Andrew Mania

Outside is polyglot East London, but once inside Andrew Mania’s show “Gogolin” we are in Poland—albeit a Poland of the mind that compounds past and present, authentic and imaginary. The artist’s name, stenciled next to the entrance, reads as “Andrzej Mania”; the wall beside the reception desk bears a pointedly untranslated lyric from a Polish polka that, I later discover, concerns a woman’s departure from her partner. She’s going to Gogolin, in the country’s Krapkowice region, but she can’t tell him why. Sometimes, as when life feels stale, predictable, lacking romance, you just have to go.

British-born but of Polish extraction, Mania just went—and ended up in the Great Bialowieza Forest on the Poland-Belarus border, draping what looks like a saggy duvet cover over a rope spanning a pond: When the viewer’s feet pass over a trigger in Chisenhale’s darkened main gallery, a ten-minute film projection of what happened next clanks into life. Wind gusts sporadically through the skinny pines to animate the suspended white cloth, daylight absconds, an ominous hum slowly crescendos, and, suddenly, as though the trees were dreaming, the putative zenith of pre–World War II Western sophistication blooms in the midst of Europe’s oldest forest: On the blowsy sheet is projected Fred Astaire’s famous dance sequence from Top Hat (1935), the orchestra’s flourishes punctuated by fake gunshots. A few years after that film’s release, the Nazis were felling trees from Bialowieza for their war effort. Top Hat would later be screened in refugee camps where Mania’s Polish mother was held, and part of the mythology he has built up in previous shows is that the future Mrs. Mania, while fleeing from one such camp through an Eastern European forest, encountered a yeti. Bialowieza, meanwhile—although a unique biosphere recognized by UNESCO—is currently threatened again by intensified timber extraction. Mania’s work, then, balances an array of losses and dubieties against an attempt at symbolic restitution, powered primarily by nostalgia for a past only partly illuminated; it also appears to serve notice of his desire to tangle with history and the treachery of personal and collective memory, offsetting a desire for certainty against a romantic wish that the unbelievable might turn out to be factual.

This implication is redoubled by the show’s other major component, a sturdy life-size chata, or Polish summerhouse, made of warm-scented raw timber, its interior brightened by eleven drawings and collages in battered, scavenged frames painted gold (luxury gotten plaintively cheap), and eleven pieces of floral needlework, resembling table decorations and keying up a broader inference of embroidery. Images of top-hatted Astaire doppelgängers, horse-riders, and alpine scenes—more echoes of yetis—featuring dangling escape ladders cross-pollinate across carefully amateurish-looking drawings. These sometimes appear indecently keen to resemble emotional excavations, their superficial carelessness and imprecision too composed, too tactical. On several occasions, however, Mania convincingly evokes the viral strain in recollection that can turn both private and collective histories into structures rotten with falsehoods that someone has wanted to believe—particularly so when he mutes his tendency toward wild and unlikely idiosyncrasy. I don’t know whether the boy he’s drawn, standing half-smiling and half-sad and clutching a long white candle beside a votive image of Christ, ever really existed; but I’m sufficiently convinced that this avatar of uncomplicated traditionalism and embryonic hurt is an integral, irrepressible part of Andrew Mania’s mental lumber-room. Just as now, and for the foreseeable future, he is part of mine.

Martin Herbert