Sacrifice, Madness, Ruins and Other Polish Dreams

This essay was written for the catalogue accompanying The Power of Fantasy. Modern and Contemporary Art from Poland at BOZAR in Brussels, summer 2011.


The Spirit that Outlasts Matter

Jakub Ziółkowski, The Great Battle under the Table (Wielka bitwa pod stołem, 2006)

On first inspection, Jakub Ziółkowski’s painting The Great Battle under the Table (Wielka bitwa pod stołem, 2006) combines the heroic and the domestic. The combatants seem to have rejected the table top which might have provided an orderly setting for a war game with toy guns, bright flags and lead cannons. They parachute in from the window to occupy the entire landscape below. Perspective – a formal and a metaphorical device in the history of art – disappears in the maelstrom below the table. With thousands of combatants, the canvas becomes an undulating ground. One’s eyes begin to settle on violent and often bizarre details: soldiers battling monsters and drowning in vodka; bugs carrying the coffins of the dead and engaging in grotesque acts of cruelty that recall scenes in the art of Hieronymus Bosch and Bronisław Linke. The ‘Great Battle’ is evidently being conducted in the mind. (And Ziółkowski, in fact, features at the foot of the canvas, sitting at an easel and painting the scene). Obsessive and hallucinogenic, this painting invites a psychological interpretation. Where do these monsters and warriors originate from? Who or what compels their murderous actions? And why does the death of so many count for so little? The answers to these questions are not necessarily ones which identify a mind, or at least the mind of the artist. They can perhaps be answered only by understanding the deep investment which has been made in heroism, death and madness in Polish culture.

Despite its monsters and fantastic setting, The Great Battle under the Table is a history painting. The presence of Napoleon Bonaparte standing on a chair – right hand thrust into his vest, left hand gesturing to the viewer – is, perhaps, a signpost to a Polish past. In his attempt to command Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Empereur exploited Polish desires for independence from the three powers which had divided the country in the late eighteenth century. Poles fought in his campaigns in Italy in 1797–98; they joined in the suppression of Toussaint Louverture’s rebellion in Haiti (with many deserting to join the black cause) in 1802; and they played a part in the defeat of Prussia in 1806 and then in the disastrous assault on Russia in the winter of 1812. Even if Napoleon cynically exploited Polish hopes, his campaigns provided images of ‘national’ heroism and military valour that were recycled by patriotic Romantics in subsequent decades.

detail of ‘The Great Battle under the Table’

With Napoleon directing his forces in the ‘Great Battle’, it is not hard to see Ziółkowski’s painting as an atlas of Polish fantasies and nightmares. Napoleonic troops battle with armed monsters as well as skeletons and skulls – spirits of voodoo, the religion which had been adopted by the Haitian rebels in 1791. History swirls in the chaos of battle: one cavalryman carries a standard bearing the wings associated with the Hussars of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; another’s flag is inscribed with ’44, the year of the tragic Warsaw Uprising against Nazi occupation. Yet The Great Battle under the Table eschews any of the conventional cues used to mark heroism in the tumult of the battle, the bloody elation of victory or, equally, the disaster of defeat. The minute scale of the protagonists, slashing and firing relentlessly at each other, and the seemingly boundless nature of the battleground point to a kind of excess of destructive energy.

Joanna Mytkowska has identified something similar in tracing a ‘Sarmatian’ humour in Ziółkowski’s paintings. Of the aristocratic culture that flourished in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, she writes: ‘There, forms of poetry and ornament, of religiosity and eschatology created by the Polish nobility … were marked by a drastic lack of equilibrium and a truly Baroque sumptuousness, along with a sense of the vanity of mundane material life and great spiritual tension. There, death and decay enjoyed a special position. They were celebrated as a visible sign of the predominance of spirit that outlasts matter.’[1]

Reburial of Mickiewicz’s remains in Kraków in 1890

The idea that death can be a kind of spirit motivating the present has been a persistent feature in the stories that Poles have told themselves about their nation. Baroque martial rituals associated with Sarmatism were braided with martyrological myths as the Poles resisted their condition as unwilling subjects of foreign empires in the nineteenth century. The failure of the November Uprising in 1830 and the January Uprising of 1863 resulted in a black catalogue of death, executions, deportations and exile. Yet, in the Romantic imagination, these disasters were evidence of the virtue of the national cause. The cult of the nation was expressed through corpses. The bodies of exiled soldier-poets after their death in exile were returned home to remind patriotic Poles of the importance of sacrifice. Organised as grand pompes funèbres, many thousands took to the streets to form ‘national’ cortèges. Adam Mickiewicz’s remains were buried twice; once in Paris in 1855 and then again in at Wawel Cathedral in Kraków in 1890 (an event which was designed to seal his immortality[2]). The body of his literary rival, Juliusz Słowacki, was repatriated in 1927, seventy-eight years after his death, and reburied in the same crypt.

Twentieth-century tragedies – the destruction of Warsaw in three terrifying assaults in 1939, 1943 and 1944; the massacre of almost 22,000 members of the Polish officer corps by the Soviet secret police in the Katyn forest in Russia in 1940; the brutality of Stalinism in the early 1950s; and the imposition of martial law and the suppression of the Solidarity trade union in 1981 – have also been viewed through a Romantic lens. These crimes, it was claimed, were again evidence of Poland’s status as a martyr nation. Moreover, when, after 1945, these events were written out of history or distorted to accord with the Kremlin’s model of history, graveyards and monuments were adopted – temporarily – as free sites of ‘national’ remembrance. The entire mythical apparatus of Polish Romanticism was restarted in April 2010 when the Polish president, Lech Kaczyński, and many other prominent figures in Polish society died in a plane crash on a visit to Katyn to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the massacre. Spontaneous monuments, street masses and a state funeral at Wawel Cathedral formed a large, very visible and not uncontroversial part of the reaction.

