10 May 2023 This week, we seek our Smalltalk on the terrace of Le Panorama Bar. There, Polish-Brussels artist Marcin Dudek looks back with us at his turbulent past as a football hooligan, which he incorporates in exhibitions such as The Group, his new solo at Antwerp's Kunsthal Extra City.
Place Bockstael in Laeken is teeming with life on the sunny afternoon when we meet up with artist Marcin Dudek. "The terrace of Le Panorama Bar is a perfect place to observe the world around," he explains. "I love this neighbourhood. It feels like a place of transit, where many people only stay temporarily and then move on. It's a dynamic that I find liberating." He himself is far from planning to leave here. For two years, he and his partner Amélie Bouvier, also an artist, renovated their home and studio a bit further down the road. They have since been living there for five years.
Dudek rushed back for our conversation from Antwerp, where he was still preparing for his major solo exhibition The Group in the former Dominican Church that houses Kunsthal Extra City. In that fitting setting, he shows how football can be considered a 'new religion' in a negative sense - focusing on what happens when fanaticism is involved. In general, Dudek's work deals with themes of mass psychology, spectacle, security and violence, family and the urge to want to belong somewhere.
His art is largely based on his past as an avid hooligan of football club Cracovia Kraków. Growing up as an adolescent in the 1990s on the outskirts of Kraków, in one of many dreary Soviet flat blocks, he was swallowed up by the local hooligan scene. "The stadium felt like a crater that draws you irresistibly towards it. Before you realise it, you are deep in that milieu."
Portrait of Marcin Dudek. Photo: Ivan Put.
You were only 11 when you joined Cracovia's ultras. What was that like, at that young age?
Marcin Dudek: I remember well the first time I was there, a huge riot broke out then. Very violent. I found it incredible to be among all those big boys. I wanted to belong to that group, wanted to be part of the hard core. For seven years I travelled with them to all corners of Poland for Cracovia matches, I was always there. I was like a particle propelled by the force of a mass. I learnt that there was a clear hierarchy and also noticed a great desire for recognition. In that sense, I do see a certain similarity with the art world, where artists strive for recognition, attention, visibility in the press... Ultra's also want to hit the front pages. As a hooligan, you are also strongly supported by your group, which is something very powerful. But of course it comes with a heavy price.
What price did you have to pay?
Dudek: They were years full of violence, during which I was harshly tackled several times, resulting in serious injuries. In the late 1990s, weapons, such as knives, were also increasingly used. I was arrested several times and got a criminal record. I was also introduced to life in jail, although fortunately it was only for 32 hours. My elder brother, who was also part of the hooligan clan, had to go to jail for four years. In fact, I was still very lucky not to suffer more serious injuries or face harsher punishments.
How did you end up breaking that spiral of violence?
Dudek: By some kind of survival instinct, I think. I was on parole, realised that the next time I was arrested, I might fly into jail for a long time. I wanted out and found a way out in art. At the ultra's I was already into making banners and graffiti, but in doing so I was still working purely instinctively. But at some point I discovered certain art books and became fascinated by the masters of art history. They became the new gang I wanted to belong to. I delved into their biographies, studied their work, started copying it... It was a pretty naive plunge into art, but it changed everything. Eventually I was able to study at an art school in Salzburg, Austria, where I was also able to move in with family. I found myself in a completely different world, Kraków was suddenly untold distances away.
Here in Brussels, you soon joined Harlan Levey Projects gallery. How important has that been?
Dudek: It's Harlan Levey that prompted me to delve into my personal past for my art. Until then, I was focusing on underground architecture, studying illegal mining activities, for example. Now that I look back on it, maybe that's how I wanted to hide, by fleeing underground that way. At first I tackled my past reluctantly, because of course it is delicate to analyse your own history of violence. But it immediately brought up so many memories and ideas, and triggered so many questions around identity and security, that I knew I had to move on.
Currently, your major solo exhibition The Group is running at Kunsthal Extra City in Antwerp. How significant is it that it is located in a former church?
Dudek: That's perfect, because a church is like a stadium in many ways. People gather there for some kind of spectacle, it's a place of faith, of fanaticism. When I enter the former church of Kunsthal Extra City, I feel that there is still a certain energy there, the power of the crowd.
Your work Tablica also has something religious about it. It looks like a triptych, an altarpiece.
Dudek: But filled with photos and documents showing how hooligan groups evolved into criminal gangs. This is a true story, of the hooligans of Wisła Kraków, the other big team from Kraków. They managed to take control of the club and use it to sell drugs, among other things. In 2018, that criminal structure collapsed and everything came to light. It also touches on my personal history. For instance, I still went to school with one of the key people involved. With the work, I also refer to the time my brother spent in prison. The unfolded triptych forms a small cell like the one he was locked in.
The collage work The Guardians shows how Polish priests count on protection from hooligans. Is this also reality?
Dudek: Sure, sometimes groups of hooligans take it upon themselves to guard churches, against vandalism and graffiti, for example. Priests also come to matches to recruit new members for the church, to scout as it were. By the way, criminal gangs also see stadiums as perfect places to enlist new gang members: young men willing to use violence, who then become their foot soldiers.
When you talk about hooliganism in Belgium, you quickly think of the 1985 Heysel drama, when 39 people died after panic broke out in the Heysel stadium due to supporter violence.
Dudek: That is absolutely a household word in Poland too. 'Heysel' in Polish slang refers to 'total chaos', the moment when all hell breaks out. I go to the Heysel Stadium regularly, to do research for my work. It also played a role in choosing where in Brussels we would settle. Our home and studio is very close by. Now new flats block the view, but in the first years we lived there, I could see the lights of the stadium from the windows on our top floor. That was important for me to feel that I had come to the right place. For me, the Heysel Stadium is a kind of memorial.