PRINT May 2017

Joanna Mytkowska


Poland is the future: The nationalist, extreme-right-wing Law and Justice Party swept to power there in October 2015, giving the rest of the world a glimpse of what happens when contemporary populism engulfs a nation and takes hold. This shift announced a crack in the postwar liberal European order, and the results have been as swift as they are terrifying: authoritarian efforts to rewrite the constitution, a draconian attempt to curtail reproductive rights, and the radical defunding of the arts. In this way, Poland can be seen as both a case study and a warning—portending the dire conditions of culture in the age of ultranationalism.

In the pages that follow, Artforum invited a group of distinguished contributors to reflect on art in Warsaw in this political climate. Joanna Mytkowska, director of the city’s Museum of Modern Art, examines the state of the capital’s cultural institutions; curator Natalia Sielewicz writes about advertising, propaganda, and spectacle in Warsaw’s urban spaces; and critic Anna Kats weighs in on architecture and the built environment under siege. Finally, artists Agnieszka Kurant, Monika Sosnowska, Piotr Uklański, and Artur Żmijewski discuss the ways in which the city’s changed circumstances affect their ideas now.

“Black Monday” abortion-ban protest, Warsaw, October 3, 2016. Photo: Janek Skarzynski/Getty Images.

ON OCTOBER 3, a work from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw took to the streets. It was the day of the “Black Monday” protest, a women’s strike against a bill that, if passed, would have tightened Poland’s already severely restrictive abortion law. Women across the country abandoned their professional and domestic duties and gathered to make their voices heard. Streets and squares in Warsaw were filled with crowds dressed in black. It was a rainy day, and black umbrellas became a symbol of the demonstration. The protesters also carried handmade banners, many featuring an image from Sanja Iveković’s Invisible Women of Solidarity, 2009, which was commissioned by the museum. One component of Iveković’s work was based on an iconic 1989 political poster, produced for the first free elections in Poland after the fall of Communism and featuring Gary Cooper as a righteous, victorious cowboy sporting a Solidarity badge. In Iveković’s version, the cowboy was swapped out for a cowgirl, raising a question that had long gone unasked in Poland: Why had the women of the 1980s opposition, who had built the underground state, institutions, and media, been erased from politics and public life? Why, in a democratic country, was there no place for them? As a companion piece to the poster, Iveković made a set of barely visible white-on-white portraits of the best-known female opposition leaders, with biographical documents to be shown alongside them.

Invisible Women of Solidarity had the force of the obvious but ignored: The emperor stands naked; Poland’s social transformations have bypassed women. The cowgirl in a skirt launched a wave of national debates about gender politics in 2009. And in 2016, when the need arose to articulate a new opposition to the authorities’ designs on reproductive rights, Iveković’s iconography once again exerted its force. Her poster was spontaneously chosen by the protesters as a representation of the tradition of fighting for women’s participation in public life. And we at the museum believe that the street protests were the best possible context in which to present this piece from our collection, this work that does the work of making women visible—and, more than that, we came to feel that our institution exists for such moments, those instances when art fulfills its social and political potential.

As for the current Solidarity trade union, heir to the historic Solidarity movement of the 1980s, it did not take the opportunity to embrace this feminist adaptation of its famous poster and, in so doing, partially redress the erasures in its past. To the contrary, after Iveković’s work was so widely displayed in the demonstrations, the union made an attempt (ultimately unsuccessful) to legally prohibit the artist from using its familiar logo. Solidarity today stands behind the success of Poland’s right-wing government, its leaders having decided that anti-European, anti-immigration policies serve the workers’ interests. This should surprise no one in Trump’s America.

Since the Solidarity trade union threw in its lot with the conservative right, the women’s protests have become the best-articulated political opposition in Poland. Women’s groups, though informal and ad hoc, formulate demands that complicate reductive conceptions of contemporary politics as a struggle between populists and defenders of the neoliberal status quo. It is the women’s movement that consistently foregrounds issues of individual freedom and that puts forward propositions for building communities based on respect for identity, diversity, and nature and for protecting the rights of minorities, while also exposing the hollowness of free-market dogma.

