Blowing up the castle... Imagine that! - Bik Van der Pol on their show in Warsaw's CCA

Issue no5
Oct-Nov 2021

The collection of the Ujazdowski Castle for Contemporary Art is a curious mix of artworks and archival documents. Bik Van der Pol's soloshow showcases and reworks the institution's history and collection, amidst controversies concerning the sudden appointment of a new director by the government.


‘She spoke with difficulty, it was hard to understand her, but what she said…’[1]

The last sentence of Franz Kafka’s final novel The Castle was left unfinished. Due to his untimely death the book was never completed. Often times it leaves the readers frustrated rather than curious or hopeful. The Castle was actually not meant to go public at all, and along with Kafka’s other works ordered to be incinerated.

An analogy may be drawn between the story and its protagonist K. – who is never admitted inside the fortress nor accepted in the village, and yet is not able to go home and struggles with the bizarre authorities of the Castle and his nonsensical existence in the maze of an absurd world – and Bik Van der Pol’s extensive exhibition Far Too Many Stories to Fit Into so Small a Box. This exhibition is based on the collection of the Ujazdowski Castle for Contemporary Art in Warsaw (CCA). On the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of this institution, the Dutch artist duo Bik Van der Pol (Liesbeth Bik and Jos Van der Pol) examines CCA’s history (as a part of their residency at CCA) from the perspective of an outsider and tell a story in which facts intertwine with rumors, and recollections with imagination.

Act 1 – The Collection

‘A reflection on the collection of the CCA led us to the conclusion that the unofficial, whispered story is the most interesting . From what we have at our disposal, much more interesting is what is not there, what cannot be seen, what has been erased, removed from the archive’, says Joanna Zielińskacurator of the show[2]. ‘Because it is a collection, but it’s also not a collection. There are many works whose status is unclear: are they real works or just leftovers?’, adds Bik Van der Pol. Over the years many art works were left behind in the Ujazdowski Castle. Sometimes simply because they were too big for the artists to take home and sometimes because, in the throes of creative energy, no one bothered to sign the official documents.

The collection is created in close relation to the CCA program and reflects the changes the institution went through as well as the political and social situation in Poland since the early 1990s, which is when the story of Ujazdowski Castle for Contemporary Art started. ‘It’s a myth that the CCA collection has been established by the artists. In fact, it was built on “donations” (new works that were made especially for an exhibition and stayed without being acquired)’[3]. A good example of this is Nedko Solakov’s humongous fur sculpture (also displayed in the exhibition), donated after his show in 2000. Next to this work artists installed a little peep-hole in the wall that exposes the space of the museum storage that is usually not visible for visitors. The adjacent room shows another sad story: the Corridor of Two Banalities (1994), the only collaboration between Joseph Kosuth and Emilia and Ilya Kabakov. This installation, consisting initially of 112 tables gathered from local households and offices, was created especially for Warsaw, a city that belongs neither to the West nor the East. ‘It was always the idea that these tables would go back to the status of old tables. After the exhibition the magic would be gone. They were kept in a terrible storage location: they were rotting and falling apart. One day they decided to destroy them, and some were given away. Only six tables were eventually donated to the collection’, reads the wall text. Now Bik Van der Pol exhibited again the ones that remained, which raises the question whether this is still a work of art, its documentation or just the leftover? ‘The collection of the Ujazdowski Castle Center for Contemporary Art is not so much a collection as an archive (…) It is a historical timeline, an archive, where artworks, documents, leftovers, and letters can be considered as ‘props’, actors in that timeline.’[4]

Act 2 – Script

K., the protagonist of The Castle, wonders around the village interminably conversing with its occupants about the puzzling ways of the castle authorities. For Kafka, the conversation about the Castle becomes just as important as the Castle itself, the inaccessibility of the place fuels the desire for understanding.

‘The collection is many things, it is also many stories’, says Bik Van der Pol. Hence, similarly to K., in order to understand its nature better they decided to talk to people who are in various ways connected to Ujazdowski Castle. ‘We focused on 1989 and after, when it became the institution for the contemporary art and also internationally a very exciting place. So we tried to sort of find out what the excitement was about, and how this institution developed through the thirty years that it went through.’

