Critic’s Guide: Warsaw

With shows openings tomorrow for gallery weekend, the best exhibitions to see across the Polish capital

BY Harry Thorne in Critic's Guides | 21 SEP 17

Mika Tajima, ‘Air’, 2017, installation view, Raster, Warsaw. Courtesy: the artist and Raster, Warsaw

Mika Tajima, ‘Air’
22 September – 18 November 2017

Mika Tajima’s work sits on the figurative fence between human and machine, stubbornly refusing to commit to either side. Futuristic cephalopods of lights breathe like new-borns and sounds of labour are digitally transmuted into woven tapestries.

The same cyborg presence wanders throughout Tajima’s show at Raster, ‘Air’, which centres on the production of the body within the soft power paradigms of the techno-centric 21st-century. Force Touch (2017) is a wooden wall pock-marked with dispersed silver jet diffusers that plays upon touch-screen user interfaces, while Pranayama is a polished wooden sculpture studded with similar jets, which combines the Hindu notion of prãna, the force that differentiates the living from the dead, with the orthotic medical devices that modify the shape of the body. A selection of works from Tajima’s series ‘Negative Entropy’ (2014–ongoing) see recordings captured at contrasting workspaces (first a printers in Warsaw; second a data centre in New York), broken down into data files, and woven on Jacquard looms.

You can take Tajima’s works one of two ways: a show of faith in the human traits that technology threatens to subsume, or a warning that said incorporation is already in process. Or, like the work itself, you can stay perched on the fence.

Wilhelm Sasnal, Untitled, 2017, 40 x 30 cm, oil on canvas. Courtesy: the artist and Foksal Gallery Foundation

Wilhelm Sasnal
Fundacja Galerii Foksal
22 September – 28 October 2017

Wilhelm Sasnal paints a lot with a little. Take Kacper (2009), an oil portrait of the artist’s son. Visually, it is simple: a young boy, his back to the viewer, half-raises his arms as if welcoming the sunset that lights the sky in front of him. The triplicate colour scheme – moss green, brown, white – is basic, too, but the impact is anything but: a tender portrait of innocence, fleeting in spite of its actuality. The sun that dilutes the scene reminds of hope.

Sasnal’s recent works deal with more universal preoccupations, chiefly international relations and the global migrant crisis, but the switch in focus has brought about no change in painterly style. A boat of refugees bob on a blank white sea, their heads like Julian Opie dots; Angela Merkel seems composed, or concerned, atop a closely cropped frame of blue; the 2016 ‘Killing an Arab’ series, its title lifted from Albert Camus’s novel The Stranger (1942), shows fragments of bodies: eyes, profiles, legs strolling across sparse grey ice shelves or cliffs.

In avoiding clean definition, Sasnal’s creates portraits akin to thumbnails. In transferring these to the canvas, he makes explicit the minimal attention that we, in contemporary art and beyond, devote to certain pressing real-world issues. This is not proselytizing. In a recent interview, Sasnal attended to his own position: painting, he says, ‘is a lexicon, but it can’t change the world. These are two different things.’ These works do not, cannot, recruit, they simply remind.

Natalia LL, Dreaming, 1978, performance documentation, 50 x 50 cm. Courtesy: lokal_30, Warsaw

22 September – 10 November 2017

On 3 October 2016, thousands of women throughout Poland downed tools, books, whatever to hand, and took to the streets. Each was dressed in black. The protest, dubbed ‘Black Monday’, was organized in response to a proposed near-total ban on abortions, backed by the Catholic Church. The sheer magnitude of the demonstration saw the proposed legislation withdrawn. ‘Black Monday’ was a protest for the 21st century, its success, in part, down to the digital firestorm it created under the hashtag #CzarnyProtest. However, it took its inspiration from 1975, when 90% of the women of Iceland took to the streets to rally for equal rights with men.

‘Zeitgeist’, at local_30, similarly unites separate generations, bringing together the work of VALIE EXPORT and Natalia LL, whose riotous feminism came to prominence in the 1970s, with that of two women artists born in the late 1980s, Justyna Górowska and Diana Lelonek. The quartet’s practices are varied. For example, EXPORT is known for her body performances and films that tapped into (unseen) masculine systems of control, while Lelonek interrogates the tradition of European humanism through biological experiments. Yet a strand of feminist thinking can be traced through the work of each artist – Górowska, for instance, has produced a series in response to the photographs of Francesca Woodman. And this continuity, in part, is what ‘Zeitgeist’ speaks to. As conditions change, certain forms of male oppression will remain the same, but as this quartet of artists illustrates, so will the desire to question and resist.

Florian Auer, Untitled, 2017, c-type print of animation. Courtesy: the artist, Kraupa Tuskany-Zeidler, Berlin and Piktogram, Warsaw

Florian Auer, ‘Changing the Wheel’
22 September – 10 November 2017

Augsburg-born artist Florian Auer takes Bertolt Brecht’s poem ‘Changing the Wheel’, from the Buckow Elegies (1953), as the starting point for his solo exhibition at Piktogram:

I sit by the roadside
The driver changes the wheel.
I do not like the place I have come from.
I do not like the place I am going to.
Why with impatience do I
Watch him changing the wheel?

