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//Memory is Freedom. Freedom in the Body// – Patrycja Dołowy

Memory is Freedom. Freedom in the Body – Patrycja Dołowy

Patrycja Dołowy (b. 1978) – photographer by education (graduated from WSF AFA, Wrocław), she holds a PhD in natural sciences. Social activist, author of texts on science, art and culture. In her career, she turns to various media, mostly photography and graphic design, and also text and performance. She participated in over 30 solo and group exhibitions in Poland and abroad. Member and vice-president of the MaMa Foundation. Runs children workshops at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw.

Winter rain. Quite suddenly, the frozen dirt turns into a river of mud. Mud starts dribbling onto the street, forming large puddles. Dirty water is streaking down the windows of my bus. It is like a closed vehicle that separates me from what is just about to happen. From yet another transgression I am going to make. From a step beyond the orderly, the safe and the known.

To tear open the earth. To touch the mire, the mud with bare hands. To plunge your foot in the disgusting wastewater puddle. No one will leave here alive. One of Donia’s Auschwitz stories. At nights, in women’s barracks, when hunger was driving them crazy, the girls decided to hold a contest for the best recipe, selecting as winners the most sophisticated, refined dishes served at tables laden with other delicacies. The best recipes were full of minute details. First price – survival. It’s been decided. If they survive, if one day they get out of here, they promise to meet in one kitchen, and each one of them will prepare her recipe for others. A feast for goddesses. Nothing but mud.[1]

This is a views buried at 26 Smocza Street, Warsaw. One of the images hidden beneath the ground – bodycasts broken down into little pieces, with embedded pictures of events mundane and cherished, ones that happened or could have happened. Ones that you often forget, that you cannot talk about or just ‘don’t, what’s the point...’.

Most cities carry within themselves a hidden memory (of events, people, personal stories). Cities are built on the absence of those that are no longer there but who were part of them, and their memory, absent from the official records. I pursue my own heritage. Warsaw is a strangely divided city. As if it was cut with a thick line. On one side, you have monuments, flowers, candles, names of grand streets and squares – the history whose participants have been carried to the present times – on the other, silence, anonymity. Nothing tangible. The ghetto wall, gone for a long, long  time, still determines the structure of this city, separating memory from oblivion. Although I am thinking about one ghetto in particular, there were also others – other anonymities. The absence of Jews, absence of civilians, absence of women, absence of children.

Widoczki. Pamięć miasta/pamięć ciała [Views. Memory of the City/Memory of the Body] is an artistic undertaking that attempts to look at space, memory and history from a female (everyday) perspective, to search for testimonials of being, to register or revive the memory of the non-public, of what lies hidden, invisible, erased somewhere in the nooks and corners of the memory of the city. This is my attempt to deal with the Shoah, a very personal journey to explore myself and my own history – the history of my family and my grandmothers, one that was never verbalised – and I am the last person that can give, than can transmit this testimonial to others.

I look at the casts of my own body, I coat them with photographic emulsion, I project images onto them through an enlarger, and then I bury them in the ground. As Elżbieta Janicka once noticed, it is not about the deposit. Neither is it about a memorial or a contra-memorial. I have engaged in a certain symbolic city guerilla. Fertilising the city with memory, a spectacle that takes place between the body and the soil. Within decay. Elżbieta Janicka interprets it as a constantly reiterated, scrutinised and documented ritual of ceding one’s own body to the ground in the form of a cast. A body derived from bodies that were supposed to perish forever.[2]

