As I climb the stairs to the exhibition space of Warsaw’s Foksal Gallery Foundation, occupying three upper floors of a four-storey Modernist building, a mesmerizing litany of female chants and incantations leads me upwards. I am no less puzzled upon entering a dark room: on adjacent walls are two video projections, the one to the left, nearly silent, shows a young man inside a sun-drenched glass-panelled greenhouse; to the right, a group of women can be seen, singing in a glass pavilion amidst a snowy landscape. After several seconds, I begin to understand the chanting. It is the kind of song that can still be heard in remote villages in Poland during funeral ceremonies, when the body of the dead is laid out at home for the family and neighbours to visit. As is so often the case, the ritual is meant as much for the living as it is for the deceased; the tribute to the departed ensures they will not return to haunt us in this realm.
Anna Molska’s austere film and video works dissect avant-garde Utopias with the help of real-life characters. In W=F*s (work) (2008), for example, grizzled workers construct pyramidal scaffolding onto which they eventually climb. Molska’s films also crash-test classical literary realism in actual situations, as in The Weavers (2009), in which a 19th-century play about the revolt of textile workers is acted out by a trio of unemployed men against the backdrop of the crisis of the Polish mining industry. ‘Glasshouses’, Molska’s recent solo show, presented two works made over the course of the last two years. Screened alongside each other, Hecatomb (2011) and The Mourners (2010) offered a tantalizing glimpse of a dreamy scenario set in motion by the artist.
The Mourners, set in a pavilion of the now-dormant Centre of Polish Sculpture in Oronsko, which saw its glory days in the Communist era, features a female folk group from the south-east of Poland who the artist invited on the pretext of making a documentary about them. The 30-minute video shows seven women in the glass building. Initially inhibited by the presence of the camera, at a certain point the group gather around an old bed with linen folded in the form of a human figure and begin to sing in a piercing, grief-stricken chorus. With each song, the women seem more and more confident, and as the sombre atmosphere gives way to laughter, they tell folk stories about passing away, mourning or even meeting the devil in person. I found myself captivated by their performance. It was during the closing scene, when the women fall silent and motionless, gazing out into the woods, that I was reminded of the second work. Could this be what they are looking at?
In Hecatomb a young man strolls around a massive old glasshouse. Sporting a clumsy armour-like leather vest and dated Bermuda shorts, he holds a long leather whip, which he cracks from time to time. In the middle of the floor lies a mattress, reminiscent of the bed in The Mourners. Suddenly, the glasshouse is flooded with thick white foam, pouring in from above. This surreal scene is further enhanced as the film cuts between the deluge of the creamy substance and shots of the man exploring a seemingly identical glasshouse packed with lush greenery. Originally shot on 16mm film and deliberately raw, Hecatomb, which the artist was compelled to make almost a year after The Mourners, feels like a vision conjured up by the performers’ curious ritual in the first work. Disturbingly uncanny, the young man here appears no less real, or unreal, than the devil in the tales and songs of the weeping women. The interplay between the two pieces – the winter chill and the humid heat, the old and the young, commotion and silence, as well as the digital and the analogue – is not simply between reality and fiction. In ‘Glasshouses’ we see Molska explore mechanisms by which shreds of reality prompt a haunting image that can only be laid to rest once it is brought to life – just like a mourning ritual in which the living make peace with the dead.