Goshka Macuga, Untitled, Zachęta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw, curator: Maria Brewińska, runs until 19 February, 2012
Ten letters, starts with “r”: a Jew (Go-Back-to-Israel), foreign national, trying to turn our Zachęta into a racket. You don’t know who? Then get up and drop by our National Gallery of Art. We’re talking about the former director of Zachęta, Anda Rottenberg. These were just a few examples of the type of mail she used to receive ten years ago. Zachęta attracted lots of attention back then with infamous exhibitions and installations, including Maurizio Cattelano’s La nona ora, depicting John Paul II crushed by a meteorite, Piotr Uklański’s Nazis, and Julita Wójcik’s seemingly innocuous Peeling potatoes. The letters that Rottenberg received back then, filled with anti-Semitic drivel, sent both from Poland and from abroad (e.g. Chicago) have just been presented to a wider audience. It’s not metaphor, it’s pure history.
It’s shocking how literal some of the quotes included in Goshka Macuga’s Untitled are. The exhibition revolves around a few unpleasant stories with art taking centre stage in all of them. That’s Zachęta with all its baggage – from the death of Narutowicz up to the attacks on artists during Rottenberg’s reign. Macuga mixed the documents from the Gallery’s archive with her own works and interventions.
Opposite the glass cabinet where the letters are displayed, the artist hung a huge tapestry woven to resemble a particular photograph. At first glance the tapestry depicts a scene from one of Tadeusz Kantor’s happenings, during which a group of postmen carried a giant letter addressed to the Foksal Gallery. Inspired by Kantor, Macuga reconstructed that situation by having a letter addressed to Zachęta and postmen in uniforms from the 1990s. Stamps covering the humongous envelope have Lech Wałęsa’s face on them. So we’re in Poland that’s already free from socialist chains. And the tapestry only adds significance to the entire event. The sender remains nameless.
A nameless audience
Macuga focuses on examples of censorship and the scandals surrounding Zachęta from the early 2000s, but doesn’t display these works of art that have so badly irked the public opinion and encouraged far right politicians and actors with sabers [Daniel Olbrychski – ed.] to launch their quixotic quests. There’s only traces of them – a photo of the violated pope, reminiscent of crime scene photos. The photographs are evidence of the crime, taken with the vigilant camera of the conservator. Because every artwork has its price, is ruled by the laws of supply and demands, and is insured.
My attention was fixed on another photograph. It depicts the audience gathered at the vernissage of Look Out, When Leaving Your Dreams You Might Find Yourself In Somebody Else’s, an exhibition that was put together for Zachęta’s centennial in 2000, with Herald Szeemann as curator. The only thing people remember from that exhibition was the installation with the pope and the meteorite (in the words of one anonymous author who wrote to Rottenberg: “Has anyone ever seen a meteorite this big?”). The photograph has been taken from the mezzanine, which during exhibition openings becomes a stage for notable speakers. The photograph shows how Szeemaan might have seen the audience. Who are these people? What views do they hold? The only person I recognise in the crowd is Paulina Krasińska, the daughter of a famous artist. And who are the rest?
Zachęta Gallery in WarsawAdditionally, we have photographs of the people involved in the major scandals, here transformed into black silhouettes, like they’re actors in a shadow play. Rottenberg and all the others, curators and artists. Further on we have a guestbook, but the entries are not as interesting as one might expect. There’s also a huge board with paper clippings. They’re all reactions of the press: from Kozyra up to the censoring of Żmijewski’s Tag during the still-open Side by Side exhibition in Berlin. Then, of course, we have the Polish raison d'état, and finally, a huge Polish family.
A Polish family
In the Matejko Hall I turn my head up high. Two figures seem to be watching me. Their social realist-slash-cubist, slouched bodies reach all the way up to the ceiling. I feel like I’m shrinking. I’m getting smaller and tumbling down the rabbit hole. But hold up. I let myself be caught up in the magic of scale and took the place of the third figure – the child with a book open on its lap. It’s reading under the watchful eyes of its parents. Simple nursery rhymes, nothing complicated. The concrete Adam and Eve are watching over their child. Genre scene alla polacca. The nuclear family – the basic unit of oppression.
Macuga summarises her exhibition with a project of a monument standing on a massive pedestal, ironically twisting the theme of “family values”. Aren’t they an excellent pretext for all kinds of crazy behaviours? Where could that kind of monument be built? In front of Zacheta? On Constitution Square in Warsaw, next to teachers, steelworkers, and weavers? Maybe in the Sculpture Park in Bródno?
Already at the vernissage, the sculpture called A family was rechristened “A Polish family”.
Sasnal in NATO
But someone is bound to say that it’s all history, that times change. That’s true. In recent years art has finally hit it off, it’s no longer the neglected child, nowadays it’s a tool for building an image – especially the image of the state and its institutions, like the Institute of the Greatest Bard [Adam Mickiewicz Institute - ed.]. The minister himself defended a homosexual-themed exhibition in the National Museum. And others declared critical art to be dead: No more bare asses! Long live the bourgeois painting.
Two parallel processes took place in the early 2000s. Poland began joining elite clubs, such as NATO, the European Union, we even had our own occupation zone in Iraq, and at the same time Polish artists were getting increasingly famous around the world. Eventually, even the politicians started to appreciate the symbolic capital of modern art. The Ministry is very eager to use Mirosław Bałka, frozen in his professor pose – tremble, oh Turbine Halls of the world! – but it was Wilhelm Sasnal who became the symbol of that revolution, seemingly against his own will. Even Paweł Althamer’s June 4 stunt turned out to be a fitting addition to the official nationbuilding propaganda policy.
It would seem that we’re finally growing up and maturing into a modern society, that we’re more and more adept in “reading art”. And not because we started to like Cattelano or understand him, but because a similar attack would not raise the profile of the attacker. To use the phrasebook of our current political class, “ the [art] problem solved itself”. But has it really?
Where have all the true Poles gone?
Education was supposed to eliminate both scandals and acts of censorship in one fell swoop. People were to be educated at multiple lectures seminars with titles like “Is modern art necessary and, if so – why?” It was decided that the survival of “modern art” is at stake. And thus, modern art was saved.
Because art has to be approached differently. You can’t just believe that what’s out there on the surface. Modern art is filled with double meanings, hidden agendas. Because what you see in galleries isn’t what it seems. To avoid repetitions of attacks such as the one conducted by a politician from a local nationalist party, the public was repeatedly told of the specific language used in artistic production.
When I was reading the letters to Anda Rottenberg, I rembered the exhibition I saw less than a month ago in the Center for Contemporary Art in Toruń, namely Thymos. The Art of Anger, 1900-2011. Controversy surrounding the curator and the exhibition has died down, but on the other hand not that many people went to see it in the first place, despite the fact that the ideological front of art has moved there. The problem was that the exhibition’s idée fixe was the Great State of Poland for which Piłsudski and the defenders of the cross from last summer were both fighting for, and which is constantly threatened by Nazis, communists, and the death metal band Behemoth. A few of the artists – who were there to basically play the role of bad guys – protested against using their works in this particular context.
The curator of The Art of Anger, Kazimierz Piotrowski, call himself a philosopher of art, but this time he seemed more interested in the lack of any kind of “crater” on the meadows near Smoleńsk, which he discussed extensively at the exhibition’s opening. A proclivity towards conspiracy theories made him an ally of The Krasnals (even the anagrammatic name itself reveals a Sasnal complex) whom he invited to the exhibition. This anonymous anti-establishment collective hasn’t really done anything in the past few years, besides mocking mainstream artists and directors of institutions. They didn’t do much else in Toruń. They labeled Adam Szymczyk, Joanna Mytkowska, and Artur Żmijewski “nits” and “parasites”, called the leftist Political Critique a political whore, and chose Anda Rottenberg to be the character portrayed in caricature they prepared.
