The past year was a significant one in the Polish art world for three big reasons - the opening of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Kraków as the country's first new institution dedicated to the newest forms of expression since the end of World War II, Yael Bartana's striking exhibition at the Polish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale and the global calendar of events surrounding the cultural programme of the Polish EU Presidency
From East to West
The Presidency ushered in hundreds of events, of which the most memorable was certainly The Power of Fantasy group show at BOZAR in Brussels. Curators David Crowley, Zofia Machnicka and Andrzej Szczerski selected 12 contemporary works of art which form the backbone of the exhibiton, forging a common theme of escape from the bounds of history through fantasy. The works of Poland's most dynamic artists of today, such as Paweł Althamer and Mirosław Bałka is presented alongside the likes of Katarzyna Kozyra and Zofia Kulik, Wilhelm Sasnal, Artur Żmijewski, plus Tadeusz Kantor, Józef Mehoffer and Bruno Schulz. A bridge is formed between the past and the present, tracing a narrative of fantasy and inspiration that endured in spite of the difficult times of economic shortages and political oppression.
Even brighter yet was the aura surrounding the retrospective of works by Alina Szapocznikow at the Wiels Contemporary Art Centre in Brussels. Alina Szapocznikow. Sculpture Undone 1955-1972 fulfilled the ambitions of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw and its director Joanna Mytkowska and curator Elena Filipovic to inscribe the artist and her work into the international forum. The exhibition was enthusiastically received by the European Press, winning praise from such critics as Le Monde's Philippe Dagen, who called the Brussels show a "swift coming back to life" for the artist. It is set to travel on to top American art institutions over 2012: Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, Wexner Center for the Arts w Columbus in Ohio and New York's Museum of Modern Art, however Paris itself has yet to have the show grace its museums.
In Berlin, Anda Rottenberg presented Side by Side. Poland - Germany. 1000 years of Art and History, an enormous undertaking that trails the political and cultural history between the two neighbouring nations over the centuries, from more peaceable periods to dire times of conflict. The works of the most prominent Polish artists formed the backbone of the exhbition, from Wit Stwosz and Edward Dwurnik to contemporary artists Mirosław Bałka and Artur Żmijewski. The latter's video installation, Tag, was removed from the exhibition following complaints that it was offensive to the Jewish community - the work presents a group of naked people frolicking in what turns out to be a gas chamber, meant to be a statement on how history inflicts a permanent association for a given set of circumstances.
Mirosław Bałka's work was the focus of a separate solo exhibition at the Akademie der Künste, while Paweł Althamer also enjoyed a solo show at the Deutsche Guggenheim), while London's Whitechapel Gallery hosted a retrospective of Wilhelm Sasnal's paintings. Althamer's project dipped into the artists's own personal history, recreating his father's factory in the Berlin Gallery and transforming it into a sculpture production factory. Each sculpture is based on a particular employee or visitor of the gallery, creating a set of figures representative of the gallery's day-to-day population.
Other events included a broad range of workshops and exhibitions as part of the Villa Tokyo art festival, Fossils and Gardens urban art projects in Brussels, the Spoken Exhibitions international tour and several group exhibitions of young Polish talent at major galleries throughout Europe. In Poland, the Journey to the East project brought together the most interesting new artistic ideas from across the region - Poland, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Moldavia, Ukraine and more. The strengthening of political ties was approached from the cultural perspective, shifting and blurring the borders between east and west.
Nation and nationality were also themes taken up by Israeli artist Yael Bartana as she prepared her vision for the Polish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. And Europe will be stunned is comprised of a film trilogy - Mary Koszmary/ Mary Nightmares, Mur i wieża / Wall and Tower and Zamach/ Assasination, which centre around the idea of a movement promoting the return of Jews to Poland to rebuild the presence of Judaism throughout the country, a presence that had been eradicated by World War II. The Polish Pavilion didn't win any prizes, but the international press certainly took notice, even if some found the acting overly dramatic, if not downright hysterical. Nonetheless, this ironic inquiry into nationalism, zealotry, propaganda and protest did get its message across.