Even those who drew a sharply critical line on national myth-making, such as the artist, dramatist and philosopher Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (aka Witkacy), have not been exempt from this funereal cult. He took his own life in September 1939 on learning of the Red Army’s advance on Poland. In 1988, his coffin was removed from a cemetery in Ukraine where he had been buried. Draped in national colours, it was reinstalled in his mother’s tomb in Zakopane. Some years later, tests demonstrated that the body inside belonged to an unknown Ukrainian woman. This turn of events seemed strangely fitting for a figure who had rejected the patriotic mentalité of his compatriots (identifying ‘perpetual discontent and perpetual self-inflation’ as the ‘basic psychic trait[s] of almost every Pole’).[3] In Daniel Gerould’s words, ‘All true admirers of Witkacy rejoiced that the playwright – famous for his “risen corpses” – had succeeded in evading the authorities once again.’[4]

Kuśmirowski’s DOM installed in BOZAR, 2011

In 2004, Robert Kuśmirowski recreated part of a cemetery from Końskowola, a small town in south-eastern Poland, in the Foksal Gallery Foundation in Warsaw. In the all too ordinary manner of most Polish towns, Końskowola has had a share of the violence and repression which has been brought to Poland by her neighbours. Annexed by Austria in the 1790s, it became Russian territory after the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and was the site of a Nazi slave labour camp and ghetto during the Second World War. Kuśmirowski’s installation presented, at least from one perspective, the perfect facsimile of a nineteenth-century graveyard containing the graves of the communities who have lived and, of course, died in the town. Titled D.O.M., an acronym for a Roman dedication to Jupiter, Deo Optimo Maximo (‘The Greatest and Best God’), and a familiar inscription on church doorways, the letters also spell ‘house’ or ‘home’ in Polish. In this way, the installation offers a melancholic view of the homeland, of Poland.

Kuśmirowski is a master of illusion, as this and his other reconstructions demonstrate. They include a subterranean bunker in London (at the Barbican Art Gallery, 2009); the Unabomber’s cabin (Unacabin, 2008), from which Ted Kaczynski planned his campaign of terror against universities and airlines in the USA between the mid-1970s and mid-1990s, and the kind of railway wagon used by the Third Reich to transport its victims to Auschwitz-Birkenau (Wagon, 2006). These artefacts are not as authentic or as historic as they seem on first inspection. Walking through the bunker, the viewer can inspect the trompe l’oeil techniques used to transform plaster into stone or MDF into concrete. Similarly, the D.O.M. installation’s graves and cemetery walls, for instance, have been fashioned from card and styroboard. The rough stonework and weathered bricks look incongruous and strangely out of time in the neutral white cubes where ‘D.O.M.’ has been exhibited. Like a melancholic artwork allied to the genre of vanitas painting (a genre which owes its name to the Latin word for ‘emptiness’), Kuśmirowski’s graves and tombstones are literally hollow.

Warsaw Uprising Museum

With its singular aspect and illusionary form, Kuśmirowski’s cemetery is more like a set in a theatre than a historical monument. The drama taking place on his stage is not, however, identified. Rather, such works testify to the artist’s interest in casting history into the present. His work often creates unexpected folds in time. ‘Despite its Baroque headstones and dusty inscriptions, Kuśmirowski’s necropolis was highly topical at the time of its making. The status of the dead was placed centre-stage by the rise of right-wing politicians, mostly associated with the PiS (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość / Law and Justice Party), in the early years of the twenty-first century. In their march on power, the late president Lech Kaczyński, who led the party with his twin brother, Jarosław Kaczyński, the prime minister until 2007, presented themselves as defenders of the nation, both living and dead, and of historical memory. As mayor of Warsaw in the early 2000s, Lech Kaczyński was, for instance, the driving force behind the creation of the Warsaw Uprising Museum. This new institution opened its doors to the public in July 2004, three months before Kuśmirowski’s D.O.M. was exhibited in the city. It uses a panoply of affective, immersive and interactive techniques to produce ‘prosthetic memory’, that is to say, ‘memories of a past through which they [visitors] did not live’.[5] Visitors experience a spectacular and supercharged experience of Warsaw in the grip of the Second World War. The route through the museum is presented as a vertiginous free fall through history to enter the cosmos of martyrs and saints, the men and women who fought and died in 1944 to save the city. Amplified sounds of beating hearts, marching boots and gunfire ring through galleries; visitors can pass through a 25-metre-long sewer, like an insurgent during the Uprising. The shallow graves of insurgents are set into glass floors.

