The Road to Gogolin
by Elena Hill
30th September 2009
Curator Elena Hill met with Andrew Mania to find out more about the story behind the film and installation Gogolin.
Andrew Mania's art installation Gogolin, with its themes of memory, displacement and longing, has an absorbing and extraordinary story as its starting point. I went with Alexander Sturgis, The Holburne Museum's Director to meet the 32 year old artist at his studio in Bristol to delve further into the project's history.
Andrew greeted us at his front door and immediately guided us around his studio/home. He showed us some of the paintings and drawings that would be part of the Gogolin installation. Walking around Andrew's subterranean studio one is instantly captivated by the intimacy of his work and the gentle old-world warmth of his house. When asked about his work, Andrew's initial responses are brief, modest and coy. But then, just as I am fidgeting trying to think up ways to get him to open up, Alexander asks directly "Please describe Gogolin". With this, Andrew's introversion immediately dissipates. His body-language changes, he clears his throat, sits erect and pours out with animated enthusiasm. I am scribbling franticly whilst he shoots off all sorts of Slavic names, objects and places.
He takes us to his bedroom and begins pointing and grabbing at objects and curios that belonged to his mother. We learn that Gogolin is a place. It is his father's home village in Poland, though the tale that weaves through the installation is not entirely his father's but his mother's, Helena Mania. Helena's journey from her home village of Slonim in Poland to Bristol, England has mesmerized Andrew for decades. Andrew's enchanting installation is part shrine to her passage.
Andrew researches and explores his family's history with the same line of investigation one would expect from a displaced orphan. He pores over details of his parents' past. Following the Russian invasion of Poland in 1939, the four-year old Helena (née Smycz) and her family were evicted from their idyllic home and land. They were deported to a labour camp in Siberia. Andrew is careful to point out that they were lucky. They were Catholic. The Jews as we know had a far worse fate. As the war roared on and food and resources became scarce, Stalin's priority was for the well being of his Russian populace. He therefore decided to move the Polish workers on allowing families like Helena's passage out of Russia.
Helena's family travelled by rail and by beast - Helena remembers at one point travelling by camel. Andrew tells us that his motherland is surrounded by dense forests and lakes hence the setting for his film is in ‘The Great Bialowieza Forest' on the Polish-Belarus border. From Andrew's telling of history we learn that later on these local forests were the scene of mass execution by the Nazis.
Helena's family's next stop was Tashkent, Uzbekistan where the Polish army was stationed in exile during this part of the war. From here they traveled to Tehran in Persia, present day Iran. The Shah of Persia opened up his palace gardens to the refugees and Helena has clear memories of the benevolent compassion offered to them there. At this point the 200,000 refugees that passed through Persia were encouraged to find voyage to safer havens. This meant that Western Europe was not an option. Many of these migrants travelled to far-flung countries like Canada, New Zealand, Australia and America. They had to struggle with disease, stave off starvation, harsh weather conditions and thieves.
Others like the Smyczs continued their remarkable expedition by land. Helena's family travelled on to Egypt, Palestine and Jerusalem. From Jerusalem they went on to Karachi before settling in a Bombay refugee camp to await safe passage to England. Helena and her family were itinerant travellers and were displaced for nine years, covering 15,000 miles.
What is particularly astonishing with this story is that it is recounted as a fairy-tale escapade. We know there must have been hardships, dangers and intense suffering, but Andrew doesn't recall his mother ever speaking of this. We are left wondering if it was his mother's shielding and defensive recounting of her memories or Andrew's own childhood naivety that processed the events into its present romantic narrative.
The installation at the Holburne Museum is made up of snippets and glimpses of Andrew's blurred and indistinguishable recollections. Andrew explains that whilst in the Bombay refugee camp his mother watched reels and reels of Hollywood films such as Fred Astaire and Tarzan to name but two. Helena would collect the discarded celluloid from the projectionist's booth as a memento. Andrew now holds these keepsake strips safely on the mantle in his bedroom. Whilst with Andrew snooping around his room, he dips into his diminutive treasure box and holds up to the light a dog-eared thin sepia piece of 35mm film. We can see in fact that it is a single frame from a Tarzan film showing Boy with Jane.
This tiny fragile piece of iconic Hollywood seems an incongruous beginning for Andrew's homage to his mother. But this is the artist's point; memory is complex and multifarious. Andrew explains that he isn't particularly interested in recounting history. Rather he is more interested in understanding the reading of it. Gogolin is presented from a child's perspective and Andrew deliberately blurs the distinctions between fact and fantasy, admitting that the more historical research he does the more he feels he is moving away from understanding his mother's version of events.
The ambiguous, distorted and missing visual evidence offered to the viewers of Gogolin suggests Andrew's own complex relationship to his family and its history. His own feelings of loss, love and displacement and the fine link between the collective and the private deciphering of recollection are at the centre of Gogolin.
After the studio visit, Andrew kindly offers to take me to visit his mother and father who live close by. I am welcomed into their home served tea and cake and the stories are verified. Andrew's mother and father are thrilled to see their son. I ask if it had been a while since Andrew was last with them. They laugh and say of course not. Andrew pops in nearly every day and most certainly for Sunday lunch, which is cooked by his 88 year-old father. I find it difficult to leave Mr. and Mrs. Mania. Their gentle storytelling is captivating and their compassion towards each other is steady. Time flies by and we must go. I leave and with repeated hugging and kissing promise to see them again. They walk us to the door shouting out, "Andrew, why do you have to wear such flimsy short trousers, you'll catch cold you silly boy."
Elena Hill is a curator and runs Contemporary Art Programming.