Among the many people interviewed were art critic and art historian Piotr Rypson (former curator and editor-in-chief of Obieg, an art magazine published by the Ujazdowski Castle – his unjustified dismissal from the function of director and then the curator of the National Museum in Warsaw was a subject of much controversy earlier this year), the prominent Polish curator Milada Ślizińska, who was associated with CCA from its very beginning and responsible for introducing many international artists, and Jolanta Krukowska, the widow of Wojciech Krukowski, one of the most important figures in The Castle and long-time director of the CCA, founder of the experimental theater group Akademia Ruchu [Academy of Movement], and publisher of aforementioned Obieg.

‘The collection, or maybe the lack of the collection, sparked so many questions that we actually wanted to speak with people who could help us clarify some things. We needed all these voices to guide us through all the material that the institution calls a collection’, says Bik Van der Pol. ‘We also found out that there were a lot of people who didn’t want to meet us because they were so angry. There is a lot of emotion connected to the whole thing.’

No wonder, because the memories and works mentioned in those conversations were important markers in the Polish cultural scene. Some reappeared in Far Too Many Stories to Fit Into so Small a Box, such as Nan Goldin’s photograph Nan One Month after Being Battered (1984) that was shown in the retrospective exhibition Devil’s Playground which opened in CCA in 2003 and presented almost 500 photographs of the artist’s ‘extended family’: artists, homosexuals, transvestites, regulars of nightclubs, drug addicts. ‘People were shocked at the time. Many visitors, especially from the slightly younger generations, remember this exhibition as a kind of initiation. It may have been the case that it was the first time that they had come to the Center, that it was an exhibition that they visited repeatedly, and that they experienced something extraordinary there’, explains the wall label. ‘I think that it is very important in relation to what is happening now in Poland, where sexual education is on the verge of being banned in schools’, adds Bik Van der Pol. In fact, many of the works in the show raise issues still relevant for contemporary situation in Poland (even if their controversy can be traced back as far as to the 1970s). The works of, among others, artists such as Natalia LL (whose Consumerism Art, 1973, was removed this spring from display in the National Gallery in Warsaw), Oleg Kulik (Family of the Future, 1999), or Barbara Kruger (whose pro-abortion posters hung in Warsaw’s public space were vandalized in 1991) highlight the continuous cycle of struggle with sexual freedom, gender identity, or women and abortion rights. ‘We fought so hard and now it’s all back’, as someone says in one of the interviews.

Eventually, collected anecdotes and stories were edited into script, which has served as a dynamic core, open for interpretation, for the entire project: from exhibition and wall texts, a storyline for the performances (Agnieszka Ayşen Kaim, Mamadou Góo Bâ, Billy Morgan, Ania Nowak, Jagoda Szymkiewicz) and a soundscape composed by Wojtek Blecharz, to special posters (designed by Fontarte) that are hanging in various places within the exhibition space.

Chorus – The Square

The shape of the square on the posters reappears in many different variations throughout the show. It’s a guiding principle, a leitmotif. It was also an important geometric figure in the activities and performances of Akademia Ruche, whose methodology – based on references to language, codes and signs embedded in everyday life - played an important role in the early conceptualization of CCA’s program. The shape of the square is introduced inside the exhibition both in the shape of a podium and as a floor one can walk on. The architecture of Ujazdowski Castle itself also seems to be built up of several equal squares.

Act 3 – The Architecture

‘It was neither an old stronghold nor a new mansion, but a rambling pile consisting of innumerable small buildings closely packed together and of one or two storeys; if K. had not known that it was a castle he might have taken it for a little town […] and if it were merely a question of enjoying the view it was a pity to have come so far.’[5]

‘Ultimately all the space you will ever need is in your mind’, wrote Yoko Ono in tiny letters on the wall of the Ujazdowski Castle during her performance Blue Room Event (as part of her 2008 exhibition Fly). After the show the remains of this action were supposed to be painted over, but that never happened. Today the work is covered with plexiglass plagues and the door is locked. This is not done to protect the work, but simply because the room is used for educational workshop purposes, not for exhibitions. Bik Van der Pol decided to open this space to the public again, exposing not only Ono’s piece but also a beautiful view overlooking the surrounding Ujazdów Park. Other windows in the Castle were uncovered too. ‘Because inside the exhibition spaces almost all the walls are closed, you don’t have any clue or orientation of where you are. We thought that it is very important to be in contact with the inner courtyard, because a lot of things are happening there now or happened in the past, so as to have better understanding of the architecture’, says Bik Van der Pol. Some of the windowpanes are covered with blue translucent foil, in a homage to David Hammons’ exhibition Real Time, but also to Derek Jarman and Yves Klein. The artists also decided to open up a part of the wall and expose the original bricks hidden behind the white cube.

