The “Emotikon” project sums up a journey around the Black Sea. A pair of Polish artists, Robert Rumas (b. 1966) and Piotr Wyrzykowski (b. 1968), travelled across Eastern Europe and Asia Minor seeking experience in a world of geographical, cultural and aesthetical diversity. They visited Romania, Turkey, Georgia and Ukraine, and returned with memories of meeting people and emotions they needed to preserve. Luckily, they managed to do it.
As they say themselves, the two artists set off on a trip to the Black Sea to look for, paradoxically, familiarity. They emphasize that the goal was not seeking “exotica” but rather finding “neighbouring familiariaty with a taste of foreignness” in regions, which, according to Wyrzykowski, “are European, but with Asian elements, though still historically linked to Poland. We went there to find something that had existed within us, yet, as a result of transformation and capitalism, started to disappear and mutate”. And he clearly defined what it is: “We were losing ability to directly experience, or even feel. So we took a journey to regain what we had been deprived of. We hoped it had helped us discover anew things inside us that had been slipping away, perishing, and fading – the need of feeling empathy with people as well as a community”.
Indeed, their travelling is, above all, a story of meeting people. The exhibition presented in Warsaw gallery “Zachęta” opens with Istanbul shoes. Somewhere in the alleys of Istanbul’s older parts, the two artists reached a city quarter of small family-and-friends-run manufactures producing handmade shoes. The citizens of this shoe-making centre form a unique community. There is, however, a feeling of apprehension – in several years they will be here no more, and a bank or another tourist attraction will take their place, while they will lose their jobs along with their identity. But the meetings were also a chance to discuss Turkey itself and its problems – the Turkish nationalism in particular.
The next stop was Georgia where the travellers visited Svaneti – a cultural, language and ethnic enclave hidden among Caucasian mountains. At present, the region is a huge construction site for a ski resort and a road leading to it. The building process means incredible amount of work and money, and a constant fight against forces of nature. The road, being built by local citizens, is to irreversibly change their lives and traditions, thus far kept alive for hundreds of years.
Then, the travellers reached the Crimea and a former Soviet nuclear submarine base in Balaklava. Wyrzykowski and Rumas were lucky to meet an ex-worker of the base, officer of the Soviet Navy Ivan Orishchenko, who spent a huge part of his working life underwater. His home was Объект №825 ГТС, a code name of a base officially known as a city telephone exchange. Talking with the retired soldier was like taking a journey back in time, getting to know the history of both the man and the country.
From Balaklava, the artists went to Bakhchysarai where they met with imam Sabri, known as a man “full of love”, who told them about Islam that is “not the militant one but the one full of doubts, inquiring, based on conversation, not on hostility and a feeling of infallibility”. Wyrzykowski and Rumas watched an hour long prayer and came out holding a conviction about Islam of Crimean Tatars being filled with a sense of community and love – the religion of “brothers” you “have chosen yourself”.
The final stop was Romania and a Romany village, where the pair of artists came across local English teacher Tudor Lakatos. Nothing extraordinary here except Elvis Rromano – the artistic alter ego of the teacher, performing Presley’s songs in Romany.
Yet the “Emotikon” project is much more than videos. “Zachęta” has created an illusionary meeting space with the heroes of Wyrzykowski and Rumas’ documentary. While Elvis Rromano tells us about his life, we sit on a couch with the cheetah formerly decorating the singer’s room, seeing Romania behind window curtains. To listen to imam Sabri, we have to squat down on prayer mats from the Bakhchysarai mosque. The core of the exhibition are emotions experienced during the journey and meetings with people and the past, slowly fading away and not necessarily followed by something better.
Translated by KD