Cultural Politics

A new exhibition at Museum of Contemporary Art Krakow explores the socio-political undercurrents of European art since 1945 through to the present day.

The last century saw the fabric of Europe both catastrophically shredded apart and subsequently become more integrated than ever before. Periods of enormous cooperation as well as conflict have defined the socio-political make up of the continent since it was ripped apart by two world wars. A new exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow (MOCAK) looks at a wide range of art produced against the backdrop of the most pronounced political changes in the post-war period. The Desire for Freedom. Art in Europe since 1945 is both a historical survey and a reflection of the contemporary interrelations between politics and art.

By presenting the work of 47 artists from 17 European countries, the show reflects the diversity of perspectives currently at play in notions of what constitutes “Europe.” With such a broad outlook, curators Delfina Jałowik and Monika Kozioł have made a conscious effort within the exhibition to move away from old-fashioned perspectives such as the division of Europe into East and West. By disregarding the traditions of analysis oriented around Cold War politics, they instead present a more complex, diverse and integrated landscape of politics and art: “Gathering artists from around the continent enabled us to create a broader perspective of what is important for contemporary Europe. The continent is presented as an integrated entity in which particularities of culture and history are allowed to speak.”

Some of the works in the show, therefore, explicitly respond to the specific details of their national politics. A work that falls into this category is Monument without a Passport in the Salons of Visual Art (1978) by KwieKulik, an artistic partnership formed by Zofia Kulik and Przemysław Kwiek between 1971 and 1987. This work documents a performance piece in which the two artists drew attention to their inability as Polish artists to travel overseas. This project responded specifically to an invitation they received to perform at an event in the Netherlands. Having their passports refused, they instead mounted a series of performances in which the artists were shown entrapped and imprisoned, surrounded by postcards from the Netherlands. The works saw them adopt absurd poses that drew attention to the lack of freedom that they and much of the population was enduring at the time.

However, the lack of freedom experienced under oppressive or totalitarian regimes is not the only focus. As Jałowik and Kozioł explain, the emphasis is on the theme of liberty across the many broad and diverse characteristics of political structures in Europe. Furthermore, the notion of emancipation is explored as a general human value that transcends politics: “The works being presented pose the following questions: “What is the meaning of freedom today? Do we try to defend it? How? Do we try to understand it?’ ”

Works such as Jirí David’s photographic series No Compassion (2002) can be seen as interrogating the various forms autonomy can take. Not least, there is artistic freedom, which, as with all notions of independence, also requires responsibility, fundamental to this authority to hold a society’s values to account and re-interpret and imagine its structuring possibilities. David’s photographs feature well known political figures such as George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Vladimir Putin, and are stock images that look distinctly familiar, but with one difference: the artist’s tears have been digitally superimposed to make it look as though the politicians are crying. By making a subtle intervention into the photographs, David’s piece demonstrates society’s intolerance towards seeing political figures show emotion and the constrictions of our media-controlled culture. The faces are iconic, but they are never captured showing compassion, which gives the series an uncanny strangeness. Furthermore, the piece suggests something disconcerting about the visually compassionless visages of some of the world’s most powerful politicians as they make decisions that impact upon all of our rights and choices.

Previous incarnations of this show have been exhibited in Berlin, Tallinn and Milan. These exhibitions included works of sculpture and painting, dating back to the mid 1940s. However, by focusing on video art, MOCAK have shifted the focal point of the exhibition onto more contemporary perspectives, with the oldest work on display dating from the 1960s. This piece comprises of documentary footage of Yves Klein’s work Anthropometries of the Blue Period (1960), in which young female models were instructed by the artist to cover themselves in paint and press their bodies onto a canvas in a live performance, accompanied by a small orchestra. However, the work is problematic and makes for uncomfortable viewing. The painted torsos of the women form a stark contrast to the black tie suits of the musicians, raising questions regarding spectatorship, the body and power. This work, then, draws attention to one of the most fundamental (and ongoing) socio-political developments in European “desires for freedom” and equality: feminism.

Celebrated Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic ’s The Lips of Thomas (1975/2005) explores this theme further. A dual-channel projection documents two versions of the performance from 1975 and 2005. The video begins with Abramovic eating one kilo of honey with a silver spoon. She then drinks a litre of wine from a crystal glass, which she subsequently breaks with her right hand. Gradually, her actions become more and more brutal – with a razor blade she cuts a star-form into her stomach, then she begins to scourge herself, and, finally, lays down on a cross made out of ice blocks. Her stomach is warmed by the radiator, which causes the constant bleeding of the wound; at the same time the underside of her body freezes. The artist remains in this position for half an hour, until the audience intervened and removed her from the ice. With themes such as terror, complicity and torture, this piece interrogates many of the ways in which freedom is surpressed in societies across the world. As Jałowik and Kozioł explain: “This work crosses the borders of one’s own body and in this performance the witnesses of an individual’s auto-destructive activities do not allow the artist to continue harming herself. The border between the audience and the performer is blurred. There is an act of protest against violence.”

