‘Laughing at My Head’ – The ‘Immature’ Art of Neue Bieremiennost

Contemporary Art, Eastern Europe

I was commissioned to write a piece about the early years of artist Mirosław Bałka and his colleagues when they sailed under the flag of ‘Neue Bieremiennost’. The piece appears in a book written and edited by Kasia Redzisz and Karol Sienkiewicz with the title Świadomość Neue Bieriemiennost (Fundacja Open Art Projects, Warsaw, 2012).

In November 1987 I spent a day in Warsaw visiting exhibitions. I passed the morning in the company of hushed crowds viewing the Porczyński collection of Renaissance and Baroque paintings newly installed in the Archdiocese Museum, a small palace close to the Vistula River. A spectacular gift to the church from a Pole living abroad, the collection brought works credited to Rubens and Rembrandt to the People’s Republic of Poland. This was a major event. People queued to enter the modest gallery which had been created as an alternative space for art during the boycott of official cultural institutions that operated during the early 1980s. Only later did serious doubts emerge about the authenticity and the value of the collection.[1] In the light of these claims, Porczyński’s gift looked less generous than it had first seemed.


Co Słychać?, Norblin Factory, Warsaw 1987

In the afternoon of the same day, I crossed the city to the Norblin factory, a crumbling industrial wreck. The space had been commandeered by another returnee, Andrzej Bonarski, to mount an exhibition of new Polish art called Co Słychać? (What’s Up?).[2]After working in the USA, Bonarski had recently returned to Poland to set himself up as an art dealer, impresario and collector. With the horizons narrowed by communist rule, art, it seems, provided fertile ground for making reputations. Brash, neo-expressionist canvases in the then fashionable manner of the Neue Wilden were double-hung from the gantries of the Norblin Factory. Primitive statues stood on the uneven floor, still bearing the imprint of the furnaces which had once warmed the air in this former metalworks. The art was accompanied by the scent of oil and rust, and pulsed by the ‘heavy’ sound of reggae. From what I can recall, I was not much taken with the neo-expressionist paintings in Co Słychać?(‘New’, I wrote in my diary, ‘seems old by now’). By contrast, some of the installations possessed a kind of exuberance and wit which demanded attention. Hanging in the middle of the factory-gallery, for instance, was a telephone handset. Its whorled cable stretched up to the ceiling where the phone was fixed to a small table accompanied by chair on a carpeted ‘floor’. If anyone had been making a call, a sudden shift in gravity had put it to an abrupt end. This upside-down world was Mirosław Filonik’s ‘Murder in the Red Room’ (Morderstwo w czerwonym pokoju). Droll and strange, Filonik’s artwork seemed to have something to say about the inverted laws which operated in the People’s Republic of Poland.

Św.Wojciech by Mirosław Bałka

I was not sure what exactly, though. His Neue Bieremiennost associate, Mirosław Bałka installed another image of suspension, ‘St Adalbert’ (Św.Wojciech, 1987). Fashioned from sacking, a decapitated and maimed figure of this historic martyr was hung, horizontally, off the scarred factory wall. Above it, the instrument of violence, an axe, was suggested by a neon sign: below, another set of green lights signaled life in the oats growing in soil tray on the ground. A second sculpture fashioned from sacking represented the Old Testament figure of ‘Cain’ (Kain, 1987). With his God-given mark on his back and charred skin, he stood, like a penitent or perhaps a worshipper, before a small, primitive forge. Here was the fiery source of his – and mankind’s – power to destroy. As Maria Morzuch noted later, Bałka’s sewn figures from this period seemed to come from an inaccessible zone, ‘a world of holy goodness or damned evil.’[3]

The neo-expressionist ‘moment’ in Polish art represented by Co Słychać? passed quickly in the 1990s as the country left Moscow’s embrace for democracy and the free-market economy. Recently it has come under the spotlight again, with historians and curators attempting to interpret the paintings, sculptures and installations produced under the flags of Gruppa, Koło Klipsa, Neue Bieremiennost and the other grupuscles of the age. Works which were lost or in states of decay have been remade or restored to be exhibited again.[4] This book is one part of this project in historical reconstruction. So how should works like Filonik’s sardonic ‘Murder in the Red Room’ or Bałka’s ‘St Adalbert’ be understood? As Poland’s contribution to the international wave of postmodernism, as was often claimed at the time? As juvenilia? As a reflex of the ersatz conditions of late socialism in Poland?

Neue Bieremiennost rejected categorization (unsuccessfully, it should be admitted). After all, its members proclaimed a common ‘consciousness’ rather than a shared mission or message. Sailing under a common flag between 1986 and 1989, the three principal members of the group produced diverse and often erratic work. This inconsistency was not (or, perhaps, was not just) the result of their relative youth. Neue Bieremiennost operated in the ‘dimension ….of the heteroclite’.[5] Their art was fashioned from diverse fragments and ideas, often exploiting ephemeral and abject materials. Eschewing monumentality, Neue Bieremiennost’s associates often produced a kind of dysphasic art not unlike that produced by Thomas Hirschhorn and Isa Genzken. Yet, it was clearly a product of a particular time and place, late socialist Poland. The ‘Neue Bieremiennost for Women’ (Neue Bieriemiennost na rzecz kobiet) exhibition was, for instance, organised in Warsaw to coincide with International Women’s Day in March 1986. The artists approached this red-letter day in the socialist calendar with a capricious agglomeration of materials, objects and ideas. A performance by Bałka featured 44 unfinished plaster Santa Claus figures wrapped in newspapers or hidden inside dirty pyramids of snow gathered from the street outside the gallery. Unwrapping the small packages and melting the snow with his hands, he exposed the little Saint Nicks to the world. In the background, Julio Iglesias’s sugary ballads issued from a loudspeaker. By the end, Bałka had created a comic scene in which a small crowd of Santas stood as mute and cracked witnesses to the lynching of one of their number. Filonik’s performance for the same fête of socialist femininity, ‘Woman with Feathers’ (Kobieta z pierza), involved laying a carpet of feathers on a rubber mattress. The artist then blew the feathers with a jet of air from a vacuum cleaner, filling the room and the assembled audience in a cloud of down. Eschewing clear symbolism or the hermeneutic imperative of ‘a message’, these actions were absurd, teetering on incomprehensibility.