I would like to perpetuate the memory of the body, the object – as something tangible, a sort of a print – on infusing this print (cast) with memory, with places inhabited by people, with events they participated in, with things that happened to them. I would like to include the image of a place in the memory of the body – to unite the place and the body – so that both of them, the forgotten place and the degrading body, could be discovered and perpetuated. I want both of them to survive. The goal of my project is to be in a process that stresses the importance of witnesses, women and men. To conjure a network of relationships and endow it with my own energy, my own uncertainty, to ask my own questions and to tell about my own experience, which will then be transformed – without control on my port. Because Views are not durable as such. Buried in the ground, they start decaying, they are absorbed by the tissues of the city, they grow into its flesh. Remember the children’s game of views-secrets? Magdalena Franczak, a Lublin-based artist, also refers to it in her art. She buries them in the ground all over the world, accompanied by adults and children. For some of them, it is the first time they have played the game, for some it recalls old memories – or rather emotions – from their childhood. Franczak lovingly gathers pieces of glass, frames, cabinets, trinkets. She is especially fascinated with what occurs between the participants of this ritual. The intersection between various generations and cultures, different childhood age traditions. The artist searches for the paths of her own early days, in the meantime studying the intersections and crossroads between her own and other people’s paths.[3]

Games and the Body

For me, this game has a slightly different meaning. Pretty little images made with flowers, ribbon and trinkets, created in secret by little girls. Lovely compositions arranged and hidden under a piece of glass, to be buried in the ground and then found again, uncovered and admired. The images sometimes remained forever concealed, but they were there – and this knowledge was important to us, girls. Rediscovered after many years, the views looked different than we remembered. They were different. Because underneath this glass, beneath the dirt, a lot had happened. Flowers wilted, fell apart or withered, ribbons paled and softened, trinkets crumbled. And yet, this testimony of being in this place exactly, in such a way exactly, is something exceptional and true. As true as the body, which also changes, swells, shrinks, gets old, fall apart. However, in limit situations, it is the body, its physicality, that holds the only chance for survival and salvation.[4] It is the body, despite its fragility and mortality, that enables us to tell our story and incorporate memories. It preserves our memory, especially the part that finds no home within the collective space.

The body becomes a tool in a certain theatre of memory. Or, as in Kantor’s work – a theatre of death, in which bodies stay at the border of the world of the living and the dead, or, deformed, diseased, transgress the natural boundaries, seeking integration with other bodies, objects, stumps.[5]

When trying to cope with the Holocaust, pain and humiliation of one’s own body often become a visual language, as it happened in the work of Viennese Actionists, such as Rudolf Schwarzko[6], who created his own doppelganger to take out all his aggression on, subject it to torture and medical experiments. The injured doppelganger of the artist, not his body, though still something close to a body – an alter-body, a bodycast, whose hurting form became a symbol of tortured memory that could not free itself from the mark of death, succumbing to pain and yet still craving salvation. The Holocaust body is devoid of dignity, of sensuality, it is injured, famished, deprived of its parts. It is also a carcass on an anonymous stake, nameless bones, human remains tossed away like meat scraps. In what way is such a body to preserve memory? How is it supposed to carry it?

Memory is Freedom

Recalling, remembering, the tedious job of collecting pieces of life, constitute a struggle to unite the body that fell apart, to unite the world and one’s own identity. Remembering through the body is a process of reclaiming freedom. Its source lies in the internal strength hidden somewhere in the body, even if it is imprisoned. The images, pieces and fragments that appear are united and integrated on the inside, opening the door of salvation, of escape. The memory of the body may, in a paradoxical way, not be able to break the barriers that limit our physical freedom, but it leads to internal, conscious liberty that no one can stop. This is why I think that Agnes Janich’s That You Have Someone is so important. The work takes the body as its topic. A Holocaust body, free and sensual. A body that craves and desires. Intimate images, intimate close-ups. A body despite everything, despite history. Janich collects intimate love stories from the times of the Shoah and collates them with erotic, intimate photographs. Her bodies, although the ‘official history’ tells us what most probably happened to them, survived after all. In the words of Marta Raczek-Karcz: ‘They win because they loved and desired. These feelings did not bring them oblivion, quite to the opposite, they were remembered and thus told them that even though there was no escape from death, they were able to experience something that the oppressors wanted to take away even as obsessively as they wanted to kill them – the right to rule one’s own body, the right to intimacy’.[7]

