German Art World

Hype? No way! Polish Art in Germany

Anna Molska und Wojciech Bakowski, Completed, 2009; © Courtesy Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warschau/WarsawAnna Molska and Wojciech Bakowski, Completed, 2009; © Courtesy Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warschau/Warsaw

It might have taken a little time for the rest of the world to notice it, but Poland actually has quite a lively and unconventional art scene. The message has also been received loud and clear in Germany. What better proof of this than the current exhibition being held at the Museum Morsbroich called “Twisted Entities”.

There is something quite strange about the fact that the success of some Polish artists on the international exhibition scene has been written off as fast-lane “hype”. Comparisons between the art scene in Poland at the moment and the phenomenon of the Young British Artists (YBA) in the 1990s are already rife in the press - the aim being to emphasise the significance of the “Young Poles”. This is actually unreflected quick-fire thinking - the YBA after all has in the meantime turned into a movement that is no longer to be taken seriously and is above all now looked on more or less as a clumsy attempt at package marketing. The contemporary art of Poland however has nothing in common with this at all.

For quite some time now there has been an internationally influential art scene in Poland that prides itself in its performative approach and its critical thinking. One name worth mentioning for the period before 1989 is above all Tadeusz Kantor (1915-1990), whose confrontational installation dealing with the Second World War, Umarla Klasa (The Dead Class ) received worldwide recognition; the significance of the sculptural works of Alina Szapocznikow (1926-1973) is also being rediscovered at the moment. In the Warsaw of the 1990s a consummately provocative, political mood was to be felt inside the art world radiating from a group of artists close to Pavel Althamer - a group that in retrospect can be called “critical artists”. Empowerment, equally as subversive as humorous, may serve as the key word in this case - a term that manages to encompass many of the tendencies around at that time and that is still in many respects relevant today.

Hey neighbour, what’s new?

So what is with all this international hype? From the German point of view the situation seems quite different. There were some events like the celebration of the Polish-North-Rhine Westphalia Year 2011/12, the exhibition entitled Poland - Germany. 1,000 Years of Art and History held at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin and the fact that Artur Zmijewski was the curator of the Berlin Biennale, to which he invited many Polish artists - all these events might well give the impression of a strong focus on Poland. To speak of a Poland hype however seems to be somewhat presumptuous.

“Poland is not an exotic country that is yet to be discovered in Germany,” says Joanna Warsza, who was born in Warsaw but now lives and works in Berlin as a curator and who was jointly responsible with Zmijewski for the last Berlin Biennale. “From the Berlin perspective Poland is just next door. There has always been a long tradition of close ties, not only between the cities of Warsaw and Berlin, but also between the two countries.”

Whether people in other parts of Germany feel less close to their Polish neighbours is a matter of speculation and this might possibly be due to the resentment towards eastern Europe that is still around even today. It has been more than 30 years since Poland started to open up to the West with such turning points as the Solidarnosc movement and the election of the first Slavic pope, Karol Wojtyla - isn’t it now about time that the attempts undertaken by Poland and Germany to deal with their common history become a matter of course.

Not a Polish national show

At the moment the Museum Morsbroich is showing a selection of works of contemporary Polish art entitled Twisted Entities. Among the artists taking part there are many names that have been encountered over the last few years at some of the big international exhibitions: Miroslaw Balka, for example, who was born in Warsaw in 1958 and who took part in the documenta IX and in numerous biennales. Then there is 40-year-old Monika Sosnowska from Ryki, who caused quite a stir in the Polish pavilion at the 2007 Biennale in Venice with her sculpture that was reminiscent of giant, deformed scaffolding.

Other famous artists however are missing - painter Wilhelm Sasnal, for example, and Pavel Althammer. That is however OK – not because people do not want to see their works, but because the exhibition wants to avoid the questionable claim of being a national show of the art of Poland.

Borders made of paper

Instead Twisted Entities has brought together artists whose works are characterised by references to realistic, everyday themes and specific moments when things get “twisted” - references that in part have been influenced by the aesthetics of the theatre. Using everyday materials, existing control systems are analysed, deconstructed and turned upside down.

Jan Mioduszewski’s perspectively distorted shelving units that sprawl absurdly all over the room, for example, are a humorous comment on the psychotic feeling of being harassed by things; using simple means Michal Budny’s paper chains that have been tersely laid out on the floor reflect the topic of borders - and if you take a closer look at what first might seem to be a haphazard arrangement, you will see the geographical contours of Poland.

Stefanie Kreuzer, the exhibition’s curator, says that at first she noticed the artists’ works at various exhibitions and fairs due to their special narrative approach. It was not until later that she realised that most of the artists were Polish - and that prompted her to do some research into the matter. The Polish Institute in Düsseldorf organised a trip to Poland for her where she was able to compile a clever selection of artists, some well known - some not, whose works are on show at the Museum Morsbroich. The exhibition is a carefully curated, themed showcase of art that fits in perfectly with the ambiance of this former Baroque palace.

Michał Budny, Untitled (Borders), 2006; © Piotr Bazylko Collection, Warschau/Warsaw

Not a passing fad

Instead of all this talk of hype, the contrary is actually the case - it took a long time for the voices of Polish artists to be heard at all in the West. This was at least the way it was put by the art historian and art critic, Noemi Smolik, in her article for the Morsbroich exhibition catalogue entitled in German Wer spricht da? Künstlerinnen und Künstler aus Polen (Who is that talking? Artists from Poland).

In her article Smolik gives two reasons for the time lag: firstly the dominance of a global perspective influenced by North America and Western Europe and, secondly, the dictum of abstraction that has prevailed for so long in the realm of the visual arts - a dictum to which iconic Polish art traditions, which have been more influenced by the theatre, run contrary to. The fact that these things are now beginning to gradually change fortunately has nothing at all to do with a passing fad. 

“Twisted Entities. Contemporary Polish Art.”, Museum Morsbroich, Leverkusen, 27th January until 28th April 2013
Britta Peters
works as an art critic and a free-lance exhibition curator and, among other things, for the Frankfurt Kunstverein, in Hamburg.

Translation: Chris Cave
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
March 2013

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