The year 1989, with the political and cultural changes that followed, is a significant turning point for Polish contemporary art. Artists’ reactions to these changes frequently gave rise to scandal, but art - a sensitive barometer - was always a step ahead of public debate.
Critical Art, or the Body and History
This moniker is applied to work by artists such as Grzegorz Klaman, Katarzyna Kozyra, Zbigniew Libera, Robert Rumas, Alicja Żebrowska and Artur Żmijewski. These artists placed generally accepted social conventions, as well as religious and cultural norms, under drastic scrutiny with a previously unheard of openness, in order to lay bare hypocrisy and oppressive characteristics.
Their video works and installations employed forbidden and sacred spheres of social life, in order to shake viewers, to force them to think, and to depict the way in which what seems natural is in fact a cultural convention. Because of this, critical art of the 1990s was a frequent heroine of scandals, drawing the attention of a wider audience as well as the media.
The body is at the centre of the critical practice both as a tool and a means of expression. The work of Katarzyna Kozyra, "Łaźnia" / "The Bathhouse" (1997), can be evoked here, in which the artist used a hidden camera to depict the anti-ideal of beauty - women’s unattractive bodies during a bath. Artur Żmijewski, with pieces such as "Na spacer" / "Out for a Walk" (2001) and "Lekcja śpiewu" / "Singing Class" (2001), posed the problem of a body which is isolated from society because of its mutilation or disease, when he documented the attempts at walking by a paralysed man and attempts at singing by deaf children.
Zbigniew Libera, who created the iconic "Lego. Obóz koncentracyjny" / "Lego. Concentration Camp" (1996), also created a piece of body-building equipment for 9-year-olds and a penis pump as part of the "Urządzenia korekcyjne" / "Corrective Devices" series (1995), in order to present the way in which a culture of consumption treats the body. A different kind of reality - one shaped within the milieaux of devout Polish Catholicism - was of interest for Robert Rumas, who juxtaposed the figures of saints with a half-nude body of contemporary woman and man in "Gesty" / "Gestures" (1993).
An entirely different stance is represented by Mirosław Bałka, who confronts the role of memory and fading traces of history, especially those pertinent to the Holocaust and the Second World War. In his video installation "Winterreise" (2003), Bałka interrogates the memory of the place and the meaning of traces of the Shoah. The three films that the work comprises were created during a winter journey to the concentration camp at Birkenau. They depict a little lake that the ashes of cremated victims were thrown into, and deer who walk about, approaching barbed wire that still surrounds the camp. As the strongest trend in art after 1989, the critical practice determined ways of naming what would come in the artists’ works within years to come.
The Ładnie Group, or "Reconciled with Reality"
At the turn of the 21st century, there was much talk of a shift in the centre of gravity for Polish art - from a heroic critique and contradicting of the post-communist condition toward a more ironic and equivocal play with the cultural status quo. Artists seemed to have come to terms with reality, not wanting to occupy themselves with overly distinct ideological stances.
A phenomenon representative of this kind of trend was the work of Ładnie Group (the 'Prettily' Group) with Wilhelm Sasnal, Rafał Bujnowski, Marcin Maciejowski and their colleagues, which turned towards painting, pop culture and the sphere of banality and the everyday. Their art criticised mass communication and consumption as means of manipulating society.
But it must be remembered that among the creators of the critical art of the 1990s there were also occurrences of works that spoke about the oppressive character of culturally imposed models in a light and distanced way, as was the case with Zbigniew Libera’s "Universal Penis Expander". Among the younger generation, on the other hand, one could find works that addressed similar issues, but stirred controversy in the media and society - such as "Pasja" / "The Passion" (2001) by Dorota Nieznalska, in which the artist juxtaposes the Christian cross with an image of male genitals.
Althamer and Others, or Towards Fantasy
During the same period, numerous artists remained fascinated with the idea of fantasy, permitting a refined and cheeky play with reality. In the case of these artists, we can speak about a turn towards emotions, spirituality and narration. Among the artists who recall the idea of imagination - which was strongly present in Polish art of the 1960s and '70s – are Paweł Althamer, Cezary Bodzianowski, Oskar Dawicki, Robert Kuśmirowski, Paulina Ołowska, Janek Simon, Christian Tomaszewski and Piotr Uklański.
One can evoke the piece by Paulina Ołowska, "Alfabet" / "The Alphabet" (2005), in which the artist repeats an aesthetic and a strategy of avant-garde art, drawing of Karl Teige’s alphabet from the 1920s. On the other hand, with the striking mock-ups of objects and even of whole environments, wherein we are incapable of distinguishing the creation from real places of the past, Robert Kuśmirowski conveys how in our experiencing the world, we are doomed to our images of the past that are more real to us than reality and historical truth, such as "Wagon" (2006) and "Bez tytułu (banknot)" / "Untitled (banknote)" (2004).
The recent years - when one can observe a strong interest in art of the 1960s and 1970s, intertwined with stories about the past - show the extent to which the means employed thus far no longer suffice to describe the phenomenon of contemporary art in Poland. They are no longer capable of capturing the diverse stances, concepts, and artistic ideologies, nor the dynamic way in which the work of select artists evolves.
Source: "Nowe zjawiska w sztuce polskiej po 2000" (New Phenomena in Polish Art after 2000) (editors: Grzegorz Borkowski, Adam Mazur, Monika Branicka), culture.pl, own material
Agnieszka Sural, 15.04.2013, translated by Paulina Schlosser, 16.07.2013