Does critical art exist in Poland?

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The artist and curator Katya Shadkovska asks what has become of critical art, which became popular in Poland in the 1990s, and how it differs from contemporary Russian protest art.

Text: Katya Shadkovska
Wojciech Zasadni. Polish Eagles. 2005. Object, plexiglass, laminate. Photograph: Olo Studio. © Wojciech Zasadni

In Poland the term “critical art” is mostly connected with political art from the 1990s, and more precisely with the graduates of Kowalnia – the multimedia (though at that time focusing on sculpture) workshop of Grzegorz Kowalski at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. These were Artur Zmijewski, Katarzyna Kozyra, Paweł Althamer, Jacek Markiewicz, Katarzyna Gurn, the Gdansk artists Grzegorz Klaman and Dorota Nieznalski, and also artists who in the 1970s and ’80s practised so-called body art - Kowalski himself, Jerzy Trushkovskii, KveKulik, and so on.
KveKulik (Przemyslaw Kvek and Zofia Kulik). Active Head Exercises. 1978. Performance at Labyrinth Gallery, Ljubljana. © Moderna galerija, Ljubljana / Museum of Modern Art, Ljubljana

Although several Kowalnia graduates formed the nucleus of Polish critical art in the 1990s, the theory, developed by Kowalski and based on a system by Oskar Hansen and the principles of Russian Constructivism, does not consider it necessary to focus on a particular thing, whether political in nature or a narrow formal problem from art itself. If the works of the Kowalnia graduates touch upon social questions, these are merely a small part of their work, and are often merely an excuse to address other topics.
Dorota Nieznalska. My Life, My Decision. 2005. Poster. Third place in a competition to design posters on the subject of women’s rights and family planning in Warsaw.
Courtesy Galery Ego, Poznan. © Dorota Nieznalska

Jacek Malinowski, for example, addresses fundamental issues of human existence – manipulation, government, violence and so on – through the prism of the Holocaust in his new film “Nosferatu, The Fearful Dictator.” The work was nominated by the Zachęta National Gallery of Art to appear at the 54th Venice Biennale (though of course the competition was famously won by Yael Bartana).
Jacek Malinowski. Nosferatu, The Fearful Dictator. 2011. Still from video. Source: www.jacekmalinowski.com

Jacek Markiewicz is a persona non grata in Polish art. His works “Adoration” and the “Aneta” cycle are still banned in the country; in 2009 they were shown at the Manezh in St. Petersburg, but within 24 hours they were removed owing to their “pornographic content.” He uses critical art to consider human nature, and his work is most associated with “art of the body.” He does not follow trends but at the same time he very clearly reflects what is taking place in the sphere of art.

One-sidedness and unambiguousness are atypical in Polish art. Artists often lack the means to fully realize their creative ambitions, and as such often have to wrack their brains and find something of importance in seemingly insignificant things.

As I wrote this article I periodically asked people involved with contemporary art whether “critical art exists in Poland.” Often I was met with a look of surprise. Students at Kowalnia and the workshop of Miroslaw Balka think that young artists want to move further and oppose their teachers. The main curator at Warsaw’s Centre for Contemporary Art, Ewa Gorządek, expressed the opinion that critical art was left behind in the 1990s, and has transformed today into unsophisticated media projects. Kowalski himself is convinced that only two of his students have “critical potential,” and is utterly dissatisfied with the “pseudo-political” trends that he says he has observed in recent times.
Grzegorz Klaman. Flag for the 3rd Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. 2003. View of installation at Arsenal Gallery, Posnan

When I asked about Artur Zmijewski, who at that time was working on the Berlin Biennale with members of the Voina group, many told me that his work has now taken a somewhat different format than earlier, and is probably not critical art. Zmijewski’s talents bloomed in the late 1990s, a time of shocking media projects and large-scale installations. As the years passed, however, it all became routine, and the same thing happened with critical art as happened with impressionism, echoes of which can still be discerned in the work of many graduates of Russian schools. Still, because Poland’s critical artists emerged in the 1990s, when the West kept a firm gaze on the former Eastern bloc to see how it would develop, they had a major opportunity to become famous abroad.