Despite its considerable popularity, the Warsaw Uprising Museum is not uncontroversial. A writer in Rzeczpospolita, a national daily newspaper, described it as a ‘bridgehead’ for its founders – members of PiS – to step into public offices.[6] It is not hard to see it as an instrument of foreign policy.[7] The Warsaw Uprising Museum’s exhibits are highly emotional, pointing, of course, to the violence done to the city by Poland’s neighbours. Writing of the politics of memory in Poland in recent years, Maciej Górny has noted that one of the right’s ‘popular arguments … is that the current renationalisation of German historical memory needs to be countered by the united front of Polish society’.[8] In 2007, Jarosław Kaczyński invoked the violence of the Second World War to antagonise Poland’s partners in the EU, claiming superior voting rights by counting the nation’s war dead.[9] Graves – whether marked or unmarked – were turned into instruments of thanatopolitics.

Holy Madness

Olaf Brzeski’s Sen-samozaplon, 2008

Olaf Brzeski – an artist and film-maker from Wroclaw – approaches death in rather different terms. [4:4] In his sculpture Dream – Automatic-Combustion (Sen – samozapłon, 2008), a figure seems to have turned into a dark cloud of thick, billowing smoke. All that is left of this unidentified person are some charred remains on the ground. This work is the most spectacular in a series of objects produced by the young artist which connect destruction and deformation with creativity. Spontaneous human combustion has long occupied the popular imagination as a freak incident or perhaps even as a kind of act of divine justice. Brzeski has described it as being both a feared and a desired event. Dream – Automatic Combustion is, he says, ‘the image of a person who is peacefully dreaming yet simultaneously combusting or (perhaps) is already burned.’[10] Peace in a moment of violence perhaps best describes the suicide bomber than the unprepared casualty of a freak event. After all, the suicide bomber imagines his actions as a catalyst for the liberation of his or her compatriots and as a claim on immortality or what Jean Baudrillard calls ‘a death which is symbolic and sacrificial – that is to say, the absolute, irrevocable event’.[11]

Ignacy Hryniewiecki

The suicide bomber has a place in Polish history. In 1881, Alexander II was killed in St Petersburg by a bomb. It was detonated at close quarters by Ignacy Hryniewiecki, a Pole who also died in the attack. Assassination had been meant to be an act which would ignite revolution. Hryniewiecki, a Nihilist who was probably aggrieved by the deterritorialised status of his nation as well as by the brutality of imperial rule, subscribed to the belief that an immoral act could be justified if it brought happiness for the majority. On the eve of the assassination, the revolutionary had written, ‘I shall not live one day, one hour in the bright season of our triumph …’[12]

Fiction often anticipates history. Hryniewiecki’s actions were prefigured in Polish literature, albeit in more patriotic terms. In Kordian, Juliusz Słowacki’s 1834 verse drama, the central character dedicates his life to the mission of assassinating Tsar Nicolas I. Written in the aftermath of the failed November Uprising of 1830–31 by Poles against their Russian rulers, Słowacki’s work is a study in the psychology of the patriotic and revolutionary mind. Set months before the Uprising, Kordian is a hero cast in the mould of the insurgent. Yet he is afflicted with existential doubts that do not seem to plague his fellow conspirators. Presented with an opportunity to fulfill his revolutionary mission when the Tsar comes to Warsaw to be crowned King of Poland, Kordian fails to act, disturbed by the violence that freedom seems to require of him. He is captured in the Tsar’s chambers, staring at the face of the sleeping tyrant. Unable to conceive regicide as the action of a rational mind, the Tsar orders that Kordian be taken to a lunatic asylum with the words ‘Find out if this soldier is insane…. If not, shoot him.’ If sanity means death, then – like the circular logic of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 – madness must mean life.

Kordian is one of a large cast of historic and fictional figures in Polish culture and history in whom irrationality and even madness seem to connect with the fate of the nation. Long after Romanticism slipped into its backstage role in Polish culture, national heroes have been revered for their irrational actions. Some have been mythologised for fighting for the nation despite certain disaster. The Warsaw Uprising of the summer of 1944, for example, has often been celebrated as an act of selfless bravery. For ‘realists’, however, the leadership of the Uprising willfully ignored the actual circumstances of the moment and sacrificed many thousands of lives and the Polish capital itself. Such acts of ‘patriotic madness’ – altruistic deeds which ignore the costs or even their likely outcome – continue to be deeply cherished. To commemorate the sixty-fifth anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising on 1 August 2009, for instance, wartime sirens sounded at 5 p.m. (‘W’ hour, or wybuch(outbreak)), bringing the entire city to a halt. Over the course of the anniversary weekend, numerous speeches were given, not least by the veterans of ’44.

All Souls Night at Powązki Cemetery, Warsaw

Crowds were drawn to the graves of the insurgents in the city’s Powązki Cemetery, laying wreaths and lighting candles to create spectacular carpets of flickering light. Other acts of commemoration drew on the emotional effects of re-enactment: young people were, for instance, taught how to dismantle a Sten gun and make ‘underground’ radio broadcasts.

Even those driven insane by the misfortunes and failures of the nation could be understood as yet another incarnation of the mad patriot. Maria Janion, an authority on Polish Romanticism, describes the main character in Jerzy Krzysztoń’s Obłęd (Madness, 1980), a novel set in 1970–71 (a period of considerable anti-communist tension) and based on the author’s own mental breakdown, as the ‘successor of a society in which the perception of historical greatness is intertwined with the despair caused by a mean present.’[13] In other words, there was reason for his madness.