The appeal of indeterminacy has to be understood in the context of the alliances and boundaries which were drawn across Polish culture in the 1980s. The imposition of Martial Law by General Jaruzelski’s Military Council of National Salvation (Wojskowa Rada Ocalenia Narodowego) in December 1981 had been met by a boycott of official cultural institutions by anti-communist artists, actors and writers. After Martial Law was lifted in 1983, the tense relations between state and people remained. At that time, the Roman Catholic Church offered alternative public spaces where artists could exhibit their work or mount theatrical performances.[6] In Warsaw, the ruined church on Żytnia Street, for instance, provided a suitably melancholic setting for meetings of the anti-communist cultural elite as well as a number of exhibitions and theatrical performancesby banned avant-garde companies like Theatre of the Eighth Day (Teatr Ósmego Dnia) from Poznań and filmmaker Andrzej Wajda (who mounted an ‘Easter Vigil’ ‘The Cenacle’ (Wieczernik),a play by Ernest Bryll, there in 1985[7]). Group exhibitions exploring spiritual themes were also organised there: the ‘Sign of the Cross’ (Znak Krzyża) was, for instance, organized in 1983 to coincide with the visit of Pope John Paul II. To demonstrate the strength of the anti-communist alliance, it called on artists of all stripes, including proto-environmentalist artist Teresa Murak and Edward Krasiński, a figure whose work linked minimalism and conceptualism with a thin blue strip. The context meant that art which eschewed eschatological or political themes was, nevertheless, framed by deeply-rooted romantic and messianic myths of national solidarity in the face of injustice. In the historicizing imagination of the anti-communist opposition, present conditions could be connected to long chain of tragic events in the history of the nation (namely the violent repression of worker protests in 1976, 1970 and 1956; the Katyn massacre in 1940; the outbreak of war in 1939 and the crushing of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943 and the Warsaw Uprising one year later; failed revolutions in 1905, 1863 and 1831). Repression had, of course, thrown up prophets, martyrs and heroes. From the lofty vantage point of opposition, culture was best when it was laced with pathos or took the form of testament.

For some artists, Neue Bieremiennost amongst them, the alliance of the church and the anti-communist opposition imposed a new and unwelcome set of aesthetic, moral and political codes. Speaking in 1993, Anda Rottenberg, a critic and curator closely associated with the group (to the extent that she could use the pronoun ‘we’), characterised Neue Bieremiennost’s activities as ‘opposition to both the underground church movement and the official movement … It was an attitude towards politics; [that] politics cannot interfere in art’. For Rottenberg, Neue Bieremiennost’s ironic actions and artworks operated ‘like the mirror in the circus reflecting some official habits in the field of art’.[8] Organizing their actions according to the ritual calendars of the church (Easter) and the state (Mayday and Women’s Day) and alert to the ritualized forms of loyalty which both required, Neue Bieremiennost seemed to treat these realms as official zones.

Kijewski’s Meditations of King Sigismund III

Although resistant to the revival of ‘gallows Romanticism’, many of the artworks produced by Bałka, Filonik and Kijewski share a preoccupation with national mythology, albeit often in skeptical and sardonic terms, as well as a deep attentiveness of Christian iconography. In works like ‘The Meditations of King Sigismund III About a Woman Fallen in Spirit’ (Rozmyślania Zygmunta Trzeciego na temat kobiety upadłej na duchu) on display in Co Słychac? in 1987 and ‘With Arm and Sword’ (Żywią i bronią, 1987), Kijewski remade Warsaw’s bronze idols in cheap materials and reorganized their heroic forms: the syrenka (mermaid) and Sigismund’s Column – icons of the revival of the Polish capital after the Second World War – were refashioned as priapic figurines motivated by carnal desires rather than by holy principles. History was presented as a kind of masturbatory farce.


Witold Gombrowicz

Such works belong to a vein of anti-heroism which runs through Polish culture. It is found in the plays, novels, and poems of Miron Białoszewski, Witold Gombrowicz and Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz and others. Preoccupied with debased matter and déclassé individuals as well as absurdity and irreverence, these writers and artists have written alternative scripts for national culture. Their ‘common’ purpose – if such a thing can be detected – was not necessarily the creation of another kind of national monument. Insisting on the necessity of actively determining (or at least struggling to determine) one’s own identity rather than being formed by culture or the interests of others, they rejected notions of fixed or ‘authentic’ Polishness.

Gombrowicz, the novelist and dramatist who left Poland in 1939 never to return, seems to have had particular resonance in the 1980s. (His ‘complete works’ – including his philosophical, opinionated and highly discursive Diaries – were published in 1986 after being largely unavailable and occasionally banned in the People’s Republic). The writer took a disdainful view of Polish romanticism. It had, he believed, created an illusion of community and what he liked to characterise as an over-mature culture, built on dreams of monumentality and grandeur drawn from Romantic history. Writing against the national grain, Gombrowicz celebrated immature, childish and clownish forms of expression. He filled the pages of his novels and diaries with slapstick humour, repetitions, slang and abrupt digressions. A skilled abductor of language and creator of neologisms, he would twist morphemes and words into new meanings. In Trans-Atlantyk (1953), for instance, ‘synczyzna’ (sonland) becomes an irreverent upstart and rival to ‘ojczyzna’ (fatherland), for instance.

The selection of the group’s German-Russian name – Neue Bieremiennost – seems to point to Gombrowicz. Looking back late in life, he reflected on the ill-fated location of the country:

It is a country between the East and the West, where Europe starts to draw to an end, a border country where the East and the West soften into each other. A country of weakened forms . . . None of the great movements of European culture has ever penetrated Poland, not the Renaissance, not the wars of religion, not the French revolution, not the industrial revolution . . . So these plains, open to every wind, had long been the scene of a great compromise between Form and its Degradation . . . This feeling of formlessness tortured the Poles, but at the same time it gave them a strange sense of liberty.[9]

Wrapped in sardonic humour and playfulness was a kind of philosophy: if Poland could accept its condition, that of an immature state overshadowed by the achievements of its neighbours, an open-minded culture could be conceived. Poland could, in other words, be a neue bieremiennost.

