PRINT December 2007

Tomasz Fudala

LAST JUNE, Poland’s education minister, Roman Giertych, announced that Witold Gombrowicz’s novels would no longer be taught in the nation’s public schools. The decision was hardly unique. Indeed, it was part of a broader initiative to shield Polish children from undesirables including Joseph Conrad, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Franz Kafka. But Gombrowicz (1904–1969) was the focus of the effort. Perhaps this is because the author of Ferdydurke (1937) specialized in viciously witty assaults on hypocrisy, xenophobia, goon-squad populism, and other qualities that Giertych and his party, the League of Polish Families, have consistently evinced. More likely, however, this particular prohibition arose simply because Gombrowicz was gay: Giertych makes no secret of his energetic distaste for “homo-agitators.”

And so “Giertych or Gombrowicz!” became the battle cry of the minister’s supporters. In turn, the curricular fatwa sparked a firestorm of protests from artists, intellectuals, and the political Left, while feuilletons across Europe derided Poland’s Far-Right coalition government. Soon, teenagers were reading Gombrowicz with flushed cheeks on the subway, and bookstore windows in Warsaw overflowed with his works. The city’s Adam Mickiewicz Museum of Literature hung a huge banner printed with lines of dialogue from his 1953 novel, Trans-Atlantyk, in which the narrator, whose name is Gombrowicz, fields accusatory questions from buffoonish government officials: WITH THE MINISTER? YOU WANT TO SPEAK WITH MR. MINISTER? WHAT HAVE YOU SCRIBBLED, GOMBROWICZ, WHAT? Eventually, Mr. Prime Minister, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, stepped in and shut down the campaign to revise the reading list. And by August, Giertych had been ousted from his post in the midst of a broader government shake-up that led, in October, to early parliamentary elections. (Voters rejected the Far-Right coalition in favor of the center-Right Civic Platform.)

Had Poland chosen Gombrowicz over Giertych? That would be the happiest interpretation, but as the great novelist himself would surely have pointed out, “Giertych or Gombrowicz!” is itself a flawed proposition, a classic false choice. However contradictory they might be, Giertych and Gombrowicz are not mutually exclusive: To embrace one is not necessarily to repudiate the other. And Warsaw is better than most cities at accommodating seemingly oppositional terms. To see this, one need only look at the urban environment itself. A palimpsest of historical styles, with some sectors revamped in the image of globalized urbanism and others left untouched by the massive redevelopment efforts of recent years, Warsaw embodies what Polish philosopher Zygmunt Bauman has called “liquid modernity.” And within a liquid urban fabric, there are bound to be what might be called reservoirs of contradiction. One such repository is a small square known as Plac Grzybowski—a blank space in the center of the capital, surrounded by housing blocks and sleek new skyscrapers. Plac Grzybowski was once part of the Warsaw Ghetto, and, according to resistance leader Marek Edelman, it was the site of one of the battles of the Jewish uprising. Today, Jewish people cross the square on their way to a nearby synagogue, while groups of Israeli students pass through during their tours of the land of their grandparents. Even so, a nationalist bookshop with a full complement of anti-Semitic titles—from Henry Ford’s screed against the proverbial rootless cosmopolitan to instruction manuals teaching readers to “recognize the Jew”—operated for almost a decade in an adjacent church basement, finally shutting down only last year, when the parish refused to renew its lease.

It was artist Joanna Rajkowska’s idea to activate this site with a project that subtly responds to its contradictions. Her project Dotleniacz (Oxygenator), 2007, is a small pond in the middle of Plac Grzybowski, complete with ozonation equipment to improve air quality, diffusers that create a perpetual, glittering mist, benches for visitors, and a surrounding lawn. “How will people react in a situation that is so casual, not requiring them to stand at attention or to take sides?” asks Rajkowska, recalling the question that motivated her as she developed the project (which was curated by Kaja Pawelek of Warsaw’s Center for Contemporary Art, Ujazdowski Castle). “I was interested in generating a momentary vision, a bit like a mirage, where all the reasons lose their validity, where the moments when people err and go astray are no longer important, where the conflict-generating positions become ineffective,” she says.