Janion’s interest in the social dimensions of madness developed during the 1970s as her opposition to the communist authorities became more explicit. She championed many of the ideas of the anti-psychiatry movement, publishing essays by writers like R.D. Laing and Michel Foucault in Transgresje, an occasional journal which she edited with Stanisław Rosiek between 1981 and 1988.[14] Famously, Foucault argued in Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique (1961)that ‘madness’ in others was a construct of science and culture and ultimately signified little more than the moral presuppositions of the observer. Confronted by the rise of reason, madness became in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the justification for systems of incarceration and control. One conclusion to be drawn is that madness, or what Foucault calls ‘déraison’, defies the logic of reason: it can be a form of resistance to order. Controversially, Laing, an ally of Foucault, saw psychopathologies as being socially produced, typically in settings like the home, where identities are formed. That some people respond to their social context with ‘schizophrenic’ behaviour is ‘intelligible’.[15]

Grotowski’s Kordian, early 1960s (Grotowski Archive)

Jerzy Grotowski suggested something similar when his Laboratory Theatre of 13 Rows (Teatr Laboratorium 13 Rzędów) produced a new version of Słowacki’s Kordian in Opole in February 1962. This proto-psychological study of the hero was reinterpreted as a study of human behaviour. Altering and abridging the original drama to focus on one scene, he turned the entire theatre into an asylum. Breaking the divide between stage and auditorium, the audience joined the performers by sitting on the steel-framed beds. They were bullied by a white-suited doctor wielding a cane, and forced to hum along with the actor/patients. In the performance, this evil physician transmutes, first becoming the Pope, then the Tsar and finally an old sailor as the audience shares Kordian’s hallucinations. As Grotowski put it in 1963, ‘The role of psychiatric patients is thrust on every member of the audience, not just the actors…. The actions of Kordian become the collective hallucinations of all the people who are ill.’[16]

Collective Hallucinations

Grotowski was not alone in his diagnosis of Poland and Polish Romanticism. The idea that madness could be shared or even that it could be a form of resistance was boosted by the excessive claims made for the ‘rational’ and ‘humanist’ force of socialist progress in Poland after 1945. Critics of the official ideology frequently drew attention to the absurd and irrational qualities of life in what was claimed to be the most free, most democratic and most advanced social system known to man: Soviet-style socialism. The ‘unreality’ of life in the People’s Republic of Poland sustained a steady stream of poetry, literature and philosophy.

The earliest opportunity for this kind of critical self-diagnosis came in the years after the death of Stalin – known as the Thaw – when Polish culture tested the limits of freedom being extended by his successors and commented on the nightmare of the first post-war decade. These years saw the emergence of the Theatre of the Absurd, in part under the impact of dramatists like Samuel Beckett whose Waiting for Godot played in Warsaw in 1956 and offered a powerful commentary on the bare conditions of life in a brutal world. Plays and short stories by Polish writers like Sławomir Mrożek and, a little later, Tadeusz Różewicz provided powerful images of the individual caught in the cogwheels of power.

 During the Thaw, surrealist and absurd themes were also adopted by film-makers and animators, including Roman Polański, Jan Lenica and Walerian Borowczyk.[17]

Linke’s Autobus, 1959-61

At the same historical ‘moment’, Bronisław Linke, an expressionist painter who had developed a distinctly grotesque visual language before the Second World War, represented post-war Polish society as broken, deranged and spectral passengers on a roofless bus travelling through a nightmarish landscape (Bus / Autobus, 1959–61). Long before Ziółkowski, Linke, too, imagined Poland as being populated by dictators (in this case Stalin), soldiers making obscene gestures, vodka bottles (dressed in traditional folk dress), emaciated victims and human-sized monsters. Although clearly addressing the deep trauma of the Second World War and the new anxieties produced by the Cold War stand-off, Linke’s idiosyncratic and largely pessimistic vision was at odds with the fundamentally optimistic and ‘progressive’ culture being trumpeted by Polish socialists. What kind of new society could be made by such broken souls? On their journey into the future, what fate will befall these people?

Akademia Ruchu’s Autobus, 1973

Linke’s ‘Bus’ was given a second outing when it was ‘adapted’ by Akademia Ruchu (Academy of Movement), a group which had formed as a student theatre group in Warsaw in 1973. The actors were organised as if sitting on bus, viewed by the audience in profile. Most were motionless. One passenger contorted her body slowly and silently in a repeated series of gestures, as if wracked by waves of pain. This largely static scene was accompanied by a tape recording of the sounds of factories, television and radio news broadcasts and the hubbub of a demonstration. These sounds updated Linke’s nightmare landscape. With the volume uncomfortably loud, the atmosphere became increasingly tense until, suddenly and unexpectedly, the director Wojciech Krukowski flicked off the sound and the lights. No catharsis, no narrative; the performance was over.

‘Bus’ (‘Autobus’) was one of the first in a series of happenings and public spectacles organised by Akademia Ruchu in the 1970s and 1980s. Always on the fringes of official culture, the company developed the theme of irrationalism into a critique of power. In the late 1970s, the group gave up the stage to perform in the streets.

