Balkan Erotic Epic and memory of the body

Balkan Erotic Epic and memory of the body

Dąbrówka Stępniewska

In the Balkan Erotic Epic (2005) multi-channel video installation Marina Abramović – the Grandmother of the Performance, as she calls herself – combines performance with ritual. She returns to the pagan roots, reffering to Balkan beliefs and practices, in which the body and sexuality play the key role. By recreating ritual activities , she shows the body in dialouge with nature. According to ancient beliefs fertility of the soil is inextricably linked to human fertility. Abramović’s monumental installation sublimates human vital and erotic functions – we find here the expression of pleasure drawn from visually aggressive sexual practices displaced by culture, and especially religion.

The installation can be seen within the BEYOND THE PLEASURE PRINCIPLE/ AFFECTIVE OPERATIONS exhibition in Zachęta – National Gallery of Art, Warsaw, Poland, 09.05 – 02.07.2017.

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Affect is construed here as the body’s automatic reaction to external stimuli or internal processes. These reactions, pleasant or not, occur beyond consciousness and the rational mind, and are not immediately subject to cognitive reflection. Affect is commonly identified with emotions, but in the context of this exhibition it is a proto-emotion: an experience of ‘intensity’ (anxiety, tension, tremor, uncertainty, experienced in the body, under the skin) that – when cognitively worked through, made conscious – triggers off specific emotions such as joy, fear, disgust, shame, anger, and many other related emotional nuances.

I sincerely recommend to see Marina Abramović’s installation and the whole BEYOND THE PLEASURE PRINCIPLE/ AFFECTIVE OPERATIONS exhibition (17 artists), although reception of it is not easy, indeed. In confrontation with the majority of the works I felt the above mentioned negative emotions and strong discomfort.

Cemitério dos Prazeres and Memory of the Dead

Cemitério dos Prazeres and Memory of the Dead

Cemeteries are one of the most impressive reflexes of an historic moment in a certain culture. Therefore, it is rather understandable why southern Europe cemeteries present features that cannot be easily found in Great Britain cemeteries, for example. However, if we look closer to Portuguese cemeteries, we can easily distinguish it from the Spanish, the French or even from the Italian ones.

Francisco Queiroz

Dabrowka Stepniewska

The rainy and gloomy November especially encourages to do some reflection and meditation on the transience, the death and the fragility of human life. This is the best time for remembering the dead and visiting cemeteries. The Western world celebrates in this particular time of the year the Halloween, the All Saints’ Day, the All Souls’ Day from 31st October to 2nd November. At that time cemeteries are illuminated by thousands of candles and sunk in flowers, like in Poland. However, during the rest part of the year the final resting places are usually empty.

In the last week of October this year I visited the famous Prazeres Cemetery in Lisbon, just before the upcoming holidays. Portuguese transport has switched already to the winter timetable, but the temperature was still high (ca. 27-29 degrees Celsius) and the sun was shining beautifully. So there was not a bit of the so called “November atmosphere” which I described above. It was completely different, in fact. The Prazeres Cemetery was almost empty. I saw only a few tourists and I met two old ladies, who were taking care of the graves of their dead spouses. We had some conversation  and frankly they complained a bit that since the cemetery has become a monument the cost of upkeeping the graves increased significantly.
I walked around the cemetery around 1.5 hours and I really felt myself like visiting a ghost town, a city of the dead. The plan of the streets, squares, monuments, mausoleums, chapels and avenues with the houses of the dead corresponds 1:1 to the normal city plan, a living city. Nevertheless, the net curtains in the tombs’ windows looked a little spooky and caused me a bit of an unpleasant shudder. And the coffins visible directly through the glass… This is not a daily view, even at a cemetery. Modernly, we are more accustomed to burying the coffin with the body in the ground or to a discrete cremation rather then exposure of coffins with corpses. A certain order of things had been infringed and that was probably the reason why I felt a bit strange and slightly uncomfortable.
Beyond the beautiful nineteenth century romantic architecture and the scenic location, the Prazeres Cemetery is also well known from the oldest and largest concentration of the cypresses on the Iberian Peninsula. These long-lived trees bring incredible peace and dignity by their presence and are the characteristic elements of this landscape. And the cats are the only living inhabitants of the Prazeres Cemetery, I suppose. They behaved very calmly and very freely, so you could conjecture that the cemetery is probably their living environment, their home. It is significant that the more we move to the south of Europe, the greater dominance of the cats in the cities we observe. Sometimes they took such a pose that they looked like a guardians, absolutely focused and concentrated. Just like the mythical Cerberus,  guarding the entrance to the underworld…
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The Prazeres Cemetery was originally created to handle the thousands of victims of the cholera epidemic in 1833-34.  By 1839, wealthier families began to build monuments.  Several hundred tombs were build between 1839 and1850 alone.  Many important names figures of Portuguese arts and politics are buried here.  The Prazeres Cemetery became the model for most cemeteries in the center and south of Portugal, and is the most cosmopolitan cemetery still existing in the nation.

