Polish Art at the beginning of the century came about as a variety of continuum stretched between two extremes. On one side, there's engagement and the ambition to use art to influence reality. On the other, critical art that exposes the idiosyncrasies of reality...
A huge palm tree stands in the middle of Warsaw, on the roundabout in one of the city's busiest street, Jerusalem Avenue. It is hard to miss. The palm tree looks surreal against the city skyline: palm trees do not grow in Poland's moderate climate. A single artificial palm tree appeared in 2002, planted there by the artist Joanna Rajkowska. It has become a city landmark, photographed by tourists, even featured in postcards. It has taken root in the local landscape despite initial controversy, as it was perceived as alien, both visually and especially, culturally.
Joanna Rajkowska creates public space projects in which context plays the key role. The palm tree would not make much sense in another location or another country, where it could be seen as an aesthetic object, a hyperrealist sculpture. Here, it has a very different function. It was installed after Rajkowska's stay in Israel and commemorates the bygone presence of the Jewish community in Poland, which has left a void besides the reference to the Israeli capital in the naming of Jerusalem Avenue. The work also encomapsses the debate about and the reception of the palm tree. In the artist's own words:
It has divided Varsovians into those who treat it as a symbol of a city and a society that welcomes others, growing, focused on change. and those that support order, tradition and a city closed to strangers.
Rajkowska's projects are experiments, her art engages the viewers and confronts them with their concerns.Joanna Rajkowska's other project, the blueprint for a minaret in Poznań, was conceived very much like the palm tree. Rajkowska decided to turn the chimney stack of an old paper factory in central Poznań into a minaret, the symbol of Islam, a religion scarcely present in Poland. The project stirred much emotion among the population of Poznań, and a debate between supporters and opponents ensued. The project has not been completed. However, Rajkowska insists the reactions it prompted matter as much as its completion would:
It is great that it has got people thinking … It is as if I had thrown in a bomb and we are looking at the aftermath of the explosion. But the explosion is symbolic and safe. We can see our reflection in it.
Artur Żmijewski's art similarly leans towards experimentation and aims for a concrete social impact. Żmijewski is one of the most prominent Polish mid-career artists. His "Repetition" project represented Poland in the 51st Venice Biennale in 2005. The work re-enacts the well-known experiment conducted in the 1970s by Professor Philip Zimbardo in the USA. Zimbardo divided students into two groups, making them inmates and guards in a "prison". The participants quickly identified with their assigned roles. Conflicts arose, violence was rampant, the guards abused their power and the inmates proved opportunistic. Żmijewski repeats the experiment twenty years later to witness a very different ending. In the artist's own words, "'Repetition' suggests that people mainly want agreement, a solution to a conflict".
Żmijewski is a key figure of "critical art", a school which dominated the Polish art scene in the 1990s. Critical art remains a main reference point for current artists, for whom it has become a classic. On one hand, it is a legacy to overcome before one can speak a different language, on the other hand, it has marked the collective consciousness too strongly to be ignored. Recent art either tries to evade engagement or rethink it. The art of the last decade is very diverse, ranging from projects with a social impact (Joanna Rajkowska) through more universal considerations (Anna Orlikowska, Laura Pawela) to Hyperrealists "tired of reality" (Jakub Julian Ziółkowski, Piotr Janas).
In her book on critical art in Poland, Izabela Kowalczyk says that "it can be defined as art … Which exposes the strategies and relations of power present in our society, politics, broadly understood culture and in ourselves". Critical art caused controversy and debate. It was about exclusion, it broke social taboos and sparked scandals. It gave rise to unprecedented feminist art and body art, and it touched on religious issues. Artists were engaged and they were critical in the sense introduced by Michel Foucault, critical not just in stating that "things are not what they should be" but in trying to expose "the implicit assumptions, the habitual, uncritical, invisible ways of thinking".
Zbigniew Libera is best-known for his notorious work "Lego. Concentration Camp" (1994), an iconic critical art piece. The work consists of what looks like genuine Lego boxes. But the pictures on the boxes do not show the usual castle or railway station but a concentration camp. The juxtaposition of an innocent children's toy with the horror of the Holocaust is shocking. The work has been interpreted in many ways. According to Kowalczyk, it is "about the banality of history and its use in consumer culture".
Polish art underwent a major change at the turn of the century. The gravity and seriousness of critical statements were gradually replaced by works using irony and sarcasm, grounded in everyday reality, not directly engaged. Critical art exhausted its potential and was described as journalistic and predictable. One of last major exhibits of critical art, "Niebezpieczne związki / "Dangerous Liaisons" (2002), was described by Raster critics as "body art and critical art on the verge of collapse. Good old works sit next to new ones by epigones". When epigones enter the stage, it is time to turn a new leaf.
