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Architectures of Gender: Contemporary Women’s Art in Poland


In a 2001 installation at the Vespa gallery, a pioneering alternative contemporary art space in Gdnansk, Poland, Dorota Nieznalska exhibited “The Passion,” a giant metal cross suspended from the gallery’s ceiling onto which was projected a nude male torso. After a television crew caught the piece for the evening news, conservative protests ensued outside of the gallery, and the artist was subsequently tried and convicted of heresy. Currently awaiting sentencing and facing up to two years in prison, Nieznalska’s case has become a touchstone in the struggle of contemporary artists in an increasingly reactionary, Catholic-dominated country. And it is not only artists who are censored in Poland: constantly reduced to merely defending the freedom of expression of artists like Nieznalska, critics are censored through the right wing’s ability to shape the critical discourse as well as to dictate notions of appropriateness. That the artist is a woman whose art addresses masculinity and sexuality through religious iconography is almost beside the point—that artistic freedom is a condition of democracy—but not quite. In a country situated between east and west, where the lines between public and private, capitalism and communism, and freedom and religion constantly crisscross, gender belies the search for national identity.

In Architectures of Gender: Contemporary Women’s Art in Poland at the new SculptureCenter in Long Island City, produced in collaboration with the Polish Cultural Institute, guest curator Aneta Szylak brings together 16 female artists currently working in Poland for the first presentation of contemporary Polish art in the United States since 1976. Szylak is a champion of the contemporary art scene in Poland, founder and director of the Center for Contemporary Art Laznia in Gdansk (also known as the Bathhouse), and an independent curator of numerous exhibitions in Europe. The exhibition is excellently selected and installed, and Szylak’s catalogue—including her essay on the selection of works in the show, a discussion of Polish art by modern and contemporary art curator at the National Museum in Warsaw Dorota Monkiewicz, and an overview of Polish feminism by New School professor Elzbieta Matynia—is informative if somewhat overwhelmed by the important but confusing commentary on the historical and political context. Luckily, through a mix of installation and strong but varied notions of identity politics, the artists represented actually engage in a conversation that works to bridge the gap between notions of a global art world and the current economic, social, and political reality of a country grappling with nationhood in this moment of geopolitical upheaval. Architectures of Gender presents art with a sense of political consciousness but without a unified agenda, struggling to be both beautiful and meaningful for a global audience.

In Jadwiga Sawicka’s “Numbers” (2003), a thin pink stripe with block black text trails along the cement walls of the museum’s simple gravel courtyard. Beginning near the entrance from the street with “1 Dead 2 Injured” and steadily increasing along the wall to the door of the gallery with statistics like “1,000,000 soldiers await orders to attack / 5,000,000 refugees / 12,000,000 will die in case of war,” the line bears numbers taken from newspaper headlines and the evening news. While the amount of death described is staggering, the piece is surprisingly subtle and delicate when viewed from afar. Stretching across the blank gray concrete like a horizontal “zip,” impossible to view or read from one perspective, Sawicka suggests the endless stream of destruction we face in the world today, rendered incomprehensible by the constant need to quantify these infinite and intangible losses.

Izabella Gustowska’s sculptural video installation, “Passions and Other Cases” (2000), is composed of three human-sized glass cocoons with hinged covers that hover open over flat video screens resting parallel to the floor within each pod. A grainy green and black digital video of a couple kissing plays within each mollusk, and mysterious green shadows are refracted through the lazy, half-closed lids. While each case is large enough that it is impossible to view all three videos at once, a quick survey reveals a different couple on each screen: two women exchange longing looks and loving lips in one, two men gently caress each other in another, while the third shows a man and a woman engaged in their own ritual of seduction. Easily read literally as an attempt to merely represent alternative sexuality in a country that barely recognizes homosexuality, Gustowska’s piece offers a more subtle and beautiful metaphor for the meaning of desire and freedom. In the sensual and incomprehensible green shadows that play on the wall and ceiling, uncontained by the structured but permeable membranes of each “case,” desire and experience are presented as unique moments between individuals that are hopelessly related and hopefully repeated.

Bathed in the green light of Gustowska’s video, the conception of gender feels dated and familiar in Zofia Kulik’s “The World as War and Adornment,” which replicates the larger than life sculpture of Moses by Michelangelo twice. Each giant seated figure of this biblical man is collaged with fabric, one covered in a hodgepodge of colorful floral patterns and cartoon prints of Power Rangers, the other a patchwork of camouflage swatches in military green, khaki, and gray. With more obvious connections to both art history and the recent traditions of feminist art practice like appropriation and craft, the piece is actually a reprise of Kulik’s 1971 thesis project at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. The combination of 1970s political feminism with 1990s “postfeminism” also appears in “The Flowered Pyramid” (1995) by Natalia LL, one of the first Polish artists to claim the term “feminist” in the mid-1970s. Using a simple, square, black-and-white photograph of an anthurium flower in all of its phallic glory, the artist fills a small basement gallery with waves of images: one picture of the flower reproduced over and over on a giant sheet of paper trailing down from the ceiling in measured intervals. “The Flowered Pyramid” is a strange blend of explicit symbolism (a reference to Georgia O’Keefe’s flower portraits perhaps) and the elegant gesture of cascading images in a highly ordered minimalist grid, a repetition that renders the floral imagery abstract.

