PRINT September 2008


Anna Molska, Tanagram, 2006–2007, black-and-white video, 5 minutes 10 seconds. Production still.

IN POLAND’S CONTEMPORARY-ART CIRCLES, Professor Grzegorz Kowalski’s studio-classroom at Warsaw’s Academy of Fine Arts is a storied place, through which artists including Paweł Althamer, Katarzyna Kozyra, and Artur Zmijewski passed in their student days. One of the more recent alumni is Anna Molska, who graduated from the academy only last June and who shot her black-and-white video Tanagram, 2006–2007, in her erstwhile classroom, which is strikingly painted half black, half white. As the video begins, we see two young, athletic men dressed in nothing but futuristic-looking black helmets and jockstraps. In the space with them is what looks like a set of oversize black building blocks, each about three feet high and resting on casters, which the men busily start to move around. The blocks change positions kaleidoscopically, forming and re-forming into abstract compositions, while an eerie sound track—trilling, unearthly voices warbling over an electronic beat—heightens the sense that we are witnessing some peculiar, highly ritualized ceremony.

Though at first incomprehensible, the two men’s activity soon proves to be a kind of Constructivist theater. Deep male voices singing in Russian—the Red Army Choir—replace the high-pitched babbling. Perhaps, as critic Karol Sienkiewicz wrote in the journal Sekcja last year, Tanagram’s odd duo are the “protagonists, lost in time, of the Soviet Union’s extremely popular quasi-acrobatic shows,” which were typically accompanied by stentorian choral singing and which, as Sienkiewicz notes, were “immortalized in the photographs of Aleksandr Rodchenko and the era’s countless photographic collages.” As the music crescendos, the pair arranges the blocks into a black square on the white floor. Shot from overhead, it is an unmistakable evocation of one of the twentieth century’s foundational works of art, Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square, 1915. Seemingly tired from their labors, the two men lie down on their backs and exchange a few words in Russian: “I’m grown up now. You’re still wet behind the ears,” one of them tells the other, who replies, “I’ve turned eighteen. I’m about to join the Polish army.” These quaint lines are in fact dubbed from an old Polish-Russian language-instruction cassette—a reminder of the often-fraught but always-close connection between the two nations. Indeed, it bears mentioning that Malevich himself was the son of Polish parents who migrated to the Ukraine, and that Molska’s studio happens to be close by Warsaw’s Polonia Palace Hotel, where, in 1927, Malevich’s Suprematist works famously went on view.

In the past year, Molska’s work has been shown in the Berlin Biennial, in a solo exhibition at New York’s nonprofit space Art in General, and in the group exhibition “Paso Doble” at the Multimedia Cultural Center in Split, Croatia; it will be on view this month in a solo show at the Galeria Arsenał in Białystok, Poland. Tanagram is characteristic of her production in several ways: It is a very brief video (barely five minutes long) that weaves a remarkably dense allusive web, but that retains a sort of cryptic poetry that is as much a function of sound as of images. And it seems the logical place to begin any consideration of her art. For one thing, there is the matter of its location—Kowalski’s studio, which is a kind of ground zero for Molska, as it is for many Polish artists. Both as an artist and a teacher, Kowalski emphasizes that the language of the studio is a situational language—in his view, artistic gestures should be created on the spot, to fit the needs of the moment and to refer to the situation at hand. For Molska, the notion of a fluid methodology is crucial, and it imbues her work with an immediacy rooted in performance. She is not a video artist, but rather an artist who uses video as one tool among many.

Kowalski is also well known for the slogan “Common space—private space.” In his classes, each student defines his or her own discrete area within the communal space of the studio. The former is an area of privacy, the latter a kind of agora. This emphasis on the interplay between private and public was inspired in turn by the theories of the visionary architect and pedagogue Oskar Hansen, whose concept of “open form” posits the individual and his or her relationships with other people as the proper focus and medium of art. This too, one might speculate, has had its effect on Molska’s work. Though she relates to history—and in particular to the cultural history of the Soviet bloc, from Malevich to the politically engaged conceptualism of which Kowalski is an exponent—she does so, quite simply, by using people as her primary medium. And personal history is not absent from her work; it is interwoven with broader histories. In Tanagram, Kowalski’s black-and-white studio and Malevich’s black-and-white painting converge; one of the things in play in the work is a reflexive consideration of Molska’s own position as an artist confronting, as every artist must, the anxiety of influence and the imperative to establish autonomy in the face of it. Tanagram evolved from a connection the artist perceived between the Chinese puzzle game of the title—in which players try to fit irregular shapes together to form various geometric figures—and Malevich’s own preoccupation with geometry, which for him, of course, carried deep affective significance. The black square on a white ground was the ultimate distillation of what Malevich called the “supremacy of pure feeling in creative art.” And in a sense, Tanagram is a distillation of Molska’s own preoccupation with the group of Soviet-era artists who aimed to encompass all aspects of life in their activities. Proceeding from Suprematism, and using cultural and material production as tools, the Constructivists sought to rearrange the world, as if the world itself were a tanagram.

