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Vol 3, No 25
10 September 2001
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Grzegorz Sztwiertnia in a therapeutic seance / performance piece, Healer (2001)
Sztwiertnia: Healer (2001)
The Art's Coming, but Where's the Public?
How contemporary art is bearing up in the new Poland
Andrew James Horton

It's now over ten years since the Berlin Wall crumbled, keys were jangled in Prague's Vaclavské náměstí and electing Lech Wałęsa as president seemed like a sensible idea. Commentators all over the world have been keen to focus on the trials and tribulations of Central Europe's political, economic and social development, but what of the arts?

Are practitioners of the arts reacting to the new, wider European context, or do they remain trapped in a Communist-style provincialism? And are the public, museums and the government keeping pace with any changes?

To try and answer these questions, I went along to a new exhibition at the London Polish Cultural Institute (PCI). Entitled Why Me, Not You?, the show brings together installation art by two Polish and two British artists and contrasts individual and universal experience, the formal qualities of cross-cultural communication and its actual content and the rich legacy of history and the energetic thrust of the new.

The dualities explored in the exhibition are, in part, reflections of the double-edged title. As curator Justyna Niewara explained to me, "This is a title you ask yourself from early childhood, 'why me, not you?,' and you can ask it in the same way if you are ashamed or if you are honoured." As she went to explain the intention was:

...to focus our perception on to certain aspects of our life. I didn't just want to try and compare different kinds of abilities of the art-making here in London and in Poland. I wanted to rather start a kind of dialogue and show that certain aspects and certain forms are universal, and they could be created everywhere.

Unexplained hotel goings-on in the from Jaros
Grzegorz Sztwiertnia's contributions to the exhibition were inspired by an autistic man he observed from his bedroom window each day and Rudolph Steiner's theory of "eurythmics," which link colour, sound and movement together. Piotr Jaros presented a dreamlike series of four small colour photos which present an uncertain story that encompasses both mundane domestic drama and seedy erotic ritual in a hotel bathroom.

Both the Polish artists were enthusiastic about the opportunity to exhibit in London, the first time they have had the opportunity to so. As Sztwiertnia said of travelling abroad, "it's one big library," and the two have used their time in London to go to a number of galleries: Tate Britain, Tate Modern, the Whitechapel Gallery, White Cube, Lisson Gallery and others. "Many, many artists, Polish artists, can develop their ideas and their visual ideas be being abroad for a long time," adds Sztwiertnia.

Indeed, Sztwiertnia himself places so much faith in travel abroad that he sees it as the area on which government cultural policy should focus, since the Polish art scene is "closeted."

The importance of place

Middleman : Previous work from Jaros
Jaros and Sztwiertnia both received their art schooling in Communist times, the former graduating in 1989 and the latter in 1992, and it seems reasonable looking at their work to conclude that they have been more influenced by their foreign sojourns than by Party-led tuition. The importance of travel for Polish artists is likely to exist for some time, too, since lecturers in art colleges are frequently still appointees in office from the Communist era and are very conservative in their outlook.

However, Sztwiertnia seemed to have been just as influenced by London itself as a city rather than its collection of cultural institutions. Perhaps in slight contradiction to Niewara aims to show the universality in art, Sztwiertnia believes that:

the most influential thing for artists today is the place where he lives, so the difference between art, for example, in Poland and Great Britain is obviously based on what two countries or two cities look like. I experienced it walking through Oxford Street. There are so many beautiful and different people. We don't have this is at all. Not at all. As there are no, or almost no, black people, there are no Chinese people, no Koreans and so on. And I feel the lack of this. This is why generally the Polish mind is closed because you [as a Pole] are closed in your own community.

I had to point out the irony to him that a Pole looks to London as an exemplar of ethnic diversity, when just 70 years ago it would have been completely the other way round. But events since have changed everything, and when I ask him further about being able to connect with Poland's multi-cultural past he just laughs and says in a tone that indicates this is the final comment you can make on the matter, "I was born in 1968" (the year of a wave of state-encouraged anti-Semitism in Poland).

Building Skills : Another of Ferguson's balloon works
It was down to one of the British artists taking part to take up these themes of cross-cultural communication in his work. Nick Ferguson's The King's Burial Shoes employed white balloons with the kind of grammar exercises familiar to students of English as a foreign language on them. The balloons, perched cheekily around the ornate 18th-century interior of the PCI, remind the viewer of instability of communication and also how form can render communication meaningless.

