosz’ or ‘Polanski’, who gained fame due to his vivid literary reportages on power back in the 1980s. Emperor, The Shah of Shahs, Soccer War gained interest not only because of their authors unique position – a star reporter directly from the darkness of the communist Poland, then in the midst of the martial law after a failed workers revolution, but perhaps mainly due to their unusual style – very personal, meticulous, literary, digressive. This wasn’t the usual way of writing journalism and similarly, Artur Domoslawski’s stylish, digressive, written in the unusual present tense, nearly 500 pages long Kapuściński – The Biography is not a conventional biography. Both the author and his hero – also, a friend, a master – stand out of what is accepted in first – the cold war world and now – the post-communist neoliberal Poland by pursuing the truth. And if The Emperor was by some called "the best post-war Polish novel", Domoslawski's book can easily compete as the best novel about this time.

First of all, anyone familiar with the 'reportage' or 'travel' literature will know ‘colouring up’ is one of its commonest devices (think Robert Byron, Curzio Malaparte, Bruce Chatwin, even Oriana Fallaci and others), although it should be perhaps called just ‘literature’. And this was one of the biggest paradoxes of Kapuscinski’s writing, but well showing the enigma this man was. Some say, from today’s, ahistorical perspective, his journalism, from historiography point of view, is simplistic, even naïve “Lonely Planet” style travel writing for beginners, stating the obvious, making mistakes any serious research would wipe out. But what does it matter some Berkeley professor who studied the life of Reza Pahlawi for 30 years, has a better expertise than a poor, sleeping in a car and rags-wearing journalist from the Soviet Bloc country had back in the 1960s? It just doesn’t stand.

Domoslawski is trying to unpack his enigmatic hero, a life-long shy, unconfident man, whose main preoccupation was to be liked (find me a photo without his trademark innocent smile): by the regime, by colleagues, by readers, by critics. it reveals a man with high level of uncertainty. A huge section is devoted to tracing the relative lack of criticism Kapuscinski’s experienced, which was set precisely not to touch the taboo of his past: if they started to criticise him, they’d also have to start a painful debate over the engagement of the current elites in communism and perhaps change their current course: that would be too dangerous for the status quo.

The paradoxical shifts in this great reporter’s career are worth studying not only for the fans of his writing, but because they show in a nutshell the complications of Polish history. How come someone could be first a dedicated socialist, highly engaged in building the new post-war system, then its flagship reporter, traveling to all the revolutions across the war, then a supporter of Polish opposition, who sat with workers in the shipyards and then reluctant supporter of the transition, who nevertheless never really felt comfortable in the post-89 Poland. The censorship, suppression of any criticism made him feel disappointed with the promises of freedom. “Poland is becoming a boring, provincial country” – he told Domoslawski, “and more so, than it ever used to be.”

To understand his importance it’s enough to recall the controversies that arose upon the publication of Kapusciński – Non-Fiction (its original title)  in early 2010, both in Poland and abroad. The main reason for the foreign commentators was how he feigned or colorized the truth, in service to the style or political gains – that he met Che Guevara, Lumumba, Idi Amin or Salvator Allende, that a few times he avoided death from a fire squad. In Poland the widow tried to stop the publication of the book, due to its unembellished descriptions of the writer’s private life (in particular his extramarital affairs). But much more dangerous was confirming Kapuscinski’s firm belief in socialist ideology while the system continued and his uneasy adaptation to the post-89 reality, where he, the star reporter of the previous system, despite his support for the opposition, had to live in a denial. an honest biography required dealing with the political manipulations of memory, that are the daily bread of the Polish social and political life – how could a hero, a master, turn out to be doubtful in the one and only path Poland took after 1989?

Kapuscinski’s biography was tightly and intimately connected with various aspect of communist order and cold war and contemporary politics in Poland is still incredibly determined by the relation to its past history. In the post-1989 Poland there were only two acceptable ways of looking at the previous 50 years, which keeps reproducing ritual wars in politics: one is regarding communist regime as illegitimate, but still something that just has happened and after which we draw a “thick line” between the past and the present. The other one condemns the system unilaterally, in strongest terms, considers it criminal and considers those, who worked within is basically traitors, that therefore should be tried (the infamous “lustration” and a wave of processes for collaboration, effected mainly by the Law and Justice party of the Kaczynski brothers). Kapuscinski, member of all kinds of socialist organisations and a flag PRL reporter, himself was accused of being an agent a few years before his death and spent the last few years of his life in constant fear. Domoslawski goes beyond this binarism and produces a refreshing, essentially left-wing commentary, in which we see rather Kapuscinski a left-wing, a lifelong anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist.

The reason his past could possibly come as revelation is because this mysterious man had to lay low and keep quiet about his involvement in PRL from the start of the ‘democratic’ times. Between the witch-hunt for the former agents, that started in the 2000s Poland by the paranoid right-wing government and the support of the Iraq war by the liberal elites, he truly must’ve felt lonely. While the Polish ex-oppositionist media – particularly Adam Michnik’s "Gazeta Wyborcza", publisher both of Kapuscinski and Domoslawski – fervently supported the Iraq war, Kapuscinski was a rare figure of the post-communist intelligentsia to publicly oppose the war.

