Polish Studies Newsletter

Article / interview


Art in the Places of Death. An interview with Prof. Halina Taborska

"Halina Taborska's book (...) is a peculiar study of the aesthetics of an anti-humanistic act. In fact it introduces such "aesthetics" to the readers, and we are presented with a very carefully prepared documentation of various objects, material and spatial shapes, "installations", murals, museum organizations and documentary activities. These are various shapes in the public space which mediate our perception of an unimaginable crime or "blinding” shapes that protect us from the damages of seeing it again. By bringing this collection of practices together, the book shows their character and multiplicity. The research material gathered in the publication and the scholarly approach make it a must-read not only in the study of war crimes in Europe, but also in the study of symbolic representation of mass crimes - especially in the field of cultural studies, cultural anthropology and art history.” (Prof. Jan Stanisław Wojciechowski, Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw - excerpt from the review on the cover).

Na zdjęciu: prof. Halina Taborska (dyrektor Instytutu Kultury Europejskiej PUNO) oraz dr Justyna Gorzkowicz ( z-ca kierownika Zakładu Współczesnej Kultury Literackiej i Artystycznej PUNO). Fot. Jarosław Solecki

Justyna Gorzkowicz: In 2019, the Austeria publishing house published the book “Sztuka w miejscach śmierci. Europejskie pomniki ofiar hitleryzmu” (“Art in the Places of Death. European monuments to the victims of Nazism”). It is special for many reasons, but I would like to mention two things which are directly related to my questions: the duration of the creative process and the emotions that accompany it. As you point out in the Foreword, the materials presented in the book are the result of more than 25 years of research. This is a very long time, considering the nature of the study. "Art in Death Places” which had been marked with atrocities is a difficult subject; it absorbs not only the researcher, art historian, aesthete, but above the whole human being. How did the idea to deal with this topic occur to you?

Prof. Halina Taborska: 25 years is indeed a long time for one research project, even for one which covers a big area, geographically speaking. The reason for extending it in time is simple. During those 25 years, I have also carried out other research projects, conducted a lot of classes at several universities, performed various functions: I managed research and didactic institutions, I was the director of two scientific institutions, I took the position of vice-rector of PUNO, and in the years 2011-2017 I was the rector there. In the same period I read, corrected and evaluated hundreds of student papers and, when possible, supported my colleagues' activities.

In fact the "subject" of art in the places of death came to me by accident. In the 1980s and 1990s I conducted a series of course lectures on art in the open public space (the so-called public art) in metropolitan cities of Europe. including the Faculty of Art of the Roehampton Institute of Higher Education (now the University of Roehampton London). One of the questions I was asked at the time (it was 1993) - completely unexpectedly - concerned the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the works of art commemorating it in the open space of Warsaw. I did not know anything about it, but I decided to provide information after a planned summer stay in Warsaw. It was then that my first lectures and publications devoted to monuments commemorating the victims of the Second World War, especially the victims of the Holocaust, were written.

JG: How did you deal with difficult emotions while visiting the examined places, learning about individual stories?

HT: The problem of emotions accompanying the investigation of scenes of crime is complex. During the field work, there are so many different practical issues to deal with. Reaching a selected place, obtaining permission to meet and to talk to people who work there, and above all, recording what you hear and describing what you see requires a lot of concentration - you cannot give in to emotions. You use reason rather than the heart. Feelings, which accompany the research, stay in the background. What we experience later and the influence on our life is a very personal matter and, one can say, a very broad subject...

JG: In the first chapter you are quoting examples commemorating pacified European villages. Yet only one of them is on the Polish territory. Why did you make such a decision?

HT: I wanted to have examples from different countries - in the case of pacified villages, I chose those where artistically significant commemorative art was introduced after the war. I wanted to show various forms of commemoration and to recall the places that are considered very important, sometimes referred to as iconic, in the countries where they are located.

JG: When reaching for this book for the first time, the reader may get the impression that it is not Polish monuments (and thus - the history of places of death in Poland) that are at the centre of your research interests. However, with the next pages, the impression is blurred - the perspective is altered. Leaving the places of remembrance described here almost without any comments from the author - their aftermath can only be found in footnotes referring to the accounts of witnesses of the crime – encourages reflection. Was this your intention - not to give simple answers, but rather to focus on the essence of the problem, its complexity? After all, most of the trains were sent to death camps in Poland. And it is here that most monuments dedicated to the victims of Nazism can be found.

HT: Giving answers, simple or complex, was not my intention. I wanted to present - out of necessity, just to a small extent - the enormity of the war crimes committed. I wanted to show ways of commemorating the victims through the works of artists trying to "face" them, to "force" the reader to think about how it happened that Christian Europe in the 20th century was the place of the greatest genocide in the modern world. There was also a question: what can art do for the memory of the murdered? And also, how can it support those who want to know the depths of human, or rather inhuman, criminal madness and to look for ways to ensure that the "never again" written on the monuments is not an empty slogan.

JG: When you started your research, did you plan to create a kind of "map" of places in Europe where the monuments described by you are located? Did this idea come a bit later, while working on the publication itself?

