PRINT December 2007

Charles Esche

EVEN BEFORE IT BEGAN, 2007 was being declared a disaster: “the year the art world commits suicide,” as I recall curator Vasif Kortun putting it way back in 2006. He was perhaps anticipating that the Venice Biennale, Documenta, and the biennial in his native Istanbul would all fail in different measures to live up to their billing. But now, with the cultural landscape seemingly little altered after all, it is tempting to ask what the fuss was about. How the longer-term judgments about these events will play out is still hard to tell, though Documenta 12 should have a stronger resonance than the others, if only as a critical reference point. Regardless, the seductive commercial arm of the art world, with its ever-innovative trade fairs and gallery openings—the dark side, if you will allow me—has continued unchanged and unabated.

Amid all this activity, genuine invention with long-lasting effects was hard to perceive. When curatorial projects all broadly play the same game, claiming originality yet also inclusiveness, autonomy yet relevance, breadth yet specificity (each one a dubious combination), the likelihood is that the real action is elsewhere. One such elsewhere might just be the new Instytut Awangardy (Avant-Garde Institute) in Warsaw, located in the former apartment and studio of Edward Krasiński and Henryk Stażewski, which served as the social and intellectual gathering point of the city’s artistic scene from the 1970s until Krasiński’s death in 2004. While the old apartment where the artists lived and worked remains much as it was, as a memory and as a permanent exhibition, the institute has now augmented the structure with a glass pavilion and a roof terrace for public programs, in addition to a private room for visiting artists. It should be said that its official opening in October seemed somewhat hesitant—the new spaces were left empty, for instance—and in turn suggested a kind of alternative to the big event or preordained commercial triumph toward which such occasions are typically geared. Or perhaps the institute simply found a new version of the more traditional offer of engagement with art: The opening was marked by a two-day symposium (in which I participated) where the legacies of the Polish avant-garde, its relations to government and society in the ’70s and ’80s, and its possible future were discussed.

By choosing the name Instytut Awangardy, the Foksal Gallery Foundation (FGF), which now oversees the space, seems to want to stir up some old European specters. The “avant-garde,” whether under socialist or capitalist dispensation, is not the most obvious history to recall at this moment. It seems out of step with an endemic relativity among artists and critics that forswears taking a fixed position in favor of a fluid construction of situational occurrences and possibilities. Reasserting the relevance of the avant-garde, whether in order to seek a historical place for Krasiński, for Polish art, or, more broadly speaking, for a starker or less autonomous artistic attitude in our own day, not only opens the door to some tricky comparisons but also reminds us immediately of the avant-garde’s mostly tragic failure in the first half of the past century. Further, by partly using the money made available from commercial transactions as well as a donation from the artist’s family to fund the transformation of the apartment, the foundation itself is running a risk. Could this be read as a bid to buy out the legacy of politicized artistic movements, to turn them to profit or convert them into new cultural capital?

After thinking through these questions and talking to a number of the FGF’s protagonists over the course of the symposium, I came away convinced that the institute is a genuine attempt to reassess certain histories and to link the private and public spheres in a particular postsocialist situation. By preserving the apartment, rather than re-creating it à la Centre Pompidou’s Renzo Piano– designed Atelier Brancusi, and by constructing a creative future for it through the addition of an artist residency, the FGF has succeeded in keeping the very problem of what to do with this avant-garde legacy alive and kicking. By locating the memory of the avant-garde in an essentially domestic space at the top of a ’60s apartment block, the institute literally preserves an artistic lifestyle of quiet yet determined opposition to the flattening of cultural meaning and imagination that occurs in “one truth” systems of whatever political stripe. Its awkward, neither-public-nor-private status and its formal name will ensure that the institute stays true to the ambivalent role artists such as Krasiński and Stażewski themselves played in real socialist Poland, where they occupied a complex, liminal zone in which they were neither welcomed nor hounded but uncomfortably tolerated—distrusted but never silenced. This is precisely the space that is being forgotten or undermined on both sides of the old European ideological divide. Against the hue and cry of battle for public attention that dominates the overcoded cultural field, the institute preserves the idea of an in-between space where the unexpected might just be allowed to happen.

Standing on the new top deck of the pavilion in October (and clinging a little desperately to the still-unfinished railings), I saw posters in the distance for the parliamentary election that would take place in the coming weeks. The then ruling Law and Justice Party of the Kaczyński twins—Prime Minister Jarosław and President Lech—was trying to base its appeal on the elimination of Communist influence, having for the past two years chased former party members or collaborators from office in a whirlwind of denunciation. In the Kaczyńskis’ cartoonish understanding of history, there is no liminal zone possible; there are no doubts about who was guilty and who was a hero in the past, and this simplicity extends to the present. While their party lost the subsequent election, their plain rhetoric and disavowal of the difficulties of history espouse a kind of social amnesia that is persistent and recalls many other forms of oppressive power. In contrast, in the bricks and mortar, as much as in the preserved work and atmosphere of the studio, we can access a possible kind of resistance to totalitarianism that does not condemn and remove but acts and lives with a certain stubborn insistence on what it believes to be right.

Naturally, any visit to the studio will partly be a pilgrimage now. (Of course, it was for much of Krasiński’s later life too; opening a private apartment to public scrutiny will always create that dynamic.) Yet there is every possibility that the institute will now be more than a dead artist’s studio. Its avant-garde credentials can extend beyond the historical or “neo-” of its origin to suggest an “avant-garde to come” that might, unsurprisingly, need to find sympathetic forebears in artists such as Stażewski and Krasiński.

Looking out over the city and seeing the lights from an outcrop of cranes heralding another development in Warsaw’s new business district, I found it easy, for instance, to imagine future fights over the gentrification of this part of Warsaw, when the working-class neighborhood would inevitably stand in the way of advancing private affluence. At that point, the Instytut Awangardy might again reveal its potential as a nexus of resistance. It will be there to defend not only a relatively ugly architecture but also an archetypal artistic attitude, concerned with modest yet individualist action and the rejection of any mass formulas for social improvement. Thinking of all that happened in 2007, and remembering Kortun’s ironic reference to art’s mortality, I ended up wishing the institute a long and comparatively quiet life.

Charles Esche is director of the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, The Netherlands, and coeditor of Afterall.