PRINT May 2010



View of “The Promises of the Past,” 2010, Centre Pompidou, Paris. Photos: Georges Meguerditchian.

IMAGINE WALKING THROUGH an exhibition in zigzags, not because you have to slalom between freely arranged objects or chaotically wandering viewers, but because the space itself dictates a meandering path. The only thing you can do is move alongside walls that are at various angles to one another, with recesses and niches here and there. You make some sharp turns, some gentle ones, as if you were riding a roller coaster, only horizontally and through art history. Pictures appear around corners, the eye gliding over successive surfaces, successive narratives that converge, forming transgenerational and transregional sets—the young artist David Maljković confronting the late-modern artist Vojin Bakić (both Croatian) or Cyprien Gaillard (French) facing Alexander Ugay (Kazakh)—and then diverge or break off abruptly. Finally, you notice that you are walking in a loop, heading back toward your starting point.

This is the experience of viewers navigating the exhibition “The Promises of the Past, 1950–2010: A Discontinuous History of Art in Former Eastern Europe,” which opened April 14 at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The discontinuity of the title is physically manifested in the spiky trajectory of those angled walls—which represent artist Monika Sosnowska’s contribution to the show, an untitled artwork-as-exhibition-design built inside the museum’s cavernous Galerie Sud (and complemented by Slovenian artist Tobias Putrih’s display design for related documentation in a separate space). Couching her practice in architectural terms, Sosnowska works primarily with space. Being free to choose her inspirations and shape her initial concept, she focuses on issues that she deems “irrational,” analyzing problems to which most architects would probably pay no attention at all. And indeed, she often arrives at spatial propositions that, like Baroque architecture, go against the grain of rationality. Optical illusions (such as corridors that appear to be very long but are in fact quite short) are a motif in her work, as are vertiginous shifts in scale. She frequently builds one space within another, sometimes to disorienting effect; in London in 2004, for example, she constructed a maze within the Serpentine Gallery. Yet she develops each project on the basis of virtually mathematical rules, coolly analyzing the logic of the given space and collaborating with engineers when necessary—as during preparation of the work 1:1 at the 2007 Venice Biennale, where the black-painted skeleton of a modernist-looking building was crumpled up and crammed into the white cube of the Polish pavilion.

Usually, Sosnowska reduces each project to one idea, amplifying an element that is crucial to the given space. Hand Rail, 2006, for instance, is installed in the stairway of Warsaw’s Foksal Gallery Foundation; here, she elongated and bent one slat in the stairs’ metal guardrail, in what appears to be a material mutation or surreal distortion of the utilitarian 1960s architecture of the space. Her works are marked by moderation and restraint—she abides by the principle of reduction, striving to arrive at the minimum needed to express a concept. She allows only those elements that are an integral part of the whole, those that result directly from the instigating ideas and the pressure of the circumstances. In the case of “The Promises of the Past,” the process of negotiation was also crucial, as Sosnowska and curators Christine Macel and Joanna Mytkowska sought to reconcile their vision for the show with the conservation policies and safety regulations of the museum and with the concerns of the participating artists.

Such an operational mode brings to mind the radically pragmatic trend in European contemporary architecture. For example, one could mention BBK-3's Miss Sargfabrik building in Vienna, where the final shape of each element indexes a negotiation among various determinants. But in fact Sosnowska’s approach is close to the design philosophy of Swiss architect Christian Kerez, with whom she collaborated on her 2007 solo show at the Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein, in Vaduz. The governing principles of Kerez’s practice are similar to those of Sosnowska’s: His designs are derived strictly from the inner logic of each structure’s particular foundational concept, and he emphasizes the need for restrictions as a means to define each project. The spatial concept of Kerez’s House with One Wall in Zurich stems from the need to demarcate a line between two families’ living spaces. The “one wall” is a zigzag—not for aesthetic or arbitrary reasons, but because the zigzag would allow the wall to support the weight of the entire construction, while creating niches for the space’s various functions. One might say the same of Sosnowska’s zigzag, except the weight her wall bears is that of historicization.

View of “The Promises of the Past,” 2010, Centre Pompidou, Paris. Photos: Georges Meguerditchian.

