Goshka Macuga is known for dwelling in the archives of institutions. For the artist’s first major show in her native Poland, the Zachęta National Gallery’s history provided fertile ground for her research. Following an in-depth investigation of particular events related to the intersection of art institutions, politics and the public in Poland, Macuga focused her exhibition ‘Untitled’ on different cases of unofficial censorship in the country over the last two decades.
Macuga displayed newly commissioned works alongside archival materials, including photographic documentation, visitors’ comments and a vast set of press clippings. Images, headlines and articles served as the basis for a series of collages illustrating the most infamous scandals surrounding contemporary art in Poland. One of the panels, Meteor in the Hands of MPs (2011), featured the case of Maurizio Cattelan’s La nona ora (The Ninth Hour, 1999), a figure of the Pope struck down by a meteorite, which was included in an exhibition curated by Harald Szeemann at Zachęta in 2000. The work triggered a wave of protests, and the piece was destroyed by two MPs from a right-wing party in the name of ‘national values’. Macuga responded to the situation with her own sculpture: displayed in the same spot where Cattelan’s piece once lay, Family (2011) features a pedestal with two concrete figures looking down on a sitting child reading a book. The monumental scale of the piece, which is ten-metres high, emphasizes the dignified status of the nuclear family and traditional values. The work seemed to be an ironic comment on the connection between those values and the populist rhetoric that fuelled the media frenzy showcased on the surrounding walls.
Another key piece, the impressive tapestry The Letter (2011), was based on a photograph documenting Macuga’s loose re-enactment of Tadeusz Kantor’s 1967 performance List (The Letter, 1967), in which eight postmen carried a giant letter through the streets of Warsaw to Foksal Gallery. The new version was addressed to Zachęta and marked by postage stamps bearing the image of Lech Wałesa, a figure emblematic of the political changes of 1989. In Macuga’s take, the letter now symbolized the exchange between the gallery and the public in the context of a free, democratic country. A vitrine on the opposite wall displayed a more literal kind of correspondence: letters sent to Zachęta’s director, Anda Rottenberg, after a series of ‘scandalous’ shows. While some of the subjects – such as an exhibition entitled ‘A Dog in Polish Art’ that was censored by provincial politicians, or tabloid articles about a famous actor cutting Piotr Uklanski’s The Nazis (1998) in half with a sabre – could be classified as peculiar, perhaps even amusing curiosities, the letters full of anti-Semitic invectives directed at Rottenberg were starkly serious. One read them with disbelief followed by a sense of shame, especially since their addressee was eventually forced to quit her position. Rottenberg’s image was included in a series of Macuga’s ‘Anti-collages’ (2011), photographs of artists and curators connected to ‘controversial’ events in which the artist covered their silhouettes with black screen-printed surfaces, erasing them from official pictures.
While the show addressed a certain time and place – one that hopefully belongs to the past – there was something universal about Macuga’s reflections. The artist constructed a subtle network of associations and historical references that manoeuvred smoothly between past and present while highlighting the changes in the relations between public, art and politics. They also revealed the problems that have persisted through the decades. Oscar Bony’s La Familia Obrera (Working-Class Family, 1968), which inspired Macuga’s monumental sculpture, was first shown in Buenos Aires at ‘Experiencas’68’, which was censored by the police due to its subversive character. In 1967, the original letter from Kantor’s performance was destroyed by the public when it reached its destination. Contemporary acts of iconoclasm prove that art still has the power to trigger radical responses. At Zachęta, photographs of Cattelan’s damaged sculpture – taken from conservation documentation (Triptych, 2011) – served as a reminder that the work’s destruction was a symbolic gesture but also an act of vandalism. Macuga’s presentation analyzed the mechanism by which demagogy replaces education, and politics interferes with art.
‘Beware of Exiting Your Dreams: You May Find Yourself in Somebody Else’s’ warned Szeemann in the title of his exhibition at Zachęta. The outsider’s vision of Polish art awoke national demons and an avalanche of consequences. Macuga, who left the country in 1989, observed them from a distant perspective, whereas most of the visitors to her show in Warsaw, including myself, witnessed them first-hand. This exhibition didn’t unveil any new facts or readings; yet it was disturbing in its literal and condensed presentation of those facts, leaving this visitor stunned and anxious. One obvious conclusion: a step back can expand our field of vision.