Before the grounds were converted into a cemetery, it was a collective of farms by the name of Quinta dos Prazeres in which you could find gardens, vineyards and orchards. It’s location, with a beutiful view of the Tejo river, was noble indeed, positioned near Dom Pedro II’s Royal Palace in Alcântara and the other royal parties.

In the XVI century the farm was converted into a refuge for people suffering diseases like smallpox, the plague and yellow fever. Eventually, thanks to the the cholera morbus epidemic in the 1830s, the whole area was designated as a final resting place for the local aristocracy. It was run by the nuns from the Convento de Boa Morte (Good Death Convent) until 1834.

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Tannenberg-Denkmal and the cult of memory

Tannenberg-Denkmal and the cult of memory

History, is devoted to its memory. It is built from collected fragments of information, the detritus of knowledge about the past, and the relics of memories lost.

Memory, in this case it is not a record of experienced recollections but an attempt at an orderly re-assembling of lost memory. It is memory arranged in the form of an archive.

Oblivion, is tantamount to the erasure of the memory of the monument. Devastation experienced years ago, pillage and the dispersion of its unwanted (alien) remains provokes a set of basic questions:

Should one speak about the Tannenberg-Denkmal now?
How should one speak about it?

Dorota Nieznalska, Tanneberg-Denkmal. The cult of memory!

Dabrowka Stepniewska

The Tanneberg – Denkmal, built in 1925-1927, was once a monumental building, located between Olsztynek and Sudwa villages, in former East Prussia and present Warmian-Masurian Voivodeship of Poland. It commemorated the victory of the Prussian army over the Russian in the Battle of Tannenberg 1914. Later on it became also the mausoleum of Paul Hindenburg, a German military man, a field marshal (Generalfeldmarschall) and politician – the President of the Reich during the Weimar Republic and the early Third Reich in 1925-1934.

In 1934, Hindenburg’s body was ceremoniously buried in a special crypt in the monument. Adolf Hitler, appointed by Hindenburg to be the Chancellor in 1933, participated in the funeral. In 1935, Hindenburg’s remains were transferred to the specially prepared mausoleum located in one of the Tannenberg-Denkmal towers.

In January 1945, the Germans, fearing the possibility of the profanation of his remains by the Russian army, managed to take his coffin at the last moment and transport it deep into German territory. A few days later, the mausoleum was partially destroyed by an explosion caused by retreating German troops. Currently, Hindenburg’s remains rest in St. Elisabeth’s Church in Marburg, Germany.

Some of building blocks of the Tannenberg-Denkmal were used for the construction of the stairs at the building of The Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party in Warsaw (1948), for the construction of The Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw (1952–1955) and the Monument of the Liberation of Warmia and Mazury in Olsztyn (1954).

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Dorota Nieznalska, a Polish visual artist engaged in critical art, creating installations, sculptural objects, vide art and photographs, accomplished her project “Tannenberg-Denkmal. The cult of memory!”, supported by the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage and devoted entirely to history – remembrance – oblivion issues.

Dorota Nieznalska’s works – the movie and the website, juxtapose archival documents, photos and videos of the Tannenberg-Denkmal monument with Wagner’s music and the words of Pierre Nora, a French historian and precursor of studies on “the sites of memory”. The project is an attempt to deal with the memory of the historical and cultural heritage of former East Prussia.

