2018 in Visual Arts from Poland: Second-Hand Haute Couture & A Game of Galleries
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Culture.pl reviews Poland’s visual arts scene in 2018 – the year that saw fashion enter art galleries, a critical return of the spectres of the 1990s and galleries trying to put one over each other in new alliances.
In 2018, everybody living between the Odra and Narew rivers celebrated, more or less festively, the 100th anniversary of Poland regaining independence. This event has inevitably meant that many commemorative visual arts projects have appeared. And while many of them will be forgotten in a couple of months, there were some fresh works in the ocean of various ‘independents’. If you’re going to see only one historical exhibition this year, it should be Shouting: Poland! by Piotr Rypson in the National Museum in Warsaw. On until March 2019, the exhibition has proven that there is no need for scenographic fireworks or for special contrivances in order to make a topic more attractive – a little knowledge and visual sensitivity was all that was needed to pull out some real treasures from the museum’s collection and to make them into a moving story about the celebrated victory and its price.
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The haute couture of Łódź’s second-hand shops
Another of the best exhibitions from the past year was also tied to the narrative of independence. It reached far back into the Sarmatian past of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, while being very contemporary in its main ideas and choice of artists. Wielcy Sarmaci Tego Kraju / Wielkie Sarmatki Tego Kraju (Great Sarmatian Men of This Country / Great Sarmatian Women of This Country) in BWA Tarnów is an exhibition prepared by Marcin Różyc, a fashion critic and curator, thanks to whom two fashion collections – that of Tomasz Armada and that of Uta Sienkiewicz – fit the exposition like a glove instead of being over the top.
To a large extent, 2018 was Armada’s year. This young designer from Łódź (and co-founder of the artistic and fashion collective Dom Mody Limianka) showcased his designs during exhibitions in Kraków, Warsaw and Szczecin. Armada connects the realm of art with that of fashion in a natural way, infusing the latter with a critical potential missing from the pages of Vogue. The designer mixes the tackiness of clothes found in Łódź’s markets and second-hand stores with the excessive character of haute couture, transforming used clothes in unexpected ways – he turns them into everything from kontusz-like jackets to burqas made of patterned dresses.
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The hauntology of regional Poland
Tomasz Armada’s collections are, on one hand, a local response to the soviet chic beautified in the West and, on the other, a story about post-transformation Poland told through clothing. The topic of political transformation was noticeably absent in Polish art for many years, but during the last dozen or so months, a growing number of artists have decided to make use of it. Following some cultural-study publications concerning the landscape (both mental and physical) that appeared after the year 1989, this topic has begun to be tackled by visual artists, mostly by those who grew up in the 1990s. The work of duo Róża Duda and Michał Soja presented during Kraków Photomonth turned out to be the strongest debut. I Am a Miner’s Son is a bitter settling of accounts with the promises made by globalisation and capitalism, imbued with a dystopian vision of the future. But it is also a multi-threaded story that stands out thanks to its subtle and wholly individual visual language. Anna Batko from Szum noted that:
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There is both a bit of good-old science-fiction with a commentary on our customs and traditions, and a tinge of romanticism and catastrophism, a social engagement and aestheticised illusions.
Róża Duda and Michał Soja, a work from the exhibition I Am a Miner’s Son, Henryk Gallery, Kraków Photomonth, photo: courtesy of the artists & the Henryk Gallery.
In the coming months, the works of Duda and Soja will be displayed in Poznań’s Arsenal during KNAF – a competition dedicated to the memory of Leszek Knaflewski, a recently passed-away great artist and the spiritus movens of the circle dotted around the Intermedia Department of the University of Arts in Poznań. Although there are many competitions for young artists organised in Poland, KNAF is really fresh thanks to its premises – it does not favour painters or other creators of conventional objects, but is aimed at artists using more experimental and ephemeral media, such as sound and performance.
