From Krefeld to Otwock: On the Road with Susanne Ghez

Susanne Ghez, 1992

MONDAY, JULY 20: KREFELD, GERMANY A privileged guest at the Mies Van der Roh Haus Esters, I rise early to meet Miroslaw at 8:00 am for a last visit to his impressive exhibition at the Haus Lange. The art handlers and curator Julian Heynen arrive to dismantle the show and we leave and drive straight east into the hot sun: Hannover, Helmstedt, Berlin, and the small border town of Frankfurt. The German highways are clogged with trucks which are prohibited from travel on the autobahns on weekends; the four-lane highway, rough-surfaced for better traction at high speeds, makes the Volkswagen vibrate. Around 2:00 pm we pass the old checkpoint on the highway to Berlin. A new fiberglass wall has been constructed; this one to hide from the traveler the militaristic complex with its legion of lights and decaying gray docks and offices—a reminder of the recent past.

At 3:00 we cross the German border into Poland without so much as a passport examination. Like San Diego/Tijuana, the contrasts are sharp. The road—a major international route between Berlin and Warsaw—drops off to two lanes. The earth along the roadside is a mix of sand and ash, the buildings ramshackle. Handsome tall white birches line the roads and stand out against blonde fields awaiting harvest. Nowhere do I see mechanized farm equipment. Men and women swing scythes in the late afternoon sun. Wooden wagons heaped with hay are drawn by horses down the highway, bringing cars to a screeching halt. Gray and black storks stand in pairs on chimney top nests, on the tops of poles, and in tall trees along the road. Miroslaw relaxes. What is it about being within one’s own borders that makes us feel safe?

We stop for lunch at 5:00 at one of the few roadside restaurants to be seen on our 1,100 kilometer drive. I’m struck by the flatness of the land, and wonder if the comfort I feel is shared by the many Poles who settled in Chicago. We arrive exhausted in Warsaw shortly after midnight, a trip of almost sixteen hours. Their house on the outskirts of town is surrounded by a metal fence with barbed wire running along the top. The driveway gate locks by key, and two black dogs quickly appear from behind the house. Crime is on the rise in Poland. Many consumer goods have arrived since 1989 but few Polish workers with average salaries of $200 per month (up from $60) can afford them. Susanna, Miroslaw’s fiancée, opens the gates and welcomes me into their lives for the next three days. I feel privileged to be a guest in their house, and sleep soundly on the sofa bed in their living room.

TUESDAY, JULY 21: WARSAW, POLAND We breakfast together and plan for the next days. Susanna and Miroslaw must go to the city offices to get a marriage license and secure a date. We visit two offices where functionaries are now polite, having lost their power with the change of regime.

With Susanna’s daughter Ania, we walk through a central square in the old section of the city which was completely destroyed during the war and is now rebuilt from old engravings and photos. As a result, the architecture looks flat, the details exact but lacking depth. We visit a Witkacy exhibition in a small simple space—strong drawings and enlarged photos. witkacy—Stanislw Ignacy Witkiewicz—is one of the few Polish artists from the 1930s with whom I am familiar. A forerunner of Nauman in America and Gunther Brus in Austria, emotional and body-focused work. It is very hot, and we stop for ice cream and walk along the remnants of the old city wall where bad paintings and handsome amber jewelry are offered to tourists of whom there are almost none. We visit the Foksal Gallery, a small room, an office and a little courtyard. How have they managed to keep their doors open these last 20 years and offer a program that includes Bueys, Wiener, Buren, Kosuth, and now Balka? We sit outside on a bench in the courtyard and drink coffee with the owner Wieslaw Borowski, returning home around 4:30 for a lunch with Susanne—a delicious homemade cold cucumber and dill soup. We drive to nearby Otwock to Miroslaw’s studio, the home in which he grew up. The house is small and alive with memories of parents and grandparents. There is no indoor plumbing; a water-pump stands in the yard, an outhouse nearby. The built-in stove for cooking and heating is fueled by wood. It is hot inside and we bring chairs outside to hold the piles of documentation from a career begun in the mid-1980s. Seated on a bench in the shade of a small tree we discuss the development of Miroslaw’s work, and I look at the many transparencies and photos. Our hours of conversation over the last few days come together and a strong body of work with a consistent base reveals its shape, confirming what I initially felt from Miroslaw’s installation at the Venice Bienale, and from speaking with Klaus Nordenhake (a Stockholm gallerist) at the 1991 Art Expo. With remarkable patience Miroslaw pulls out and unwraps older works fro me to see. As we close the door of his studio I can still see the names of the three kings written with holy chalk on the door by his grandmother, dated 1979, the last year of her life.