Akademia Ruchu’s Queue, 1976

In Queue (Kolejka, 1976), for instance, Akademia Ruchu organised itself as a queue coming out of rather than entering a store. Twenty or so people formed a patient line in front of a butcher’s shop, encouraging passers-by to join its head. At a time when Poland was being characterised as a socialist consumer paradise by the communist authorities, queues and shortages were real features of everyday life. Later that year, Akademia Ruchu arranged a ‘happening’ with the English title, Happy Day, in the centre of Warsaw. Some forty associates of the company suddenly appeared on Krakowskie Przedmieście, a main thoroughfare, dressed in bright costumes and carrying bunches of flowers with fruit and sausages piled high on platters. Vivaldi’s Spring Concerto issued loudly from speakers in the windows of buildings nearby. Lasting just three minutes, the fairy tale ended as unexpectedly as it had begun. The illusions of colourful bounty melted into the grey city. These ‘disturbances into everyday reality’, as Akademia Ruchu director Krukowski put it, were designed to point out the hypocrisy of official images of life in the People’s Republic of Poland.[18] Viewed as street theatre, these acts of queuing for nothing or temporary images of abundance were fantastic and even surreal. In life, they were all too real.

Witkacy portraits on display in BOZAR, summer 2011

A strong and steady interest in absurdity fuelled Polish theatre, cinema and performance from the late 1950s to the end of the period of communist rule. This is the context for the rediscovery of the work of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (alongside others, including the writer Witold Gombrowicz). Although a well-known playwright, philosopher and artist in his lifetime, Witkiewicz moved into the heart of intellectual life in Poland after his death. A complex and contradictory figure, Witkiewicz revelled in the idea of the uniqueness of existence as well as the mutability of personality, adopting numerous aliases/personas, undergoing psychoanalysis, experimenting with narcotics and performing numerous characters for the camera. Mostly photographed by others but composed and titled by Witkiewicz, these images form a wide social panorama: including a hooligan, Napoleon, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Adolf Hitler, a dandy, a vampire, a Chinaman and an English aristocrat (titled The Best Smile of Lord Fitzpur at the Southampton Regatta / Najlepszy uśmiech lorda Fitzpur na regatach w Southampton), a priest, a drug addict and the Polish Marshal Józef Piłsudski, amongst many others. Urszula Czartoryska has compared the production of these images to the ‘actions which schizophrenics carry out unwittingly but with a certain amount of camouflage and cunning’.[19] The condition of schizophrenia, it must be stressed, was viewed by Witkiewicz – in the Romantic manner – in positive terms as a kind of inflamed creativity. In fact, his play The Madman and the Nun (Wariat i zakonnica, 1923), set entirely in a ‘cell for raving maniacs’ in a lunatic asylum, features the figure of the psychiatrist, Dr Ephraim Grün, the prophet of new science promising happiness and emotional stability. In the play, psychiatry is represented, according to one critic, ‘as being akin to the grey forces of the levelling social revolution.’[20] When Soviet-style socialism promised something similar, it is not surprising that Witkiewicz’s buffoonery as well as his fatalistic view of civilisation found such keen admirers.

Becoming Normal

In the 1990s, Polish commentators liked to talk about the ways in which life was becoming ‘normal’. Normality meant the rapid development of a market economy and consumerism; the operation of free elections contested by a range of political parties; membership of NATO (1999) and then the European Union (2004); and freedom of expression and faith. These conditions cemented the country’s position in ‘The West’. It also meant an opportunity to establish ‘normal’ relations with the past: historic events which had been repressed or distorted before 1989. The Katyn massacre and violence by Poles to their Jewish neighbours during the Second World War become the subjects of considerable and often frank discussion in the popular and specialist press. Poland, it seems, has thrown off its disordered condition. Yet many young artists who have come of age since the 1990s continue, like the generations before them, to display an interest in exploring what they regard as its psychopathologies. Kuśmirowski, Ziółkowski and Brzeski are not alone in this regard. Many of the most significant artists of the last two decades have taken psychosis and aggression as themes for art. What are the functions of madness and violence – albeit expressed as art – in the brave new post-communist world?

The new century has seen the rise to prominence of intellectuals who take a sharply critical line on life in the ‘new’ Poland. Normality or ‘conformity’ is, in the view of the radical left, a mask which obscures the commodification of all resources as well as the wholesale privitisation of public space. It has licensed xenophobia and conservative moral politics, forging a pernicious integration of the state and the Catholic Church. For a short period until 2007, the coalition government offered far right-wing politicians a prominent platform. They mounted a campaign against homosexuality and attempted to control what is read in Polish schools, casting the most fantastic works in the Polish literary canon as a threat to ‘normal’ values. Artur Żmijewski has been amongst the most vocal critics of the rise of such neoconservative views in Poland in recent years. A film-maker, designer and more recently the curator of the Berlin Biennale (2012), he works closely with Krytyka Polityczna, a journal established in 2002 to reanimate the tradition of political engagement which has characterised the Polish intelligentsia for more than a century. In 2007, the journal published his essay ‘Stosowane sztuki społeczne’ (‘Applied Social Arts’).[21] In it, Żmijewski attacked the ‘fantasy’ of autonomous, apolitical art (‘as neutral as Switzerland’) as well as the commodification of critique. Objecting to what Jacques Rancière has called the ‘the annulment of dissensus’, Żmijewski sets out to produce images which generate disagreement.[22] Dispute – or what has sometimes been called agonistic pluralism – can, he believes, improve the conditions of Polish democracy.

Żmijewski has developed a method for the production of works (he objects to the word ‘art’) since the late 1990s. Typically, a group of people are put into a situation that involves heightened emotion, trauma or stress. He then records their interaction or responses. The results can be humorous or disquieting and sometimes both. In ‘Singing Lesson’ (2001), Żmijewski gathered a group of deaf people under the command of a conductor to sing Jan Maklakiewicz’s ‘Polish Mass’ in the Holy Trinity Church in Warsaw. The result is cacophony. In 80064 (2004), Żmijewski paid a ninety-two-year-old survivor of Auschwitz, Józef Tarnawa, to have the tattoo which records his camp number retouched by a tattooist. The film captures Żmijewski’s ultimately successful attempts to convince Tarnawa to go ahead. These films test the moral or intellectual framework of the viewer. In fact, commentators often report their discomfort as viewers. Self-consciously artless, Żmijewski’s technique emphasises the reality of the situation in which these people have been placed. In fact, Żmijewski eschews fantasy as part of art’s mythology:

Society sees artists as shamans, demiurges, flamboyant, slightly mad personalities, as morbid and consumed by a fever caused by some chronic malady. That’s a fantasy generated by society, of course. And it’s that fantasy which keeps society from having any real encounter with art. But it also stops artists from assuming genuine responsibility for their actions.[23]

In Game of Tag (Berek, 1999), Żmijewski asked a group of naked men and women of various ages to perform this playgound game. Coming to terms with their embarrassment, they play tag with growing vigour, laughing as they dart around the two spaces. Only at the end is the viewer informed that this game has been played in a cold and dank Warsaw basement and in the former gas chamber of a Nazi extermination camp. The yellow-green stains on the wall are traces of Zyklon B. The setting and the indignity of the participants point to malevolence and yet the game and the laughter are innocent. Berek is shocking in its ‘tactical’ irresponsibility. Żmijewski casts this work in therapeutic terms: ‘This resembles a clinical situation in psychotherapy. You return to the traumas that brought about your complex.’[24]

‘Resembling’ psychotherapy is, of course, not the same thing practicing it. Despite his insistence on ‘real encounters’, art affords Żmijewski freedoms which would not be enjoyed by the analyst or therapist. This distinction was part of Żmijewski’s logic for recreating Professor Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971. Forty years ago, the psychologist established his project to answer the question, what might an evil environment do to good people? Zimbardo employed volunteers to undertake the roles of prisoners and guards in a facsimile of a penal institution in the basement of Stanford University’s psychology building, largely cut off from the rest of the world. Would these men identify with the roles given randomly to them? Perhaps order might break down if, for instance, the participants were to befriend each other. Within a disturbingly short period, the experiment seemed to provide evidence of the terrible capacity of ordinary people to do evil. All that seemed to be necessary was a uniform and the backing of the state. Originally scheduled for more than three weeks, Zimbardo abandoned the experiment within six days because of levels of sadism shown by the guards and the evident trauma of the prisoners.

Żmijewski’s Repetition, 2005

In 2005, Żmijewski set out to recreate this experiment without the ethical limits that are laid on psychological tests today. The film recording the project is titled Repetition (Powtórzenie, 2005). Like the Stanford experiment (and the ‘reality’ television programmes which have appeared on television in the intervening years), Żmijewski’s project took place in a facsimile of a prison fashioned from MDF and chipboard. He paid participants selected on the basis of their ‘normality’ (all unemployed and older than Zimbardo’s student participants). True to form, the guards become increasingly domineering and brutal, shaving the heads of the confined and putting ‘disobedient’ prisoners in solitary confinement. And, like its precursor, Żmijewski’s project collapsed after a few days with the game becoming all too real. This time the subjects of the experiment brought it to an end, concerned about the how situation was altering their own behaviour.

Żmijewski has described the experiment as an investigation into universal themes. Yet it is hard not to find echoes of the Polish past and present in the project. Writing of one ‘prisoner’ who seems to ‘shift effortlessly between forms of extreme obedience and obscene gestures of adolescent revolt’, Jan Verwoert has written that the ‘most unsettling aspect of his conduct is that it seems far too instinctual to be improvised. You sense that he’s intuitively falling back on a set of tactics for coping under authoritarian rule that were already internalized into his body earlier on. Witnessing his behaviour prompts the uneasy question: do people ever change when their bodies never seem to forget?’[25] When approached in more literary or dramatic terms, Repetition reverberates with echoes of other asylums and psychiatrists in Polish culture. They include Słowacki’s doctor who weighs Kordian’s sanity against acts of violence and the ultra-rational Dr Grün, who runs the madhouse in Witkiewicz’s The Madman and the Nun, who is attacked by his own attendants who declare ‘We are the madmen now.’[26]Żmijewski’s purpose was not, of course, to reflect on rebellion but on ‘obedience’.

Witkiewicz’s Wariat i zakonnica / Madman and the Nun, performed in the Small Theatre, in Warsaw 1926

Violent Ends

In 2010, Zbigniew Libera – a slightly older artist than most discussed in this essay (whose early career as an artist was curtailed by a spell in prison in 1982–83 for producing and distributing leaflets criticising the state and promoting Solidarity) – produced an image which seems to be closely connected to the Polish capacity to imagine disaster. A large photographic installation, The Exodus of People from the City (Wyjście ludzi z miast, 2010), depicts a suburban scene of considerable devastation. Adults and children have fled the city on foot carrying little more than their meagre possessions. Some are carrying guns. Behind them, a Red Cross helicopter has landed. Libera’s image evokes a tragic and familiar Polish experience: displacement. At the end of the Second World War, Poland was effectively a crossroads for millions of displaced people heading East or West. The scale and semicircular form of this work also recalls late nineteenth-century panoramas which created their virtual effects by placing the viewer in the centre of the action. The most famous Polish example is the Racławice Panorama, a 360-degree environment depicting a military victory in the ultimately tragic Kościuszko Uprising of 1794. Made to mark the centenary of this event, the panorama articulates the romantic view of patriotic sacrifice.

Libera’s Exodus of the People from the City near a canvas by Wroblewski at BOZAR, summer 2011

The reason for the exodus is not clear. Libera himself acknowledges that ‘today we no longer expect war’.[27] But perhaps some cues are given in the commercial ornaments which decorate this suburban landscape. Advertising hoardings, shopping trolleys and the other accoutrements of modern consumerism stand near burnt-out cars, destroyed furniture, computers and other consumer goods. Perhaps the disaster is the product of the less explosive but ultimately more destructive effects of global warming brought on by consumer modernity. The Exodus of People from the City seems to bear out Frederic Jameson’s famous observation, ‘Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. We can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world.’[28] Organised as a panorama, Libera’s artwork seems rather like a disaster movie shot in Vistavision or Cinemascope. In fact, Libera was stimulated to make the piece after reading Doris Lessing’s 1974 Memoirs of Survivor, a novel in the survivalist genre popular in the 1970s which was later made into a film. Here, disaster is experienced as something like entertainment.

Katarzyna Kozyra’s Punishment and Crime (Kara i zbrodnia, 2002) also connects violence with pleasure. A video installation, it records the activities of a group of men who vent their passion for paramilitary weapons by exploding bombs, firing bazookas, flame-throwers and vintage Second World War machine-guns on a scrubby firing range outside Warsaw. Their targets are home-made shacks and rusty cars which they have dragged to the site. Their actions are illegal and dangerous. To mask their identities, Kozyra had them wear cheap plastic masks of models and actresses and wigs. The effect is unsettling. The pleasure which the group take in their war games (and occasionally expressed in whoops and verbal ejaculations) is hidden behind an implacable face, like ultra-violent droogs in Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange (or, by a strange parallel, anti-war protestors in the USA in the early 1970s who donned rubbery President Nixon masks). Presented as a wall projection with smaller monitors on the floor, ‘Punishment and Crime’ eschews narrative or even a message. The violence seems disconnected and relentless. As her reversal of the title of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1866 novel suggests, Kozyra overturns ‘natural’ justice, in which punishment follows crime. Violence seems to be an end in itself. In a scene which shows the amateur combatants hanging from a tree, as if lynched, it is not clear whether this is a punishment or a crime.

Kobylarz, Civil Defence, 2009

In his Civil Defence series (2009), Szymon Kobylarz addresses a related passion. By searching the Internet and amateur manuals for instructions to construct the kind of devices needed in an emergency, Kobylarz was able to fashion gas masks and grenades. Evidently home-made, these devices betray their origins as coke bottles, food-stuffs and sports equipment. They are exhibited in the kind of tidy vitrines used to store weapons alongside neat drawings reworked from the original instructions. They represent – in material and potentially dangerous form – the kind of unlicensed and uncontrolled knowledge which circulates throughout the world. This potential is dramatised by Kobylarz in the figure of a bomb-maker. His curiously shaped and improvised helmet lends his appearance a monstrous form, perhaps resembling the bull-headed profile of the ferocious Minotaur. What is not clear is whether he wishes to escape detection or whether, if unmasked, his face might betray signs of earlier failed experiments.

Żmijewski, Libera, Kobylarz and Kozyra’s works have universal dimensions. Libera’s devastated city is not just Warsaw at the end of the Second World War; it is equally Kosovo in 1999 or New Orleans in 2005. Zmijewski’s recreation of the Stanford Prison Experiment prompted reflections on the treatment of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib Prison in Baghdad. And when Kozyra’s Punishment and Crime was exhibited in New York, American reviewers made an immediate connection with the fetishised violence which appears on Hollywood screens.[29] Nevertheless, these artworks seem to draw attention to a deeply set ‘need’ to address disaster in Polish culture. Images of violence – usually rendered as tragedy and sacrifice – abound in historical re-enactments, in political speeches and state funerals. Georges Bataille characterised violence as an excess which ‘normal’ life cannot contain: ‘Nature herself is violent and however reasonable we may grow we may be mastered anew by a violence no longer that of nature, but that of a rational being who tries to obey but succumbs to stirrings within himself that he cannot bring to heel.’ [30] Unlike their compatriots from earlier generations, Kozyra’s combatants are not stirred by ideals or ideological goals, yet they seem to be attracted to destruction and other fantasies of power. Their interests are, in Bataille’s terms, ‘erotic’, that is to say, impulsive and driven by pleasure. And, hidden behind his spectacular mask, Kobylarz’s crazed bomb-maker seems to both conceal and reveal the violent excess which has induced him to act.

Writing in 1975, Maria Janion noted that it was remarkable that a Romantic mentalité forged in the nineteenth century was still shaping Polish literature: ‘… even up to the present time there can hardly be any utterance or dialogue outside Romanticism, outside the languages of social understanding it has created.’[31] The oppressive conditions of communist rule kept the figures of the hero and the martyr high in the cultural consciousness. Whilst it is clear that Romanticism is by no means the only armature for Polish art today (as Gabriela Świtek’s essay in this book demonstrates), the persistence of Romantic preoccupations thirty-five years after Janion wrote these words is significant. In working with and addressing the Romantic imagination and its dark products – madness, death and sacrifice – Polish artists today offer challenging and sometimes even unpalatable diagnoses of the real and imaginary world from which they come.


[1] Joanna Mytkowska in Jakub Julian Ziolkowski, Centre d’art contemporain Genève exh. cat. (Zurich: JRP-Ringier, 2010), p. 35

[2] Patrice M. Dabrowski,Commemorations and the shaping of modern Poland (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2004)

[3] Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, ‘Unwashed Souls’ (1936) reproduced in Daniel Gerould, ed., The Witkiewicz Reader (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1992), p. 321

[4] Ibid, p. 26

[5] Alison Landsberg, Prosthetic Memory. The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture (New York: Colombia University Press, 2004), p. 8

[6] See the interview with Paweł Kowal, PiS member and former Secretary of State in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, titled ‘Nie rzucać kamieniami w Muzeum Powstania’ in Rzeczpospolita (28 July 2009).

[7] ‘ … in times of a strong politicisation of history by our neighbours (in Germany’s Center Against Expulsions and in Russia in the refusal to recognise the facts of Katyn) … we may forget our history, [the Museum] fundamentally is a challenge to that.’ Ibid.

[8] Maciej Górny, ‘From the Splendid Past into the Unknown Future: Historical Studies in Poland after 1989’ in Sorin Antohi, Balázs Trencsényi and Péter Apor, eds.,Narratives Unbound: Historical Studies in Post-communist Eastern Europe (Budapest, 2007),  p. 131. See Handelsblatt journalist Reinhold Vetter’s Wohin steuert Polen?: das schwierige Erbe der Kaczyńskis (Ch. Links Verlag, 2008), particularly pp. 90–99

[9] Kamil Tchorek, ‘Polish voters support leaders’ call’, The Times (23 June 2007)

[10] Olaf Brzeski interviewed by Marcin Krasny in conjunction with his exhibition at the CSW – (accessed 13 March 2011)

[11] ‪Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism and Other Essays, trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso, 2002), p. 16‬‬‬

[12] Ignacy Hryniewiecki in Avraham Yarmolinsky, Road to Revolution: A Century of Russian Radicalism (New York: Collier Books, 1962), p. 266

[13] Maria Janion, Płacz Generała. Eseje o wojnie (Warsaw: Sic!, 1989), p. 22

[14] Extracts of Foucault’s Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique and his essay‘Hommage à Georges Bataille’ (1963) appeared in Transgresje 3, ‘Osoby’ (1984)

[15] See Andrew Collier, R. D. Laing: the Philosophy and Politics of Psychotherapy (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1977)

[16] Jerzy Grotowski writing in Pamietnik Teatralny [1964]) cited by Zbigniew Osiński, Grotowski and his Laboratory, trans. Lillian Vallee and Robert Findlay (New York: PAJ Publications [A Division of Performing Arts Journal, Inc.], 1986), p. 63

[17] See various essays in Kamila Wielebska and Kuba Mikurda, A Story of Sin. Surrealism in Polish Cinema (Warsaw: Korporacja Ha! Art, 2010)

[18] Wojciech Krukowski cited by Kathleen M Cioffi, Alternative Theatre in Poland 1954–1989 (Amsterdam: Harwood, 1996), p. 198

[19] Urszula Czartoryska, ‘The Photographic Art of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz’ in S.I. Witkiewicz Photographs 1899–1939 (Glasgow: Third Eye Centre, 1989), p. 29

[20] Daniel Charles Gerould, ‪Witkacy: Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz as an imaginative writer (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1981), p. 222‬‬‬‬

[21] Artur Żmijewski, ‘Stosowane sztuki społeczne’ in Krytyka Polityczna no. 11/12 (2007), p. 21

[22] Jacques Rancière, ‘Ten theses on politics’ in Theory and Event 5.3. (2001), p. 32

[23] Artur Żmijewski interviewed by Sebastian Cichocki, ‘Stripping of the Fantasy’ reproduced in Artur Zmijewski. Ausgewählte Arbeiten. Selected Works, edited by Kathrin Becker, exh. cat. Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (Berlin: Revolver, 2007)

[24] Żmijewski in Artur Żmijewski. If it happened Only Once It’s As If It Never Happened, exh. cat. for the Polish Pavilion at the 51st Venice Biennale (Warsaw: Zachęta Narodowa Galeria Sztuki, 2005), p. 152

[25] Jan Verwoert, ‘Game Theory’ in Frieze (April 2008), p. 164.

[26] Stanisław Igancy Witkiewicz, The Madman and the Nun and The Crazy Locomotive, trans. Daniel Gerould (New York: Applause, 1966), p. 31

[27] Zbigniew Libera interviewed by Dorota Jarecka, ‘Można wziąć tylko jedną parę butów’ in Wysokie Obczasy (2 March 2010) accessed on-line

[28] Frederic Jameson, ‘Future City’ in New Left Review, 21 (May–June 2003)

[29] Frantiska and Tim Gillman-Sevcik, ‘Katarzyna Kozyra’ Flash Art, vol. 34, no. 225 (July–September 2002), p. 111

[30] Georges Bataille, Erotism: Death & Sensuality (San Francisco, CA.: City Lights Books, 1986), p. 61

[31] Maria Janion, Gorączka romantyczna (1975) cited by Beth Holmgren, ‘Witold Gombrowicz within the Wieszcz Tradition’ in The Slavic and Eastern European Journal vol. 33, no. 44 (winter 1989), p. 556


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