Freedom also lies in the way we experience our own body. In thinking ‘it is mine, I can feel it. I will save what it carries’. The roots of human desires, elation, pain, unhealed wounds and marks lie in experiencing the body, its fears and memories. Memory means freedom in a double sense. As Julia Kristeva wrote, in a performance, just as during transfiguration, the symbolic becomes the physical, while the physical becomes the symbolic.[8]

This is what the bodycasts represent to me. I drive them out symbolically, endowing them with memory. Obviously, I also allude to the art of Alina Szapocznikow, who combined the casts of her own body with photography ever since she had learnt she was dying. She portrayed decay as violence and transformed it into a spectacle. A spectacle of struggling against an enemy that cannot be defeated. The cast, a very special kind of a trace, allowed the artist to register the process of decay – to decompose it according to her own rules.[9] Casts are a bit like masks, a bit like living doppelgangers, and a bit like a body from a body. Just as in Szapocznikow’s work, Views take my body as their point of departure. It is covered with a breathing, cracking plaster shell. I am not trying to prevent its demise. I create a narrative between the body and the soil – I hand it over to the decay in order to set its memory free. To multiply it. An impossible attempt to complete the uncompleted. A process of crystallising the rotting, impure body. Transferring it from the area of ‘in between’, in which it was stuck since the war, buried under the growing layer of history, to the area of freedom, of memory, in a way even a monument. Letting the dybbuk out, freeing it from the shackles – or, if you prefer, transformation, transfer onto the other side. With a wrong guide, this could easily fail. It could be devoid of life. However, a children’s game is the guiding theme here. Just as in Kantor’s work, death and memory emerge somewhere in the unexpected area near childhood. Suddenly, we can build a bridge between the past and the future and travel not just in one direction, but in both.

11 Nowolipki  Street

A world of a little box, a shrunken reality behind the closet. A big, ordinary, everyday world of a five-year-old. His world. His consciousness here and now. As in a doll’s house, as if transferred into the world of children’s toys. Each of these miniatures tells a story about a big thing in the big world on the other side of the closet.

Serves them well, these little Jews, to be shrunken like this in a doll’s house, you can hear someone yell, mouth full of bread and smuggled ham, yelling at the better side of the closet. Little Jews in a box, little dolls all packed up. Others will be destroyed. To the garbage with them. Sod off!

Like this girl from Lodzik’s group. Her mom went to the chemist’s to buy her and her sister some luminal, but they had ran out. And Lodzik does not know what happened next. Maybe they were out of luminal, but the nice man behind the counter had some cyanide? Well, suffice it to say he never met her again. Nor the mother. Nor the sister.

A view for the children. The children in doll’s houses. In their shrunken miniatures of life. When three years pass and those that were supposed never to come back do come back, they will say, unsurprised, ‘Oh, you’re here already?’.

For this strange city that hides piles of miniature boxes. Trampled over every day, passed by. Grey between monuments.[10]

Elżbieta Janicka, author of Miejsca nieparzyste [Uneven Places], engages in yet another childhood pursuit – collecting plants for a herbal. She carefully collects them at the site of a former death camp in Treblinka. She then pastes them into a notebook and captions with their Latin name. Janicka, like a diligent pupil, keeps a detailed documentation of how the space is gradually getting overgrown with plants. It is really astonishing that beautiful, wild flower can grow in THIS place.

Meanwhile, Katarzyna Zuzanna Krakowiak, who for many years now has been vivisecting her own, personal memory, uses a cradle, a book and photographs as a bridge between the past and the future in her Nie Przeminęło z Wiatrem [Not Gone With The Wind]. She scans the pictures and puts them up on the walls, while the originals, marked by memory and time, are safely kept in her old trunk. Katarzyna Krakowiak draws a hopscotch game with chalk on the floor of a gallery. We can play before we let our body experience the exhibition which, albeit mostly visual, photography-driven, makes a huge impression – we can feel it deep within our bodies. It feels good to be first able to step into the childhood, even if it is with one foot only.

