In Gardens, Basements & Crowded Flats: Polish Performing Arts in 2018
default, In Gardens, Basements
& Crowded Flats: Polish
Performing Arts in 2018, Alex Baczynski-Jenkins, ‘Nim Zakwitnie Tysiąc Róż (z Warszawą w Tle)’ (Until a Thousand Roses Bloom [with Warsaw in the Backgroun, center, fot._spyros_rennt_alex_baczynski-jenkins_foksal_gallery_foundation31.jpg
Looking back on the Polish performing arts landscape in 2018, we can see how the boundaries between seasons began to blur, how the year belonged to performance art and how art galleries became jealous of the theatre.
A sensual garden
For me, the most memorable performance of the year was Nim Zakwitnie Tysiąc Róż (z Warszawą w Tle) (Until a Thousand Roses Bloom [with Warsaw in the Background]) by Alex Baczyński-Jenkins at the Foksal Gallery Foundation. Baczyński-Jenkins is a choreographer, performer and co-founder of the queer performance collective Kem and the recipient of the Frieze Artist Award 2018. Writing these words, I am listening to the titular song, sung by Urszula Sipińska (1971).
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Baczyński-Jenkins’s performance was a sensual garden arranged each Friday and Saturday in June, on both floors of the gallery (the name Foksal is a reference to London’s Vauxhall Gardens – a pleasure garden to which, in turn, the artist wanted to refer). On the lower floor: a leisurely, looped dance, subtle touches and slow kisses exchanged by four performers, men and women. Light fabrics attached to ornamental fans rose moved in the air.
On the upper floor, I found something like a wild park, or a solitary sandy riverbank: the room was filled with dry twigs, tufts of grass and little bushes, and the floor was covered with light sand. In their slow playing, the performers expressed desire: they took care of each other and exchanged touches and looks, but this did not lead to anything. I had a feeling that everything was based on improvised interactions inspired by cruising – looking for a sexual partner in public places (also a reference to the history of Vauxhall Gardens). Even though I spent an hour at Foksal, I couldn't help but feel that what I saw was only a fragment of something bigger.
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This was also a performance about freedom, and it was possible to experience it freely: to stay in the space for a couple seconds or a couple hours, enter it however and whenever you like. The creator of Nim Zakwitnie Tysiąc Róż (z Warszawą w Tle) showed that memorable performances don’t necessarily have to take on historical or political issues.
Let’s focus on minimalism for a bit longer: I couldn’t not write about one of the weirdest performative works I have ever seen. Networking, a performance by Aleksandra Borys and Ramona de Barbaro, organised as part of the Plac Małachowskiego 3 (3 Małachowski Square) exhibition, took place in the hidden, not-usually–visited, underground part of the neo-renaissance building of Warsaw’s Zachęta National Gallery.
Networking was a barely noticeable composition of swishing, scratching, rustling and moving: the ‘instruments’ were the random objects collected there. Among them, the things that are usually found in supply rooms – wires, foil, extension cords. The performer was an invisible hand that made this unexceptional menagerie of things move.
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‘Bystander’, an exercise in (non-) participation by Centrum w Ruchu, Weronika Pelczyńska, 2018, organised as part of the ‘Plac Małachowskiego 3’ project, photo: Weronika Wysocka / Zachęta – National Gallery of Art
At times, there was absolute silence which allowed us to notice sounds on the verge of audibility. At one point, observing other members of the audience became more interesting, as they, for a large part, were smilingly disoriented. So Networking turned out to be performatively ‘effective’ – it evoked emotional reactions thanks to its peculiarity. This piece also suggested the existence of a separate world of things and at the possibility of them creating their own environment, a separate microcosm in which they live their own life and influence us. Moving the show to the cellars of a refined building was a way of directing our attention towards this non-human bloodstream.
Within the past year, we were able to see two major performative undertakings. Next to the events curated by Magda Komornicka in Zachęta, the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art organised the Inne Tańce (Other Dances) exhibition, based on the ideas of Agnieszka Sosnowska and the dramaturgy of Tomasz Plata. It’s good material for a discussion on whether a ‘jealousy of theatre’ leads to meaningful activity.
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While Inne Tańce petrified performative phenomena and turned them into art gallery pieces, Plac Małachowskiego 3 was a much more successful way of presenting performances (it followed an earlier idea – the Lepsza Ja [Better Me] performative exhibition organised in the summer of 2017). I am writing performances in the plural because Plac included both events with a clear beginning and end – such as the very ‘theatrical’ show Nazwij To Przyjemnie (Name It Pleasantly), which was the result of the co-operation between Gosia Wdowik and Marta Ziółek – as well as very fluid ones. This stressed that performances are more ‘events’ than concrete works of art.
I thought the choreographic performances of the Cypriot artist Maria Hassabi were the most beautiful of the year. STAGING: solo is an eight-hour long moving installation inside of a gallery space. The performers, which changed every two hours, literally wriggled in front of the visitors’ feet. Trying not to show their faces, they moved in simple, careful and repetitive choreographies, performing as if in slow motion, close to the floor.
The structure of this movement seemed less important than the unfamiliar presence of the performers in two key places of the Zachęta building – the main hallway, right next to the entrance, and on the upper balcony. STAGING:solo is another work which left the audience some freedom – it was possible to ‘enter’ this performance or to ignore it. Look at it for just a moment, or sit down on the marble floor and watch it for hours.
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As a whole, the Zachęta exhibition opened the audience up to new and uncommon forms of spectatorship. The visitors were able to engage in a relationship with a work of art in a very different way than usual.