Violence is also a theme of the contribution of Spanish artist Cristina Lucas, who has often explored European political and social themes in her work, including feminism. In Europa Economica Popular (2010), Lucas featured a map of Europe with countries renamed by their slang word for money. Spain is “Pasta” and the UK “Dough.” She is represented in The Desire for Freedom by her video work Liberty Leading the People (2009), which uses Eugene Delacroix’s famous painting of 1830 to question the implicit violence in its revolutionary zeal. She recasts the painting through a series of contemporary interpretations realised in video. In these films, the characters portrayed in the paintings come to life, repossessing the traditional reading of the painting as a celebration of emancipation and instead reading the painting as essentially a scene of tragic and zealous violence.

Lucas’ work problematises natural assumptions about liberty and freedom, encouraging the viewer to ask questions relating to how exactly “freedom” will manifest itself and whether it will, in fact, be futile, merely replaced with another form of restriction, conformity or tyranny. Her work also suggestively develops a sense of the patriarchal assumptions that underpin Delacroix’s depiction of liberty as a woman, bare breasted and romanticised. In this way, Lucas’ piece asks the questions that are also raised by the video of Klein’s performance, why are the women naked? Why are the men clothed? They interrogate the sort of imagery associated with war and nationhood and the ways in which national values are characterised through art and other media.

The process of national stories can also be seen as important to Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers’ video performance Rain (1969). In this piece, Broodthaers sits outside in the rain writing with ink on a sheet of paper. The rain continually washes away the ink. Recalling deep sadness and tears, Broodthaers’ piece is a continual wiping of the slate clean, an expression of the constant reinvention of the present and a rejection of notions of permanence. Taken in the context of a presentation of work related to the socio-political dimension of art in Europe, Broodthaers’ performance is a poetic iteration of the necessity for societies to constantly reimagine and reinterpret what they want their society to be. However, they also express a sense of futility and frustration, a hopeless situation in which the ideas will never quite take hold. The theoretician Boris Groys has written frequently of the power of art to effect social and political transformation. This work questions that structure and suggests it lies not in the clearly delineated communication between artist and audience but rather in the intangible and ephemeral embrace of chance, accident, incoherence and complexity. The washed-out texts become abstract paintings, beautiful in their minimalism and softness; they remain as a trace of the original ideas expressed in the text.

With the majority of the works on display having been produced since the 1990s, the MOCAK iteration of The Desire for Freedom constitutes a significant investigation of the responses of contemporary artists to current issues relating to the social and political circumstances in Europe over the past 20 years. One consequence of this shift is the link that is forged between socio-political developments and the changing character of media consumption in the period. Mass media and the internet are major themes of many of the videos featured in the show. For example, in Polish artist Janek Simon’s animated film Departure (2003), the artist recasts some of the most watched media events of the 20th century (rocket and space shuttle-launches) into an amusing and absurd clash with the ancient spires of Krakow’s old town. Church spires are seen to become rockets and project towards space. Drawing on both the drama and anticipation of real-life rocket launches and the aspirational absurdism of conceptual artist Ilya Kabakov’s The Man who Flew into Space from His Apartment (1968-1996), Simon’s animation draws attention to the ways in which national identity is continually formed by our conservation and construction for the future. However, comical and exciting Simon’s video is, there is also a visual reference to some sort of concealed weaponry or missiles, and a reminder of the tragic destruction that is levelled on historic buildings and architecture in conflicts.

One of the most recent pieces included is also one of the works that most eloquently addresses the traumatic reality of the post-1945 world. Victor Lind’s Oslo by Night – the Stars (2006) is a video featuring a map of Oslo overlaid with the night sky. Twinkling stars are placed to mark the exact spots where people lived who never returned from Auschwitz. Commemorating the horror of the Holocaust, Lind’s video is profoundly moving. The extent to which the terrible events of the 1930s and 1940s altered European consciousness is evidenced clearly by the conceptual layering in Lind’s film. The star, recalling the terrifying appropriation of the Star of David to identify and label Jews, is reclaimed and becomes a star of hope.

Our cultural and social identities depend on a constant balancing of the flux between looking to the future and returning to history. In this way, the work of contemporary artists such as Simon and Lind can be seen as a reflection of the scope and scale of the exhibition itself. As its title suggests, The Desire for Freedom. Art in Europe since 1945 is both a survey of the recent history of socially and critically engaged art in Europe and a reflection of the contemporary situation. However, by focusing on younger artists, it might also be considered a projected investigation into the future directions in which today’s artists are currently proceeding in response to the continually evolving political fabric of Europe.

The Desire for Freedom. Art in Europe since 1945 runs until 26 January at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow, Poland.

Colin Herd