Endless Love

Cathryn Drake at the 6th Warsaw Gallery Weekend

Left: Endless Party in front of Studio Theater. Right: Artists Edka Jarzab, Cara Benedetto, and Helena Malewska. (Except where noted, all photos: Cathryn Drake)

LAST TIME I SAW WARSAW, a decade ago, the Palace of Culture and Science was a colossal ruin with darkened windows, an unwanted reminder of the grim Communist past towering over the city center. Now restored and full of life—with three museums, a multiplex cinema, four theaters, a swimming pool, an accredited university, and an auditorium that has hosted Miss World—it keeps company with a slew of new high-rises. Stalin’s “gift” to Poland, a plump babushka version of the Empire State building, was the epicenter of the sixth Warsaw Gallery Weekend as well as the setting of the newly inaugurated Not Fair.

The weekend kicked off Thursday evening with an intimate reception at the historic palace that is the seat of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, in the fashionable Mokotowska district, presided over by the cultural organization’s enthusiastic new director, Krzysztof Olendzki. From there artist Maria Kulikovska and curators Rainald Schumacher and Nathalie Hoyos, and I moved on to see the exhibition “Public Spirits,” at the Centre for Contemporary Art, in the Ujazdów Castle, a former royal palace and military hospital surrounded by parks. Introduced by UuDam Tran Nguyen’s video of a joyful motorcycle ballet, Waltz of the Machine Equestrians, the ambitious show, curated by Meiya Cheng, touches on the poetic forces that coalesce societies.

After a divine dinner of beet-infused dumplings at the museum’s Qchnia Artystyczna (“Kitchen Art”), our gang headed to the sleek headquarters of the Zwierciadło Foundation for a party inaugurating the Jankilevitsch Collection exhibit “The Abstract Landscape,” featuring a selection of works by Polish artists of different generations including Bownik, Piotr Uklański, Wjciech Fangor, and Jerzy Nowosielski. The view from the penthouse of the city at night was itself a stunning abstract landscape, and participants from the Not Fair cheerfully chilled out. At the dessert table we bumped into performers Edka Jarzab and Helena Malewska, who offered insight into American artist Cara Benedetto’s participatory performance Anything Can’t Happen, programmed for the next night at Warsaw’s Museum of Modern Art.

Left: Dealer Michał Woliński and artist Zuzanna Czebatul. Right: Michał Kaczyński, director of Raster gallery.

Collectively the shows around town offered a crash course on Polish art history, begun the next morning with an exuberant tour of the National Museum of Art. Documenta’s Monika Szewczyk and Marina Fokidis then led a group to the Propaganda gallery to view Adam Jastrzębski’s “Poison,” gorgeous swirling candy-colored compositions that reflect the unpredictable out-of-control permutations of natural growths, even those created by humans, based on mathematic calculations by the artist.

“Most of the galleries here started as nonprofit foundations, so it is a very different way of working from a pure business model,” gallery director Jacek Sosnowski explained. Thus we headed to the incubator of the Polish avant-garde, Foksal Gallery, founded in 1966 by an influential group of critics and artists including Edward Krasiński and Tadeusz Kantor in a former Marxist-Leninist library, where they succeeded in evading Communist censorship when Socialist Realism was the only sanctioned style. Curator Lech Stangret presented the fiftieth anniversary show, “Miejsce. A Place,” while recounting anecdotes about the history of the site.

After grabbing lunch with artist Stanisław Blatton and his daughter, writer Phoebe Blatton, at Kameralna—a legendary literary hangout frequented by Roman Polanski and Janusz Glowacki—I set out to find the Foksal Gallery Foundation, the commercial offshoot of the Foksal Gallery (of which Documenta director Adam Szymczyk was a cofounder): The names are confusing in terms of private versus public, and the institutions illustrate the recent transformation in the local market.

Left: Actress Magdalena Wawrzynczak and filmmaker Wojciech Puś. Right: Artist Marie-Alix Isdahl Voisin of Schloss.

