in Critic's Guides | 10 SEP 04
Featured in
Issue 85


Increased international interest in Polish art coincides with the country joining the European Union. How do the economic and social changes affect making and showing art, and Warsaw’s urban environment?

in Critic's Guides | 10 SEP 04

Jan Verwoert

ONE of my maxims is that the best way to prepare for a journey is to have no expectations. That’s why I usually try not to think about where I’m going until I get there. This time, though, it didn’t work. Twenty minutes before my train left Hamburg for Berlin on the first stage of my trip to Poland, I rushed into the nearest bookshop and bought a copy of Polish for Travellers. As I examined it on the train, I found myself sitting opposite two activists discussing global politics in Portuguese. The power socket was on their side of the table, so I politely asked one of them in English to help me plug my laptop in. Nodding at my Polish for Travellers, the woman remarked in fluent German that I obviously seemed to enjoy speaking foreign languages. ‘Yes’ was the only answer I could think of, mumbling behind my computer like an awkward schoolboy.1

As I put down my rucksack to have bacon and eggs at the Berlin Ostbahnhof McDonald’s at 6 o’clock the following morning, I mused over the fact that the idea of taking the early train to Warsaw, at least to me, conjures an image of myself as a 19th-century traveller complete with moustache, fur collar and leather suitcase. What’s so special about ‘going East’ anyway? There are regular train connections. It’s easier to get from Berlin to Warsaw than, say, to Munich or Vienna. So why all the fuss? By now the divide between East and West is no more than a myth, a chimera. The most sensible thing to do would be to ignore it. The train ride from one capital to the other takes little more than six hours, and doesn’t involve leaving the EU. Even the border police are much less rude than they used to be. So what could be more ordinary?

The problem with myths is that simply deciding to be rational doesn’t make them go away. Liberal postures become absurd when a symbolic conflict raises its ugly head. I remember something similar happening the first time I went to Poland, five years ago almost to the day. The trip was organized by the Polish Institute as a series of visits to museums, galleries and studios in Warsaw, Gdansk, Lódz and Kraków. It was a fascinating journey, but marked by telling moments of misrecognition. When a task force of Western art professionals comes to meet local artists as what must seem like an inquisition panel, what can you expect? Often artists’ reactions seem tied in a double bind of high expectations and angry defiance. It’s no use signalling ‘I’m just a writer. I’m harmless’ when the person opposite you assumes that the power you wield could help to shape his or her career. As things stand at present, power and money are still all on the side of the Western art market. In such situations it is virtually impossible for each of the parties to control how it is seen on the other side of the symbolic divide. To ignore this would be naive; to accept it would be cynical.

On the train to Warsaw I realize that opposite me sits a journalist I saw on TV commenting on Johannes Rau’s speech to the Polish parliament. This is too good to be true, so I go for it: ‘Excuse me, but do I know you from television?’ She laughs and introduces herself as Anna Rubinowicz-Gründler, a correspondent for the Gazeta Wyborcza (a former underground resistance newspaper and now a major media corporation). I quiz her about politics. Despite the soaring economic growth rate, she says, inequality has increased as Polish society is split into those who can cope with capitalism and those who don’t stand a chance. The welfare state is virtually non-existent and, as a result of institutional inefficiency and corruption, people have no faith in politics. Instead the dominant attitude, she explains, is one that had prevailed under socialism. It’s known as robic swoje: do your own thing, look after number one and don’t expect any help from the state. I imagine that some time soon, if it isn’t already starting to happen, the symbolic divide between East and West will be replaced by a new frontier, separating the rich from the poor on both sides of the former geopolitical divide. Despite official declarations of sympathy, I learn from Rubinowicz-Gründler that Polish–German relations are, as always, fraught with difficulty. The continuing demands that associations of exiles are making for the restoration of property in the former German parts of Poland notoriously spell trouble. And Gerhard Schroeder’s recent remarks about Poland ‘dumping’ EU tax standards again cast Germany in its accustomed role as the school bully. At a personal level these tensions may not matter much, but at a broader level it’s impossible to ignore them, especially when you go to Warsaw. You cannot contemplate the amalgam of reconstructed historic buildings and postwar concrete high-rises that characterize the city as quintessentially modern without acknowledging that one main reason why it looks this way is that the German army, only two generations ago, burnt the place to the ground to punish its citizens.

I arrive in Warsaw around noon. It’s a sunny day. As I walk from the central station to say hello at the Foksal Gallery Foundation, in my mind I go through the few things I think I know about the conditions of making and showing art in Poland. Under socialism artists and art spaces, including alternative ones, received state support. The artists’ union sold works for you. People got by. The change of political system change increased the pressure to succeed but didn’t necessarily provide more opportunities. It hasn’t yet created a market for art and there are private collectors, but very few. State bureaucracy is Kafkaesque, and the reactionary politics of the Church are a major influence on public opinion. That’s why I think it’s impossible to overestimate the efforts that the people behind independent art institutions such as Foksal or Raster and curators like Magda Kardasz or Aneta Szylak have made to create the basis for an art discourse on a local and international level. These people definitely do their own thing and don’t expect anyone to make it happen for them. Is that a form of robic swoje, too, I wonder? If so, then robic swoje is an art world law that I also obey, as I pursue my interests and sell my ideas. But the entrepreneurial logic of going about your own business doesn’t explain everything. It doesn’t account for the transformative potential of the work invested in art and the meaning of that engagement for public discourse (whoever that public may turn out to be). And from what I can see and tell, these people invest a lot in their work and transform things through it.