Kult pamięci! Tannenberg-Denkmal | Dorota Nieznalska 2014
“Kult pamięci! Tannenberg-Denkmal”, 2014


Irena Saława. The Guardian of Place of National Remembrance

Throughout her life Ms Irena Saława takes care of the World War I cemetery in the Nieprześnia village. There lie bodies of 123 fallen soldiers of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian armies. Together with her husband, 8 other people and a couple of horses, they built the graves with their own hands.

After years, she wrote a beautiful and poignant poem dedicated to a 22 year old soldier, who died ‘in hero’s death for the Fatherland’ on 10 December 1914 nearby  Sobolów village, one among many sites of a tragic warfare in present-day Lesser Poland Voivodeship.

Irena also shares  a memory of grand famine and great poverty she, her family and many others experienced during the war and post-war  times. She tells a short story about picking berries in the wood and hunting for a deer, which eventually passed into the hands of the landlord.

For her noble attitude and taking care for many years of the cemetery in Nieprześnia, she enjoys the recognition and gratitude of the Austrian Black Cross – Österreichisches Schwarzes Kreuz.

She has been also awarded by the Council for the Protection of Struggle and Martyrdom Sites with the Golden Medal of Guardian of Places of National Remembrance on the 100 anniversary of the cemetery and her 80th birthday.

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Production – Joanna Kowieska
Filming- Jakub Stoszek
Editing – Joanna Kowieska, Jakub Stoszek

The Great War and Its Landscapes Between Memory and Oblivion: the Case of Prisoners of War Camps in Tuchola and Czersk, Poland

The Great War and Its Landscapes Between Memory and Oblivion: the Case of Prisoners of War Camps in Tuchola and Czersk, Poland

Dawid Kobiałka, Mikołaj Kostyrko, Kornelia Kajda


Many sites related to the First World War are forgotten and neglected in today’s Poland. This paper shortly presents the ways of practicing “conflict archaeology” in Poland and it discusses results of the non-invasive archaeological survey conducted in Tuchola and Czersk, places where during the First World War Germans built and run prisoners of war camps. In the article the material remains of the camps that have survived in the local landscapes till the present are analyzed. Both sites are at the same time remembered and forgotten by local communities. This paper tries to account for oblivion as an inherent part of local landscapes that adds a unique value to them.

Prisoners of War Camps structures in Tuchola Poland
Contemporary landscape of the former PoW camp in Tuchola: an integration of different types of data. Photo by Dawid Kobiałka, Drawing: Mikołaj Kostyrko
The Prisoners of War cemetery in Czersk. Photo by Dawid Kobiałka
The Prisoners of War cemetery in Czersk. Photo by Dawid Kobiałka


The full article available at SpringerLink International Journal of Historical Archaeology

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Reusing the abstract under the Springer License

All photos published with the Authors’ permission.

Chopin. Memory and musical landscapes, part I

Chopin. Memory and musical landscapes, part I

Dąbrówka Stępniewska

Part I
People and objects. Music, memory mediums and emotions.

I met Saskia Giorgini, the Italian pianist, in Żelazowa Wola, Fryderyk Chopin’s birth place. Although the astrological summer hadn’t started yet, it was a very sunny and torrid Sunday on the 19th of June. The Mazovian sky seemed to be larger and brighter than ever. Ms Giorgini enjoyed it a lot. She already visited Poland several times but this one supposed to be different, because of her recital in Żelazowa Wola. Her beauty and gentle behavior strucked me immediately. Combined with her great talent, it is no wonder that she and Chopin were born under the same sign of zodiac – Pisces. According to astrology, Pisces are deeply creative and artistic, with enhanced intuitive abilities, sensitive and instinctual rather than bookish or mechanical, wholly engage in a chosen path, to the exclusion of everything else. They are great friends and romantic partners. Personally, I fully agree with this characterization. Judge it according to your own discretion. Chopin’s family celebrated his birthday on the 1st of March, however, there are known sources informing on another date of his birth, the 22nd of February 1810.  Saskia Giorgini was born in February too but more than 150 years after Chopin. The music subtly combines their biographies. Through playing the piano Saskia Giorgini introduces us to the world of Chopin and revives the memory of him, his life and his works.