The posters and libelous images created by the Krasnals are always explained away as art, even though the same protection is not immediately granted to the letters, guestbooks, and other documents that capture reality that Macuga has collected for her exhibitions. Cattelan didn’t want to harm the real pope. How does a band of unfulfilled painters know that Żmijewski is a parasite? What do they want to defend from the likes of Mytkowska? Is there a hidden agenda here as well?
Jews and the homeland of the Breiviks
Another painting of The Krasnals that was displayed in Toruń depicted a frame from Yael Bartana’s Nightmares, in which the Political Critique’s editor-in-chief, Sławomir Sierakowski, calls for the return to Poland of the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. The curator wrote: “The Jews are supposedly indispensable (and what about the 2 millions of Poles who emigrated to England and Ireland in search of jobs?). I guess Poles aren’t as indispensable? It seems that the only role they might play is the role of Jewish pioneers in Bartana’s movies.”
Later, he described Bartana’s Assassination, which represented Poland at this year’s Venice Biennale thusly: “Bartana seems to want Poland to turn into a nest of ‘outcasts crawling in from all over the world’. [...] These aliens, with their baggage of suffering and anger, would be the support for Jewish ambitions and designs in our Homeland, condemned to an organised, instrumental creolisation under Jewish leadership (all of this would be paid for by rich Germans, as the sly Artur Żmijewski expects). As she correctly suggest in the last part of her ‘trilogy’, Poland would become Europe’s powder keg and a breeding ground of future Breiviks. Then it would be much easier to shame, humiliate, and govern the Poles.”
Meanwhile, The Krasnals, always on the appropriate side, joined up with the “independence-oriented youth”, who “turned radical after Smoleńsk, as evidenced by the rise of patriotism at the sports stadium, which Gazeta Wyborcza [...] and the government futilely try to hamper.” Oh, dear.
I’m observing the people looking at the display case in Zachęta. The first reaction is always defensive laughter, only later does the mood turn grim. Sometimes they read parts of the letters out loud, as if they can’t believe they’re actually reading something so wicked.
In her autobiography, Rottenberg writes: „At first I was laughing. I was still laughing when I read a letter addressed to every possible authority in Poland that called upon them to remove the Jewish director who should just go back to Israel, where she could organise exhibitions of sculptures made by a great rabbi crushed under the heel of Saddam’s jackboot. It all seemed perfectly absurd, and thus funny. I changed my mind when half of the Polish parliament decided that both the action in Zachęta and the letter as rational and valid.”
When I was looking at paintings by The Krasnals in Toruń – which I’ve managed to ignore until then – my body reacted in the same way it did when I was reading the Rottenberg letters. It’s a compulsive reaction. At first I wanted to laugh, but that feeling quickly went away. A chill went over me. Nit, parasite, and whore. Lucky for us, they’re still harmless (but maybe not for long).
They want revolution? Give them some cake.
The dreams of others
There was no censorship in Toruń. Artists either withdrew their works or publicly voiced their disapproval of the curator’s views. Zachęta joined in the outcry and not because the Political Critique should be dictating the norms of political correctness in artistic discourse, as some people often suggest. Kazimierz Piotrowski’s dream is not my dream, and I would be very scared if I ever found myself in that dream of his. That’s what Macuga reminded me about.
But what have I learned from this exhibition? Untitled is still stuck in the past decade. It’s too late for anyone to care about it. The emotions are long gone. Only a few of us remember the names of the MPs from the League of Polish Families party, and Daniel Olbrychski is busy celebrating his anniversaries. But still, a fraction of us smile at the memory of these times. Is it a ghetto of frustration or nostalgia? Lucky for us, to paraphrase Świetlicki, “we’re still more interested in the wake than the funeral.”
translated by Jan Szelągiewicz