Over the next few days I have a fantastic time, meet people whom I like, whose work I follow with great interest and whom I wish to talk to more often. Short visits like this tend to involve a hectic schedule, but I try not to be in too much of a rush. One good thing about art, for me, is that it is a slow business. It is true that things can be speeded up through hype, and attention can be directed towards something that may well deserve it, as is the case with the current interest in Polish art (in contrast to, say, the recent attempt to launch some excruciatingly lame painters from Leipzig as ‘Young German Art’). Yet hype can only provide a point of entry into an artistic discourse. It takes time to grasp the background to that discourse, and travelling to a place like Warsaw may help. The crass modernity of the city can give you a sense of the universal promise and specific forms of Modernism that Paulina Olowska or Monika Sosnowska address in their work. The sober post-socialist climate can be felt resonating in the deadpan humour and reductionist realism of Wilhelm Sasnal’s paintings. And the combined legacies of socialism and Catholicism may provide a backdrop for Pawel Althamer’s performative explorations into the dialectics of social control and corporeal ecstasy. Still, the context only explains the art to the extent that the art interprets that context itself. Then there remain figures such as Cesary Bodzianowski, the Tati-esque humour of whose interventions cannot be easily contextualized any more than the other-worldly, organic sculptural work of Alina Szapocznikow in the 1960s.

I don’t quite get it, but it makes me curious. Theodor Adorno calls curiosity the pleasure principle of the intellect. For me that pretty much sums up why I enjoy art – and why I travel.

Lukasz Gorczyca

WARSAW is not a great example of urban planning, and architecturally the Polish capital is undistinguished. It is however, full of monuments, commemorative plaques and memorial sites that have sprung up since the end of World War II – testimony to the fact that the city was nearly razed to the ground during the conflict, when the majority of its former inhabitants left, never to return home. Still, there is something crazy about the relentless drive – which continues unabated despite the political changes – to commemorate historical figures and places with yet another stone obelisk, bronze statue or difficult-to-remember new street name.
A tenement building on Mokotowska Street, for example, has two plaques commemorating the same minor historical incident (‘In the year 1918 one of Poland’s national heroes Marshal Józef Pilsudski, stayed here’). In Aleje Ujazdowskie hangs a plaque marking a manhole cover used by Polish fighters to enter the sewers in 1944. And in Aleja Niepodleglos´ci 130, under protective glass, one can see what may well be the last surviving piece of wartime graffiti: a swastika on a gallows, painted in black by a young member of the resistance.

In the course of the last 15 years many office buildings, apartment blocks, hotels and shopping centres have also sprung up. There is, however, much criticism of urban growth based purely on commercial investment and new monuments to the past. One of the most touching and meaningful projects offering an alternative vision of the city was Pawel Althamer’s Bródno 2000. On a February evening in 2000 a massive Modernist housing block in the Bródno district came to life: the lights in 200 flats, turned on and off by their residents, created a luminous inscription on the building’s façade: the figure 2000. Along with the inhabitants of a gloomy neighbourhood, Althamer managed to create a real sense of community – albeit one that may have lasted no longer than the duration of the actual event.

Another example of successful social action is the culture of the so-called vlepki, a fad that reached its apogee shortly before Althamer’s project. These were small witty or poignant stickers made at home by young activists and stuck on the backs of buses (some of which still bear the traces to this day). Among the most famous was the ‘interactive vlepka’, with a blank space for passengers to write down their own comments. The sticker’s authors, the two-man group TWOZ´YWO, soon gained the status of an alternative city institution, creating art on billboards, stickers, posters and in other ephemeral contexts. Urban partisanship eventually infiltrated the local power structures: this summer the city’s public transport department has launched its own campaign involving stickers on buses, this time reprinting works by celebrated Polish poets – it seems every subversive initiative can be institutionalized and parodied.

The most glorious modern anti-monument in Warsaw, however, is a giant artificial palm tree erected in December 2002 on one of the city’s main roundabouts, next to the former headquarters of the Communist Party. The artist behind the project, Joanna Rajkowska, with the support of various local art institutions, has fought a prolonged battle with the authorities responsible for municipal roads, who did not want her to donate the tree to the city, which would then have to pay for its preservation. Given the climate, real palms don’t stand a chance in Warsaw. Rajkowska’s version, initially meant to stand for just one year, has blended into the cityscape, and now it is hard to imagine that it could actually disappear.

The only object more subversive than the palm tree is the Palace of Culture and Science. Built in the 1950s in the heart of the city, it is an extraordinary hybrid, combining the Soviet architectural style with elements of the vernacular Polish Renaissance. (The shapes of the decorative attics, for example, derive from one of the castles in the south of the country.) The tallest building in the city, the palace – Stalin’s official gift to the people of Warsaw – is more of a monument than a skyscraper. Completely absurd, it annexed a huge square half the size of the city centre. During the years of communist rule opposition writers envisaged its destruction; in 1987 the Pope celebrated a mass with the palace in the background; and since 1989 the building has been torn down a dozen times – but only in politicians’ dreams. Today it’s a full-time tourist attraction and a local landmark. The Foksal Gallery Foundation had plans for it as the venue for the next edition of Manifesta, but Warsaw still lacks the money, and audacity, for such undertakings. Should the forces of evil (or demons of the past) take control of the city for good, we will escape on board the Palace of Culture, a rocket bound for other planets.

Translated by Krzysztof Kosciuczuk

1 I was reminded of this scene later, when I met a member of the Azorro art group at the Raster gallery. They told me about their latest video, in which they ask people on a journey to Austria to talk Latin with them to test a contemporary understanding of the lingua franca.