In celebrating formlessness, Gombrowicz was not arguing for what Georges Bataille called the ‘informe’, an inchoate state in which meaning briefly emerges before vanishing again. The Polish writer was preoccupied with the yet to be formed. Moreover, Gombrowicz’s mischievous literary style is, for instance, a kind of textual demonstration of his view that the preoccupations and roles associated of adulthood obscure a kind of primordial youthfulness in all of us.

We are ‘infantilized’ by all ‘higher’ forms. Man, tortured by his mask, fabricates secretly, for his own usage, a sort of ‘subculture’: a world made out of the refuse of a higher world of culture, a domain of trash, immature myths, inadmissible passions . . . a secondary domain of compensation. That is where a certain shameful poetry is born, a certain compromising beauty . . .[10]

Gombrowicz’s conception of trash aesthetics, outlined here in a passage from his introduction to the French edition of Pornografia (1966), might offer some insights into the ‘immature’ forms of Neue Bieremiennost’s art.

If a ruined church, destroyed during the Warsaw Uprising, seemed a ‘natural’ setting for the revival of Polish Romanticism by anti-communist artists and playwrights after Martial Law, the Norblin factory – a grimy ruin – was a ‘natural’ environment for the art shown in Co Słychac?in 1987. In fact, Poland seemed to be rotting in the late 1980s: a greasy tide of filth seeped into public spaces such as common hallways, streets, parks and beaches; one-time symbols of the communist future – socmodernist hotels and sports stadia – were broken, in a state of chronic disrepair; and, of course, the shops were empty. Chroniclers of everyday life in Poland in the 1980s, short-story writers Marek Nowakowski and Janusz Anderman were alert to the ubiquitous presence of ‘dreck’.[11] Trash crowded a world which was unable to meet the task of supplying its citizens with the new. Setting the scene for his short story, A sense of … , Anderman wrote:

Silence and mist covered the vast square: its houses lay in decay, unreal as a stage backcloth; jutting balconies stacked with discarded objects, broken chairs, faded children’s toys, scraps of refuse, dusty jars and bottles, saucepans with holes and cracked enamel, voiceless TV boxes, old-fashioned chandeliers, rotting picture frames, rusty bikes, strung-up bundles of old newspapers.’[12]

Anderman was nearly right. These things were not quite – or not yet – discarded. Shortage turned citizens into skilled fixers of broken things, adept at the everyday art of bricolage. Only when things were completely exhausted (itself never a certain state), could they be dumped.

Garbage was not just a resource for survival: it was also material for making sense. As Tomasz Kitliński has pointed out, the country has thrown up many ‘dreck heroes’:

A dreck-hero is the one who emerges clean from political and historical slime; who transcends human garbage status while wading through filth, cleaning up trash, or living in rubble; who keeps conscience alive amid degradation and grim realities. Where shit prevails, the dreck-hero prevails even more.[13]

Wajda’s Kanal

A ‘dreck hero’ can be a fictional character like the celebrated war-time insurgents who occupy the sewers in Andrzej Wajda’s film ‘Kanal’ (‘Kanał’)(1957). For Kitliński, it could also be an artist or writer who ‘rises above dreck even while immersed in it’. Polish art has produced a number of these champions of trash. Dramatist and artist Tadeusz Kantor might be counted amongst them. He coined the term ‘the Reality of the Lowest Rank’ (‘rzeczywistość najniższej rangi’) to describe the power of lowly objects to stimulate the imagination: ‘being, death, love … exist somewhere in a poor corner, a parcel, a stick, a bicycle wheel … bereft of pathos or illusion.’[14] ‘Refuse, cast-off ends and odds’ were conscripted throughout his career into productions, performances and happenings. Kantor’s purpose was to provide markers of human existence, much in the manner described by Hannah Arendt in her 1958 book, The Human Condition: ‘the things of the world have the function of stabilizing human life, and their objectivity lies in the fact that…men, their ever-changing nature notwithstanding, can retrieve their sameness, that is, their identity, by being related to the same chair and the same table.’[15]Trash was not something to be discarded: it was to be salvaged for the memories and marks of human existence that it might contain.

One can trace elements of this sensibility in Bałka’s work produced during his Neue Bieremiennost period: the 44 plaster boomerangs he created for a performance entitled ‘Boomerangs for Peace’ (Bumerangi pokoju) presented as part ofCC Neue Bieriemiennost for Peace (KC Neue Bieriemiennost na rzecz pokoju) in the Dziekanka Workshop (Pracownia Dziekanka) in Warsaw in May 1986, were filled with ash, hay, coal dust and sand. When thrown against projected images of the rural landscape on the walls of Dziekanka, they shattered. These low materials of everyday existence formed a dusty cloud before settling on the floor. His sewn figures – ‘St Adalbert’ and ‘Cain’ – were fashioned from old sacks which had once contained fuel and food, resources for life. Despite the resolute pointless of throwing a boomerang against a wall or the artificial illumination of neon lighting, one can still trace in these early works what would later become Bałka’s all-encompassing preoccupation with human presence and absence.

By contrast, his Neue Bieremiennost colleagues drew other – more kitsch – kinds of associations from the detritus of everyday life. Filonik, for instance, sometimes deployed the cheap consumer goods of late socialism. The failing command economy produced shoddy goods which were broken or redundant before they even left the factory. This was another order of trash. Filonik’s contribution to ‘For All Saints’ (Na rzecz Wszystkich Świętych) exhibition in Poznań in December 1986, an installation entitled ‘Mr. Francis’s Sacred Birds’ (Święte Ptaki Pana Franciszka), was fashioned from a shop mannequin and half a dozen inflatable swimming rings in the shape of swans. Mixing cheap artificial effects with the figure of a saint associated with a love of nature, this was an exercise in visual catachresis. Nearby, Filonik arranged another set of mannequin heads sharing tongues entitled ‘The Beuys’ and a pair of legs combined with birch branches bearing the name ‘Hooker Positioned on Her Head’ (Dziwka postawiona na głowie). In the same exhibition Kijewski fashioned a nursing sow from rags, his mother’s bed linen and a steel frame. Her piglets could be made to fly at the tug of a lever made from twine. His mother-in-law provided a china elephant ornament which was exhibited on ridiculous metal stilts. No redemption was to be drawn from these shabby resources.

