Monday, November 24, 2014
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In Hitler's Vestibule

You feel uneasy the moment you enter Jan Zakrzewski's "Sky over Poznan" exhibition (opening April 28 at Kunstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin and running until May 23). The room is small, somehow narrow. Two big mirrors form a sort of corridor. Once the space served as a vestibule, but, given the room's historic function, perhaps it should be called an antechamber - a place watched over by an armed guard or servant. Unauthorized people would never be allowed to enter.

With good reason. For the creeping anxiety that you feel derives from an awareness that the space where Zakrzewski's exhibition first appeared, in Poznan, was once meant to serve as a vestibule leading to a room where Adolf Hitler awaited you.

That room was designed as a residence in case the Führer ever chose to visit Poznan, then part of the former Kingdom of Prussia, having been absorbed in the second partition of Poland in 1793. On the eve of World War I, in 1913, Kaiser Wilhelm II built Poznan castle. At the beginning of World War II, Albert Speer converted the Castle's chapel into a residence for his master. The office was ready for occupancy in 1943 just before the Battle of Stalingrad - and just after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Hitler, however, never visited. When in Prussia, he preferred his "Wolf's Lair" forest headquarters.

The city of Poznan is located mid-way between Warsaw and Berlin, and Zakrzewski sees it as the symbolic frontier between East and West, Germany and Poland. In that vestibule, you feel yourself in no man's land.

On the eastern and western walls hang two large mirrors, covered by historically explosive expressions from both nations, each translated as well into the opposite, rival language.

So you read slogans like "Arbeit macht frei" or "Gott mit uns" in Polish, as well as Polish jingoistic sayings, such as "Poland for Poles" or "Lithuania, my fatherland," in German. National and cultural identities are mixed; xenophobia and rage mirror xenophobia and rage.

While reading those infamous expressions in a foreign language, you also observe your own reflection in the mirror. You see yourself doubled: your face and front are seen in the mirror you are facing; your back is reflected in the opposite mirror, reflected twice, actually, for the image you see before you is also there behind you. The same happens with the letters and sentences. You are and you are not complicit. In the end, you feel yourself in a tunnel of multiplied reflections where you lose any sense of reality.

Happily, or so you think, reality returns in the sound of two radio broadcasts: Polish and German. But that return is also a fake because the two broadcasts deal with two different realities: Polish and German. How close is the content of those broadcasts, you wonder, to the slogans you have been reading?

Then you enter Hitler's residence. The main space is almost invisible. In the darkness, your footsteps become uneasy. Your feet step on a strange surface covered with small, hard bubbles. Then you see equally small white spots glittering from black space over your head.

If you are good at astronomy, you can recognize the constellations typical of the sky over Poznan. Here we are: the exhibition title is exactly the same: "Sky over Poznan." You guess that the bubble spots under your feet might be a symbolic "mirror reflection" of the sky. But you are wrong. You are stepping on a "war map" made from bullet tracings and pockmarks that still exist on some buildings. This "map" was made from the walls of two different buildings: one from Chmielna Street in Warsaw, the other from Grosse Hamburger Strasse in Berlin - a reality less distant than the stars.

From some points of view, the borderlines are the most important part of the exhibition - as also happens in reality. Borders define the limits of so many things: laws, languages, economies. They also mark the limits of culture and national identity. These, however, don't really depend on occasional military victories; the national identities of a people do not change as quickly as the flags waving over cities sometimes do.

To help us recognize how quickly and how often the borders between Germany and Poland changed over the last millennium, Zakrzewski recreates them in neon tubes that change shape as often as the real borders changed. The borders transformed into neon rise up from transparent jars like flower bunches on both sides of the bubbled floor. We see them suddenly flash in the darkness, their light expiring after three minutes.

What is produced are sensations of change, not an examination of the historical changes of a millennium. Indeed, examination is not the purpose of the exhibition. For perhaps the most important thing to know is that - here and now - we have the same sky over our heads as all those who died in the war, as well as those who incited their deaths with their demented dreams.

Then you exit. The corridor leading to Heaven, which Zakrzewski calls purgatory. Given what you have seen, purgatory also seems to lead to Hell.

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