Many of Warsaw’s art galleries are tucked away in courtyards or upper floors, with little or no signage, and move frequently as shops are privileged over cultural institutions. I found the entrance to the Foksal Gallery Foundation behind a hair salon and came directly upon Artur Żmijewski’s “Collection”: a room animated by a series of black-and-white films following the faltering movements of people with MS. I sat and watched with Michal Cegłowski, one of the actors, while shadows of the projections washed over us. The gallery’s director, Andrzej Przywara, manages the Krasińki estate and former studio, in a 1960s apartment block, which a lucky few visited the next morning: “It was the best part of the whole weekend!” connoisseur Dessau later exclaimed.

After a cocktail that evening at the Xawery Dunikowski Museum of Sculpture, in honor of Ukrainian artist Kulikovska and her ephemeral self-portraits in soap, Homo Bulla, dealer Marta Kolakowska drove us to see Aleksandra Urban’s provocative popup show of lurid paintings and sculptures, “pfff,” displayed inside one of the little wooden cottages built for Finnish workers. Glowing in the dark among the trees like something out of Twin Peaks, it was a fitting introduction to the kickoff of the weekend-long “Endless Party,” directed by the Łódź film school professor Wojciech Puś, where we ended the night after an intimate dinner hosted by Trafo’s director, Mikołaj Sekutowicz, at the Miłość club.

Performance at the Endless Party. (Photo: Wojciech Puś)

We arrived for the party at a colonnaded space in the Palace of Culture illuminated entirely by floor-to-ceiling blue light beams to a performance featuring a group of skateboarders recruited from the streets, Leto Gallery’s Sebastian Gawłowski, and stylist Magdalena Wawrzynczak. “Three years ago when I met Magda she was a man named Peter, so she has another person inside and plays two characters in the film,” Puś said. It was being shot as a scene for the time-fusing Endless, a film by Puś based on the script of Last Year at Marienbad: “Once again I walk down these corridors, through these halls, these galleries, in this structure from another century, where endless corridors succeed silent, deserted corridors with a dimmed light.” The gender-blending narrative will incorporate two scenes from Paul B. Preciado’s memoir Testo Junkie; the atmosphere, however, evokes David Lynch’s Inland Empire, also filmed in Łódź.

All of Warsaw’s art galleries are young, and on Saturday I started at Raster, one of the first to open, only fifteen years ago, across the street from where the ninth Futurological Congress was being led by Julieta Aranda, Paolo Chiasera, and Mareike Dittmer, in the homeland of its textual inspiration, fictional character Ijon Tichy. On show were photos by Peter Puklus immortalizing his models as figures in an epic version of modern history, along with Rafał Bujnowski’s stark black-and-white paintings, in which the human figure is lost in a symbolic landscape of bare tree branches. Kasia Michalski, who opened a slick ground-floor space around the corner last year, was showing Rafał Dominik’s “After Humans, Before Robots,” a series of mixed-media works. At Lokal 30, the show “Gauguin Syndrome” comprised fantastic photographic collages by Filip Berendt, Ewa Juszkiewicz’s ghostly painted portrayals of disappeared artworks, and Katya Shodkovska’s video Julia, an interview with a young transgender prostitute who speaks matter-of-factly about the difficulties of life in Russia.

“I hate art fairs,” said Michał Woliński, director of the new Not Fair, voicing a common ambivalence over beer on the terrace of Piktogram, where he was exhibiting a group of marbleized paintings on cement by Zuzanna Czebatul. In fact, the Not Fair is not a fair. Warsaw Gallery Weekend is the only big contemporary art event in the city, and the Not Fair is a valiant attempt to inject a breath of fresh air into the nascent market. I asked Woliński if the works on show were actually for sale: “Yes, but everyone knows that the artworks in the Venice Biennale are for sale,” he replied. “And at the abc Berlin I was asked only once for a price.”

Left: Curators Daniel Muzyczuk and Adam Kleinman. Right: Artists Aleksandra Urban and Aleksandra Waliszewska.

