Thinking of the UK after the EU Eastern enlargement in 2004 often conjures up diverse images of Polish immigration. But what exactly is “the” Polish community? The ‘Homeless Gallery’ is the opportunity to get one aspect of a culture that seems to have quickly integrated into the vibrant London art scene.
If approaching Southwark Park from its southwestern corner, a derelict and greyish building greets the visitor at the modest park entrance, looking as if it had long been abandoned - with the rusty chain at the fence confirming this first impression. However, walking around the corner, you would be surprised to see that it actually has a new, spotless-white building attached, with a glass front entrance. And if this was not enough to make you wonder what it’s all about, a banner informs you that the building is housing the ‘Homeless Gallery 2010’ or ‘Galeria Bezdomna 2010’. There you go, Polish art and culture on one of London’s rainy November days, sheltered by a former school church building; this obviously needs some explanation.
Thinking of the UK after the EU Eastern enlargement in 2004 often conjures up diverse images of Polish immigration even though it is not just a recent phenomenon and has a long-standing tradition, with arrivals during the Second World War being probably the most significant instance apart from more recent waves of labour immigration. How then, has the Polish community developed since 2004? And more specifically, what exactly is “the” Polish community?
Bearing these questions in mind, research into the subject will quickly identify the key institutions and actors such as the Polish Cultural Institute or the Polish Social and Cultural Association Ltd. (Polski Ośrodek Społeczno-Kulturalny w Londynie, P.O.S.K.) – measurable, quantifiable, and comparable data with other ethnic minority groups. And yet - how much does this really tell us about Polish citizens in London? So why not have a look beyond established institutions and see what is going on in London at the moment? In that respect, visiting the ‘Homeless Gallery’ turns out to become a journey into one aspect of Polish culture that seems to have quickly integrated into the vibrant London art scene.
‘It appears wherever a place becomes available to give photography a home.’
Homeless Gallery is a photography exhibition and part of Photomonth – East London Photography Festival 2010, but it is the location and the way it is organised that make it unique. ‘Bez domna’ means without a house in Polish and this is what Homeless Gallery is about: no fixed location but every year it appears in a different, empty spot for some days, only to disappear again – and then to reappear a year or two later in a different place. Not only without home but also without fixed rules (except a few, of course), that is, everyone can come on the day of opening, hang up their photo or photos, take it in turns with the other artists to watch the gallery and take them down again when the exhibition is closing.
It sounds very simple and straightforward and, indeed, it is! However, the idea was not born out of nowhere – two well-known Polish photographers, Tomek Sikora and Andrzej Swietlik, came up with the idea of Galeria Bezdomna, organising the first event in Warsaw in May 2002. For the 2010 London edition of Homeless Gallery, a Polish non-profit arts organisation, namely Deconstruction Project, was responsible. In fact, it organised the second edition of ‘Homeless Gallery’ in London, held at Dilston Grove this year with support from the Polish Cultural Institute which also assisted in finding this venue.
Despite London’s vastness, it is very difficult to find an appropriate venue for projects like Homeless Gallery – projects, in other words, which do not raise any money and need a venue for free. In 2008, the predecessor organisation ‘Polish Deconstruction’ organised the first London edition in which over 100 artists (this word is used in the widest sense in relation to Homeless Gallery) participated when it took up its temporary residence in the basement of Shoreditch Townhall close to Old Street, a central and probably more accessible location than Dilston Grove. Although it only lasted for 3 days, over 900 people came to see ‘homeless’ photography. However, location is not what matters to Homeless Gallery : its very concept is based on the idea of being somewhere and then somewhere else only a little later.
This year, 78 artists and photographers participated - they arrived without prior notification on the first or second day of hanging. Some put up only one picture, others several, organising mini-exhibitions of their work. Interestingly, more than half of the exhibitors are not Polish, among them even Japanese artists which seems to indicate that the original idea of Deconstruction Project, to open up the scene and go beyond the Polish community, has proven fruitful.