Martyna Kielesińska from Toruń’s Wozownia Art Gallery presented a great, small, ‘hauntological’ exhibition in which, thanks to some videos and installations, she painted a landscape of Poland at the turn of the 21st century as seen through a glass TV screen. It’s worth noting that Olga Drenda, who popularised the term ‘hauntology’ in Poland, in her second book Wyroby examines post-transformation culture in the private gardens of people living in detached houses in villages and small towns. Wyroby was illustrated by Marek Rachwalik, a painter who in his works mixes the visual culture of the countryside with the visual aspects of the culture surrounding heavy metal music.
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It was a great year for Rachwalik, culminating in two individual exhibitions for him – one in Szczecin’s Trafostacja Sztuki and one in Gdańsk’s Kolonia Artystów. The year also brought some well-deserved recognition for Rachwalik’s teacher from Katowice’s Academy of Fine Arts – Dominika Kowynia, who was previously recognised and admired only locally, has now fascinated a broader audience thanks to a guest exhibition in Galeria Szara during this year’s Warsaw Gallery Weekend (WGW). WGW was also a success for Mikołaj Sobczak, who was previously known for his performances as part of the duo Polen Performance with Justina Los. Recently, he has also begun triumphing as a painter. The beginning of the year brought Sobczak an impressive exhibition in the Polana Institute gallery (which represents the artist) and during WGW, his new canvases, more and more clearly drawing on the strategies of postmodern paintings from the 1980s, became part of the Wonder Woman exhibition.
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The strength of young Polish painting was also evidenced in Cyryl Polaczek’s and Yui Akiyama’s exhibition Komunikacja Ze Wszystkim Co Jest (Communication With Everything There Is) at the Stefan Gierowski Foundation. Avoiding artificially added curatorial contexts, it put its focus on the pure pleasure that comes from engaging with what is most interesting in the newest in painting.
Friends & enemies
But Warsaw Gallery Weekend also had a darker side this year – the conflict between the gallery owners, which played out behind the scenes. Until now, the organisers of WGW operated as a group of colleagues who were connected through their common interests and their concern for the art market. But this year brought some unexpected reshuffling. WGW became a brand managed by a few of the strongest players who now set the rules and decide who can join this elite group. Some of the tension was resolved, but some institutions decided not to take part in the event anymore – most notable was Fundacja Arton, which until now had been part of the core of the WGW veterans.
While some simply left the event, others remained, but they also started an initiative that can’t really be seen as competing but was an answer to the polonocentrism that WGW had been criticised for over the last couple of years – Friend of a Friend (FOAF), modelled after the Condo events that take place in various cities around the world. While FOAF was a competition over the attention and wallets of Western collectors, the summer saw an extremely inclusive initiative – Groszowe Sprawy (Penny Stuff) started by Maja Demska, which is a kind of heir to the Raster graphics-inspired Targi Taniej Sztuki, was located in the spectacular setting of Namysłowska Bazaar.
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While there was a lot going on in commercial galleries, the year was rather tranquil for public institutions. The most important change concerned the position of the Director of the National Museum in Warsaw. Agnieszka Morawińska resigned after many years of work and, following a few months of Piotr Rypson’s regency, she was replaced by Jerzy Miziołek. The former director of the Museum of the University of Warsaw was appointed director of National Museum in Warsaw at the end of November, so we will have to wait for the effects of this change.
national museum warsaw
polish visual art
In Kraków, the impasse surrounding the city gallery, the Bunkier Sztuki, continues. The plans to reconstruct the gallery using Robert Konieczny’s redesign remain frozen. As a result of this confusion, the contract of the gallery’s director Magdalena Ziółkowska was terminated and the ensuing competition to succeed was not resolved.
For a change, there was a spark of hope in Wrocław – the recent European Capital of Culture remained a cultural wasteland following this essentially festival initiative, but October saw the opening of a new institution on the map of the capital of the Lower Silesia – OP ENHEIM. Located in a renovated baroque tenement house, the gallery does not lack scale and the financial capital goes hand in hand with the symbolic one – it was inaugurated with a Mirosław Bałka exhibition curated by Anda Rottenberg. It seems maybe something exciting will start to happen in Wrocław again thanks to OP ENHEIM.
Originally written in Polish, translated by MW, Dec 2018.