Open Space, Collective Action
A conversation with Anna Molska
In her videos, Anna Molska uses obsolete modernist utopias and socialism as pretexts for examining reality today. She brings professional mourners to the museum; she puts on a production of Hauptmann’s "Weavers" with Silesian miners as actors. In the framework of the Views Prize for Young Polish Art offered by the Deutsche Bank Foundation Anna Molska was awarded a residency at the Villa Romana. Angela Rosenberg visited the artist in Florence.
||As pedestrians, you can easily tell them apart: Florentines hurrying home on this cold autumn day carrying bags of groceries with their shoulders drawn against the cold, and the tourists stepping hesitantly across the historical pavement. They come to rest before Michelangelo’s David or Giotto’s Campanile and gaze in wonder. Overcome by the artistic experience, they don’t notice that they are being photographed. At David’s feet sits the young Polish artist Anna Molska, who collects these moments of collective abandon.
"I don’t know yet if the material forms the basis for a new work, but it’s a possibility to investigate what’s here," admits the artist as she sits in her workspace in the attic of the Villa Romana, a rustic dining room illuminated only by a small window. Her laptop sits on the table, her very own window to the world, barely twenty minutes on foot from the masses of tourists at the Palazzo Pitti in the Giardino di Boboli. Surrounded by a large garden of fruit and olive trees, the Villa Romana offers an exhibition space in the foyer, work and living space for four fellows, and accommodations for their guests. The large building with the labyrinthine interior was originally purchased by the artist Max Klinger as a studio building. Now, the Villa Romana Fellowship is the oldest German stipend in existence. It’s also Deutsche Bank’s longest-standing cultural commitment: the bank has been supporting the renowned prize for contemporary art in Germany for more than eighty years. Georg Kolbe and Käthe Kollwitz were among the first to work here, followed by many younger artists that count among the greats today—from Max Beckmann to Georg Baselitz, Michael Buthe, Katharina Grosse, and Karin Sander. Martin Kippenberger, although he was never a fellow, was also a frequent guest during his sojourns in Florence.
In the framework of the Views Prize for Young Polish Art offered jointly by the Deutsche Bank Foundation and the Zacheta National Gallery in Warsaw, Anna Molska was awarded a residency at the Villa Romana. Cultural exchange is programmatic, and Anna Molska enjoys inviting additional guests. In October of 2010, the 27-year-old artist hosted her former professor Grzegorz Kowalski, whose workshop at the Art Academy in Warsaw, originally for sculpture and today for "audiovisual design," is a phenomenon, having nurtured an entire generation of Polish artists known worldwide today, including Pawel Althamer, Katarzyna Kozyra, and the designated curator of the 7th Berlin Biennial (2012), Artur Zmijewski.
One figure who was very influential for Kowalski’s teaching was the Polish architect and utopian visionary Oskar Hansen, who wrote a manifesto of the "Open Form" in 1959 in reaction to modernist form, which he considered to be stagnant. It was based on an idea of space that was not static, built-in, or clearly structured, but rather a dynamic structure created by people in which art and architecture act as a "passe-partout" to the changes taking place in space.
In Kowalski’s class, however, the energy prevailing between the participating actors took center stage while the video camera became the preferred means of documentation. "In the nineties, there was only one VHS camera and you had to wait for weeks for your turn to use it," explains Anna Molska in reference to this time, which today, only fifteen years later, is hard to imagine.
Molska’s best-known works are video films. Tangram (2006-7), made while she was still a student, was shown in the spring of 2009 in the exhibition The Generational: Younger Than Jesus at the New Museum in New York. It shows a precisely planned performance of two young men wearing nothing but strapped helmets and black jockstraps. They use their athletic bodies to move black geometric objects around in a way that is reminiscent of the Chinese game Tangram. Beginning with a black square, the two actors create forms from various different elements that quote Russian Constructivist motifs, such as Kazimir Malevich’s iconic Black Square on a White Background (1915). When the two men stretch out on the floor next to one another after pushing their game aside, one hears a short dialogue in Polish that recalls a film from communist days: "I am grown up now," says one, and the other answers: "You’re still green behind the ears!"The first one defiantly responds: "I am eighteen now. I’m going into the Polish army." The exchange of words introduces a disturbingly nationalistic level of meaning into the hermetic, fetishistically charged setting and disrupts the formal game with established art historical references such as Malevich or Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet (1922). Here, Molska questions the influence of nostalgic, nationalistic, or revisionist ideas on Poland today as well as the power of revolutionary thoughts to bring about social change in the long term.