Neue Bieriemiennost for Jean Bédel Bokassa I’

Self-consciously artless and immediate, Filonik’s art drew it effects from its brash humour. Similarly, a massive sculpture known as ‘the Palace Eater’, created by all three associates of the group for show entitled ‘Neue Bieriemiennost for Jean Bédel Bokassa I’, shared this character. A headless statute of the African dictator fashioned from steel mesh and painted fabric, it featured a massive phallus which seemed to have deposited some kind of ejeculate in the corner of the Warsaw gallery when it was installed in January 1987. It was a kind of enormous and vulgar joke.

Such works also testify to a ‘hunger for strangeness’ first identified during the Stalin years but at its peak in the 1980s.[16] This craving was not only a product of the barren conditions and social anomie which marked life in Poland: the romantic and patriotic foundations of dissent also had the effect of narrowing and elevating the horizons of culture. Neue Bieriemiennost belonged to a generation who expressed an acute and sometimes incongruous appetite for difference. The booming reggae soundtrack which accompanied the Co Słychać? exhibition was one such sign. In 2009 ‘Neue Bieriemiennost for Jean Bédel Bokassa I’ was recreated for exhibition in Rotterdam, Warsaw and Wrocław which was entitled ‘I Could Live in Africa’, a title adopted from a 1983 documentary about the Polish band Izrael[17]. For these nonconformists, Poland was ‘Babylon’ and Africa was a mythic paradise without rules, material possessions or, for that matter, politicians, trade unions or priests. Punk, new wave and reggae music was the soundtrack for a loose ‘alternative culture’ which operated in the 1980s. Song lyrics, ‘trzeciobieg’ (third circulation) fanzines and occasional ‘happenings’ often expressed a darkly ironic view of official and opposition shibboleths and invented unlikely heroes. Neue Bieriemiennost’s actions – organised on symbolic days in the socialist calendar and delighting in absurdity – coincided with the loosely-scripted street theatre performed by Orange Alternative in Wrocław or the actions of lesser-known groups like the Mathias Rust Komando in Poznań. Named after a teenage German pilot who, evading Soviet air defences, landed his light plane in Red Square in Moscow in May 1987, the male and female ‘commandos’ marked International Women’s Day a few months later by dressing as women and carrying banners announcing ‘Polish women support the government policies’ and ‘I’ll take any work’.[18] Punk also brought a latter-day version of auto-destructive art to Poland. After forming in 1981, Dezerter, a prominent punk band, refused success (within the limited horizons set by the ‘music industry’ in the People’s Republic) by testing their audiences with incoherence. Their performance at a music festival in 1986 took the form of ‘inaudible playback from tapes of three of their old hits’ and an ‘improvised performance, the high point of which was an unprepared “speech” by the band’s manager dressed as a Hussar.’[19]

A hunger for difference, iconoclasm and sardonic humour formed lines of connection across a fragmented ‘alternative culture’ at the end of the 1980s. In setting Neue Bieriemiennost in this company, it would be easy to characterise their activities as ‘mere’ juvenilia. Yet, there was, as Gombrowicz claimed, value to be found in immaturity. Immaturity was a mode of resistance. In his novel Ferdydurke (1937), the central character, a thirty-year old man, Joey Kowalski, is thrust into a teenage world, his peers indifferent or unaware of his age or appearance. This violent abduction by a force of order and civilization –a school teacher – is, at first, disturbing. Yet Kowalski finds refuge in his childishness. In her introduction to a new translation of the book, Susan Sontag wrote ‘Gombrowicz affirming the “human” need for imperfection, incompleteness, inferiority … youth, proclaims himself a specialist in inferiority. Swinish adolescence may seem a drastic antidote to smug maturity, but this is exactly what Gombrowicz has in mind’.[20]

As antidotes to the historicism and monumentalism, the works produced by the Neue Bieremiennost artists in the late 1980s frequently addressed youth. It was the theme in a number of Bałka’s figurative works of the period including ‘Remembrance of the First Holy Communion’ (Pamiątka Pierwszej Komunii Świętej, 1985) and ‘When You Wet the Bed’ (1987), a installation inspired by lines in the first chapter of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as Young Man (1914-1915). Viewed as a sculptural object in its present location (Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź), the white and dusty adolescent figure of ‘Remembrance of the First Holy Communion’, accompanied by conventional memory triggers like photographs and clothing, seems to be a form of materialised nostalgia. When considered in its first incarnation in June 1985 as the centerpiece of a performance in an abandoned house in Żuków in the countryside not far from Warsaw, the piece takes on less sentimental dimensions. It was installed in a ruin, described by Rottenberg as being ‘full of cobwebs and deprived of any movement, as if under a curse of inviolability or perhaps saved by a superstition that had presented the remnants of the property from the neighbour’s greed. There lingered an atmosphere of sickness and death that lurked in the stale feather beds, in bottle of medicines in dirty, cracked cups and in the furniture placed at random, delimiting an area between the busy order of life and the absurd peace of death … too much burdened with the past.’[21] Young boys – the same age as Bałka’s communicant – were conscripted to play parts in this eccentric pastoral drama. They guided the audience to the artist, an imposing figure in an ill-fitting suit, riding a child’s bike with a whitened face and white gloves like a clown (in striking contrast to what Bałka called the ‘official oppression’ of religious ritual[22]). Like Ferdydurke, here was a work which projected its chief subject, Bałka himself, back to adolescence. And, like the novel, the overall effect was as absurd as it was melancholic.

Youthful bodies were also the subject of Filonik’s punning work, The Beuys (1986). Connected by tongues emerging from their ears, two mannequins seemed to be engaged in some kind of strange, erotic act. These organs seemed to be independent of these expressionless doppelgangers to which they were attached. Perhaps inadvertently, The Beuys echoed the dizzying description of the last moment before waking when one has not yet donned a habitual mask, in Ferdydurke: ‘I felt that my body was not homogeneous . . . that my head was laughing at my leg and ridiculing it, that my leg was laughing at my head . . . my nose was thumbing itself at my eye, my eye chuckling and bellowing at my nose — and all my parts were wildly raping each other in an all-encompassing and piercing state of pan-mockery.’ However unsettling description seems, for Gombrowicz it represents the unruly potential of formlessness.

Incarnated in these sculptural figures and embraced in the mischievousness of their performances, youthfulness was itself, perhaps, a kind of Gombrowiczian principle for Neue Bieremiennost. Their juvenilia was often, it seems, juvenile. When a form or an event seemed likely to crystallize into a coherent whole, the artists reeled off into play or absurdity: boomerangs clattered into walls; audiences were doused in feathers. In this way, meaning was not to be produced but deferred. Formlessness of this kind is, however, difficult to sustain. Careers, markets and museums all require the coherence of form. The very process of making or of writing generates its own limits. As Gombrowicz observed in Ferdydurke, ‘Whatever you put on paper dictates whatever comes next, because the work is not born of you – you want to write one thing, yet something else entirely comes out. Parts tend to wholeness, every part surreptitiously makes its way toward the whole, strives for roundness, and seeks fulfillment. It implores the rest to be created in its own image and likeness’.[23]Unity coheres in retrospect, when actors reflect on their activities. It comes with the retelling of events and the description of ephemeral things. The interviews with those sharing the Neue Bieremiennost consciousnessin this book are full of those moments in which things are fixed. And, of course, this short essay is another attempt at cohesion, even if it takes as its guide the champion of formlessness, Witold Gombrowicz.

– David Crowley, 31 August 2011

[1] Janusz Miliszkiewicz, Mieczysław Morka, Kolekcja Porczyńskich – genialne oszustwo? (Warszawa 1993).

[2] Co słychać? Sztuka najnowsza, edited by Maryla Sitkowska (Warsaw 1989).

[3] Maria Morzuch ‘Alchemy of the Body or the Inexorable Hour-Glass’ in Miroslaw Balka, exhibition catalogue Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven/ Muzeum Sztuki, Łódź, 1994, p. 28.

[4] See  Marek Goździewski, First Reconstructions, in Marek Kijewski. I’m All A-tremble When I Can Shower You With Gold, Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw 2008, pp.44-88.

[5] Michel Foucault celebrates ‘the disorder in which fragments of a large number of possible orders glitter separately in the dimension, without law or geometry, of the heteroclite … in such a state, things are “laid”, “placed”, “arranged” in sites so very different from one another that it is impossible to find a place of residence for them, to define a common locus beneath them all’ in The Order of Things. An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York, 1973) p.xvii.

[7] Kazimierz Braun, Teatr polski, 1939-1989: obszary wolności–obszary zniewolenia (Warsaw, 1994) p.210.

[8] Interview with Miroslaw Balka and Anda Rottenberg by William Furlong in Art and Design, 35 (1994) p.73.

[9] Witold Gombrowicz, A Kind of Testament, translated by Alistair Hamilton (London, 1973) pp.53-54.

[10] Witold Gombrowicz, Pornografia, tr. Alastair Hamilton (New York, 1994) p.8.

[11] See, for instance, Marek Nowakowski, Raport o stanie wojennym (1982-1984), (Białystok, 1990).

[12] Janusz Anderman, ‘A sense of’ in The Edge of the World (London, 1988) p.72

[13] Tomasz Kitliński, ‘Polish Garbage and Dreck Heroes’ in Bad Subjects (on-line journal), 55 (May 2001) – http://blogs.eserver.org/issues/2001/55/kitlinski-lockard.html – accessed July 2011.

[14] Tadeusz Kantor, ‘Reality of the Lowest Rank’ in A Journey Through Other Spaces. Essays and Manifestos, 1944–1990, ed. Michal Kobialka (Berkeley, CA., 1993) p.30.

[15] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago, 1958) p.137.

[16] Czesław Miłosz, The Captive Mind (1953) (Harmondsworth, 1980) p.67.

[17] Jacques de Koning, I could live in Africa, 1983.

[18] Padraig Kenney, A Carnival of Revolution: Central Europe 1989 (Princeton, 2002), p.177.

[19] Mirosław Pęczak, ‘Youth Culture’ in Donald Pirie, Jekaterina Young and Christopher Carrell, eds., Polish Realities. The Arts in Poland, 1980-1989 (Glasgow, 1990), pp.110-111.

[20] Susan Sontag introduction to Witold Gombrowicz, Ferdydurke (New Haven, 2000) p.x.

[21] Anda Rottenberg, ‘Miroslaw Balka – Arranged Events’ (A First Draft) in Miroslaw Balka, exhibition catalogue Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven/ Muzeum Sztuki, Łódź, 1994, p.14.

[22] ‘Każdy chłopiec boi się inaczej’ Mirosław Bałka in conversation with Bożena Czubak in Magazyn Sztuki 19 (1998) p.16.

[23] Witold Gombrowicz, Ferdydurke, trans. Danuta Borchardt (Boston, MA, 2000) p.94.


Paradise Lost?

Contemporary Art, Eastern Europe, Modernism

This piece was published in Piktogram in 2005.

The Art of Home

In 1956 a member of the British art police set up home. Jim Eade, a former curator at the Tate Gallery, decided to turn his picturesque house, Kettle’s Yard, in the university city of Cambridge into a gallery for the defence of modern art. Displaying his own collection of art by Miro, Brancusi, Moore and others in a carefully stage-managed setting, this gendarme set out to demonstrate the transcendental qualities of Art. Each week small groups of Cambridge students were invited to his home to train their eyes. Amongst these guests were future director of the Tate, Nicholas Serota. A well-placed canvas hanging above an antique cabinet dressed with a bowl of lemons or a spiral of pebbles, was a complete course in aesthetics. Eade was so certain of his taste that when he left his collection to the University, he laid down strict instructions on its future face: the lemons were to remain, replaced each week by all subsequent custodians of his gallery-home. Although antipathetic to Conceptual Art, Eade’s demand strangely echoed the transformation of the artwork into processes, events and words. Nothing, however, could have been further from his mind.

Whilst art and domestic furniture and furnishings in Eade’s home were united, this would-be tastemaker did not regard art and design as the same thing. Like many members of the art police including the director of the Museum of Modern Art, Alfred H. Barr, and Serota today, Eade was only really interested in design when it could be made to behave like art. It had to be beautiful and uplifting. Interest in materials, function and fashion, with its tawdry associations with commerce, was beyond the pale. An elegant Italian lamp on a plinth in MOMA’s Architecture and Design gallery or Donald Judd’s severe benches in his recent Tate retrospective could, however, pass the art test and become objects of aesthetic contemplation.

