Day 6 – This must be Warsaw

By Hendrik Tratsaert

Today’s menu is a little overcharged: we are going to visit at least six venues. Temperature is mild, the spirits are high. For those who had too much Zubrowka, the famous Polish wodka bearing the sign of a bison, spirits might be slightly lower. After Tallinn and Vilnius, we are ready to land on Warsaw’s art playground.

It has been thirteen years since I was in Warsaw accompanying Jan Fabre, the artist I was working for. The day after this very Friday (when I am writing this now) I would find out through the Dutch cultural associate at the embassy that the rather rundown park and castle where we used to have an exhibition and a theatre performance is actually the beautiful park with a poignant exhibition (confronting nineties Polish shocking art with the Brit art of those days), an international residency programme and, oh dear, the legendary Janusz Marek is still in charge of the theatre programme; he used to come and visit us in Antwerp after a 15 hour trip by Eurolines, carrying a bin filled with homemade sandwiches. How come I did not recognize the Ujazdowski Castle?

Some things smell
So today is Friday and we are heading for the Foksal Gallery Foundation. The current exhibition is an in situ work by Cezary Bodzianowski who installed fake stairs as if you would be climbing right away through the roof, including two beautiful tiny fairy tale like drawings by a friend artist. On every level of the building he tagged an intriguingly simple sentence on the concrete beam carrying the ceiling, stating “Some things smell”, “Something doesn’t fit” and “Something doesn’t work here”. The elegant young art historian Aleksandra Urbanska is receiving us. The gallery director is out, that is to say he is at the Frieze art Fair selling the international collectors darling angel Wilhelm Sasnal. He runs the gallery in cooperation with the current director of the Basel Kunsthalle. This is a big time gallery representing important artists like Pawel Althamer, Monika Sosnowska, Paulina Olowska, and Artur Zmijewski (who curated the last Berlin Biennale). Not only when visiting this place it was going to be clear this former communist country had been producing a flourishing art scene in the course of two decades with really strong artists and an international network, combining all ‘organic’ capitalist ambitions with a fertile underground for multiple independent initiatives boosted by a critical young generation.

There were some questions about the name of the gallery. Apparently there is also a Foksal gallery which is independent and state funded in reference to the constructivist group (including Tadeusz Kantor and Edward Krasinski who broke up later) who founded it in 1966. This other Foksal takes care of the estate of the historical gallery if I am not mistaken. Apparently the parallel movement which we are visiting is running a commercial gallery under the same name, calling it a foundation, a move which took place in 1997, when they split activities, adding the (juridical) label foundation. Let’s suggest it is a little confusing.

Blue tape as a token
We leave the gallery and Aleksandra takes us up to the 11th apartment building, where we are amazed by the intact studio of the Polish grand old constructivist minimal artist Edward Krasinski, who died in 2004. His work is a revelation. Subtle, imaginative and touching when you hear the story behind these walls. Only after the iron curtain fell some recognition inside the country and abroad arose. Before he had only exhibited in France where he had good relations with Daniel Buren, whose vertical stripes against the window are shining as a gift or a token. Krasinki’s blue tape is tagged at a precise height with a precise width horizontally all over the place.

He was offered the apartment by the state whose policy consisted of preserving top floors (with lots of incoming light) of apartment blocks to avantgarde artists as a studio and a living space. Is it a wicked thought to consider this is a fluid form of repressive tolerance when a general Jaruzelski is leading the country in the dark eighties ? At the same time it is revealing that even though relations with other countries and their artists were limited each of the countries behind the iron curtain had a vivid art scene which did not give up and produced works of art which will stand time.

In God we trust, the others pay cash
The next stop is Zacheta, the National Gallery of Art, one of the rare buildings that survived the massive bombing on Warsaw during world war II. Three exhibitions are on simultaneously. In God we trust is a survey of international artists dealing with all forms of religious belief with usual suspects such as Bill Viola, Genric Art Solutions (Matt Vis & Tony Campbell) and the slick images of fashion/jetset photographer David LaChapelle. Although the collection of art works presented according to the topic is quite complete, some works are very literal or just descriptive. Given the Polish context you might call this initiative brave or at least tempting. When Harald Szeemann exhibited Maurizio Cattelan’s sculpture of Pope John Paul II (currently known as Saint John Paul II) hit by a meteorite in the referential 2000 exhibition Visionary Poland, the former museum director Anda Rottenberg got fired by the city council, an act which marked the peak of “the cold war between society and the artists” in Poland. “In God we trust, the others pay cash.”

