From the Archives
Today we bring you a look back at a small but remarkable exhibition in Warsaw that sought to expose the psychological effects of martial law in Poland in the 1980s. Though the political, intellectual, and emotional conditions that produced the artwork have a complicated background, author Bean Gilsdorf notes that, “viewers of this work needn’t have all the historical details to know that something is terribly wrong.” This article was originally published on November 20, 2013.
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.”