Dwarves, videos, homemade t-shirts and cardboard tanks: this is what you’ll find in Happenings Against Communism by the Orange Alternative at the Galeria Miedzynarodowego Centrum Kultury in Krakow. It’s a multi-roomed tour of Polish protest in the 1980s, the retrospective of a social practice movement that swept an entire country. Although the tone of the exhibition is playfully iconoclastic—that’s the whole point—I often found myself moved nearly to tears by the many video works scattered throughout the space. It’s not often that art changes the world, but when it does it is extremely poignant and inspiring.
Some background: various political and economic factors plunged Poland into a period of deep decline around 1980, and on December 12, 1980 martial law was declared. Both an immense buildup of Soviet military at the borders and the arrest of union members and intellectuals precipitated an economic sanction by the US and other nations. Rapidly, Poland became a nation of fear and scarcity. Working with the influences of the Surrealist and Dada movements, “Major” Waldemar Fydrych decided to take matters into his own hands. As a former art history student at the University of Wroclaw, Fydrych had co-organized the Independent Students Union and a massive peace march as well as cooperatively publishing a student newspaper called Orange Alternative, so he was no stranger to both art and politics. When he saw all the patches of white paint the government was using to cover anti-regime graffiti, he had an idea that eventually shaped itself into a revolution. His goal was to protest the brutality and militarism of the regime without replacing one dogma for another by shouting political slogans or creating formal hierarchical structures. From the moment he picked up a brush, Poland became a site for the absurd pushing against the militaristic. Enter the dwarf.
The exhibition is dense with information, but it is presented in a charming and accessible fashion. Most rooms include recreated ephemera from the many happenings, including flyers, t-shirts, banners, and costumes. However, the videos are often the most engrossing because they include first-hand accounts and original films that documented the era. Majer or the Revolution of Dwarves, directed by Maria Zmarz-Koczanowicz in 1989, includes interviews and police/journalist footage of some of the key players and happenings across Poland.
The absurdity and low comedy of the events and actions shines brightly across the decades, even in subtitled translation. One video excerpt recounts a happening entitled Who’s Afraid of Toilet Paper? A man describes the action of giving away (extremely scarce) free toilet paper on the street, gleefully telling passersby to take two rolls, and he reenacts the recipients’ stunned and joyful surprise. At another happening, protesters lampooned the military by dressing as soldiers and marching in the streets while carrying paper rifles or riding “tanks” made of bicycles and cardboard. They chanted, “Nothing gives you fun like a machine gun!” and “Less condoms, more military exercises!” It was silly, a caricature that turned a funhouse mirror to the brutally stark life lived under constant military and police presence.
The most affecting moments occur when the camera catches more than tomfoolery, when the frightening reality of 1980s Poland is glimpsed. One video shows an apartment full of young people dressing in costumes in preparation for a protest. A sunny young man adjusts his straw halo for the camera and says, “Wouldn’t it be a pity if they pulled us all in?” and the camera cuts to a view through the apartment window where a military vehicle sits waiting at the curb. Despite his broad smile, the flash of fear in the man’s eyes tells everything: what he risks, and how he feels about it. Everything is at stake, he could lose it all in the time it takes to be put into the back of a van. The tension is palpable, his bravery immense. It is precisely this sense of courage and conviction—and of the menace shimmering darkly just beneath the surface of ridiculous hijinks—that gives this exhibition its profundity and force. One of the leaflets I read before exiting the gallery contained a final thought connecting this historical overview to our present situation: “Is the Orange Alternative spent after 30 years? In the late 1980s Major Fydrych declared: the Orange Alternative will cease to exist when people no longer need it. So far it does still exist.”