In my opinion the most interesting exhibition in the Zacheta house is Views which is the Polish counterpart to the Prix de Rome in the Netherlands to be awarded in a week, and the Prix de la Jeune Peinture belge (since this year the Young Belgian Art Prize, won last summer by Jasper Rigole, one of my favourite young Belgian artists with whom I worked two years ago). The Views prize is rewarded every three years in a national competition graduating 5 artists. By far the most striking work was a film by Agnieszka Polska, which is already a smash hit in international circles. It is a smart imaginative work when it comes to thinking aloud about art and society in  an alienating environment. The other work that was most appreciated was a video of animated objects and a set of the same objects displayed on the wall by Piotr Bosacki.

In the afternoon we take the bus to Soho Factory, the new space in the Praga district of Warsaw dedicated to culture, creative industries and business, were we visit to great spaces: Leto Gallery and Piktogram.

Building Leto & Pictogram

Leto Gallery was founded in 2007 by Marta Kołakowska in the centre of Warsaw. In spring 2011 the gallery moved to Soho Factory, where it shares the building with Piktogram / BLA, and now boasts one of the most attractive exhibition spaces in Warsaw. The gallery’s team include Maurycy Gomulicki, Bianka Rolando, Konrad Smolenski, Radek Szlaga, Honza Zamojski and others.
A very succesful gallery working with a younger generation of artists,  including Konrad Smolenski, who represents Poland during this year Biennale of Art in Venice.

At the end of the afternoon we are on the way direction the Museum of Modern Art were we are received by deputy director Sebastian Cichoki and his great staff. In a relatively short time—the Museum was established in 2005—the institution has acquired over 300 works. First and foremost, these are works purchased as part of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage’s “International Collections of Contemporary Art” programme, as well as donations and temporary loans from artists, private individuals and businesses. Many of the collected works were commissioned by the Museum for its exhibitions and public projects (such as pieces by artists like Sanja Iveković, Zbigniew Libera, Sharon Hayes and Paweł Althamer). The Museum collection also includes artistic archives—e.g. over 150 000 negatives from the eminent photographer Eustachy Kossakowski, plus a collection of films and photographs documenting the activities of Prof. Grzegorz Kowalski’s workshop at Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, which was so vital for Polish art after 1989. There is also a collection of several hundred films by artists, available online in the Museum’s Filmoteka.

After an introduction to the museum by Sebastian Cichocki, Łukasz Mojsak (Filmoteka) and Marta Skowronska (education department), we have a guided walk by Ewa Kozik  through the exhibition “In the heart of the country”.
The show presents over 150 works from the Museum collection. They cover several intersecting themes, such as the globalisation of art history; links between cities and contemporary art; emancipatory narratives in art; questions of memory and history; language and the ethics of modernity; socially engaged artists; and a topic rarely broached by contemporary art exhibitions: manifestations of spirituality.
After the walk we are introduced to several people from the art scene in Warsaw who give us a great inside in their practis.
Michał Lasota from Stereo Gallery
Szymon Żydek from Bec Zmiana Foundation
Agnieszka Rasmus-Zgorzelska from the Centre of Architecture
Justyna Kowalska & Michał Suchora from BWA Warszawa
Dawid Radziszewski from Dawid Radziszewski Gallery
Paulina Wrocławska from biweekly magazine

Artist we met are:
Aleksandra Wasilkowska
Łukasz Jastrubczak
Janek Simon
Agnieszka Polska
Krzysztof Kaczmarek

Curators FTW
By Denis Rivin

There has been one day in our program, which I have been looking forward to especially: Friday in Warsaw! I’ve been like, OMG, going to be so nice to check out the Polish contemporary art scene during the day and maybe go dance modern at a hardcore alternative-underground-art-gay-electronic-sexy-mayhem kind of club in the night, and already upon arrival at the Chopin Airport on Thursday evening I was feeling this particular excitement, an overwhelming joy and sky high, giggling expectation for this Eastern European metropolis: I just knew that it would be fantastic!

So I plant my feet on Polish ground, and, you know, I’m a nice guy, I don’t go around and bother people, just standing there, minding my own business, waiting patiently for my stuff, when this Curator comes over, and he’s like, hey, you, boy! And I’m like, huh?, me?, and he’s like, yeah you! And I get it right away, you know, I see it in his vicious, godforsaken eyes, and I’m like, OMfG… They’ve found me!

And he doesn’t move an inch this guy, he just stares at me, while my suitcase circles the hall, more and more lonely, on this Polish waiting room Ferris wheel. Time slows down and the airport temperature drops dramatically, calculated sharp and cool, and I know, I know what he wants from me, and then he says it out loud himself, gently but evil indeed: You have been chosen, boy… You have to write for The Blog tomorrow!, he says, and I totally freeze. I turn pale and feel a little sick, like when your credit card is rejected and there is 29 days left in the month, you know, it’s like, you’ll manage, but it truly sucks and hurts and you feel intimidated and kind of insecure…

But hey, I knew this day would come, they’ve told us. But then again, really, how can a man possibly ever be properly prepared for such a thing? How?? Anyface, we left the airport, got picked up by the longest bus ever with the ironically smallest trunk in the world with absolutely no room for our luggage, and next thing I know this Curator is chatting me up again, this time at a restaurant. He reminds me how important it is that what you write on The Blog is of value, 50.000 followers he laughs loudly from the bottom of his sick soul, while continuously pouring wine in my glass. Usually I never drink, really, I can’t handle that stuff, but I am very polite, it’s a burden of mine, so I easily say yes to random things, and he noticed this, of course he noticed, he’s a Curator for God’s sake, detail is his life, and for some reason he was determined to punish me more, so he orders vodka…

I remember few things after that, but this morning I wake up after snoozing like twelve times, and I’m like, OMG WTF! What kind of undesirable animal has died in my mouth?! And how come I have all this lipstick in my face?! And who the fuck is this one-armed woman sleeping in my shower?! What is going on, man! But then I’m like, shiiiit, this is The Day, no matter with all this awkward business, I have vastly more important things to see to – I have to write for The Blog!!

So I go down in the hotel restaurant, which I vaguely remember being an improvised karaoke bar some six hours earlier, and I have my breakfast. I have some nice food, eggs and bacon and all that jazz, and I’m in the company of some of the other Curators from Orientation Trip. But the thing is, they’re actually really friendly, totally lovable people, and this really confuses me but simultaneously helps on my mood, and suddenly I start looking on the bright side of life again. You know, I was still like, damn, girrrl, an extra couple of hours of sleep would be nice too, but no, true Curators don’t sleep the day away! They work, these are professional people, they nurture their interests, and this is the essence of their profession and the reason why many people from other professions look up to them: People are like, wow, it’s amazing, how do Curators do it?, and that’s the thing: Curating is not really a profession, it’s more of an exceptional gift, a calling, you can’t just learn that stuff, you have to feel it, and everybody knows this, although there are many other people who are also like, yeah, but can Curators cook or repair a house or help blind people over the street?, and yes, of course Curators can do these things too, that’s why they’re amazing!

And so, I’m sitting there, having some coffee, talking laid-back Curator business, and then, out of the blue, I remember this wonderful vodka-soaked dream I had just before I woke up! Turns out I realized the secret behind Curating, it simply came to me in the dream, exactly like the sort of feelings true Curators get, which obviously and instantly confirmed me in the fact that I’m a true Curator, and I got like, fuck yeah, I totally knew it! No more rejected credit cards from now on!

The secret behind Curating, it turns out, is actually the same as the reason why everybody thinks that Curators are interesting: It is because Curators are always interested in interesting things! It’s as simple as that. Curators simply have the most interesting interests, and it is because of the Curator’s interests that people with other professions and boring interests become interested in interesting things too!

Basically, if I was to put this as simple as possible, as true Curators should, I would say that the secret behind Curating is the fact that Curators, and only Curators, have the ability to become interested in things that aren’t even interesting, but by doing so they actually add interest to the non-interesting thing and thus transforming it into something interesting – and this, as a true Curator, I find extremely interesting!

And so, whilst having this revelation and slowly beginning to doubt how true the other true Curators from Orientation Trip truly are, I kind of felt on top of things and decided not to write for that stupid Blog anyway… I mean, why the fuck bother, and like, do they even have Wi-Fi at hardcore alternative-underground-art-gay-electronic-sexy-mayhem kind of clubs? Don’t think so…

So instead I decided to do what I’m best at: To Curate! I have therefore Curated the only online-photo-exhibition on this Blog, made by my alter-ego artist, Denis Revin – you can find him in the Orientation Trip PDF-program, he travels a lot… The exhibition examines the interests of Curators and is quite interesting, if I might say so myself. It is called Curators FTW, and probably you’ll find it interesting too. If not, you’re maybe just not as true a Curator as you always thought you were… Peace.

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