Galeria Wschodnia: Dokumenty 1984-2017 / Documents 1984-2017
Daniel Muzyczuk and Tomasz Załuski (eds.), Galeria Wschodnia. Dokumenty 1984-2017 / Documents 1984-2017 (Łódź: Galeria Wschodnia, Fundacja In Search Of, Muzeum Sztuki w Łodzi, 2019), 916 pp.
Looking at politics through the lens of alternative galleries is by now an established method within Polish art history. It has allowed for the emergence of vital comparative perspectives, both in the regional context (as demonstrated by Piotr Piotrowski’s oft-cited article “How to Write a History of Central-East European Art?”) and on a national level (e.g. Marcin Lachowski’s Awangarda wobec instytucji, or Luiza Nader’s Konceptualizm w PRL).(Piotr Piotrowski, “How to Write a History of Central-East European Art?” in Third Text, 23:1 (2009), 5–14. Luiza Nader, Konceptualizm w PRL (Warszawa: Wydawnictwa Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego, 2009). Marcin Lachowski, Awangarda wobec instytucji: o sposobach prezentacji sztuki w PRL-u (Lublin: Towarzystwo Naukowe Katolickiego Uniwersytetu Lubelskiego Jana Pawła II, 2006)) More recently, monographs dealing with a single case study have come to the fore. Daniel Muzyczuk and Tomasz Załuski’s richly illustrated study of Łódź’s Galeria Wschodnia demonstrates the depth of analysis that can be garnered from the history of a single institution, shifting the focus from the 1960s and ‘70s – which saw the rise of Poland’s alternative gallery network, operating parallel to state-run institutions – to the turbulent period of the 1980s and ‘90s.
Unlike artist-led exhibition spaces that aligned themselves with existing workshops, unions and associations—including Galeria Foksal; Akumulatory 2; Permafo—Galeria Wschodnia belonged to a circuit of private apartments doubling as experimental artistic venues. Founded by artists Adam Klimczak and Jerzy Grzegorski in the aftermath of the imposition of martial law in Poland, the first-floor tenement home quickly became a vibrant meeting place. Though the industrial city of Łódź was rarely directly addressed by the artists who exhibited at Wschodnia, much of the work presented there since 1984 engaged with the gallery’s material fabric, also in relation to the residential building in which it was located. In Klimczak’s eyes, the wall separating Wschodnia from the identical apartment next door became “the line separating utopia and reality” (p. 274) – not in order to separate these spheres, but to put them in dialogue with each other. Cultivating its own milieu (środowisko), Muzyczuk notes that everyday life was where Wschodnia sought the space of autonomy (pp. 461, 470).
The publication follows in the footsteps of the cited predecessors by disavowing from the outset the idealized framework of institutional “independence” understood as immunity from dominant political forces (p. 229). Instead, its focus is on the variety of “tactics” (p. 231) – a term previously mobilized by Nader following Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life – that the gallery adopted to negotiate its social and financial position, in particular in the context of the economic transition from communism to capitalism.(The ‘collapse of the state art system’ is also the focus of Jakub Banasiak’s recent monograph Proteuszowe czasy. Rozpad państwowego systemu sztuki 1982-1993 – which, incidentally, has faced public criticism from the Łódź artist Józef Robakowski. Jakub Banasiak, Proteuszowe czasy. Rozpad państwowego systemu sztuki 1982-1993 (Warszawa: Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej i Akademia Sztuk Pięknych w Warszawie, 2020)) With this in mind, Załuski and Muzyczuk are not interested in romanticizing Galeria Wschodnia’s history. Nor do they present its founders as heroic figures, despite a palpable but justified sense of affection for their endeavour and the gallery’s prominent position on the artistic map of Łódź.
The monograph can be broadly divided into two distinct but necessarily overlapping sections: first, research comprising new interpretations of the gallery’s history; and second, archival research that reproduces historical articles and photographs. Belonging to the former category is the publication’s central and longest text, Załuski’s “Galeria Wschodnia – A Biography of the Place”. Demonstrating how persuasive the micro-historical approach can be in the context of Eastern European art, the essay turns the necessity to reconstruct past events into an opportunity to reflect on methodology. Załuski’s defines “biography” as more than a linear narrative: his account is both “material and milieu-oriented” (p. 231), situating Galeria Wschodnia within a network of reciprocal relations between people and spaces. Built upon friendship, the gallery is understood to be more than the sum of its sociohistorical circumstances. Indeed, in 1988 Józef Robakowski recognized it as the “one public PLACE” of the Łódź art scene (p. 251), alluding to the term’s capitalisation by the founders of the Warsaw Galeria Foksal twenty-two years earlier. Even though Wschodnia represented a site of confrontation with art of the preceding two decades, its relation to it was analogous to the neo-avant-garde’s own relation to the avant-garde – of continuity as much as rupture.
