I’m in Wrocław, Poland. Gnomes are everywhere. Foot-high bronze gnomes leaning against walls, standing on doorsteps and sitting on window sills. There are hundreds of them.
The first was Papa Gnome, commissioned in 2001 as a tribute to the Orange Alternative movement, an anti-communist protest movement that arose during the political upheaval of the 1980s. After martial law was declared, the military response to protests became increasingly violent. Rather than face off against guns and water cannons, art history student Waldemar ‘The Major’ Fydrych took a non-violent tack, using ridicule and buffoonery to mock and humiliate the military police. (He had earned the nickname ‘The Major’ when he avoided military service by turning up for recruitment dressed in a major’s uniform, marching around giving orders and demanding to be signed up. The military declared him insane and dismissed him.)
When anti-communist slogans appeared on walls in Wrocław, the police would blot out the graffiti with a hastily applied coat of paint. The Orange Alternative would paint over the patch with an gnome, complete with pointy hat. Every time a gnome appeared, the police rushed to paint over it, escalating the sense of the ridiculous. The gnome – an apolitical and frivolous creature – became a symbol of subversive protest.
After Papa Gnome was installed, the city produced five more gnomes, which proved so popular that soon everyone wanted their own. Yes, they’re cheesy, touristy and increasingly commercial (Fydrych successfully sued the city to stop them using a cartoon version of his graffiti in marketing materials), but they’re also a poignant reminder of when playfulness was used to undermine oppression.