13 May 2023 Have you ever been an ex-hooligan? In his assemblage art, Marcin Dudek always seeks out violence in an attempt to renounce it. 'It's post-traumatic therapy,' says the Polish-born Brussels-based artist, 'which benefits everyone.'
One look at the photographer's necklace and rapport is a given. But even without a license plate, Marcin Dudek easily picks out his peers on any European street. It is a way of scanning, of prowling, body language for a survival instinct.
What Cracovia Krakow achieved last weekend, that they are seventh in the Polish Ekstraklasa? He does not know. Football was always just a backdrop for less sporting behaviour. Dudek grew up in a residential barracks in Krakow, a social ladder in drab concrete with the engineer on the top step, then the teacher, the foreman, the worker, 'and us on the ground floor, together with the rats'.
Your favourite team was not a choice. In that area you are for Cracovia, less than a kilometre to the north-west you are for Vistula. The city derby is known as one of the fiercest in Europe - they call it the Holy War. When Polish hooligans agreed with the Poznan Pact not to use weapons against each other in the early 2000s, the two Kraków clubs abstained. The City of Knives lives up to its nickname.
Marcin is not above average in size or muscularity. That was also the marching order of Cracovia's ultras: don't stand out. When they hunted opponents, they did not wear club colours and there was no drinking or chanting. In silence, they boarded a tram or bus to crawl as close as possible to their prey and then strike in cold blood. Or stabbing.
'There was no code of honour,' says Dudek. If he held back because someone was stretched out on the ground in front of him, they would snatch his bat out of his hands to finish the job. Things got increasingly trippy in the mid-1990s, when it became clear that even after communism, the shelves remained empty. Knives became machetes. Marcin's younger brother almost lost a hand. After four years in prison and a stroke, his older brother was sentenced to the wheelchair. He himself managed to escape three months in prison at 18 with a probation deal. Fisted with security guards in a mall. His umpteenth offence. 'A few thefts too, but I was a minor, so that doesn't count.' He laughs. Now it does.
Then first he had to survive an attack, there were six of them, he could barely push away a blade. It was as clear as the sun after a total eclipse: he had to get out so as not to stay in it forever.
Portrait of Marcin Dudek. Photo: Sebastian Steveniers
Did you know where to? Or was it mostly: away?
'We talked about it all the time: escape from the neighbourhood. But I didn't know anything else. From the age of 11, I had hardly missed a match. I was the little rat who travelled everywhere. The football didn't interest me, I was all about the group. That's where I was formed, that was my identity. We had no access to culture. Castles I only knew because, as a former capital, Cracow is full of them. But the hooligans became increasingly deranged. In the early 2000s, seven boys were killed.'
'My sense of aesthetics didn't go beyond territorial graffiti spraying and flag painting. Until I could do some side work in a print shop and saw the supplements of booklets and newspapers there and really started looking. Late Baroque painters like Tiepolo, with those colourful aerial spectacles. The energy radiating from them. Those visual links to the atmosphere in the stadium. It felt great to draw that after. I could draw! Tiepolo and Veronese, that became my new crew. Then I got to know Chaïm Soutine and his paintings of animal carcasses. And even later, when I was allowed to study in Austria, the body art of the Viennese Aktionists - a very different way of using knives. (laughs)'
It took a while for your hooligan past to be addressed in your art.
'I wasn't ready for it yet. I wanted to enjoy my new identity as an artist. My years at the academy in London, the first exhibitions, flying around the world... I wanted to get away from that past, immerse myself in other themes. Ten years I went all out. But of course it was unfinished business. The images of the past kept biting. They consumed me. My brothers handcuffed to a radiator when I was seven. That long, dark corridor full of police turning our flat upside down. Being sent to a home because my mother wasn't pulling it according to the authorities. The constant, complete chaos. I had to be able to process it, work it out in my art. Help I never sought. This is my post-traumatic therapy. My work as a symbolic receptacle for all those stories.'
It goes beyond personal processing. Group dynamics radiate from your panels, but also the pull of violence.
'It started with self-healing, but gradually it became wider, universal. Such a stadium is also a capsule in which the whole society is clenched. The energy released there is phenomenal. It frees the individual from all social pressures.'
That's a very positive reading, though.
'Okay, you pay a price for it. And the dark side is undeniable. In a crowd, you lose control of your body, especially when things get violent. You obey the power of the group. You are affected. But it continues to fascinate. It is deep within each of us. With its attraction, beauty even, I attract people to my works. Like the smell of a poisonous flower. As soon as they get close, they see, for instance, that it is fragments of people being trampled on the Heysel. That's my aesthetic alphabet.'
