Nature in Contemporary Polish Art
#photography & visual arts
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Contemporary Polish Art, 'Acropolis' by Diana Lelonek from 'Zoe-Therapy' series, 2015, 92x150cm, photo: Rodriguez Gallery, akropol-100x150-druk.jpg
Even at the turn of the last century, nature felt as unchangeable and predictable as a Dutch landscape painting – save for the occasional elemental outburst. Yet in the past few decades much has changed: ‘Anthropocene’ entered the lexicon and the climate breakdown can be observed by the naked eye as much as through meteorological reports.
If we want to nose out the first Polish art that engaged with the climate, we must return to the 1970s near Wrocław, where an abandoned coalmine hosted the Ziemia Zgorzelecka convention. This meeting became a reference point for the relationship between the art world and critical engagement, such as for activist events against the effect of industrialisation. The writing from the convention was specifically formulated with conceptual art in mind. Let’s cast our eyes forward to see how artists deal with similar issues today.
Maniak & Szpaczyński, or life in the forest
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As proven by one of the founders of land art, Robert Longo, art can be as simple as a walk in a meadow. Strolls through fields or forests are a respite from work for some, whilst for others – a source of inspiration. Such is the case of Krzysztof Maniak, a young artist born in Tuchów, near Tarnów. The artist turned the forests near his home into a giant workshop, a space for his photography and films. His minimalist technically perfect recordings feature Maniak hanging from branches, tearing through shrubbery or lying in moss. His works contain something of the bucolic atmosphere from Justin Bieber’s Iceland-situated video I’ll Show You, though Maniak’s return to nature has a double dose of irony that came to light during his residency in New York. Rather than focussing on the city, Maniak returned to the place where he feels most comfortable, filming in Central Park. His work questions the relationship between nature that has been prepared for public consumption, contrasted with the untamed wilderness beloved by people like Thoreau.
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A similar vein of art comes from Silesian artist Mikołaj Szpaczyński. His work deals with the tactile discovery of nature and the experience of travel. Szpaczyński also doesn’t shy away from physical exploration – his videos feature him attempting to jump over a stream with the aid of a walking stick, reminiscent of Dutch artist Bas Jan Ader’s video, wherein he filmed himself falling off a roof or riding a bike into an Amsterdam canal. Ader eventually set out ‘in search of the miraculous,’ charting a small boat across the ocean – a trip from which he never returned. Szpaczyński is thankfully less radical, and he commemorated his road trip with an ephemeral ‘memorial’: a sculpture of his foot made from the sand that had collected in his shoes.
We’re all doomed
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Pop culture loves apocalyptic visions of death, though we hardly have to wait for nuclear destruction – essentially all we have to do is wait until the consequences of what we’ve done to our planet manifest. Visions of people losing the battle against the effects of the Anthropecene are popular among artists as well. Zbigniew Libera’s 2010 photography series The Exodus of the People from the Cities is a journalistic-style reportage of an imagined disaster. We don’t ever know what caused the disaster in Libera’s photographs, though they look like something out of Planet of the Apes. Towns are smouldering ruins, and their former tenants set out with others in search of a new, better place to live. Libera’s imagination had been dwelling on this topic for a few years, coming to fruition in his film Walser, though with much less critical success.
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While we’re on the topic of Planet of the Apes, the idea of other organisms getting revenge on humans is also a theme in Diana Lelonek’s Zoe-Therapy. Lelonek chooses not to focus on our biological relatives, rather on microorganisms, fungi and bacteria. The artist’s photographs feature them eating up postcards of European culture, with the Greek Acropolis taking centre stage.
Wojciech Doroszuk made use of a similar metaphor with his visual feast of a film, Festin, in which a table amply decorated in the style of early Dutch still life is eaten up not by aristocrats, but a pack of hounds.
Artist duo Tatiana Czekalska and Leszek Golec also experience their fair share of animals, though their output is less sombre than Lelonek’s work. In Homo Anobium St. Francis – 100% Sculpture, they proved woodworms are just as skilled at making sculptures (and sometimes better) as people. The titular Saint Francis is a 17th century sculpture, though the original sculpture is of little importance considering it is hardly a standout of Polish sculpture from the time period. What interests the artists is the later contributions by their little assistants after they are introduced to the saintly figure; the woodworms burrowed through it by the dozens, giving the sculpture a new, dramatic shape.
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In the case of Natalia Bażowska, observation turned into an intimate relationship. Having grown up in a family of traditional hunters, she planned to create a work dedicated to wolf behaviour and wolf packs, and their similarities to human interpersonal relationships. For authenticity, she began working with a group of scientists. After a certain time, the project began to take on unexpected dimensions as the artist began to bond with a wolf named Luna. Ultimately it became one of Bażowska’s best-known works, telling a story of interspecies bonding.
Trees & people
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From the ‘Infinite Amount of Logged Trees’ series by Michał Frydrych, Skaryszewski Park, Warsaw, photo: Michał Frydrych
For some artists, nature is not the focus of their artistic output; rather, it’s an occasional focal point within a longer career, very much in the original spirit of the Ziemia Zgorzelecka convention. One example is Michał Frydrych’s Infinite Amount of Logged Trees. Frydrych’s abstract compositions strayed far from his usual style. In this case, the impetus was a collection of logged trees in Warsaw. Through his art, Frydrych was pointing out the wave of legislation that had led to so many felled trees, bringing with his art a critical angle as well.
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‘Budki Wędkarskie’ (Fishing Shacks) by Weronika Kasprzyk from the series ‘Kopalniok River’, photo: https://weronikakasprzyk.weebly.com
In her photography series Kopalniok River, Weronika Kasprzyk took photos of fisherman’s sheds built in a basin near the ‘Silesia’ coalmine, highlighting the ecological complexity of this micro-environment, which changes constantly in tandem with the coalmine’s infrastructure.
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That same multivalent character is present in Hubert Czerepok’s video Ecosystem. It documents a gathering of families who used to own land that was absorbed a few decades ago into the Tatra National Park. After a friendly picnic, they begin cutting grass; the artist points to the complicated relationship that exists in the Tatras, a mountain range once upon a time shaped by grazing sheep and mowing down meadows, but now under strict protection. Thanks to this, certain types of plants and animals have reappeared, whilst others have gone extinct. The artist shows that there’s no such thing as a ‘return’ to the ideal state of the world, untouched by humans. Virgin humanity is a myth that we like to believe in, though nature is in fact far more complicated, and we are an integral part of it.
Originally written in Polish, March 2018, translated into English by AZ, Jan 2019
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