The Polish art scene in 2010 was dominated by policy debates, which left little room for art itself. While it doesn't necessarily mean a crisis is underway, 2010 wasn't a big year for the art scene, apart from a handful of major retrospectives and highlights abroad, including the "Ars Homo Erotica" exhibition a the National Museum in Warsaw (photo: Marek Dusza)...
Opening of the "Ars Homo Erotica" exhibition at the National Museum in Warsaw. Photo: Marek Dusza
Over the past year the Polish art was dominated by policy debates, which left little room for art itself. While it doesn't necessarily mean a crisis is underway, 2010 wasn't a big year for the art scene, apart from a handful of major retrospectives and highlights abroad
The end of 2009 and all of 2010 was sunk in a debate on cultural policy, which played out after the Polish Cultural Congress - itself not quite as successful as expected. The solution was a series of alternative discussions and congresses that followed on its tail, such as the Civil Forum for Contemporary Art, which rose up in 2009. The forum, along with a large population of culturally-inclined folks, became engaged in efforts to lobby the government to dedicate a whole 1% of the national budget for culturally viable projects. The effects of these efforst were announced in mid-December in the "Pact for Culture".
The New Year's edition of the Gazeta Wyborcza daily (December 31, 2009 - January 1, 2010) dedicated its front page to an article entitled "Cultural Boom", placed alongside a satirical illustration. Visual Arts were unsurprisingly among those disciplines that had enjoyed a great deal of success all over the world. The article asserted that
In time the year 2009 could be as significant for culture as the year 1989 was for politics. A year of passage from a vassal system in which artists pleaded for the patronage of the authorities to the sort in which citizens - artists, producers and audiences - co-organise cultural life along with the national and local governments and private patrons
Did such a thing actually happen? There was no revolution in this particular field, but it's certain that we're observing a process of evolution. When the first parliamentary debate on culture took place in January, the chamber was more empty than full. The debate didn't bring much to the table with regard to the reforms proposed by Minister Zdrojewski. Yet when Deputy Pięta from the Law and Justice party asked about the homo-erotic exhibition in planning by the National Museum, calling it "toadying to the homo-leftist media", the Minister stood in its defence, declaring:
I don't share your fears regarding the quality of the exhibition, I have full faith in Director Piotr Piotrowski. If we wanted to do away with homosexual themes in art, we would have to shut down the Vatican Museum
Homo-unknown in the National Museum
The "Ars Homo Erotica" show, curated by Paweł Leszkowicz (known for his earlier research of homo-erotic themes in art), was intended to be the first major undertaking of the concept of a "critical museum" envisioned by its new director Professor Piotr Piotrowski. The exhibition was discussed for quite a long time before it came to be. And - fortunately or unfortunately - the talk that preceded it inspired a great deal of emotion, certainly more than the exhibition itself. It comprised a survey of works of art that captured the homo-erotic gaze: from the Antiquity up to today. What is particularly curious is the fact that the most contemporary selection of works inspired the most mixed feelings among visitors (such as the quality of Karol Radziszewski 's film Sebastian, created especially for the show).
"Ars Homo Erotica" proved most of all that homosexuality is not the taboo subject that it was even a few years ago and isn't the source of a superfluous degree of emotional response. Perhaps Polish society isn't as conservative as it once was (which doesn't of course mean it is entirely free of homophobia). Art has set a precedent for reality in a different way than in the critical art of the '90s. And this doesn't mean that a show of homosexual themes in art is superfluous. On the contrary, but not this time. Paweł Leszkowicz's fiasco did not necessarily entail a fiasco for the critical museum. But the critical edge was applied where it didn't belong.
There was no second chance to be had. In the meantime, Director Piotrowski came into a publicised conflict with his staff. The autumn meeting Board of Trustees rejected his programme for a "critical museum" without giving any justification, which was then met with protest on the part of the academia. In the midst of all this, Piotrowski resigned from his position.
Within days Piotrowski was replaced by Agnieszka Morawińska, former Director of the Zachęta National Gallery of Art. . She, in turn, was replaced by her Deputy Director Hanna Wróblewska - a well-known curator and activist, an opponent of the Civil Contemporary Art Forum. From the moment it was founded in December 2009 (officially established as an association in March 2010), the Forum propagated, among other things, the idea of properly run competitions for directorial posts in cultural institutions. Its pressure led Minister Zdrojewski to set up a contest for the Director of the Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw, which was later won by Fabio Cavalluci, an Italian curator who became the first foreign director of a Polish gallery open to the public.
Contests also took place in the Centre for Contemporary Art in Toruń and the Art Bunker in Kraków, with appointments won by Piotr Łubowski and Piotr Cypryański, respectively - although in both instances these results were not welcomed with open arms. After two decades of leading the Art Bunker, Maria Anna Potocka left to become Director of the new Museum of Contemporary Art in Kraków (MOCAK) - appointed without a contest, which was loudly opposed in Kraków circles.
