Warsaw

“Where is Abel, thy Brother?”

Zachęta National Gallery of Art

The uncannily timely question “Where is Abel, thy brother” was put to the 19 artists who participated in the eponymous exhibition by the curator, Anda Rottenberg. A reference to the origins of evil, intolerance, guilt, punishment, and the possibility of redemption, this question was addressed if not answered by a series of individual installations by artists as diverse as Miroslaw Balka, Christian Boltanski, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Jochen Gerz, and Miriam Cahn.

This show took place in post-communist Poland, in the rooms of the newly reconstructed Zacheta Gallery, the oldest exhibition hall in Poland. Here, on the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, one might have expected an openly political exhibition faithful to historical facts. Instead, each artist presented a personal take on the past, in works that varied from meditations on the importance of remembering, such as Arnulf Rainer’s “Hiroshima Series,” 1982, to attempts to grapple with loss, such as Micha Ulman’s sculptures, Table No. 4 and Table No. 8 (both 1992).

Miriam Cahn’s installation of 22 delicate pieces (paintings, watercolors, and drawings) collectively entitled What looks at me, 1994–95, dealt with fear. This installation combined works that examined the everyday aspects of her existence as a woman with pieces that concerned the Serbian annihilation of Bosnian Moslems. A reaction to fear and militarism also informed the installation by Israeli artist Penny Yassour, Mental Maps–Default Space, 1994. This work, according to the artist, dealt with “borders of fear.” In a room with a yellow floor, Yassour installed a metal-and-wood construction whose base and “roof” were based on the plans of a fortified building. Objects made of thick, black silicon, a material used by the Israeli army, hung from the construction like aprons. In a shelf in one corner of the room were architectural models cast in the same material, next to which hung a printed-rubber map of ’30s Germany. In this installation, a cross between a futurist slaughterhouse and a space for meditation, contemporary reality and the memory of some totalitarian regime intersected.

The Polish artist Tomasz Kizny presented a photo installation, Sentenced, 1994, that referenced Stalin’s purges. On two walls of the almost completely dark room hung enlarged photographs—of political prisoners, Jews, etc., prior to their execution—taken from Soviet archives. Each photograph was accompanied by a text that reproduced the “police record” of the person pictured. On two facing walls, Kizny presented enlarged photographs of men and women—eyes closed, seemingly exhausted by everyday life or perhaps by history—who had been photographed in 1994 in the Moscow subway.

Finlay and Boltanski addressed the rise of nationalism and xenophobia in Eastern and Central European countries since the fall of communism. Finlay, together with Andrew Whittle, constructed a piece, The Land, 1995, which suggested a way to redefine the notion of nation. The sculpture—a broken granite block on a black plinth—was inscribed with the phrase “The native land is not the land. It is a community of feelings” (in English, Italian, Spanish, and German), repeated across the surface, and at times breaking off in mid-sentence. Boltanski’s installation Neighbors, occupied a dimly lit room. Lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling, positioned at various heights to suggest the size of men, women, and children, illuminated a row of small, framed black pictures displayed in a row around the space. A recorded voice could be heard from the corner of the room asking in Polish: “Will the face you see be the next victim of racism and intolerance?” Krysztof Wodiczko’s installation of videotapes of street scenes—The Mouthpiece, 1994–95 and The Wonderer’s Stuff, 1992–95—also included texts concerning the current rise of racially motivated violence in his native Poland.

Gerz’s News to News, Ashes to Ashes, 1995, consisted of 16 video monitors that faced a wall and formed a rectangle around which a circle of electronic light appeared. This light enabled viewers to read the text placed next to the screens that read, “Illuminati. The Last Word.” The sense of a tension between past and present, the technological and the natural, was created by the fact that the images on the screens remained hidden from view while the viewer stood in the darkened room surrounded by the sound of fire. All the screens were filled with an identical image taken from a popular videotape of a fire burning in a hearth, sometimes used in place of the real thing.

Miroslaw Balka’s contribution to the exhibition was a corridor painted with soap and entitled 0.1 x 190 x 1307, 0.1 x 190 x 1717, 1995. The use of soap and numbers evoked the concentration camps and the Nazi practice of turning human bones into soap. At the same time, soap is a symbol of purification—perhaps, also, of the desire to be forgiven for past crimes.

The exhibition was characterized by the kind of subtlety and dramatic tension that imbued Magdalena Abakanowicz’s black, headless figures, The Crowd V, 1991–95, and Anselm Kiefer’s giant painting Reingold, 1982. There were also the meditative spaces, for instance, those in which hung the abstract paintings of two Israeli painters, members of an older generation of artists: Moshe Kupferman (who was born in Poland and emigrated to Israel in 1948) who exhibited a series of barely gestural paintings and Moshe Gershuni, a series of works that are a palimpsest of colors and Hebrew texts taken from the Psalms. In the neighboring space, Carlos Saura’s two paintings, both entitled Crucifixion, 1963–79, dealt more obviously with religious themes.

There were no easy answers to be had from the works presented in this exhibition other than a moving evocation of pain, suffering, and survival. Rather, each carefully selected work raised a number of questions and asked each viewer to take a look at his or her own moral responsibilities. As Michel de Certeau wrote in his Heterologies, “Ethics is articulated through effective operations and it defines a distance between what is and what ought to be. This distance designates a space where we have something to do.”

Bojana Pejic