With the work of over forty artists, History in Art at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow is a sizeable exhibition; but its scale is not only warranted, it is necessary. If the internet age ushered in a global culture of multiplicity, then History in Art demonstrates the contemporary attitude toward the formation of a historical record: individual voices make up a flexible, imaginative whole.
Accordingly, there are many approaches to exploring the past in this exhibition. Some artists take history itself as a subject, while others focus on particular events from the world-shaking to the minutely individualistic. The overarching theme is solidly postmodernist; a conspicuous refutation of the existence of any single version of events. In fact, History in Art reinforces the preference for subjectivity by presenting work by artists working in all media and at different stages of their careers. In this way, the exhibition examines history from almost all angles and media, and the diversity is rewarding.
Shinji Ogawa’s practice involves a series of techniques that investigate the image by drawing, overdrawing, halving, doubling, and layering. Along one wall are three vitrines that encase picture or travel books from various cities. One example, Then and Now, Krakow (2010) shows two views—one antiquated, one more modern—of the city’s main square with its famous Cloth Hall. Ogawa has drawn the architectural elements that are cropped out of the originals across the gutter of the book. His work links the two individual pictures, extending the scene and bringing the past in touch with the present.
Loss haunts many of the works in the exhibition. Krystyna Piotrowska‘s I Left Poland Because… (2010) is a two-channel video projected into the cleft of two angled walls. Very simply, the two images show a close-up shot of a person uttering sentences beginning with “I left Poland because…” On the left, the person speaks in Polish; on the right, she speaks in English. When one side is speaking, the other is frozen. One quote: “I left Poland because it was the only country where I couldn’t be Polish.” The components of this installation all contribute meaningfully to the whole: the angled walls create a setting where the speaker looks at the audience, but also nearly faces her estranged self. Additionally, the switch between Polish and English very deftly facilitates an awareness of how language creates identity. The immobility of one side while the other talks points to the barriers of language and the slippage of translation. In the gap between languages, how much is lost?
Robert Kusmirowski’s Processing (2011) is a room-sized installation wherein classical sculptures are ground to dust. One side begins with the figures in packing cases, then on leftward to threshing and winnowing machines, to a flourmill, a drill, and a sawmill cart. This allegorical factory reduces even the most durable members of art’s legacy to mere grist for the mill.
Videos presented on flat-screen monitors are scattered throughout the exhibition. It seems fitting that digital video, that most plastic of media, should be used to examine and recreate history. Boaz Arad‘s work, for example, uses the flexibility of video combined with humor to address the legacy of Hitler and the Nazis. 100 Beats (1999) lampoons Hitler as a pervert masturbating onstage by looping a short clip of der Führer moving his hand in his pocket. Shalom Jerusalem takes short clips from various archives of Hitler’s speeches to create a public address that never happened: Hitler saying, “Shalom Jerusalem, I apologize.” In Marcel, Marcel (2000) Hitler’s mustache is playfully re-imagined. This strategy of using absurdity to counter fear and brutality brings welcome levity to the exhibition as a whole. Hitler’s reign may seem both geographically far and historically distant to an American audience, but the effects of World War II are still keenly felt in modern-day Poland. By heightening the buffoonery of a murderous little dictator, Arad swabs old wounds with new laughter.