From Kowalski’s Studio Into the World: Katarzyno Kozyro, Pawel Althamer, Artur Zmijewski
The year 1989 marked the transformation of the political system in Poland. The sequence is well known: the communists peacefully renounce power, “real socialism” tactfully gives way to democracy and the free market economy. What was the artists’ response? Did art, and in what way, referred to sudden and decisive changes in all the domains of life occuring in Poland in the 1990s? In what way did the Polish art institutions change? I want to outline some preliminary responses to these complex questions.
It is difficult to talk about a Polish “art scene”. It would be better to talk about a number of different “scenes” in several cities, such as Warsaw, Cracow, Gdansk, Poznan, or Wroclaw. Relationships between these centers are incidental and superficial. The characteristic features of particular millieux are difficult to grasp; for example, it is possible to discern a group centred around the Centre for Contemporary Art, “Bath” (supported by the city council) in Gdansk, and the bi-monthly Magazyn Artystyczny, which focuses on the problems of the body in relation to post-industrial society; there are also the “metaphysical” artists in Cracow who explore the symbolism of form, colour and material in their installations, paintings and sculptures; one could also mention the post-conceptual tradition cultivated in Poznan. Warsaw is the “missing center” of this unstable system, an urban scene that is extremely dispersed and full of contradictions. Some young artists continue the tradition of painting here, while others succesfully develop forms, genres and topics developed in Western art – soft and subtle installations that include elements of sculpture and photography; these are ephemeral interventions in urban space that employ new media technologies to tackle issues of identity in the wake of the alleged failure of the avant-garde.
A group that calls itself “Kowalski’s studio” occupies a central position in this context. Artists of the group completed their diplomas under the supervision of professor Grzegorz Kowalski at the Fine Arts Academy in Warsaw. A studio space, in Kowalski’s interpretation, is transformed in a laboratory of artistic actions and interpersonal relations. Instead of being a place of encounter between “master” and “disciple”, the studio was, for Kowalski, a mental space, a field of constant exchange between one’s “own space” (the domain of the student’s inner world and artististic visions) and “common space” (the social situation, or the external reality of the studio and the street). “Didactics of process instead of didactics of the object” was the ruling principle of the group, rooted in the premises of an open form program formulated in the late 1950s by architect and urban designer, Oskar Hansen, the author of a famous (unrealized) plan for a monument dedicated to the memory of Auschwitz conceived as a road cutting the space of the camp diagonally. Professor Kowalski, Hansen’s former student, developed his teaching ideas in a creative way, confronting students with tasks that went beyond the traditional requirements of “sculptural skills”. A kind of psychoanalysis practiced by Kowalski made it possible for his students to work out their own artistic language, a language based on their teacher’s way of thinking. Around the studio, and within it, a certain tension could be felt; the micro-community of Kowalski’s students functioned in interchangeable phases of almost mystical isolation and sponteaneous interaction with the changing society around it. The most important discussions concerning the limits of art, its place in society, and the responsibility of the artist in Poland in the 1990s all originated in the projects conceived by Kowalski’s studio.
Three of Kowalski’s students, who made their debut in 1990s-Pawel Althamer, Katarzyna Kozyra, Artur Zmijewski -deserve special attention. What they have in common, in spite of the fact that each of them became a distinguished and significant artistic personality, is their rejection of conception of art as a domain of purely formal investigation. Aesthetic conventions are of less interest to them than the paradoxes of external reality. Their individual development shows, in addition, that their early works-performances, radical figurative sculptures-were not a provocation aimed at immediate effect but authentic testimony to an existential attitude that found an adequate expression in their art.
Pawel Althamer (born in 1969) is the most recognized Polish artist of the young generation. In 1993 he made his debut at the Dutch Sonsbeek exhibition. What he presented there were wooden benches distributed in a public park. His first solo exhibition at Foksal Gallery (Warsaw) consisted, among others, of bus seats covered with white leather, an industrial door, plastic floor covering, and a window opening up to an ascetically arranged gallery space and then to a garden growing wildly in the back yard. In 1996 Althamer had a solo exhibition at Kunsthalle Basel where he presented a video installation consisting of five monitors with naked homeless people from Warsaw’s central train station who were dancing in a circle. In addition, the artist showed early figurative sculptures made of organic materials. In 1997 he was the only Polish artist to participate in Documenta X. There he painted a military vehicle in white, transforming it into a two-seat cinema where one could watch Althamer in a self-made astronaut’s uniform on a LCD screen, conducting his exploration of the city of Kassel with a video camera. In the second, properly furnished part of the vehicle a man hired by the artist actually lived for one hundred “documenta” days. At present, after his second exhibition at Foksal Gallery (where he showed a white tent covering six hundred square meters of the garden adjacent to the gallery; the idea was to manipulate the living conditions for the plants in the tent), Althamer is working on a new project commissioned by the Hoffman Sammlung (a 30 meters self-portrait in the form of a balloon anchored to one of buildings at Potsdamer Platz). Althamer is also preparing a new solo exhibition for the opening of the Kunsthalle in Karlsruhe.
