Warsaw

“Translation”

Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art

Organized by the Center for Contemporary Arts in Warsaw, curated by Kim Levin, and presented this past summer, the exhibition entitled “Translation” was the first opportunity here in many years to view the works of mostly young artists from the United States. Twelve American artists were brought to Warsaw for two weeks to create site-specific installations. They were asked to use local materials and objects, and, through the process of “translation,” to infuse them with new meanings.

To a foreigner, today’s Poland can still seem outlandish, but it can also be intriguing. The country is in a continual state of transition, from the old political and economic systems to the new ones, but also from one state of mind to another. To ask art to express these often dramatic changes can pose a serious challenge.

Without exception, the American artists invited to Warsaw accepted this challenge, but that does not mean that they were not somewhat daunted by the prospect of creating works of art meant to engage a reality experienced for only two weeks, one previously completely unknown to them. An equally difficult task was convincing the Poles that good contemporary art can be both political and socially conscious.

The most effective pieces were those that avoided direct commentary on the country’s current situation. Mark Dion’s narrative tableau entitled The Six Disastrous Years For In Library For Animals (all works 1992), consisting of 23 specimens of endangered or extinct species gathered together with piles of books under a plastic cover, was primarily concerned with the role of science in preserving the environment, yet it alluded to the Polish past: the work was accompanied by a wall text telling a fascinating fictional story of a library for animals opened in Warsaw in 1926 by a Polish scientist, Professor Stefan Jezyk.

Subtle allusions to Polish life also appeared in Haim Steinbach’s Untitled (three corner cabinets with objects for a six-sided room). The shelves of two wooden cabinets were filled with mugs decorated with penises and breasts, a half mannequin of the type used to display underwear, pitchers, and Captain Hook hands. Next to these cabinets the artist placed an elegant old Polish chamberpot, enclosed in another cabinet.

The most discussed work in the show was Nayland Blake’s Handicraft. As the central element of his installation, Blake placed 30 wooden figures of Hasidic Jews found in the gift shops of Warsaw on an elevated platform, surrounded by six vendor stands with Molotov cocktails made of bottles of Goldwasser vodka. These references to the Jewish past and Poland’s problems with alcoholism, whether intentional ornot, raised what were, to some, rather unwelcome questions. Not surprisingly, it created a good deal of controversy, which perhaps was due in part to the novelty of being critically viewed at home by foreigners.

Other participating artists—Karen Kilimnik, Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler, Michael Timpson, Matthew McCaslin, Fred Wilson, Pruitt•Early, and Ashley Bickerton—referred to various aspects of Polish life: from vanishing socialist ideology to the new consumerism and tourism.

“Translation,” cleverly conceived and thoughtfully curated by Kim Levin, presented an encounter between different cultures through object-oriented art. It revealed the stereotypes held by Poles about American artists and vice versa: those accumulated on both sides after many years of extremely limited artistic contact.

Marek Bartelik