'In the Heart of the Country’ is the first large-scale presentation of the relatively new collection of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. Established in 2005, the institution is one of the youngest in Europe, and probably one of the few that has been forced to operate without a building. Nevertheless, it has managed to generate several important exhibitions and conferences, and it occupies a crucial position as a place for critical social debate and the active reinterpretation of art histories. This presentation of its acquisitions is yet another confirmation of its ambitions.
One of the most spectacular works on view is a sculpture by Yona Friedman commissioned for the museum in 2010. Iconostase (Protenic Structure – Space Chain) references the Open Form theory of Oskar Hansen, a seminal Polish figure, with whom Friedman maintained a correspondence from the 1950s onward. Friedman’s sculpture is a model for an ideal art institution, constructed of flexible, convertible, spherical elements to accommodate the unpredictable art of future decades. The work is particularly apt given the turbulent negotiations over the shape of the Museum of Modern Art, which is yet to be decided. Awaiting its permanent headquarters, the institution presents its holdings in a former furniture store. There is some heroic charm in this gesture. Nevertheless, the heartbeat of the collection would resonate even more strongly if the walls of purpose-built architecture were to regulate its rhythm. (A new competition to design the museum’s building was announced in September and the construction is due to be completed in 2019.)
For now, around 150 works by 85 artists are featured in a Modernist pavilion in the centre of Warsaw. The open-plan layout does not impose a narrative sequence. Instead, the show is conceived as a group of art works connected by subtle formal or historical references: social transformation, discourses on urbanism and public space, politically and socially engaged art, feminism or historical memory.
The strength of the presentation lay in the dynamic oscillation between local and global, established and emerging, mainstream and marginal. The chosen works emphasize many of the seminal figures of Polish art as well as key experimental tendencies in the former Eastern Bloc, spanning the late 1940s to the early 1990s. The inclusion of more recent works by artists like Klara Lidén and Slavs and Tatars transgresses this geographical scope. Iconic works are integrated with the lesser known, including a number of pieces never before shown in a museum context.
Creating an eloquent dialogue between past and present is clearly one of the strategies of the collection. What seem to be heterogeneous works resonate with key themes anchored in the practice of pivotal historical figures of Polish art. The fundamental issues addressed by their works are explored in exhibits scattered over three floors to form a multilayered collage of narratives. This approach is illustrated by the representation of Andrzej Wróblewski, a legendary Polish painter who died prematurely in 1957. One of the museum’s first acquisitions, his modest gouache entitled Muzeum (Museum, 1956) features two men looking at dissected body parts laid out on a tabletop. This anonymous committee confronts the painful memory of World War II and the challenge of reassembling the disintegrated pieces of a larger whole. Influential for many contemporary artists, Wróblewski’s practice is suspended between pre-war avant-garde abstraction and the doctrine of social realism. His involvement with the latter opens up a space for reflection on the social and political aspects of minimal gestures by artists like Francis Alÿs and Teresa Margolles. Another focal point is Alina Szapocznikow, a pioneer of discourse on emancipation and gender. Her seductive Lamps and Fetishes (1970) are set alongside Sarah Lucas’s striking installation Romans (2011), playing with representations of femininity and masculinity. Female identity is also explored in photographs by Anne Collier, provocative films and photos by Laurel Nakadate, and in Teresa Tyszkiewicz’s mesmerizing, sensual film Ziarno (Grain, 1980).
Within such a revisionist art-historical presentation, archives occupy an interesting position. The museum’s holdings include several, but the representation of archives here is thoughtfully reduced to two suggestive offerings: the first is an emulation of a room in the Warsaw apartment of KwieKulik, where, during the 1970s, the artists assembled the largest private documentation of avant-garde art from the Communist era. The second is a presentation of films related to the innovative teaching of Grzegorz Kowalski, documenting early works by his students, among them Paweł Althamer and Artur Zmijewski. These archives preserve the past, but here they shed more light on the present.
Wherever documentation is interwoven with art works, it unveils a loose network of connections and influences. Seeing Wilhelm Sasnal’s portrait of the revolutionary and post-war propaganda poet Władysław Broniewski (Broniewski, 2005) juxtaposed with the photograph by Jan Styczynski that served as a basis for the painting, is a subtle treat. Similarly, the photographic documentation of Miron Białoszewski’s theatre performances is a refined introduction to his little known slapstick-style film experiments, ‘Filmikowanie’ (Flicksing), of the 1960s and ’70s. Białoszewski was an innovative dramatist, writer and poet, whose inclusion in the context of visual art comes as a pleasant surprise. His deconstructive use of language and embracing approach to ordinary, vernacular reality is an important inspiration for many artists, here exemplified by the works of Wojtek Bakowski, presented on the same floor.
The exhibition is full of such encounters. Collages by Paulina Ołowska, known for exploring Modernist idioms and art-historical omissions, are displayed opposite exquisite, rarely seen drawings by the overlooked architect and exhibition designer Stanisław Zamecznik from the end of the 1940s. R.H. Quaytman’s paintings reference sculptures by Katarzyna Kobro. Even Jimmie Durham throws his critical eye over cultural colonialism by paying respect to Luis Buñuel (Homage to Luis Buñuel, 2012). The focus on the relationship between the avant-garde and the contemporary seems to originate from a simple belief that yesterday’s present is tomorrow’s past. This attitude, combined with a somewhat Utopian conviction that art can shape our future, finds its articulation in an ironic banner by Cezary Bodzianowski (Prognoza, The Prognosis, 2012), which bears the weighty slogan ‘Today’s Art Makes Tomorrow’s Poland’. With its insightful approach to the past and thoughtful responsiveness to the local context, ‘In the Heart of the Country’ is an exhibition that attempts not only to measure the pulse of art made today but also to diagnose its impact on what may come.