Brecht’s poem is introspective (6 personal pronouns in total), but its protagonists, which leave the ‘I’ so impatient, are external: the roadside, the driver, the place, and so on. What do these removed, exasperating presences represent? This should be obvious when we learn that Brecht penned the poem shortly after the East German uprising of 1953, which was violently supressed by the German Democratic Republic government.

Auer takes Brecht’s poem and makes it physical: a mechanic’s jacket hangs, ripped, on a neon red hanger; a front bumper is detached from the car; a separate worker’s jacket, modelled on the poet’s famous leather duster, is frozen, as if mid-stride. Elsewhere, an untitled c-type print shows a large watch, its glass smashed, as if to illustrate that we have ceased to move forward, ceased to progress. ‘I do not like the place I have come from. / I do not like the place I am going to’. Whatever your terrain, those lines most likely apply.

Gizela Mickiewicz, Untitled, 2017, mixed media, dimensions variable. Courtesy: Stereo, Warsaw

Gizela Mickiewicz, ‘Take, Give, Leave a Sense of Loss’
22 September – 28 October 2017

Gizela Mickiewicz is interested in objects. Specifically, she is interested in the ways in which we assign value to them as a result of an instinctive judgement of their materials, textures, forms, and weights. In order to illustrate this, Mickiewicz disrupts the relationship. A cube of pale rock is set with a globular, shimmering bubble, and becomes weightless, fragile; sheets of stone draped over a metal bar imitate limp, drying towels; a side-table has its top popped up, like the open bonnet of a car. Total of All Distractions (2015) sees a sheet of mesh slung over a delicate aluminium frame, as if it could blow away with the slightest gust. Here, the beauty is in the base, while the seemingly useful, the angled table, is rendered utterly useless.

Maria Pinińska-Bereś, Modlitwa o deszcz (Praying for Rain, Kraków), 1977, performance documentation. Courtesy: the artist and Galeria Monopol

Maria Pinińska-Bereś, ‘The Performer’
Galeria Monopol
22 September – 30 November 2017

Maria Pinińska-Bereś’s terrifically titled sculptural series ‘Psycho Furniture’, first presented at Galeria ON, Poznań, in 1968, is unabashed in its criticality of male representations and assumptions of women. This is furniture. This is housework. This is domestication. But the scene is, as the title suggests, a little twisted. Bulbous, bodily, boisterous, it is a series that shrieks: domesticate us, if you will. See what happens!

For Warsaw Gallery Weekend, Galeria Monopol will take a retrospective look at Pinińska-Bereś’s performances, presenting both photographic documentation as well a collection of objects that the artist folded into the works. These performances were always diverse:for one, she lay in a field and prayed for rain; for another, she stood amidst viewers in the centre of her ‘Psycho Furniture’ and did her laundry. But while there was contrast, there was also a consistent desire to create an reassuring, inclusive atmosphere; a knowledge that participatory acts and communal thinking would always prove more effective that a single artist rallying against the machine.

Oskar and Zofia Hansen, model of Przyczółek Grochowski Housing Estate in Warsaw, (LSC) project, 1963. Courtesy: the Academy of Fine Arts Museum in Warsaw

Oskar and Zofia Hansen, ‘Open Forum’
Museum on the Vistula
15 September – 29 October 2017

In 1959, Oskar Hansen presented his ‘theory of Open Form’ at the International Congress of Modern Architecture in the Dutch town of Otterlo. Hansen’s proposition, a direct counter to ‘disciplinary architecture,’ was to open up architectural spaces and allow those who lived within to co-create their surroundings. It was a call for architects to take a sizeable step back, accepting that their role is not to dictate, but rather to deliver unrestrictive environments that could both facilitate and encourage fluid processes of social, cultural and creative exchange.  ‘Open Form’, at the newly opened Museum on the Vistula, brings together the various prototypes and projects that Oskar and Zofia, his wife and collaborator, constructed in accordance with the Open Form philosophy. Divided into various chapters including ‘The Individual in the Collective’, ‘Architecture as an Instrument’ and Active Negative’, the exhibition brings together documentation of unrealized projects, from pavilions to public monuments, while also unpacking a number that the duo saw through to completion. At a time in which the free transfer of anything, whether ideas or individuals, finds itself under threat, the philosophy of architectural tolerance long-championed by the Hansens feels sadly as relevant as ever.

Warsaw Gallery Weekend runs 22 – 24 September. All participating galleries are open 5-9pm, 22 September.

Main image: Maria Pinińska-Bereś, Aneksja krajobrazu (Landscape Annexation), Świeszyno near Miastko, 1980, performance documentation (photographed hand coloured by the artist). Courtesy: the artist and Galeria Monopol, Warsaw

Harry Thorne is a writer and editor based in London, UK.