Kettle’s Yard would surely disturb Eade today, were he able to make a spectral return. Like so many galleries, biennales and museums, it has been swept up in art’s fascination with modern design and is currently home to an exhibition dedicated to ‘Ways of Living’.[1] Work by four design stars in the contemporary art world – Andrea Zittel, Jorge Pardo, Tobias Rehberger and Marjetica Potrč – is represented in this exhibition. Pardo’s contribution, for instance, takes the form of low-hanging lighting with colourful hand-blown glass shades set in a complicated die-cut frames, reminiscent of biomorphic designs favoured by György Kepes or Frederick Kiesler in the 1950s. Critic Alex Coles claims that Pardo’s art objects result from auto-ethnographic research: the artist examines his own lifestyle and reproduces it in the gallery. These lamps are a synecdoche of ‘4166 Sea View Lane’ in Mount Washington near Los Angeles, his best known work (1998). Commissioned by the LA Museum of Contemporary Art to make his own home art, Pardo fitted out a chic timber-clad villa, sometimes modifying mass produced items and sometimes commissioning bespoke items. The presence of signs, barriers and security guards ensured that visitors to ‘4166 Sea View Lane’ offered an authentic Museum experience. The furnishings and fittings of this magnum opus have since become the basis of Pardo’s artistic output. The curator of the Kettle’s Yard exhibition comments: ‘His ongoing production of lamps, furniture, paintings and prints for people to exhibit in galleries and install in their homes extends the unsettling reflexivity of his practice to our own lives and homes,’[2] But hold on. Does that mean Pardo designs things which are made, sold and consumed? Surely that’s what designers do too. And what is so unsettling about that anyway?

What distinguishes art’s fascination with design over the last decade is not its domesticity but its interest in modernity. After all, artists from Max Ernst to Gregor Schneider have long examined the psychopathology of unheimlich homes, finding symptoms of repression in their Victorian ornaments and dingy basements. By contrast, these neo-modernist domestic dreamscapes seem entirely different; so much more appealing, so much more designed. In Kettle’s Yard, Andrea Zittel, for instance has displayed one of her trademark ‘Living Units’, a walled bed made from a steel frame and plywood served by four appliances which can be wheeled close to the reclining occupant. One appliance is for dining whilst another is a portable office. Like the domestic capsules designed by the anti-designers like the Italian Superstudio group or Gaetano Pesce in the late 1960s, the ‘A-Z Comfort Unit’, as its name suggests, supplies everything that one might need for an easy life. The critical edge for this piece was claimed by the gently ironic associations which Zittel lent all her products in the 1990s. In her early statements, she described her work with a corporate vocabulary. Her ‘A-Z’ ‘brand’ was applied to diverse ‘products’ and ‘services’ and targeted at ‘clients’.[3]

Zittel and Pardo have been taste makers in this fashion for design. It is so pervasive that this vogue already has its own brand identity, ‘DesignArt’, a label adapted and promoted by Alex Coles.[4] This London-based critic takes a rather upbeat view of the phenomenon, describing it as ‘the type of art you can look at while you are sitting on it’. Coles gives DesignArt a rich and well-mannered genealogy: its mother is Sonia Delaunay, indulging pleasures for colour and pattern, and its father Mies van der Rohe, the master of modernist platonism. But is Cole right? Is this really a singular phenomenon or, in fact, many different things? And why is its focus so strongly on late-modernist architecture and design of the 1950s and 1960s? Is art’s interest in design as benign as Coles suggests?

Design Classics?

Some answers to these questions are suggested by the work of Pia Rönicke. In December 2004 the Danish artist had her first solo show at GB Agency in Paris. She presented a mystery in the form of a paper trail tracing the career of a Danish lamp designer and retailer called Le Klint between the 1940s and 1960s. Books, archival photographs, clippings from newspapers and design instructions encouraged the viewer to become a historian or a detective by reconstructing the life and work of a forgotten designer. Hanging from the ceiling were Rönicke’s attempts to recreate the lamps from Le Klint’s DIY patterns. At the same time, melancholic extracts from Le Klint’s autobiography Erindringstrade (Memory Threads) were thrown on the walls by a 35mm projector. A woman’s life is, it seems, entirely subsumed into the brand and the chain of shops which carried her name. Despite all these acts of nomination, the exhibition was entitled ‘Without a Name’. The weight of all this ‘evidence’ notwithstanding, the viewer was left uncertain: who was this woman? Did she really exist? Is she a product of Rönicke’s imagination? Or perhaps even our collective desires?

Both Pardo and Rönicke present chic neo-modernist lamps to their viewers, but the impulse behind their work is rather different. The approach of the Danish artist is deconstructive: it asks the viewer to investigate the materials of the promotional apparatus that consumed Le Klint. It points to something darker than the blushing light which emanates from Pardo’s beautiful lamps. In this, she is not alone. Martin Boyce’s work over recent years has pointed to the uneasy commodification of utopia. In a landmark piece of 1999, ‘Now I’ve Got Real Worry’, Boyce reworked a celebrated piece of modernist design, the Eames Storage Unit (1950). The original had secured its position in the history of twentieth century furniture after being exhibited in prototype at MOMA in the late 1940s. With its emphasis on furniture as tool (hence the masculine designation ‘unit’ rather than ‘cupboard’ or ‘dresser’) and on the names of its renowned Ameican designers, Charles and Ray Eames, the original design illustrates one of the paradoxes of the Modern Movement; that it was a commonwealth of celebrity egos committed to anonymous design (a theme of Rönicke’s ‘Without a Name’ too). Originally manufactured by the Herman Miller Furniture Company, the Eames Storage Unit is now available – in the curious form of a hand assembled ‘reproduction’ of an object first designed for mass production. In ‘Now I’ve Got Real Worry’ Boyce has, however, ‘damaged’ the object. One of the ‘L bars’ which held the unit together has been straightened and stands upright, propped at some distance from the Storage Unit. The modular character of the original design which allowed the sliding panels, drawers and shelves to be combined has been denied. White and brightly coloured panels are fixed rigid within the chrome steel frame. The sealed unit cannot divulge what is stored within it. Useless, it becomes, however, more ‘perfect’, more desirable. ‘Possession cannot apply to an implement’, Jean Baudrillard once remarked, ‘since the object I utilise always directs me back to the world. Rather it applies to that object once it is divested of its function and made relative to a subject.’[5] The object / subject relations invoked by Boyce’s piece are surely that of design ‘classic’ and its connoisseurial collector. Denied function and isolated on the floor of the gallery, this modified storage unit is evidently a fetish, an object which socially endowed with a ‘power’ that is unrelated to its ‘true worth’. This concept, as elusive as the vanishing point in perspective, was at the heart of the modernist utopia. Boris Arvatov, Proletkult theorist in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, imagined a world in which the true worth of things would be found in their capacity to meet genuine needs rather stimulate false desires.[6] ‘Socialist things’ could be active agents in the production of a new consciousness (such an object would be, in his term, a ‘co-worker’). But, of course, the Eames were not Marxist utopians: they represent a moment in the history of design and architecture when ascetic modernism was embraced by commercial America.