This historicization is a markedly fluid one; the curators do not offer a stable conception of “Eastern Europe,” instead including artists from the Middle East (Israeli artist Yael Bartana), western Asia (Ugay), and other regions. Abetted by Sosnowska’s jagged armature, the show indexes and negotiates fragmentations, erasures, and interruptions, proposing a truly discontinuous history of art in Eastern Europe from the height of the cold war to the present. Since “The Promises of the Past” urges us to trace the consequences of pivotal events along crooked paths, to examine broken-off trails, and to consider new juxtapositions, let’s remember that the art of organizing exhibition spaces has some interesting precursors in Eastern Europe. Moving within the time frame suggested by the show’s title, we could go back to Poland in the 1950s, when the autonomy of artists and architects was rigorously curtailed by forces both political and economic. The system—based on central planning and monopolization of the means of production and distribution, as well as surveillance, censorship, and propaganda—was called the “people’s democracy.” Under this regime of unification on a mass scale, individualism and diversity were unwelcome. Modernism, accused of being “formalistic,” fell into disfavor, and until the relative political “thaw” of 1956, after Stalin’s death, the dominant style in art and architecture was socialist realism. During this period, despite their willingness to join in the collective reconstruction of the country, ravaged as it was by the German occupation, artists and architects not only were unable to bring their utopian-modernist visions to fruition but risked professional blacklisting in even trying to present their ideas to the public. Such was the case, for example, with utopian architect Oskar Hansen. The Road, his famous 1958 design for a monument at Auschwitz-Birkenau, was blocked, as was his radical concept for a new “ecological” settlement scheme called the Linear Continuous System.

Retrenching, several artists and architects found an enclave—actually a testing ground for purely abstract functionalist experiments with space—in exhibition design for art shows, as well as for themed educational or propaganda shows and international expositions. They hoped to make use of these experiments later, in large-scale projects. While architects Hansen and Jerzy Sołtan, designer Wojciech Zamecznik, and artist Wojciech Fangor all worked productively within this context, architect Stanisław Zamecznik (Wojciechs brother) pursued the practice most consistently. Beginning in the mid-1950s, when the political screws were loosened slightly and artists gained a bit more freedom of expression, these experiments led to the emergence of, as Zamecznik called it, the “art of space.” He was interested in the dynamic aspects of space, in its “unfolding” in time, and in the relativity of perception of its properties in movement. He tested the possibility of shaping space with bent surfaces, producing partition walls that curved like ribbons, creating compositions with cylinders, pipes, cubes, and so on. These compositions were aimed at guiding the flow of people and making the exhibits more “legible,” rather than competing with them. Still, it often happened that Zamecznik’s way of designing an exhibition’s space proved more interesting than its subject.

This is not to propose a direct line from Zamecznik’s display schemes to Sosnowska’s Pompidou project, but rather to suggest that we might bring these two artists into some kind of oblique but resonant relation, as “The Promises of the Past” does with the artists it includes. Sosnowska, like Zamecznik, uses imposed limitations as an impetus for creation; she, too, innovatively locates room to maneuver within the failures, warps, and distortions inscribed in totalistic systems, activating these systems to her own ends and in the process, perhaps, reactivating some of the promise of the past.
Michał Woliński

Model of Monika Sosnowska’s exhibition design for “The Promises of the Past,” Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2010.


WHEN I WAS ASKED to create the architecture for “The Promises of the Past,” there was no crystallized concept, no definite vision of the exhibition as a whole—just a preliminary list of the featured artists and works. I suggested creating a linear exhibition that would allow the curators to introduce a narrative, but of course linear does not necessarily mean straight: The first drawing I presented was simply a zigzag. I suggested that each work be presented on a single wall. The curators liked the idea, so that became the design principle; their job was to prepare the sequence of the works. The initial propositions, both mine (the exhibition’s geometry) and the curators’ (the narrative), developed through discussions of the relations among the individual pieces and the architectural armature. So it was very much a collaborative process.

The exhibition grew, works were added, the narrative kept being redefined, and because the works were all interconnected—organically linked with everything else through this zigzagging structure—even the smallest change meant the entire thing had to be modified. This is not a geometry that I devised for aesthetics’ sake, to give the form an interesting look. It’s responsive, reactive—it reflects the fact that some adjoining works have to be separated from each other, located on the opposite sides of an acute angle, while others need to confront each other or be juxtaposed. It’s related to the curatorial concept that the exhibition brings together the works of artists from different generations and countries, artists whose practices could be seen as parallel even if they never actually met (the borders inside Eastern Europe were sometimes much stricter than those between East and West). For example, in this show the critiques of painting undertaken by Július Koller, Edward Krasinski, and Mangelos are shown together for the first time. In the same way, the confrontation between Paweł Althamer and Ion Grigorescu—the spiritual line in artistic practice—is stressed. The structure also needed to exert some kind of control over the viewing experience. What I mean is that there are two kinds of exhibitions in general—those that you view in sequence and those that you view chaotically. I can give the example of my show at Schaulager in Basel—the works were loosely scattered around the space and could be viewed in various sequences, from various distances, an unlimited number of viewing possibilities. At the Centre Pompidou, the mode of reception is defined, as in a film where you watch the successive scenes. You experience it in a linear manner; the viewing direction is clearly indicated by the construction’s architecture. So there’s a tension between this idea of the unruliness of the history being presented and the concept of indicating a particular viewing sequence.

