“Many actors in the world of art, and not only the youngest ones, have doubts whether merging art and politics really works and makes sense. And growing numbers of artists do not even believe in the essential approach to art as such” – writes Adam Mazur, co-founder of BLOK magazine, in his contribution concerning the current Polish scene.
This article was originally written for Artalk.cz and was published in Czech (Polské umění v době populismu).
Poland is a state that we love to hate and hate to love. Catholic bigotry, political confusion, genetic messianism, antisemitism, Czechophilia, Russophobia and Germanophobia and, naturally, great contemporary art. And although it may not seem so, everything is perfectly interconnected, as is usual in Poland.
From a critical museum to an eclectic one
When we talk about art in this miserable period we think of politics and therefore we have to start with it. When the populists took power in the autumn of 2015, contrary to expectations it did not end with an earthquake. Not a single art gallery directress nor a single museum director were removed from office, no rector of an art academy was replaced, no control of financing the arts was imposed. From the moment the Law and Justice (PiS) party acceded to power only two minor excesses happened in the spring of 2016. The first concerned the suspending of subsidies for purchasing works of contemporary art for museum collections and the second related to appointing right-wing activists and publicists to grant commissions. Financing was resumed, the commission was dissolved and a new one established which truly represented the art world establishment. If there is someone in the Polish world of art who is frustrated after three years of the Law and Justice party’s rule they are the right-wing art critics, right-wing female editors, conservative curators and unsuccessful nationalist directors. The scandals that took place outside the capital – such as appointing a fan of Bryan Adams and David Lynch to the post of director CSW (Centrum Sztuki Współczesnej – Centre of Contemporary Art) or the removal of the respected directress of the Wroclaw Contemporary Museum – are less substantial, all being the work of liberals from the Civic Platform and their local and loyal coalition partners. This has to be taken in consideration when we ask about the reasons behind the triumph of populism which did not happen out of the blue. It was nursed in the bosom of conservative liberals when they ruled the country.
Why did the right-wing populists not intervene in the hierarchy or the norms of the art world? The two answers that resound from the artistic milieu are both pessimistic. The first assumes that contemporary art is harmless to politics and devoid of social significance as it represents a very narrow section of culture. According to statistics, about 1 to 2 per cent of population (ca. 500 thousand men and women in Poland) show an interest in contemporary art. They are liberal elites from large cities who will not be won over by the populists and it is better to leave them alone. The second answer is linked with the first and is based on the idea that the absence of changes is due to conformism in the sphere of art. Directors of the principal national institutions re-oriented themselves to a pro-state programme even before the elections, giving up on a vision of contemporary art which is engaged in democratic issues, a vision which they considered utopian. The institutions gladly adapted their programmes to the ostentatious and amply financed anniversaries of the country’s independence or celebrations of “one hundred years of the avant-garde”. The removal of Piotr Piotrowski from the office of director of the National Museum in Warsaw by the minister from the conservative liberal government of the Civic Platform and appointing the directress of the Warsaw Zachęta gallery Agnieszka Morawińska in his place without a public competition is also scandalous. Morawińska replaced Piotrowski’s programme of a “critical museum” with her own “patriotic” programme of what she calls an “eclectic museum” which raises no objections from those in power. Exhibitions of the Biedermeyer, Hungarian photography or historical academic painting are along the lines of current cultural policy.
The loyalty of the central institutions is the result of their dependence on financing from the state budget. When the government has fulfilled its promises and expenses on culture – naturally the national one – for the first time in the history of independent Poland exceeded 1 per cent of GDP (whereby the minister of culture boasts about the fact that he has opened 70 museums over the past three years) and the greatest scandal so far only concerned hundreds of millions of zloty spent on the acquisition of the collection of the Czartoryski family and the financing of museum projects connected with the Catholic church, why protest? Right, these expenditures are considered unnecessary, unsubstantiated and suspicious. But they are spending amounts the previous ministers of culture and their cohorts would have never dreamt of. It is outrageous but in a different way than cancelling the budgets of institutions, freezing staff wages, deregulation and the increasing of taxes for authors implemented by the previous liberal government. PiS does not intervene in the art world, rather it owns its own network of museums and propaganda institutions loyal to the government and it spreads this network to the provinces. It builds its backing, concentrates on its voters and while doing this gets to places which institutions located in the big towns do not have a chance to reach. This conduct changes the dynamics of the cultural domain but does not aggravate the conflict. In other words, artists do not reject grants, do not protest in front of the ministry, do not boycott celebrations or openings or send back medals awarded by the ministry.
