It was February – the mid-afternoon sky was cast with a chilling slate ceiling. Shivering and stamping at the Riverside entrance to the Tate Modern I waited for friends to arrive so that we could enter together and remember what our feet felt like. When two young bearded men sidled up to me half hiding in their overcoats, half backing away from me as they edged closer, I felt warmer just thinking about giving them accurate transport directions or taking a good holiday snapshot for them. Company would make me forget the cold for a few seconds.
The leader of the two dishevelled beards and downcast eyebrows began with a catchy “excuse me”, and within seconds I realised that this was not a case of maps and tube stations. Though his first few words were tentative and slowly enunciated through an eastern european accent, the more I didn’t exit the conversation, the faster his well-rehearsed story tumbled out. He began talking about a book – he was holding the book – they were artists. From Poland. They had hitchhiked across Siberia, here was the book about it. They wanted to go to New York – but they couldn’t hitchhike there – so they were selling the book to pay for their trip.
Perhaps the qualities I admire most in strangers are the ability to engage without overburdening me, solicit without trapping me, approach without preying on me. The two men adroitly told me their epic trans-Siberian tale and a sizeable portion of their life stories within minutes, to such effect that it could have been nothing but the truth. And if that wasn’t enough, the photos in the book were printed evidence of their sincerity.
I did not want to buy the book, and like anyone who feels embarrassment lying to “could you spare me 50p for a hot cup of tea” with “sorry I’ve got no change”, I apologised for not having five pounds on me, told them they could wait with me for my friends, said that I was sure some of them would want to buy it. Such compensation was unnecessary and fruitless because lead beard wanted me to know I could pay them at a later date – he took my e-mail address (my real e-mail address indeed, shock horror what a security risk!) They informed me of their deep belief in the power of trust and their wish to convey to others their experience of Siberian generosity, with choirboy faces so serious and true, that I chuckled inside over the naivety on which their humble views were floating.
After some awkward conversation, overhung with our mutual and silent recognition that they were only hanging around in the hope that a five-pound note might appear in my hand (or was that purely my inner city cynicism rearing its ugly head?) they departed. My new book was cellophane wrapped – I couldn’t even begin reading the book to decide whether I wanted to buy it without damaging the packaging to the point where I might be asked to pay for it anyway.
By the time my friends arrived, the delight and surprise at being included in a modernist quest to travel the world using art a mode of transport, had worn off. It was as cold as Siberia on the Thames, I genuinely did not have a spare five pounds for a book I would never have picked up in a shop, to give to two random men whose main aim appeared to be a holiday in New York. And so the story as I told it to my friends was very different to the way in which I have recounted it above. My main worry by then was what to say if they e-mailed me demanding payment for the unwanted and unopened item.
But they didn’t e-mail me, and still haven’t. Apparently the ‘trust’ baloney was really heartfelt and meaningful. I have been itching to open this book ever since I hid it away under a pile of failed job applications. The front and back covers give nothing away – emblazoned only with mugshots of each bearded man on either side. Both staring irreconcilable and maniacal from the bright white covers, they look much more like the soon-to-be-sectioned demi-gods of an evangelical cult than art graduates.
Last weekend I finally tore off the plastic (a very odd thing to have on a book anyway, unless it’s an office supplies catalogue) and read. At first I found it difficult to get past their artists’ spiel, hard to fathom the writing which seemed like the egotistical blurb describing any old uninspired and uninspiring contemporary video installation at the Turner Prize… But before long I had completely lost myself to the rhythm of the two men’s thoughts – after all, I had met them and felt I could at least give their occasionally self-indulgent art lingo the benefit of the doubt. The translation from Polish to English also made it quite hard at first to know whether I was reading complex considerations poorly translated, or the loyal translation of lustreless writing.
It was neither: really it is a book about a silly journey, of a youthful artist’s decision to think beyond the limits and the era prescribed to him. The translation can only capture the translator’s limitations in abstract English. It is touching, that their personal musings on life – not philosophically ground-breaking – have been made so public, in such unintentionally candid language.
What struck me was the theme running throughout – the theme of our meeting on the Thames, the theme of their hitchhike through Siberia, the theme of writing a book about it – interaction with others, creativity as a driver of ‘good meetings’ and art as a vessel for initiating encounters rather than a talking piece in empty galleries. The central element that they wish to emphasise is the emotion of a ‘good meeting’, of the type that they had with locals while travelling in Siberia. I began to look again at the personal meeting I had with them in February, and found that the enjoyment I was receiving by reading the book was essentially an extension of the fun of our first meeting – in my case, at least, they have succeeded in doing what they set out to – as one of them writes ‘the meeting with the receiver becomes the priority of my creative work’.
By using art and the artist as an analogy for society and the individual, the two men make the point that art needs life to really impart value – it cannot be contained in a sterilized showroom, to have an impact it must be directly and personally received by the viewer. This, they argue is very similar to the way individual’s behave in their communities – ‘a person living in a world of secondary, relative values, is not a credible partner’. Someone who lives a self-contained life is disconnected from the whole community – though it may seem attractive to hole up alone, with our own reassuring beliefs when the world’s injustice or energy becomes too much for us, it is self-defeating as we can only really survive in collaboration.
I was reading this chapter on the bus. Children at the back on the top deck were behaving routinely obscenely, but I didn’t notice until a wrapper was thrown over my head aimed at a man who was trying to quietly remove himself from their abuse by taking the empty seat next to me. While reading thought provoking snippets about encounters and ‘good meetings’ between people whose only common language is their humanity, I could hear the kids spouting vaguely racist abuse at a man whose accent was not quite English enough for them to listen to. They were as crude, apathetic and ignorant as we have come to expect from some young people in the city, and eventually the bus driver, with praiseworthy determination, chucked them off the bus. But the adult they had been teasing, a full grown man and his girlfriend, spat on the offensive children as they descended the stairs. The epitome of a ‘bad meeting’: two sets of completely self-contained and uninterested individuals, convinced of their own righteousness and attitudes, meet and interact with absolutely no effort to understand or consider the other – and perpetuate their mutual prejudices through further aggravation.
By no means am I saying that this book says anything new or different or clever about art and society, it did fill me with pleasure and hope when I thought about the ‘good meetings’ I have had in my life though – and compelled me to try harder in future to foster and reciprocate the good kind wherever I am, London bus, Tate Modern, Siberian village.
Further examples of Michal Chojecki’s art and work are on his website: