PRINT September 2014


Still from Agnieszka Polska’s Future Days, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 29 minutes.

AT THE BEGINNING of Agnieszka Polska’s video Future Days, 2013, we see two figures in the middle distance, a man and a woman, walking away from us toward a craggy shoreline. They are exchanging cryptic catchphrases in heavily accented English: cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s “I see no God up here”; Oscar Wilde’s “Time is a waste of money”; Goethe’s “Stay awhile, while thou art so fair!” These two contemplators of time and the infinite, it turns out, are artists Charlotte Posenenske (1930–1985) and Włodzimierz Borowski (1930–2008)—their identities indicated, eerily, by masks that transform their visages into affectless screens—and the strikingly beautiful landscape through which they walk is that of the afterlife. Soon, they are joined by a new companion: Standing on a rocky perch, Posenenske and Borowski gaze down at the surf, and there, washed up by the waves, lies Bas Jan Ader (1942–1975), presumably just arrived from the sinking of his tiny transatlantic boat.

So begins Polska’s curious, meandering, and utterly compelling vision of eternal life. The Amsterdam- and Warsaw-based artist created the work during a residency on the Swedish island of Gotland. Conceived by Sebastian Cichocki of Warsaw’s Museum of Modern Art, the residency was a kind of homage to the more radical end of artistic experimentation in the late 1960s and early ’70s, a gateway to what he calls its“secret world of doing nothing.” The sway of this notion is evident in Polska’s film, which brings together a cast of seven characters that, in addition to Ader, Borowski, and Posenenske, comprises artists Lee Lozano, Andrzej Szewczyk, and Paul Thek and curator Jerzy Ludwiński. While some of these dramatis personae are central to our understanding of contemporary art, thanks to posthumous “rediscoveries,” all, in one way or another, were lost figures, working on the periphery of Minimalism and Conceptual art and practicing James Joyce’s famed strategy of silence, exile, and cunning.

Polska is one of the youngest members of a generation of Polish artists—including Maria Loboda and Goshka Macuga—who have come of age in recent decades and share an impulse not only to reexamine the lost legacies of their country’s neo-avant-garde but also to locate those legacies (and themselves) within the broader trajectories of contemporary art from Western Europe and North America. That this is a project undertaken as well by Polish critics and curators undoubtedly helps account for the richness of these artists’ engagements with history. Readers familiar with Anna Ostoya’s photomontages, in which Ader meets Germaine Krull or Brigitte Bardot confronts Kalina Jędrusik, will recognize such concerns, and even some of the same predilection for remixing and liberatory juxtaposition found in Polska’s work. A penchant for acute narrative complexity and a potent suggestion of alternate historical trajectories, however, distinguish Polska’s explorations of the recent past from those of her contemporaries. Her previous works have explored terrain similar to that of Future Days: Sensitization to Color, 2009, made use of photo-documentation to reconstruct the space of a seminal 1968 installation-cum-performance by Borowski that combined his polychrome sculptures with a Happening-like atmosphere; How the Work Is Done, 2011, pushed further back in time to represent a student strike at Kraków’s art school in 1956, the year of the “thaw” following Stalin’s death, a period of temporary liberalization. In a manner reminiscent of Ostoya or Mario Garcia Torres, Polska works from documentary sources and deals with real events without eliding the pressures of time and memory to which history is subjected. “The archive,” she has said, “lives and changes without ceasing, endlessly multiplying images of itself. Elements which have been negated and rejected in the process of archiving later emerge as the dark matter of our subconscious.”

Future Days is Polska’s most ambitious and subtle study to date of the return of this cultural subconscious. The afterlife, it turns out, is not so different from the historical limbo in which these seven shades have all been suspended at one time or another. The group wanders around the stunning landscapes of Gotland, its forests, ravines, and beaches, exchanging thoughts on art and eternity and encountering artworks emblematic of entropy and ruin: Robert Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed, 1970, in which they spend an uncomfortable night; or Edward Kienholz’s Back Seat Dodge ’38, 1964, which they empty of its entwined mannequins to make room for cuddling in the backseat. (Posenenske is appalled and refuses to join the rest.) The atmosphere is one of ambient melancholy and loneliness, even amid the spectacular scenery of the island. Figures are frequently silhouetted on a moonlit—or rather, in this otherworldly hereafter, earthlit—horizon, like wanderers in a Caspar David Friedrich painting, and Ader aptly describes the setting as one of “water, trees, beauty, isolation.” These are voices from an archive, the artist suggests, that stubbornly refuse to adhere to the accepted narratives of our recent past. Whether this is paradise or purgatory remains undecided, but Polska, closing her film in darkness with an eclipse of the earth, promises just before the credits that this is only THE END OF PART I. We expectantly await the further quests of this band of artist-drifters whose romantic escape from the mainstream remains indistinguishable from their imprisonment in a landscape of eternal return.

Tom McDonough is a writer and critic based in upstate New York and Toronto, currently teaching at Harvard University.