The following text by Tereza Hrušková is dedicated to two exhibitions at the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw and the Museum of Modern Arts. These exhibitions at the local dominant institutions refer to the recent Polish history and to the national (or more precisely urban) symbols or narratives that they grasp and thematise through the works of contemporary art. To what extent can these projects be critical of their subject of interest and to what extent – in the light of the current political situation – are they critical indeed? More on this in the following report.
It is Monday, the first of May, and the red-and-white banner, complemented by a Catholic cross, flapping all around Warsaw for several days now, ceases to be a privilege of state buildings and extremely pro-nationally oriented processions. After fourteen days of bathing in Polish cultural and political scene its omnipresence seems almost outrageous. This image makes a striking resemblance to a work presented at one of the major exhibitions at the beginning of this year – Późna polskość (Late Polishness: Forms of national identity after 1989) at the Ujazdowki Castle Center of Contemporary Art. In the photograph To nie jest flaga (This is not a flag) from Oskar Dawicki but a small unevenness in otherwise seemingly flat picture hints at a body hidden beneath a scarlet fabric that is spread out on the ground in a white room. At the exhibition overwhelmed with artifacts from the past three decades, it is paradoxically one of the works most critical of the current political situation across Europe, where national symbols serve as a hideout for extremist behavior. The exhibition itself is, in its indecisive bipolarity (the criticality of individual works is comprehensible only to those who seek it, and it is hidden or even seems as the opposite to all the others), an eloquent picture of how the events in politics are able to influence the direction of the cultural scene.
Późna polskość (Late Polishness) aims to be an exhibition that both historicises fresh Polish art and glosses changes in the political situation in the recent past. Thus, it acts as a kind of a stimulus explosion and crash course in Polish art and political scene for a foreign visitor, which I personally perceive as a positive feature of the whole project. However, the disposition of the exhibition seems rather unfortunate. At first, the viewer enters through a pompous gate built from photographic reproductions of monumental models of the undisputed Polish “national” (and profoundly pro-Slavic) sculptor, designer and theorist Stanislaw Szukałski into several rooms where the works are grouped more or less according to the used medium. The grandeur of the entry is immediately denied by works ironizing both the Polish flag (Paweł Susid – Bez tytulu (Nuda)) and the Polish heroes as well (documentation of the action carried out by Paweł Althamer – Koziołek), but the desired criticality, which is inherent to most of the exhibits, is wiped out by the density of a salon show that is overflowing with artwork. Above all of this a document film floats, projected on a ceiling of the central room, portraying the situation after a tragic plane crash at Smolensk in 2010, during which many of leading Polish politicians, including the late president, died. Just as the statuettes in the style of cheap garden gnomes depicting the pope, or photographs illustrating the ferocity of Warsaw developers, the document is but an enunciation and historicization of the event.
The exhibition fills every crevice of the castle chambers, and thus by the time of the film and theater section, the visitor is getting out of breath. The visitor takes away roughly the same naive and uncritical ideas about Polishness as were those he or she came with: the beloved John Paul II, the damned Lech Wałęsa, the destruction of the country after the establishment of pro-Western capitalist discourse in the 1990s, and unequal rights for LGBT. All of this, in the form of artifacts, which are a pleasure to look at and which, with a little Slavic empathy, can be read about in an accompanying brochure, that is, unfortunately, only in Polish.
It seems that the Polish scene is torn in response to the exhibition. While praised by the rather conservative part of the public, Warsaw “avantgarde” angrily spits on it. An emotion completely reversed to the Budování státu (Building a state – 2015) exhibition at the National Gallery in Prague. However, the methodology of research on Czech identity was moving in other directions, not gliding over the surface of visuality (being often criticised for ugly images, that do not belong to a gallery) and instead tried to immerse in the past and introduce mechanisms of nation identity creation through symbols and myths. It displayed art as a space of propaganda and criticism of political intentions. Although even this exhibition might have turned out to be a big bite to the visitor, should he or she choose not to dig through the generous, though high-quality anthology of texts that were an integral part of the project.
