Beyond Borne Sulinowo

Beyond Borne Sulinowo

Jürgen Schneider, 1994

“…sail at last out of the bad dream of your past.”

Seamus Heaney,

The Cure at Troy


The German playwright Heiner Müller once remarked: “Gorbachev has ended the Cold War by dissolving the East/West conflict, the rivalry of ideologies in the North/South conflict. It is no longer a question of ideas but of realities. Thus, he has reduced the struggle between capitalism and socialism to the core itself: the antagonism between poor and rich. This antagonism is now getting universal significance, and full force.”(1) Muller also spoke of the rift between East and West Rome, Rome and Byzantium, which is dividing Europe in irregular curves, and which can be seen in a flash, when, after the loss of a binding religion or ideology, the tribal fires are being newly lit. A rift into which, for example, Poland has disappeared time and time again.

Where is Poland now? While, in Germany right-wing ideologists are openly demanding a “Re-Germanisation of East Prussia”, for the return of entrepreneurial capitalism, all over the old communist world Hitler’s motorised combat units, Krupp plants on wheels, are no longer necessary. As Neal Ascherson has observed: “All over East-Central Europe and Russia dashed the young missionaries of an extreme, Thatcherite version of the free-market economy…”(2) The movement of capital is invisible; it does not need a future, but is exploiting it by totally transforming time into the present. Or, in the words of Jean Baudrillard: “Perhaps the thawed freedom is not so much worth seeing. And, if one sees that it could not rest until it had marketed itself (automobiles and household utensils), with psychotropic and pornographic eagerness, i.e. to transform itself immediately in Western forms of liquidity, and thereby proceed from one version of the termination of history (qua freezing), to another (qua extreme fluidity and circulation)?...The energies which had been kept under lock and key in the East for half a century, evaporate in the Western vacuum.”(3)

During a reading at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste, Berlin, in December 1994, Seamus Heaney spoke about the meanings of ‘seeing’. Seeing is the use of the eyes, but it also means in a sense ‘delivering prophecies’ like ‘seers’ who are repositories of knowledge concerning the past; possessors of immediate insight into issues of the present, and deliverers of prophecies regarding the future.

If you are not a ‘seer’, but make extremely good use of your eyes, one could speak of a craftsmanship of seeing. While such a craftsmanship was not unusual in former times, today we have to face an undertaking which is producing perceptible phenomena. This could be the form a threatening industrialisation of seeing might take.

What in fact is the real tree? The one which you perceive if you stop, and which you can distinguish a branch from a leaf, or the one you perceive while it is passing the car’s windscreen, or the peculiar screen of the television? From the answers to these seemingly stupid questions, practical consequences, the everyday life appears. If photography, as understood by its pioneers Niepce or Daguerre, no longer exists but is only a stop in the image, and if stills are therefore merely “stations” on the way of the sequences passing the eye, we can expect a passionate turn to the view, to which the other view characterising the craftsmanship of the amateur photographer will soon fall victim, because the industry of seeing will be to the fore. This industry will owe everything to the motor, the transmitter and receiver of the “waves”, which hence-forth transmit the video signal as well as the wireless signal. We are facing an excessive breaking-in of the eye and the danger of a subliminal “optically correct” conformity, which would accomplish the conformity in language and writing.(4) In consequence of the mechanization of sensuality you don’t have to see any longer. This is what Walter Benjamin meant when he wrote that taking touristic photographs is erasing memory. And, not to remember means to be unable to know anything by experience any longer.

In the summers of 1993 and 1994, Irish artists (among them Victor Sloan) at the invitation of Wladyslaw Kazmierczak, director of the Baltic Art Gallery in Ustka, Poland, went there to participate in ‘IRISH DAYS’. Work was produced, installations, videos and slides shown, and discussions held. In addition to these activities, the Irish artists visited Borne Sulinowo.

Borne Sulinowo had been a secret base of the Soviet Army; a town with 25,000 inhabitants which was hidden in woodland close to the German border. The red Army left the base overnight in the winter of 1992. Since then the town has lain deserted. In the ghost town, in which the Soviet street names have been changed (e.g. to ‘Street of the Polish Army’), now only a police station exists, as well as a tiny bar with three or four tables, a TV set and a wall hanging depicting the Polish national colours. The landscape to be seen on the journey from Ustka to Borne Sulinowo resembles the landscape of the Irish Midlands. Flora and Fauna are quite amazing. The story goes that, due to financial difficulties in the mid-eighties, the Polish farmers could not afford to buy fertilizers, and much of the land remained untilled. The effect was that nature took over again quite fast. Wild flowers blossomed; storks came back, wild boars, foxes and herds of deer roamed free.

The first impression of Borne Sulinowo is that of a ‘green’ town; an idyll. But in fact it is not. Like all other places from which the Soviet Forces (or in Germany, the Allied Forces) withdrew, Borne Sulinowo is heavily polluted. Wrecks of military vehicles, military trash (including mines), junk and detritus are everywhere. Although, this is now changing, as scrap-merchants start “to clear up”

For the Polish people, Borne Sulinowo symbolizes the former military occupation of their country by Soviet troops. But were the soldiers, who had been stationed there, living as victors? No, they were not. It is depressing to walk through this town, where all doors stand open. From the state of the slightly differing flats in the housing blocks, you can tell who lived there. The lower the ranks the poorer had been the facilities provided. In many of the huge dormitories the walls are completely damp and mouldy, and they must have been like this even while Soviet soldiers lived there. In some of the flats you can still find the food on kitchen tables, as if the inhabitants had left in a hurry. Even the officers’ mess has gone to ruin; the parquet floor of its dance hall resembles a switchback, and in the heating power station, one wonders if the ovens, not quite repaired by using lumps of clay, ever worked at all.