Żelazowa Wola, Fryderyk Chopin birthplace, 1810
Żelazowa Wola. The birthplace of Fryderyk Chopin

The whole Chopin’s family had artistic leanings, and even in infancy Fryderyk Chopin was always strangely moved when listening to his mother or eldest sister playing the piano. Being at the age of six, he was already trying to reproduce what he heard or to make up new tunes. The following year he started his piano lessons. At the age of eight he made his first public appearance at a charity concert. Three years later he performed in the presence of the Russian tsar Alexander I, who was in Warsaw to open the Parliament. His reputation of a child prodigy was growing rapidly. At seven he wrote a Polonaise in G Minor, which was printed, and soon afterward a march of his appealed to the Russian grand duke Constantine, who had it scored for his military band to play on parade. Other polonaises, mazurkas, variations, ecossaises, and a rondo followed, with the result that, when he was 16, his family enrolled him at the newly formed Warsaw Conservatory of Music.  Chopin had shown interest in the folk music of the Polish countryside and had received those impressions that later gave an unmistakable national colouring to his work. At the conservatory he was put through a solid course of instruction in harmony and composition. In piano playing he was allowed to develop a high degree of individuality.

Skarbek family residence in Żelazowa Wola
Skarbek family residence in Żelazowa Wola

Chopin’s childhood coincided with the Napoleonic era. Poles pinned great hopes for the restoration of the Polish State with Napoleon Bonaparte. They fought at his side against Prussia and Russia. After the fall of Napoleon the Congress of Vienna brought to life the Polish Kingdom, with an extremely truncated borders and fully dependent on Russia . The Tsar of Russia became the King of Poland. A fairly quiet life in the time of Alexander I turned to anguish during the reign of Tsar Nicholas I. All of this resulted in the outbreak of the November Uprising in 1830. Chopin was already outside Poland. He left the country on 2 November 1830 to start his concert tour throughout  Europe. His journey coincided with the emigration of Polish insurgents after the defeat of the November Uprising. As a true patriot Chopin supported the Polish cause and the Polish emmigrant associations with his work and money almost till the end of his life in Paris, on the 17th October 1849. His music, his association with political insurrection, his love life and his early death have made him a leading symbol of the Romantic era in the public consciousness.

Saskia Giorgini in Żelazowa Wola 2016
Saskia Giorgini in Żelazowa Wola

Saskia received her first piano lessons at the age of four. Being fifteen years old she was admitted to the piano academy “Incontri col Maestro” in Imola, where she studied with Franco Scala, Riccardo Risaliti, Leonid Margarius and Michel Dalberto. At the same time she graduated from the Conservatorio di Torino with Claudio Voghera, with the highest grades. She then completed her studies at the Accademia di Musica di Pinerolo with Enrico Pace and the postgraduate studies at the Mozarteum Salzburg with Pavel Gililov. For her 2013 New York debut she performed Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto n.1 with the New York Concert Artists & Associates Orchestra. She has played together with important orchestras, such as Lodz Philarmonic Orchestra in Poland, CBC Radio Orchestra in Canada, Symphonieorchester Vorarlberg, Liepaja Symphony Orchestra in Latvia, Wuhan Philharmonic Orchestra, L’Orchestra Archi De Sono, l’Orchestra Giovanile Italiana, under the baton of conductors as Mario Bernardi, Gérard Korsten, Tadeusz Wojciechowski, Antonello Manacorda, Andrea Battistoni, Massimiliano Caldi. She is a winner of the International Mozart Competition in Salzburg in 2016, where she also got the special prize for the best interpretation of the commissioned work. She has a special affinity for chamber music. The Artist is considered by the music critics as one of the most interesting pianists of the young generation. Her visit and recital in Żelazowa Wola on the 19th of June 2016, organized by The Fryderyk Chopin  Institute, was as a special price for the finalist in the International Piano Competition Ferruccio Busoni 2015, were she received the award for the best interpretation of a work by Fryderyk Chopin. She admits that she loves Chopin and his music, which also rises her warm feelings for Poland and Poles.