Utopia Lost … and Regained?

There is, in fact, much to be said about the diversity of post-war modernist architecture and design. For all the talk of homogenising effects of the ‘International Style’ expressed by postmodernist conservatives in the 1980s, modernist architecture and design underwent a kind of fragmentation during the Cold War. Behind its common aesthetic façade, there were important differences in the way that it was shaped in what were once called the First, Second and Third worlds. Like a number of the neo-modernists, Marjetice Potrč’s interest seems to be shaped by her Eastern European background, in her case Slovenia. Her modernism is not just any old variety: it is ‘sotsmodernism.’ During the late 1950s the communist states of the Eastern Bloc states sought to modernise at breakneck speed. To shake off associations of violence and irrationality, Stalin’s successors recast themselves as rational technocrats. The world was to be made anew in concrete, glass and steel. Socialist realist painting was rejected as kitsch and regressive: the form of the future would be abstract and brightly coloured. Over the course of the 1960s, Eastern Bloc cities vied to produce high architectural drama in the form of inter-stellar tv towers, colossal megastructures as well as monumental high-rise housing schemes. In a series of graphic works entitled ‘The Puzzle of Königsberg’ (1999), Potrč explores the meaning of Kaliningrad, the former German city which is now an ‘island’ city populated by Russians detached from the motherland. In this series, the trophy city is saturated with water. Its chief landmark today, the Palace of Soviets – a colossus with massive cantilevered multi-story concrete bays – is slowly sinking back into marshland. In ruins, it is largely ignored by its citizens. It is a symbol of the future now firmly locked in the past. Yet it is also a strange trigger for nostalgia. It is, Potrč tells us, ‘for those who travel there, strangely reminiscent of other places. … Together with the existing ruins of Königsberg, the city is the perfect showcase of urban disaster.’[7] But how can a ruin be perfect? Of course the ruin was adopted by Benjamin as an allegorical form which could narrate death and catastrophe in the midst of the phantasmagoric city.[8] Here however, the ruin suggests something else; a lost drive towards the perfect unity of technology and society.

Nostalgia for sotsmodernism is not the same thing as ostalgie, the sicky sweet yearning for the symbols and everyday comforts of the communist past which has been so widely reported in East Germany and other places once part of the Bloc.[9] Ostalgie is a new film to see, a bar decked out with Soviet propaganda or a new antique to buy. It is a form of commodification that halts at things that cannot be bought like, of course, the sinking hulk of the Palace of Soviets in Kaliningrad. In fact, sotsmodernist buildings like Berlin’s Palast Der Republik on Schlossplatz (once Marx Engelsplatz) – often stand in the way of capitalism by occupying valuable city-centre land. Their future lies in the past. And this is important. The attraction to socmodernism is, perhaps, a symptom of a desire to keep the possibility of utopia open. It is not the expression of some kind of communist revanchist fantasy (an expression what of Svetlana Boym in her book The Future of Nostalgia calls ‘restorative nostalgia’[10]), but a sublimated form of idealism.

It is worth noting that Eastern Europeans are not the only ones captivated by socmodernism. Tacita Dean has, for instance, made a series of beautiful, melancholic films in Berlin focusing on its sotsmodern landmarks (‘Palast’, 2004 and ‘Fernsehturm’, 2001). And Toby Paterson, a Scottish artist, has been drawn further East. His large-scale wall paintings, sculptural assemblages and paintings on Perspex reproduce smooth and abstract spatial volumes of overlooked works of post-war architecture. His imagined cities include a seminary and schools designed by minor Glasgow architects Gillespie, Kidd & Coia; reconstruction schemes for the bombed-out city of Rotterdam; and suburban railway stations from Warsaw of designed in the late 1950s with dramatically cantilevered canopies and walls glazed with coloured tiles.

Toby Paterson’s 2002 painting of the entrance suburban railway station in Warsaw.

By suggesting the effortless flow of architectural forms liberated from the effects of gravity, Paterson reminds the viewer of the social and architectural vision of an age within memory. We are invited to glide freely over and through these volumes, much in the spirit of Kasimir Malevich’s suprematism. Time’s arrow has been reversed, and these structures – as images – have not fallen into decay. On the contrary, they have become perfect, even utopian. There seems to a political point being made by Paterson here, albeit one without the anchor of ideology. After all, he seems to be saying Western European states had their socmodernist moments in the post-war years too.

Utopia may now seem to be locked in the past, but it has not been abandoned. In fact, this discredited concept appears to be enjoying a glossy revival, as the ‘Utopia Station’ initiated at the Venice Biennale in 2003 made clear. Conceived in the spirit of Nicolas Bourriaud’s conception of relational aesthetics, this first ‘station’ was formed from a diverse set of contributions by more than sixty artists and architects, writers and performers. The garden at the Arsenale, furnished with shacks and tent-like structures, was the site of high-brow readings, lively discussions and ludic performances. Wrapped in a rosy rhetoric of democracy and emancipation, this chain of events had much in common with a 1960s ‘be-in’ or happening. In their attempt at a definition of ‘US’, curators Molly Nesbit, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Rirkrit Tiravanija offer the following statement: ‘It is simple. We use utopia as a catalyst, a concept most useful as fuel. We leave the complete definition of utopia to others. We meet to pool our efforts, motivated by a need to change the landscape outside and inside, a need to think, a need to integrate the work of the artist, the intellectual and manual laborers that we are into a larger kind of community, another kind of economy, a bigger conversation, another state of being.’[11] The artists most closely associated with Utopia Station have been accused of self-delusion and self-indulgence: their altruistic rhetoric is described as self-serving.[12] (Although its should be said that its orbit became somewhat wider with Utopia Station II, a poster project organised with the International Child Art Foundation in 2004.) With this criticism in mind, it is worth revisiting Marjetice Potrč’s work.