The Budování státu project is much more similar to the modest, somewhat anthropological Relacja Warszawa – Zakopane (Relation Warsaw – Zakopane) exhibition in terms of chosen artifacts, and to the Syrena herbem twym zwodnicza (The Beguiling Siren is Thy Crest) in the terms of applied ideology. Syrena herbem twym zwodnicza is the first project in the new temporary building of the Museum of Modern Art on the shore of Vistula (the previous, late modernist one, that you remember, gave way to some developer project). It presents the mermaid (which is also found in the Warsaw emblem) as a historically fluctuating symbol, appropriated by different groups, always with a completely different implication.
The “Siren” is not as demanding as the “Nation”, but with reference to the Budování státu and Późna polskość exhibitions it shows that a smaller space-time format and specific aim suits it. The exhibition includes historical artifacts from the field of applied and fine arts, as well as contemporary art. Through individual papers, the institution’s critical intentions are easily readable, and if someone escapes carefully sophisticated links to the local context, they simply complement them through (Polish and English) texts available directly at the exhibition through a mobile application. From the point of view of a museum that presents a video conceived for the exhibition by Agnieszka Polská Ask the Siren, that reflects on the questions of immigration, element of the “alien” and rising xenophobia next to documentary photographs of very politically incorrect hooligan graffiti, it is essential to be able to defend one’s position and communicate it to the widest possible audience.
The fact that the exhibition is free-entry is crucial in this respect – also with a critical reference to the current presentation of the politically motivated work Zákon cesty (Law of the journey) by Aj Wej-wej in the National Gallery in Prague, where the spectator has to pay extra for her or his interest in present-day social issues. The exhibition “about the mermaids” does not pay for its accessibility by a tax of popular spectacle (which sometimes does happen to large exhibitions in Prague’s DOX) and satisfies even the eager eye of a gallerist by the selection of works both modern and contemporary. In contrast to the Późna polskość, the exhibition is not restricted to Polish authors, and shows a rich selection of international works, which do relate to the theme of the (Warsaw) siren, but are able to expand it and take an outside view, which benefits the exhibition.
Seen by the optics of political loyalty to the ever-strengthening Polish right wing, the exhibition in Warsaw’s MoMA has a better start position than the one in the Center of Contemporary Art. However, a period of cautious maneuvering in ideological waters seems to begin for the Polish scene. As virtually liquidating cuts in subsidies to many small independent institutions, that come through immediately after the arrival of members of the strengthened ruling party (PiS) into decisive political functions in 2016 clearly demonstrates. The exhibition, due for the second half of this year, in the Krakow Museum of Modern Art, called #heritage, is already seen by many as a threatening beacon of the opposite direction of exhibitions in state institutions than is the current program of the Warsaw Museum. There are fears that it will be a monumental glorification of both Polish art and the milestones of Polish history, which, however, at the time when extreme right wing claims are being made under the waving symbol of statehood, does not bring about the necessary relativisation of historically conditioned “nationality”.
The fear of weakening the “opposition” function of state institutions is far less far-fetched in Poland than in the Czech environment, where critical exhibitions are still largely supplanted by non-state or semi-private subjects. Despite the fact that we are often used to outrage over this fact, the situation in Warsaw, where the art scene is mainly divided between large state institutions and private sales galleries (I leave the role of artistic foundations out in this case), is dangerous for the exact opposite reason.
This text is an output of author’s residency in Warsaw, realized within the frame of East Art Mags project, that has been a cooperation between the Czech and Slovakian editorial boards of the Artalk.cz, the Hungarian artPortal.hu, the Polish SZUM, and the Romanian RevistaArta. The project is funded by the Visegrad Fund.
