Matt Aufderhorst Two days in October, eight ingredients of Europe’s Kitchen in Wrocław
1. An infernal din overhead. The quiet elegance of a helicopter is actually a question of distance. A police chopper is hovering about fifty metres – that’s about 12 storeys – over our heads. The banging and clanging, creaking and rattling of its rotors mingles with the wailing sirens of the police cars racing down the streets of Wrocław, as if to quell a riot. There are only about five hundred protestors in the city streets clamouring for LGBTQIA rights, and yet this display of air supremacy, coupled with the deafening ground offensive, serves to show them who calls the shots in this city, and in this state. The repressive reign of the nationalist party in Poland, which is cracking down relentlessly on the country’s pro-European forces, may be likened to the concentrated vortex created by the helicopter over our heads: its rotors generate high pressure below and low pressure above the chopper, thereby accelerating the airflow and creating an ear-splitting vortex. The copter crew films from the air what’s going down on the ground and exerts cacophonous pressure from on high, like the country’s reactionary government, on the people below, who seek to drum up resistance to the surveillance state and clamour for the restoration of civil rights and a tolerant liberal society.
2. The men standing in front of city hall are staring at us. They’re allowed to demonstrate on the Rynek, Wrocław’s market square, right smack in the city centre, while the rainbow movement, having reached the end of their short march, now find themselves between a concrete underpass and the Inner City Moat. The men are standing there in a martial pose right in front of city hall, glaring at us. They’re holding banners ostensibly against paedophilia. But that isn’t the real object of their animus: the point is the insinuation that homosexuals have paedophilic tendencies. They seek to denounce, disparage and, as is actually happening in several places in Poland, even prohibit any form of sexuality that doesn’t conform to their norms. Now the young man at the microphone is fulminating against everything that doesn’t hew to strict Catholic doctrine; the very presence of a priest at his back symbolically bestows the Lord’s blessing on this reactionary rant. The staring of the men holding up the banner is getting on my nerves. I walk towards them, stop just a few feet in front of them, take my camera out of my pocket and, in my own sweet time, calmly shoot their stares. The men hiss, baring their teeth as if they would bite my face off on the spot. Undaunted, I look them earnestly in the eye and snap away.
3. We’re sitting in the café of the National Museum Wroclaw, having dinner as an instalment of Europe’s Kitchen. Food Think Tank have just served the starter in slightly chipped earthenware cups: this worn crockery exemplifies the beauty of used, cherished objects, the aesthetic of the wabi-sabi world view based on an acceptance of transience and imperfection. I’m sitting with a couple, Teo and Małgorzata, though only for the appetizer – we all have to change tables after each course on this savoury and entertaining evening – and we’re talking about toxic masculinity. I ask them whether my first impressions are right: I’ve noticed an extraordinary number of rather "lost"-looking men hanging out in the city who give off an air of subliminal aggressiveness, hooligan types spoiling for a fight. They gulp a little and say, "No more than elsewhere." Then they stop and think for a moment, remembering a scene they’ve just witnessed at the bus stop on their way to the museum: “typical loutish behaviour”, they call it. And they go on to tell me how female friends of theirs are routinely insulted and, in extreme cases, physically attacked by such louts – and how the widespread toxic masculinity has emerged in recent months as a major issue in Poland.
When I ask whether the police’s sabre-rattling during the LBTQIA demonstration is part of this toxic behaviour, they say yes and no. Yes, because the officers are out to intimidate civil society. No, because they’re simultaneously shielding the rainbow community in case the toxic mob strikes again, as they have done frequently in the past. By the way, they add, that helicopter business is new.