Just as the roles of artist and curator are blurring, the art-fair model is developing its own identity crisis: It wants to be beautiful and intelligent, like a curated show, but really only fulfills its commercial role in the form of a salesroom proffering investment-worthy commodities. In any case, fairs in smaller markets cannot hope to compete with destination fairs like Art Basel and Frieze. Collectors go to those to get the pulse of the international art scene; other fairs do best to highlight their local contexts. And that is the strength of the gallery weekend, inspired by that of Berlin.

That afternoon I stopped by the Not Fair, which turned out to be an ensemble of shows by fourteen foreign and Polish galleries invited to engage a magnificent period hall of the Palace of Culture and Science. The dealers showing there were well aware of the lack of emphasis on sales. “It is like Art Basel’s Statements, but without the fair,” Jan Kaps said. “I am just happy for the opportunity to come and participate in the Warsaw art scene.” Artist Gizela Mickiewicz’s minimal folded constructions, shown by Warsaw’s Stereo gallery, seemed to be crawling across the marble floor, while Anouk Kruithof’s photographic details of clothes printed on translucent panels, shown by Rotterdam’s Cinnamon, melded magically into the space.

Following a tour at the Zachęta National Gallery of Art of the exhibition “Money to Burn”—about the transitional, post-Communist bling-obsessed 1990s in Poland, encapsulated nicely by Piotr Uklański’s framed dollar bill, Untitled (First dollar earned by Piotr, 30 August ’90, New York)—I walked with one of the curators, Magdalena Komornicka, back to the Palace of Culture and Science complex for the opening of “After the Rally,” at the Theater Studio Gallery. Along the way we were accompanied by drummers from the second demonstration of the day, the KOD (Committee in Defense of Democracy) protest against the newly elected conservative government’s unconstitutional firing of judges. The exhibition presented the documentation of mass protests, such as Tomáš Rafa’s films of the Maidan revolt and the battle of Sloviansk in the Ukraine, along with works of artists reacting to expressions of the “social body.” Yet it was a shadowy convocation next to the urgency of the masses gathered on the streets outside.

Left: Dealers Lucas Hirsch, Jan Kaps, and Christian Wirtz. Right: Krzysztof Nowakowski, president of Friends of Museum of Modern Art Warsaw. (Photo: Agata Araszkiewicz)

Later that night the VIP dinner, in a tent in the sculpture garden of the Królikarnia Palace, was more like a surreal picnic with small, strange dishes emerging erratically from behind white curtains. After an initial, hopeful crush, many decamped to restaurants, while Krzysztof Nowakowski, president of Friends of Warsaw’s Museum of Modern Art, remedied the situation by smuggling in bottles of wine concealed in pockets inside his jacket. “He apologized for the quality,” joked writer Agata Araszkiewicz, a benefactor of the stash. “It is very Polish to find a creative solution,” added diplomat Klaudia Podsiadło.

When I arrived at Warsaw Central Station on the last day—back from a pilgrimage to Łódź to see “Notes from the Underground,” the Sztuki Museum’s delightful romp through revolutionary art and music under Communism—the Palace of Culture and Science was illuminated in purple, echoing its New York counterpart. So few remnants of Poland’s traumatic past remain, yet its shadows are palpable on the landscape, and Poles expect nothing so much as change. A few days later, the Catholic government would back down on its promise of a total abortion ban, after tens of thousands of women took to the streets to protest, all dressed in black.

Artist Laurent Dupont and dealers Pieter Dobbelsteen, Michal Mánek, and Filip Polansky.

Left: Dealer Agnieszka Rayzacher of Lokal 30. Right: Dealers Maryam Masjd, Yasaman Matinfar, Omid Daroodi, and Orkideh Daroodi.

Left: Louisa Strahl of Paddle and Justyna Markiewicz, deputy director of Zachęta. Right: Artist Stanisław Sławomir Blatton and publisher Phoebe Blatton.

Left: Dealer Jacek Sosnowski, artist Maria Kulikovska, and dealer Marta Kolakowska. Right: Curators Nathalie Hoyos and Rainald Schumacher.

Left: Curator Zofia Machnicka and artist Jarek Kozakiewicz. Right: Curators Magdalena Komornicka and Anda Rottenberg.