PRINT Summer 2010

Paweł Althamer

Paweł Althamer, Guma (Rubber), 2008, polyurethane elastomer, polyurethane foam, steel, steel spring, plastic. Installation view, Warsaw, 2009. Photo: Bartosz Stawiarski.

MY PRACTICE IS FOCUSED LARGELY on mediating between the collective and the individual, so the museum plays an ambiguous role: It can either present an obstacle or serve as a productive site of interface. One of my primary objectives as an artist, therefore, is to forge alliances with institutions, temporarily channeling their potential.

I like to think of the museum as a space station, a distant outpost inhabited by artists and scientists. Every now and then, visitors arrive and encounter gamelike situations, some of which are active, others of which are dormant. Since the scientists tend to move more slowly than the artists and visitors, the ideal station would be open and mobile, able to accommodate distance, contact, and tension among its many inhabitants.

In this sense, the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw is an intriguing case. Although still under development, the museum has been operating as a full-fledged institution since 2008, holding conventional exhibitions at a temporary site but also charting unknown terrain across the city. The recent undertaking “Bródno Sculpture Park,” 2009–, for example, intrudes—and, to a certain extent, trespasses—on Bródno, a low-income Warsaw neighborhood plagued by chronic unemployment and crime. In a sprawling public garden amid socialist-era housing, works by Olafur Eliasson, Monika Sosnowska, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and myself were installed last June, with additional entries by different artists planned for future years. While falling within the long tradition of sculpture gardens, the endeavor establishes a presence that, like my own practice, seeks to unobtrusively invest the location with new energy. For my contribution, I reinvented the run-down area by enlisting the help of children from one of the local primary schools; together, we planted greenery in the park based on their drawings of a “paradise land.” With ventures such as this, the museum does not take on a descriptive or educational role. Instead, it gravitates toward altering awareness, changing members of the public from onlookers into active agents.

Such forays can be realized only when the museum facilitates close contact between artists, audiences, and producers. This was the case with Guma (Rubber), a piece I created in December 2008, again under the auspices of Warsaw’s Museum of Modern Art. Working in collaboration with a group of youths from a neighborhood in Praga, yet another area in Warsaw with a reputation for poverty and crime, I made a life-size sculpture of a local man known as Mr. Guma, who had recently passed away. Once installed outside a corner liquor store where the man used to spend his time, this project received radically diverse feedback. Some understood the piece as a commemoration of a familiar face, while others used the sculpture as an opportunity to speak publicly about the neighborhood’s difficulties. The range of responses proves that the museum need not adopt a posture of either affirmation or critique (though that is not to say it stands beyond morality); instead, its activities can trigger reactions that draw social tensions to the surface. Hence, the institution, co-opted by its scientist-artist staff, deploys probes aimed at stimulating an environment rather than merely collecting and processing information.

Only by lending itself to endeavors that test the limits of the exhibition format can the museum reinvent itself, becoming a site of mass hysteria—a collective ritual wherein art history is a toolbox for engaging the social and political. In this way, the museum becomes active, redefining the past through the present.

Translated from Polish by Krzysztof Kościuczuk.