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WE LOVE NR - Neo Rauch and the Deutsche Bank Collection
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Artists Make Tomorrow's Poland
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Süden - The Villa Romana at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle
Let’s talk: Angelika Stepken, Ingrid & Oswald Wiener on “Hot Feet”

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Artists Make Tomorrow’s Poland

“When in Warsaw, don’t let first impressions fool you. Look instead for the many small faults in the resplendent façades of the city,” says Karol Sienkiewicz. A tour of the Polish art capital.


Picture gallery: Artists Make Tomorrow’s Poland
Picture gallery: Artists Make Tomorrow’s Poland


In Edward Krasiński’s studio on the top floor of an apartment block, it is as if time had been frozen; when the artist died in 2004 he left behind a peculiar “Gesamtkunstwerk” full of visual puns and traps. But through the vertical stripes in white that Daniel Buren attached to the window panes as a guest there in the 1990s, you can glimpse an ever-changing skyline. New skyscrapers mushroom around the pyramidal Palace of Culture. Here we are, Warsaw.

At Zbawiciela Square, one of Warsaw’s many hipster hot spots, there appears a rainbow, several meters high and made of thousands of paper flowers attached to a curved steel structure. Its creator, Julita Wójcik, first installed it in Brussels as part of a cultural program to celebrate Poland’s presidency of the European Union in 2011. The colorful object sent a positive message: “we’re cool and relaxed,” and economically, Poland is “a green island” in a depressed ocean of red, as prime minister Donald Tusk once proudly announced. Paradoxically, rainbows are also a symbol of the LGBT community, and Poland is far from being a bulwark for gay rights. Reinstalled in the very hub of Warsaw’s nightlife scene, Wójcik’s easily accessible and rather combustible rainbow has attracted intoxicated climbers and offhand arsonists. But in its new, partially burnt form, it seems to better reflect the ambiguities of life in contemporary Poland. With drinks in hand, patrons of local bars continue to make wisecracks about it. Trashy as it is, at least it creates some tension.


Artist Tymek Borowski
Photo: Ramon Haindl

During the last decade, and especially since 2004 when Poland joined the European Union, visual art has become a Polish export product. Often socially engaged, unassuming, and flouting the boundaries between art and life, Polish artists such as Paweł Althamer, Katarzyna Kozyra, Wilhelm Sasnal, and Artur Żmijewski have gained international recognition. Today they fan the ambitions of numerous wannabes, but back in the 1990s so-called critical artists were the whipping boys (and girls) of ultraconservatives. When the scandals faded and Poland entered the club of European “betters,” art often came in handy as a symbol of an ultimately transformed Polish state.

It was the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw that coined the term “modernization” in connection with contemporary art. Ironically, the museum team, headed by Joanna Mytkowska, is forced to jump through hoops regularly to prove that the city needs their institution at all. And not just “the city,” but its inhabitants as well. Each year the museum organizes the Warsaw Under Construction festival, which addresses pressing urban issues such as housing, the heritage of modernist architecture, and the omnipresence of outdoor advertisement. Warsaw virtually resembles one enormous construction site, and the museum itself suffers from a permanent state of “temporariness.” It is currently housed in another temporary venue, the late-modernist pavilion of a former furniture store Emilia. Last year the mayor of Warsaw terminated the city’s contract with Swiss architect Christian Kerez, who won the international competition to build a new museum in 2006. His project will never be built, only its specter will survive, in the museum’s collection, part of  Barge-Haulers, a recent Paweł Althamer sculpture. Althamer depicted the museum’s ten employees (director, curators, and guards) in his characteristic white-plastic style, first used in the ALMECH project at the Deutsche Guggenheim in 2011. Like the famous Volga barge-haulers in Ilya Repin's 1873 painting, the zombie-like figures of the museum's staff pull a cart with Kerez's model upon it—heroes of progress. But Mytkowska, who resigned from a curatorial post at the Centre Pompidou to run this institution in progress, seems to thrive in critical situations, sailing the museum through storm after storm. “It’s better when something happens than when nothing happens at all,” she says, examining her own face in Althamer’s sculpture. Cezary Bodzianowski’s banner hangs on the Emilia’s facade for passers-by to read: “Today’s Art Makes Tomorrow’s Poland.” It sounds like an offer and a warning.