Think global, act local
The conformism of the national institutions is only broken by the Museum of Modern Art (MSN) in Warsaw. The museum has nothing to lose as it is still under construction and has only a temporary hall available near the Visla river. The curators in the MSN tackle delicate issues related to women’s rights, which sparked off a political debate (The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Hoolifemmes exhibitions by Natalia Sielewicz), revolutions/rebellions (the room with etchings) or re-privatisation and current Polish-Ukrainian relationships (Warsaw Under Construction festival). The MSN also initiated many discussions with their audiovisual programme Department of Presence. As far as the other institutions are concerned, an exemplary case is the Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle (CSW), once considered a leading Polish centre of art. Over the past few years this institution situated in the vicinity of the hot spots on the map of Warsaw, such as the Parliament, the Presidential Palace and the Chancellery of the Prime Minister, has touched only once on the sensitive issue of national mythologies, which could not happen without incidents. But instead of starting a discussion and critical reflection, immediately after the Late Polishness exhibition ended the management sacked the curator Stach Szabłowski and prevented the co-curator Ewa Gorządek from making decisions about future programmes. The stagnation of central institutions controlled by the government adds fuel to the activities of smaller galleries financed from municipal budgets and by regional governments, which makes them independent of the ministry. Observers from the outside tend to forget that the PiS rules only at the central level, while locally they continue to be in a minority.
The most interesting and most frequently discussed institutions include the city galleries Biuro wystaw artystycznych (BWA) in Zielona Góra, Arsenał in Białystok, BWA in Tarnów, Kronika in Bytom, Trafo in Szczecin, Bunkier Sztuki in Kraków, Gdańska Galeria Miejska and Państwowa Galerie Sztuki (PGS) in Sopot. However, the most radical ones are Arsenał in Poznań and Labirynt in Lublin. This is no coincidence as both are managed by artists – Marek Wasilewski and Waldemar Tatarczuk. Wasilewski stakes on an urban, critical and activist programme interlinking along the way the Poznań scene with Berlin which is not too distant. In principle, every exhibition at the Arsenal kick-starts a discussion, possibly culminating in a media scandal or action against the directors. Whether they are paintings by Leon Tarasewicz and Małgorzata Dmitruk, the premiere of a project by Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle, Workshops of Revolution by Gyne Punk, engagement in the Kongres Kobiet (Women’s Congress) or after a long time the first proper feminist exhibition Polish Women, Patriots, Rebels by the curator Iza Kowalczyk. The programme of the Labirynt consists of congresses “from bottom up”, i.e. meetings of artists and other representatives of the world of art who debate and react to being endangered by populism, as well as exhibitions of Polish (Przemek Branas and Alicja Żebrowska) and foreign artists (Mykola Rydnyi and Nelly Agassi). The essential aspect for both institutions is the programme line and being open to urban movements and students. For them democracy is not merely a fashionable mantra – it is an everyday practice. In this way the galleries consciously respond to the protracted political crisis.
