Situated between Warsaw’s art academy and university, Galeria Repassage became a hotbed of the Polish neo-avant-garde throughout the 1970s. Hosting performances and participatory events by both art professors and students, the gallery was frequented by artists suchs as Wiktor Gutt and Waldemar Raniszewski, who studied under sculptor Jerzy Jarnuszkiewicz and the renowned architect and designer Oskar Hansen. Working together, Gutt and Raniszewski were interested in non-verbal methods of communication, investigating this primarily through actions and photography.
For their exhibition at Repassage in 1977, the two departed from earlier methods. The centrepiece of that show was an object: an upright diptych consisting of two panes of glass painted black, encased in a metal frame and joined at a right angle. Underneath the paint were almost 200 black and white portrait photographs arranged in two sets: one featuring representatives of indigenous cultures from across the world; the other, photographs of prisoners of Auschwitz-Birkenau from the camp’s files. In both cases, only a thin strip across the eyes of those portrayed was left visible. Visitors were invited to scratch off the paint to reveal the images underneath.
‘Destructive Culture’ at Pola Magnetyczne revisited Gutt and Raniszewski’s original 1977 exhibition, bringing together the eponymous work with archival materials, including artists’ notes, photographs and publications and music from the period, which shed light on the pair’s process and the work’s historical context. The display included a slideshow of dark, blurry, almost oneiric pictures from a folk performance of Siberian native dancers at Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science. Such performances were a crucial element of the Soviet Union’s cultural policy at the time, which used the display of diverse traditions to attest to the magnitude of the state, propelled by a drive for self-exoticization. Another slideshow, projected on the gallery’s opposite wall, juxtaposed found images of indigenous cultures in the context of Western civilizations with eerie snapshots taken by Gutt on his journey to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, which captured not only the camp itself – with the shocking sites that constituted the process of extermination – but also the way the memory of the Holocaust was mediated through didactic, overtly rhetorical labels and displays.
The 1977 photographic installation, too, was treated here as historical material rather than a ‘reconstruction’: the dramatic gesture of revealing the photographs was omitted, with rows of individuals in traditional dress or striped camp uniforms (some with disconcertingly similar distant stares), readily visible to the visitor in their entirety. Instead of reframing the historical exhibition from a contemporary perspective, ‘Destructive Culture’ insisted on reiterating and further elaborating its original context. Here, the Holocaust and the genocide of indigenous peoples serve as points of departure for a critical examination of an essentially European worldview that fails to acknowledge alternatives to anthropocentric thinking. In a statement accompanying the 1977 exhibition, the artists wrote: ‘The documentation of the Auschwitz Camp Museum symbolizes the destruction inflicted on oneself […] The documentation of ethnographic museums symbolizes the destruction inflicted whenever and wherever European culture, regardless of its ideological profile, has come into contact with another type of culture. We cannot fail to notice and feel that the culture we originate from […] is of destructive nature.’ By returning to the original material with little or no comment, the exhibition revealed the prescience of Gutt and Raniszewski’s critical stance, which looked beyond the confines of People’s Republic of Poland in the 1970s to address a global condition still present today.
Lead image: Wiktor Gutt, Waldemar Raniszewski, Destructive Culture, 1977, personal collection of photographs depicting various representatives of tribal cultures, installation view, Pola Magnetyczne Gallery, 2016. Courtesy: Pola Magnetyczne Gallery © Wiktor Gutt