Blind Walls

PRL-era mural on ul Widok, Warsaw, 2009

I wrote this piece in 2009. The book in which it appears is only available in Poland and so I have blogged the article here:

This Here Now

Socialist advertising. This concept sounds like an oxymoron; an anathema in those countries with leaders who ascribed to creed of Marxist-Leninism. After all, one of its foundational texts – Marx’s Capital – warned against commodity fetishism. When common, everyday things are made into commodities, they are, Marx observed, ‘changed into something transcendent’. Their origins the products of human labour as well as their capacity for use are obscured by the magic of the market. The task for communists was to reverse this alchemy: dreams had to be made real. But, of course, in hindsight we know that the dreamworld of Soviet-style socialism was a catastrophe. Life was characterised by shortage and coercion.

Cover of Dominik Lejman's Best Before

In this world, advertising was not ‘needed’: yet it was desired. In the People’s Republic of Poland (PRL) in the 1970s the concept of ‘socialist advertising’ was warmly embraced. Dancing neon signs, witty posters, magazine ads and, as Domink Lejman’s photographic images record, painted murals on city streets promised the magical transformation of ordinary lives by consumer goods and public services. Factories announced their presence to the world by blowing up likenesses of their products to the scale of monuments. We make this here now was the message. Where did this desire for commodity aesthetics originate? And how might it escape the charge of fetishism?

According to its champions, socialist advertising was to be different. It was to be based on ‘dependability and total trust’ rather than hyperbole and exaggeration. Neon signs and colourful building-scale friezes were to be useful landmarks by which citizens and visitors could navigate a growing city. Fixed and unchanging, they would not encourage the voracious cycle of fashion on which capitalism thrived. By simply announcing a commodity or service (‘We Invite you to Our Shop: Społem’), painted murals on the sides of buildings would disseminate useful information to the people. There was little to distinguish invitations to shop from health campaigns and political slogans.

The mural has a spotless socialist pedigree. Artists designing street decorations according to Lenin’s ‘Plan for Monumental Propaganda’ in Russia after 1917; Los Tres Grandes – Orozco, Rivera, and Siqueiros – making murals under the patronage of President Obregón in Mexico in the 1930s and 1940s; and Allende’s Brigadas Muralistas operating in Chile in the 1960s were all motivated by the idea that the street was inherently a more democratic setting than the gallery. But it is hard to insert the murals produced in Poland during the 1970s into this tradition. Monumentalising a Jubilat wristwatch over four or five storeys or abstracting the trams made in the Konstal works in Chorzów into vivid symphonies of colour was not the same thing as hymning the heroes and martyrs of the Left.

Today Here Now

The explanation for the particular form of these murals was, it seems, to be found much closer to home. Poland in the 1970s – the heyday of the painted mural – was a strange country where the surreal compound of ‘socialist consumerism’ thrived. First Party Secretary Edward Gierek had come to power following rioting over shortages and price hikes in 1970, promising to satisfy the pent-up consumer needs of ordinary Poles. Gierek was more than a hard-headed pragmatist: in 1972 he announced the construction of a ‘Second Poland’ (Druga Polska), a spectacular programme of industrial expansion, grand urban projects and modernization. Poland mortgaged itself to the West in the expectation that it would become an industrial powerhouse selling its products around the world. Society would reap the benefits of this virtuous circle. A new set of government agencies with characteristically high-tech acronyms were established to manage the trade with the West: Agromet dealt with agricultural machinery; Pol-mot with automobiles, and Locum with housing and furniture.

In his hubristic slogan, ‘Second Poland’, Gierek promised a doubling of output, a doubling of wealth and a doubling of social services. The reality was, of course, somewhat different: Poland sucked in imports of Western consumer goods and found few international markets for its brakorobstwo (shoddy products). The label ‘Second Poland’ pointed – inadvertently – to the phantasmagoric aspect of a ‘new’ Poland made in the image of Western modernity. Many of the painted murals applied to the façades of buildings in Poland’s cities represented less a new material world, than a fetish of Western progress. Op-art, International Style corporate logos and, occasionally, the flattened aesthetic of Pop Art lent chic associations to a drab environment. By the 1970s modern art in Poland had long entered into a technocratic state where aesthetic freedoms (like the ‘right’ to paint abstract canvases) had been acquired in exchange for silence on political questions. These anonymous murals represented the complete incorporation of modernist aesthetics into Gierek’s project.

