Kraków is known as the ‘City of Knives’ because of its recent history of violence to do with football hooliganism. For Marcin Dudek, his former life as a member of the Kraków based Cracovia football fan club, is both the troubling subject of and basis on which he further explores group behaviour, crowd control, violence and spectacle in a two-part exhibition, Steps and Marches, that recently took place at Harlan Levey Projects, Brussels and Edel Assanti, London.

“I still remember the day vividly, walking towards the stadium, fighting with the police before and during the match, and finally celebrating together on the terrace. It’s a group I was part of”, said Dudek gesturing at the series of thumbnail photographs, Too Close for Comfort (2012 – ongoing), that both exhibitions use as their starting points.

Dudek was unsure whether or not to publicly display them, a feeling echoed in their title. They were taken in 1995 in the build up to and during a riot at a match between Poland and Romania. Their intimate size and framing in large passpartout shows “the importance of framing a narrative and the importance of considering absence when consuming any type of media” continued Dudek.

There will be viewers of his work that will be appalled by his associations to such violence in his former life and therefore their interpretations will be strongly guided by this factor. Yet, it is plainly obvious that Dudek’s ability to oscillate between extreme vulnerability and reasoned analytical interrogation is so at odds with his former life and the subject matter at hand, implications of what is presented to the viewer do take time to grasp fully. Dudek’s work neither exonerates nor condemns the acts they reference but brings forth greater questions on violent behaviour within crowds.

Inside, Edel Assanti’s main gallery space is painted in a bright orange – the same one that lined the inside of Dudek’s and his crew’s bomber jackets which they would turn inside out when fighting as a make-shift uniform. On the far wall, a six-panelled tape-painting, The Confidence Frame (2017) showcases what has become something of a signature style for Dudek. They are painstakingly covered in individually cut strips of black tape arranged in geometric patterns abstracted from images from Dudek’s personal archive. On top of this, with one per panel, are single, grainy CCTV-like image transfers showing the before and during a violent pitch invasion. The tape has been scored in such a way as to allow the light to heavily influence its tone when walking from one side to the other giving a sense of erupting danger and unpredictability matching the events unfolding in the image transfers. The work places the audience in the role of a spectator, seemingly present in the stands but removed from immediate danger. From this position, you question why and how someone could get caught up in such a barbaric act, let alone, repeatedly seeking it out.

“I think there was a big identity gap created after the fall of communism in Poland. For my generation, the new capitalist reality was a complete disaster. One thing that could bring young people together was the unity of football fan club”, explains Dudek.

With this in mind, the entrance into the main gallery which is only accessible through a turnstile, projects a feeling of complicity with Dudek and his friends. It is in itself a threshold – a point of no return - that Dudek and his friends chose to cross in order to set in motion violence.

At the same time, looking back at the walls outside of the main gallery space, the 3 photographs from his Too Close for Comfort (2012 – ongoing), with slightly oversaturated colours, flicker with a sense of impending doom. On the opposite wall, Wara (2017), a jesmonite cast of a balaclava transforms a makeshift shrine. The title refers to a nickname of one of his friends, highlighting a startling duality: a form of masking his identity that provides a licence to act without any compassion or remorse; to be completely given over to causing harm without fear of reprisal but at the same time the title gives it a human identity - a man, that despite his poor decisions, is someone’s son, even a brother, loved, with hopes and dreams, needs and desires.

At Harlan Levey Projects, Dudek has created two concrete sections of staggered seating area common to the Polish football stadiums at the time leaving a small gangway in which to enter the gallery space. A blown up, black and white image of the kick that started a war covers the opposite wall. Taken during the Dinamo–Red Star riot, in 1990 that highlights questions on how violence like this can be viewed so differently.

The image shows Zvonimir Boban, the Dinamo captain, kicking a police officer, Refik Ahmetović, who was allegedly mistreating a Dinamo supporter. The image, now removed from its greater historical context of Croatia's first multi-party elections, which had taken place just weeks before and were the first in almost 50 years. Parties favouring Croatian independence had won the majority of the votes causing further tensions between what was Yugoslavia and the fall of Communism. Boban was seen as a national hero of Croatia, but, at the same time, was given a reputation as a Croatian nationalist reputation in Serbia, where the Red Star Belgrade team were from. He was suspended by the Yugoslav Football Association for six months and had criminal charges filed against him.

Since Dudek’s 2013 exhibition, Too Close for Comfort, at Harlan Levey Projects, where this body of work stems from, his position on using biographical elements has stabilized. He recounts, “recently I attended a match in Krakow and was astonished by my alienation from the scene. Mentality it was very hard; too far and too close to my own history.”

Yet you would not necessarily be able to see this. The works hold a quiet intensity. They are each executed with a sense of refinement and intense introspection and, to their inherent strength, presented in a mildly academic manner. The works, where one would expect them to be too demanding of focus and to be highly charged with egotistical rhetoric, are self-effacing and offer room for broad interpretations and a constructive discourse on a wider on-going problem.

This is best seen in Well Washed (2017), at Edel Assanti, where a pair of once-bloodied trousers that Dudek’s brother wore to a fight and was stabbed in. He cast them in non-pigmented jesomnite, a process that Dudek sees as cleansing them of their violent history. Yet, when talking about the work he is careful to balance his personal connection to it and to its broader re-appropriated significance as a ‘symbol of the crowds.’

“I am particularly interested in the moment where spectacle turns into disaster. In a way, the whole project could be considered an attempt to understand the group that I was part of, my role within it and the difference between an individual member and the larger mass.”

Again, in The mob was present (2017), Dudek places a fracturing mirror on top of a wire framed stand with the mirrored side is facing the ground. The top is painted black and inside, causing the rupture, are pellets used by the police as a form of non-lethal force. The work coaxes you into getting underneath in order to see your broken reflection staring back at you; a position of discomfort. You feel the moment of impact suspended in time above your head. It’s potential to be life-changing is monumental and evokes an intense fragility about your body. Yet its power lies in being in this moment. It instils a morbid curiosity that raises the question of violence being used to counter violence, that is made more urgent when Dudek explains that a friend was seriously injured by this, and expressed a concern at the use of potential lethal violence, known as non-lethal force, to deter and control an often already critically situation. But if a hooligan dies does that make the police and security forces in the same category as them? Do they have carte blanche because of their status as a police officer or security guard – does this not echo the anonymity of a balaclava; does it not also act as a licence to use excessive violence in the name of law and order?

“I don’t know how many people from my time still participate in the movement,”’ mentions Dudek, “but there are clearly a great amount of new faces joining in. The popularity of this rough and tumble pastime isn’t dropping, that’s for sure.”