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The UEFA EURO 2024 tournament is heading towards its climatic finale, providing an opportunity for Juliet Jacques, writer, filmmaker, and former footballer, to revisit the work of Polish artist Marcin Dudek, which delves into the sport's ultra culture.

Marcin Dudek and the Art of Football Ultras

Exhibition view: Marcin Dudek, NEOPLAN, Edel Assanti, London (31 May–1 September 2024). Photo: Marcin Dudek.

The first I saw of Dudek's work was a battered old bus with a shattered windscreen. Installed as part of the artist's 2023 solo exhibition, NEOPLAN, at London gallery Edel Assanti, the bus had a logo on its back featuring two snarling dogs and the name of the football team Dinamo Bucureşti. I instinctively understood the Romanian graffiti scrawled down its side: 'Muieieu Steaua!', as a declaration of hatred towards Dinamo's bitter rivals. An abandoned supporters' bus that the artist found during a residency in Bucharest, the vehicle served as the exhibition's focal point, with the name of its manufacturer, NEOPLAN, becoming its title.

Marcin Dudek, NEOPLAN (2023). Disassembled NEOPLAN Dinamo FC bus, 6 TV screens, 6 DVD players, vintage T-shirt canopy and mixed media. 1200 x 240 x 340 cm.

Marcin Dudek, NEOPLAN (2023). Disassembled NEOPLAN Dinamo FC bus, 6 TV screens, 6 DVD players, vintage T-shirt canopy and mixed media. 1200 x 240 x 340 cm.

Closed on one side and open on the other, the bus lent itself to exploration. Inside, contorted seats morphed into a stadium-like formation, while suspended above was a textile roof constructed from stitched-together clothing: tracksuits, hoodies, jerseys, the uniform of football fans. Portable TVs placed amongst the seats screened the artist's films. These included Sleepers (2023), a montage of photographs of fans sleeping on tour buses, able to show their vulnerability thanks to the protection of their fellow supporters. A key influence for NEOPLAN was painter Bronisław Wojciech Linke's Expressionist Autobus (1956–1961), which shows a bus, similarly cut open on one side to reveal a crowd of passengers staring out at the viewer, with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin lurking menacingly at the back.

Exhibition view: Marcin Dudek, NEOPLAN, Edel Assanti, London (31 May–1 September 2024). Photo: Marcin Dudek.

Exhibition view: Marcin Dudek, NEOPLAN, Edel Assanti, London (31 May–1 September 2024). Photo: Marcin Dudek.

Born in Kraków in 1979, Dudek works with collages, archival images and installations, as well as performance. Much of his practice has evolved from his time as a fan of MKS Cracovia, Poland's oldest professional football club. Growing up in post-communist Poland, the artist went to his first match in 1990, and soon became involved in hooliganism—not just in the stadia but on the long journeys to and from matches with his older brothers and their friends.

Publication Slash & Burn (2023). Hard cover linen with dustcover. 260 x 210 x 20 mm. 224 pages. Edited by Harlan Levey and Olivia Perce. Published by HOPPER&FUCHS.

Publication Slash & Burn (2023). Hard cover linen with dustcover. 260 x 210 x 20 mm. 224 pages. Edited by Harlan Levey and Olivia Perce. Published by HOPPER&FUCHS.

In the introduction to Slash and Burn (2023), the monograph on Dudek's work, we are told that, by the age of 16, Dudek had 'committed countless acts of brutality in the name of MKS Cracovia', spent time on probation, witnessed a friend pushed to his death from a moving train during a fight, and been assaulted by fans of rival team Wisła Kraków. It was a lifetime of violence that ultimately prompted him to move to Salzburg while still in his teens to attend the University of Art Mozarteum.

Dudek's practice is part of his ongoing efforts to come to terms with his difficult past. It is also a means of exploring how cultures of violence and toxicity can exist within the construction of group identity. The Edel Assanti show was the first time he used the Neoplan bus as a centrepiece for an exhibition, but he has been exploring his own history in his art for over a decade.

Exhibition view: Marcin Dudek Performance, Kunsthal Extra City, Antwerp, Belgium (May 2023). Photo: Gert Jochems.

Exhibition view: Marcin Dudek Performance, Kunsthal Extra City, Antwerp, Belgium (May 2023). Photo: Gert Jochems.

For his exhibition Too Close for Comfort at Harlan Levey Projects in Brussels in 2013, he collected and used six still images, from news reports about riots at matches in Poland, to punctuate the other works in the installation - a punching bag and a set of dumbbells - that drew a link between bodybuilding, violence and hyper-masculinity. Ever since he has become more explicit about his involvement with football hooliganism.

Photographs feature prominently in his work, but his approach differs from projects such as Juergen Teller's 'Zittern auf dem Sofa' (Trembling on the Sofa, 2018), which documents the emotions of people watching football on television. For Dudek, the rituals of going to the game are everything.

Juergen Teller, Siegerflieger, No.166. © 2014 Juergen Teller, All Rights Reserved.

Juergen Teller, Siegerflieger, No.166. © 2014 Juergen Teller, All Rights Reserved.

In his collage works, the artist transfers archived images of fans and stadia onto wood or aluminium, fixing them in place with medical tape of the sort used to treat people injured in football-related violence—an element of the game that, for many hooligans, is just as, if not more, important than the match itself. Silverdome (2023), for instance, overlays tape and acrylic paint onto images of the Pontiac Silverdome in Detroit, which hosted several 1994 World Cup matches but has since been demolished, to underscore how, while ultimately ephemeral, stadia create memories for communities that can never be erased.

Incorporating an image of the US flag and bolts from houses destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Superdome (2023) is a fragmented, traumatic collage exploring the psychogeographic ramifications that can be felt in the New Orleans stadium, which was temporarily used as a refuge in the aftermath of the storm. The work raises questions about how it feels to attend a match at a site of former tragedy.

Marcin Dudek, Superdome (2023). Acrylic paint, paper, image transfer, steel, medical tape, UV varnish on wood and aluminium. 160 x 120 cm. © the artist.

Marcin Dudek, Superdome (2023). Acrylic paint, paper, image transfer, steel, medical tape, UV varnish on wood and aluminium. 160 x 120 cm. © the artist.

In his installation at Edel Assanti, Dudek incorporated another reference to Polish art history. Using spray paint, as ultras would to tag places with their allegiances, Dudek mimicked the blue adhesive tape that neo-avant-garde artist Edward Krasiński began placing across his works, such as No. 124 (1972), to integrate them within the gallery space.

Dudek also brings hooligan behaviours into physical performances. Flares are an integral part of Eastern European fan culture: on trips to Belgrade and Odessa, I've seen stands engulfed with orange light and smoke. Dudek transports this effect to gallery spaces, dancing with flares until his audiences can no longer see him, and the colourful smoke escapes into the street. One such performance in Poland in 2017 got him arrested: undeterred, two years later, he staged The Crowd Man at the Muzeum Współczesne Wrocław, draping the building in a flag made of football banners and lighting flares on the roof, filling the building with smoke.

Exhibition view: Marcin Dudek, Sing When You Are Winning, KARST (2016).

Exhibition view: Marcin Dudek, Sing When You Are Winning, KARST (2016). Courtesy the artist.

Dudek's history has made him, and his art, fearless. In confronting his audiences with the type of football culture that authorities—intent on making the sport more profitable—have struggled to wipe out, he probes unflinchingly at the dark side of the fundamental human need for belonging. —[O]

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