Art History and the History of Art
Just as it had in previous years (while growing stronger throughout) the most major exhibitions of the past year were related to history, rather than contemporary issues. The process of rewriting Polish and European Art History goes on and on.
The Zachęta Gallery's flagship show in 2010 was "Gender Check", curated by Bojana Pejić. The show comprised a large-scale summing-up of gender themes in Central European art. However, a certain excess and, as in the case of Leszkowicz's exhibition, an insufficiently critical approach to the works on show were widely remarked as the weakest points of this particular undertaking.
An entirely different approach, significantly more effective and interesting, came from Michał Woliński, curator of the show "I Could Live in Africa", dedicated to themes of alternative artistic tendencies in Polish Art of the '80s. The show debuted in both the Witte de With gallery in Rotterdam and the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. Woliński's intention wasn't to create a complete picture of Polish art of this period, rather, his show was a curatorial attempt at recreating the climate of the artistic endeavours of that period and illustrating the links between art and music of that time which - perhaps only as a coincidence - mirrored the metaphor of the title. The '80s are enjoying a great deal of attention at the moment. Riding the way - or perhaps as a reaction to Woliński's show - two more shows devoted to the period were set up: "Apogee. New Expression 1987" at Toruń's CCA and "Generation '80" at the National Museum in Kraków. Alas, both exhibitions perpetuate the stale image of the period without bringing in any fresh perspective.
The historical process of museums were filled out, certainly, with large and much-touted retrospectives - beginning with KwieKulik's "Form is a Social Fact" in the BWA Awangarda Gallery in Wrocław at the beginning of the year through a tribute to Włodzimierz Borowski at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw at year's end. Also of considerable note were exhibitions from Marcin Maciejowski at the National Museum in Kraków and Jakub Julian Ziółkowski at Warsaw's Zachęta, as well as a ten-year retrospective of the activities of the Sędzia Główny (Head Judge) duet (Aleksandra Kubiak i Karolina Wiktor) at Wrocław's BWA Awangarda. Zachęta also paid tribute to twenty years of works by Katarzyna Kozyra, using a rather unorthodox format, making this show one of the most intriguing by far. Her retrospective was issued in the form of a casting for a new feature film based on her life - museum goers, inspired by the works and biographical texts comprised by the exhibition, were invited to try out for the role of Kozyra herself - or others close to her - on film, thus becoming part of the exhibition themselves. Alas, the Art Museum in Łódź didn't manage to revive an interest in Władysław Strzemiński 's work with the "Afterimages of Life" exhibition.
Kolonie Vs. Stereo
As Kozyra's show demonstrated (and Zbigniew Libera's too only one year before in the same place) artists who made up the forefront of the avant-garde just a few years ago have passed, if not quite into the arriere-garde, into the category of a "contemporary classic". Stach Szabłowski summed this phenomenon up in Pzrzekrój magazine with a single phrase: "Once naughty scandalists, today the new classics". Kozyra has a huge retrospective in the most prestigious public institution, the scale of Paweł Althamer's works continues to expand dynamically (with the Sculpture Park project in the overlooked Warsaw district of Bródno), while the title of the most progressive of all Polish artists still belongs to Artur Żmijewski,, who simultaneously manages to score one major international award after another.
While the general picture of the art world in 2010 differs little from that of 2009, there are a number of art galleries that are going through considerable change. "Koniec Filmu" / "The Last Film" bid farewell to the iconic Raster Gallery in Warsaw. The critical activities of the gallery were recently compiled in Jakub Banasiak's anthology Macie swoich krytyków" / "Here Are Your Critics, published by the 40 000 Malarzy publishing house, directed by the author himself. Banasiak, on the other hand, who had exerted a great deal of effort in directing the flow of critical thought within the Polish art world, finally abandoned these efforts to lead his own gallery - Kolonie in the centre of Warsaw. It's backbone is built up by artists promoted by Banasiak over the years - neosurrealists (also referred to as painters who are "tired of reality"). This project, however, did not prove particularly successful as one of his artists, acquiring a great deal of critical acclaim as a pioneer of this "movement", opted for the representation of the Foksal Gallery Foundation over Kolonie: Jakub Julian Ziółkowski.
The most broadly discussed project represented by Kolonie was Norman Leto 's film Sailor, which was accompanied by the 40 000 Malarzy's print edition of the same title. Of course, the artist couldn't avoid long-windedness or pretense, especially in the print edition - yet it was still one of the most absorbing works on offer in 2009. Leto combines a variety of media - a lecture in the form of a film based on computer visualisations and a book - in order to create a fictive personality whose extreme interest in modern technology and the capability to use it to manipulate people that borders on eugenics, misogyny and chauvinism (political correctness as a rule of functional society?). He also pokes fun at the concept of an artistic prodigy and art in general, which can prove refreshing, particularly for the surrealists and the "Nikiforialists", or even the primitivism of Poznań's degenerates.