Extending the exhibition space is not only done by physically opening up the spaces, a part of the Ujazdowski Castle archive is also on show for the public. On view is a selection of video documentations, posters and all the books ever published by the institution.

In Kafka’s novel the reader won’t find a description of the fortress. In the short sound piece The Castle that is being played by the entrance of the Ujazdowski Castle for Contemporary Art, a calm voice recites in short sentences that a castle always has big walls, a garrison, a flag, etc. If you have it all those elements ‘now you’ve got yourself a castle’. ‘The only difference between this castle and all the rest is that they were built to keep people out’ is the final utterance of the voice. ‘We wanted to keep people inside the castle’, says Bik Van der Pol. ‘In general I think it is really important that people spend time in an exhibition.’

‘We didn’t want it to be this exhibition of objects, whether art objects or leftovers, we wanted this exhibition to be a continuous movement within the institution, and all its layers add the dynamic to it’, explains Bik Van der Pol. Also, because the exhibition will be on view until May next year, for the people who come back it is interesting to see what will change. ‘The exhibition will always be different. It will always be something that is speaking back to the public somehow. There is a lot to discover in that sense.’


‘The castle in Kafka’s novel is, as it were, the heavily fortified garrison of a company of Gnostic demons, successfully holding an advanced position against the maneuvers of an impatient soul.’ [6]

The Ujazdowski Castle for Contemporary Art has always been following sociopolitical transformations in Poland, witnessing and adapting to the given situation. Along with government changes, the Castle policy changes.

On the day of the opening of Far Too Many Stories to Fit Into so Small a Box the Polish minister of Culture announced that Piotr Bernatowicz will be the new director of CCA. This happened without the customary open call process and very in favor of the government. A petition letter written to call on the Polish Minister of Culture and National Heritage, Piotr Gliński, to revoke the appointment reads: ‘the newly appointed candidate, is not a successful negotiator. During his tenure as the director of the Arsenal Municipal Gallery in Poznań his actions caused a serious conflict with the curatorial section of his team and profound alienation of the local artistic community […] A series of his disastrous decisions caused serious damage to the reputation of the gallery he was responsible for. […] Bernatowicz has on numerous occasions condoned and supported statements that can be considered hate speech. There is no room in the public sector for the artworks which target singled out social groups, misogynistic artwork.’ Tilting at windmills, one might say.

A couple of days later the newly appointed director of the Ujazdowski Castle presented his substantive and organizational program titled ‘The Center of Reflection on Contemporary Art’ (2020-2026) which states, inter alia, that ‘the profile of the collection will be analyzed and reoriented in such a way that it will include the works of significant Polish and foreign artists (primarily those related to the exhibition and residential priority of the Center focused on peripheral areas) that do not appear in other large collections of museums and contemporary art centers (Museum of Modern Art, Zachęta National Gallery, MOCAK, CCA Znaki Czasu in Toruń).’

Some people believe that it will be the end of The Castle as it is now, and that Far Too Many Stories to Fit Into so Small a Box might be the last time it shows its collection.

Photos by Pat Mic, courtesy of Ujazdowski Castle Center for Contemporary Art

[1] F. Kafka, The Castle, Oxford World Classics, 2009, p. 275

[2] Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, 25-27 October 2019, nr 208 (5110), p. A26

[3] Exhibition text

[4] Idem.

[5] F. Kafka, The Castle, Alfred A. Knopf, 1946, p.11

[6] E. Heller, ‘The World of Franz Kafka’, The Disinherited Mind: Essays in Modern German Literature and Thought, Bowes & Bowes, 1951, p. 175

Bik Van der Pol - Far Too Many Stories to Fit Into So Small a Box, Ujazdowski Castle for Contemporary Art, Warsaw, 25.10.2019 until 3.5.2020

Weronika Trojanska
is an artist and art writer

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 5 — 2021