As the sun sets we visit an old Jewish cemetery destroyed during the war. Monuments and gravestones lie askew and human bones surface through the sand everywhere. With the remaining evening light we pay a visit to the cemetery where Miroslaw’s grandfather was a master stonemason and walk around this old cemetery with its towering trees, its granite and marble monuments. Even at this late hour the cemetery is alive with people bringing summer flowers, drawing water for urns, replacing vigil lights, chatting and admiring the work in stone. At 10:00 we have dinner at home with Susanna outside by candlelight. The evening is still and finally cool. The trip has been valuable: I am happy.

WEDNESDAY, JULY 22 We leave Warsaw mid-morning for Cracow in the VW with Susanna, Ania and Miroslaw again at the wheel. The countryside is beautiful, tabletop flat with haystacks in orderly configurations. Fruit trees everywhere—plums, apricots, apples— and people along the narrow road selling fruit. We go via Radom and Kielce where the land begins to roll. The outskirts of Cracow are architecturally harsh but soften as we near the center. Our hotel, the Saski, a lovely old hotel with double rooms for $30 a night (without bath) and incongruously a Vietnamese restaurant on the first floor (why not?). It is late afternoon and we walk to the vast pigeon-filled central square with its shopping arcade and church, and I am reminded of northern Italy. We visit art galleries and walk near the Visla River to the cathedral and castle of Wawel where a large iron dragon breathes fire. The weather remains very hot and we sit down for a glass of Bulgarian white wine. We have a late dinner with an art dealer from Cracow, a young woman who has given up her gallery space. The economy of the art world is as troubled here as it is in Chicago, New York, Cologne.

THURSDAY, JULY 23: CRACOW We meet for breakfast and go to the National Museum to see El Greco’s Laocoon (on loan from the National Gallery in Washington.) Snakes interest Miroslaw, and I see this later as he buys an articulated wooden toy snake for Susanne, which reminds me of his work in Krefeld where there are references to a compartmentalized or fractured body. We go upstairs to another part of the museum to see da Vinci’s famous Portrait of a Lady in Ermine. Here we must don felt slippers over our shoes to protect the parquet floor. Bulka has done a piece in Rome using this kind of shoe glued to the floor near wooden elements. The painting is splendid. The very straight line of the woman’s forehead seems to divide her intellect from her body. Her right hand is the most beautiful, sensual hand I have ever seen rendered in paint, as is the way in which the ermine’s paw pulls the sleeve of her gown open. The surface of the painting seems pressed, but not thick. One can guess at the drawing underneath by the way the paint cracks, like a physical body, the smile causing the wrinkles.

We drive on to Wielichka to the salt mines. We stop for beer and kielbasa and then join a tour, descend 60 meters on wooden steps into an unbelievable city with salt sculptures, cathedral-sized rooms, and wooden machinery. We walk over 3 kilometers through tunnels of black salt. At tour’s end we emerge on a primitive elevator with air whizzing through the cage. Forty bodies crushed together in a four-story missile and rocketed in total blackness to the surface 150 meters above at a speed not to be believed—like some incredible amusement park ride, like a bat out of hell. We drive town by town to Auschwicz and arrive just before closing; benefiting from a personal tour by the man closing up the buildings. The architecture is unexpected; red brick, black grout and trim, institutional, belying what took place inside; death, bodies, possessions, clothing, bunk beds, courtyard for shooting, for hangings, underground chambers for cyanide pellets, furnaces for burning, rails to carry bodies (like in the salt mines); outside, tree-lined streets of tall poplars, orderly, regular; inside rooms where doctors experiment; at the gate the band played; inside bodies hung at the intersection; the huge white birch stood witness.

We return to Warsaw exhausted at 1:30 am.

FRIDAY, JULY 24: WARSAW From 9:00 to 11:00 Miroslaw and I go over his archive of drawings since the beginning; all is consistent. Such a gift these four days have been. It is difficult to leave this place, these friends. As we drive to the airport, the country road is blocked by a wagon whose driver, a very old man, has fallen from the top of his haystack. His face is bleeding. Miroslaw gets out and moves the hay bales (similar in weight to the salt blocks in the Wielietchka mine, the measure of what one man can manage) to the side of the road so we can pass. A sad sight and a strange ending to my visit. The man, on his feet and walking, cries that he is dying. On the flight to Frankfurt I sit next to a woman who tells me how she has retrained her eyes to see without glasses and shows me special glasses with a filter for exercise. If only we could all retrain our eyes.