New York

View of “Goshka Macuga,” 2012. Foreground: Daybed for the Spirit of Polish Culture, 2012. Background: The Letter, 2012.

View of “Goshka Macuga,” 2012. Foreground: Daybed for the Spirit of Polish Culture, 2012. Background: The Letter, 2012.

Goshka Macuga

View of “Goshka Macuga,” 2012. Foreground: Daybed for the Spirit of Polish Culture, 2012. Background: The Letter, 2012.

If Poland—“God’s playground,” in historian Norman Davies’s pithy phrase—didn’t invent black comedy, it has surely produced some of the wryest examples of tragic-absurd performance throughout its fraught post–World War II period. Take Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958), one of Roman Polanski’s early films, in which two men emerge from the sea carrying a large wardrobe, only to be beaten with a dead cat by a group of local toughs, or Tadeusz Konwicki’s novel A Minor Apocalypse (1979), which follows the slapstick tribulations of a hungover middle-aged man who wanders the streets of Warsaw, gas can in tow, harassed by cops and others as he considers his fellow dissident artists’ petition that he self-immolate before the party headquarters. As the site of the public’s curiosity and abuse, the city street is central to this tradition, and artist Goshka Macuga has returned to the Polish legacy of enigmatic public actions by focusing on a 1967 event by another practitioner of the darkly absurd, artist and theater director Tadeusz Kantor.

For that performance, Kantor created an enormous fake letter, drawing stamps, an address, and cancellation marks on a ninety-foot-long banner, and hired seven uniformed postmen to carry it from the main post office in Warsaw to its addressed destination, at the nearby Foksal Gallery. While awaiting the banner’s arrival, Kantor whipped expectant spectators into
a frenzy and then orchestrated the crowd’s exultant destruction of the ersatz communiqué. Macuga, for her exhibition at Andrew Kreps Gallery, displayed a large black-and-white photographic wall tapestry with an image of the men carrying the letter. (It was derived from her 2011 reenactment of the performance that culminated at her exhibition at the Zache˛ta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw). In front of the hanging sat a cushioned midcentury modern bench, upon which Macuga had screenprinted three letters, in the original Polish, from a member of the public to Anda Rottenberg, director of the Zache˛ta when Macuga had her show. Throughout the gallery stood several other chairs and stools, all upholstered in the same battleship-gray fabric and likewise featuring images of letters addressed to Rottenberg, some hectoring and even threatening, others congratulatory.

Even at their most acerbic, these missives contain abuse milder than that represented in a group of works in which Macuga takes up several highly theatrical examples of the defacement of art at the Zache˛ta in the post-1989 period. In Triptych (Cattelan), 2011, she presents details of photographs of La nona ora (The Ninth Hour), Maurizio Cattelan’s 1999 sculpture of Pope John Paul II felled by a meteorite, after it was destroyed in 2000 when members of a far-right-wing party removed the rock and tried to right the sculpture of the Polish pontiff. Likewise, in three images from the “Anti-Collages” series, 2011, Macuga evokes episodes at the Zache˛ta such as a 2000 incident in which a famous Polish actor entered the museum with a sword and slashed several portraits from Piotr Uklanski’s The Nazis, 1998. In each Anti-Collage, Macuga blacks out a portrait of a figure (Rottenberg, Uklanski, etc.) central to the controversy, leaving a ghostly, censored silhouette of a figure standing in the museum’s galleries. That the word zachęta means “encouragement” here serves as a wry comment on the forcefulness with which the art on view inspired the public to “engage” it.

In Macuga’s work, the censorship enacted by the Communist People’s Republic of Poland seem merely part of a cycle of art desecration in the country, which includes the actions of today’s public and right-wing government, closely tied to the Polish Catholic Church. Perhaps the artist and playwright Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, a favorite of Kantor’s, was right when he had the titular character of his 1923 play Janulka claim of Poland’s recursive but somehow ever-intensifying past: “History has doubled back until its nose touches its backside, and now it’s eating its own tail.”

Eva Díaz