At 6 a.m. on December 13, 1981, General Wojciech Jaruzelski appeared on Polish television to declare martial law in effect throughout the country. Following his edict, for the next two and a half years citizens were stripped of their civil liberties: All borders and airports were closed, public gatherings were banned, independent organizations were declared illegal, and travel between cities required permission.* Curfew was imposed, and postal mail was subject to scrutiny and censorship. In one ABC news broadcast from that day, Peter Jennings quotes Jaruzelski’s televised speech, saying, “Poland has come to the end of its psychological endurance,” but in fact a terrible period of psychological endurance had only just begun.
Psychopaper at Piktogram in Warsaw presents an answer to the question of what must it have been like to live and make art during this period. Scattered over the walls of the gallery space are more than fifty works on paper (and one video) produced by Polish artists during and immediately after the years of martial law. Most of the works have never been exhibited before, and although they share a basic materiality, there is little in the way of unifying style or subject matter. The drawings stand, according to the gallery materials, “as a document to the mental state engendered by an overdose of reality, which was in a chronic state of crisis.”
Chronic, as in a prolonged or recurring illness, is the perfect word to describe the physical and psychic dislocation of the time. Take, for example, Paweł Jarodzki’s untitled work from 1986, a tempera-on-paper drawing that curator Michał Woliński described as a testament to the chaos that existed in reaction to the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl earlier that year. (Chernobyl is about 300 miles from the border of Poland.) A central gas-masked figure stands with hunched shoulders on a cobblestoned, decaying street, apprehensively clutching a flag. Other figures in the foreground appear deformed. Because the Polish government of the time preferred to keep its citizenry ill-informed, there was no direct, immediate news of the nuclear disaster; for two or three days following the explosion, all information was by word of mouth. No one knew for sure what had happened, or what would happen. However, viewers of this work needn’t have all the historical details to know that something is terribly wrong—one glance at the human silhouette in the background crawling in the street, vomiting with his pants pulled down, tells all.
Likewise, the spiky drawings of hybrid creatures by Ewa Ciepielewska are obsessively nightmarish. Filled with jarring combinations of color and fine, tight linework, her sharp-toothed chimerae walk upright like humans. They claw at surfaces or confront one another in colored flat spaces devoid of landscapes or landmarks—they are unmoored and yet charged, bristling. Though they have a completely different aesthetic, Artur Gołacki’s black-and-white mixed-media “interventions” on magazine pages are similarly surreal and violent. It bears noting that most of the drawings in the show are listed as Untitled, suggesting that language is simply incapable of describing the conditions of this time. This detail is wrenching, as if words are just too small and delimiting to adequately name the collusion of circumstances that produced this work.
Psychopaper is a rare kind of exhibition. Not only does it present new and little-seen works to the public while highlighting a particular—and intensely charged—historical period, it does so without being overly didactic or heavy-handed in its curation. The works are presented in loose groupings according to their subject matter; heads in one area, penises in another, works with matter coming from heads over there. This system highlights the thematic similarities used to express the psychology of living under martial law, and allows the ethos of the works to overlap and commingle. Thirty years after the end of martial law in Poland, the works in Psychopaper perform the public gatherings and individual outcries that were forcibly withheld from their authors.
Psychopaper is on view at Piktogram Gallery in Warsaw through November 30, 2013.
*Martial law in Poland officially lasted until July 22, 1983, though amnesty was not granted to political prisoners until 1986. The effects of the period were felt far beyond that.