A Lonesome Museum
MS2, photo: P. Tomczyk

A Lonesome Museum

BY Karol Sienkiewicz

On the 80th anniversary of its foundation, the Museum of Art in Łódź has decided to set aside historical reckoning and revisit its founding mothers and fathers, posing questions on our modern need for utopian ideas

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Held to mark the 80th anniversary of the foundation of the Museum of Art in Łódź, the exhibition Eyes Looking For a Head to Inhabit has been set up in three different parts of the city. The main exhibit is on display at ms², the museum’s newest venue, located on the outskirts of the Manufaktura shopping centre, while part two is housed in the library at the old ms¹ building. I, however, recommend starting with the third location: the National Archives. This former city hall became the home of an international collection of avant-garde art put together by the a.r. group in 1931. Two of the group’s core members, Katarzyna Kobro and Władysław Strzemiński (the future patrons and founders of the museum), were already living in Łódź at the time.

MS2, photo P. Tomczyk

As a sign of solidarity with recent world events

Several of the pieces displayed in the archive stairwell address themes of travel and identity, touching upon the moment of being “in-between” and formlessness. It is in the context of these works that the curators mention “non-events”. Ruth Oppenheim dons a silly swimming cap and makes her way through a rocky gorge, an umbrella and suitcase in her hands, before finally reaching the seaside (Going Home, 2005). Josef Dabering films himself driving around an enormous, concrete stadium (Jogging, 2000). Nerin Aladağ has hung what appears to be a worn men’s suit in the stairwell. It’s an empty shell, pure potential. There is also Roman Ondák’s Announcement (2003), which reads: “As a sign of solidarity with recent world events, for the next minute do not interrupt the activity you are doing at this moment.”
These pieces are especially relevant when considered in the context of the a.r. collection and the history of the museum. The artists ended up in Łódź somewhat by accident, and there they suffered the hardships of everyday life and the locals’ lack of understanding. The first public exhibition of the international collection went almost completely unnoticed, just as the vague “recent world events” with which Ondák asks us to express our solidarity.
The pieces in the a.r. collection were donated by the artists as an expression of generosity and out of a sense of avant-garde community. Paweł Kowzan bases his project on this “gift economy”, inviting other artists to participate. Their work can be viewed at the museum library in the building now known as ms¹ on ul. Więckowskiego, which served as the main location of the Museum of Art after World War II, and where Władysław Strzemiński’s Neoplastic Room was created. The building is currently undergoing renovation.

Victory over the sun

The museum’s glorious history is just one of many themes in this multi-layered exhibition, and is soon forgotten as we move on to the main part, located at m². The point of departure here are pieces by avant-garde artists who lay the foundation of the museum: Strzemiński’s Architectural Compositions and Kobro’s Spatial Compositions, as well as a recording of a reconstruction of Victory Over the Sun, an avant-garde performance piece with sets and costumes designed by Kazimir Malevich. The opera consists of a series of rather random events that tell the story of the harnessing of the sun on the road to a new era of Futurism.

The exhibition’s four curators decided to examine this avant-garde belief in progress, man’s capability of harnessing the elements, and his ability to shape the environment, to see what changes and amendments it has undergone — where it has survived, and where it was forced to face criticism and new trends in philosophy and social theory. Yet they offer no solid conclusions, nor do they make us follow any pre-determined narrative. The tropes intertwine loosely, with the pieces either complementing or playing off each other. One thing they have in common is that the eyes of their creators gaze into the future.

The cosmic and the quotidian

The symbolic “victory over the sun” that we see at the entrance to the exhibition gradually gives way to Cold War dreams about tearing away from the Earth’s gravity and conquering outer space. This fantasy is reflected in a 1956 painting by Wojciech Fangor in which a person looks up at heavenly bodies. One year later, the Soviet dog Laika was shot into orbit about Sputnik 2, a fact diligently reconstructed by Artur Malewski, a local sculptor. It was revealed in 2002 that the dog never made it back to Earth. Its dead body orbits the globe to this day.

In 1970, Julius Koller assumed an alter ego as a U.F.O.-naut, announcing the “socialist occupation of the subject”. Koller expanded the acronym “U.F.O” as “Universal-Cultural Futurological Operation”. As Klara Kemp-Welch writes, “his signal of despair sent from Earth was a call for help from other beings in the universe”. Nearby, Slovak artist Stano Filko ponders The Future of Space Exploration As Seen Through the Eyes of Scientists (1968–1969).

Along with the ideology of progress, these broad intellectual horizons also had an impact on design, which began to veer sharply in the direction of Futurism, as seen in projects such as those by Francisco Infante-Arana, an artist who dreamt of creating “new life” from scratch. The exhibition also features work by the Viennese group Haus-Rucker-Co, which approached architecture as a kind of performance (for instance, as a virus feeding on existing buildings), producing designs that were in tune with optimistic visions of the future. One such project was Climate Cover, displayed in the form of a collage. A similar approach inspired Frederick Kiesler’s concept of the Endless House, which was intended to grow organically, as well as Gordon Matta-Clark’s “Anarchitecture”.

