PRINT November 2002


A man in a museum, surrounded by a crowd: Suddenly, he is swallowed in flames, as abruptly as a flaring match. A thirty-second performance, Untitled (The Full Bum), 1998, might stand as the emblem of Polish artist Piotr Uklański 's artistic credo: It's an image underlaid with the memory of real-life self-immolations executed at moments of political desperation. But here, safely contained in the museum, it becomes pure stunt, pure spectacle—an event of pure horror distilled, through innumerable incendiary images in Hollywood action movies, into pure entertainment. The Full Bum is an explosive yet ephemeral act that devolves into nothing more than a brief thrill in the viewer's mind. As Uklański said in a recent magazine interview: “In the end what happens is that we end up looking at things with our mouths open, fascinated, regardless of what we watch, whether it's a Nazi flick or people on fire.”

Uklański’s is an art that does not so much critique “spectacular” culture as delight in the force of its seductions. In Ghent last winter, as his contribution to the Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst's 2001 group exhibition “Casino,” he lit up the vast imperial facade of the neighboring Museum voor Schone Kunsten. Strings of beaded lights described the building's entire architectural profile, threading along the edges and planes, columns and cornices, so that by night the slightly pompous Neoclassical building was transformed into an illuminated edifice flashy enough for Las Vegas. In 2000, as part of P.S. 1’s “Greater New York” exhibition, he floated a gigantic helium balloon in the sky and filled it with tungsten light to mimic a full moon, producing a copy seemingly more lustrous than the original it lay alongside. Light, whether romantically filtered in Untitled (Twin Moons), 1999, or coruscatingly real in Untitled (The Full Bum), appears frequently as both subject and source, metaphor and means, of Uklański’s work in sculpture and photography. In pursuing such instant, shining pleasures, the artist is well aware he runs the risk of their antithesis, a temporary and empty seduction. But, following Baudrillard, who deemed the spectacle “not to be decried, but celebrated as the inevitable theater of all existence,” he sees this situation as not cause for particular regret but a fact to be lived with and liked. His art exploits spectacle in order to meditate on the simultaneous intensity and transience of aesthetic experience itself. It's a difficult art to pursue, one that enters into seduction and yet reflects upon it, and it's been Uklański's distinctive achievement to forge a body of works that cultivate a certain nonchalance—a sense of not trying too hard—while opening up much larger questions to do with the engagement of the viewer and the status of artistic experience in an age dominated by the popular media.

Guy Debord insisted that the spectacle was not merely the result of the proliferation and ubiquity of images in capitalist society, but rather was constructed in a more complex way—not as a concatenation of images “but [as] a social relation among people, mediated by images.” Whereas for Debord this situation amounted to false consciousness and the damaging substitution of representation for real experience, for Uklański it has been a positive arena of investigation. His signature piece, the sound-interactive, light-pulsating Dance Floor, 1996, conjoined the formality of the modernist grid and the aesthetics of a Saturday night disco and might initially be viewed as a one-liner at Minimalism's expense. Ultimately though, the sculpture is more concerned with its audience than with its art history: a work of art entirely premised on and activated by people, who in turn interact with one another on it. By night the floor throngs with DJs and dancers; by day, shoe scuffed and cigarette littered, it dissipates into a wan and slightly sordid surface, as melancholy as any morning after. Endlessly flexible, the floor has functioned in many different social contexts—in the Museum of Modern Art in New York's Sculpture Garden, in numerous gallery spaces, in an office workers' canteen. As Uklański observed in the MoMA exhibition catalogue, he aimed to create an object “that would be all generosity and no ideology. An object that would give and give and give but that would, at the end of the night, be unknowable, as its true nature resides in our own pleasure.”

The Nazis, 1998, like Dance Floor, is a work whose meaning lies not within itself but within the mind of the spectator. The piece comprises 166 film stills and poster images culled from American and European postwar cinema, each picture showing the head and shoulders of an actor playing a Nazi. Attacked in London as a magnet for neofascists, assaulted in Warsaw as an inflammatory reminder of a repressed past, and dismissed in New York as a banal comment on Hollywood's glamorization of evil, The Nazis is a deceptively simple experiment in the reception of signs across different contexts. Here Uklański proves the power of the spectacle to render meaning not vacuously transparent but endlessly volatile. The passionate, sometimes violent responses provoked by a mere collection of film stills is proof in action of the theory of the spectacle: People tend to believe in the reality of the representation. On one level, The Nazis is simply what it is: a photographic archive of the filmic trope of the Nazi as stereotypical bad guy, a visual anthology of more or less familiar images in mass-cultural circulation, some scary (Yul Brenner in Triple Cross), some sexy (Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List), some as downright improbable as Leonard Nimoy in Star Trek Episode Fifty-two. On another, it can be read allegorically as a comment on the end of history, in an age where real events reach us always already mediated. On yet another level, it touches a much darker truth: the deep, continuing allure of fascist aesthetics as the ultimate form of fetishized power. Just as the Nazis, masters of the spectacle, understood the intimate connection between power and representation, presenting aesthetic displays designed to compel belief, so Uklański suggests that art is only a specter of absorption proposed to the gaze of the spectator, an idea he connotes in the ultrahigh, mirrorlike gloss of his photographs' surfaces.

The notion of reflectivity is taken to an extreme in Uklański’s Untitled (Wet Floor), 2000. A gesture of beautiful, daring economy, this piece—no more than a spreading glistening wet patch on the gallery floor—exists only to reflect its surroundings: other artworks, the physical facts of the room, the blur of a passing viewer. It drives the antiformality of post-Minimalism to an absurd, leaky conclusion by positing a sculpture that exists fully formed yet threatens perpetually to disappear. In this depthless and reflective sculpture, everything takes place on the surface of things. The piece brings to mind Georges Bataille’s repudiation of the museum as nothing more than a colossal mirror in which the museum's visitors have become the true content and where aesthetic contemplation is reduced to fundamental narcissism. In effect, we look with sole desire to find ourselves reflected back—as admirable, cultured beings. It seems a long distance from the delicate minimalism of Wet Floor to the corny visual surrealism of a huge black-and-white image, Untitled (Skull), 2000, yet the two are related by a sense of narcissism and theater. In the original Philippe Halsman photograph (Salvador Dalí in voluptate mors, 1944), a skull wrought from naked bodies floats like a thought bubble above a dapper Dalí; in his version, Uklański places himself at the center of the cranium. Draped with beautiful naked women, he closes his eyes as if lost in some kind of supercreative trance, in the manner of the famous collective portraits issued by the male Surrealists. It is a clever image that hovers among allegory, camp, and bad taste; as melancholy as a memento mori, as ridiculous as Austin Powers. Like much of Uklański’s work in photography, it wraps itself in cliché—the figure of the heroic virile male artist, the conjunction of death and eroticism—in order to tap into the power and the easy pleasures of popular-cultural fantasies. Halsman’s motif resurfaced on the back of the moth masking Jodie Foster's mouth on the Silence of the Lambs movie poster, and Uklański’s billboard-scale image enters this elaborate system of feedback between art history and film advertising in order to question, just as Dance Floor and The Full Burn do, where aesthetics and entertainment begin and end. “Please tell me what the difference is,” Uklański says.

Another work that vibrates between high and low is the evolving series “The Joy of Photography," which Uklański began in 1997. Titled like the self-help manual of an amateur snapper, this lexicon of some forty photographic icons includes a puddle shimmering in the moonlight, a beautiful sunset, a tropical island seen through binoculars, swans on the water, swaying palm trees, Vesuvius from the Bay of Naples, Queens at night from the World Trade Center, an extreme close-up of a dog's face, and a glamour model. They are all pictures you feel you've seen somewhere, perhaps hundreds of times, before. They rehearse the technical trickery so beloved of camera enthusiasts: soft-focus effects, double exposures, colored filters, and prismatic repetitions. And yet it is simplistic to consider “The Joy of Photography” a cheap parody of the artistic pretensions of popular practices—if this had been the case, Uklański might just as well appropriated and re-presented existing amateur imagery. Instead, he photographs them himself, working hard to create gorgeous pictures and turn the cliché back into art: “It’s just a concept that is in itself a stereotype as well. That’s the beauty of it.” Why start afresh, he seems to say, when “being” a work of art is in itself a relative concept—when the same object may be deemed a work of art at some times and in some places, but not in others? When beauty may reside, in the final analysis, in nothing more than the glance of light off water? There's an auto-ironic aspect to this series too, as with Untitled (Skull), whereby the act of photography pursued in a contemporary art world crammed with photographers—is itself called into question as an artistic cliché.

From The Nazis to The Full Burn, cinema has been a point of reference for many of Uklański’s works, providing him with a metaphor for aesthetic experience—luminous yet fragile—in an age of spectacle. It’s not surprising that his next major project should be to create a work of art that appropriates popular cinematic form wholesale. Summerlove, a feature-length film, is in preproduction. The first Polish spaghetti wester, Summerlove transplants a quintessentially popular American film genre to foreign soil, shifting the action from the rocky deserts of New Mexico and Colorado to the desiccated plains of southern Poland. Starring a Polish-speaking cast and crafted by a Prague production crew, the project respects the grammar of the western but gives it a Slavic accent. Since it inscribes a European present on a mythic American past, the film is hard not to read as allegory: Its implication is that, with America’s Wild West run out, the new frontier of “civilization” has shifted to Central Europe’s post-Communist plains, where good and evil battle it out anew in the lawless badlands. The work is conceived simultaneously as a conceptual statement and a functioning mainstream film—like Dance Floor, as both art object and real object, a piece that will draw diverse meanings to itself while oscillating between different viewing contexts. What, for example, will it mean to screen a western made in Eastern Europe by an Eastern European artist living in the West? How will the stereotypes of place, East and West, be displaced or reasserted? As ever, Uklański’s art disguises complex cultural, political, and philosophical questions behind a deceptively light and beguiling façade.

Kate Bush is senior programmer at the Photographers’ Gallery, London.