Highlights from Warsaw Gallery Weekend 2018

The eighth edition of Poland’s premier contemporary art event saw major structural changes, but was it at the expense of standout presentations?


BY Krzysztof Kościuczuk in Opinion | 18 OCT 18

In late September, as Warsaw was easing into autumn with its regular protests, marathons and detours, its local and visiting galleries joined forces to open their doors for the eighth edition of Warsaw Gallery Weekend. Following a move in which a number of galleries established an enterprise with the aim of structuring the organizational duties and responsibilities, the three-day event brought exhibitions from 29 participating galleries. Here’s a look at some of its highlights.

Anna Orłowska, ‘Futerał’, 2018, installation view, Wschód. Courtesy the artist and Wschód, Warsaw

As well as a display of recent works by Jakub Czyszczoń in their main space, Stereo put on a smart pairing of works by Polish painter Piotr Janas and the younger Spanish sculptor June Crespo, the latter’s fragmentary ceramic casts of shop mannequins laid out on the floor, mirroring the bodily organ-like shapes in the former’s paintings. Stereo also gained new neighbours who have settled in the remnants of what used to be the largest printing house in the People’s Republic of Poland. The main focus of Wschód, which relocated from a tenement house across the river, is a photographic series by Anna Orłowska that looks at the hardly proud (but not untypical) history of a 16th-century castle in Łańcut which was nationalized by the communist authorities and turned into a museum that functions to this day; its web page has this to say about its last legal owner: ‘In 1944 Potocki had to leave Łańcut. He settled in Switzerland, where he died in 1958.’

Adam Rzepecki, Joanna Piotrowska, Ewelina Chrzanowska, exhibition view, Dawid Radziszewski Gallery, 2018. Courtesy: Dawid Radziszewski Gallery, Warsaw; photograph: R. Świerczyński

More movement on the gallery map is seen by Dawid Radziszewski abandoning his cozy cubicle in a socialist high-rise for a ground floor space in a brand-new residential complex. Radziszewski took advantage of his new surroundings by putting on not one, but three presentations that revisited historical works: from the 1985 ‘Exhibition for dwarfs’ (or gnomes) for which Adam Rzepecki displayed minuscule photographs of earlier works and life scenes on matchboxes hung low with a piece of thread (shown here on a new brick wall built in the gallery), through to an ultra-precise drawn rendering of parquet floorboards made by Ewelina Chrzanowska in 2008 (displayed on raw cement floor), to a reenactment of Joanna Piotrowska’s work from 2017, with performers carrying out choreographed movements based on self-defense techniques (presented here in a dark-painted corner between the two other works). The show brings to mind a deconstructed apartment with misplaced walls, floors and tenants caught in a loop of seemingly pointless activities. A different type of mix can be found at Raster, with a cocktail of works by 18 artists based on alcohol: at its heart was a photographic frieze by Jerzy Lewczyński commissioned in the 1980s by health authorities as a cautionary tale warning against excessive drinking, complemented by diverse objects that connect with the subject. For the gallery it is as much a return to a time when it served as a social hub – when artists, authors and journalists frequented Raster’s bar – as a reckoning with the fact that, as they put it, the ‘figure of the drunken artist is fading into the past, leaving behind a landscape littered with hallucinations, depravity, and shattered illusions.’

Agata Ingarden, ‘The House’, 2018, installation view, Piktogram. Courtesy Piktogram, Warsaw; photograph: K. Ceran

Michał Woliński of Piktogram also chose to make a statement. In this case one about the underlying conditions of the art market, addressed through the works of Daniela & Linda Dostálková, Krystian Truth Czaplicki, Zuza Golińska, Lindsay Lawson, Damon Sfetsios and Anna Uddenberg installed in an offhand manner in a slightly run-down space in close proximity to the gallery – which hosted a solo show by young artist Agata Ingarden, curated by Matylda Taszycka. As if in defiance to the group exhibition, this sprawling meditative installation, featuring sculpture and video works, focuses on the flow of time, measured by a slow dripping of caramel into the oyster shells of the show’s centrepiece. A different take on time and history could be found at Leto hosting a solo show of artist and designer Honza Zamojski. Deploying text and colour Zamojski created an immersive space seeking to involve the visitor in a conceptual exercise of puns, associations and afterimages.

‘The Theatre of Robert Anton’, 2018, installation view, Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw. Courtesy: Bette Stoler Archive, New York

Foksal Gallery Foundation (FGF) put together a captivating display of works by Robert Anton (1949–84), curated by Anke Kempkes, featuring drawings as well as intricate puppets crafted by Anton in the 1970s – based on characters he observed around New York’s Verdi Square Park where he lived – which served as the protagonists of silent micro plays, inspired by musicals, films and earlier theatrical works meant for limited audiences. While no extant documentation of the plays exists except for single photographs, the expressive figures, clad in dark robes, with exaggerated, often grotesque features are powerful enough to set them in motion in gloomy imaginary scripts. The second display at FGF is Paweł Althamer’s larger-than-life sculpture of a dream-inspired white ox, crafted from metal, plaster and animal bones and hide. Staying in loose relation to Anton (puppets, however, marked an important point in Althamer’s practice) this creature seems to invite visitors to mount its back and be transported into the artist’s dreamscape.

Pawel Althamer, ‘Ochse’, 2018, installation view, Foksal Gallery Foundation. Courtesy: Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw

After a dose of classical rediscoveries, including drawings and paintings by Łukasz Korolkiewicz at Monopol, works by Andrzej Szewczyk at Szydłowski, the Gliwice gallery ESTA presenting Stanisław Dróżdż and Wanda Gołkowska, and a modest retrospective of works by Georgian photographer Yuri Mechitov that revolves around the figure of his mentor, filmmaker of Armenian descent Sergei Parajanov in Asymetria, a visit to the Polana Institute offered a surprisingly refreshing look at some classic works in a pop-up group show scattered across two floors of a villa, taking as its point of departure Dara Birnbaum’s 1979 video comprising snippets of the 1970s television series Wonder Woman showing the transformation of the protagonist into the eponymous superheroine. Coupled with works by Maya Deren and Dawid Woynarowicz were new contributions by, amongst others, Olga Micińska, Magdalena Karpińska and Mikołaj Sobczak. It made for a fascinating show exploring gender and identity that managed to retain a vital energy while successfully steering clear of pomposity.

‘Wonder Woman’, 2018, installation view, Polana Institute. Courtesy: Polana Institute, Warsaw; photograph: P. Nieciecki/PION

This vitality, at times sorely lacking in this year’s Gallery Weekend, abounded in the makeshift open-air stand, located at the corner of Marszałkowska and Świętokrzyska, belonging to the Kraków-based collective Potencja. Its members offered their own, as well as their colleagues’ work for sale, clearly enjoying themselves and inadvertently mocking the ostensive professionalization of the event – with its VIP cards, programme and other trappings of exclusivity but with a dearth of genuinely captivating proposals. In spite of a growing turnout by a local audience, this was hardly the most riveting edition of Poland’s largest contemporary art event, whose press release boasted: ‘It’s become a tradition that, on the last weekend of the summer, Warsaw assumes the title of world capital of contemporary art.’ It’s understandable that, for the sake of progress, sometimes tradition needs to yield in the face of change. Still, let’s hope the next edition will rediscover the critical mass of strong presentations that managed to put the event on the map.

Main image: ‘If I Were the Moon’, 2018, Raster Gallery. Courtesy Raster Gallery, Warsaw

Krzysztof Kościuczuk is a writer and contributing editor of frieze. He lives between Poland and Switzerland.