Scene from the show ‘Jumpcore’ by Paweł Sakowicz, 2018, Studio Theatre in Warsaw, photo: Maciej Rukasz
In 2018, performance became part of the Zachęta – National Gallery of Art’s collection for the very first time. The recording of Paweł Sakowicz’s Jumpcore – a multi-hour-long practice of jumping inspired by the suicidal death of Fred Herko, an American dancer/artist – was officially purchased by Zachęta as a part of its permanent exhibition. Performance flourished during Lepsza Ja – the previous performative exhibition, curated by Komornicka.
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How should we interpret this? On the one hand, it’s an institutional framing of the elusive and changing phenomenon that is performance art. On the other, it’s the recognition of its high status in the hierarchy of official art. Works representing new thinking about movement (after all, performance is not only about dancing) were considered an important factor in the development of ‘new performativity’.
View from the exhibition ‘Badania Terenowe’ (Field Studies) by Krzysztof Garbaczewski, GCM / Gdańsk City Gallery, 2018, photo: Bogna Kociumbas
This broad category could be used to describe another event: the Badania Terenowe exhibition which was presented this spring at the Gdańsk City Gallery. The curator, Patrycja Ryłko, presented the ideas and explorations of Krzysztof Garbaczewski. The title referenced the director’s recent fascination with the legacy of Polish theatre legend Jerzy Grotowski.
It was interesting to see how the director’s method itself became an exhibit, graspable only in afterimages and metaphors. The dynamics of the theatrical process was stopped as if in a freeze-frame – in the form of varied mosaics consisting of elements of scenography, film recordings of rehearsals and graphics created by Andrzej Strumiłło.
The idea to create exhibitions based on theatrical and performative phenomena and objects will be continued next year. In January in Białystok, Garbaczewski’s hometown, a new exhibition prepared in co-operation with Garbaczewski will be presented by Patrycja Ryłko, the curator of the event, and Ewa Tatar, the curator of the Arsenał Gallery.
A stuffy place
Paolo Thorsen-Nagel ‘Miejsce’ (The Place), performance, 19 July 2018, The Avant-Garde Institute, Studio of Edward Krasiński, photo: archive of the Foksal Gallery Foundation
Miejsce (The Place), a sound-based performance by the German American artist and musician Paolo Thorsen-Nagel, which took place at the Avant-Garde Institute / Studio of Edward Krasiński, was a one-time only, but powerful, sensation. On the last floor of the block of flats at 64 Solidarności Avenue, Thorsen-Nagel created a seemingly insignificant and slowly developing work, which left a lot of space for examining the titular site.
A layer of sound – composed of electronic music and field recordings recorded in the studio itself, as well as the surrounding streets – became the background for an intense, communal presence. The turnout for the event was high; it was incredibly crowded, and the July night made it difficult to breathe in the hot air. Only after we left for the roof, following Thorsen-Nagel’s almost hour-long presentation, we were able to find some relief.
The artist referenced the avant-garde Teoria Miejsca (Theory of the Place) by Ania Ptaszkowska, Mariusz Tchorek and Wiesław Borowski. In his performance, he enacted both the aesthetic idea and all of the aspects relating to the categories of ‘here and now’. In the glazed space of the Avant-Garde Institute, the theoretical background of Miejsce harmoniously blended with the sound installation composed by the artist, becoming an example of the blurred lines between the disciplines.
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An announcement informed us:
Architecture, the audience, the soundtrack and listening to it become a part of an animated motion defining the place here and now.
The mixture of the summer air, setting sun, diffused soundscape – and listening while seated on the concrete floor of the Institute next to other audience members – resulted in a performance which was well thought through, but not forced or artificial. Once again, it is difficult to describe the real progression of an event during which… almost nothing happens.
The mysterious & the reserved
Scene from the show ‘Robert Walser: I Would Prefer Not To’, directed by Katarzyna Kalwat, 2018, Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw, photo: Tomasz Tyndyk
It’s also worth mentioning Robert Walser: I Would Prefer Not To, a mysterious project by Beniamin Bukowski and Katarzyna Kalwat, which took place at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw. Its creators described it as a ‘performative installation’: it was a peculiar curated tour of an imagined exhibition and a mobile play for three actors, inspired by the works and the artistic method of the Swiss writer.
Hanna Klepacka, Jan Dravnel and Michał Opaliński became artists who, brought a walk among invisible (or barely perceptible, as Walser’s Micrograms written in tiny letters) works together with personal reflections on art and creation. The project was an interesting proposal, which balanced on the border between performance, theatre and artistic installation.
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Another reserved and simple, but precisely prepared project was a performative tour created by Anna Karasińska. The performance, which took place at Zachęta, encouraged reflections on the situation of being in a gallery and on the conventional admiration of paintings.
Another interdisciplinary phenomenon worthy of attention was the residency of the Biennale Warszawa at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. The heads of the Biennale, Paweł Wodziński and Bartosz Frąckowiak, decided to use theatre as a medium of distributing knowledge and introducing social change in a more pronounced way than before.
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In 2018, performance appeared to be a form of artistic intervention that is both dynamic and subtle. It doesn’t destroy the conventional order of spectating familiar to theatre-goers, but it is an altogether new order, found somewhere near the mainstream.
Shows performed only once, or at most a couple of times, which are open towards the engagement of audiences, that are put together in short periods of time, which find themselves on the borders of different artistic practices – these performances are slowly becoming the norm. Who knows what will be unusual in the not-so-distant future? Maybe it will be going to a play that begins on a dark stage after the lights go out, to be watched from a chair in front of the action?
foksal gallery foundation
the Zachęta – National Gallery of Art
Originally written in Polish by Marcelina Obarska, translated by MW, Dec 2018