Of all the contemporary art events that have emerged in Central and Eastern Europe since the fall of communism, the Fokus Lodz Biennale can lay claim to the most illustrious heritage. While Fokus Lodz 2010 is only its third edition, it maintains a tradition that dates back to the seminal exhibition, ‘Construction in Process’, staged in the city in 1981 by artist and current Biennale Director Ryszard Wasko. Organized with the support of Solidarity (the Polish trade union federation), ‘Construction in Process’ – which included work by western artists such as Sol LeWitt, Richard Long and Richard Serra – was the first show of its kind to be staged in the Eastern Bloc. Only weeks after it finished, martial law was declared in Poland, ensnaring the country for the rest of the decade; Wasko was himself forced to leave, travelling to London with the help of UK-based artists. With the eventual triumph of Solidarity, Wasko returned to Lodz in 1990 to organize a sequel, with further editions of ‘Construction in Process’ staged as far afield as Israel and Australia.
Despite this legacy, Wasko says that the 2010 Biennale, which was again supported by local Solidarity politicians, was the first to receive adequate funding from the City of Lodz, who have now dedicated ¤500,000 for each iteration until 2020. Subtitled ‘From the Liberty Square to the Independence Square’, Fokus Lodz 2010 unravelled across abandoned apartments, empty shops, busy cafés, former factories and hidden courtyards running the full length of the central Piotrkowska Boulevard, said to be the longest street in Europe. Whilst a selection committee chose the 52 participating artists, Was´ko selected the venues, ensuring that the Biennale was incorporated into the folds of the city. Importantly, many of the artists created site-specific work, collectively generating an original exhibition that rightly made sense only here.
Much of the fun of the Biennale came in meandering along the seemingly endless Piotrkowska Boulevard, worrying at first that you’d never find most of the exhibits before settling into the process of discovery. Early respite came in an inner courtyard surrounded by shabby apartments: Daniel Knorr’s eerie black hood, Stolen History – Statue of Liberty (2010), made to fit the head of the Statue of Liberty, billowed in mid-air in the empty space, a Jekyll and Hyde symbol of freedom and the declining American Empire in one of central Poland’s dusty yards. In a nearby apartment, Ragna Róbertsdóttir constructed Lava Landscape (2010), a mosaic-like sculpture of lava fragments from her native Iceland. Completing a triptych of transplanted objects, three variants of worldly power, Ivan Bazak ransacked the apartment above, leaving behind four lead vials containing earth from Chernobyl (Earth, 2010).
Further along Piotrkowska, in an empty shoe shop, Chinese-born, New York-based O Zhang produced one of the Biennale’s most memorable works. The Dove of Lodz (2010) centred on the recreation of a box, originally designed by Jewish shoemaker Leon Jakubowicz, who lived in the Lodz Ghetto during World War II. Zhang’s interest was sparked by a striking photograph, displayed as part of her installation, which shows Leon and his wife Rachela posing behind the box, the shape of which mimicks the outline of the Ghetto. (In their photo, the couple seem, against expectation, happy and proud.) Recreating the box to map the area of the Ghetto as it is today, Zhang invited passers-by to pose with it anew, transforming the old shop into a photography studio. The images Zhang captured were then displayed on a simple drawing of doves’ wings – a presentation that lacked aesthetic distinction but recalled the kind of promotional snapshots routinely displayed in photography shop windows. In its entirety, Zhang’s work was a brilliant engagement with the city’s past and present.
The most expansive of the Biennale’s venues was a former philharmonic hall. Hidden in a gloomy basement, Miru Kim’s performance piece, The Pig That Therefore I Am (2010), staged during the Biennale’s opening weekend, saw the naked artist wallowing for hours in cold mud. Intended as a protest against the horrors of factory farming, the performance struck a tone all of its own, though the sense of displacement was maintained by other discoveries on the floors above. Also notable was Daniel Malone’s punchy black and white video, Warp and Weft (2010), showing every one of the carpet-beating frames that still stand in yards along Piotrkowska – a clever, minimal film that neatly dramatized the Biennale’s theme whilst drawing the viewer’s mind into the domestic lives of the city’s inhabitants.
Ryszard Was´ko envisioned Fokus Lodz 2010, like ‘Construction in Process’, as ingrained in the fabric of the city. In part, he aimed to reinvigorate the cultural life of a city that has been home to leading Polish artists and which is strewn – thanks to 19th-century industrial wealth – with the palaces of the belle époque. One concern, however, is what will happen in the long term to the host of abandoned but architecturally valuable Biennale venues once the exhibition has been packed up. Hopefully Lodz can overcome the visible hardships of manufacturing decline to reclaim such spaces sympathetically, rather than with blind commercial modernization. Life, though, rarely lives up to the ideals of an exhibition.