If Natalia LL and Zofia Kulik represent historical feminism, Katarzyna Kozyra’s video installation takes a more controversial view of gender. Although she is not facing a prison sentence like Nieznalska, Kozyra’s unauthorized filming of a men’s bath in Budapest was condemned for invading the privacy of the men the artist caught on camera, naked. With international exposure including an honorable mention at the 1993 Venice Biennale, Kozyra is the most recognizable name in the exhibition: her work was last seen in New York in 2001 when she showed videos of young men prancing around naked in prosthetic vaginas at Postmasters. Built simply of black painted plywood, Kozyra’s installation “Men’s Bathhouse” (1999) consists of an octagonal theater with four entrances/exits and eight screens, four watched inside and four projected out into the gallery. Each screen plays a different perspective of the same scene: the artist, disguised as a man, wearing only a towel as she attempts to explore the social dynamics of an all male bathhouse. But she mostly looks uncomfortable, while men of all shapes and sizes stroll around the cavernous baths like those in Matthew Barney’s. Cremaster 5. Another small television screen plays a video documenting Kozyra’s “transformation” into a man, from the application of facial hair, familiar to any drag king workshop veteran, to the fitting of her prosthetic penis. A companion to her earlier video “Women’s Bathhouse,” in which she used a secret camera to record women bathing and socializing in a public bath, “Men’s Bathhouse” elegantly documents the artist’s own difficulty in assuming her self-defined identity.

From the immense first floor gallery the exhibition continues down a narrow set of stairs that deposit the visitor in a dank, unfinished basement with low ceilings and bad florescent lighting. But this unorthodox set of long hallways and strange dead end alcoves is precisely where the exhibition takes off and presents truly original site-specific installations. Crammed in the back corner of the first “gallery,” Katarzyna Józefowicz’s “Habitat” (1993 - 1999) is a mass of tiny drawers, empty shelves, and cabinets piled within one another. A maze of dollhouse spaces in the muted lavenders, greens, and taupes of Józefowicz’s wood and cardboard construction, “Habitat” suggests an endlessly proliferating domestic space vacant of everything except its own reproduction. The lessons of minimalism—abstraction, repetition, and interaction—coupled with a very contemporary interest in content-driven art, resurface in Agnieszka Kalinowska’s installation “Just A Little Bit More” (2002). Carefully composed of delicate colored paper streamers, Kalinowska transforms the SculptureCenter’s basement in an elegiac memorial of excess. Dense with narrow paper strands of color, “Just A Little Bit More” could almost be categorized as “sculptural abstract painting,” a three-dimensional tangle of lines, until one enters the funhouse mass of confetti and streamers and quietly discovers the victims/survivors of this party. Curled into fetal positions or slouched against the wall, Kalinowska’s figures, shaped like Louise Bourgeois’s recent rag doll sculptures, might be sleeping or they might be dead, but they are undeniably beautiful in their vulnerable material and spiritual state.

Pleasure also anchors Hanna Nowicka Grochal’s “The Pleasure out of Reach” (2002). But instead of sating desire, Grochal explores the power of longing through five fleshy hammocks recalling Eva Hesse’s flayed fiberglass and latex skins. Hung lengthwise across the gallery, they block the path to the photograph that hangs on the far wall: an image of a man wrapped in the rubber of the forms, paradoxically impossible to see and yet directly in front of you. The installation examines the need to look and to touch, the malleable distinction between the body and the object: a metaphor of desire for material goods as much as for bodies. The desire to touch is also at the core of Karolina Wysocka’s “Cautiously” (2003), delicate glass ropes that mark a path through the last gallery to the exit, like the line at the bank or the velvet rope in front of a club. Like gently curving icicles, the ropes hang from glass supports, those on the right topped by blown glass penile forms while those on the left end in flowering vulvae. Looking at the forms, my free association suggested twisted horns and birds on the male side and shells and pitchers on the female side. Nothing looks quite like one expects, and the fragile ropes serve as guides rather than restraints. Wysocka points out the failure of the strict stereotypes of male and female that anchor Polish society while suggesting the possibilities inherent in their flaws and deviations.

All of the works in the exhibition fall into what has been termed “critical art,” Poland’s dominant trend in the last decade. Taking their cues from Hal Foster’s “postmodernism of resistance” and the writings of Foucault and Baudrillard, avant-garde Polish artists have been using theoretical critiques to make art about discontent in the post-cold war world. In this way Architectures of Gender is both informative and transformative: the art is sometimes obvious, sometimes thrilling, but each artist is clearly deeply engaged with the politics of contemporary art and questions of gender and sexual identity in the context of a newly democratic and capitalist Poland. Through the 16 installations created specifically for presentation in the new SculptureCenter building, the show as a whole confronts the struggle to define an artistic practice that integrates a political consciousness with a post-minimalist sensibility, the former being necessary in a country obsessed with the definition of national identity, the latter being necessary in an art world obsessed with the legacy of modernism and staking a claim to the forces of globalization.

44-19 Purves St. // Long Island City, NY


Megan Heuer


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN-JUL 2003

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