An installation telling a story of suffering and survival in Siberia is a fascinating piece of work, and a great part of this year’s Coventry Peace Festival.
As a child, if he didn’t eat his dinner Adrian Palka used to be told off by his father angrily saying that when he was young he’d had to survive on just bark and butterflies.
Many years later, Coventry University lecturer and artist Palka traced the terrifying route of his father and grandfather’s exile to Siberia and found himself in the hot summer surrounded by the swarms of butterflies his dad had talked about. The result is Bark and Butterflies, an audio visual installation on show in the foyer of Coventry University’s Alan Berry Building (opposite the cathedral steps) until Friday evening, and very much worth a visit.
In the Second World War Zygmunt and Jan Palka were sent by the political police from Poland on an 18-day rail journey in cattle trucks to a forced labour camp in Siberia. Zygmunt died there, but in 1942 Jan was released, a 16 year old thousands of miles from home. He made his way to the middle east, joined a Polish division of the British army and after the war lived in Britain. In 2008, Adrian inherited his diary.
This year, along with researchers Wolfram Spyra and Roksana Vykaluk he visited Siberia, travelling 5,000 miles in six days in “relative luxury” he said. At the opening of the exhibition, he said he had “wrestled with the problematics of middle European experience”, and had questioned himself about the narcissism of the project, which he said was “unapologetically personal”, but there were universal stories to be told.
The exhibition includes various works from the trip. There is a film of the landscape, some of it industrial, from the train. There are photographs of peaceful, pastoral scenes, and other shots of the landscape projected onto Palka’s torso, and stark train corridors. Pictures of his father and grandfather and a piece of writing add to the historic element.
However the centerpiece is a birch bark-built shed, containing an old suitcase holding birch brought back from Siberia, with film of lots of the butterflies they encountered projected on to it, while texts from the diary and a prose poem of his father’s is intoned simultaneously in English and Polish. It’s all mesmerising and moving.
Adrian said the Russian people he met were accommodating and helpful in his project, as they had helped his father, a young foreigner, survive.
Adrian couldn’t get to the actual camp where his father was held. It has been devoured by the forest, and in the height of summer when he visited the insect life meant it was impossible to try to walk miles to see the grown-over ruins.
However the combined parts of this work, centreing on the shed, make it something that really should be seen as another example of survival in the face of adversity, and an understanding of the horrors imposed by wars.