Profile — Nov 23, 2018
Though trained as a photographer, artist Verena Blok uses video to capture the lives of a pair of young migrant workers from a small Polish village where her family spent their summers. The two brothers featured in Robota have known the artist since childhood, and while she films them painting houses, mixing concrete, going swimming, and preparing for a cousin’s bachelor party, the three discuss immigration, belonging, and national identity. Their proud displays of physical strength contrast with their vulnerable economic position; working freelance, they are constantly on the move and live in a permanent state of precarity. Their political beliefs destabilize the cliché of the migrant laborer as a victim of nativist governments, as they actively and eagerly support the same xenophobic policies that limit their freedoms. For Blok, they illustrate the paradoxical nature of Poland’s right-wing government, which antagonizes the European Union while benefiting from its investment, and vilifies immigrants even though its own citizens take advantage of Europe’s open borders.
The film’s title, Robota, is the Polish word for manual labor, and it has remained associated with arduous physical work despite the former socialist government’s effort to imbue the word with a noble, positive meaning. With attention to Poland’s transformation from a Soviet satellite to a capitalist nation following the fall of the Berlin Wall, Blok considers how the body, which had historically been seen as a tool for building the socialist state, now functions to accumulate individual capital. Frequently filming the men in extremely closely cropped frames, she fragments their bodies and focuses on specific movements—the flex of a bicep or twitch of a shoulder blade—drawing attention to the machinic quality of the body in motion. Asserting an eroticizing gaze, Blok captures the tension between looking and being looked at, reversing the stereotypical gendered power dynamic of a male creator behind the camera and a female objectified body in front of it. Sound and image are rarely in sync, resulting in a jarring discordance when shots of the idyllic landscape are combined with the men’s candid expressions of outright racism. However, the brothers’ beliefs are greatly influenced by the government-controlled media, whose construction of a Polish identity based on whiteness offers the men a sense of pride and power they lack when participating in Western Europe’s exploitative labor market. Blok juxtaposes shots of the brothers with footage of muscular, socialist realist sculptures of male workers in Warsaw, which the men feel resemble them, with one even declaring: “That’s me.” Yet the statues’ motionlessness contrasts with the brothers’ mobility, to as well as the free-flowing capital that fills the void created by the decline of socialism.
A Dutch-Polish dual citizen raised in the Netherlands, Blok recognizes that she is part of the uneven transactional relationship that exists between Eastern and Western Europe. With keen awareness of her position simultaneously inside and outside of the men’s world, Blok pointedly reveals how they vacillate between the roles of victim and propagators of prejudice, and produces a poignant study of how otherness is constructed, negotiated, and never stable.
About the artist
Verena Blok (b. 1990, Netherlands) studied at the Royal Academy of Arts in the Hague and AKV I St. Joost in Breda. She was nominated for the 2017 Somfy Photography Award and was the Grand Prix Winner of the 2013 Poznan Photo Diploma Award. Her work has been exhibited at venues including Utrecht Central Station; Nederlands Fotomuseum, Rotterdam; Galeria Fotografii PF, Poznan; and Het Nutshuis in the Hague.