Hatch at NEAT11: Krissi Musiol and Jenna Finch: The Road To Polish Nottingham

What’s the etiquette when you’re about to board a bus and a Roswell escapee holds out a tray of Polish chrusciki-style sweets, then indicates you try one? As in most situations where cakes or sweets are offered, the answer, of course, is to do exactly as you’re told in the interests of good manners and to help avoid any potential intergalactic diplomatic incidents that might otherwise arise. This isn’t the sort of dilemma you’re usually faced with on a sunny Thursday evening so it must be something to do with Hatch, as it makes its way from the very British identities explored by Medium Rare and Zoo Indigo on Wellington Circus last weekend to another world, this time that of Polish Nottingham.

This was why we were boarding a coach that would be taking us from the site of last weekend’s performances to the Polish Eagle Club in Sherwood, via a convoluted route designed to take us past as many Polish clubs, shops and other Poland-related locations in the city as possible. As we travelled, a guided tour under the title Are We Nearly There Yet? by that unmasked extraterrestrial (otherwise known as performance artist Jenna Finch, literalising Czeslaw Milosz’s ideas about the human condition as a state of being alien) would give us a condensed history of Poland with a musical score provided by ourselves on an array of borrowed instruments. As the cymbals, recorders, toy guitars, cowbells, squeaky toys and penny whistles made their way down the aisle, the rules of the performance were explained.

These were simple enough. With each instrument came a single word, and whenever that word was spoken by our tour guide we were to make a ‘sharp brief sound’ with whatever instrument we had. As the bus pulled away from the kerb and headed out through the Nottingham streets I had a set of maracas and the word ‘Poland’ in my hand. At first there was some confusion: did ‘Poland’ mean I should make my noise for ‘Polish’ as well or just stick to the letter of the script? As with that chrusciki-style snack (as it turned out, a cone of biscuit coated in white candy with a hyper-sweet soft filling) it seemed best to do as instructed: I restricted my maraca-shaking to the naming of the country itself and left those things defined by being part of it to themselves.

The result was a slightly chaotic mix of information and absurdity as such key events as the tenth century formation of the first Kingdom of Poland under Mieszko I or the creation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at the Union of Lublin in 1569 were greeted by a cacophany of noises. The contrast of dark episodes of war and revolution with squeaks, bangs, rattles and whistles made for an entertaining journey, though the echoes of Milosz were only occasionally strong, as when Finch’s account of the destruction of Warsaw during World War Two coincided with our passing a Polish delicatessen called Warsawa and brought Milosz’s lines from ‘The City’ to mind (“The terror and sweetness of a final dissolution./Let the first bombs fall without delay”) or when the sunlight and spectacle of the streets evoked the conclusion of ‘1913’:

What strange costumes, how strange the street is,
And I myself unable to speak of what I know.
No lesson for the living can be drawn from it.
I closed my eyes and my face felt the sun…

It seemed Are We Nearly There Yet? was intent on alienating the history being recited from those hearing it, the constant raucous interruptions acting like the noise of the present day as it prevents us properly considering the past. Nothing – whether the Holocaust, Katyn or the levelling of Warsaw – could really affect us in these conditions or even be properly heard. Perhaps it was a microcosm of the media noise of the twenty-first century or the kind of meaningless cosmic joke that seems to haunt so much of Milosz’s poetry? Whatever the intentions, the Polish vodka shots that greeted us on arrival at our destination were a fine signing-off and a perfect welcome to the surroundings of the Polish Eagle Club with their strangely timeless mid-Century, middle-European atmosphere.  

This is also a place that has deep roots in the city, a history that turned out to have some very direct links with Krissi Musiol’s Sugar Statues. There was something wonderfully appropriate about this performance’s arrival here, as the grandfather at the heart of her piece – a man named Kazmierz Kuzminski – was, it seems, personally responsible for the striking design of the nearby Church of Our Lady of Czestochowa (Kościół Matki Boskiej Częstochowskiej) to which the Eagle Club is directly linked. That personal connection and interplay between location and piece no doubt heightened the impact of Musiol’s performance but in truth this was a show that would have gripped and felt emotional even in a branch of Argos or a Post Office queue: the way its language, movement, visuals and content were integrated created something simultaneously richly-layered and spare, intensely plausible yet built on a single family’s histories and myths.

From the moment when Musiol first appears on the white stage in a bridal gown, “a girl in a rotten grey dress searching for a rotten grey man”, the blend of truth and fiction, folklore and history, is seamlessly achieved. As the grandfather loses words, one by one, he turns to a notebook to communicate anything from a desire for bread rolls to such poetic phrases as “we mourned the end of autumn”. As Musiol spins her various threads – ranging from accounts of brutal killings in concentration camps to accounts of her grandfather’s victory over a dragon, from her own journeys through middle-European cities to baking the cakes that come to represent those cities as they are lost to war, heartbreak and hangovers – the effect seems to share territory with writers like Bruno Schulz, whose Street of Crocodiles contains much in a similar vein to Musiol’s own merging of history and folklore, personal and objective truth. 

In the title chapter of Street of Crocodiles, Schulz describes a map of a city “made in the style of baroque panoramas [where] the area of the Street of Crocodiles shone with the empty whiteness that usually marks polar regions or unexplored countries of which almost nothing is known”. In Musiol’s performance that whiteness – from the bridal dress to the ubiquitous icing-sugar with which she endeavours to fill the cracks in her own and her grandfather’s history – seems to carry a similar set of meanings. By the conclusion, with Musiol’s admission that even the true parts of her story ‘didn’t happen’ (a move that is itself as fictive as the fiction it purports to expose) we’ve found ourselves deep in territory where all memory is potentially treacherous, all fiction crystallised around kernels of  truth.

From Polish-language songs describing the baking of sweet cakes to accounts of entire cities “taken apart with the bare eyes” of Soviet and German armies, from promises between a father and daughter to neither die nor marry to accounts of the many ways in which a place might be ‘lost’, Musiol takes us through a playful but emotional labyrinth built from the material of personal and cultural identity. After her performance, the stage is littered with broken cakes, jars of sugar representing statues, a porcelain bridal couple buried in yet more sugar and the faint traces of Musiol’s dress where its hem has dragged back and forth through the branches of a sugar tree sketched on the ground. We’ll be returning to the question of Polish identity on Tuesday evening, when Chris Dobrowolski will put his in opposition to Mehrdad Seyf’s Iranian loyalties over a 1976 Poland-Iran Olympic football match. However that play-off goes, Musiol’s performance has ensured there’ll be some high expectations.

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