Późna polskość / exhibiting artists: Jacek Adamas, Paweł Althamer, Yael Bartana, Anna Baumgart, Kuba Bąkowski,Krzysztof M. Bednarski, Karolina Breguła,Robert Brylewski, Michał Budny, Hubert Czerepok, Oskar Dawicki, Monika Drożyńska, Peter Fuss, Maurycy Gomulicki, Nicolas Grospierre, Ewa Hevelke, Instytut Architektury, Michał Januszaniec, Mariusz Libel, Grupa Nowolipie, Grzegorz Klaman,Irena Kalicka, Kle Mens, Kaja Klimek,Tomasz Kozak, Kobas Laksa, Honorata Martin, Kuba Mikurda, Dorota Nieznalska,Igor Omulecki, Witek Orski, Joanna Ostrowska, Włodzimierz Pawlak, Katarzyna Przezwańska, Wojciech Puś, Karol Radziszewski, Paweł Rojek, Daniel Rycharski, Robert Rumas, Ewa Sadowska,Jadwiga Sawicka, Wilhelm Sasnal, Janek Simon, Jakub Skoczek, Maciej Stasiowski,Łukasz Surowiec, Paweł Susid, Weronika Szczawińska, Aga Szreder, Stanisław Szukalski, Stach Szumski, Michał Szlaga,Radek Szlaga, Joanna Świerczyńska,Monika Talarczyk–Gubała, Piotr Uklański,Zofia Waślicka, Krzysztof Wodiczko, Jakub Woynarowski, Julita Wójcik, Bartosz Zaskórski, Artur Żmijewski, Rafał Żwirek,Natalia Żychska / curators: Ewa Gorządek and Stach Szabłowski / Ujazdowski Castle – Center for Contemporary Art / Warsaw / Poland / 30. 3. – 6. 8. 2017
Syrena herbem twym zwodnicza / exhibiting artists: Korakrit Arunanondchai, Evelyne Axell, Alex Baczyński-Jenkins, Zdzisław Beksiński, Louise Bourgeois, Eugène Brands, Agnieszka Brzeżańska, Bernard Buffet, Claude Cahun, Liz Craft, Edith Dekyndt, Christian Dietrich, Leo Dohmen, Drexcyia i Abdul Qadim Haqq, Elmgreen & Dragset, Leonor Fini, Ellen Gallagher, Malarz Goltyr, Justyna Górowska, Zdzisław Jasiński, Dorota Jurczak, Ewa Juszkiewicz, Birgit Jürgenssen, Tobias Kaspar, Marek Kijewski, Aldona Kopkiewicz i Mateusz Kula, Łukasz Korolkiewicz, Gina Litherland, Jacek Malczewski, Witek Orski, Sylvia Palacios Whitman, Pablo Picasso, Krzysztof Pijarski, Aleka Polis, Agnieszka Polska, Karol Radziszewski, Joanna Rajkowska, Carol Rama, Erna Rosenstein, Tejal Shah, Franciszek Siedlecki, Tomasz Sikorski, Penny Slinger, Juliana Snapper, Franz von Stuck, projekt „Syrenki Warszawskie” (Jacek Łagowski, Danuta Matloch, Katarzyna Opara), Alina Szapocznikow, Stanisław Szukalski, Jerzy Bohdan Szumczyk, Wacław Szymanowski, Dorothea Tanning, Wolfgang Tillmans, Tunga, Anne Uddenberg, Aleksandra Waliszewska, Wojciech Wilczyk, Hannah Wilke, Ming Wong, Marcelo Zammenhoff, Anna Zaradny, Artur Żmijewski / curators: Joanna Mytkowska, Marta Dziewańska with Sebastian Cichocki, Tomasz Fudala, Robert Jarosz, Magdalena Lipska, Paweł Nowożycki, Łukasz Ronduda, Natalia Sielewicz / Museum of Modern Art / Warsaw / Poland / 25. 3. – 18. 6. 2017