Polish Art Now

Explorations on the built environment, avant-garde inheritance, and individuality over dominant political concerns, bring together the work of 15 Polish artists, and an exposé on the Polish avant-garde Tadeusz Kantor.

The 20th century has inflicted tumultuous changes in Poland and today the country continues its metamorphosis. In this state of flux the nature of its art is of paramount interest to British audiences. In the news, conflict over Polish immigration dominates our understanding of this nation, but we are rarely exposed to the creativities that are awakened by the country’s fluctuations. Seeking to address this imbalance, the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts exhibition, Take a Look at Me Now is provocative even in name, pitting burgeoning and established Polish artists, against a twin exhibition of the granddaddy of the Polish avant-garde, Tadeusz Kantor in the retrospective, An Impossible Journey.

As part of the Polska events and Contemporary Art Norwich 09, the two exhibitions will run alongside each other to expose audiences to the wide-ranging Polish practice dating from communist rule until today. Amanda Geitner, curator of Take a Look at Me Now, deviated from the Sainsbury Centre’s usual thematic approach to encapsulate the spirit of Poland in the 21st century, and to draw parallels alongside the centre’s existing collection of Eastern European art. “The exhibition developed through seeing a lot of work, meeting the curators and artists, and being impressed by the breadth and diversity of the work being produced but there were a couple of themes that emerged.” Rightly or wrongly, the defining moment for Eastern Europe is the fall of the Berlin Wall, and 2009 marks its 20th anniversary, as Kantor practiced through communist rule, comparisons are rife over artistic practice, both before and after glasnost. “We were interested in how relevant that was, whether or not the anniversary was particularly meaningful, if the recent entry into the EU in 2004 was significant socially, or if the current economic crisis was going to be a big preoccupation.”

In 2004, Hanna Wroblewska recognised “resentment towards the Kantorian grandeur and gigantism of art form.” For a young generation of Polish artists, Kantor’s dominance has encouraged unwelcome and unfavourable comparisons. Geitner clarifies: “There is a generation of artists over whom he dominated as a large figure and there were perhaps elements of rejection and of influence. For other artists, I’m not sure if they even particularly regard him as relevant to their current practice. What’s interesting, whether or not it’s purposeful on the behalf of the artist, is this idea of the performative, the way in which people engage with particular objects in space.” This is the main point of contention for comparisons, although a visual artist, Kantor is renowned for his performance work. Drawing significant parallels between the two exhibitions, Katarzyna Kozyra’s reputation is well established. Summertale is a Brothers Grimm foray in a nightmarish delirium, as the artist forms a three-piece with transvestite, Gloria Viagra, and singing instructor, Maestro. Surreal and intense, Kozyra’s work continues in Kantor’s avant-garde tradition and fully explores its Eastern European heritage.

Aside from the avant-garde inheritance, thematic elements remain throughout the exhibition, linked by a common lineage and shared history. One important feature is the effect of the built environment, with the most striking example being Nicolas Grospierre’s Zory, a digital re-working of Poland’s ubiquitous concrete housing blocks, emblazoned with the primary colours of a child’s paint box. “The built environment in Poland and the way in which it has shaped people’s lives is a historical record. Many of the artists that we are working with were young during communism, but have grown up in the concrete housing of the era.” It raises clear questions over the need to instil one’s individuality into the surroundings, and challenges the Le Corbusian utopian vision of clean, modernist lines while echoing Pawel Althamer’s Brodo 2000 installation, whereby a “2000” was illuminated on a Warsaw block of flats through the simultaneous co-operation of 200 resident families.

Although the artists’ works are exhibited together through a shared history and by way of practicing in a very specific moment, the exhibition avoids generalising under a certain shared mentality. For outsiders, initial understandings will inevitably focus on the Soviet legacy; the anger over years of misrule, the hope and promise of rebuilding the nation through democracy. Some of the works on display draw easy metaphors for this collective consciousness. Olaf Brzeski’s ceramic sculptures begin as eerie, monstrous forms. After an encounter with the artist’s more destructive instincts they become positively grotesque – accompanied by specifically commissioned battered plinths. Brzeski elicits satisfaction from destruction, and told Geitner, “it’s really great to make things but really good to break them too.” His work provides an obvious metaphor for the diminution and recreation of Polish expression – conveniently perched on an imperfect base.

In contrast, Pawel Althamer’s shamanistic art focuses his fascination on outsiders, the homeless and the disabled. As one of the more high-profile artists, Althamer goes some way in avoiding the over-politicised clichés of the ex-Eastern bloc, where the exploration of the individual, apart from politics, is often overlooked. Althamer’s work takes the Nowolipie group of disabled adults, on a biplane over Warsaw. Referencing universal dreams of flight, the piece also documents the scars on the most Polish of cities. “We were keen not to exoticise the idea of the former Eastern bloc. We were interested in the way that some of the work did reference historical events and other work didn’t at all.” Geitner refers this theme towards Wojtek Bakowski’s Spoken Movie II, a camera-less film, commenting that experiencing this piece of art is very much a personal isolated state of being. “It evokes an internalised, slightly altered, feverish state, which on the one hand is terribly particular to one person’s mental state and on the other hand is a kind of delirium with which you can identify.”

This combination of shared experience, and the opportunity to learn about the new is captivating, and highlights the international stage upon which many artists are practicing today. “There’s certainly overlap, but there’s also a relationship of artists around the world of internationalism, locality and specificity.” In such a crossover, Zorka Wollny’s Flee the Frame captures the playfulness of young international art. Subjects participate in a paparazzi-style game of chase, each armed with a camera and the purpose to avoid the others’ lenses. Wollny relishes the whimsical potential of art but also studies the players’ occupation of space, “the way in which people occupy and move thorough different structures, that’s what I found quite beguiling about it, these adults playing a game around a train station.” The threat of both Wollny’s playfulness and Brzeski’s violence hovers, quite literally over our heads, with Janek Simon’s Untitled (ceiling fan). The work is subversive and mesmerising, with a pair of trainers precariously fastened to a mechanised fan. Simon encourages us to take note of our own perilous position, with “a sense of both system and random, the ordered and the chaotic. In black and white, it relates to a very formal kinetic idea, and it’s a bizarre ready-made as well.”

There are issues surrounding Poland today – high unemployment, the emigration of millions of workers to the UK and the subsequent fractures in the family unit; as well as an increased sense of pride as native Poles see their own country emerging as a viable alternative to economic emigration. The works on display testify to the diversity of today’s practice, and are in fact accompanied by a documentary of Artur Zmijewski, which serves as an artwork in its own right. But what’s striking about Take a Look at Me Now is the proliferation of artworks outside of this experience, which are very personal and based on an individuality that is exclusive of, but naturally dependent on their Polish existence – works that remind us of the unique universality of art.

Take a Look at Me Now and An Impossible Journey were at Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts from 2 June to 30 August 2009. www.scva.org.uk.

Pauline Bache