Broadwood & Sons piano 1843 in Żelazowa Wola
Broadwood & Sons piano in Żelazowa Wola

The opportunity to listen to Saskia Giorgini performing Chopin on the 19th of June in Żelazowa Wola was unique, because the Artist played the instrument from the Chopin era. The piano was produced by the John Broadwood & Sons piano manufacturer in London, 1843. It was originally ordered by Georges Wildes from Manchester. F. Chopin played a similar grand piano (serial no. 17047, now in Cobbe’s Collection in Great Britain) during his trip to England in 1848. According to factory archives it was repaired twice in 1855. The instrument was bought in 2014 by the Fryderyk Chopin Institute in Warsaw. A square lime plate on the keyboard cover, decorated with arabesques, contains inscription: Patent / Repetition Grand Pianoforte. / John Broadwood & Sons / Manufacturers to Her Majesty / 33. Great Pulteney Street Golden Square / London. The instrument is made from wood, metal and ivory. The timbre of each instrument is unique, but it is possible that the “Chopin’s piano” sounded very similar, as an instrument from the same manufacturer. At least we would like do believe so. The Artist played two concerts in Żelazowa Wola. The first one, on the historical piano, started at noon. The second one, on a modern instrument, started later in the afternoon. Both concerts lasted ca. 45 minutes and the program stayed the same:

– Notturnos op. 15
– nr 1 F-dur
– nr 2 Fis-dur
– nr 3 g-moll
– Rondo à la Mazur F-dur op. 5
– Waltz a-moll op. 34 nr 2
– Waltz As-dur op. 42
– Ballad As-dur op. 47

Saskia Giorgini at Żelazowa Wola 2016, fot. Magdalena Rodziewicz NIFC
Saskia Giorgini in Żelazowa Wola, fot. Magdalena Rodziewicz NIFC

The Pianist stayed alone with the old instrument inside the birthplace of Fryderyk Chopin, an eastern outbuilding of non-existing Skarbek family residence, while the audience stayed outside in the garden, waiting impatiently for the first tunes. After all, Saskia Giorgini said that it was an unusual feeling playing in an empty room on the historical piano, accompanied only by the ticking clock. Visitors from around the world behaved very quietly. The atmosphere was amazing and magical. The succeeding melodies, wistful and carefree, cheerful and thoughtful  were very reminiscent of the sounds of the surrounding nature. Birds singing blended in the music and the subsequent passages strikingly resembled the rustle of trees and the nearby Utrata River. The music was spreading around the park from hidden speakers so you felt like the all creation is singing the same melody. Each leaf hummed to the rhythm and the sound of Chopin’s music reverberated around the park.

Saskia Giorgini Chopin Recital in Żelazowa Wola 2016
Saskia Giorgini Recital in Żelazowa Wola

The Pianist revived the historical instrument and reanimated the Author. The sounds carried us back in time to the family home of Chopin and his childhood. It was really something like a time travel, or better to say between times travel. You could almost hear the sound of an evening lullaby or the laugh of children playing in the garden. In that one brief moment the Author, the Artist and the Instrument became one and brought us somewhere beyond time and space – to the land of Chopin’s dreams and memories. The past and the present became one.  The future was unnecessary. Nobody wanted to interrupt this unique experience. Chopin’s music acts extremely on imagination and Saskia Giorgini played it perfectly. She and the piano were a memory medium and a time vehicle, because in the world of music everything is possible. The music is like the space – unlimited and everlasting.

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Żelazowa Wola Chopin. Memory and musical landscapes


Related article:
Chopin. Memory and musical landscapes, part II. Place and landscape, memory and monuments

Liban. Memory of Stones

Liban. Memory of Stones

“Palimpsest means a parchment that has been partly erased and re-inscribed. It evokes the marks made by human settlement on the land, the passage of time, presence and absence and the web of inter-dependence uniting the natural and the cultural, the material and the immaterial.”

