The belief that art can make something happen (in Warsaw)
Still from Józef Robakowski, Moscow, 1986. Lokal_30 gallery.
Spike’s editor at large went to Warsaw Gallery Weekend and picked out a few of the art experiences in the city’s galleries and institutions that helped make his trip worthwhile.
There was a lot going on during the fifth edition of the Warsaw Gallery Weekend this September, with crowds of predominantly Polish-speaking people at the openings put on by the twenty participating galleries and several other concurrent events. There were some good shows, a few excellent ones, and lots of good conversations. When I got back to Berlin a friend said: “I do think one day the Poles will save the art world” and it was tempting to think: could be, could be.
The question of regionalism, local contexts and histories, versus internationalism, and especially “international contemporary art” loomed large. More than a handful of Polish artists are (art-world) famous, of course, and the luminaries of recent Polish art history are beginning to become more widely known beyond the country’s borders. Conversely, the idea of a single hegemonic narrative is clearly becoming more and more rickety, whatever Frieze and Art Basel would have you believe. But this doesn’t mean that the sense of another, bigger art world is not always strongly felt.
Perhaps one can hope that many dialects of contemporary art will evolve in a time of eroding distinctions between centre and periphery. In such an art world, some artists (and writers, and curators) would still function as conduits, performing acts of trade and translation to take up and respond to different histories and geographies. But for this to happen it means not everyone should look continually to the centres of power.
My first visit to Warsaw was not a time to find answers. But there was little of the jaded cynicism that infects too many people in places where art too easily seems first and foremost a business. I enjoyed the Warsaw-Berlin intercity train, the pierogies I made in my apartment, the bike-hire scheme and the new network of cycle paths. I accidentally went to TKMaxx. Here are a few of the art things I saw, by no means all of them. I recommend you go and see for yourself.
1. “Kurz | Dust | غبار” at the Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle
Twenty-three artists from Belgium, Iran, Kuwait, Lebanon, Pakistan, Poland and the United Arab Emirates made for a loose, open, revelatory show that was fundamentally about how matter matters. It also took in questions of scale, things falling apart and coming together, life and death and unexpected relationships, always within specific, contingent, geographical, political, personal, and/or philosophical contexts that – for me as a viewer socialized in the West, inculcated with “from dust to dust” – were also about how small the frame of the Western “art world” really is: its own sense of its greatness as a perspectival distortion. Ochre dust (by Iza Taresewicz) lay under radiators, a stencil of a gravestone (by Barbad Golshiri) left traces of Persian writing in soot, amateur VHS footage of the burning of the Kuwaiti oil fields (by Monira Al Qadiri) shifted the Wagnerian perspective of Werner Herzog’s 1992 Lessons of Darkness, and the self-taught artist Nasser Bakshi made self-contained boxes with titles like Birth and Death in an Inaccessible Memory. A feat of research and curatorial feingefühl by curator Anna Ptak working alongside cocurator Beirut-based Amanda Abi Khalil, this was a show that literally changed the air you breathe, and the understanding of place – it emerged in part out of a “Re-Directing East” program at the A-I-R Laboratory that seeks to shift the focus from the West and encourage one to “think and act in a more multilateral way.”
2. Wojciech Bąkowski at Galeria Stereo
The digital projection Analysis of Emotions and Vexations, 2015 (shown here along with a selection of pencil drawings) made the most of art as a kind of exploratory probing of images, words, and feelings. Stop-motion drawings of real and imaginary urban and domestic scenes and a soft-voiced, self-reflexive, intermittently stream-of-consciousness narrative melded into one another, making for a moving, thoughtful, serious feat of communication.
3. Katarzyna Mirczak at Kasia Michalski Gallery
This artist, born 1980, made suspiciously slick work that was shown in a suspiciously slick gallery, but if you accepted the invitation to walk into the gradually descending curtain of black cloth you got what you had, as it turned out, come for. The soft cloth hanging from the ceiling in dense strips created a surprisingly intense black that was right in your face. A collaboration with composer Rafał Zapała and the data collected during nights in the Sleep Disorders Center at the Institute of Psychiatry and Neurology in Warsaw culminated, on the far side of the darkness, in a circle of numbers tracking the artist’s eye movements and the phrase, in the same diminutive font: it was / frida kahlo / swimming / in lava.
4. Szymon Roginski at Piktogram’s temporary second venue
Here it was the staging that gave the exhibition its force: until recently a functioning strip club called Libido, with bars and dancing poles and mood lighting and leather sofas in dark corners intact, the venue gave Szymon Roginski’s photographs of Poland a run for their money in the key of a wistful Lynchianism.
5. The Instytut Awangardy
Far from the demimonde of nightclubs and commerce, Eduard Krasiński’s studio and apartment is a kind of shrine where one comes to pay one’s respects. It was hard not to feel nostalgic for long and long-passed nights of conversation, art-making, and friendship. Invited by the pioneering Polish avant-gardist Henryk Stażewski to share his government-organized artist’s apartment, which he eventually took over, Krasiński ran his signature blue tape throughout the space at a uniform height of 130cm. He once said: “I don’t know whether [the tape] is art, but it’s certainly scotch blue, 19mm wide, length unknown.” The omnipresent ribbon is a guide for the eye, a guide through a labyrinth, a horizon line. An attendant explained that he decided on the height because it is easiest on the arms. Everything has been left as it was upon Krasiński’s death in 2004; twice a year a conservator comes by and does a little light dusting (see #1). The view from the roof of Warsaw spreading out to the horizon in all directions is well worth it, too.
6. “The Cut,” 2B Karmelicka Street
Aslı Çavuşoğlu, Simone de Iacobis and Małgorzata Kuciewicz staged an intervention that involved excavating a mound of wartime rubble within the erstwhile confines of the Warsaw Ghetto, where they kept inadvertently coming upon fascinating objects, including this cycling award, making it difficult to stick to their original plan to rebury everything once the project was over…
7. Action PRL, “Unannounced Festival”
This project involved demonstrations or happenings in public space memorializing key events in political and art history during the era of the People’s Republic of Poland (1952–1989). I saw it only for a few minutes, when I caught a dozen-odd people quietly walking on the street, with police accompaniment, carrying black and white photographs of charged moments in the country’s artistic and political history, with the last pair carrying a large black and white photo of a banner (originally slung across a Warsaw street by Andrzej Partum in 1974) with its subtitled translation: “The Vanguard Silence.”
Alexander Scrimgeour is a writer and editor-at-large of Spike. He lives in Berlin.