“Schism: Polish Art of the 1990s”

CCA Ujazdowski Castle

This exhibition argued that now is the time to evaluate Polish art of the 1990s, that enough time has elapsed to allow for critical distance. But how to do this in a constructive, meaningful way? “Schism: Polish Art of the 1990s” took its title from a 1994 volume of poetry by writer and musician Marcin Świetlicki, known for exploring the condition of the individual in Poland following the fall of state socialism with a combination of dark humor and sarcasm. The show, curated by Adam Mazur and impressive in its scope but unnecessarily didactic, drew on the growing discontent with the transformations in Polish society, aiming to expose the gap between Polish art created prior to and after the dissolving of the People’s Republic of Poland and the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Moreover, this decade was also described in the exhibition brochure in terms of another split, one between artists who perceive the period as “the time of prosperity, freedom and goodness only, or just the opposite: moral disintegration, post-communist enslavement by ‘the [new] system’ and badness only.”

“Schism” celebrated the development of a new awareness among Polish artists about the ways in which art addresses the social problems of its time from a local perspective, seen through the institutional lens of the CCA Ujazdowski Castle and its exhibition history. Supported by the museum in the face of an increasingly conservative mainstream society, these artists produced work that contested the established orders in Polish art and culture, reacting to the development of art and technology in the West while paying attention to local traditions, particularly that of ’70s Conceptualism but also socially conscious “dissident” art produced after World War II. Thus a new critical discourse developed in Poland: Benefiting from newly regained political freedoms, numerous artists, including Mirosław Bałka, Katarzyna Kozyra, and Zbigniew Libera, spoke cogently about sensitive issues from Poland’s past and present in engaging often highly controversial (and sometimes sensationalist) works that resonated locally and internationally, guaranteeing them unprecedented critical, and eventually commercial, success. Kozyra’s diploma piece Pyramid of Animals, 1993, for instance, was a pioneering work that caused immediate controversy when it was first shown. At the time, the critic and curator Hanna Wróblewska defended the work—which consists of a stuffed horse, dog, cat, and rooster and a video documenting the horse being put down and then skinned—as an exemplar of the place of “death and killing . . . in contemporary culture,” rather than as proof of the unethical behavior of young artists, as others claimed. Juxtaposed with other iconic works of the ’90s, including Libera’s Concentration Camp, 1996, “Schism” also featured works by veterans of video art and performance, among them Józef Robakowski and Zbigniew Warpechowski, as well as works by artists relatively unknown abroad, such as Leszek Golec (here represented by a 1996 photograph of the naked artist hanging from the ceiling, used for the exhibition’s promotion) and Jarosław Modzelewski, a figurative painter who started his career as a neo-expressionist in the ’80s.

“Schism” was thus simultaneously about the Polish art created in the last decade of the twentieth century and the role that the CCA Ujazdowski Castle has played in shaping the image of that art: The documentation of various exhibitions organized there from 1989 to 1999 demonstrated the museum’s active involvement in writing the history of Polish art. Although a number of other museums, such as the new Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw and the Muzeum Sztuki in Lodz, have been growing in relative importance, this show proved that one cannot overestimate the vital role CCA Ujazdowski Castle has played in generating and sustaining an unprecedented interest in contemporary Polish art.

Marek Bartelik