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Font, senVoodoo (AñA Wojak & Fiona McGregor) Font, senVoodoo (AñA Wojak & Fiona McGregor)
photo Waded
NOVELIST AND PERFORMANCE ARTIST FIONA MCGREGOR’S STRANGE MUSEUMS, A JOURNEY THROUGH POLAND IS NO MERE TRAVEL BOOK WHERE THE LONE ADVENTURER LOSES HERSELF IN A FOREIGN LAND AT OUR LEISURE, FOR OUR PLEASURE IN THE EXOTIC; PERHAPS DISTURBING OUR USUAL SENSE OF SELF, POSSIBLY REVEALING THE TRANSFORMATION OR EMOTIONAL GROWTH OF THE WRITER, MAYBE NOT. STRANGE MUSEUMS IS MORE DRIVEN THAN THAT: A QUEST TO UNDERSTAND AN UNFAMILIAR, OFTEN EVASIVE AND SOMETIMES HOSTILE CULTURE AND AN ATTEMPT TO PLACE THE ENCOUNTER IN THE CONTEXT OF BEING WOMAN, LESBIAN, QUEER, AUSTRALIAN AND ARTIST.

McGregor travelled with co-performer and former lover Ana Wojak as senVoodoo through Poland to festivals and galleries to present their work Arterial in which the performers, dressed in white, walk towards each other on emulsified white photographic paper, veins in their wrists open for the duration. However, Strange Museums is in many ways a lone journey, especially in its final stages. Engagingly constructed by a novelist rather than a documentarist, Strange Museums subtley and gradually unpacks personal history as the journey unfolds, withholding immediate accounts of the performance work, letting it form in the reader’s mind, and later revealing something of its origins and meanings, rooted in the writer’s upbringing, sexual proclivities and health—she suffers Hepatitis-C. It’s rare to be able to appreciate the complex motivation for performance art without having to navigate the obscurantism of poetics or theory (McGregor again feels an outsider, this time for not being part of that art-academic niche).

Fiona McGregor’s journey takes us into the living museums that are bodies, families, cultures, countries and art practices as well as the repositories of history—the architectural constructions of the past manifest as museums, churches, preserved sites (World War II concentration camps) and conserved, history-distorting cities.

There’s much for McGregor to enjoy—the widepsread acceptance of performance art (compared with its narrow ambit in Australia), making sense of the curious personalities of the artists, theatre directors and gallery owners she and Wojak meet; and reflections on the wonderful literature and worlds of Gombrowicz, Witkiewicz, Singer and, too briefly, Bruno Schulz. She even takes to the churches: “I have mellowed since my first sojourn in Europe when visiting the art in churches meant literally holding onto my stomach, such was the intensity of my visceral revolt, legacy of my orthodox Catholic upbringing.” The festivals attended are modest, under-funded, endangered; galleries are often housed in people’s homes; museums range from endangered to lavish, either evading the ugly facts of history or newly embracing them, and everywhere the opening hours are unpredictable. But elsewhere government money, McGregor writes, is thrown at art, and signs of new wealth, side by side with poverty, are evident in urban renewal and shopping centres.

As Strange Museums progresses and McGregor and Wojak travel further, the more the writer demands to understand Poland—the hero worship of Pope John Paul, the mass embrace of his successor Benedict, the right wing homogenising of culture, the widespread homophobia and, often if not always, a refusal, among artists and the intelligentsia to discuss the treatment of Poland’s Jews, not just in World War II under the Nazis, but in the appalling events of 1968.

Wojak is a quiet presence in the book, herself absent from her country of origin for some 20 years, and not always able or willing to answer McGregor’s constant querying of a culture that bewilders with its contradictions: where an apparently dissident artist can be a confirmed homophobe and the oppressiveness of Communism has been replaced not with growing freedoms but with a censorious Catholicism. Faced with a multitude of cultural complexities and not able to speak Polish, the inquisitive McGregor has to question cautiously, but even so is met with silence, with evasion, or with absolutes. To her complaint about homophobia an artist retorts, “This is not intolerance. This is tradition, it is morality.” She writes, “It was my first and last argument in Poland.” In another moment of frustration, “I flee upstairs to the kitchen. I’m fed up with this Polish defensiveness; their silence weighs upon me like guilt...Why can’t you talk about it? I say. You never stop questioning me about the Aborigines. That’s our genocide. That’s what I was born into.”