In May 2011 Poland opened its first contemporary museum devoted entirely to Modern Art. Kraków's Oskar Schindler factory has been transformed into MOCAK - a thoroughly modern museum launched its activities with an exhibition that explores art in the context of history, a fitting beginning given the history of the site. As Warsaw awaits the construction of its own Museum of Modern Art, its staff and exhibitions are currently run out of a former furniture shop. It has, however, managed to host several great events this year, including the annual Warsaw under Construction Festival.
The Contemporary Art Museum in Wrocław (MWW) is also waiting for a permanent home, in the meantime, however, it has already set out goals for itself, referencing the city's neo-avant-garde traditions of the 1970s. It seems set to challenge the somewhat stale notions promoted by the city's National Museum. The latter, however, is doing what it can to keep up with the race, opening a contemporary wing in the attic. Yet many critics are not impressed by the way the space has been set up, even calling it the worst arrangement possible.
Warsaw's National Museum closed down its main building and launched full-scale renovations. These renovations are nothing like the revolution Piotr Piotrowski sought for when he was director, with ambitions of making the museum into a critical institution. The museum's current director, Agnieszka Morawińska, has promised a real overhaul and much improved exhibition space instead of a massive ideological shift. In the meantime, the museum welcomes museum goers to its Królikarnia offshoot, directed by Agnieszka Tarasiuk. There the Skontrum exhbition, presenting the National Museum's entire sculpture collection and various contemporary references, is slated to entertain visitors at least over the next year.
The private gallery scene was very active last year, mainly in Warsaw. There's not very much going on other cities. The galleries of the capital presented a new way of relating with their public, based in part on tactics that have proven successful in Berlin, such as gallery weekends. Warsaw held its own gallery weekend under the motto Where is Art? It wasn't quite a smashing success, but participating galleries are eager to come back on board next year. The prize fighters of the event were the players on the other side of the river, in Praga. The BWA, Asymetria, Leto and Piktogram galleries (the latter two boasting a gallery space that many a London dealer would envy). This summer proved particularly interesting, in particular exhibitions of works by Honza Zamojski at Leto and Michał Woliński's Berlegustopol. The Where is Art? event also ushered in the opening of the Raster Gallery's new space in a spacious, prewar location. The large windows make the art visible from the street, making it possible for all passersby to have a glimpse at the works, without having to walk in the door. Nonetheless, Raster is not your typical commercial gallery and it inaugurated its new space with a show by Eva Kotátkova, an unpredictable choice. The Foksal Gallery Foundation also improved its digs, presenting significant exhibitions right from the start, from works by Jadwiga Maziarski and Good Weather curated by Paulina Ołowska, as well as the artist's solo show.
Raster proved its strength even beyond the gallery space with the latest edition of its Villa project, prepared especially for the Polish Presidency programme. Villa Tokyo goes beyond the borders of Europe - as a precursor to Poland's increased activity on the cultural scene in Asia - bringing together major artists from Poland and Japan in an open, experimental setting which blurs the line between the artists and their public. Participating galleries from Poland included Stereo, which also debuted this year at the Liste Fair in Basel. Raster, in turn, presented a show of works by KwieKulik at the Art Basel Fair.
Highlights of the 2011 year in art certainly included the broad retrospective of works by Mirosława Bałka (Fragment), which traveled from Warsaw to Berlin as the artist's first major show in several years in these countries - as hard as that is to believe. The Centre for Contemporary Art at Ujazdowski Castle (CSW) was otherwise dominated this year by the Laboratory of the Future project, which functioned under the motto Regress/Progress. It consisted of a series of exhibitions, workshops and discussions involving Polish and international artists which sought to formulate a contemporary vision for the future. All in all, it came together in a rather chaotic fashion, with no real structure governing the wide scope of activities. The museum's new director, Italy's Fabio Cavalucci, has met with a fair amount of criticism from Poland's contemporary art circles, related in major part for the way the firing of curator Milada Ślizińska was handled. The last exhibition curated by Ślizińska was the Kara Walker solo show.