Art needed a new perspective, more personal and direct. The turning point came with Julita Wójcik performance "Peeling Potatoes" (2001). Viewers were puzzled to watch the artist wearing a kitchen apron and peeling potatoes in the exhibition space of a serious institution, the Zachęta National Gallery of Art. Wójcik said in an interview, "I want no more pathos. Art should be pleasant. The world is changing, and art should change too. Why cannot art be light?". Critic Łukasz Guzek considered Wójcik's action to be a breakthrough, stating "if only she rolled in the peelings or composed a slogan or a picture out of them; if only she hurt herself or defecated; if only she peeled potatoes naked … But no, Julita Wójcik was just peeling potatoes. This was the biggest strength of her idea".
The turn of century also brought a clear shift in painting, which had been underrepresented in the preceding decade. Critical artists mainly used video and photography, created objects and installations. Painting, with its centuries-old tradition, seemed more conservative, and yet was gladly embraced by new artists, including primarily the Ładnie collective and its three members, Wilhelm Sasnal, Marcin Maciejowski, and Rafał Bujnowski. Their art was initially termed "pop-banalism" and "pop-realism" because they were inspired by their immediate surroundings, mainly the iconosphere of popular culture. Their paintings recycled images from tabloids, commercials, photos of friends. According to Raster critics, "sometimes art needs to be made from scratch, by looking around, talking to friends, listening to music".
Their art is an art of personal realism. Sasnal's early work, the comic book "Życie codzienne w Polsce w latach 1999-2001" / "Everyday Life in Poland in 1999-2001", consists of simple black-and-white drawings and dialogues which capture the mundane life of the young artist and his wife as they shop, paint, talk about looking for a job, walk the dog, listen to music. They never have money. One caption reads, "Look, Anka. I will send these pictures to the exhibit in Bielsko. The prize is fifteen thousand. No more looking for a job for a year". Less than ten years after the publication, Sasnal's life has turned around, he is among the top Polish artists on the international art scene, enjoying commercial success too, with high figures cited for his paintings. Although in Poland the artist's profession is still associated with poverty, the systemic transition after 1989 has been marked by ongoing development of the art market, which was launched practically from scratch. The art scene is shaped by large public institutions and museums as well as small private commercial galleries and foundations including Raster, Fundacja Galerii Foksal, Fundacja Bęc Zmiana, Lokal 30, Zderzak, Galeria Czarna, Galeria Piekary, Nova. The most recent newcomers are Goldex Poldex, Galeria Leto, Fundacja Archeologia Fotografii.
The exhibit presents Rafał Bujnowski's works from the early period of the Ładnie collective, life-size paintings Brick and VHS Tape from the series Paintings-Objects (1999-2002). Bujnowski's interest in the banal leads him to analysing the way images and the medium of painting work. At first sight, his brick does not look like a traditional painting, it looks like a brick. Yet it is obviously a traditional painting, a canvas covered with paint. Bujnowski committed a similar manipulation in 2004 during his travels across the USA. He presented a small-scale reproduction of a hyperrealist self-portrait as a photograph in his visa application. Immigration officials never knew the difference. Robert Maciejuk is another artist interested in the limits of mimetic painting. His work includes a series of realistic landscapes reproducing "imaginary landscapes" from children's television cartoons like the cult series "Miś Uszatek".
The turn to reality and privacy had an existentialist strand, which reflected the anxiety and ambivalence mounting in Polish society at the time of its rapid development. Anna Orlikowska captures these emotions in images of boundless matter like soil moved by worms or leaking translucent liquid "Loop" (2007). Laura Pawela's projection refers to the Romantic painting "Wanderer above the Sea of Fog" by Caspar David Friedrich. The wonderer admiring mountain peaks is replaced by figures contemplating post-industrial landscape of Silesia, which blends beauty and ugliness in a fascinating mix. The sublime, a notion which refers to simultaneous contradictory perceptions, is the topic of the video by Tomasz Kozak "Song of the Sublime" (2008), composed of natural disaster footage from popular Hollywood productions. Kozak explains that for him
Late Modernity is an era of ambivalence. Everything seems both full and empty, arid and blooming, fascinating and terribly boring… Unfortunately, rather than relish the contradictions and see them as an exciting challenge, our era … sinks in the depths of futile frustration.