You don't take sides, as if you are still proud of those years somewhere.
'That it is extremely aggressive goes without saying. You get crushed like that. And that so-called loyalty between hooligans is an illusion. In the end, it's every man for himself. But I understand what it is to be part of something. The sense of a rite of passage. It gives you certain values that you don't learn anywhere else. And those live on in me as an artist. I'm not afraid to get to work with raw materials. I have something volcanic. I never hesitate. I don't suffer from self-consciousness, I trust my instinct. After all, it can't get any worse than it was then. It gets better and better. I ascend. The ground can also be a trampoline.'
That's nice, but you don't have to have been a hooligan for that.
'I certainly don't want to generalise. But I went through tough times and I think certain experiences and emotions are essential. How can you describe man if you don't also want to see the beast? Being on the move 800 kilometres away, clambering over drunk people in clashing carriages, your elbow in your neighbour's balls. Those are the rings of hell. Savage, wild, tribal. The violence explodes in your face. While there is a lot of aggression in art too, but hidden, subtle, beneath the surface. I see a lot of similarities with hooliganism. The hierarchy, the competition, an exhibition as an away match, the vernissage as the beginning of the skirmishes. I used to cut out newspaper reports about fights, now it's press articles about exhibitions.'
You can also see them as opposites: the hooligan as a collectivised instrument of destruction, the artist as an independent source of creation.
'Destruction and creation are very close to each other. That cycle of self-destruction and being reborn, like every weekend in a football stadium. Hooligan or artist, for me it's about energy. My work is pure energy. That genetic crowd feeling is deep inside me. When I see archive images of hooligans, they give me fuel. Even the most painful pictures recharge me.'
Do you sometimes miss it, being part of a group?
'Sometimes I do. In a group, you feel like an übermensch. You can go under the authorities. You can take on the whole street. A group can be an alternative power. There is something anarchic about it. As an individual, you lose that power. You can only merge into the masses. And a mass is something very different from a group. A mass is totalitarian.'
'But I am mostly relieved to have liberated myself. In the 1990s, hooliganism was averse to politics and religion. Today, priests come to recruit their bodyguards at stadiums and hooligans are the shock troops of the far right. Beware, African players used to be booed too. And our nickname may have been Jude Gang, a reference to Kraków's Jewish roots, but there was anti-Semitism in us too.'
By thematising that past, don't you fear being seen too much as an ex-hooligan rather than an artist?
'I have to take that risk. Of course I know how press and PR work, but I am not the lawyer of hooliganism. I hope I can be a paragon of how the power of art can transform lives. For me, it was a gamechanger. And for my brother, who thinks along and makes collages and remains optimistic even in his wheelchair. I help family in Kraków with it. Socially uplifting, making escape, healing. It may be the controversy that attracts, but it is the art you stick around for.'
Knife among Vikings
He usually opens his exhibitions with a performance. This will also be the case at Extra City, the art gallery in a Dominican church behind Antwerp Zoo. Religious and bestial ecstasy, they are close together. And Marcin Dudek plays with it to the full. Next to the pulpit, he shows videos of other folk-men in the eagle's nest of a football stadium.
In Tablica (2021), a triptych with dozens of photos and documents from a criminal file, a former ultra-leader blurts out. Marcin met him at an improvement institute in Kraków, "a kind of vocational school: they give you a spade for three days and lessons for two. Later, someone sent him a 400-page pdf in which the man in question talked everyone to the gallows, Marcin says. 'I met one acquaintance after another. He allegedly sold his own mother.' If you open the triptych all the way, it has similar dimensions to his brother's prison cell.
What will he do as a performance this time? Between us on the table are smoke grenades. Those are always there. Orange smoke. Orange, like the inside-out bomber jackets they wore at Cracovia, and which are tied together to form the grand textile sculpture The Group (2021). Smoke, because it makes people adrift and frenzied.
He remembers well his first shell in Gdynia, a port town not far from Gdansk. 'In those days, you couldn't touch Bengal fire or flares in Poland. But there on the coast they had boats with flares on board for distress signals. Arka Gdynia, with whom we fraternised, had a rugby league as the only Polish football club. Those players were the local ultra's.'
Their stadium was in a forest, the hardcore section on a hill among the trees. 'As a little rat, I stood there among the barbarians with the sacred fire in my hand. A cutting knife in the midst of a Viking army.'
It was like a passage from Mass and Power by Elias Canetti, he says. In it, the writer-philosopher identifies four characteristics of the masses. The masses want to grow. Within the mass there is equality. The mass likes density. The mass needs direction.
Marcin Dudek will no longer blend in.