Jade Wildy

Limestone. All kinds of buildings and other constructions have been built using jurassic limestone from local sources for a thousand years. Many quarries were erected in the early Middle Ages in hills that comprised tectonic horsts. A dozen of these quarries were still in use in the 19th and 20th centuries. Nowadays they represent important objects of both geological and cultural heritage. The quarries from the Lesser Poland region are the most well known examples of the post-exploited geological landscape in Poland, where most of building and road stones as well as raw materials for the chalk, cement and chemical industries were excavated.

Liban Quarry. The Liban Quarry  is located in Kraków-Podgórze district near the railway station Kraków-Płaszów. The exploitation of limestone was carried out here since the 14th century. The limestone company ‘Liban and Ehrenpreis’, founded by Bernard Liban and run by the Liban and Ehrenpreis Jewish industrial families from Podgórze, established the quarry here in 1873. By the end of the 19th century a complex of buildings was established within the quarry as well as a railway line was laid. The ‘Liban and Ehrenpreis’ enterprise was the most important company in the construction materials industry in Kraków at that time.

Forced-labor. During the World War II and the time of Kraków’s German Nazi occupation, Liban Quarry was set-up as a forced-labor camp. The Nazis employed here approx. 800 people working 14 hours a day without holidays and Sundays. The prisoners of Konzentrationslager Plaszow – a Nazi German concentration camp,  were kept here from 1942 to 1944 performing forced labour. On average, there were 400 prisoners in the camp. Throughout the period of its operation over approx. 2,000 Poles and Ukrainians were working in very difficult conditions in the quarries and lime kilns. During the liquidation of the forced-labor camp in July 1944, 146 of 170 prisoners escaped. Others were executed on the spot. They were buried at the place of execution.

Konzentrationslager Plaszow. The Konzentrationslager Plaszow was built by the SS in Płaszów, not far away from the Liban Quarry, between the Kamieńskiego and Wielicka Streets, partly on the site of Jewish graveyards. Originally intended as a forced-labour camp KL PLaszow had been populated with prisoners during the liquidation of the Kraków Ghetto on 13–14 March 1943. Thereafter, the camp was expanded and turned into one of many Nazi German concentration camps. The real Jewish tombstones were used to pave the road into the concentration camp so that inmates were compelled to trample over the relics of their ancestors on their way to and from work.

“Schindler’s List”. In 1993, Allan Starski created in Liban Quarry the scenography for Steven Spielberg’s famous “Schindler’s List”, depicting the Konzentrationslager Plaszow. For $ 600,000 at the bottom of the quarry they built 34 huts and 11 watchtowers. Part of the decoration still remains in the quarry, e.g. fragments of fences, wooden poles with the remnants of barbed wire or a part of the path laid with imitation of Jewish tombstones. These traces remain confusingly mixed with the genuine historical artifacts from the WWII.

Mainstay of nature. After the WWII the ‘Liban and Ehrenpreis’ company was nationalized and employed to 110 employees. In 1986, the deposit was considered to be exploited. At the end of its exploitation the Liban Quarry has become an important mainstay of nature in the city center. The bottom of the quarry is covered with water, it has a dense vegetation and is a residence for many species of birds. There is also a very large population of dragonflies and butterflies. The impressive limestone cliffs, ponds, prolific fauna and flora absorb the historical heritage of this place. When one climbs up the Krakus Mound and looks down from the lip of the Liban Quarry,  one can see the power of life rather than death.

Natural-cultural palimpsest. A lot of Kraków’s citizens are coming here for a walk, to do some sport and to entertain, rather then admire and explore the cultural heritage, like the tourists do. But is there something wrong in such behavior, besides leaving behind garbage? Personally I have a mixed feelings and different thoughts while visiting places like this: former cemeteries, sanctuaries, settlements, places of forced labour, mass massacres, mass graves, which have been absorbed by the dynamically changing landscape. Their function and meaning are constantly changing in time and are re-defined by successive generations. A natural-cultural palimpsest of memories, indeed…

Dąbrówka Stępniewska

Reference material: