My father’s family had been deported during World War Two from eastern Poland to ‘Siberia’ by Stalin’s NKVD police during an ethnic/political cleansing operation in 1940. The family were transported in railway box cars. They weren't imprisoned there, the vast empty wilderness meant there was nowhere to escape to. After the war my father resettled in England but his relatives were repatriated from the Soviet Union to a newly acquired part of Poland.
In collaboration with Hitler, eastern Poland had been annexed by Stalin at the beginning of the war. Afterwards, in the Soviet dominated post war environment of eastern Europe, this new and morally dubious border was upheld. As a result of its loss of territory in the East, Poland was given new land in the West taken from Germany. To compensate the Poles Stalin had basically given them part of someone else's country and effectively shifted Poland sideways.
Our Polish relatives were resettled in this previously German territory. However, while Stalin was still alive, it was inadvisable to visit them. This was despite the fact that Stalin had inadvertently made the country geographically just that little bit closer Photo: Jason Lee
(click on '>' at the top of the page to continue)
Photo: Jason Lee
In the early 1950's, one Polish friend of my father did go back to see his family. He promptly disappeared never to be seen again. Much later, in the 1970's, another friend- Mrs Smylkin- also returned. She had recently become widowed and now, all alone in England, decided she would be better off back in Poland. Before she went she gave us her cooker and her Polish record collection. I was never taught to speak Polish so I couldn't understand any of the lyrics. Despite this major impediment, these state sponsored recordings of traditional Polish folk tunes were a rare exposure to Polish culture. More importantly, a year after she left, Mrs Smylkin also gave us a Christmas card. Posted to us from her new home in Poland it was a good indication she hadn't been murdered by the secret police. A couple of years later my father decided we would make the journey ourselves and see his relatives again for the first time in Forty years.
It was a Summer holiday in 1980 and I was 12 years old. Many of my relatives were farmers so much of our time was spent staying with them in the countryside. As well as meeting an extended family I had never seen before, I also found myself exposed to the culture of a nation that, although alien to me, was also ethnically part of me. Sadly, as a typical, pampered Western European child, my most abiding cultural memory was the shock at realising that not everyone in the world had a lavatory you could flush. #
Photo: Jason Lee............................. Image: One of Mrs Smylkins records playing in the latrine.
As part of my privileged upbringing, I also had a generous collection of toys whilst I was growing up. Once my father- a carpenter- even built a shed in the garden for my train set. Like most children’s train sets it went around in a circle. Now I realise how much at odds this was with the relationship to trains he had as a child. For him they were very real, went in a straight line and never came home again.
In 1990 I went back to Poland. I was an art student at the time and had a sculpture tutor who, like me, was half Polish. She planned to send me on a research trip for a month to stay with some art students in Warsaw. The cheapest way to get there at the time was by train. I told my father that I was going to go to Poland and went to visit him the evening before I set off on the journey. He wasn't impressed and even told me he didn't want me to go and 'show him up' by embarrassing myself over there. When he finally realised he couldn't stop me from going he instead decided he had better teach me some Polish. The time we had was very limited and so the only two Polish words I ever learnt from him were - "Przepraszam" - which means "excuse me" and "Pociąg" the Polish word for "Train"
"The box with a hole in it you stick your head in" , was the working title of 'Siberia' when it was first being developed. In this image the work is installed at 'Firstsite' at the Minories, Colchester; in the show 'Big Country', curated by Laura Davison (2004). A later influence on this piece was the earlier work 'Siren'.
Designed with transportation in mind, as with 'Europa- Hoek Van Holland to Vladivostok, the boxes that make up 'Siberia' store one inside the other. From 2009 to 2012 it was used in a theatre show collaboration with '30 Bird productions' called 'Poland 3 Iran 2'. Travelling from show to show 'Siberia' inevitably spent much of this time in transit, albeit in the back of a car not on a train.