Wilhelm Sasnal

This show really began two days before its opening date, with a screening at a local movie theater. Painter Wilhelm Sasnal directed and also largely served as cameraman for Swiniopas (Swineherd), 2008, his first 35-mm film—eighty-five minutes long, black-and-white, in Polish with English subtitles. The work is surprising in several respects: The simple story, set on a dilapidated farm in postwar Poland, is presented in a straightforward manner but unleashes a drastic and relentless series of events, just like the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale whose title it shares. Characters—from the grumpy old man with the floppy hat pulled down over his eyes, carefully guarding his secrets, to the bespectacled young man who likes to draw while watching over his pigs, to the blond daughter of the old man and the girl from across the brook she is in love with—do not so much propel an overarching plot as figure in various minor arrangements and everchanging tableaux breathlessly followed by Sasnal’s handheld camera. The rural setting offers an inexhaustible supply of striking images: a water pump silhouetted against the light, patterns made by telephone poles (recalling Aleksandr Rodchenko’s photographs), the drum of a cement mixer, the pond behind the house where the pigs wallow, or the swineherd poking around in search of muddy plates marked with scrawled swastikas. One is constantly being surprised by the abrupt introduction of music or other noises: Suddenly, these sounds change the rhythm of the images, the images within the images, and their surfaces and structures. Someone unfamiliar with this region might only vaguely grasp its dreamlike stories and the complex cultural and symbolic references. But no one could escape the grotesque force of the individual shots.

The radical heterogeneity of the sources on which Sasnal draws can be detected both in the film and in his paintings. We feel this heterogeneity not only in the sequence of shots, or in the juxtaposition of paintings in an exhibition, but also within individual shots or paintings as a moment of extreme suspense in which the image seems to self-destruct. A few of the works in the gallery reprise motifs from the film, giving them expression in a different pictorial space and therefore revising them in memory as well. Untitled (Swiniopas/Swineherd), 2008, oil on canvas, places the cement mixer in the foreground and the water pump far in the background on a harshly lit white stage, like two protagonists whose shadowy silhouettes are engaging in a soundless dialogue on the diagonal. The illusionistic depth of the picture gives way to more schematically drawn passages; action is merely suggested but translates the sense of some latent plot that is never quite realized. The format results in a loose unity that might break apart at any moment. The wide, bright background of the image is an element both of connection and separation.

The use of rural scenery and props makes Swineherd appear temporally remote while also having an estranging effect in the theatrical sense. But here, too, a switch of perspective is in the offing: Sasnal is already at work on a new film with a contemporary context. I look forward to seeing what surprises he offers this time around.

Hans Rudolf Reust

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.