BY Kirsty Bell in Features | 11 JAN 13
Featured in
Issue 160

Anna Molska

Film as social experiment, and learning how to communicate without speaking

BY Kirsty Bell in Features | 11 JAN 13

Anna Molska, Hecatomb, 2011, DVD stills. Courtesy: Broadway 1602, New York

In Anna Molska’s 2011 film Hecatomb, a young man dressed in Hawaiian shorts and flip-flops, with an armour-like leather vest buckled over his chest, appears alone in an empty greenhouse. Alternately listless and restless, lying on a rubber air mattress (the only prop in the space) or pacing around and cracking a long whip, his strange costume and apparent lack of purpose in this vacant setting create an untethered, dreamlike atmosphere. Particularly when a vent begins to spurt out foam, flooding the greenhouse with airy bubbles in which the young man flails, before escaping the building into the lush greenery outside. Accom­panied by a continuous sound­­track of distant humming, the film seems to be a manifestation of mood, a state of mind played out in space. Though more fantastical than many of Molska’s previous filmic works, which are often described as ‘social experiments’, Hecatomb is nonetheless indicative of the working methods of this young Polish artist, who graduated from the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts in 2008. Loca­tion and scenery are loaded with intrinsic meaning while materials, costumes or props are purposefully introduced to guide an otherwise unscripted narrative of action. 

Molska’s methods are closely derived from her experiences in Grzegorz Kowalski’s ‘Studio of Audio-Visual Space’ at the Academy (whose alumni also include Paweł Althamer, Katarzyna Kozyra and Artur Żmijewski). Particularly influential was a class called Obszar wspólny, Obszar własny (‘Common Space, Private Space’), in which group members were encouraged to work with their own bodies and communicate through other means than speaking, the only rule being that nothing should be destroyed in the process. Similar parameters define much of Molska’s subsequent practice, in which the coordinates of a reality are established but the action is allowed to develop freely within them. In many of her works, it appears as if sense has been evacuated and we are left simply with a coming together of actions on screen. Responsiveness and adaptation to the specifics of social, locational or spatial circumstances come to define the nature of these films, for participants, director and viewers alike.

In The Mourners (2010) – prelude and counterpart to the more abstract Hecatomb – this sense of evacuation derives from the fact that the group of seven elderly women it depicts believe they are going to be the subjects of a documentary film. The documentary never transpires, however, and instead we are left with peripheral snippets of conversation, jokes and observations as the women chatter to pass the time in a grand, marble-floored hall, drenched with winter light from windows on all sides. Huddled together around a bed-like platform in this stark interior, they talk about families, death and the devil until, suddenly, they start to sing a traditional folk song, their voices transitioning to an extraordinary, moving solemnity that seems to contain centuries of lives and deaths. The women are official mourners from rural southeast Poland, who sing songs at funerals that have been handed down over generations since the 12th century. Molska brought them for four days to the once-celebrated Polish Sculpture Centre in Orońsko where – with no families to take care of, meals to prepare or homes to clean – they are cast adrift. Dressed in beige anoraks instead of traditional mourners’ costumes, the women impart their songs with a profound universality while their ordinary discussions about friendship, tradition and the nature of life and death assume the weight of an oracle.

Anna Molska, The Mourners, 2010, DVD stills

In 2012, Molska was awarded the recently established Polish Film Institute and Museum of Modern Art Film Award, comprising a one-year course at Warsaw’s Wajda Film School and a production budget. The outcome was Scene 46 (2013), a kind of fusion of The Mourners and Hecatomb, which presents an ironic deconstruction of filmic conventions. Set in an impressive modernist house, the work features a young man (the Hecatomb protagonist himself) who is surprised by an old woman returning from hospital, being tended to by a group of female friends and relations. A string of conflicts arises in which a swathe of social dichotomies plays out: gender and generational differences, social fissures, community versus individual, modernity versus tradition. But, again, the scene seems truncated from an unknown whole. The orienting facts that would normally establish character, relations, motive and action are conspicuously absent. At the end of the vignette, an authoritative voice-over in Polish analyzes the process of making a film in textbook-style commentaries written by Molska herself, which condense all she had absorbed during her year at film school. ‘There are only two moments in the filmmaker’s work that require absolute clarity,’ we are told. ‘The first is when he or she decides what kind of film they want to make. The second is the casting.’ The voice goes on to make further prescriptive pronouncements, while the scene we saw previously repeats, this time a mirror-image version with out-takes included. A chasm appears between what we see and what we hear, as much of the advice we hear is clearly counteracted by the film’s refusal to adhere to the described conventions.

The self-reflexivity of this short work suggests it to be a means of clearing the field before Molska tackles the feature-length film she intends to begin shooting in 2014. Given the more cumbersome pro­duction involved in a longer, scripted, professionally acted piece, it will be interesting to see how Molska employs her skills at shaping and sustaining an atmosphere, and her distinctly sculptural approach to space, props and people, while still leaving a door open for the work to determine its own direction.

In 2013, Anna Molska’s Scene 46 was included in ‘british british polish polish: Art from Europe’s Edges in the Long ’90s and Today’, Centre for Contemporary Art, Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw, Poland. Currently, her work is in ‘The Map. Artistic Migrations and the Cold War’ at Zacheta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw, and from February will be included in the ‘Exhibition of Polish Contemporary Art’ at the Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw.

Kirsty Bell is a freelance writer based in Berlin, Germany.