Speaking about exhibitions

Last night I went to a talk – of sorts – at the RCA called ‘Spoken Exhibition’ which represents ‘historic’ and yet unbuilt buildings, unmade works of art and lost music scores in the form of a radio play or, perhaps, a spoken opera. It was performed with a script and minimal props – a pair of glasses and a few sheets of paper – by an ensemble of six. Written by Sebastian Cichocki (curator at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw), Grzegorz Piątek and Jarosław Trybuś (architectural critics and cultural animators from Warsaw who have recently set up the Centrum Architektury Foundation) and Michał Libera (a curator and music theorist), the piece was first published as a special edition of the periodical Format P. Cichocki and Libera introduced the project.

Organised as a series of acts, each reflects on a mythic moment in Polish modernism, largely from the PRL years, to say something about the presence of a ‘missing’, incomplete or concealed building or musical composition. Penderecki’s Psalmus (captured in a 1961 recording in which the trilling bel canto voices of the singers were distorted with filters in the Experimental Studio of Polish Radio) features for instance. It is ‘missing’ because its celebrated composer refuses to allow the world to see  the partitura. The persistence of these objects in the cultural imagination of the country (or perhaps the tightly knit world of the Warsaw intelligentsia) means that they hover, like specters, over the present. In fact, one might say that the curators involved have done much to keep these pasts alive; all four have actively explored the intellectual history of the PRL. This – like most of their work – is less hauntology than archaeology.

The authors tie the project into ideas about the ‘dematerialisation’ of the object which are conventionally used to explain conceptual art (on both sides of the East West divide). This perhaps is a useful pointer to Oskar Hansen’s ideas about architecture’s potential for impermanence. His famous and recently much discussed art museum in Skopje – a building which would expand when filled with art and contract between exhibitions –  opens the performance.

Others spectres gesture to the incompleteness of Polish culture. The ‘Temple of Divine Providence’(Swiatynia Swietej Bozej Opatrznosci) is revived in this spoken exhibition. Pniewski’s late 1930s scheme for a temple to national salvation planned for Warsaw is the entrance into a fantastic drama about the wars between architectural gangs in communist Poland: unpatronised by the cultural commissars, the Black Square gang – left-wing radicals – set about destroying the buildings of their conservative rivals. The story is riddled with reference to historical figures – Kazimierz Malewicz (to give him his Polish name) and Helena Syrkus. The temple was not  C20th project. It was, in fact, initiated by Stanislaw August more than two centuries ago. Following the declaration of a new Constitution in 1791 which had promised to modernise parliament and rid the economy of the vestiges of feudalism, hopes had been high that a renewed, strong Poland would be able to resist the menacing intentions of her neighbours. The Temple of Divine Providence was to be a votive offering in gratitude to God for protecting the country. Of course, events conspired to ensure that Poland was not protected and the temple was not built (though its foundations can still be found in the Botanical Gardens). In the years that followed the Temple was revived on a number of occasions – on the eve of the Second World War and following the collapse of Communist Rule – and yet it seems destined never to be built.

The stop-start-stop character of Polish history – as well as the folds which seem to force the past into the present – were characteristic of the Spoken Exhibition performance. It stuttered to a halt – presumably intentionally. Nevertheless, some of the passages were affecting; sometimes wryly funny (‘I have always gone in for neglected but ‘living’ Polish city suburbs instead of the corpse of Western Europe. To me, the West is one big heap of ruins’ sounds like the opinion of a Stalinist, as Syrkus seems to have been, albeit for a short while), and sometimes dramatic.

On tour, the piece will be performed in Berlin, Brussels, Madrid, Moscow, London and Kiev as well as Warsaw. What one wonders is the difference between a performance at home and one away. For a start, a Warsaw audience would surely be able to identify some, many or all of the characters and the scenes. I spent too much time trying and failing to work out if the sculptural satellites orbiting the earth in the fourth scene were identifiable (‘five large-scale sculptures of steel, brass and titanium’). Too much knowledge would surely turn art into gossip. Moreover, the authors of some of these spectres of them are alive and may well object to the fictionalisation of their lives. Libera told me that Eugeniusz Rudnik, a key figure in electro-acoustic music associated with the pioneering Experimental Studio of Polish Radio, was angered by the words which were put into his mouth. That his irritation stemmed from the improvised nature of the performance is perhaps mildly ironic, given the often indirect role of graphic notation in his acoustic world.

You can download the libretto / text here.


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