This is not, of course, to deny that such dogma seems to gain more traction by the day. In Warsaw, as in urban centers around the world, politics and daily life are increasingly shaped by real estate development for and by the wealthiest, but reprivatization issues unique to the city strongly inflect the dynamics. The museum is directly affected by the dysfunction that results. Construction of the museum’s home on Plac Defilad, the city’s central square, has been blocked for years by ownership disputes. The barren, undeveloped plaza in the very heart of the metropolis serves as a glaring reminder of a general inability to define common space, whether functionally or symbolically. In October 1945, ownership of all land in Warsaw was communalized by decree of Poland’s first postwar Communist leader, Bolesław Bierut, thus streamlining the reconstruction of the city after massive wartime devastation. The law currently permits the restitution of land and buildings to the heirs of the former owners—or, more often, to speculators who purchased their claims—regardless of what was erected on the site after the war, and without any consideration of what might be best for the people of the city as a whole. This privileging of private claims, coupled with rampant abuses of the system, is a powerful barrier to urban planning in Warsaw.

Because construction of the museum building (designed by New York architect Tom Phifer) cannot begin until the ownership issues are resolved, the institution has been nomadic since its opening. Since 2009, in an ongoing project devoted to urban policy, Warsaw Under Construction, we have sought to highlight the issues raised by the museum’s own itinerant status and by the city’s planning problems. We subject the city’s policies to analysis, seek opportunities for community, and develop explanations, for ourselves and our fellow Varsovians, of the causes and consequences of the living conditions we face. A monumental volume summing up these investigations, Spór o odbudowę Warszawy. Od gruzów do reprywatyzacji (The Dispute over the Reconstruction of Warsaw: From Rubble to Reprivatization, 2016), has just been published. Our goal is to demystify, to illustrate how the status of ownership has evolved since the Communist era, and to make clear how badly the city has been hurt since 1989 by ideological naïveté about free-market solutions. The social pressure to change the regulations that permit this is still too weak. The museum is committed to remaining an active participant in struggles to strengthen that pressure. We will continue to highlight the injustice of legally bestowing schools, parks, and landmarks rebuilt through citizens’ collective efforts on speculators who seek nothing but personal gain.

The process is, of course, made all the more difficult by what is commonly called our posttruth condition. When every seemingly unassailable notion is undermined, when every narrative is contradicted by a counternarrative and no mechanism exists for determining which is valid, how does one defend one’s convictions? This query and related questions are as urgent in Poland as anywhere else. There is an overwhelming sense of a crisis in language, with increasingly hermetic social enclaves employing their own cryptic dialects. And there is a longing to retrieve the old Enlightenment respect for reason that we have allowed to be discredited and degraded, even as we know we can’t simply revert to old paradigms that have been so amply and justly critiqued.

This past March, the museum opened its latest temporary space in a pavilion previously used for Temporäre Kunsthalle Berlin and made available to us by the Vienna-based foundation Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary. The wooden structure, designed by Adolf Krischanitz, was erected on the Vistula River in the Powiśle district. The opening of this beautiful new space offered an occasion to rethink our method of creating exhibitions and communicating with the public. The museum has a faithful and engaged audience, and a large one by Warsaw standards. At the same time, we unabashedly embrace the utopian idea of a museum that overcomes cultural differences and limitations and is accessible to all. For the first exhibition in the new space, we drew on a theme we knew to have popular appeal: Warsaw’s heraldic symbol, the mermaid. The show, “The Beguiling Siren Is Thy Crest,” explores the history and iconography of one of culture’s most deeply rooted figures of hybridity, the mermaid, as a pretext for fantasizing about possible contemporary identities for Varsovians. Populisms encourage distortion of the meanings of symbols, first and foremost by closing them off, hardening their boundaries. We want to display the crest of Warsaw as a sign of affirmation and potential change, to propose it as a symbol under which to unite a community of diversity, of open, unlimited belonging—a new universalism free of old misconceptions about subjectivity. We want to show how Warsaw—and cities in general—can create a new type of public. We hope the show will catalyze conversations around these possibilities. And we seek to address the crisis of language and its historical precedents, particularly around World War I, by juxtaposing motifs of the mermaid among works by the Symbolists and by female Surrealists.

The exhibition aims to provide an arena for weaving emancipatory narratives. We still need to replace the exhausted grand narratives of the past. However, we cannot replace them with a postfactual cacophony of tales, each heard only by those who are politically served by its message. We require stories that stir the intellect, inspire action, and envision the future. And so, as part of our effort to help bring such stories into being, we are mobilizing the mythic power of the siren, whose voice cannot be silenced or resisted.

Joanna Mytkowska is Director of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw.

Translated from Polish by Christopher Smith.