Now on view at the Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw, British British Polish Polish is a comprehensive—nearly overwhelming—exhibition with works by more than 60 artists occupying two floors. Though the individual pieces of the show are often thrilling, their overall placement leaves much to be desired. According to curators Marek Goździewski and Tom Morton, the exhibition is meant to reflect “the extraordinary parallel flowering of contemporary art in Britain and Poland […] conventionally identified with two much-contested ‘groups’: the Young British Artists, and the exponents of Polish Critical Art.” Yet the premise of the show and its layout don’t agree. To claim a “parallel flowering” is to invite a comparison, but analyzing the contemporaneous movements together is nearly impossible, given that artists are often grouped by nationality instead of by the conceptual or even material basis of their works.
For example, Tracey Emin’s My Bed (1998) is set in a room with other works by Damien Hirst, Georgina Starr, and Paul Noble, but the concerns and gestures of the YBAs are so firmly established in art historical discourse that no surprises are created by placing them in proximity. Instead, a more fascinating context for the work could have been created by placing Norman Leto’s A Painting Damaged by Looking (2006)—a work made on an old mattress—nearby. This would have established a material connection between the two pieces, suggesting the transmission of influence across national borders and time periods, inviting a deeper comparison than can be made by placing contemporaneous and intranational works together. Likewise, putting Konrad Smolenski’s single-channel video Rysunek (Drawing) (2001) adjacent to these works would have amplified the connection to pain, fear, punishment, and the body. Over the course of 3 1/2 minutes, Smolenski whips himself on the chest with a short length of rope, “drawing” angry red welts on his torso as a voiceover intones, “I’m lazy… I’m not productive… I’m not systematic… I’ll never get a job…” However, by placing these works in spaces rigidly defined by nationality and time, the viewers never get to see the aggregate power of potential synergies.
Even as my criticism of the arrangement stands, there are works in the show that are strong enough to shine in nearly any context. Many of the videos, in particular, are so engrossing that I sat through them multiple times. Chief among these was Anna Molska’s Scene 46 (n.d.), a short but complex video that explores the condition and structure of narrative, based on an unusual domestic scene: A handsome man in a spare modernist domicile plays unwilling host to a group of pushy yet dispassionate old women, one of whom he has accidentally injured. The actions of the cast are repeated twice; the first time through, the drama is filmed from the left—the second time, the scenes are filmed from the right and a voiceover is added that punctuates the action by narrating a theory of filmmaking. The result is an intriguing hybrid, a work that looks like a soap opera but operates as a philosophical text illustrating some of the most profound goals of cinema and acting.
Being already familiar with many of the British works in the exhibition, I was mainly taken with works by Polish artists that I had never seen before. Jakub Julian Ziółkowski’s Untitled (Priest) (2010), a large gouache-on-paper painting, depicts the grotesque form of a man standing under a shit-brown sky, his bloody torso and uncircumcised penis exposed to the viewer from beneath an unbuttoned cassock. This nightmarish vision is painted with a deft hand and is a bitter comment to make in a country that is still overwhelmingly Catholic. Katarzyna Przezwańska’s Leaf and Untitled, both 2011 and displayed in small vitrines, show the artist continuing with her trajectory of obsessive decoration. Leaf is simply a hand-sized oak leaf painted bright green, but Untitled is two half-eggshells painted matte black, with the very thin edge of the broken shell painted light pink and light blue. Przezwańska’s compulsive and extraordinarily delicate ornamentation captivates by refashioning the most mundane of objects.
Surprisingly, only one work in the show explicitly crossed the rigid boundaries of time and nationality. Franciszek Orłowski’s Dobre (Small Change) (2010) is a projection of a mere five slides, but its overt simplicity hides a sophisticated line of thought and action. The first image shows a sidewalk in London where low-paid Polish (illegal) immigrants wait to be picked up for work; next is a microfilm negative of that image next to a British penny; then there is an image of the process of physically excavating the interior of the penny, with microfilm inserted into the hollow space; then the coin in a hand; and finally two hands exchanging the penny. This is a real object, and the coin is in circulation. These five images, and the process they represent, don’t need a discursive text to explain the harsh economic realities for Polish workers in relation to the rest of E.U.; here in California, I am a daily witness to a similar group of men who await a day’s labor not two blocks from my apartment. Nevertheless, a short wall text is provided for those who don’t understand the circumstances of the laboring underclass and the critical role these workers play in late-capitalist economies. In the midst of an exhibition of masterful works that suffered from ill-considered placement, Dobre (Small Change) provided a note of clarity, taking a complex issue and distilling it into a direct and poignant communiqué between two nations.
British British Polish Polish is on view at the Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle through November 15, 2013.