As we were making our way to a yet another opening during Warsaw Gallery Weekend, my friend attempted to crack a variation of a joke: exhibitions that look to eminent writers for their themes are like mosquitoes on a sultry Saturday night by the Vistula river – all too common and easy to kill. Arriving at Galeria Stereo, however, I was happily able to say that this group show was a welcome exception to the rule.
‘The New Morals’ marked the gallery’s arrival in the vibrant and growing art scene of the Polish capital. Formerly based in Poznan and run by a curatorial duo, Stereo chose to welcome its new audience with an unassuming but captivating presentation that brought together work by four visual artists and one poet. ‘The New Morals’ quotes from ‘The New Spirit’, part of John Ashbery’s celebrated Three Poems (1972), which not only served as a frame of reference for the showcased pieces, but also as their textual counterpart. Ashbery’s prose poems play upon the economic (and all-American) idiom of ‘striking-out’ – a gesture of cancelling a portion of text – which becomes an invitation to a journey.
The first work that caught my eye as I walked into the new space was The Demonstrators (Broken rope) (2013) by the Berlin-based Danish artist Nina Beier. This grey electric heater was printed with an image of a tattered cord, which clung to it almost as if someone had hung it there to dry and forgot. Another work from the series, The Demonstrators (Sinking Bulb) (2011), was based on a similar concept, that of pairing commercially available stock images with everyday objects: in this case a poster of a light bulb dropped into water, haphazardly pasted onto an empty wooden frame. In these works, Beier attempts to return materiality to the ever-growing pool of digital representations.
Sitting on the floor next to it was Gizela Mickiewicz’s Slack Side. A Place for Itself (2013). This upholstered box stool – with its hinged lid attached the wrong way and slightly ajar, revealing a set of upturned wheels fixed on the inside – might have seemed decidedly odd, if it weren’t for the company. In the opposite corner, propped against the wall, was Michael E. Smith’s Untitled (2012), a black seat cushion with a hole cut out in its lower section, and a large whitish resin stain on its top edge that was definitely not factory-made. If anything, it evoked a human presence: marks left by careless or downright impudent former owners.
Smith’s other work, Eggfeet (2012), was a video edited from found footage. In five minutes of material we are given a glimpse of a somewhat disquieting ritual in which a person (presumably a male) approaches a mat with neatly arranged props: a pair of sneakers, white socks and four raw eggs. In what follows we see the eggs being cracked into the shoes, which are then examined and carefully tried on, as though they wereo longer footwear, but something whose function was – again – topsy-turvy. Watching this reminded me of a scene from Luis Buñuel’s film The Phantom of Liberty (1974), in which guests at a dinner party are seated around the table on flushing toilets.
For his Places Which I Know (2013), a set of three rectangular pieces of plywood mounted vertically on the wall, the young Polish artist Piotr Łakomy used Ikea shelves, covering some sections with reflective foil. The impression was one of facing a massive DIY heat sink from a giant 1950s computer, presumably crammed into the adjacent room. Łakomy’s Fluffy Shell (2003–12) was a Nike jacket turned inside-out – a fact one could only learn from the work’s description, as the artist had refashioned the garment into a white, puffy mattress.
The uneasy sense of being faced with objects that are not so much out of place as out of order permeated the exhibition. Each work seemed to promise some sort of comfort – be it warmth, light, support or protection – which none of them ultimately delivered. And while many things were turned on their head, this was a subtle revolution. One in which – to quote a different poem by Ashbery: ‘I’d sort of let things be what they are / while injecting them with the serum of the new moral climate / I thought I’d stumbled into, as a stranger / accidentally presses against a panel and a bookcase slides back, / revealing a winding staircase with greenish light / somewhere down below, and he automatically steps inside / and the bookcase slides shut, as is customary on such occasions.’