Katrzyna Kozyra (born 1963) is an author of the most controversial diploma work presented at the Warsaw Fine Arts Academy, “The Pyramid of Animals”. The title refers to the “Musicians of Bremen”, a well-known fairy-tale by the Grimm brothers. Kozyra’s pyramid, consisting of a stuffed horse, a dog, a cat, and a rooster, caused long-lasting discussions in the Polish media concerning the limits of artistic freedom. Catholic Poland is a country where moral norms expressed in public border on prudishness; this is confirmed by the fact that another of Kozyra’s works, presented on a billboard, was censored during the same year. “Blood Ties”, a photograph showing two naked women (a leg of one of them is amputated at the knee level) against the background of the symbols of the red cross/red crescent and surrounded by vegetables, referred to Balkan war. The Polish press decided that in the context of the forthcoming visit by the pope the work would be obscene and the billboards were covered. Paradoxically enough, Kozyra represented Poland in this year’s Biennale in Venice where she exhibited “Men’s Bath”. The most important part of this work is a sequence of scenes recorded with a hidden camera in the male section of the Gellert Bath in Budapest which Kozyra visited dressed as a man, complete with an artificial penis.
Artur Zmijewski (born 1969) is an artist and the curator of several group exhibitions (“Myself and AIDS”, 1966; “Parteitag”, 1997. Here, the participants accomplished tasks in response to Zmijewski’s instructions from his “exhibition-questionaire”). Zmijewski is also the editor of an independent magazine (Czereja) that tackles controversial topics from the borderlines of culture and symptoms of social pathology. At present, he is preparing works for the Ars Baltica exhibition to be shown at the Kunstmuseum in Kilonia and at Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Zmijewski is also the author of several videos in which he analyzes the expressive capacities of the human body, frequently showing it crippled or submitted to physical pressure. In a video entitled “Eye for an eye”, a “normal” young woman washes a crippled man in a shower, “lending” him, in a way, her own palms; meanwhile two men, one “healthy”, the other one legless, climb up the stairs together, humming a children’s song. This work is a voice in a discussion on “political correctness”, but it is also a provocative response to those who condem the lawless “artistic exploitation” of topics that seem indigestible to most people. The most recent work by Zmijewski is a series of photographs of people whose height does not exceed 145 cm: a child, a legless cripple, a dwarf,an elder woman. The absurdity of this “criterion of height” leads to a reflection on the situation of Polish society in which everybody supposedly has equal opportunities.
The institutional conditions and the general situation of the market for contemporary art in Poland differ considerably from those in West-Europe. For one thing, that market practically does not exist: two commercial galleries (both in Cracow)-Starmach (showing museum-like exhibitions of classics of Polish avant-garde), and Zderzak (representing a group of interestig artists of the middle and young generations)-are simply not enough to create a commercial infrastructure. There is not a single serious commercial gallery in Warsaw. Artists almost never sell their works, if they do, they sell them (albeit very rarely) abroad; collectors tend to invest their money in antiquities, historical and generic painting of the 19-th century which they buy at auctions, or modernist painting of 1920s and 1930s. In such circumstances, the production of new works becomes a real challenge for young artists. There is no well-devised system of subsidizing young artists, and scholarships allowing artists to travel abroad are very rare. A few foundations (e.g., the Culture Foundation in Warsaw) and cultural cultural centres maintained by foreign governments (Goethe Institut, British Council, Pro Helevetia) are of some help. Private sponsors-companies or organisations-sporadically support exhibitions held in city galleries and state-run museums. However, the well-devised commercial support of contemporary art is still missing. The Ministry of Culture and Art supports to some degree the programmes of two institutions in Warsaw, the Centre for Contemporary Art at Ujazdowski Castle which since 1989 has been realising an ambitious program of international exhibitions and other artistic events, and the Contemporary Art Gallery Zacheta which presents, with varying success, retrospectives of Polish contemporary classics, projects by young artists (in the so-called Small Salon) and, from time to time, travelling exhibitions coming from abroad or mediocre international group exhibitions. Established in 1966, the legendary Foksal Gallery, for many years one of the few spaces for the presentation of international contemporary art in Poland, struggles with serious financial difficulties even though in theory it is maintained by the city council.
Young Polish art is certainly experimental and open; I am afraid, however, that it will take more time to assess competently its significance in the democratic society that is currently being formed. “An artist is someone without a place”, Pawel Althamer remarked in a recent interview. The Polish elites, at least for the time being, seem to share this opinion.
This essay was previously published in German in Basler Magazin 27 (1999). It appears here for the first time in English translation.