The following is a report I wrote after visiting Warsaw and Gdansk a few weeks ago. We went there in a de Appel Curatorial Programme capacity and visited a full list of museums, art spaces and practitioners running small initiatives. I feel in relation to the blog-conversation round the Ljubljana conference, this is perhaps another interesting layer to the multiplicity of appropriate responses to art histories in the making.“Uwaga Warszawa”
These were amongst the first words of Polish I heard and remain the few in my non-existent vocabulary. My usual attempt at clustering a handful of useful equivalents of “please” “thank you” “hello” “goodbye” “where’s the bathroom?” slipped through my fingers. The harder I tried to grasp “Na zdrowie” (the Polish “proost” or “cheers”) the more elusive the phrase and other strange sounds proved for my limited native English palate. The “sssshhhhs” and and “zjls” and “wizcs” on signage around Warsaw appear in a typeface developed in post World War II years – a simple sans serif font, slightly angular, designed purely functionally – being easily readable from a distance. The thick-set black letters on creamy lit-up boxes on train platforms and traffic signals are so distinctive, like the sounds of the words they give utterance to.
“uwaga” means “watch out” or “wait” – an interesting tension between two kinetic positions. “Uwaga” has also become the name for the lowest paid workers at the large Vietnamese market near Warsaw’s old Stadion. Under the impenetrable rows of corrugated iron roofs, the “uwagas” trolley half-dressed manikins, teetering towers of cheap stockings, containers of pirate DVDs – all of which the local government turn a blind eye to – back and forth, back and forth, shouting “Uwaga! Uwaga!” to newbies who get in the way. The Vietnamese intelligentsia who arrived in Poland during the 60s as part of Communist educational exchange stayed, brought over their wives, kids, mothers and with that the trade of soups and so-s which they hadn’t found amongst the pierogi and chlodnik of Warsaw. The market lies across the river, out from beneath the watchful shadow of Stalin’s “Wedding Cake” (or the massive Palace of Culture) dominating the city centre. It has its own radio station, its own language, its own timetable (opening at 4 a.m.) and its own trade system. A complete anomaly, the market has only recently become an “it spot” for some of Warsaw’s alternative crowd who slurp noodles in the sun before being chased off by the police when they clear out the stalls at 2 p.m. daily.
In the thick of the market lies a major bus station, which over the years has slowly been swallowed up by the clutter of underwear, cosmetics and unruly piles of shoes. The market itself has taken on the name of the stadium that used to be the landmark there. Built out of Warsaw’s rubble following the Second World War, the stadium symbolised the literal reconstruction of the devastated city. Its architecture was of the familiar minimal, functional format of that era – excluding the impractically long tunnel which players would take 6 minutes to run through before being greeted by the crowd’s applause – thus further halving half time.
Its magnificence slowly lapsed behind the greater restructuring of the city both physically and ideologically beginning in the early 90s. The stadium’s rubble on rubble was then removed by private developers commissioned by local government, who then closed off the site in order to construct a completely new sport centre. The symbolism of this gesture and the simple chaos of the Vietnamese market seem to mimic Warsaw’s straddling and doubling over elements of agitated pasts, trying to layer them with wanted presents and futures.
We took the metro back to the Warsaw Centralna. Its neon lights and imposing socialist style interior jarred with the microcosmic third world we had just left. Platform 13 ½. The Muzeum of modern art was called that because the word “contemporary” was synonymous with “unknown” or perhaps more accurately, “dangerous”. Their temporary premises are in what used to be a furniture showroom before they relocate to their future building, next to the Palace of Culture. A neon sign, salvaged from a cinema that was demolished, is on the wall of the entrance. From a time older than the 70s brown mosaic weighing down the walls of the furniture shop, which Sebastian said they uncovered from behind a coat of plaster, and long before the contemporary internationalism which the museum now actively seeks to frame, the ever-so evident layers of history provide a new surface tension upon which art can materialise.
These signs of change, overturn and inescapable catch-up-ism keep coming up, like the word “sztuki” – not knowing what this word meant we were confused by its repetition in most museum and gallery titles. We asked Lukasz Ronduda from the Contemporary Art Centre at the Ujazdowski, what it meant – a smile flashed across his eyes – what is the meaning of “art” indeed?
There are as many answers to this as there are practitioners in Warsaw. The legacy of a rigid institutional training for artists and historians seems still to hold sway, as reflected in the curatorial statements of Zacheta and in the work of many of the younger artists who we came across – manifesting their critique merely by rebelling against the white cube, rather than, what one feels is a wider return to that context as a symptom of the rest of Europe’s exhausting ten year obsession with site-specificity. Art in public spaces – that means, hotels, train stations, parks, office buildings – in post-World War II years, was put under the mandate of the PSP, a state appointed body which then controlled every attempt to intervene artistically in Warsaw’s cityscape and resulted in the censorship and interrogation of many liberal art practitioners until the early 90s. The imbrication of art in bureaucratic process is certainly not uncommon, but as with the rubble underneath the stadium and the mobile phone banners concealing socialist government department buildings, the palimpsest of art histories and to-comes is still being uncovered, filled in, rejected and owned. Many initiatives such as Raster, Fundacja Bec Zmiana, and the Laura Palmer Foundation are currently occupied with just these concerns, broadening the forms and functions of art and discourse production in both public and institutional space – through a dynamic set of ongoing discussions and publications – building a new vocabulary around this word “sztuki”.
The topfloor studio of Edward Kraszinski is one example of how these generational, political and practical approaches may coexist and even complement. This conceptual artist, contemporary of Buren and follower of Mondriaan, treated his studio as living installation and since his death in 2002, it has remained frozen in time, unchanging except for the slow deterioration of paper on chipboard and fading of the cobalt tape which covers almost every surface. The Foksal Gallery Foundation have taken responsibility for the space and around it, constructed a glass pavilion and project space for artists to hold screenings and discussions while on residency in the apartment next door. There is a staircase to the rooftop of the 10-story building, and what seems like the whole city is visible. Seems to be. But from here, it’s only the most recent layer. When thinking about Warsaw waiting, watching out, holding back, teetering on the next step, I am reminded of a statement by South African curator, Gavin Jantjes:
Those who do not want to put themselves through this exercise will always have to live in a world where the old ideas prevail, where the rule of behaviour between cultures [or ideologies] denotes that one dominates the other. They live in a world with fixed categories and hierarchies of culture that looks backwards as it tries to move forwards, remembering only what has been, rather than facing what is emerging. The dinosaurs that hold these views will stumble and fall over obstacles that could be avoided by just looking where they are going. The road we are going down is an old one, but we have not travelled it in a very long time, and so the world of tomorrow will be different…
Don’t uwaga Warszawa.