Constructivist ideas play a subordinate role. "The formal aspect isn’t so important to me. When you create a connection between two positions, you have a line. One more point makes a triangle, but that doesn’t mean that one subscribes to a Constructivist world of ideas. For me, people come first, and then comes everything else". Thus, it comes as no surprise that the dinner during which we were planning to talk about her work turned into a large event for all the fellows and their guests. It was very late when the table was finally cleared for the computer and the speakers.
Her interest in social change could already be detected in Berlin in the work P = W / t (Power) and W = F * s (Work) (2008). These formulae can be translated into "Power equals work divided by time" and "Work equals force times shift". The videos were the artist’s final project at the Warsaw Academy and were shown in 2008 at the 5th Berlin Biennial. In a dual projection, one side shows an empty white squash court with red markings and squash balls lying around, which invisible forces bear upon until they fly over the walls, as though hit by a ghostly hand. On the opposite screen, a group of workers erects a large triangular metal structure on an empty lot. The construction only makes sense after the men climb it to form a human pyramid with gaps. At marches and parades, this monumental geometric form of individual bodies was once regarded as a symbol for the power of the revolutionary collective. But in Molska’s video, the structure has already entered the vicinity of parody of utopian constructions. Entirely lost, it stands in a no-man’s-land and the sullen men are anything but radiant "heroes of labor".
Through this repetition of obsolete forms, the artist provides an impulse to the viewer to reflect on the relationship between art and society. In her works, she negotiates strategies of memory, of forgetting, of the nostalgic reactivation of socialist modernism. This leads to the question of art’s potential in the organization and shaping of an individual life, but also the initiation of collective experience and its social relevance today.
"I’m very interested in the phenomenon of the working class, in the power of the working class as a group and their collective activity". During the work on The Weavers (Die Weber, 2009), it first appeared to Molska as though nothing had changed, yet "something did change, but not as radically as in the west. Poland hadn’t yet quite completed its transition to a post-industrial phase—the problem of the working class, its power, this still exists here". For this video work, the artist harked back to a masterpiece of German Naturalism and borrowed both the title and dialogue fragments from Gerhart Hauptmann’s drama, which premiered in 1894. The historical weaver uprising that provided the subject matter for the Nobel Prizewinner took place in 1844 in Silesia, which is part of Poland today. Here, Molska worked with laborers of the coalmines, who over 100 years later are affected by restructuring and closures. The workers can be seen laboring in mines, sitting on slag heaps during lunch break eating salami sandwiches, denouncing the unscrupulousness of the powers that be in conversation with one another, and debating revolt. They use, in an almost tedious way, the exact words and sentences that Hauptmann gave his weavers. While this method seems didactic at first, it takes on a palpable urgency through visible dislocations and parallels and the shift of historical context to the present day.
Anna Molska is interested in this change in perspective and the altered view of reality connected to it: "When I come back to Poland, I see things more clearly. The contrast is so strong that even little things that I didn’t perceive before become very clear." This can be seen in the example of the mourners. For Placzki – The Mourners (2010), the artist worked with a group of women who appear at funerals as professional mourners, as is still the custom in rural Poland. She shows the women, matrons in brown parkas, in the exhibition space of the Center for Polish Sculpture in wintery Oronsko, and observes them at a distance, as though they were a group of animated sculptures. Over the course of the half-hour video, the protagonists increasingly relax in the cool atmosphere and together develop a dirge that appears to be directed at the institution of the White Cube itself. As though they were crying over everything that had been recklessly excluded from the modernist project, such as rural traditions and the almost unbearable emotions that they lend ritual expression to. What seems like the representation of a conflict between tradition and modernism turns out to be a poetic plea against the torpor of art and for its freedom far beyond conventions and customary positing of form and content.
It has gotten even later now; the question remains as to whether or not something from Florence will find entry into her works. Anna Molska doesn’t know and shrugs. "I’ve also photographed animals in dioramas in the Natural History Museum here—they’re very old. Perhaps I will work on them further". Then she laughs: "We’ll see. I have a really great new camera! Super-8!"