This book, while letting all kinds of critical voices – colleagues, friends, family, his professional critics, specializing in the areas Kapuscinski stood out the most: Africa, Latino-American revolutions, Iran – still, more than anything is a conformation of the greatness of the reporter. When Kapuscinski started to gain fame abroad, the Empire and the cold war itself entered a new, dangerous stage. He dropped his communist Party card and joined the liberal opposition supporting the Solidarity movement, and, preventing his American editors, removed the potentially inflammatory fragments about the role of the CIA in the overthrowing the Mossadegh regime. He subsequently gained an international recognition for his beautifully written reports from the conflict and other disasters-ridden Third World countries during the cold war, mostly Africa, always identifying with the weaker and politically misrepresented.

Domoslawski has lots of admiration for his hero’s dedication and sacrifice. Yes, plenty of questions arise about what was the real "cost" of the free traveling around the globe equipped with hard currencies. However his contemporary critics can allege about the pay back he had to do to the Party for his career – being a member of the intelligence, namely – the poor, mostly hungry, often ill and endangered by death Kapuscinski definitely didn’t gain much in comparison to his not only Western colleagues. What did he gain in return? – speculate his friends in the book – ill and endangered by death, how did he himself measure his ‘success’ as a writer from some communist country? It must have been a tremendous political passion and humanism, that made him such a profound critic of the wars in Africa or, especially, the Cuban revolution. He was wholeheartedly supporting Castro and rebelliants, and it was his passion for socialism, not cold war anti-americanism, that gave him insight into the negative role of USA in feeding the dictatorships worldwide. His reportings from Latin America could’ve been written yesterday. Yet this mutual appreciation had also darker sides: did Kapuscinski realise that his friends in Politburo were involved eg. in bashing students in anti-Semitic witch-hunt in Poland 1968? He found himself in the net of connections, that at the same time allowed him to travel and write and brought him suspicion from the persecuted friends.

And the book, not only because the constant speculations about the level of Kapuscinski’s engagement in the regime, reads at times a bit like a John Le Carre novel. The question of identity, one’s own image, of truth, of confabulation, shifts constantly and gains new meanings, turning the whole book into one great quest in search of Kapuscinski’s personality. Who he was? Not even the closest friends or family can answer this question.

His story remains determined by his origins – born in the 1930s in Pińsk, part of the pale of settlement, a Jewish town plagued by all possible atrocities of the WW2, although his own life was not in danger, he experienced enough of misery – holocaust, invasion first of Russians, then of the Nazis, and of Russians again, that it is believable everything he’s done subsequently was inspired by this image. He was from a poor family – and for the first time for people like him the PRL createrd chances. He took it with all belief of the neophyte – as a youth and student organizations activist, and then as debuting reporter. Maybe there his later need for bigging himself up and confabulation came from, having to do with social class and complexes of being from a peripheral country? He had to become what he aspired to be. One of his friends say “Rysiek produced a great work. However, in order to do it, he had to create himself, his own image. In the mid-1980s in America I observed how he learned that a writer must create his own image to gain success. He put a great deal of work into it – it was hard for him, but he passed that exam with flying colours. The image of a fearless war reporter. He reckoned without this legend no one would listen to a writer from a faraway Poland.” That would explain also, why he kept saying his father was nearly killed with 20,000 Polish officers in Katyn in 1940. And this myth of Kapuscinski really started a life on its own, sometimes to the harm of its creator.

Domoslawski is not a mindless unanimous communism-monger, but points out the disadvantages where he must. He gives full details of his character's espionage (he had the code names “Poeta” and “Vera Cruz”), in particular the notorious case of him spying on the academic and reporter Maria Sten in Mexico). But it's striking, how similar role in the end both of them ended up playing: Domoslawski is a reporter specialising in Latin America, freely presenting his soft or not so soft left views in this otherwise liberal newspaper, similarly to his hero, he's kept in reporting from faraway, at an arm's length.

Kapuscinski is an especially neeeded character today. In Poland of the last 20 years everybody behaved, as if communism was just an anomaly in our history, with everything Polish being necessarily anti-communist: church, Home Army, opposition. But mention it to them, Poles will remain curiously precious about “their” communism, as it happened only in there. Kapuscinski was seeing beyond this localism; that’s why he was capable of seeing Cuba, Iran or Guatemala as valuable struggles in “our” socialist case, and not in the simple cold war, pro-American black and white dichotomy.

When the moment came for coming to terms with the crumbling Soviet Empire, he completely missed his chance. Imperium (1993) (some of the many photos he did there here)is a book written in denial, a book, in which its author, normally so engaged, who could’ve told us the most griping story of his own engagement, disappears. Kapuscinski reacts with the biggest act of censorship - the argument must’ve been that it would be announcing to people in the new Poland, that he was a communist, so he had to choose to present himself as a victim. Truth be told this system left no other way than being at the same time both a victim and a beneficiary of it: both were equally true. But when it comes to history, in the post-1989 Poland there was no space for grey areas, there was only black and white, either you’re a victim or a perpetrator. He had to have an answer for his potential critics: How could I resist the system, look how powerful it was! The earlier reporter was trying to write the other, nuanced version of history – the feted Kapusciński of the new Poland was unable to do so. A hero is most revered when he’s silent - that’s why this book is valuable, both in bringing back the true voice of the reporter and for making clear where he stayed silent. For that only, Domosławski’s book is a truly great achievement.