Indeed, the main idea of Homeless Gallery is to provide a temporary space for artists, no matter what their background may be, whether they are ‘professional’ artists or just someone who would like to exhibit a photo. Anyone can go for it. The only condition for participation is the object: it needs to be a photograph and the exhibitor is responsible for putting it up and taking it down. Agnieszka Kucharko, one of the four members of the Deconstruction Project team, emphasises that they were particularly proud to have the works of a Polish professor at Goldsmith University on display. But it is also the very nature of Homeless Gallery to have a local resident exhibiting the picture of his 2-year old son which he put up on the wall. The remaining space inside the building filled up very quickly – a conquest of an empty space by photography.
Meeting the artists and visitors: ‘Greasy Practitioner’ at Homeless Gallery
One of the London-based artists taking part in Homeless Gallery 2010 was Waldemar Pranckiewicz from Wrocław, who performed as Greasy Practitioner during the private viewing on Saturday and during the rest of the week. Hidden behind a simple pop-art mask, dark 3D glasses and a grey cap, he transformed into the imaginary character of ‘Greasy Practitioner’, taking pictures with the visitors of Homeless Gallery.
His project is based on the idea of developing a character through interaction and pictures with people. While most of us are hardly inclined to talk to someone we do not recognise, Greasy Practitioner would approach people first, starting a conversation in either English or Polish and asking them to take a picture with him. The result is a collection of pictures with the masked Greasy Practitioner and either a single person or groups of people, looking seriously at some far away spot, pulling faces or otherwise engaging with the camera, or simply staring at the ceiling. This somewhat Hitchcockian element that Greasy Practitioner thus represents in the pictures links them all together.
When Waldemar arrived at Dilston Grove to check out the venue, many artists had already put up their pictures, arranging them and labelling them. Not much space was left for the Greasy Practitioner project except for this little emergency door. It had not been specifically developed for Homeless Gallery, rather the news of Homeless Gallery 2010 spread at a point in time when he already had the project of Greasy Practitioner in mind. The idea of a do-it-yourself exhibition appealed to him, yet he would only participate if he had a suitable project at hand. This might be the case for many participants of Homeless Gallery, due to its unpredictable nature.
Another particularity of Homeless Gallery is, of course, the mixture of people coming to exhibit and to view photographs, creating a kind of cultural and artistic melting pot, even if there were many Polish people among the visitors. With more than 300 people attending the private viewing, a surprising number of people came to see Homeless photography. Whereas many visitors specifically travelled to Dilston Grove for the opening and private viewing from all over London, the following week also saw many locals in Homeless Gallery, though significantly fewer people. However, numbers are not important as Agnieszka emphasised, Homeless Gallery is for those who want to see it and who are interested in this kind of art.
On a worldwide scale, then, 2010 saw the 86th edition of Homeless Gallery which had its temporary homes in places as far afield as Melbourne in Australia and New York in the US but also in many European cities such as Berlin, Nantes and, of course, in cities all over Poland where its origins lie. Galeria Bezdomna in Poland generally shows a wide diversity of age, of experience and professionality of those who exhibit, while the London edition tends to have a different degree of diversity, due to nationality, leading to a more diverse subject matter. To pin it down in numbers, Agnieszka would estimate the ratio ‘professional’ artists vs. amateurs at around 70:30 or 65:35, not without stressing the point that recognition of the art work itself is what counts.
Spreading the word: media and the Polish information platform in London
You might think visitors are only those insiders knowing what is happening in the Polish community, but you are wrong: among the people crossing the threshold between the spotless white entrance building and former Clare College Mission Church were people who knew about Homeless Gallery and the work of Deconstruction Project or who received the information via the Polish Cultural Institute or Photomonth Festival as much as people from the Southwark area and students of London arts universities.