A similar climate of anxiety reigns in the work of two "sculptors". Monika Sosnowska, the artist behind the Polish pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007, is interested in space and its modifications. Claustrophobic corridors, distortions of the "normal" perspective, unexpected optical surprises are her specialty. She boarded up a hole in the ceiling of MoMA in New York, Hole (2006), and created a sterile white corridor bisected by many white doors in Basel. Mirosław Bałka also uses minimalist means. His "How It Is" (2009) in London's Tate Modern Turbine Hall is a monumental metal container with a completely dark interior. That's it. The rest comes from the viewers with their experience, sensitivity, intuition. Bałka and Sosnowska create special spaces for the viewers to experience themselves, minimum means, maximum emotions.
Another important stand of contemporary Polish art is the Hyperrealism of artists "tired of reality". Jakub Banasiak, publisher of the book Zmęczeni rzeczywistością" / "Tired of Reality, describes them as follows:
They are probably the most autarchic artists in Poland since 1989. They are not really interested in the everyday life, current political and social affairs, or theoretical and ideological models to interpret the reality. Unlike the critical artists of the 1990s or the artists who used irony as the optimum tool of criticism in the following decade, the Hyperrealists do not consider the field of art to be potentially exclusive and repressive.
Hyperrealist painting may seem anachronistic but it is surprisingly novel in the Polish art scene. It is so novel because Surrealism never flourished in Poland unlike in other European countries. Hyperrealism is also provokingly opposed to engaged art which intervenes in the here and now. As a result, the works of artists like Jakub Julian Ziółkowski and Piotr Janas initially went unnoticed and the painters were first discovered abroad. They knowingly use a completely outdated poetics of dream, suspension of logic, collision of systems of order. Jakub Julian Ziółkowski's "Garden" (2008) is a painting of an eerie, phantasmatic space filled with a multitude of miniscule objects whose function and origin are difficult to discern. Banasiak describes the position of the artists who are "tired of reality" as "a shift away from analysing the reality towards art which creates autonomous artistic spaces". The Hyperrealist convention does it very well.
And yet escapism also involves an escape from convention itself, from overly facile recognition and understanding. The goal is to evade the discourse of critical art and of art which analyses reality, and to escape all labels. This inclination is very strong in the work of Norman Leto (Łukasz Banach). When asked in an interview what really interests him, he said:
Everything but boring reality. I start to feel tired just watching everything around. We live in boring times. I don't want to wait any more, I want to run away to someplace else. I am like water which always takes on the shape of its vessel but never loses its properties. (I do not want to be) like a fixed block which cannot flow under the door or through a keyhole.
His "Buttes Montaux" project (2008), which in a way is his artistic manifesto, ends with a peremptory statement, "I will do it so that some of us can be extremely unspecific". Leto freely moves between media, he paints, draws, makes videos, installations, objects. He also makes music and is writing a book, semi-autobiographical, based on which he is shooting a feature film. He always stresses that he is self-taught.
The Noo-avant-garde Manifesto (Manifest Nooawangardy, 2010) states:
Art affects the reality in a non-linear, unpredictable way, according to the principle of 'rare events' which cannot be planned and scheduled in advance, and whose occurrence and role are only evident ex-post. An artistic act is a pure event, unpredictable, surprising, non-programmable.
Other artists are less dogmatic and are still looking for new solutions and setting goals. Artur Żmijewski's 2007 essay/manifesto The Applied Social Arts was an important attempt at rethinking the nature of art and its ability to participate in social life. Żmijewski is affiliated with the left-wing circles of Krytyka Polityczna, which attract many artists. It is currently one of the most interesting phenomena in Poland, a collective of artists, writers, playwrights and theatre directors, philosophers, sociologists, historians - representatives of many different positions including Joanna Rajkowska, Grupa Twożywo, Wilhelm Sasnal, Maurycy Gomulicki, Jakub Julian Ziółkowski.
Polish art is shaped by debates, discussions, new theories, it also gravitates towards a kind of universalism, which puts it in international circulation. It is a continuum ranging between two extremes; engaged art aspiring to change the reality and art which sees engagement as a trap and prefers exclusively personal, intuitive narration, refusing being assigned a concrete meaning. This broad space fosters diversity and thus can accommodate many different projects.
Author: Natalia Kaliś. English version edited January 2011.
4 Izabela Kowalczyk, "Ciało i władza. Polska sztuka krytyczna lat 90." / "Body and Power. Polish Critical Art Since 1990", Warszawa 2002, s. 9
5 ibidem, s. 22-23
6 ibidem, s. 97
7 Raster, "Here are Your Critics", Warsaw, 2009, s. 213
8 Julita Wójcik, "Peeling Potatoes", Magazyn Sztuki + Obieg, nr.26/2001, s. 50
9 Łukasz Guzek, "O sztuce praktycznej i praktyce artystycznej" / "On Practical Art and Artistic Practices, Magazyn Sztuki + Obieg, nr 28/3/2001, s. 13