In this environment, fragments of faded propaganda poster, on which the Social Realist artists, “the engineers of the human soul” (Stalin), presented the ordinary person in a context of utopia, strike one now as surreal.

Previously, Victor Sloan produced photographic works which dealt with his own personal history, in the context of a particular Northern Ireland community: from “The Walk”, “The Platform and The Field” (i.e. the Orange marches), “Drumming”, the Twelfth Series” to Walls” (i.e. the walls of Derry as a visual emblem of a divided city).(5)

Victor Sloan, like the other Irish artists, who went to Borne Sulinowo (Brian Connolly, Sean Taylor), was inspired by his experience there to make a new series of images. On first sight, it is a visual narrative about the after effects of the withdrawal of the Soviet Army from Eastern Europe and Eastern Germany, which was the biggest military operation since World War II.

The Canadian artist Jeff Wall has dealt with the death of the Red Army in his large-scale cibachrome image titled “Dead troops talk”.(6) Jeff Wall reconstructs a subtle counter-tale to the tale that Late-Capitalism wishes to tell, and so stridently asserts. At this point in the historical drama, the Soviet Zombies take up their full phantasmagorical presence, as both spectres and spectators of Late-Capitalism. Wall reinterprets, repositions, the narrative set up by Late-Capitalism that, of its own triumph, as being a rhetoric of bombast.”(7)

In his new series Victor Sloan takes us through a minefield cordoned off by barbed wire. We see a military map of Europe ripped to pieces, and a headless Gorbachev. Photographs which Victor Sloan found, or images he photographed depict Red Army soldiers, a tank driver with steal helmet, a military train, an old poster with a Russian helicopter, and a grim looking Soviet. A multi-layered image depicts a soldier, but, this time in the context of derelict housing blocks, and a kids slid in a bleak environment. From a small, oval frame on a gravestone, a young child was looking at the viewer. There is a large weatherworn wooden cross, and a broken statue. Empty cartridge cases from a machine gun lie in the sand. Sloan appears to be presenting images of a bygone age. All the images of the Borne Sulinowo series convey a feeling of agony, decay, and finality. And, it is unclear if, what we see was there already to be photographed, or came into existence by means of Victor Sloan’s interventionist technique. He deletes, he takes away, he bleaches and he over paints.

Walter Benjamin made it clear in his essay “Work Of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” that, for him, the camera is an instrument that enlarges vision. He likens the camera, for example, to the surgeon’s knife that can operate dispassionately on the human body, and so, by seeing it in fragments, can enter more deeply into its reality. Sloan distrusts such certainties about the camera and camera-captured appearances. The camera’s objectivity is illusive, the neutrality delusive. Victors Sloan’s knife is the brush, the sponge, the pin or the blade, at work in his ‘documentary’ photographs. Sloan’s works - to site a phrase André Breton used to describe Max Ernst’s over paintings – are built on the grounds constituted by “the readymade images of objects”. The deferred action or Nachträglichkeit, or aprés-coup, is importantly a function of the readymade, which lying at hand, becomes the vehicle for a past experience - one that has made no sense at the time it occurred – to rise up on the horizon of the subject’s vision as an original, unified perception.(8)

Victor Sloan has direct experience of the Northern Irish conflict. “His strength lies in his ability to transcend its local aspects by situating it within a universal theme: the interpenetration of the present by the past.”(9) While Jeff Wall, with his “Dead Troops Talk” image, is targeting Late-Capitalism, Victor Sloan with his allegorical “Borne Sulinowo” series, is again exploring the socio-political and cultural phenomena of Northern Ireland. Borne Sulinowo becomes Belfast, Derry, or Portadown. The trigger for this was the IRA’s declaration of a ceasefire in late August 1994, right when Victor Sloan was starting to reflect on a new body of work.

Victor Sloan knows that is a long way from a ceasefire to peace. In the process towards a lasting peace demilitarisation is a necessary step. With his Polish Series, Sloan appears to anticipate the demilitarisation, and perhaps, even the withdrawal of the British Army from the six Counties. But, he is nonetheless cautious, if not sceptical, of the new political developments. Whatever happens, we will still need artists like Victor Sloan who work against the industrialisation of seeing, against the mechanization of sensuality.

Berlin, December 1994, Jürgen Schneider


(1) Heiner Müller, “Jenseits der Nation”, Berlin: Rotbuch 1991, pp.79-80 (translation J.S.).
(2) Neal Ascherson, “After the Freedom, Bread”, Independent on Sunday, 13 November 1994, p. 23.
(3) Jean Baudrillard, “Transparenz des Bîsen”, Berlin, Merve, 1992, p. 109 (translation J.S.).
(4) see Paul Virilio, “Das Privileg des Auges”. In: Bildstorung. Edited by Jean Pierre Dubost, Leipzig, Reclam, 1994, pp. 55-71.
(5) see Victor Sloan ‘Walls’ catalogue, Orchard Gallery, Derry,1989.
Brian McAvera, ‘Marking the North: the Work of Victor Sloan’, Dublin/York, Open Air,
Impressions, 1990.
(6) see Jeff Wall, “Dead Troops Talk”, catalogue, Luzern: Kunstmuseum,
Dublin: The Irish Museum of Modern Art,
Hamburg: Deichtorhallen, 1993/94.
(7) Terry Atkinson, “Dead Troops Talk, Jeff Wall, pp. 33-36.
(8) see Rosalind E. Krauss, The Optical Unconscious, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London,
England. The Mitt Press, 1993, pp. 68 and 78/79.
(9) Brian McAvera, “Marking the North”, p. 11.

View Borne Sulinowo images