Work, Work, Work (Work). Céline Condorelli and Wendelien van Oldenborgh, exhibition view, Muzeum Sztuki w Łodzi, 2021, photos: Anna Zagrodzka

In Europe: Poland – Endless Summer Job

Issue no5
Oct-Nov 2021
Fluidity

In our series of summer reports we write on art scenes some of the lucky ones among us might soon be able to travel to again. This time Weronika Trojanska guides us through Poland’s current exhibitions, featuring three-dimensional textiles, the many moments of 'work' and the defence of artistic freedom.

“… to a commercial artist, drawing is work, but to millions of amateur artists it is a relaxing pleasure.” (James Suzman)

Choosing my summer read this year I picked up the new Polish translation of a book by anthropologist James Suzman. Its cover shows a blurred picture of assembly line workers overlaid with bold letters spelling: “Work. A history of how we spend our time”. I can’t rationally explain what attracted me to this particular book – it didn’t seem like the perfect subject to read about lying on a deck chair. Maybe I thought that its nearly 500 pages would be enough to fulfill my reading desires for my entire holiday, maybe it was my ongoing interest in trying to understand the meanders of capitalist society, maybe it was the perverse pleasure of reading about labor in my leisure time, or maybe it reminded me of the exhibition by Celine Condorelli and Wandelien van Oldenborgh that I had visited recently at Museum Sztuki in Łódź.

In this exhibition, titled “Work, Work, Work (Work)”, artists inspired by the modernist architecture of the Neoplastic Room designed in 1947 by Władysław Strzemiński, pose questions about contemporary conditions of culture and building a community in relation to the global transformations of labor. The exhibition’s website explains that ‘the Neoplastic Room is also a space where we can observe contradictions between […] work and leisure time explored by avant-garde artists.’ For Suzman, the only thing that differentiates those two is their context. The repetition of the word ‘work’ in the exhibition title shows that the term can have many meanings. ‘We routinely describe all sorts of purposeful activities beyond our jobs as work. We can work, for instance, on our relationships, on our bodies, and even at leisure’, Suzman writes in his book. In the exhibition, Condorelli’s modernist installations intersect with Oldenborgh’s videos about working women, while remaining in a close dialogue with the architecture of the space. Audiovisual installations shown at the exhibition were created together with the female students of the Film School in Łódź, referencing the patriarchal traditions of film education and contemporary production conditions in the movie industry.

The repetition of the word ‘work’ in the exhibition title shows that the term can have many meanings: ‘We can work, for instance, on our relationships, on our bodies, and even at leisure’

Work, Work, Work (Work). Céline Condorelli and Wendelien van Oldenborgh, exhibition view, Muzeum Sztuki w Łodzi, 2021, photos: Anna Zagrodzka

Similarly, the subject of exclusion of women from the creative world is connoted by the exhibition Three Things I Love in Life – The Car, Liquor, and Sailors. Untold Stories of Women Students of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw 1918-1939 at gallery Lokal 30 and the foundation Arton in Warsaw. The exhibition follow traces of sixteen female artists (chosen out of 926 preserved files) from the interwar period of the Warsaw School of Fine Arts (later renamed the Academy of Fine Arts) in Warsaw, attempting to investigate their biographies and restore memory of women artists whose work had been kept in obscurity. The show is a part of the research project ‘Not Yet Written Stories: Woman Artists’ Archive Online’ in which researchers from Poland, Croatia, Latvia, and Slovenia search the archives of local institutions, looking for forgotten female artists.

An artist that definitely has not been forgotten is the world-famous Polish sculptress Magdalena Abakanowicz, whose exhibition We Are Fibrous Structures opened in the National Museum in Poznań in August. Earlier this year Poznań named its University of Arts after the artist. For 25 years Abakanowicz was a faculty member of the Poznań State School of Fine Arts, revolutionizing its educational program by elevating textiles and weaving to the status of an art discipline. Abakanowicz is well known for using three-dimensional textiles as a medium, so-called Abakans, showing an innovative approach to the use of fiber. Her textile sculptures suspended from the ceiling, or clustered in groups of monster-like figures made of organic material, broke with the tradition of flat surfaces of tapestry hanging on the wall. Although art critics initially found the medium a bit unnerving, Abakans – at the center of which is the human, its condition and place in the modern world, its burden of corporeality and anonymity in the crowd – eventually gained worldwide recognition.