Ferguson, whose wife is Polish and who was artist in residence at the Laznia Centre of Contemporary Art in Gdańsk in 1999, explored this idea further in a performance piece in which he recited a section of Slawomir Mrożek's Małe listy in Polish. Since Ferguson doesn't actually speak Polish, he didn't actually understand a word of what he was saying. The result caused much amusement among those who witnessed the event who did speak Polish.

Young guns waiting in the wings

Going the other way, taking Polish art out of Poland to an international audience, Poland is fortunate to have avenues available to its artists. As Sztwiertnia notes:

If you co-operate with a large institution, an important institution, such as the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Warsaw or [the] Xawery Dunikowski [Museum] or [the] Zachęta [gallery], it's easier because the connections are very good. But, if you don't co-operate with an important instituion, then it is not easy.

Clearly, with freedom to travel since the collapse of Socialism, a new generation is growing up in the art scene. Interestingly, the 33-year-old Sztwiertnia does not consider himself to be part of this wave of young artists. Talking about the Academy of Fine Arts where he teaches, he notes that:

Many students are younger than me and they present a different way of thinking and way of understanding work from the way I do. I think the new generation, I mean people who are around 20 years old, they are a kind of hope for me.

Ołowska: Already
displayed in the UK
Both artists were firm in their optimism in this new generation—which they cited as including Paulina Ołowska, who has also exhibited in Britain with the support of the PCI—and claim that there are about eight or ten young artists who they rate as being exceptional. "Yes, it's very good—under the circumstances," says Sztwiertnia in reaction to my surprise.

While the two were happy to heap praise on Polish artists, they did not have such a high opinion of the Polish public: "the main problem lies on the low education of the public.There are no responses in daily newspapers and there are no social discussions. [Modern art] exhibitions are more important to artists."

Exhibitions certainly have hit the headlines. For instance, the Zachęta's The Nazis, an exhibition by Piotr Uklański's of images of famous film stars playing Nazi roles was launched into the world of newspaper headlines when Polish actor Daniel Olbrychski casually strolled into the gallery with the media in tow and slashed at the paintings with a sabre. Sztwiertnia is dismissive of this kind of coverage, however:

This is not a response to art, but to scandalistic behaviour of certain people in the public's eye. If you asked anybody what was in the exhibition during the scandal of Olbrychski and so on I think nobody would be able to tell you.

A climate with no collectors

Lack of interest from the public and the media means that there are very few private collectors of modern art in Poland. Those that have the interest in the medium, simply don't have the money, while those people who have the money generally have more conservative tastes. It doesn't help, as Jaros points out, that "in Poland before the war, yes, there were private collections, but now there aren't any private collections, maybe one or two in Warsaw."

I asked how, in these harsh circumstance, Polish artists survive on a day to day basis: "It's very difficult," both artists responded firmly and almost in unison. To illustrate the point, Jaros revealed that "for five years I could only sell my works to people from Western Europe and the United States."

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But Jaros, echoing Sztwiertnia's earlier thoughts on the experience of London, thought that financial poverty was the least of the worries in the development of a vibrant arts scene: "Very important in Poland, Czech, Hungary and Russia is human behaviour—mentality. It's very, very important, not the economy only." But he remains optimistic: "It's a lot better than it was ten years ago," he said, before citing yet again the importance of travel abroad since the borders have opened up.

Sztwiertnia also points out in Kraków the two professional galleries that are trying "not only to sell artwork but also to build a trend for buying young art." But, he adds that it is "difficult" and Poland needs 10, 20, maybe 30 years to build a new generation of young people who will have enough money to buy [contemporary art]." This is particularly important for him, as he feels that Poland should not rely on collectors from abroad to support the market.

When I ask Jaros if he thinks the conditions are getting better for modern art, he is cautious: "Perhaps," he says with a sceptical tone, adding that "a lot of things must change."

Despite the problems in Poland with getting the public interested in modern art, Why Me, Not You? looks set to be a success in London. The number of people attending the private view far exceded the expectations of the PCI, who are more used to using their London premises for quiet exhibitions by historical artists.

Perhaps, then, the international network of PCIs should change their remit from exporting Polish culture out of the country to trying to import it back in.

Andrew James Horton, 10 September 2001

Why Me, Not You? shows at the Polish Cultural Institute in London until 5 October 2001. See the Institute's Website for more details of this and other Polish-related cultural events in the UK.

Please note that not all the images in this article are taken from the Why Me, Not You? exhibition.

Also of interest:

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