Artists try to save Gdansk shipyards – in images
The view is stark as the birthplace of Poland’s Solidarity movement faces possible closure.
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For other shipyard artists, the appeal of the derelict industrial site is less historical than physical. Konrad Zientara, an architect, has lived on the grounds for five years, and, for him, the allure is in “the space, the views, the holes, the cranes, the platforms that carry pieces of ships, the special things that are only here ... people don’t see the space and the beauty of it, because the only thing you hear about is the history. The events were important, but I think the place suffers from them.”
Many of the original leaders of Solidarity are still doing the same jobs they did three decades ago: riveting, painting, and welding ships. In 2005, when the Polish political elite descended on Gdansk to mark the 25th anniversary of the strikes with elaborate ceremonies, the workers themselves were urged to stay home.
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“I think people like to remember symbols, but the symbolic worker isn’t connected to the real worker,” muses Mr. Zientara. Seen as grimy, uneducated, and often drunk, today’s shipyard worker isn’t considered fit to be a national icon.
It is precisely this reality gap that many of the resident artists attempt to bridge. In a northern neighborhood of Gdansk, an area of abandoned brick tenements overgrown with weeds, a mural by Iwona Zajac stretches along a roadside wall. In simple black and blue, the artist intersperses shipyard scenes with the words of the workers themselves – most filled with memories and strong sense of belonging: “I never thought I would work for 42 years in the same place.” “I have a feeling there’s a piece of me in every ship we built.” “I will miss the place. When I retire I won’t know what to do with myself.”
The mural has become a favorite among the workers. “When I walk along the wall I feel like crying, because it’s the truth,” says Zbyszek Stefanski, a ship painter since 1974. “The artists are great! Young people who had no idea what was going on in here did a lot of good for the shipyards.”
But those days are coming to an end. In January the artists’ colony was broken up to make room for offices, and the artists themselves were obliged to find new studios. Some, like Szlaga, stayed on the shipyard grounds; others moved away.
The yards themselves may face an even bleaker future. In an ironic twist, the very victory that ensured the Gdansk shipyards a place in history is also destroying them. Since the collapse of the USSR, the yards have struggled to compete in other markets. State aid has kept them afloat, but Poland joined the European Union in 2004 and is now forced to adhere to Europe’s stringent regulations regarding free market competition.
Earlier this month, the Polish treasury, in a last-ditch effort to save the yards, submitted a restructuring plan to the European Commission. If it isn’t approved, the Gdansk shipyards will be ordered to pay back $300 million in state aid received over the years – money long gone. Such a ruling would mean almost certain bankruptcy and an end to shipbuilding.
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On Sept. 9, several hundred people gathered at the foot of Gdansk’s monument to fallen shipyard workers to protest the potential closure of the yards. Emotions ran high. At the edge of the crowd stood 68-year-old Pawel Zinczuk, his white hair and frail frame at odds with the burly men around him. Mr. Zinczuk’s shipyard career has spanned 35 years. In 1980 he was a key strike organizerand spent six months in prison for dissident activities.
When asked how he felt about the current situation, his eyes filled with tears: “In 1996, I was laid off. After my last day, I sat on this monument for three hours, and I was so upset I had a heart attack. It’s a very hard time for me now because I feel the same way ... the shipyard was my family and my home.”
Several years ago, the resident artists organized an exhibition called “Dockwatchers,” a collection of works underscoring their ambivalence toward the legend of Solidarity and the course of recent history.
Szlaga’s photographs were there, among them a portrait of working-class hero Anna Walentynowicz whose radical politics and consequent dismissal ignited the 1980 strikes.
In the picture, she stands beneath the mouldering brick arches and broken windows of an old shipyard building, a diminutive elderly lady with a fierce look in her eyes – not unlike the Gdansk shipyards, themselves, a powerful place, fading from national importance.