Her textile sculptures suspended from the ceiling, or clustered in groups of monster-like figures made of organic material, broke with the tradition of flat surfaces of tapestry hanging on the wall

Magdalena Abakanowicz. We Are Fibrous Structures”, Photos from the archive of the National Museum in Poznań, photos: Sonia Bober

Magdalena Abakanowicz. We Are Fibrous Structures”, Photos from the archive of the National Museum in Poznań, photos: Sonia Bober

Three Things I Love in Life – The Car, Liquor, and Sailors.Untold Stories of Women Students of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw 1918-1939; photos: Alexander Kot-Zaitsaú

One of the major hubs for textile production in the early 20th century and ‘a meeting place of numerous communities of Jewish, Polish, Belarussian, Lithuanian, Russian, and Ukrainian workers’ was Białystok, a city in north-eastern Poland – as is explained in the press release of At the beginning was the deed!, curated by Post Brothers and Katarzyna Różniak at the Arsenal Gallery. The exhibition and research project which involve around 30 artists from Poland and abroad, explore the history of anarchism in Białystok and asks what these stories can mean today, placing the city at the center of the development of modernity and labor struggles around the world, and inviting viewers to take a critical look at this history in the context of contemporary social movements and artistic practices. Despite having opened recently, the exhibition is already controversial. Arsenal gallery initially collaborated with local radio station Polskie Radio Białystok to promote the exhibition. However, only a few days after the opening of the show – on the eve of the amendment to the act that threatens the freedom of the media in Poland – the station suspended its collaboration with the gallery. <<Due to the scandalous content […] promoting vulgarity, aggression, rape, violence and hate speech, Polish Radio Białystok withdraws the patronage of the "exhibition">>, reads the statement published on its website. Simultaneously, a local councilman of the Law and Justice party (PiS) demanded the removal of ‘grossly obscene material’ from the exhibition. The “scandalous content” they were referring to is the work Fag Fighters by renowned Polish artist Karol Radziszewski, which references the Equality March in Białystok in July 2019, and is part of an ongoing series of the same title that the artist has been developing for a dozen of years and have been exhibited in many places in Poland and abroad.

‘It is the public funding of art space that should enable artistic institutions to remain independent from commercial and political influences, so that they can focus on difficult moments in history and the present.’ - responded the director and curators of the exhibition In the beginning was a deed! to the demands for removal. ‘We need galleries and museums - like universities - as laboratories of ideas, places of creative and intellectual freedom where you can think more than in other public spaces and try to understand the most difficult aspects of reality. The works presented in them should not be taken literally, but as diverse in form, often perverse or metaphorical comments on reality.’

Exhibition view In the beginning was the deed!; photo: Tytus Szabelski

Exhibition view In the beginning was the deed!; photo: Tytus Szabelski

Ewa Axelrad, Sztama # 2, 2017; flag sticks made of ash wood, steel handles, dimensions variable, photo: Tytus Szabelski

‘The work we do also defines who we are; determines our future prospects […] molds many of our values and orients our political loyalties.”, I read in Suzman’s book. Actions of the current Polish government have more than once been compared to the policy of a socialist party from the mid-twentieth century, when a social revolution took place in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe as a reaction to the growing international tensions and the strengthening of communist dictatorships. The art of that period was instrumentalized in the fight for socialism. Works created at that time served as propaganda and was addressed to all people including workers, depicting them as joyfully performing heroic acts of labor, imbued with faith in a bright future. But the curators of the Cold Revolution. Central and Eastern European Societies in time of social realism, 1948-1959 (on view at Zachęta – National Gallery of Art in Warsaw) try to show that this is only part of the visual representation of that time. They focus on the role that culture and art played in establishing the socialist social order. The exhibition aims to show the changing face of the working class: conflicts and tensions within this heterogeneous group, as well as its ambiguous attitude towards power.

Cold Revolution. Central and Eastern European Societies in Times of Socialist Realism, 1948 – 1959, Slovak National Gallery, Bratislava, left: Tibor Honty, Summer Evening, 1952, photograph, 59.2 × 48.1 cm, right: Karol Kallay, Spartakiad, 1955, photograph, 59 × 49 cm

Suzman concludes his book by stating that ‘there has also been a resurgence of interest in models of organizing our future based on the dogma or idyllic fantasies of the past. [It] is no less influential in shaping the opinions and attitudes among a significant proportion of global population.’ History repeats itself, people say. One can only hope that, just as workers would go on the streets to fight for their rights, artists will not have to struggle to defend democracy and freedom of art. If we understood work in Suzman’s definition, as a purposefully expending energy or effort on a task to achieve a goal or end, then there is no time left to lie down.

Weronika Trojanska
is an artist and art writer

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 5 — 2021