The effects of historicization have long been a source of uneasiness for Polish alternative galleries. The problem accompanied Foksal from its inception, even leading the gallery to famously sink its own archives in the Baltic in an act of radical institutional self-critique. Since, until recently, Galeria Wschodnia had lacked the very privilege of having an archive to sink, it was its construction, rather than renouncement, that was to become a matter of not only practical but theoretical anxiety. In April 2011, artist Karolina Breguła, who has since made numerous works referencing Galeria Wschodnia’s history, began the process of organizing some of the scattered documentation. During a performance titled Rekonstrukcja, she filed the gallery’s papers together with Klimczak, Grzegorski, and the public (pp. 408–9). Before confining the archive to the past and thus allowing it to be disavowed, Breguła’s project enacted it in the shared present. With this in mind, Załuski and Muzyczuk’s publication could be seen as partaking precisely in the kind of historical ossification that Rekonstrukcja had intended to avoid. The monograph therefore faces a peculiar problem: having to engage with its own critiques.
Directly confronting historiography as a practice, Galeria Wschodnia: Documents 1984-2017 demonstrates the power of archival research to do more than lay the groundwork for future investigations. Załuski’s longform essay comes across as in equal measure authoritative and aware of its active role in constructing the history it is describing. Though the writing happens retrospectively, the process is a form of agency – the anthology of historical writings that follows the gallery’s “biography” self-reflexively addresses this point, encouraging the reader to retain critical distance. Included in that anthology is an essay by Jerzy Busza (pp. 498–506) that asks where it is that exhibitions are actually created: do they exist as they are experienced – and, therefore, in a multitude of subjective forms? Or do they have an objective reality? What are the effects of experiencing art vicariously, through secondary sources? Busza’s reflections therefore speak to the situation of the reader as they interact with the results of Załuski and Muzyczuk’s research.
Załuski’s essay reveals an economy of personal relations surrounding the gallery, noting that its implications were far from immaterial. Recognizing the invisible labor of Ewa Robak – who was heavily involved in the day-to-day running of Wschodnia, but in practical ways that did not warrant official recognition (pp. 303–4) – Załuski explores the gender and sexual politics implicit in the gallery’s operations. From this point of view, our understanding of Łódź’s celebrated “pitch-in culture” (kultura zrzuty) as a form of spontaneous self-organization within the artistic community begins to change: under gendered conditions, certain forms of unpaid labor are revealed to be worth more than others. Załuski thus foreshadows the uses and abuses of “the personal” in the context of the economic transformation in Poland: the way that, a little too easily for comfort, the concept’s meaning began to oscillate between a sense of communal ownership and private, decentralised sponsorship. Under these conditions, another source text included in the publication – Maria Morzuch’s “The Circles of Wschodnia” (1991) (pp. 524–27), which praises the gallery as a space that was always open “to an unexpected visit of an interesting artist or a new film or video” (p. 526) – can be read less optimistically. Already committed to “maximum efficiency with minimum resources” (p. 379), the founders found themselves inadvertently mirroring the logic of the economic transition.
Załuski identifies a similar contradiction in the evolution of the international exhibition series Construction in Process(Konstrukcja w procesie) organized by the Łódź-based artist Ryszard Waśko: with each successive staging, the exhibition appeared to be moving further away from the utopian Constructivist ideals that the original 1981 edition had drawn on. By 1991, Waśko was seeking the support of none other than Polish-American diplomat Zbigniew Brzeziński; two years later, politicians associated with the Liberal Democratic Congress became directly involved (pp. 320, 356–68). “In a capitalist society there is no art, there is only culture” – this was the warning given to Wschodnia by the American artist Bruce Checefsky in January 1990, during a lecture on 1980s US photography (p. 296). When, in a discursive footnote, Załuski proposes a comparison between Waśko’s soup (Meal for the Rich and Poor, 1993) and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s soup (in fact curry; Untitled (Free), 1992), what becomes clear is the extent to which the provisional nature of relationality mimics the “glocal” structures it purports to critique (p. 366, footnote 477). The sacrifice of a specific outcome in favor of participation as an end in itself reflects the move from manufacturing towards a service economy.
