Handmade Tractors

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Before DIY, there were Polish farmers

An exhibition highlights handmade tractors built in communist Poland.

By Sunny Bleckinger

‘I heard this story that, in the Sixties, this guy saw a tractor at a machine fair. His name was Andraej Pabin. Most people knew him as Hucbala—it was a kind of nickname. So this guy saw a tractor and asked how much it was. As it goes, it was too expensive. So he says he’s going to make one himself. And then he ended up making at least a hundred tractors. It became his profession. He’s the guy responsible for all this.’

The artist Lukasz Skapski recalls the origins of hand-made Polish tractors, while behind him, on a white wall of the Galerie Fons Welters, hang around 150 photos of Polish farmers sitting on their one-of-a-kind machines. They’re part of an exhibition called Machines by the Krakow-based artist. Skapski first developed an interest in the specialised farm machinery about 25 years ago, when he saw a particularly odd version being test-ed on a farm.

‘Well, it was not really a tractor,’ smiles Skapski. ‘It was a machine made to cover potatoes with earth. It was made of old motorcycle parts, but the steering column was in the rear and instead of a rear wheel, there was a plough. You had to press down into the ground and drive and push it somehow. But it worked. And it did all the jobs they needed.’

The mere charm of the hand-made machines, however, was not what interested Skapski most. Rather, it was the way they reflected Poland’s recent history and socioeconomic struggles. In the decades following World War II, the con-fusion of the communist government and the unavailability of products forced many Poles to find new ways of survival.

‘The government produced big tractors,’ says Skapski, ‘that were suitable for flat lands and big farms. But they did not—at all—produce tractors for small farms or [with] four-wheel drive. There was only a small group of highlanders that needed them.’

One of those farmers, Pabin, began work on his own small tractors, using old car parts and scrap metal. The idea caught on, and those who couldn’t afford Pabin’s tractors simply built their own. By the ’80s, the entire hilly region in the south of Poland was dotted with hand-made tractors. ‘Now there are thousands of them,’ according to Skapski.

The current exhibition documents the tractors found only in one area, called Podhale. ‘It’s a very small area, but probably the most interesting,’ says Skapski. There, he drove from village to village, documenting the unique machinery—and the equally unique owners. He recounts: ‘They are afraid of officials investigating their belongings. But when I explained that it was for art reasons, they were very friendly.’

Along with the many photographs he also made two short films comprised of brief interviews with the owners and footage of the tractors in action. These films provide, perhaps, the most touching aspect of the show. The farmers—a hard-working, humble group of people—have difficulty hiding their pride when talking about their tractors.

Many of them beam about their machines being more dependable than any corporate-made tractor: they need little or no maintenance. They can go up steep hills and reach high speeds—some as fast as 100 kilometres an hour. And they’re custom-made to suit the needs of each individual farm.

Though the tractors may look like unkempt assemblages of old scrap parts, they’re clearly more than mere perfunctory pieces of equipment. They reach a high level of craftsmanship. And they bring the farmer-turned-inventor with them. The exhibition shows that a person who shapes his work with the utmost care and precision, without ever letting the idea of ‘art’ get in the way, is often the most inspiring kind of artist.

‘The entire phenomenon has a social dimension,’ says Skapski. ‘And I’m always looking for things that show positive examples of social activity. To my mind, things will not become better if society does not become active.’

With Poland now out of communism and quickly growing under its recently founded capitalism, fewer farmers are building their own scrap-metal tractors. ‘The new machines are more affordable,’ says Skapski. And that makes the current collection a valuable snapshot of the difficult era behind them.

But capitalism, of course, has not solved all the problems. There is still corruption in the Polish government. And much of Skapski’s previous work revolves around this. ‘There is one woman who was proven in the news to have faked her [political] support. But she continues to hold a great position of power,’ he points out. I don’t understand that. In some countries you don’t lose control because there are rules which punish politicians for misbehaving. But those rules seem to have been lost during communism.’

Of course, one has only to recall the names of other current democracies to realise that this is painfully common. ‘Yes,’ says Skapski, ‘but one has to do something about it. As an artist, I try to find the negative and positive aspects of social activity.’ He glances at the tractor photos on the wall. ‘And this is a positive one.’

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