HT: When I started working on the project, I didn't plan to create any "maps". It was only at the stage of publishing that I thought it would be valuable to create a kind of "literal-verbal map", showing the location of commemorative works in different parts of Europe. It ended with an extended Geographical Index, placed at the end of the book.

JG: An attempt to restore the voice of minority groups who were often overlooked in Polish and European discourse and lost their lives during the Nazi actions is an extremely important part of your reflection. I am thinking here of the Roma and Sinti, but also of persons with mental illnesses and people persecuted because of their sexual orientation. You mention the reasons for this exclusion from mainstream discourse in your book. But one more reflection comes to mind. Could it be that the scale of the crime was so huge that even we – those who remained and want to remember, believe in "never again" - saw only murdered masses of human beings? Now, when the monuments are some of few remains present, it is easier to notice the lack of individual voices - ones that are specific, named. They were eliminated by the Nazis, then also omitted over the years of post-war historical discourse.

HT: Indeed, the reasons for not being "interested" in the fate of the minorities exterminated during the Second World War were very varied. There were also many of them, some of which I mention in one of the chapters. In the case of the Roma, it was lack of reliable information about their fate; places where they died, statistical data. It happened due to distancing oneself or even traditional distrust of the Gypsies by others because of their lifestyle, cultural identity, or "thieving nature" attributed to them. But the reluctance of Gypsies to have contact with "non-Gypsies", to tell strangers about war fates and losses, played a role as well. There was also lack of written sources generated by them: testimonies, witnesses' records, memoirs, etc. It was difficult to write about homosexuals for a long time, or to commemorate their fate, because according to the law they were criminalised in Europe almost until the end of the 1960s. Even today we hear voices that they deserved what happened to them during the war. There are still communities and governments that are homophobic and do not wish to see monuments devoted to homosexuals on their land. It is hard to blame the Nazis for this.

The so-called "euthanasia" of the people with mental illnesses during the Second World War has been of interest to medical historians and psychiatrists. Rarely do these problems penetrate into social or political discourse. Memorial signs in the form of plaques or boulders, and sometimes monuments, have been created and are still created, but in relatively few cases they are "publicized" in the media. The long period of silence and dishonoring of war victims was caused by many, very different factors - political, social, cultural, religious, moral - some of them can be "identified" relatively quickly, others are still escaping explanation.

JG: It seems that one of the elements in the phenomenon of excluding minorities from discourse has also been the "sense of disgust towards victims" - often emphasized by witnesses of the Nazi crime, and also present in literary or artistic works related to that period. The repulsion most often came from the fear of being in the situation of the victim, and was fuelled by fascist indoctrination. I am thinking, for example, of films compiling a picture of Jews with a picture of rats, but there were many such examples. In your book, we will also find a fragment about a similar perception of homosexual people by fellow prisoners.

HT: "Disgust of victims" is a very complex problem. In order to discuss it one needs to touch upon many disciplines - psychology, sociology, philosophy... My book is rather about arousing "disgust with the executioners" - their ideology, methods of conduct, unimaginable cruelty. In other words: contempt for the Űbermensch, compassion and empathy for the victims.

JG: Thank you very much for the book and for our conversation.

Prof. Halina Taborska - Director of the Institute of European Culture of the Polish University Abroad in London. Nearly 65 years of Professor Taborska's academic career in the field of art, philosophy and aesthetics has had an invaluable impact on shaping the image of Poland, Polish culture and art in the world. Many of her research projects in the field of art in public space are continued in modern humanistic and cultural research, focused on the perception of the relationship between the human and the place. Academic initiatives concerned with an analysis of artistic forms in the spaces of European cities, among others, referred to this relationship. These included projects: "Public Art and Architecture in New and Regenerated Urban Complexes of Europe"; "Art and Catharsis - Monuments for the Victims of the Second World War"; "Study of Shaping the Contemporary Cultural Landscape of Warsaw", "Contemporary Public Art in the Open Spaces of England", "Artistic Culture in the Processes of Revitalization of European Cities". For many years, Prof. Taborska has conducted lectures and seminars in England, on topics such as aesthetics, 19th and 20th century art history and the history of ideas at Camberwell College of Art and Roehampton Institute of Higher Education, or on Russian and Soviet art at Oxford University. She also lectured at more than twenty American institutes and universities, including Harvard University, City University of New York Graduate Center, San Francisco State University, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, University of Milwaukee, State University of New York. She also visited universities in Poland, sharing her comprehensive knowledge with numerous Polish students. Prof. Taborska is the author of 10 book publications and many scientific articles.


Justyna Gorzkowicz

Antropolog kulturowy ze specjalnością literaturoznawczą, krytyk artystyczny; wicedyrektor Instytutu Kultury Europejskiej, zastępca kierownika Zakładu Współczesnej Kultury Literackiej i Artystycznej  Polskiego Uniwersytetu na Obczyźnie w Londynie. Inicjatorka Laboratorium Lingua-Brandingu w ZWKLiA, zajmującego się wspieraniem nowatorskich rozwiązań w zakresie komunikacji artystycznej i literackiej oraz marketingu nauk humanistycznych. 

Added on:
11 June 2019; 13:21 (Justyna Gorzkowicz)
Edited on:
15 January 2021; 19:16 (Justyna Gorzkowicz)

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