Marek Wasilewski On Borders

One should not consider that the great principles of freedom end at your own frontiers, that as long as you have freedom, let the rest have pragmatism. No! Freedom is indivisible and one has to take a moral attitude towards it. 

 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Warning to the West

It takes so little, so infinitely little, for someone to find himself on the other side of the border, where everything – love, convictions, faith, history – no longer has meaning. The whole mystery of human life resides on the fact that it is spent in the immediate proximity of, and even in direct contact with, that border, that it is separated from it not by kilometers but by barely a millimeter.
Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

When I think about the notion of the border, I see a car road map that I used to look at in my childhood. Packed with colour illustrations, the map was published  at the end of the 1960s by the Esso gas station chain which did not operate in Poland at the time. Almost every European historic landmark and natural monument was marked there with a colour drawing. As one looked eastwards, the dense network of roads and landmarks grew thinner and thinner in order to yield place to pure white beyond the Oder River. Behind the border of the West roads came to an end as did history, culture and civilisation. Roads and monuments disappeared, there were no more cities. The world east of the Oder was a terra incognita. Gazing at it was an intriguing experience because it implied that the world which I lived in and that I knew so well did not actually exist. In Travels with Herodotus, Ryszard Kapuściński describes the emotional state of a man living in a closed country who wants to cross the barrier that limits him: “I was tempted to see what lay beyond, on the other side. I wondered what one experiences when one crosses the border. What does one feel? What does one think? It must be a moment of great emotion, agitation, tension. What is it like, on the other side? It must certainly be – different. But what does ‘different’ mean? What does it look like? What does it resemble? Maybe it resembles nothing that I know, and thus is inconceivable, unimaginable?”[1]

In Latin, limes means “border,” a road located on the fringes of one’s own territory with fortifications that separated the Empire from the world of barbarians. One of the most famous such fortifications that can be seen until the present day is Hadrian’s Wall, raised in AD 121–129 in northern Britain. It stretched between the village of Bowness on the Solway Firth and the Segedunum fortress in Wallsend on the Tyne. It was supposed to offer protection from belligerent Pictish tribes from Caledonia, yet it never fulfilled the hopes pinned on it.

The modern-day counterpart of Hadrian’s Wall, which separates the civilised heritage of the Roman Empire from the world of barbarians, is the eastern border of the European Union. In the study entitled “The Eastern External Border of the Enlarged European Union”, Bartosz Cichocki characterises it as follows: “Poland has the longest border with the non-EU area amongst all the countries that accessed the European Union in May 2004: ca 230 km with the Kaliningrad Oblast (Russian Federation), ca 420 km with Belarus, and ca 535 with Ukraine. The borderland with Kaliningrad Oblast is a wooded and hilly area, covered with a dense transport and settlement network. The borderland with Belarus is more densely wooded, less populated and has wetlands. The southern stretch of the Polish-Belarussian border corresponds to the course of the River Bug, which divides Poland from Ukraine. It is only here that the Polish eastern border begins to draw on natural divisions. South of Hrubieszów, the Polish-Ukrainian border abandons the course of the Bug, turns to the west and ends on the highland territory of the Bieszczady Mountains. Poland’s geographic location (on the route from Asia to Western Europe), the length and natural conditions of the borderland pose a particular challenge to services in charge of combatting illegal immigration, international organised crime and trafficking.”[2] The real and the symbolic border between the East and the West is a border between an imagined form and its absence, it is a border between the dry and the humid, as Jonathan Littell described it in his depiction of the fantasies of the Belgian Fascist Leon Degrelle. Analysing the language of the author of memories from the Russian campaign, Littell evokes the recurring obsessive descriptions: “Huge terrifying Russian mud, as dense as melted caoutchouc,” “primitive mud, as old as the hills, unmoved, stronger than strategists, than gold, than reason and human hubris.”[3]

The fragment of the eastern border of the European Union under Polish management is yet another incarnation of the historic phantasm of the bulwark of Christianity. Interestingly, the Encyclopaedia of the Polish Scientific Publishers defines this term as the claim concerning the special role of Poland in defence against peoples and states with foreign religions and cultures. It might be the reason why Poles, poisoned with historical phantasmagoria, let themselves be persuaded that solidarity with war victims and lending the European community a helping hand in solving the humanitarian crisis is nothing short of naivety. Today, openly xenophobic stances lie at the heart, and not on the margins, of the public debate. We are proud of being capable of cruelty and egoism. This feeling is underpinned by uncertainty and fear that the frequently emphasised religious and cultural identity is in reality an empty shell devoid of any content.

The phantasmagoric obsession with threat looming from the east is not only a Polish speciality. It was the Prussian Emperor Wilhelm II who in 1895 commissioned from Herman Knackfuss a print that featured a literal illustration of his prophetic dream die Gelbe Gefahr, in which he saw a tempest approaching Europe in the form of Buddha mounting a dragon. The print shows Archangel Michael who gathers women representing various European nations on the seacoast. The inscription below pleaded: “Nations of Europe, defend thy holiest property.” The image was offered as a gift to all European and American leaders.[4]