It is certain that the “agoraphilia” typical of Polish art of the 1990s and the 2000s described by Piotr Piotrowski has faded away. It may not have transformed into “agoraphobia” yet, but the absence of visual artists in public protests to defend the constitution (in contrast to actors, writers and popular musicians) is symptomatic. The most interesting events include a scandalous project by Paweł Atlhamer, who created a statue of Lech Kaczyński and brought it along to the Presidential Palace to one of the manifestations commemorating the catastrophic crash of the government plane in Smolensk in 2010. Althamer’s anti-monument was a response to the pathetic work in granite by Jerzy Kalina made as a tribute to the victims of the catastrophe and erected on Piłsudski Square in the centre of Warsaw. Here we should also mention the work of photographers, such as Rafał Milach, who both document the protests and are actively involved in them. Possibly, the “agoraphobia” results from the lack of support by public institutions, but the reason can be partly seen in the generation exchange as well. It seems that young artists today draw a line between art and politics. When they want to protest against the government, they do not create a painting on this subject, they do not make a sculpture or a performance, they simply go to a demonstration. One of the solutions to this problem is a discussion on social networks or one of the numerous congresses, organised by intellectuals and cultural protagonists for themselves. Many of these congresses have their own art programme accompanied by exhibitions, for example in Poznań, where the Women’s Congress made the framework for an exhibition at the Arsenał gallery, which was the first ideological manifestation of feminist art after many years. At the Labirynt in Lublin the congress was also accompanied by art events under the common title De-Mo-Kra-Cie.
Contemporary art which can be understood as a tool of critical reflection on the situation in society can today be seen in the city galleries and in the permanently evolving spaces of independent institutions, such as Fundacja Profile (Krzysztof Wodiczko and Jarosław Kozłowski), focusing on the presentation of classic artists, or Fundacja Arton (Krzysztof Niemczyk and Ryszard Waśko). Poland is a country without a biennial or a triennial. Probably the most interesting example of a critical, and therefore typically Polish, definition of art was documenta in 2017. The exhibitions in Athens and Kassel curated by the collective around Adam Szymczyk were a direct continuation of the open form of Zofia and Oskar Hansen extending their reach to areas apparently remote from the Polish provincial scene. The films of Artur Żmijewski and photographs by Piotr Ułański indigenously took off from the highpoint of critical art at the turn of the century.
A smoothly running economy does not help populists only. The last decade saw the development of a burgeoning art market. When, after an institutional boom at the beginning of the noughties, stagnation set in, the situation was saved by galleries: the older ones, established back in the 90s, or the very young ones, organised in the form of the Warsaw Gallery Weekend consortium. It has become a custom that a dozen of leading galleries and another two dozen of their followers open the art season in Warsaw and invite friendly local and world galleries, collectors and curators to the capital. Galleries give the artists a chance to sell their works and to make a living from art and, in a broader perspective, an opportunity of participation in fairs and an international career. They are also places where artists can show what they want and how they want it. This is important for contesting the indifference of the central art institutions concentrating on a safe and, consequently, bland programme. It is in the relatively young galleries that the careers of artists such as Wojciech Bąkowski, Piotr Łakomy (Galeria Stereo), Joanna Piotrowska (Galeria Dawid Radziszewski), Radek Szlaga (Galeria Leto) and Ewa Juszkiewicz (Lokal_30) have developed. The older galleries which also experiment have given a chance, for example, to the Potencja collective (Galeria Rastor) or Alex Baczyński-Jenkis (Fundacja Foksal). Other artists, such as Iza Tarasewicz and Agnieszka Polska, follow the path well-trodden in the 90s by Paulina Ołowska or Goshka Macuga which assumes achieving success abroad.
The names mentioned above are part of a phenomenon related to the wave in art which emerged on the Polish scene at the turn of the century. Young Polish Art, abbreviated as YPA analogically to YBA, changed the scene at the turn of the millennium and in the first decade of the 21st century. However, later it was scorned by critics who were waiting in vain for a new Wilhelm Sasnal. In the past few years things began to move again. Ołowska herself, lecturing in Switzerland, takes no heed of institutions and galleries and for many years has been running an informal school for young female artists in her house in Rabka, where she also organises mycological symposiums and exhibitions. Together with her husband, Bartosz Przybył-Orłowski, they are active curators of the Pamoja gallery and foundation in Kraków.
