Unmonumental monuments

This text appeared in the catalogue for the Steirischer Herbst festival, Graz, 2010

Graz has acquired a rather unmonumental monument. Paulina Ołowska has installed a new, temporary public sculpture above a gas station and café in the city’s centre. An assemblage of neon signs, this monument has been fixed on the towering street light which illuminates the low steel, concrete and glass pavilion on Andreas-Hofer-Platz below. One architectural icon of automotive modernity, a 1965 gas station, has been overwritten with one of the chief scripts of the twentieth century city, neon advertising.

Ołowska’s work not only uses the language of advertising: these neon monuments are actual advertisements, albeit coming from an unlikely setting. These signs were once fixed on the walls of buildings in Warsaw. Testimonies to the material and symbolic economy of Eastern European socialism, ‘Natasza’ once announced the chain of Soviet gift shops which operated across the Eastern Bloc, whilst the bouquet of flowers was the marker of socialist achievement, awarded on high days in the ritual calendar of socialism. The jaunty cow at one time promoted a workers’ café. Together they fuse into an international Esperanto of socialist symbology.

These neon signs originate in ‘moment’ in the late 1950s when elephants climbed the sides of buildings and flowers grew from the glass panes of department stores in Poland. Drawn in neon – an inert gas animated by electricity – these new graphic signs seemed to be irrepressibly alive. Siegfried Kracauer pointed out its tireless energy: ‘Once the images begin to emerge one after another, there is nothing left besides their evanescence.’ In the 1950s, Poland’s modern architects and planners sought to tap this animation to compensate for the deadly monumentalism of the Stalin years. An enchanting antidote to monotony, the new neon signs seemed to open up a bright new future where ordinary human needs and pleasures would be met. They are examples of an obscure and perhaps oxymoronic category, that of ‘socialist advertising’.

Unlike the ephemeral billboard which changes its face with unseemly haste, Poland’s socialist advertising seemed to say, ‘I am here for the long run’. But over the decades that followed, the night-time ecology fell into disrepair in cities across the country. In Warsaw, the illuminated globe above Aleje Jerozolimskie (Jerusalem Avenue) stopped turning and Śródmieście (Downtown) became  ródmieście. After the end of communist rule, Poland’s cities– like much of the former East – were over-written with shiny promises of global consumerism. Massive fabric banners covered the street-side elevations of high-rise buildings and inflatable cartoon brands were parked on downtown roofs. Hidden in plain sight, neon was easily overlooked.

In 2006 working with the Foksal Gallery Foundation, Ołowska arranged for the restoration of one unseen neon landmark in Warsaw, a volleyball player above Constitution Square, a key location in the socialist cityscape. Reanimated through Ołowska’s efforts, she pitches her ball – in perfect consecutive illuminated circles – down to the street below. Restoration is usually a conservative enterprise, too often wrapped in nostalgia. But context counts for much. The restitution of socialist-era neon in Poland is a provocation in a culture which – for the most part – has found it difficult to discover virtue in the communist years. Moreover, it is important to stress that Ołowska returned the volley-ball player to its original setting, the public space of the city square. Being impounded in a museum would have only diminished the presentness of this sign. In Constitution Square, the volley ball player has gathered a public to reflect on the abject condition of utopianism today. Ołowska’s art asks what kind of functions might modernity have in the present?

Ołowska has, in fact, been a brilliant archaeologist of socmodernity (socialist modernity), frequently drawing on major and minor episodes in its history in her paintings and collage works. Interested in images of progress, Ołowska has little concern with progression as succession. Different moments and registers of utopianism are often combined in her work to produce a highly subjective exploration of past visions of the future. Her series ‘Accidental Collages’ (2004) shown across Europe in recent years, for instance, connects Kasimir Malevich’s visual charts used in lectures given in Poland and Germany in 1927, plans and façade drawings for postwar buildings with fashion imagery from the 1960s. Unsettling textures, scales and traces seem to exist side-by-side without one claiming special status or precedence over the others. Adding to this effect, Ołowska herself features in this graphic heterotopia. Michel Serres famously announced ‘the past is not out of date’ pointing to the way in which the past is invariably folded into the present, sometimes percolating into our world in unexpected ways. Ołowska seems to say something similar and perhaps more provocative when she suggests ‘the future is not out of date’. These are, of course, grand themes but Ołowska’s work also contains something else often missing from the fanfares of progress. Neon – with it lightness and warmth – points to humour and pleasure. What place has humour in utopia?

So what are we to make of the arrival of Warsaw’s neons on a gas station in Graz. Remade from original designs and then exhibited, a bouquet of flowers, the ‘Natasza’ Russian dolls and a cow from a Warsaw canteen proudly offering its milk are strange exiles from a world that no longer exists. We know a lot about the arrival of capitalist publicity in the ‘former East’, but what might the appearance of socialist advertising tell us about the ‘former West’? And what is the presentness of her illuminated compatriots in Graz? One possibility will be that – in their charm and naiveté – these neons can trigger misplaced nostalgia, a confabulation of socmodernity with Austrian experience.

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