Galeria Wschodnia: Documents 1984-2017 is not the first attempt to write Wschodnia’s history: paradoxically, much can be learnt about the gallery from books that were never published (pp. 329–34). Plans for a retrospective catalogue date as far back as 1989 – Wschodnia’s fifth anniversary. The initiative was kickstarted through the means of crowdfunding, with contributions sought from individual backers through the purchase of subscription tokens. On the one hand, this form of support corresponded to the “pitch-in culture” model. On the other hand, Jolanta Ciesielska, who authored an introductory text for the fundraiser, was quick to realize the dangers of the discourse of financial self-reliance under the changing economic circumstances (pp. 516–9). In May 1990, Grzegorski and Klimczak won an award for their services to culture, which consisted of a cash prize and an offer of in-kind support from a commercial printing press. Despite this, the publication never materialised due to the day-to-day financial pressures associated with running the gallery. Checefsky was thus proven right: there was no art; only culture.
Discussions about the catalogue resurfaced in 1991, on the occasion of Galeria Wschodnia’s presentation at the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw. The two-part publication was to be financed by the host, the local government in Łódź, and businesses based on Wschodnia Street, the gallery’s location, in exchange for advertising space on the publication’s pages (p. 341). Only the first volume, concerning the gallery’s history, saw the light of the day. In lieu of the second part, intended to document the CCA exhibition itself, Klimczak wrote a text for the magazine Exit, in which he walked the reader through the show, taking on the role of a tour guide (pp. 540–50). Unlike Andrea Fraser’s parodic Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk (1989), Klimczak’s account comes across as entirely sincere: a way of highlighting the many ways in which Wschodnia had resisted institutionalisation, despite the context of an institutional retrospective.
As if to acknowledge the fraught nature of previous attempts to complete the monograph, its anthological section is directly preceded by a “Deliberations” chapter whose tone is less triumphant. Based on a retrospective exhibition curated by Muzyczuk at Łódź’s Muzeum Sztuki in 2014, it reproduces a visualization of the gallery’s operations produced by Mikołaj Iwański and Jakub de Barbaro (pp. 479–85). The diagrammatic format of this statistical analysis mimics the language of the funding applications that Galeria Wschodnia found itself applying for in the new economic reality, reducing the gallery to a set of categories – some quantifiable (“Donors”), others less so (“Level of optimism and planning perspective”). Conflicting with the gallery’s self-avowed open-endedness, the joint project humorouslydemonstrates the futility of metrics as a mode of understanding cultural impact. What Iwański and de Barbaro’s investigation does reveal, however, is that Wschodnia is neither a victim of the transformation nor its beneficiary but a rich case study of both conditions, which have not always been mutually exclusive.
The timeliness of Załuski’s decision to read the gallery’s history through a “biography of things” (pp. 230–1) becomes apparent in his discussion of artistic interventions reflecting the current economic conditions. The 2012 group exhibition Occupation: Artist (Zawód artysty), organized at Galeria Wschodnia by Marcin Polak, exposed grant-based financial aid as closely related to the contemporary precarization of work. On display were the fruits of the participants’ labour – but produced outside their artistic practices, to earn a living. Restaged two years later at Muzyczuk’s Wschodnia retrospective, the project became part of an urgent conversation about the state of funding for the arts. During an auction staged by Janek Simon, a miscellany of objects found in the depths of Wschodnia was sold off to raise funds for its upkeep. Artist Tomasz Szerszeń, on the other hand, discovered that most of the businesses that placed their advertisements in the 1991 catalogue had since gone out of business (pp. 413–5).
What Muzyczuk and Załuski’s case study of Wschodnia thus makes clear is that the theoretical position of Eastern Europe vis-à-vis the West is inseparable from the economic dynamics between the regions. Reflecting on Eastern Europe’s geographical and conceptual in-betweenness, Zbigniew Warpechowski’s 1988 performance Asia (Azja) – involving his seven-month-old granddaughter and the I Ching, popularised within Western art history by John Cage’s chance procedures (p. 292) – now reads like a preamble to Michal Novotný’s 2018 travelling group exhibition Orient, anticipating the increasing ambiguity with regard to the region’s status. Sublimating the inferiority complex explored by Warpechowski into a form of idealized self-Orientalization, in 1990 Waśko would praise Eastern European “spirituality” as an antidote to the West’s materialism (pp. 317–8). It somehow seemed to pass him by that no alternative initiative can subsist on spirituality alone.
By reading Galeria Wschodnia’s exhibition history through the prism of the economic transition, Documents 1984-2017 reveals the difficulty in negotiating the space between private funding and privatisation. The story of alternative culture being co-opted by the rhetoric of neoliberalism might be a familiar one; what Wschodnia as introduced by Muzyczuk and Załuski can teach us is that if institutions and critique share a mutual goal, it is to stay one step ahead of each other.