Many of those active in the world of art, and not just the youngest ones, have doubts whether merging art and politics really works and makes sense. An ever-increasing number of artists does not even believe in the essential approach to art as such. One of the most interesting phenomena that have recently emerged is the KPP (Konsorcjum Praktyk Postartystycznych – Consortium of Post-Artistic Practices). This art collective is based around the curatorial programme of Sebastian Cichocki, former director of the Warsaw MSN, and puts in practice a programme of art after the end of art. The first founding congress was held at the Labirynt in Lublin in the spring of 2017. The KPP owes a lot to the theories of Stephen Wright and Jerzy Ludwiński. The results of its work can be seen on the internet and social networks as well as at frequent anti-government, anti-fascist, pro-ecological, pro-feminist and pro-democratic protests, for which the KPP creates slogans and banners. People from the KPP learned a lesson from the largely unsuccessful political art and their engagement in politics leaves alone the autonomous field of art. One of the most interesting artists close to the consortium and the curatorial practice of Cichocki and Tatarczuk is Daniel Rycharski, a farmer and sculptor, a gay declaring himself to be a Catholic, the author of the statue of a peasant commemorating the abolition of serfdom or an original sculpture park in his birthplace, the village of Kurówko. The artist Jana Shostak, who has been gradually awarded with most of the available prizes and is present at many of the exhibitions of works by young artists, comes from a Polish-Belarusian family. Her best-known work entitled NOWAK / NOWACZKA / NOWACY (in English it literally means newcomer/newcomers) was also displayed at the StartPoint exhibition in the National Gallery in 2017. Shostak calls on society to stop using the word “immigrant” and instead offers the term “nowak” as an alternative which naturally raised a debate all over Poland. As everywhere in the world, in Poland the latest fad is dance, performance and choreography. It is known that if we don’t have a dance, the revolution will not be ours. However, nobody has illusions about the great artistic and political value of these performances. Marta Ziółek and the above-mentioned Alex Baczyński-Jenkins are the rare exceptions proving the rule.
Polish contemporary art may be at its most interesting when it transcends Polishness and frees itself from it. Sometimes it happens literally, as in the case of Szymczyk’s documenta and exhibitions of Polish classic artists: Edward Krasiński in Tate Modern and the Stedelijk Museum, Katarzyna Kobro and Władysław Strzemiński at Museo Reina Sofia and the Centre Pompidou or exhibitions of respected artists, such as Goshka Macuga and Paweł Althamer, at the New Museum in New York, Mirosław Bałka at the Hangar Pirelli Bicocca in Milan, as well as younger artists, including the above-mentioned Agnieszka Polska, Piotr Łakomy and Iza Tarasewicz. A significant role in this transfer is played by the Czech Republic. The best ever exhibition of Michał Budny? The one at the SVIT gallery in Prague! The discovery of Warsaw’s Brud and Aditya Mandayam? Only at Prague’s Center for contemporary art FUTURA! The curator who perfectly feels the pulse of Polish art? Marek Pokorný from the PLATO gallery in Ostrava! And then there are the Polish Czechs, very much like us and highly controversial: Adam Budak and Piotr Sikora. It is a little unfortunate that this “scouting” does not work both ways and in spite of the Polish Czechophilia Czech art continues to be rarely seen in Poland. The reason is the prevalent provincial structure of the Polish art scene, the provinciality of which is additionally intensified by the nationalist and pro-Polish cultural policy of the government. In the public institutions international art is scarce and the situation is again improved by local institutions, such as Bunkier Sztuki in Kraków, Kronika in Bytom, Arsenał in Białystok, Labirynt in Lublin, Arsenał in Poznań, GGM in Gdańsk and commercial galleries within the FoaF (Friend of a Friend) network. Among the public institutions the one that excels is Warsaw’s MSN, which is about to hand over its flagship project Warsaw Under Construction to the hands of artists and curators from the Ukrainian VCRC collective this autumn. And who knows, Czechs may be next?
Born in 1977, an art critic, art historian, curator and co-founder of the BLOK magazine (together with Karolina Plinta and Piotr Policht). He works as an assistant professor at the University of Arts in Poznań.
Cover photo: Karolina Gembara & Rafał Milach, Seeding (c), performance at Mai Manó Ház, Budapest, 2018. Photo: archive of Rafal Milach