Foksal Gallery Foundation and Centre for Contemporary Art
‘Rainbow Brite’, the title for Paulina Olowska’s show at Warsaw’s Centre for Contemporary Art, triggers numerous associations, not least an American animated cartoon from the 1980s about the little girl who was assigned to preserve colour in a land of darkness. For this exhibition Olowska invited us into the world of fairy tales with Wolfgang Petersen’s The Neverending Story (1984), a film remembered best for its title song, by Limahl.
Three rooms were taken up by a monumental video installation consisting of looped screenings of this classic family film in five different languages. The movie’s main character is Bastian, a boy who is chosen to rescue the cinematic wonderland from perdition using his imagination. Little by little the fantasy world is consumed by the void as people lose hope and forfeit their dreams to undemanding, uninventive entertainment. Bastian receives a grain of sand – the only thing left of the realm of fantasy – and his task is to rebuild it anew, using his dreams and wishes. Olowska’s practice resembles this process of constructing the world from the small kernel of one’s own dreams. And she is well aware that, although having faith in rebuilding a reality destroyed by the void is Utopian, sometimes it still yields positive results.
Apart from the screenings of the film itself, the exhibition included The Neverending Story posters designed by graphic artists from different countries – a range of languages, cultures, styles and imaginations at work. In this context Olowska’s screen prints depicting the head of the good dragon from the film (Rainbow Brite, 2006) looked elegantly frugal. Furthermore, the exhibition offers a rather liberal approach to copyright: the fact that the film is screened in a continuous loop, 24 hours a day, free of charge, ironically makes the artist completely immune to charges of copyright violation under Polish law.
As with the The Neverending Story, dreams of repairing reality with fantasy were also the impulse for ‘PAINTING – EXCHANGE – NEON’, Olowska’s exhibition at the Foksal Gallery Foundation. The glittery, smooth surface of a large-scale painting of a night view of Warsaw (Warsaw Belongs to the Bourgeoisies, 2006) reflected neon lights designed by the artist and installed in the gallery window. Another picture, 48h 2min (2006), featured a list of nearly 2,600 neon signs manufactured by the state-owned company Reklama, which also produced the locally renowned ‘Volleyball Girl’ of 1961: a sign that once advertised a sports shop in one of the main squares in Warsaw, an area created in the 1950s as a Stalinist project. The neon was originally used to create an aura of finesse around the bulky architecture of Socialist Realism. Polish design of the late 1950s and 1960s, sometimes referred to as ‘applied fantasy’, set out to revive the existing non-Soviet visual culture. The contemporary neon signs served not as advertisements but rather as sources of light and egalitarian beauty in the war-ruined, dark cities, symbolically contrasting modern aesthetics with the Stalinist past. Following the political transformation, the signs lost their raison d’être, and many of them were dismantled. Olowska decided to save the ‘Volleyball Girl’, which had been broken, and which no one had bothered to restore. She studied the archives, consulted with its former manufacturers about the colours, and talked with the inhabitants of the building on which the sign is now installed. Eventually she decided to trade her own art for the sign: the money raised from sale of the paintings on display went towards reinstalling the old neon. And thus we can now see the girl again, throwing a ball up in the air, its movement represented by shining glass rings turned on and off in
Olowska’s two exhibitions can be read collectively as a manifesto for freedom of imagination and artistic speech; one which enables us to play somebody else’s film publicly for free, or restore someone else’s neon sign. The multiplication of film images and the aesthetics of screen printing and advertising are a nod to Andy Warhol, for whom appropriating existing images was standard practice. Just as the hero of The Neverending Story rescues fantasy, Olowska attempts to free art from being stuck among strict rules of expression.
Goska Charylo Translated by Krzysztof Kosciuczuk