Interested in the way that individuals can take control of their environment, modernist architecture and design forms both the backdrop for and a medium in many of Potrč’s works. Her work is not confined to the gallery (though this space is important because, in her words, it provides a ‘breathing space’). She has developed schemes, for instance, that extend the definition of ‘shelter’ on the streets of Shenzhen, Istanbul and, most recently, Liverpool.[13] In this northern city once fringed by dozens of high rise housing slabs, Potrč attached a ‘clip-on’ balcony with wind turbine to an apartment to provide cheap and clean electricity for the residents. Produced under the auspices of the 2004 Liverpool Art Biennale, this piece pointed out the possibilities of recuperating a disparaged housing form, the tower block. (Today only two stand in a city where once seventy-two had been built such is the spectacular appeal of their destruction to local politicians).

In her 2003 installation, ‘Next stop Kiosk’, at the Moderna Gallery in Ljubljana, she exhibited a K-67 kiosk, originally designed by a prominent Slovenian designer and architect Sasha J. Mächtig (and, in 1971, also included in MOMA’s collection of architecture and design.)[14] This small, plastic and modular building – widely employed throughout the Eastern Bloc – was once claimed as a universal structure, meeting universal needs. Mobile and temporary, it could be function as an office, a retail outlet and even, on occasion, as a home. In Potrč’s artwork, a kiosk becomes a foundation for upper-tier made of a pine logs and discarded printing plates forming the walls of an ad hoc shelter. These additions refer to the Brazilian palafita, a ‘walking’ hut on stilts, as well as the unregulated shantytowns on the edges of cities in Latin America. They suggest creativity in impoverished conditions. Transposed into a European gallery, this work – like her other hybrid structures– brings two conceptions of utopia into sharp contrast. Her shelters counterpose the dream of a world that satisfies every need through modern technology with that in which an individual is able to organise the world according to his or her own desires and needs, in other words the utopia of self-action. Potrč sets out not to create a creole architecture, but a dialectical one. Moreover, Modernism is, as her work demonstrates, an ‘incomplete project’, to borrow Habermas’s famous phrase.[15] To make this point clear, in a 2005 series of drawings displayed in Kettle’s Yard under the title ‘Future of Now’, she captioned one sketch of housing blocks with these words: ‘Never completed, always fragmented, Modernism is easy to add on to, to pull in, to empty, to build upon, to Balkanize …’. This is surely evidenced by its return over the last decade – reworked by artists– as commodity critique, as nostalgia for utopia and as urban intervention.

[1] ‘Ways of Living’, Kettle’s Yard Gallery, Cambridge 1 October – 20 November 2005.

[2] Elizabeth Fisher ‘Ways of Living’, exhibition catalogue (Cambridge, 2005) 8.

[3] See Rainald Schumacher, ed. Andrea Zittel (Munich, 2003).

[4] Alex Coles DesignArt (London, 2005) 8.

[5] Jean Baudrillard Le Systeme des Objets (Paris, 1968).

[6] See Christina Kaier ‘Boris Arvatov’s Socialist Objects’ in October (summer 1997) 105-118.

[8] Walter Benjamin The Arcades Project, edited by H. Eiland (Boston, MA., 2002).

[9] Paul Betts, ‘Remembrance of Things Past: Nostalgia in West and East Germany, 1980-2000’ in Pain and Prosperity: Reconsidering 20th Century German History, P. Betts and G. Eghigian, eds. (Palo Alto, 2003), pp. 179-207.

[10] Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York, 2002).

[12] See, for instance, Claire Bishop ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’ in October (Fall, 2004) 51-59.

[13] See Marjetica Potrč Urgent Architecture (Palm Beach, 2004).

[14] See Marjetica Potrč Non Stop Kiosk, (Ljubljana, 2003).

[15] Jürgen Habermas ‘Modernity-An Incomplete Project’ in Hal Foster, ed., The Anti-aesthetic (Port Townsend, WA. 1983): 3-15.

Sacrifice, Madness, Ruins and Other Polish Dreams

Contemporary Art, Eastern Europe

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 – http://czarnagaleria.net/en/artists/4/olaf-brzeski/texts (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

Speaking about exhibitions

Contemporary Art, Eastern Europe

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.

Electric Birdsong

Contemporary Art, New Media

The University of Brighton Gallery is currently hosting a retrospective exhibition of the work of German sound artist Peter Vogel. Spindly frames dressed with transistors and capped with speakers eschew monumentality or anything as straightforward as a message. They are like electronic pets which respond to the presence of people. When a viewer casts a shadow over a photocell or claps hands before the tiny microphones soldered onto the frame, she or he is rewarded with pulsing beats and musical notes. The tonality and modulation of these pieces hints at Steve Reich or the Aphex Twin in a quiet moment. There are no instructions. Is the challenge is to unlock the hidden melodic and rhythmic pattern in the object or, perhaps, to create one’s own electronic music?  It is never quite clear who is in command – you or the instrument?

One large piece – a ‘Shadow Orchestra’ – offers an elaborate interplay of shadows. The viewer sits before a control box with his or her hands hovering over light sensors: their actions stimulate a range of percussive fans, chimes and drums which are lit to create a large shadow on the wall.  When the instrument is played, it produces something like a shadow theatre in the gallery.

The history of sound art is full of these kinds of modest experiments with interaction. What makes Vogel’s work so charming is the close connection between form and effect. They look like three-dimensional diagrammes featuring actual transistors and speakers, whilst the linear frame suggests the transmission lines of sound or electricity. Transistors also have the unusual advantage in the world of electronics of being visually appealing things. They come in bright colours and sweet-like shapes.

The Brighton exhibition represents new wave of interest in Vogel’s work. With a background in physics in the 1960s, he was a cyberneticist interested in the operation of the brain. In the 1970s his art works were something like experiments exploring the potential of interaction using current technology: today they look like artefacts from another age. Transistors are, for instance, made today at the nanoscale beyond the powers of human sight.

Watch Vogel play his ‘Sound Wall’ in  documentary ‘The Sound of Shadows’ made by Jean Martin and Conall Gleeson in 2010.

Images from the University of Brighton website