PRINT May 2017

Natalia Sielewicz


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.

Elżbieta Janicka and Wojciech Wilczyk, Małe getto. Widok z Królewskiej 45 w kierunku południowo-zachodnim—10 marca 2011 (Small Ghetto: View from 45 Królewska Street Toward the Southwest—March 10, 2011), C-print, 43 1/4 × 52 1/8". From the series “Inne Miasto” (Other City), 2011–12.

IF THERE IS ONE WORK that at once crystallizes and reveals the dense entanglements of Warsaw—its fraught history and frenetic present—it is the 2011–12 photo series “Inne Miasto” (Other City), by literary historian Elżbieta Janicka and the poet and photographer Wojciech Wilczyk. Shot from the rooftops of Warsaw’s tallest buildings on clear days when the light in the city is inoffensively bleak and dispersed, the thirty pictures provide an unusual view of the landscape that occupies the former Jewish ghetto in the city’s contemporary downtown. The photographs are deadpan, straightforward, seemingly naturalistic—completely devoid of the melancholic romanticization and heroic monumentalizing that so frequently permeate representations of the Polish capital. They plainly reveal the site’s stratified history, each layer signaling a rupture in the past eight decades of the postwar era: the traces of World War II still lurking in the shadows, the rare remnants of the capital’s prewar modernism, the postwar socialist-realist rebirth, the still-ubiquitous Communist housing blocks, and the abundance of turbo-capitalist junk in all its hysterical postmodern glory.

It’s hard to call this cityscape harmonious, much less pleasing to the eye. Indeed, something remains untamed in this interface of horizontal layers, where the bricolage of quasi-archaeological traces interrupts linear history. Amid the urban decay and rebirth, I see dislocation and unresolved anxiety, a posttotalitarian desire to establish individual histories that is all but drowned out by the festival of neoliberal consumerism.

In one image, I recognize the imposing silhouette of the Stalin-era Palace of Culture and Science skyscraper alongside the off-white facade of a Holiday Inn, with the former Berson and Bauman Families’ Children’s Hospital nearby a rare remnant of the ghetto wall. Out of sight between multistory corporate buildings lies an inconspicuous residential block, the ground floor of which houses the headquarters of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, the institution where I work. Founded in 2005, the museum has adopted a nomadic model, temporarily occupying diverse locations while it awaits its future permanent home, scheduled to open in 2020, on Plac Defilad next to the Palace of Culture and Science.

The museum’s rootless transience is necessitated, at least in part, by the complex commingling of public space and private interests that plagues Warsaw real estate. Key relics of 1960s modernism—including the Emilia pavilion, built as a furniture showroom (and later serving as one of the museum’s sites), and Supersam, a 1960s supermarket—have been demolished to create lucrative spaces for development. The proliferation of gaudy billboards and wallscape advertising seems uncontrollable, a colorful pastiche against sprawling grayness that dramatizes the country’s neurotic transition from its Communist past to the free-market present. Initially, visitors may find this bearable, even exotic—until it isn’t. Because eventually, the delirium catches up with you, and Warsaw, with its chaotic, supercharged mixture of obsolete early-capitalist detritus, starts to look and feel like GeoCities on steroids, fueled by social inequality and capitalism.

As a curator who has engaged with the conceptual and visual tropes of post-internet art and Western corporate aesthetics, I see a real visual discord between the Polish capitalist realism from the first decade of the free market and its gentrified offspring—a difference I observe with a mix of masochism and wonder. It should come as no surprise that young Poles often seek comfort in overidentification with the iconography of the immediate post-Communist period, and then amplify stereotypical symbols of bad taste and the trauma of upward mobility for their own aesthetic and symbolic gains. One might call it accelerationism, but the city has a mind of its own and already pushes gentrification and turbo-capitalism to their limits. Giant Calvin Klein billboards featuring Justin Bieber against a socialist-period backdrop and garments inspired by early-1990s housing-projects streetwear instantly fall prey to further commodification. Hear, hear, Vetements.

The Razem Party projects a Constitutional Tribunal verdict onto the Chancellery of the Prime Minister, Warsaw, March 9, 2016. Photo: Kacper Pempel/Reuters.

SO HOW DO WE TALK ABOUT Warsaw without glamorizing it for what it isn’t? How do we avoid sublimating social disarray into aestheticized cult objects that sustain our illusions of regeneration? Finally, how do we give shape to a void left by decades of erasure?

Today, these questions seem of particular importance, since the misuse of language and of visual representation drives local culture clashes. As the country’s politics swerve right, words such as gender, politics, patriot, the nation, and blasphemy have become empty signifiers—but then again, so have the promises of finance capitalism. One of the main challenges faced by art institutions is how to find ways to invest these terms with meaning, and how to debunk the self-congratulatory mythologies that once organized the liberal art community. A new form of visual practice is taking shape in the streets and in the sprawl of social networks, where images and readymades sweep through the public sphere. State branding, pop nationalism, memes, left-wing protest banners, and performative acts of resistance gain influence and legitimacy as political visual practices.

Take, for example, the new-left party Razem. In addition to starting the #czarnyprotest, or #black-protest, hashtag before Poland’s largest-ever pro-choice strike this past October, where demonstrators wore black as a symbol of resistance, the party has organized performative acts of protest in public. Two notable examples include a collective reading of the verdicts of the Constitutional Tribunal (Poland’s Supreme Court), which were projected onto the facade of the prime minister’s office, and the presentation of a “Golden Chain Saw” in front of Parliament as a fake gift from a mock union of lumbermen and developers to the minister of the environment. To an outsider, such gestures might seem desperate or tacky—redolent of a different, more somber type of crassness than the Bieber billboard intruding on the socialist past—but in a city whose crooked beauty fills it with shame, these acts propose new modes of democratic participation, and attempt to reclaim public space for new forms of collective action.

Natalia Sielewicz is a curator at the Warsaw Museum of Modern Art.