Visual Arts & Architecture

The Tatra Mountains in London: ‘Excursion’ by Katarzyna Depta-Garapich. Exhibition Review by Anna Wende-Surmiak

The artist Katarzyna Depta-Garapich has lived in London for a long time. This is where her creative base is, and where she is currently completing her PhD at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art, University College London. But her life is also inherently connected with the Polish Tatra Mountains, and with the mountain resort of Zakopane, which she used to visit with her parents throughout her childhood, spending a huge amount of time at her aunt and uncle’s house – with Maria and Juras Gruszczyńskis. This gave rise to her passion for the mountains and for skiing. Depta-Garapich was born in Kraków, where she completed an art history degree at the Jagiellonian University. She went on to study sculpture at the Wimbledon College of Art and at the Slade School of Fine Art in London.

Whenever she has a spare moment, she pops into Zakopane in order to go hiking or skiing for just a couple of hours or for half a day. But that’s not the only reason. The Tatras, Zakopane, local nature and vernacular culture of the region have shaped her thinking about art, and constitute one of her main artistic preoccupations. These themes have also served as a point of departure for her PhD. Her practice explores the relationship between people and non-human entities, namely the bear.

The exhibition entitled ‘Excursion’ [Polish: ‘Wycieczka’] – on show at the Watermans Art Centre in London (from 28 April until 9 July 2023) presents the bulk of Katarzyna Depta-Garapich’s PhD. The remaining, Polish sections of her PhD, have formed two exhibitions entitled ‘Roboty ręczne’ (English: ‘Handiwork’) (collaboration with Małgorzata Markiewicz) and ‘trzysta diabłów zjadłeś…’ (English: ‘You’ve eaten 300 devils’) (collaboration with Małgorzata Mirga-Tas), both of which shown at the Władysław Hasior Gallery, branch of the Tatra Museum in Zakopane, in the last couple of years. There has also been the project ‘Biały miś, brunatny niedźwiedź’ (English: ‘White Teddy, Brown Bear’), realised in partnership with Marcin Tas, Małgorzata Mirga-Tas and the students of the Antoni Kenar National Arts School in Zakopane. ‘Bears’ March’ through the streets of Zakopane, which took place in June 2022, was a culmination of the latter initiative.

The display at the Watermans Art Centre is made up of a multi-channel video installation and the white bear costume created by the artist. The installation consists of films made in the Tatras, which collectively illuminate the beauty, mystery and danger of the Tatra peaks – from different perspectives. In one of the films, the artist herself – dressed up as the bear – is ascending Orla Perć grabbing hold of the chains (installed by humans to facilitate mountain climbing). It is a video record of an art performance, which took place in the autumn of 2021 during which Depta-Garapich was supported by the Zakopane-based couple of artists Marcin and Magda Rząsas (Magda Rząsa filmed the whole undertaking). At the London exhibition the white bear silhouette – on display in the corner – bears silent witness to the films. It is in fact the very costume Katarzyna used to climb in the video.

View of the ‘Excursion’ exhibition at the Watermans Art Centre, photo by Anna Jochymek

The exhibition touches on a number of themes, namely the condition of wildlife in the Tatra forests, nature conservation, man’s increasing interference with nature, as well as the myth of the great bear. The latter has penetrated into popular culture as the ‘white teddy from Krupówki’ [Zakopane’s main thoroughfare]. The exhibition poses the fundamental questions – who is really at home in the Tatra Mountains – the wildlife or us – humans? And where are the boundaries (that is if they still exist) of our intervention/ encroachment on the mountains? These are relevant issues for the co-existence of man and wildlife in the Tatras and the region situated at the foot of the Tatra Mountains known as Podtatrze.

And Katarzyna’s artistic voice coming from London reminds us (not to say reprimands us) that the Tatras are the bear’s home, and we are just the guests there. Katarzyna Depta-Garapich stands for those artists who came into the Tatras, fell in love with them, and now express their ongoing fascination with these mountains in their artistic practice. But does Zakopane take sufficient notice of their voices? Does Zakopane itself exert the same duty of care over its natural surroundings without which it would lose its very essence – with the same sensitivity, deep engagement and appreciation as the artists?

‘Excursion’ by Katarzyna Depta-Garapich at the Watermans Arts Centre in London (28 April until 9 July 2023).

View of the ‘Excursion’ exhibition at the Watermans Art Centre, photo by Anna Jochymek

Anna Wende-Surmiak is former Director of the Tatra Museum in Zakopane and a President of the International Mountain Museums Alliance, which she co- founded in 2015. She led a £6.6 million capital project to restore the Tatra Museum’s nine historic buildings including the main headquarters. She studied French and languages and is a trained museologist, French translator and teacher.