Have you ever had that frustrating feeling when you try to remember the lyrics of a song but the words just won’t come to you? The only solution is to listen to the song again which, of course, is not that difficult in this age of digital media. Confrontation with the works of Alicja Bielawska takes this state of frustrated recollection to an extreme, providing no easy answers. Bielawska, a graduate of Amsterdam’s Gerrit Rietveld Academie, works with drawing, installation and sculpture, or rather, ‘objects’. ‘Adopted Shapes’, her recent exhibition at Galeria Arsenał in Białystok, featured a series of new works and a selection of drawings.
On entering ‘Adopted Shapes’, the first thing the visitor noticed was a massive L-shaped veneer board sitting on a sheet of linoleum (Furniture, all works 2012). Next to it, mounted on the wall, was a small piece of stiff, white cotton fabric fixed on a semi-circular curtain rod, creased neatly so as to resemble folded paper (Curtain). Alongside was a lamppost-like structure, or a barbell split in half, its base hidden under several lumpy layers of rubbery floor covering (Blue). In another room, one saw three metal poles bent like playground climbing frames and covered with an uneven coat of polymer clay (Yellow, Blue, Green). At first glance, these works appeared obscure, if not inaccessible, offering no more than a set of contrasts between soft and firm, horizontal and vertical. But as we move around and among them, the austere objects begin to impose their presence, as if they feed on the cold electric light filling the exhibition space. Once this chain of associations was set in motion, we find ourselves amidst pieces of furniture, playground and gym equipment devoid of their functions, as though broken down and built anew based on fantastic designs.
Born in the early 1980s, Bielawska belongs to a generation whose image of the ancien régime of the People’s Republic of Poland was, for the most part, shaped by stories, photographs and everyday objects. Yet what lingers in the artist’s works is not the history itself, but the materials and forms that populate today’s public and private spaces. While individual elements of Bielawska’s sculptures may seem basic and straightforward, on closer inspection, they reveal an intriguing two-fold nature. In Blue, the thick layers of linoleum imitate wooden flooring, their pattern mirroring that of the squeaky gallery floor. The veneer board in Ball, with a soft pinåçkish toy trapped inside a tent-like structure, imitates genuine timber; while the clay-covered metal poles of Yellow, Blue, Green, deceive the viewer, leading us to believe we are facing a soft, plastic object. As this game of mimicry unfolds, so does the interplay of recalling and forgetting. What we are dealing with here are ‘impossible objects’ – not just pieced together from actual real-life items, but purposefully elusive, and difficult to grasp.
In a third room, framed by two sculptures, was a set of drawings. While the artist’s sculptures are bound by the constraints imposed by their materials, Bielawska’s sketches are not subject to limitations of any kind. Rather than models for future works, they give a glimpse into another realm of the impossible. Done in pencil or ink, the two-dimensional works present imaginary constructions sprawling across the page – subtle, free-floating, often defying the laws of physics.
In ‘Adopted Shapes’, Bielawska took her visitors into a world inhabited by poetic structures – ‘adopted’ both in the sense of ‘taking up’ as well as of ‘claiming as one’s own’. Silent, precarious, watching: Bielawska’s objects lie in wait to ensnare her viewers in a web of associations – until they realize, much as with music, though the tune sounds familiar, the song itself is brand new.