Identity and body

Some of the projects now seem ambiguous, as if suspended between optimistic faith in technological progress and the fear of soulless machines taking control over humans. That is how I now see Walter Pichler’s 1967 TV Helmet/Portable Living Room. The contraption was designed to be placed over the head, allowing users to cut themselves off from their environments and watch television. The point was to isolate users from reality, offering them some semblance of privacy, but the device also raised concerns about its potential use for manipulation. A body hooked up to the TV Helmet could be a disciplined one.

The exhibition includes a series of pieces that contradict such notions of discipline. The most radical among them were created by artists that were active in the feminist revolution, such as Valie Export and Barbara Hammer. Hammer’s film X (1973), for instance, is a manifesto of sexual liberation that depicts the artists standing naked in a window, masturbating. “This is my exhibitionism…”, she repeats.

The show offers an interesting juxtaposition of films by Rebecca Horn and Adrian Piper. The German artist dons a pair of gloves equipped with finger extensions, which she uses to scratch her intimate areas, in a poetic performance directed straight at the camera (Touching the walls with both hands simultaneously, 1974/1975). Her work echoes a sickness she endured in her youth, confined to a hospital bed. In Funk Lessons (1983), Adrian Piper approaches dance as a universal means of communication that can build a sense of community above class and race boundaries. “In funk, (…) the concern is not how spectacular anyone looks but rather how completely everyone participates in a collectively shared, enjoyable experience”, writes Piper in Notes on Funk.

The need for utopia

Last spring, the museum organized an exhibition and conference devoted to to “Construction in Progress”, a large-scale project held in Łódź in 1981 with help from the Solidarity movement and artists from across the globe. The latter traveled to Poland at their own expense to donate their work. This year’s event bore the subtitle “The community that came?”. The phrase was taken from Giorgio Agamben, who wrote about an imaginary “community to come”; the future tense was replaced with the past and a question mark was added. The project posed questions about the nature of communities, and, like Eyes Looking For a Head to Inhabit, was a part of the “Gift Economy” series, which will soon revisit a famous gesture by Joseph Beuys, who in 1981 donated a collection of his work, personally delivering it to the museum in an enormous box.

The “gift economy” manifested itself in the museum’s history through a series of important events: the donation to the a.r. collection from a group of avant-garde artists, Joseph Beuys’ donation, and the concerted efforts of artists during “Construction in Progress” (the pieces collected during the event were given to the Solidarity movement, before ending up in the museum). My impression of the current exhibition is that the question of community has been replaced with a broader question about our need for a utopia that would consolidate such a community. One the one hand, we have liberation, the integration of the arts, the combination of art and science, and the belief that technological progress will bring about prosperity; and on the other, hints at the oppressiveness of architecture and technology.

The loneliness of the museum

Nevertheless, a project as grand in scale as Eyes Looking For a Head to Inhabit would do well to be a bit more viewer-friendly. Sadly, it is just the latest example of a trend that patrons of the Museum of Art are all too familiar with: hermetic exhibitions accessible exclusively to a narrow group of patrons. Although the ms² exhibition relies on loose associations, it is not at all easy to navigate. And while visitors do receive guides, the descriptions therein can be more perplexing than illuminating. A reading area with multi-coloured photocopies of theoretical essays and art manifestos (mostly in English) is also provided. But isn’t the museum going too far by encouraging casual visitors to read Bruno Latour and Félix Guattari? Yes, it is. The thing is, there simply are no casual visitors at the Museum of Art.

This enormous, modern museum, located in one of the largest cities in Poland, is largely deserted — a fact rarely discussed openly. And it is hardly alone in its loneliness: lack of interest is the bane of many Polish institutions. Customers of Manufaktura — the shopping mall that has become the de facto city centre and whose proximity was expected to boost attendance at the museum — give ms² a wide berth. This comes as no surprise: as good as the museum’s exhibitions may be, they are simply not addressed to them.
Last year’s exhibition of work by Władysław Strzemiński, Afterimages of Life, the first in years, suffered from the same problem. Its layout, created by Katja Strunz, was designed to spell out the word Zeittraum when viewed from above (sans ceiling and division walls). Spelled using an alphabet designed by Strzemiński himself in the 1930s, the term combines the words Zeit (time), Raum (room, space), as well as Traum (dream). Not only did viewers fail to interpret Strunz’s intentions, they may have interpreted them too superficially; despite the great number of pieces on display, no commentary was provided.

Although the modest rooms of the former city hall have grown into a spacious museum, the “sense of alienation” is still a valid complaint. This alienation is best symbolised by the piece on ms²’s façade, a neon light designed by Mirosław Bałka, spelling out the name of the museum in the handsome yet completely illegible Strzemiński alphabet. The uninitiated customers of the nearby shopping mall haven’t the faintest clue what the cryptic characters mean, much less what lies in the rooms behind them.

Eyes Looking For a Head to Inhabit, Museum of Art in Łódź. Curated by: Aleksandra Jach, Katarzyna Słoboda, Joanna Sokołowska, Magdalena Ziółkowska. Runs until 11 December, 2011.

translated by Arthur Barys

Tekst dostępny na licencji Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0 PL.