Contrary to the previous year, 2009 - a year of crisis, especially for cultural institutions' budgets - was a good one for artists of the older generations. This change by no means signified the kind of turn towards proven solutions that is typical for a crisis. In Poland the process was legitimised by public exhibition institutions and key research publications. In this case, it was less about avoiding risk and more about catching up and making up for previous neglect.
At the turn of 2008 and 2009, the exhibition "Dobromierz X" at the Atlas Sztuki gallery in Łódź presented a number of episodes from the oeuvre of KwieKulik (Przemysław Kwiek and Zofia Kulik). The exhibition enjoyed substantial popularity, and its most shocking aspect was to see how art had been intertwined with the two artists' everyday life. However, this was only a prelude to the emotions which the end of the year brought. On 16 December, the BWA Awangarda gallery in Wrocław opened the first KwieKulik retrospective, "Forma jest faktem społecznym" ("Form Is a Fact of Society"), presenting two decades of the duo's joint activity, from their faith in being able to change reality in the early 1970s, to the simply depressive "varieties of grey" in the 1980s. This is art submerged in the socio-political present, art dependent on struggles with everyday problems (including the artists' work on the side). Naturally, part of the exhibition is dedicated to the famous Action, Documentation, and Propagation Workshop (Pracownia Działań, Dokumentacji i Upowszechniania - PDDiU) and the huge archive created by KwieKulik.
Early December saw the opening of a Zbigniew Libera retrospective at Warsaw's Zachęta gallery. This exhibition uncovered the artist's less well known activity from the 1980s, offered a fresh look at works from the 1990s, which are shown very seldom indeed, and summed up his output of recent years. Libera turned out to be one of the most radical Polish artists and the precursor of what is known as "critical art". Libera's first major exhibition in years coincided with his success at this year's Frieze Art Fair in London, where his film Jak tresuje się dziewczynki / How to Train Little Girls was acquired for the Tate Modern's collection.
In the cycle Mistrzowie / Masters shown at Zachęta, Libera presented the profiles of his precursors - Zofia Kulik, Andrzej Partum, Jan Świdziński. They are also among the heroes of a watershed book by Łukasz Ronduda, Sztuka polska lat 70. Awangarda ("Polish Art of the 1970s. The Avant-garde"), describing those sections of the Polish neo-avant-garde whose programme involved opening up to reality, either by attempting to transform it or reacting to it, or by asking existential questions on the meaning of life. The new approach proposed by Ronduda is complementary to another important book which was released in 2009, Luiza Nader's Konceptualizm w PRL ("Conceptualism in People's Poland"). The author found her own way of problematising conceptual art, analysing the activity of Wrocław's Galeria Pod Moną Lisą, Poznań's Akumulatory 2, and Warsaw's Galeria Foksal, at the same time offering a critical view of the previous process of historisation.
The retrospective exhibitions of the past year also show there has been a major change in the approach to this kind of exposition. A given artist's oeuvre is placed in the context of other works, and the project involves other artists who are invited to provide creative commentary. This was the idea behind the breakthrough exhibition at the Zachęta gallery devoted to Jerzy Grotowski, where his theatrical ideas and his understanding of the word "performer" was juxtaposed with what was going on during that time in performance art (within the field of visual arts). Next to excerpts from Grotowski's stage shows were recordings of projects by Gina Pane, Marina Abramović, Vito Acconci, Carolee Schneemann, and the Vienna Actionists, for example. Special projects invoking the founder of the Laboratory Theatre were prepared by Grzegorz Sztwiertnia and Roman Dziadkiewicz.
Active participants in the excellent posthumous exhibition of Jadwiga Maziarska's works, "Atlas wyobrażonego" ("Atlas of the Imagined") at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw, included Zofia Kulik and Józef Robakowski. The best exhibition of this kind was definitely the Alina Szapocznikow retrospective "Niezgrabne przedmioty" ("Awkward Objects") at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw (with accompanying conference). The context for Szapocznikow's output was provided by works by artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Ewa Hesse and Pauline Boty. "Niezgrabne przedmioty" ("Awkward Objects") is the first opportunity to look at the sculptress's work without a dominating biographical interpretation, though still asking questions about how Szapocznikow's personal experience influenced her work, and about a certain shared theme in the artistic biographies and media images of female artists.
Across the Border
A kind of summary of last year can be found in the exhibition "3 x TAK" ("3 x YES") which opened on 5 December at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. It presents the latest acquisitions, deposits, and donations in the museum's collection. Contrary to a similar exhibition the previous year ("Sztuka cenniejsza niż złoto" ["Art More Precious Than Gold"]), some of the works on display this time are easy to connect with major events in Poland's artistic life over the past year, especially the foreign successes of Polish artists. It opens with Krzysztof Wodiczko's Autoportret / Self-portrait, first shown at the Galeria Foksal and more recently at Warsaw's Profile Foundation. Wodiczko's presence at the Museum of Modern Art can be linked to the fact that he represented Poland at the Venice Biennale, building his installation "Goście" ("Guests") in the Polish pavilion. With the help of projected images, he created the illusion of windows being washed by immigrants. In an attempt to increase people's sensitivity to Others, Wodiczko highlighted the distance between the guests of the biennale and the "guests" of the title - portrayed metaphorically in a video installation.