The border as a physical limit of a certain territory, a certain political organisation, a certain zone of influences, seldom runs through the centre of a given territory. We reach the border on the peripheries, where the influence of the centre is fading. As Kapuściński wrote: “For the closer one got to a border, the emptier grew the land and the fewer people one encountered. This emptiness increased the mystery of these regions. I was struck, too, by how silent the border zone was.”[5] Such border zones may also adopt the form of entire countries. These are areas which Jan Sowa – drawing on Miroslav Hroch – calls half-baked regions. A half-baked region is a region where nothing happens independently, a region which does not create its own models because its culture has always been secondary. “This region is inhabited by societies that are unable to determine their habitus in an autonomous way, without looking towards the Other, who would provide them with a source of positive or negative idealisation… the special situation of states in this part of Europe consists in their eternal confinement in the logic of catching up and escaping, which does not apply to the states of Western Europe.”[6] In his book, Sowa writes about the double complex of Poles, who were initially proud colonisers of territories that they called Eastern Borderlands (“Kresy Wschodnie”), but later surrendered to the civilisational and military dominance of the Russian Empire and became victims of colonisation themselves. The complex, which is an explosive mix of pride and resentment, effectively hinders a sober analysis of Poland’s current geographical location and partly contributes to the current political turmoil. A major part of this complex is a line drawn on a map on one of the desks at the British Foreign Office, akin to those that were frequently drawn on the maps of Africa and Asia.

The line in question is identical to the eastern border of Poland – its course is based on the so-called Curzon line, which was proposed by the British Foreign Secretary, Lord George Curzon, as a demarcation line between the Polish and Bolshevik armies in 1920. It is a commonly known fact that Lord Curzon was neither the author nor a keen advocate of the proposed solution. What is less known, however, is that before he became a Foreign Secretary in the British government, Lord Curzon had been the Viceroy of India, and was therefore essentially a stranger to the political complexities of Europe. Arbitrarily drawn at the British Foreign Office and later supported by Stalin, this dividing line is the focus of the exhibition Attention! Border, which is presented simultaneously in two borderland Polish cities: Białystok and Lublin. It is a border between two worlds, which is viewed and analysed primarily by artists who live on two different sides. The topic of the border is of course too complex to be reduced to a single line drawn on the map – a line that segregates people who enjoy certain rights and liberties from those who are deprived of them. The artists do not engage in a passive examination of this division into better and worse people, since they are themselves subject to this differentiation and use various ways to challenge, question and analyse it. The works in the exhibition engage with the topic of the border in a profound and multi-layered way in its political, economic, human and aesthetic dimensions. In Fantomowe ciało króla [The King’s Phantom Body], Jan Sowa remarks that “so adroitly set, the pairs of opposites – East v. West, Democracy v. Totalitarianism, Reason v. Force, Institution v. Savagery, etc. can exist only because both their components have a purely phantasmal content: they do not describe any real state and respond only to the desire of a specific perception of oneself and the other that exists on both sides.”[7] This diagnosis seems particularly topical in terms of Poles’ vision of themselves. It is a special kind of mix of complexes stemming from the recent position in the “worse” world and the sudden move across to the “better” side of the border, while also becoming its guard. The joy and benefits of civilisational advancement are effectively contaminated by malicious, xenophobic satisfaction at the inferior position of others and a completely unjustified sense of superiority. This can be sensed by all people waiting in cramped non-sensical queues on the border, who face inhuman treatment and an inhuman situation that EU citizens do not need to go through. Giorgio Agamben writes that separation of the human and the political, which we are witnessing today, marks the final phase of breaking the nexus between human rights and citizen’s rights.[8] The Italian philosopher calls for a re-examination and re-construction of the ties between the notions of the human being and the citizen so as to render them inseparable. It is this aspect of the situation of the border that the exhibition in Białystok and Lublin seems to highlight above all others. The show poses the question – although it does not offer answers – about what can be done to prevent borders from dividing people and to turn them instead into channels of communication and exchange.

For art, already the very notion of the border comes across as a provocation. Questions about the borders of art or borders in art recur as an incessant chorus every time control is tightened in order to bring free circulation of ideas to a standstill, every time new and better equipped control posts appear on symbolic and real borders. For art, the border is a point of reference which needs to be transgressed, yet at the same time we can constantly hear: the borders of art have been crossed, the artist has crossed the borders of good taste… These are the borders that art must not transgress if it wishes to remain safely unnoticed. The art that boldly claims its own place in the society, transgresses different borders and – as Andrzej Turowski wrote – raises anxiety – such art constantly crosses various borders both in its form an in its content. The criterion of novelty that largely serves to assess artistic and intellectual production compels transgression. For art, borders exist above all to be crossed. They are infringed in a broad array of different ways, for instance by consciously blurring the border between art and everyday life, by artistic activism and forms in which art becomes indistinguishable from sociological or interventionist journalism. There are always new places and new contexts to be created for art.

Yet the most moving examples of artistic activities that transgress borders are not those that attack and hurt others, but those in which artists themselves test the borders of their own endurance, their strength, their inner conviction that taking risks and sacrificing oneself is worth it.

Translated  by Łukasz Mojsak


[1] Ryszard Kapuściński, Travels with Herodotus, trans. by Klara Glowczewska (New York: Vintage International, 2008), p. 9.

[2] Online text: https://www.osw.waw.pl/sites/default/files/prace_14_3.pdf.

[3] Jonathan Littell, Suche i wilgotne, trans. by  Magdalena Kamińska-Maurugeon (Krakow: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2009), p. 46.

[4] John Kuo Wei Tchen and Dylan Yeats (eds.), Yellow Peril! An Archive of Anti-Asian Fear (London: Verso, 2014), p. 12.

[5] Kapuściński, , p. 9.

[6] Jan Sowa, Fantomowe ciało króla: Peryferyjne zmagania z nowoczesną formą   (Krakow: Universitas, 2011), p. 15.

[7] Ibid., p. 12.

[8] Giorgio Agamben, trans. by Mateusz Salwa Homo Sacer:  Suwerenna władza i nagie życie (Warsaw: Prószyński i S-ka, 2008), p. 183.