BY Agnieszka Polska in Opinion | 22 NOV 19

A Cultural Emergency in Warsaw: Artist Agnieszka Polska Speaks Out

An ultra-conservative, homophobic-platforming curator is set to helm Poland’s leading artistic institution

BY Agnieszka Polska in Opinion | 22 NOV 19

On 8 November 2019, the Polish artistic community received news that sounded to many like a death knell: the official nomination of Piotr Bernatowicz, an ultra-conservative curator, radio programmer and editor, as new director of the Center for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle (CCA). The public museum is one of the country’s most important contemporary art institutions. The decision was announced by Poland’s Minister of Culture and Heritage, Piotr Gliński, in spite of several public petitions and open letters signed by international cultural workers, CCA employees and artists in Poland.

Bernatowicz is poised to head CCA for the next 7 years. He will replace Małgorzata Ludwisiak, whose contract has not been renewed after her 5-year directorship despite the widespread support of her staff and successfully presiding over the refurbishment of the institution’s crumbling infrastructure.

In recent years, CCA has established itself as an institution responding to timely ethical questions in its exhibitions, as well as a space for contemporary performance and a lively residency programme for international artists. The nomination of Bernatowicz is not only a blow to the continuity of this vision – it puts into question the institution’s future involvement with contemporary art altogether.

Exhibiton poster, ‘Strategie buntu - wystawa zbiorowa’ (Rebellion strategies - collective exhibition), 2015, Municipal Gallery Arsenał, Poznań

As a director of a small public institution in Poznań, Bernatowicz curated openly homophobic and misogynist artworks (these included posters incorporating phrases such as ‘Feminist, use your brain before […] fucking’, ‘Gay, don’t faggot the minors’, ‘Once with a hammer, once with a sickle [beat] the red rabble’). As a radio programmer, he platformed antisemitic authors who use historically revisionist language.

Bernatowicz has defended these acts in his newly published programme for CCA. In this prospectus (the intriguingly titled ‘A Centre for Contemplation on Contemporary Art’) he claims that his main objective is to level the playing field for marginalised and excluded groups – except in his understanding, these ‘marginalised groups’ do not include religious minorities, people of colour who find themselves in overwhelmingly white Poland or LGBTI individuals. Rather, he seeks to give visibility to artists with right-wing, nationalist views who are currently excluded from the public discourse (in his telling, by the Marxist ‘cultural mafia’). In his prospectus, he writes that ‘a substantial change in criteria for the selection of [exhibiting] artists will occur’, ‘CCA will inspect the views on modern and contemporary art (art that distances itself from Marxist and Neo-Marxist positions)’ and that the creators representing ‘inner peripheries’ will be promoted. The term ‘inner peripheries’ Bernatowicz defines as those ‘marginalised and excluded because of ideological reasons’.

Karol Radziszewski, DIK Fagazine Nr 11, magazine, 2017. Courtesy: the artist and the BWA Warszawa

In other words, Bernatowicz redeploys the terminology of exclusion and marginalisation to legitimise reactionary positions in a country with a far-right ruling party that has the support of at least 40 percent of Poles. 

Bernatowicz’s plan might result not only in the abuse and reputational damage of the institution, but also in its degradation altogether. In spite of the fact that a long list of Polish artists declared that they won’t collaborate with the new director, there are many other artists who might agree with Bernatowicz’s beliefs or see this nomination as a chance to exhibit in a prominent gallery. The new director will not, as he claims, create space for a fair distribution of recognition in art, but rather, I think, make the institution irrelevant.

While contemporary art can hardly be described as a leftist project, it often characterizes itself as international and inclusive (regardless of the reality). As the activities of the Ministry of Culture show, creating an alternative, enclosed and controlled cultural system is the government’s actual goal. Unlike theatre or performing arts, contemporary art, doubtless seen as insignificant, up until now seemed off the radar for the government’s destructive powers. But now, after years of the conscious dismantling of theatre and film institutions in Poland, its time too seems to have come. Adding insult to injury, the process of replacing contemporary art with its regressive imposter might well go unnoticed.

‘Karol Radziszewski -The Power of Secrets’ runs at Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art, Warsaw, until 29 March 2020.

Main image: Zorka Wollny and Chór Polin, Taking Over the Stage. A Polyphonic Manifesto, 2019, performance documentation, 2019, Biennale Warszawa; photograph: Monika Stolarska

Agnieszka Polska is an artist based in Berlin, Germany. In 2017, she was awarded Germany’s National Gallery Prize (Preis der Nationalgalerie). Next year she will have solo shows at the Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw, Poland, and the Frye Art Museum, Seattle, US.