Rajkowska has created such politically freighted mirages before. When, in 2002, she placed an artificial palm tree on a busy traffic circle in downtown Warsaw, the installation provoked a heated debate. Its title, Pozdrowienia z Alej Jerozolimskich (Greetings from Jerusalem Avenue), was a reference to one of the city’s main thoroughfares, Aleje Jerozolimskie, and it was as if the work had made people realize for the first time what that name meant. Passersby said things like, “The Jews have put this palm here, because it’s their street.” But the palm, which is still standing and in fact has become a Warsaw landmark, has accrued other meanings and resonances over time. During a nurses’ strike this year, a giant replica of a nurse’s cap, with the dark stripe traditional in Poland, was hung on it as a token of support. (“It’s not a palm. It’s a nurse!” one of the strikers said.) Like Greetings from Jerusalem Avenue, Oxygenator doesn’t “take sides,” but perhaps for that very reason works against intolerance. Suddenly those whom the populists of the Polish Right would like to portray as enemies—those going to the church versus those going to the synagogue—have gained a meeting place. Rajkowska has offered them a context in which they can simply be. Shortly after the pond was installed, neighborhood residents started visiting in droves. Elderly ladies began spending all their time there. The place became a center of community life, and residents eventually circulated a petition calling for Oxygenator to be left in place indefinitely.

As artist Artur Zmijewski writes in his introduction to a newly published Polish edition of Jacques Rancière’s writings on politics and aesthetics: “Politics isn’t about using the state apparatus to administer a certain set of views to people, but about creating a place where our demands, needs, and desires can meet.” Certainly, the drive within Warsaw’s cultural circles to carve out such spaces seemed to gather momentum this year, as politics hung in the city’s air like the ambient mist above Rajkowska’s pond. A focal point on Warsaw’s cultural and intellectual map—REDakcja (REDaction), a venue operated by the Left-leaning journal Krytyka Polityczna—generated much of this momentum. The space, which also houses Krytyka Polityczna’s offices, hosted an astonishing number of events—dozens of debates, panel discussions, screenings, and lectures, some of which, such as a meeting with philosopher Slavoj Žižek, attracted hundreds of people—over the course of the year. The journal itself, and the books it publishes (titles include the Rancière translation as well as Žižek’s Revolution at the Gates and Alain Badiou’s Saint Paul) are designed by Grupa Twozywo, an outfit with roots in street art whose members are interested in linguistic, verbal, and visual gamesmanship and in graphic design as a medium for social and political discourse. Zmijewski is a pivotal member of the group of philosophers, political activists, and artists that come together around Krytyka Polityczna. In addition to serving as the publication’s art director, he penned a manifesto, “The Applied Social Arts,” that appeared in its pages and quickly became the year’s most hotly debated text in Warsaw’s artistic and intellectual communities. “Does contemporary art have any visible social impact? . . . Does art have any political significance—besides serving as a whipping boy for various populists?” Zmijewski asks at the beginning of his essay. He answers these questions in the negative, and then sets about exploring why this might be so, and what artists can do about it.

Too often, Zmijewski opines, people who are unfamiliar with art feel excluded from it, while artists, in turn, are excluded from political discourse; their voices are ignored, except when they become controversial. “The ignorance here is twofold,” he writes. “Artists are seen as ignorant by experts in other fields and vice versa: Experts in the field of, say, science or politics are as helpless as children when it comes to ‘reading’ images.” For Zmijewski, the problem in a nutshell is that art’s hard-won autonomy—the independence from other discourses sought by the historical avant-gardes—has isolated it from social reality and neutralized its potential political and social impact. “Too much autonomy has led to the alienation of art, so that it is ‘not heard’ and most of the knowledge it generates is being squandered,” he writes. He calls for artists to renounce their status as “idiot savants” and to embrace the notion that art is a discourse for the production of knowledge.

This does not mean that art should discard the ambiguity, risk, occasional opacity, or privileging of image over text that allow it to avoid the “cognitive fundamentalism” of the sciences. Rather, it means that art should cease to regard itself as autonomous—it should enter into a dependence, albeit a circumspect one, on other discourses. “Politics, science, and religion can do what art no longer can: achieve a connection with reality by producing useful tools: tools for the implementation of power and of knowledge. By becoming once again dependent, art may learn how to be socially useful, even at an operational level (it already knows how to challenge reality and can count on support for its proliferation of rebellion).” For Zmijewski, an operative metaphor for this nonautonomous art is the algorithm. “In mathematics, computing, linguistics, and related disciplines, an algorithm is a procedure (a finite set of well-defined instructions) for accomplishing some task which, given an initial state, will terminate in a defined end-state. . . . Algorithms imply something operational and positive, a mode of purposeful action.”

Visitors to Documenta 12 in Kassel this past summer encountered one of Zmijewski’s own algorithms. His video installation Oni (Them), 2007, documents a workshop he held last spring in a postindustrial space in Warsaw. In the workshop, four teams—respectively composed of Catholic ladies of a certain age, members of a Far-Right nationalist youth group, left-wing activists, and young Polish Jews—were each asked to create a large painting with imagery expressive of their ideologies. The Catholic ladies painted a church; the members of the youth group drew a sword; the Jews’ central motif was the Hebrew word for Poland; and the leftists’ was the word freedom. In the fifteen-minute video, the workshop’s atmosphere gradually transforms from one of uneasy cordiality to one of out-and-out aggression, with participants defacing and finally burning one another’s works.