Joanna Mytkowska
Director of the Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej w Warszawi.
Photo: Ramon Haindl

Unlike the Museum of Modern Art, the Zachęta National Gallery doesn’t have to worry so much about its future. Established as the “Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts” (Zachęta = Encouragement) in the mid-nineteenth century, it has been at home in its neo-Renaissance building for 110 years now. It has a circuitous history under its belt, but a straight path forward. Today it seems to run like clockwork. The Zachęta’s director for the last few years, Hanna Wróblewska, has worked there since the 1990s and knows the gallery like the back of her hand. “I’m no good with glib talk,” Wróblewska says, laughing at her dachshund, who refuses to strike a pose for a photographer. But it was also the Zachęta and the Museum of Modern Art that were the staunchest supporters of last year’s artists’ strike, to draw attention to artists’ poor social condition. And both female directors played an important role in establishing the cultural lobby “Citizens of Culture.” The official promotional image put forth abroad doesn't always coincide with the reality of under-financed art institutions at home.

Because of the gallery’s stature, a retrospective exhibition in the Zachęta marks the acme of an artistic career, but the gallery “encourages” younger generations as well. The major competition for young artists in Poland is the coveted Deutsche Bank Art Prize, “Views” (Spojrzenia), which takes place at the Zachęta every two years. Back in 2003, when the prize was established, Althamer, Wójcik, and Bodzianowski were still labeled “young artists,” but the last few editions of the “Views” have also echoed the new dynamics of the Polish art scene especially well.

In 2009 Wojciech Bąkowski won the prize. The author of non-camera animations with poetic voice-over narrations, he is the front man of several music projects, and a leader of the Penerstwo artistic collective from Poznań. No wonder he has a stage-like look to him. It was also definitely the city of Poznań that gave the Polish visual art scene its strong musical impulse. But artists gravitate to the capital. Konrad Smoleński, another member of Penerstwo who is now based in Warsaw and Bern, won the “Views” prize in 2011. He co-founded the BNNT band, which combines post-punk aesthetics and noise. Sporting balaclavas, they act as sound terrorists. Smoleński continually devises new, off-the-wall string instruments: in BNNT he plays a rocket propelled missile, in his solo performances, a dog’s skull. But he has recently applied more minimalist aesthetics to his sound installations, jettisoning the rebellious cadence. He often uses enormous loudspeakers though, which emit sound waves so strong that they seem to percolate through the human body.


Dan Perjovschi, Warsaw Notebook, 2013
part of the exhibition “In the Heart of the Country”
Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw

Such is Smoleński’s installation in the Polish Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. It consists of two bells, two barricades of huge loudspeakers, and 200 minimalist metal shelves which cover the walls. Every full hour the bells ring: the delayed sound is later modified and then amplified by the loudspeakers, creating a powerful, nearly unbearable sound that makes the metal shelves vibrate, further contributing to the sonic experience. Thus Smoleński transforms architecture into a musical instrument, a resonator. He emphasizes the very sensation of hearing. “That’s what I like about working with sound,” he says. “You can imagine it, design it, talk about it, but finally it’s nothing compared to the empirical encounter.” Whereas the artist and the pavilion’s curators see the installation within the abstract discourses of sonic art, Polish audiences automatically think of the Catholic church and events from recent Polish history, such as the 2010 Smoleńsk plane crash in which Polish president Lech Kaczyński died. It seems there is a certain dissonance between minimal, “cosmopolitan” intentions, and the “Polishness” of interpretation, as if we suffered from a serious identity crisis.

Sound is definitely a big deal in contemporary Polish art. On the shortlist for this year’s edition of the “Views” is another multidisciplinary artist, Piotr Bosacki. A colleague of Smoleński and Bąkowski, he is not only a maker of videos, but an experimental composer as well. Other contenders represent a wide spectrum of artistic views. Agnieszka Polska, who moved to Warsaw from Krakow, works at her desk in a workshop shared with several designers and visual artists. In her videos she animates found photographs, operating with a certain level of nostalgia. She often delves into the process of creating meaning and the writing of art history. Another nominee, Tymek Borowski, rejects art world rules altogether. Once a promising painter, he lost faith in the power of brush and easel, turning instead to mediums that deny the mercantile side of art, like the Internet or computer-generated imagery. He co-founded the Internet site Billy Gallery for instance. This less uptight means of art circulation offers him a space to pose existential, sometimes simplistic questions: “What is good and what is bad?” “What makes you happy?” “How does art work?”

This youngest generation of Polish artists doesn’t want to take part in the “Two Polands” debate that delineates a Catholic, parochial, conservative Poland from a new, modern, EU-friendly Poland. “Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto,” they just don’t care. First-timers in Warsaw, impressed by bustling streets, auspicious artists, and packed restaurants, quickly abandon their “all shades of grey” preconceptions about the city in the shadow of the Palace of Culture, for a “that’s not what I expected” attitude. But look out: like the mesmerizing colors of a rainbow, it may be just another fake façade.


Picture gallery: Artists Make Tomorrow’s Poland
Picture gallery: Artists Make Tomorrow’s Poland






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