The Museum of Art Łódź celebrated its 80th birthday with the exhibition Eyes Seeking a Head to Inhabit, whose four curators devised a fine web of ideas that joined the problematics of the historical avant-garde with the present. Founded on the work of such monumental artists as Kobro and Strzemiński, and dipping into the Russian realm, it explored many facets of the human environment, its architecture and identity within the context of the avant-garde. It also brought Joseph Beuys and his 1981 gift to the museum back to the present and the Construction in Process happening under the theme of The Economics of Gifting.
On the competition front, they weren't very fruitful in discovering any fresh artistic blood, whether it was the Views competition at Zachęta sponsored by Deutsche Bank or the Samsung Art Master at CSW, or even the Bielsko Autumn contest. The Views contest did, however, give a nod to Poznań as a hub of dynamic artistic activity, awarding Konrad Smoleński first place and Honza Zamojski second place, both artists working in that city. Zamojski has been gaining speed, with a great exhibition at the Leto Gallery (Me, Myself and I) and attention-getting books published by his own publishing company, Morava. Inspired by the likes of Wu Tang Clan and other '90s-era cultural phenomena based on creating collages of past and present across genres - from classic soul, to Kung Fu films and fresh raps.
If the beginning of the year had everyone talking about Bałka's show at CSW, Zachęta wrapped its year with the great success of Wolfgang Tilmans' and Goshka Macuga's solo shows, under the watchful eye of new director Hanka Wróblewska. Goshka Macuga's Untitled is the artist's first solo show in Poland, even though she's got quite a few international shows under her belt. Taking her cue from the very space of the exhibition, she applied her typical practice of tailoring a particular show to a particular place - this time putting Zachęta itself in focus, namely the scandals that the institution endured in the late '90s. Even though there was no longer any official censorship in Poland, the public strived to shut down many exhibitions they found offensive to their sensibilities in terms of religion or politics. They protested and even attacked the gallery outright, with actor Daniel Olbrychski even attacking a likeness of himself with a saber in protest of Piotr Uklański's Nazis series, which depicted famous Polish actors in costume as film Nazis. Maurizio Cattelana's La Nona Ora was also a target and the League of Polish Families political party spoke against this sculpture depicting Pope John Paul II being crushed by a meteorite. As a result of all the furor, Zachęta director Anda Rottenberg lost her job - but not before receiving hundreds of insulting and threatening letters, brought back out of the cupboard for the Macuga exhibition in all their deplorable glory. Many of the letters referred to Rottenberg's Jewish descent, raising the scandal to the level of an anti-Semitic attack.
Over the past few years, the idea that Polish art has been welcomed into the global realm has slowly dawned on the Polish public. It appears that art is better understood, that its role as a metaphor is more readily absorbed. In the gallery, nothing is really ever what it seems. The only question is, where has all the hostility gone, has it really melted away?
The Thymós. Art of Anger 1900-2011curated by Kazmierz Piotrowski at the Znaki Czasu Centre for Contemporary Art in Toruń proved that is isn't altogether gone. The curator's personal theories on the possible conspiracy behind the Smoleńsk disaster and the formulation of the exhibition as a showcase of the 'great nation of Poland' incited a measure of protest and several artists withdrew their works from the show. Including, surprisingly, the Zachęta National Gallery of Art.
Artists featured in this article: Paweł Althamer, Mirosław Bałka, Alina Szapocznikow, Katarzyna Kozyra, Zofia Kulik, Wilhelm Sasnal, Artur Żmijewski, Wit Stwosz, Edward Dwurnik, Goshka Macuga. For more artists, see our Resource Library
Author: Agnieszka Le Nart, based on the original text by Karol Sienkiewicz, published on Culture.pl in December 2011