There were some obvious challenges in approaching an exhibition design this way. The curves in the wall, their widths—which are tailored to the width of each object—the angles of intersection: All are derived from specific properties of the pieces. So the design went through many permutations, changing constantly. If, say, I moved one corner, expanded one angle, I then needed to shift another partition, and then the entrance to the niche became too narrow and needed to be widened, and so on—a domino effect.

Of course there were other pressures exerted on the exhibition’s final shape, e.g., museum regulations, such as the minimum distance between the walls. These are set, given by the institution. The niche entrances need to be of a proper width to accommodate the flow of people during the opening and the exhibition itself. Then, too, the final effect is a reflection of the artists’ requirements as to how their works should be displayed, the philosophies of their galleries, and so on. Conservation requirements (some works must be shown in their original frames, in a certain manner, and so on) played a significant role as well. And I accepted this. Of course, I took part in the negotiations, advised on the choice of the frames, the captions, and so on. One issue was that we didn’t want to place anything in front of the walls, but rather wanted to actually embed everything in the structure. That is why all the objects, e.g., sculptures, are in recessed cabinets. They can be viewed from the front, like 3-D pictures. Even the video monitors have been set into the wall. You don’t see them as objects—they look like projections, and there are also classic wall projections and rear-screen projections. The same with most of the two-dimensional works—paintings, photographs—except that some had to be covered by glass. I would have shown them differently, but I couldn’t because of the conservation regulations. What we managed with a few of the photographs, though, was to prepare special new prints that can be stuck directly to the wall. So there were deviations from the rules we’d set for ourselves; the structure—physical and conceptual—wasn’t rigid. And of course, there are artists whose works are hard to format and that can’t be fit into this kind of architecture at all. For instance, Daniel Knorr’s Capillaire [2010] is a pipe filled with tear gas, an intervention standing apart from the exhibition structure, that imitates the colored pipes all over the Pompidou. It has to stretch across the gallery or it loses its meaning. The point was not to format and standardize everything, but to reflect the individualities.

View of “The Promises of the Past,” 2010, Centre Pompidou, Paris. Photos: Georges Meguerditchian.

This display concept does affect the reception of the works. Thea Djordjadze’s work Pampel [2006], for instance—it looks sort of like a colorful space capsule and was created for a public square in Munich—has been squeezed into one of the zigzags created by the walls. It is visible from one side only, and you can’t walk around it. The participatory aspects are still there, but you don’t experience it in the round. But of course context always affects reception—particularly in group shows, where a formula has been conceived to connect everything, and that formula may mean that your experience of a given work is radically different from what it might be in, say, a solo show.

Here, the “formula” was the design itself, and it was important to maintain the separation, or separateness, of this installation—it stands in a room, not connected to the Pompidou’s architecture. The museum walls don’t participate at all; they just enclose. And so the construction itself is not so much architecture as it is a stand-alone sculpture. If you go to one of the corners of the room, you can take in its entirety and see it precisely as a sculpture. We wanted it to be like an island, because the idea is that we’re transferring a lost fragment of history, one still missing from international art history, into this space.

That is why I would describe this project as the negative of my 2007 exhibition “Loop” at the Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein, where viewers wandered about corridors I had designed that looked like crevices carved into the museum space. Viewers could also enter two niches—spaces that had been created behind my installation. There I showed selected works from the museum’s collection, chiefly conventional figurative paintings. It looked like two exhibitions occupying the same space at the same time: one classical, with works hanging on the walls; the other annexing and cutting across the same space. At the Pompidou, it’s the opposite. You don’t step inside my work here, don’t feel its limits. There is one important limit condition, however, which is that the exhibition has been designed for this space and context and could not be repeated elsewhere. The size of the space, the budget, and so on define its parameters.

And this is the maximum of what could be achieved in terms of this particular geometry, this particular design code—nothing more could be squeezed into the space. There were attempts to add some more stuff, but it proved impossible if we were going to observe all the parameters, respect all the rules, and so on. So in a way, the exhibition is overloaded—there are so many strands in it that are hard to isolate. It’s unruly, difficult to put in order. Perhaps it wouldn’t even be good to impose order on it, because then it would become too obvious. This is not an ideal proposition. It wasn’t our goal to create a perfect, utopian cosmos. What we developed is but one of the possible ways of arranging this show—the whole thing could have been presented in many different ways. I myself could propose some alternatives. The parallel here is that the history we are talking about can be reinterpreted in many different ways—it represents a potential, as it were. From the very beginning, we didn’t want to define this history, to impose a teleology, but rather to show one of its possible interpretations, one of its potential narratives. We weren’t interested in chronology, in creating a time line, but rather in creating a possibility for comparison and confrontation between the artists’ works. Such confrontations can seduce, attract, whereas the diversity can provoke one to examine the individual strands more closely and potentially take them further, follow them beyond the borders of the exhibition. But even though the zigzag with the given artists’ work could be continued and even though there could be many such different narratives, ultimately all these walls, all these stories, have been combined into a line that has shaped itself.