Jacek Markiewicz, a friend of Zmijewski’s, recently spoke about this in an interview with Obeg, the magazine of Warsaw’s Centre for Contemporary Art. “True critical art has already ceased to exist in Poland, everything has undergone significant change, and this is normal… Global media projects are an entirely different format. Artur knows this. And I’m completely certain that he’ll get this situation moving again from a dead stop and change it. He understands it all very well.”
Artur Zmijewski. Catastrophe. 2010. Still from a one-channel video. Source: www.peterkilchmann.com

Younger artists have not ceased being active in political and social spheres, but more often they express themselves simply as citizens. This is because the approach has changed. The issue is not just that any appearance of politics in art raises the threat of it being used for the usual neoliberal purposes. Many are fine with this. There is a sense that no one is interested in creating a new form of critical art, its logical continuation, in the way of art-activists in Russia, who are trying to insert it into a historical context. This is mostly a result of the different ways the Polish school approaches and conceptualizes art, and also cultural and social circumstances, because the understanding of the purpose of struggle in Poland is radically different from that in Russia.
Paweł Althamer. Self-Portrait as a Businessman. 2002-04. Leather, textile, plastic, glass, paper. Tate Liverpool. © Paweł Althamer

Wyszukanе is a fundamental, and the most beloved, word in Polish art. It can be translated as “found,” or rather even “refined,” a thing honed to such a point that if it were changed any further everything would get mixed up and fall apart into a murky gray mass. The school of Grzegorz Kowalski, a teacher of several generations of artists, is founded on this principle, both formally and conceptually. Works created under his direction have a distinctive feature – they are not unidirectional in either a formal or conceptual sense. Very often works shown at the Kowalnia exhibitions merge into one, which is fine for some viewers but irritates others as it is hard to discern the personalities of individual artists.
Andrzej Kokosza. Intimate Scanning. Steel, welding, paint, monitor, scanner, video. Source: andrzejkokosza.pl. © Andrzej Kokosza

Black-white-gray compositions of severe neo-Constructivist structures are a distinctive mark of the vast majority of works by Kowalnia graduates, the “trademark” of the workshop. Kowalnia is a holistic way of life, a symbiosis of teachers and students. Grzegorz Kowalski once said that everything always ends up becoming academic, especially if one is seeking novelty. As such instead of looking for the new he prefers to focus on the deep study of real materials, taking them to a “point of unchangeability,” when any further step would threaten certainty or predictability.
Monika Sosnowska. Stairs. 2010. Installation. Courtesy Galerie Gisela Capitain, Köln

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why there is no trend toward protest in Poland, despite the fact that Zmijewski supervises the Berlin Biennale and that intermedial art is a better means for interacting and influencing on every level. There is not the same paranoia as among Russian activists, who believe that if they do not engage in protest art there is no way for them to be relevant.

The majority of Polish artists who now stand out on the contemporary art scene are engaged in purely personal research. Consider Wojciech Bonkovsky, Konrad Smolenski, Bogna Burska and many others who have been nominated for or won the “Views” competition, organized by Deutsche Bank and the Zachęta National Gallery of Art. Not one of them has made a politically motivated project.
Bogna Burska. Thousand Deaths. 2010-11. Still from video. Source: www.bognaburska.com

In one sense the Poles have learned from the experiences of the 1990s and want to evolve in a formal sense and move further. In another, what do they actually have to protest if they fought for capitalism for so long and in the end got what they wanted? The majority don’t understand why there should be a shift away from neoliberal ideas. Even people from the art world genuinely believe in the possibility of a just, democratic society in the context of the existing social order. As such the only politicization that has a place in Polish art is local and connected with local urban problems, and attempts to resolve them.
Twozywo group. Warsaw. Sorrow, Dirt, Stench. 2002-04. Billboard

The most active of these artists is perhaps Krzysztof Żwirblis. His main theme is rousing the population of Warsaw to specific acts connected with municipal politics. Żwirblis works with locals out in the neighborhoods, attempting to politicize them and enable them to make their own decisions. He has been doing it since the 1970s, and is maintaining his chosen course.
Krzysztof Żwirblis. Musuem of Society. December 2011. Warsaw, Muranów. Documentation of action. Photograph: Agnieszka Indyk. Source: news.o.pl

Of the younger generation it is important to mention the Twozywo group, which recently ceased its activities, as well as Daniel Suhotsky and Tomas Rafa. One of Suhotsky’s works was banned recently in Wrocław – a neon “Arbeit macht frei,” which the artist wanted to display on the building of a working factory.

The Twozywo group is engaged in interventions in the urban environment and has created banners and posters. They are multidimensional and in form and content draw on the best of the Polish graphical tradition.
Twozywo group. House. 2004. Płock

Rafa is an artist from Slovakia and assists Grzegorz Kowalski at his studio, and also helps Zmijewski with his work for the Berlin Biennale. His films are almost a continuation of Zmijewski’s “Democracies” cycle - Rafa documents various demonstrations, meetings and protests in Europe.
Tomas Rafa. “Gorilla Protest” – against corruption. March 15, 2012. Prague. Still from video. © BBPressAgency via Flickr

The younger generation of Polish artists openly focuses on promoting things that are formally “Polish,” because in a globalized market everything is increasingly perceived as a product. But now there is perhaps no such thing as “Polish,” something that occurred quite by chance. Jacek Markiewicz recalls: “After we received our diplomas at Kowalnia in the early 1990s, Katarzyna Kozyra and I went to America and were really struck by what we saw there – all these supermaterials used by Western artists, of which we couldn’t even dream in Poland at that time. The information that came to use was a kind of echo. We tried to do something similar but didn’t know how. We wanted our works to be just as perfect as those by Western artists, but we didn’t have the means or materials. Today the situation is completely different – artists have access to everything and have the ability to do whatever is in their souls. Perhaps this is why their works are now totally different in essence, although they try to do artificially what for us came about accidentally. Now they like all this “dirt and incompleteness.” They like to use it. This “Polish” art came about when we were roasting in our Eastern boiler. Today it is incorrect to think with these categories. It is what it is – everything is globalizing, and there’s no point chasing after that which has disappeared. At the same time it’s also stupid to think that we’re all identical.” (Interview with Obeg magazine, Nov. 16, 2011).
Twozywo group. Political Involvement. 2008, Płock

Among the younger artists opposition is mostly directed toward the inner world. Some critics try to depict this as a movement or trend, though this is a controversial issue. Still, there are indeed several artists – some who were working at the beginning of this century and some a little later – who prefer to dive into the internal world, their own and those of other people, and do it in very different ways, from “reverence” in the direction of classical surrealism, without a manifesto or concept per se, to metaphors of the real world here and now, expressed in ways including abstraction. As an artist I prefer reality as it has never been seen before. Others, such as Jakub Julian Ziolkowski or Tomasz Kowalski, explore the fantasies of the unconscious.
Jakub Julian Ziolkowski. Untitled (Into the Hole). 2010. Oil on canvas. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth, New York

In actual fact it doesn’t make much sense to speak about new forms in art because globally art has long been divided into old/new, which justifies the desire of “insider” artists for the retro in a formal sense. At present, and in general terms, what is gradually becoming important is the authenticity of the artist’s own position, whatever kind of art he works with. In other words personality is today at the forefront, and trends and movements are gradually withdrawing.
Katya Shadkovska. Fallout. 2011. Fragment of an installation at the Center for Contemporary Art, Warsaw. Courtesy the artist.