She discovers it’s not that Poles don’t know about anti-semitism or have forgotten the Holocaust—there are provocative books about it, a leading newspaper takes on the visiting Pope when he visits Auschwitz-Birkenhau and also Jankowski, a right wing Catholic priest when he labels a nativity scene in his church with the text “The Jews killed Jesus and the Prophets. They have also oppressed us.” McGregor arrives at a provisional understanding: “Silence may be denial, or protection, a veil of mourning. It seems to me that nobody in Poland is separable from atrocity, that everyone’s roots must lead back through bloodshed, and nothing is binary, everything is grey, so I tread carefully.” But she still finds herself infuriated: Jewish history is tucked away on the fifth floor of the poorly attended Historical Museum of Warsaw. Then a friend directs her to the huge, multimedia Muzeum Powstania Warszawskiego, an old power plant refurbished in 2005 that pays homage to the Warsaw ghetto uprising, is open six days a week and is crowded.

McGregor’s own body is a living museum. Celtic Catholicism, she writes, “is surely the most dour and our religion was one of unremitting restraint, punishment, and duty”, which she challenges in performance. “It is fair to say that it took performing The Ninth Station more than twenty years later, with my lips stitched and six ten-gauge hooks in my back, to get over the bad associations with [the Stations of the Cross].” It’s fascinating how McGregor comes to reconcile herself to being Catholic: it was Wojak, from a more vibrant Polish Catholicism, “who brought the visuals, the iconography and rituals of Catholicism into senVoodoo (I never would have dared)....Over the years, through my performance art more than anything, I have reclaimed my cultural heritage, and pagan Catholicism now makes sense to me. As there are secular Jews, I am a secular Catholic, whether I—or they—like it or not. And so I remain attached to the Church, a thorn in its side.” Oddly enough, her parents were tolerant and anti-racist, but also homophobic. McGregor worries at other categories, given her and Wojak’s invisibility as gay or queer in Poland, but at the same time at the restrictiveness of the terms in Australia. Some terms it seems she’d be happily cleansed of, while retaining Catholicism but purging it of its destructiveness.

Arterial, McGregor’s performance and installation created with Wojak, is a cathartic, ritualistic cleansing, involving careful preparation (watching diet, avoiding alcohol), medical assistance (not always reliably available for the pair in Poland) and the risk of collapse. Now that senVoodoo is no more, perhaps that particular cleansing is complete. Strange Museums too is an act of cleansing, if an incomplete one, a search for answers not easily found and the laying bare of a life in words. By the end of the book, ‘cleansing’ is writ large, ambiguously and variously: the Polish government’s flushing out of collaborators from the Communist period, the proposal to eliminate all of the old hammer and sickle icons of Soviet tyranny, the heavily enforced ban on abortion, attempts to ban gay parades, the erasure of the past in urban redevelopment, and the Australian parallels from a decade of oppression where nuance in politics and art has become a dirty word. As it is in Poland, writes McGregor, “where the simplest of differences struggles for a voice, I don’t have the luxury of ambiguity.”

Strange Museums will fascinate readers with McGregor’s vivid accounts of Polish cities and towns, arts subcultures, individual personalities, churches, galleries, artists’ homes, food, the countryside and the lingering detritus of war, revolt and uneven development. For artists it will have special appeal as McGregor and Wojak appear at festivals, grapple with inadequate facilties and the cautious responses to their work, attend art events and struggle to situate themselves personally and artistically in a sometimes fundamentally foreign culture. McGregor’s insights about her practice, about the pain and release involved, and the shaping of a fluid identity make the book an intensely personal one, voiced conversationally, avoiding stylistic excess and with the flow and shape of a very good novel.


Fiona McGregor’s Strange Museums, A Journey Through Poland, University of Western Australia Press, 2008

RealTime issue #88 Dec-Jan 2008 pg. 40

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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