Bem is a film documentation of Przemysław Branas’s journey to war-torn Syria in 2016. The work was created within the project “Work-shop” at the Bank Pekao Project Room at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw.
The artist travelled the same route, albeit in the opposite direction, as the remnants of General Józef Bem in 1929 from the place of his death in Aleppo to his hometown of Tarnów. Branas spotlights Józef Bem in the pantheon of Polish national heroes in order to show that the automatic identification of Polish patriotism with profound Catholic religiousness is a false oversimplification. A Muslim can be found even amongst the figures of greatest merit for the Polish struggle for independence. Simply by consulting a historical archive, Bem falsifies the nationalistic fantasy of a monocultural national-Catholic Poland, “free from Islam,” which has emerged as a defensive reaction of the vast majority of the Polish society to the question of accepting Syrian refugees in Poland.
The gesture of re-enacting the above mentioned travel route enters into dialogue with the practice of repeated burials of major figures in Poland after World War I, which formed an important part of the strategy of reinforcing national identity. The use of the figure of General Bem in the historical politics of Poland after 1918 can be interpreted in the context of the Polish concepts of international alliances and the utopian idea of Intermarium – an alliance of states located between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea.
The recent return to that concept in Polish foreign policy reveals similar imperial aspirations of the current authorities. Branas opposes the phantasmal vision of a regional community with a “tourist’s perspective,” which is free from prejudice and open to the experience of diversity of other cultures. In the documentation of his journey, he creates a kind of counter-visuality by showing snapshots of the everyday life on the streets of subsequent cities; he restores their individual dimension and deprives them of the imagined status of dreamlands that could form part of a geopolitical empire.
© Przemysław Branas