It’s impossible to watch Them, which might be understood as an exercise in radical pedagogy, without thinking of Zmijewski’s own pedagogical history. Like Pawel Althamer, Katarzyna Kozyra, and a number of other outstanding Polish contemporary artists, Zmijewski was a student of artist and critic Grzegorz Kowalski, who has taught for years at Warsaw’s Academy of Fine Arts. Kowalski’s teaching method stems from Oskar Hansen’s utopian theory of Open Form, which construes art and the built environment as interactive, flexible, and modifiable. Transposing Hansen’s ideas to the studio and classroom, Kowalski has developed a kind of neo-Socratic pedagogy that, resonating with Rancière’s notion of the “ignorant schoolmaster,” is based on open communication and nonhierarchical dialogue with students. For his exhibition “Warianty” (Variants), on view this past fall at Warsaw’s Zacheta National Gallery of Art, Kowalski asked students and collaborators to “edit” and reanimate his own earlier works.

If Kowalski’s show offered an opportunity to assess the influence of one important figure in Polish contemporary art, the October opening of a permanent exhibition within Edward Krasinski’s apartment-studio promised to preserve the legacy of another. Within this light-filled space in a Warsaw high-rise, Krasinski (1925–2004) made art while his long-term flatmate, Henryk Stazewski (1894–1998), played host to Poland’s artists, activists, and philosophers. The iconic Stazewski was an artist and cofounder of the legendary Foksal Gallery; after Krasinski’s death, the Foksal Gallery Foundation made plans to preserve the space. For the most part, the apartment, now known as the Instytut Awangardy (Avant-Garde Institute), is just as it was when Krasinski died. His blue-tape spatial interventions traverse surfaces on which artworks and mementos rest, conjuring the world of the Polish avant-garde in the late twentieth century. But on the balcony, the foundation has built a glass pavilion to house temporary exhibitions and workshops, and there are also plans to start an artist-in-residence program.

Together, Kowalski’s show and Krasinski’s studio suggest the genealogy of an engaged avant-garde tradition that gave rise to Zmijewski’s manifesto and to other efforts within Polish contemporary art to create formulations in which the two terms—politics and art—are anything but contradictory. But one can’t paint an accurate picture of Warsaw’s year in art without discussing a development that bespeaks the relationship of aesthetics and politics in a different way. I’m referring to Warsaw’s Museum of Modern Art, slated to open in 2012. In February of this year, Swiss architect Christian Kerez won the design competition for the building. To its detractors, the structure Kerez envisions looks like a supermarket, but even most of these critics feel that the low-slung building will provide a welcome contrast to its neighbor, the Palace of Culture and Science. This social-realist pile, Joseph Stalin’s gift to Poland, has dominated central Warsaw for more than fifty years. Its shadow loomed over the military parades that once took place in Plac Defilad, the huge public plaza built in front of it, then over the amusement park that was built on the plaza after the fall of Communism, and finally over the shambolic assembly of corrugated-metal stalls, selling all manner of merchandise, that have proliferated since the mid-1990s. The art museum is the linchpin of an ambitious plan to reconfigure Plac Defilad as the fulcrum of a revitalized central Warsaw. Civic boosters believe that the new museum will “fuse cultural experience with transportation and leisure zones,” as one press release hopefully put it. Such dreams of fusion, of the frictionless intermingling of culture and leisure, align with Bauman’s notion of “liquid modernity” while echoing the increasingly dominant view of cultural institutions as a kind of urban loss leader, generating consumer activity all around them.

In “The Applied Social Arts,” Zmijewski notes that politicians have appropriated one of art’s key strategies—transgression. Citing Giertych as an example, he argues that the education minister’s bizarre crusades against culture are in fact transgressive gestures, except that the taboos they exploit are the taboos of democracy—not of, say, religion or polite custom. Perhaps Giertych’s real goal was not to ban Gombrowicz’s work, but to instrumentalize it in the service of a transgressive political performance. At the Warsaw MoMA too, as at so many contemporary art museums, art in some sense has been put into the service of politics—the neoliberal politics of cultural consumerism. One task of the institution itself, the first new Polish museum dedicated exclusively to art since the National Museum opened its doors in 1938, will be to find some of the algorithmic acumen Zmijewski speaks of, presenting visitors with art that engages, and produces new forms of knowledge about, the conflicted society that surrounds it.

Tomasz Fudala is an art historian, critic, and curator based in Warsaw.