It remains true that what is most interesting in young Polish art comes from Poznań. These artists are still functioning on a micro scale, but it's certainly worth a look at the smallish Stereo Gallery, directed by Michał Lasota, or to follow the curatorial, artistic and publishing activities of Honza Zamojski.
Besides the historical shows, the other dominant theme for the past year's exhibitions were activities related to the local context, ambitions for modernisation, which are likely to gain even more attention in the future. At this moment it indicates a progressive direction not only for the curators, but for the museums themselves. What Piotr Piotrowski wasn't able to accomplish has been followed through to some extent by the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. It was no accident that this was the site for the much-touted opening of the "Modernologie" exhibition, which analysed the current perspective on modernist utopias. (The Museum of Art in Łódź took up a similar subject with their "Modernizacje" / "Modernisations").
The Museum of Modern Art (MSN), currently housed at its temporary location at ul. Pańska, organised the second edition of the "Warsaw Under Construction" event there and at various locations around the capital. In 2010 the festival focused more on architecture and the problems faced by the city's residents. The profile of Arseniusz Romanowicz was refreshed through a presentation of his project for a station of the city's metropolitan train line. Stanisław Zamecznik 's elaborate window displays were dusted off as well. In a rather interesting way, the issues of contemporary Warsaw were reflected through the perspective of artists from Istanbul as part of the "Diverçity" exhibit at the Centre for Contemporary Art at Warsaw's Ujazdowski Castle.
A similar train of thought all the more frequently accompanies artistic endeavours across the country. The "Tarnów. 1000 Years of Modernity" project had a particularly resonant echo over several months as it explored the local context while referring to the modernist ideals behind such constructions as the local AZOT plant complex. More mainstream, balloon-budgeted festivals with lots of media coverage, such as the Fokus Łódź Biennale and the Poznań Mediations Biennale, pale in comparison with the likes of the Warsaw under Construction and Tarnów projects.
Our people across the border
In terms of international shows over the past year, there was no match for the scale of the Mirosław Bałka "The Unilever Series" at the Tate Modern Gallery in London. Still, the Polska! Year series tied in with the Polish Year in Great Britain presented a varied chain of events that still continue to have a presence across the British Isles. Shows of particular note include the "StarCity. The Future under Communism" exhibit in Nottingham and Artur Żmijewski's "Following Bauhaus" show that was accompanied by a temporary art school. The Royal College of Art in London played special tribute to the graphic works and posters of Roman Cieślewicz.
Perhaps it's better that the existence of Polish art abroad isn't strictly tied with official promotional activities launched by the nation's own institutions - although the coming year brings on a load of projects related to Poland's EU Presidency. The pint-sized Raster Gallery spread its wings and organised the Villa Reyjavik event in Iceland, inviting a number of galleries from all over Europe to create an "art village" of creative minds and projects. The Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw summed up its recent work in Berlin rather than their local headquarters, with an "Early Years".< exhibition at the Kunstwerke gallery.
Polish artists are gaining steadily in prestige - and prizes. Paweł Althamer was named the winner of the Kunstpreis Aachen and Artur Żmijewski received the Ordway Prize, along with a 100,000 check from New York's New Museum and the Creative Link for the Arts. The latter was also chosen as the head curator of the Berlin Biennale in 2012. Monika Sosnowska prepared a special project for the K12 in Düsseldorf - a twisted staircase winding up the wall of the museum. And even Piotr Piotrowski, after all he'd been through heading the National Museum in Warsaw, was awarded the Igor Zabel prize in Spain. Adam Szymczyk, who heads the Kunsthalle in Basel, was awarded the Walter Hopps Award.
Bloom on the lapel?
The artists, experts, ideas and institutions given the most attention abroad are mainly those dealing with modernist concepts. Have Polish politicians taken note of its artistic potential? As Dorota Jarecka has remarked, the campaign preceding the November 2010 local elections brought up investments in culture as part of the political platform. The mayors of respective cities beamed with pride in discussing the museums burgeoning within them, such as the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw and the MOCAK in Kraków. Others announced the speedy establishment of more of this sort. Of course, doubts remain as to whether they shall materialise or remain in the realm of empty promises, much like initiatives for dedicating 1% of the national budget to culture. However - as the past year shows - in Poland anything is possible: one of the greatest sculptures in the world was created in Świebodzin - a gargantuan monument of Christ the King.
Autor: Karol Sienkiewicz, December 2010. Translated by Agnieszka Le Nart, December 2010.