In fact, Deconstruction Project used a variety of means to spread the message across the London art scene(s): first of all, the Polish Cultural Institute played a crucial role as mediator and supporter. It is THE platform for Polish events in London and in the UK in general. Some people even tend to check it on a daily basis to stay tuned. With the Institute putting a link on its website, you could probably say that half the advertisement was done. Information was also communicated to big London and British newspapers such as The Guardian. Moreover, nearly every single UK-based Polish and some local Southwark newspapers covered the event in Dilston Grove. What was of even greater importance in reaching a wide audience was the participation in Photomonth 2010, because this festival’s reach is extensive, announcing the event on widely read TimeOut London. With such a media strategy, Deconstruction Project was sure to go beyond a purely Polish audience in London.
The people behind: From ‘Polish DeConstruction’ to Deconstruction Project
Deconstruction Project is itself a successor of ‘Polish DeConstruction’, an informal organisation started in 2007 by three young Polish women alongside their day jobs who wanted to create and run a collective by Polish artists for Polish artists. Its telling name plays on the general association of Polish people in the UK with builders and the construction sector – ‘Polish DeConstruction’ deconstructing the way in which Poles and Polish art are perceived. By applying for grants to finance their projects and events, they had soon gained the support of the Polish Cultural Institute.
However, by 2009, the organisers of Polish DeConstruction were becoming increasingly busy and started to look for a new team to take over their work and further develop the project. It was through one of their advertisements that Agnieszka learned about the project and successfully underwent one of the interviews held in February 2010. The current team of Agnieszka Kucharko, Kasia Sobucka and Karolina Merska actually met during these interviews where they were selected and chose to continue the project. What brought them together was their common passion for art and identification with the underlying ideas of the project. While they wished to maintain the basic concept of Polish DeConstruction, they wanted to open it up to non-Polish artists and essentially go beyond national and ethnic boundaries. Becoming a platform for Polish and foreign artists is well reflected in the change of name to ‘Deconstruction Project’, which at the same time provides a link to the original idea.
The new team successfully expanded the range of cooperation with other cultural institutions and organisations such as the Polish Arts Festival in Southend-on-Sea. One contact spurring the next, Deconstruction Project got involved with Metal Gallery through this cooperation with which they organised an exhibition on Polish contemporary artists in September 2010. Their main partner remains, in any event, the Polish Cultural Institute in terms of media and financial support with which they started off a new cooperation for future events. While Deconstruction Project is still a network for (Polish) artists and a non-profit arts organisation, it has much evolved from the original Polish Deconstruction. With regard to Homeless Gallery, it is thought to be organised on a yearly basis in future.
Other future projects reflect this widening of horizons: a Jazz Festival is planned for next year for the promotion of Polish artists who are also collaborating with foreign artists, as well as an exchange between London-based Polish artists and artists in Kraków. As with all cultural and artistic events, they heavily depend on funding and 2011 will be a particularly difficult year for securing it.
All in all, the development of Deconstruction Project reflects the diversity of Polish community in London well and seems an excellent example of how a small informal project can evolve into something more sustainable through the support of established cultural institutions. Moreover, the move away from a specifically Polish project to an open network for artists in London could indicate a profound degree of integration into the London arts scene. Drawing on the experience of Waldemar, Polish artists can use events such as Homeless Gallery as an opportunity for networking and meeting other like-minded people, but they do not necessarily do so. If there is a Polish community in London that manifests itself in specific cultural institutions, there are probably just as many informal, less definable connections among Polish artists to create another more loosely-held web. And for those who missed Homeless Gallery this year, chances are high that there might be another opportunity in 2011 – venue to be announced.
To go further
On the Internet
- Deconstruction Project website
- Homeless Gallery worldwide
- Polish Arts Festival Southend-on-Sea
- Greasy Practitioner
For other events happening at Dilston Grove, see Cafe Gallery Project
Source : Homeless Gallery 4 / 20080914-IMG_8850, par Tomasz Tom Kulbowski, sur flickr