4. I just can't get that martial image out of my head: six or seven bored masked cops sitting side by side in the underpass, on the sidelines of the demonstration, next to three plainclothes officers wearing balaclavas over their heads and standing on tiptoes to see what’s going on. These three are presumably supposed to be under cover, but they don't look like civilians at all: one look at them and you can tell that they’re ruthless goons, crowd dispersers. What sort of a state lets such shady characters, who’d normally be working as bouncers in seedy nightclubs, lurk blatantly like this in a dark underpass? At a spot where hundreds of people have to pass by? Are they perhaps members of the widespread paramilitary groups that have been “maintaining law and order" in Poland for years and that – surprise, surprise – have close ties to the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party?
5. After thinking about the EU for a while, Alicja Patanowska, one of the five ceramicists at the Wrocław Academy of Fine Arts, produced some sculptures for the Europe’s Kitchen project. Alicja firmly believes in the power of creative imperfection. She works predetermined cracks into the artistic process, so that the ceramics achieve an imperfect perfection or, depending on how you see it, a perfect imperfection. That’s how it is with Europe, says the eloquent ceramist: we accept one another’s "faults" and the “fault-lines” running through Europe without forgetting the ideal of unity. Generally speaking, she feels that beauty lies in variety, not in homogenized conformity. Europe is a project that’s all about openness and that allows, even demands, cracks, without sacrificing its aesthetic or persuasive power. She says all this in an interview conducted by Priya Basil, the curator of the Europe’s Kitchen series, during which I’m standing in front of the glass walls of Alicja’s studio taking blurry photographs that reflect my modus operandi of deliberately limited vision.
6. Let’s open all borders instead of closing them tighter, says Nadja, a writer with whom I’m sharing a table now for the main course of this Europe’s Kitchen meal: namely, millet pasta with dried mushrooms, sauerkraut and lovage. Her sister lives in London, she says, and was so frustrated after Brexit that she seriously considered returning to Poland with her husband and kids. Nadja warned her not to come back but her words initially fell on deaf ears. Her sister had been away for too long, Nadja explains, she couldn’t imagine how nasty the confrontation in Poland has become, especially over women's rights, the country has changed drastically. Not to mention the supreme court appointments by the Law and Justice Party (PiS), who are hell bent on muzzling the independence of the judiciary. Polish civil society urgently needs Brussels' help, Nadja says, the rule of law is in jeopardy.
How did she finally stop her sister from moving back to Wrocław? I ask. Nadja laughs – a bitter laugh: she sent her links to conspiracy theory websites on which old and young nationalists bloviate about traditional values and share violent fantasies.
7. I ask one of the participating artists, Katarzyna Koczyńska-Kielan, a professor of ceramics at the Eugeniusz Geppert Academy of Art and Design, whether her students have become more politicized in recent years. She shakes her head. On the contrary, she replies with a sigh, the young generation have grown markedly more conservative, even here at the art academy. Brainwashing at schools works, she says, and conservatives have an easy job of it in the countryside, in particular: the gulf between big cities and small towns is enormous. Wrocław is one of the most liberal cities in Poland, she says, but even here freedoms already attained and enshrined in the constitution, such as freedom of religion and the commitment to constitutional democracy, are now at risk of being rolled back.
8. As dry runs for her imposing ceramic sculpture, Katarzyna Koczyńska-Kielan designed two trays on which she was planning to serve raspberries during our joint meal. Raspberries were on sale all over town till yesterday. But suddenly there were none to be had, she says as we shoot some footage at her university at midday. She has looked everywhere, in supermarkets, at the market, but no luck.
Eva-Maria Kleinschwärzer, the coordinator of the Goethe-Institut's Europe’s Kitchen project, won’t let the mysterious matter of the vanishing berries go. In the afternoon she scours the local shops herself, traipsing from one stand to another, and comes away empty-handed. Even at the hotel she asks whether the kitchen might not have some: nothing doing there either. But when Mateusz, the receptionist, hears about the missing raspberries for the European art project, he says he might have a solution. He pops into his car without further ado, drives off to his mother's, picks a whole bunch of raspberries from the bushes in her garden, and returns to the hotel with a bowl brimming with wonderfully fragrant and delicious maliny.