In the introduction to her previous exhibition, Stany wewnętrzne [Internal States], Katarzyna Krakowiak refers to Jean Baudrillard and writes: ‘photography is our exorcism. The primitive society had its masks, the bourgeois society – its mirror. We have our images. Łódź – my hometown – is just an excuse, a canvas for my Stany wewnętrzne. Why the city? Because its full of non-existent images... It is easy: a symbolic mask of the city hiding the omnipresent homo viator. Transforming reality into representation. Endless attempts at depicting internal states... Because photography is not about pictures. It offers yet another reason to ask questions and to learn about the answers. It is about Emotions. To become the gaze itself. To be. To feel’.[11] We may find a similar approach in Aneta Grzeszykowska’s work. She also has dealt with memory and the body for many years now. The sign delivered by her art is anchored in the body. We do not read it through our mind. We feel it. Objects are no longer carriers of meaning. They just transfer it, they act. Just as in her last work, Negative Book, in which the entire world is recorded in the negative, apart from herself – she stays unnaturally white, disconnected, different, lonely, but hyperpresent, as if struggling against her previous Album rodzinny [Family Album], from which she erased her own images. However, it is her Czarne lalki [Black Dolls] that are the most physical and infused with memory. They represent girls – materialised fragments of memory. Not in the traditional sense of a narrative, as Paula Kaniewska points out, but rather in the sense of a ‘sensual memory’ of Charlotte Delbo[12], a writer and Holocaust survivor. The ‘sensual memory’ records a physical ‘imprint’ of an event and reproduces it through complete actuation. Feelings cannot be remembered in the intellectual way. Remembering them means reliving the emotions and all the accompanying reactions. In this sense, Grzeszykowska’s Czarne lalki belong to the order of ‘sensual memory’.

We do not usually share the personal events, the mundane, all-too-human things that happen to us and evoke feelings. In this way, they disappear from the collective memory, from our awareness, in the process of decluttering the city from unnecessary elements, such as individual stories. They yield to collective history, unless we let others to also get hurt, get pinched, to feel. For that, we need the body. And to reach the body without any inhibitions, we need to be guided by a child.

The Views project represents a ritual-process, scuffling with a myth, a struggle for internal freedom, and also just a simple game.


[1] P. Dołowy, Widoczki. Pamięć miasta/pamięć ciała, http://widoczki.patrycjadolowy.pl/, translated from Polish by Anna Wolna [retrieved: 15.8.2013]

[2] Cf. E. Janicka, Miejska partyzantka symboliczna. O Widoczkach Patrycji Dołowy, ‘Artmix’ 2012, no. 30(20).

[3] cf. M. Franczak, Secrets/Views, Galeria Węglin, Lublin 2012.

[4] Bożena Karwowska arrived at similar conclusions. She studies the Holocaust experience, taking into account the female perspective. The body – the most private thing – was appropriated by oppressors and thus became the arena of struggle for survival. Cf. B. Karwowska, Ciało. Seksualność. Obozy zagłady, Universitas, Kraków 2009.

[5] Cf. A. Królica, Groteskowe ciała. Kantor i współczesna choreografia, ‘Performer’ 2011, no. 2.

[6] Cf. S. Ruksza, The Opposite Pole of Society, in: Viennese Actionnism. The Opposite Pole of Society,

S. Ruksza (ed.), MOCAK, Kraków 2011; E. Jedlińska, Pamięć holocaustu, ‘Tygiel Kultury’ 2003, no. 1–3.

[7] M. Raczek-Karcz, Ciała mimo wszystko – o projekcie That You Have Someone Agnes Janich, ‘Artmix’ 2012, no. 30(20).

[8] After: E. Jedlińska, Pamięć holocaustu, op. cit.

[9] U. Czartoryska, Okrutna jasność, in: Alina Szapocznikow 1926–1973 [exh. cat.], Zachęta Narodowa Galeria Sztuki, Warsaw 1998, p. 22.

[10] P. Dołowy, Views, op. cit.

[11] http://kzkrakowiak.com [retrieved: 15.8.2013].

[12] Cf. P. Kaniewska, Czarne lalki i „Ból głowy” – Grzeszykowska afektywnie, ‘Mała Kultura Współczesna’

2012, no. 11.