Warsaw - London
The Museum of Modern Art's exhibition also includes a video project by Mirosław Bałka. This was definitely a good year for him. Next to one-man shows at the Gladstone Gallery in New York, the White Cube in London, and at Modern Art Oxford, he created a special project at the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall. Unveiled in early October, the sculpture How It Is was the tenth in a series of projects sponsored by Unilever. An invitation to the series is considered one of the greatest honours for a living artist, but also a huge challenge. Without a doubt, Bałka's participation can be viewed as a substantial achievement of Polish art in recent years, not only in terms of prestige. In the Turbine Hall's post-industrial space, Bałka built a container 13 metres high, 10 metres wide, and 30 metres long. Raised two metres off the floor, open along one of its shorter sides, it invites visitors inside via a ramp. Inside, darkness lurks. In fact darkness and its multiple meanings is the work's theme.
On the very first day, How It Is was viewed by two thousand people, made it onto the front page of the "Financial Times", and was mentioned by practically all the newspapers in the UK. This was not the only success of Polish art in the British Isles. The Polish season in the UK ("POLSKA! YEAR") was already in progress, attracting public and media attention. For example, when Bałka was opening the exhibition at the Tate Modern, the Barbican Gallery a few steps away was presenting Robert Kuśmirowski's site-specific installation - a World War II bunker built inside the gallery, invoking both the war-time past and the brutalist architecture of the Barbican. (Another event definitely worth noting last year was Kuśmirowski's exhibition at Kraków's Bunkier Sztuki, "Masyw kolekcjonerski" ["The Collector's Massif"].)
Foreign successes also include the presence of Polish artists in New York. Two one-man shows by Artur Żmijewski in that city presented his older (X Initiative) and his more recent works (Museum of Modern Art). In his latest projects, Żmijewski continues his method of workshops with invited guests, familiar from previous films. This year he organized a sculpture workshop at a metallurgical plant, a reference to the famous biennials and symposia of the 1960s, at the same time asking questions about the contemporary working class ("Sculpture Plein-air. Świecie 2009"). The "3 x TAK" ("3 x YES") exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw included Żmijewski's series of films called Demokracje / Democracies whose Polish premiere took place also in 2009 at the Galeria Foksal Foundation (like Libera's film mentioned earlier, this work was acquired for the Tate Modern collection after the Frieze Art Fair). Each of these short documentaries presents some form of mass manifestation of political views in a public space - from a trade-union demonstration, through alterglobalist riots, to a recording from Jörg Haider's funeral.
A spring exhibition entitled "Younger Than Jesus" at New York's New Museum, presenting several dozen artists of the youngest generation from all over the world, featured as many as three artists from Poland - Anna Molska, Jakub Julian Ziółkowski, and Wojciech Bąkowski. The last of these three received particularly positive reviews. Bąkowski was also a prize-winner in Deutsche Bank's prestigious competition called "Spojrzenia" ("Views"), organized at Warsaw's Zachęta gallery, for which he prepared a joint project (Ukończono / Completed) with Molska, who won the second prize as well. This was the least controversial decision of the judges in the competition's history. No wonder Bąkowski's work was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw as well.
Bąkowski is not only a maker of animated films, a musician who co-founded such music projects as Kot and Nivea, but also the informal leader of the Poznań group known as Penerstwo. If any of the younger generation of artists received a serious amount of publicity last year, it was them. They have yet to make it into the leading art institutions, but one-man exhibitions in Poznań, Warsaw and Białystok by artists such as Magdalena Starska, Iza Tarasewicz, Piotr Bosacki and Konrad Smoleński did not go unnoticed. Penerstwo turn to such forgotten concepts as "expression", invoking 1980s art. Actually, the interest of curators and art historians is heading the same way, not just in Poland, so the coming years are likely to bring a stronger interest in that particular decade.
Waiting for Change
To conclude, and on the fringe of strictly artistic events, it is worth mentioning the positive ferment which emerged in the contemporary art community in the last months of the year. Artists, critics, and curators discovered a need for change during the Congress of Polish Culture in Kraków. Due to the dynamic development of contemporary art in recent years, we need to redefine the principles according to which institutions should operate and the standards of collaboration between them and artists, and to get involved in the plans to reform the way culture is financed. This will be the purpose of the newly established Civic Forum for Contemporary Art (OFSW). In Kraków, artists as well as curators and critics opposed the arbitrary appointment of the director of the city's new Museum of Contemporary Art through a political decision. A problem which emerged for Warsaw was the issue of a successor to the director of the Centre for Contemporary Art, Wojciech Krukowski, who is retiring after 20 years in office.
Speaking of standards and hopes for the future, perhaps the most important thing last year was that Dorota Nieznalska was acquitted of having hurt the religious feelings of others. After long years of court proceedings and multiple appeals, the great scandal surrounding her installation entitled Pasja / The Passion was finally resolved. This is probably better news for the arts than any promises of bigger budgets or new museums.
Author: Karol Sienkiewicz, December 2009.