In 1972 Gierek sought to speed up Poland. In insisting on the new, most of the spectacular city murals produced under his regime asserted what philosopher Henri Bergson called ‘spatialised time’ (i.e., a clearly demarcated succession of states). They announced – in public – an ideological partition of past and present. The interests of the present were paramount. The long-standing communist rhetoric of investment (‘work hard today and reap the benefits tomorrow’) was exchanged for one of immediate rewards (‘consume’). But, by the end of the 1970s, Poland had ground to a halt: the country was bankrupt, deeply indebted to the West. Workers fought state forces in 1976 over the price of basic foodstuffs. The murals capture not only the hollow promises on which the illusion of a ‘Second Poland’ had been built, but also – in their permanent, unchanging form – the inertia which was penetrating into the country. Prestigious buildings fell into disrepair, products like Polski FIAT cars which were much vaunted at the time of their launch were not updated or improved, and the first generation of friezes began their slow process of ruination.

Yesterday Here Now

Today, the decay of these murals points to a second Bergsonian concept, that of the ‘durée’ or duration. This, in his thinking, is indivisible time that flows and accumulates in relation to human experience. The cracks and chips which have accrued on the surfaces of these murals as well as their faded colouring (in some instances renewed by Lejman) mark the time which has elapsed since their creation. At the same time, the very fixity of these images to the walls on which they cling allows the passer-by to better recognize the distance between now and then.

Patination is not the only measure of duration in these PRL-era murals. Many appear on the ends of buildings known in Polish as ‘ślepa ściana’ (blind walls) rather than on the more prestigious street-side elevations. And Lejman’s ‘cut-out’ technique emphasises the profile of the walls on which such schemes were painted. The silhouette of a building with a pitched roof-line and a stubby chimney is a kind of archetype which is readily conjured up from the collective unconscious. In fairytales, children’s drawings and cartoons, this simple form usually carries benign associations with home. But in the setting of the Polish city, this form has darker associations with destruction. ‘Ślepa ściana’ often mark abrupt conclusions to the street and are situated adjacent to empty plots. Incompleteness here not only marks the faltering steps of Gierek’s modernisation project: in some instances, it measures violence.

PRL-era mural on ul Widok, Warsaw, 2009

After being bombed at the outbreak of the Second World War, Warsaw’s centre was – for instance – systematically destroyed in retribution for the uprisings in the city in 1943 and 1944. Even today, the capital still has many voids in the cityscape, accompanied by ‘blind walls’, where the building line seems interrupted or squares seem incomplete. At some time after 1975, for instance, a mural promoting the Toto-lotek, the state lottery, was painted on the side of one of the few pre-war buildings on ulica Widok. It is the only vista left in ‘View Street’ which was ‘closed’ by a massive Socialist Realist tenement in the early 1950s. The blind wall looks down on an empty plot fringed with grass and the debris of modern life. The low building which once occupied this now-vacant site witnessed Gestapo executions and anti-Nazi insurgency: it was destroyed by German forces in 1944, like much of the rest of the city. Such surviving blind walls record losses in ways that could never be completely over-written by the abstract art and upbeat slogans of the Gierek-era.

Whilst blind walls and flaking murals may testify to older political orders, a more flexible and aggressive system of over-writing now represents the interests at work in the Polish city today, that of commercial advertising. Capitalism renews its presence in the urban landscape, like a tomcat marking its territory. The practice of decorating buildings with monumental advertisements and slogans has not disappeared with the end of communist rule. Advertisers in Poland seem to be addicted to ‘building wraps’, i.e. mammoth fabric advertisements covering entire buildings. Entire façades of hotels, high-rise blocks and even historic buildings are cloaked in massive fabric screens promoting Coca-cola or ice cream. Behind these temporary and changing surfaces, many of the communist-era structures continue, of course, to yield slowly to the processes of time.

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