View of “When Things Cast No Shadow,” 2008, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin. From left: Anna Molska, W=F*s (Work), 2008; Anna Molska, P=W:t (Power), 2007–2008. From the 5th Berlin Biennial.

Certainly, anyone familiar with Rodchenko’s famous 1936 photograph Male Pyramid, in which shirtless men support one another in a tiered formation, may have experienced déjà vu while viewing the work Molska contributed to the Fifth Berlin Biennial. In W=F*s (Work), 2008, one of two of Molska’s videos featured in the biennial, some men in a muddy field laboriously erect a structure of wooden platforms supported by metal beams, joking and grumbling all the while. Then they clamber onto this rickety scaffold, positioning themselves as if posing for a photo, making for a pointed contrast with Rodchenko’s vision of strapping Soviet youth. In fact, the men in Molska’s video are from Oronsko, a small town in central Poland where, during the Communist era, the Center of Polish Sculpture was established and an official program of “open-airs,” or outdoor exhibitions, was organized. The remnants of these events can still be seen in the center’s garden, which was designed by Kowalski, but the place no longer vibrates with life as it did when open-airs were the cornerstone of Polish cultural policy, and when the notion of art as a means by which to construct a new world still seemed plausible. Is the effort of Molska’s crew of Oronsko workmen—who once helped the center’s artists turn their visions into reality, and whom we now find putting their energy into the creation of a rusty, primitive scaffolding—a parody of this utopianism? It seems a strong possibility, especially when you consider that after the structure was completed, it was removed from the muddy field where it was built, only to be placed in an equally forlorn spot: the middle of an overgrown empty lot in Berlin that served as a sculpture park during the biennial.

Somewhat more ambiguous is Molska’s second video, which was shown at the biennial as a dual projection alongside W=F*s (Work). In this one, P=W:t (Power), 2007–2008, we see a pristine squash court, its zones of play marked off with red tape, into which a hail of white balls cascades, bouncing and rolling every which way. Throughout much of the video, the image is upside down, which renders the work nearly abstract: With its white spheres swooping across planes defined by red stripes, it is something like a kinetic El Lissitzky composition. As in Tanagram, Molska seems to be attempting—or, perhaps more precisely, she seems to be dramatizing a futile attempt—to wrest “pure” geometry from the real world. One might say the same about Molska’s 2007 film Minute, which approaches the outright comic: Several people with large, colorful triangles affixed to their backs perform military-style drills in a snowy field, but then one of these characters breaks formation—an absurd rebellion.

It is noteworthy that both of these videos take basic scientific formulas (“work equals force times displacement” and “power equals work divided by time”) as their titles. The language of physics is implicitly equated with the language of art: Each can be used to describe and elucidate spatiotemporal phenomena. Tanagram, the Power/Work projections, and Minute, in other words, all deal with the artistic organization of space, evoking the heroic avant-garde figure of the artist as builder, as a worker of form and an engineer of ideas, who actively participates in the construction of a society, a three-dimensional world. The key to this utopian enterprise was organization—specifically, the organization of form in the process of artistic production. To work in industry, in a factory, in a studio, was to synchronize a great organism embodying a perfect order. Molska rehearses this line of reasoning only to expose its uncertainties, and in fact extends her destabilizations to the fundamental underpinnings of visual art. In her 2006 video Perspective, the artist walks through a field with pieces of string affixed to her back. As she moves away from the camera toward the horizon, the lines unfurl behind her, so that it looks as if a perspectival diagram has been superimposed over the landscape; we see the scenery through a linear frame that evokes Paolo Uccello’s sketches. Wading through the snow, her labored breathing loud on the sound track, the artist eventually falls. With what seems deliberate irony, she is wearing white coveralls that look like the kind of things painters sometimes wear in the studio. The basic principle of one-point perspective, which allowed artists in the Renaissance to represent reality with unprecedented fidelity, no longer seems capable of describing the world. For Molska, it seems, the social, the cultural, and the spatial are equally ripe for reconfigurations within the flexible parameters of a new kind of open form.

Tomasz Fudala is a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw.