Sally Madge

Out of Place

Group exhibition: Borderlands
Gallery North, University of Northumbria at Newcastle
April 2015

The installation presents an alternative monument (or 'un-monument') to Wojtek, a Syrian brown bear and mascot of a World War Two Polish military unit stationed after demobilisation in 1946 at Winfield in the Scottish Borders. Here, rather than the usual heroic effigy and snapshot biography, attention is drawn to the disjunctures, absurdities and inconvenient disorder of history, which often involves the official or unofficial transgression of boundaries and rules. The physical traces left by unruly forces persist in the form of ruins, whose reality of mess, detritus, entropy and decay but also vitality and potential can – if not fetishised, aestheticised or otherwise tidied up – resist simplistic understanding. Conventional public memorials are also problematised, as they tend to freeze a range of conflicting and contradictory experiences into an authoritative, solid, static structure – reinforcing the fiction of a single shared narrative we are all expected to subscribe to. An overall aim, therefore, is to complicate the uniformity and conformity of mediated, ritualised remembrance.

A bulky small-screen video monitor sits on what looks like a pile of rubble or perhaps a waymarker cairn made of broken and partly dressed masonry. These remnants and rejects were sourced from the Hutton Stone Company Ltd – also based at the disused Winfield airstrip, near Berwick upon Tweed – where material from quarries across the region and further afield is processed for use in construction, including for the restoration and repair of historic buildings and sites, and doubtless also new developments simulating traditional architectural vernaculars. The monitor, meanwhile, hosts a short film of a man in a bear suit wandering around the derelict airfield buildings. Carefully composed, lingering shots show the ruins and the pantomime bear peering into doorways and out of windows, stamping on rubbish, and banging metal on wood – engaged in apparently aimless, rather melancholy play or perhaps some kind of hopeless quest, and hinting at a story which is not quite evident other than as an uncanny juxtaposition of incongruous elements.

Wild Syrian bears are now extinct throughout much of their range thanks to persecution and habitat loss, but Wojtek was adopted as a cub in Persia in 1942 by the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish 11 Corps, who then travelled through Iraq, Syria and Palestine to Egypt. Formally drafted with the rank of Private, complete with paybook and serial number so as to be allowed to ship with the soldiers to Italy, Wojtek is said to have carried artillery shells during the decisive Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944 before passage to the displacement camp in Scotland. The Polish have themselves been no strangers to exile and diaspora: their homeland annexed by Nazi Germany and then given away to the USSR in the postwar settlement; more recently suffering the imposition of neoliberal austerity as a condition of purported liberation and independence. So the parallel fates of troops and mascot are overlain with slippage across biological borders, where the bear was afforded (sub-) human credentials, encouraged to learn tricks and attributed human traits for domesticated performance while viewed as dangerous pet, workhorse and cabaret act. The shoddy treatment of the Poles by the authorities at the time, before and since hints at a more sinister analogy in terms of visualisations of human or non-human animals; redolent of the long grisly traditions of exploiting captive bears as well as disposable people. So the film's reversed species-crossing invokes humour, pathos and poignancy on a number of levels, as the bear-man haunts a former home (itself busy being reclaimed by the local wildlife and vegetation) – unable to escape but still trying to make sense of the circumstances that have trapped it there.

(Text by Tom Jennings and Sally Madge; film: camera, sound and edit by Adam Phillips, with Donald Gunn as the bear; photograph reproduced courtesy of Jadwiga Maria Makowski, showing her mother and uncle with Wojtek in Egypt in 1943)