Day 8 – “Economy of Gift”: Solidarnosc and social change

By Birgitte Kirkhoff Eriksen

Learning a whole lot from Warsaw’s vibrant and self-reflective scene, we have not had nearly enough of time here. However, schedule is – as always – tight and on this Sunday morning we depart for Lodz (pronounced more or less like ’wudsch’).


Lodz is the third largest city in Poland, located right in the middle. Its history is deeply troubled: from absorption into the Russian Empire in the 18th century, under Prussian administration in 1793, and in 1815 part of the Russian controlled Congress of Poland. The years to follow would witness the making of ‘a promised land’, an all-encompassing development of Lodz, due to a campaign to turn it into a centre of manufacturing. From 1825 and up until World War 1 the city grew into the biggest textile production centre of the Russian Empire and one of the most densely populated cities in the world with Polish, Jewish and German inhabitants as well as workers from England, Portugal and France. After the war, the golden ages came to a close and the textile trade went bankrupt. During World War 2, the city was occupied by Germans and lost 300,000 Jews and 120,000 Poles. It fell under the Soviet, business was nationalized and it somewhat regained its position as center of the textile industry. This position was forever lost after the independence in the 1990s. Today – with a poor population and high unemployment, despite of growing financial investments – Lodz appears to the outsider as a shadow of its former glory.

So how does this dark history affect the cultural scene? That is indeed a big question. We saw Warsaw’s Palace of Culture casting its shadow in the consciousness of the inhabitants in the sense that the past is always present, monumentally visible and inescapable. Stalin’s gift from hell. What we hear in Lodz is completely different. At Muzeum Sztuki Lodz, we are greeted by curator Maria Morzuch who unfolds the untraditional story of what was to become the second modern art museum in the world (MoMA was the first). Its collection was initiated in 1931 by a group of avant-garde Polish artists, the so-called ‘a.r.’ group. The members Władysław Strzemiński, Katarzyna Kobro, Henryk Stażewski, Julian Przyboś and Jan Brzękowski used their international network and asked re-known artists to donate work. In an act of solidarity, lots of valuable gifts were donated in a generous spirit that continued up until the independence. Today the collection of 20th-21st century art is the biggest in this part of the world.


The economy of gift and artist solidarity seems to peak in Construction in Process, an exhibition in 1981 to support the trade union ‘Solidarnosc.’ Solidarnosc had just been legalized and offered space for the exhibition in a former factory. In itself, this fulfils the avant-garde dream of teaming up with workers, mixing radical art and politics. The works were donated to Solidarnosc, later stored secretly by the museum for protection and subsequently donated to the museum by Solidarnosc. Solidarnosc played an important role in the collapse of communism and its leader, Lech Walesa became president of the independent Poland in 1990.

At Muzeum Sztuki Lodz we see much of this history materialized. First of all, the museum is located in the 19th century palace of Jewish industrialist Maurycy Poznanski who went bankrupt after WW1. When the museum first opened here, artist Wldayslaw Strzeminski was invited to design a room that contained the core of the collection, namely the artworks he had gathered along with the rest of the ‘a.r’ group. Painted over in 1950 and now reconstructed, the room and its art works is accompanied with works by e.g. Sosnowska, Buren, Gillick in the show Neoplastic Room. Open Composition. The contemporary works either show the legacy of Strzeminski and like-minded De Stijl members or a similar artistic arrangement. Two other shows are also in this palace: Angelika Markul on demonism and a show on labour.






8Museum ceiling 9Angelika

10Angelika2 11Labour

We meet museum director Jarosław Suchan who explains how the artistic avant-garde that originally formed the museum continues to play a defining role in the museum’s self-understanding today. “We really believe that art can positively influence the life of people. We create space, opportunity and potential for the artists to do that. Contemporary art is not popular but the advantage is that we can introduce something totally strange in people’s lives,” he says.

Jaroslaw Suchan

Art as a tool for social change. Strzeminski himself believed in art’s autonomy, the artist’s right to experiment and art as tools or ideas that can be used in other parts of society. For Suchan, the museum and the avant-garde movement are not contradictory. He explains how the opening of MS2 (a second (or actually third) venue of the museum, dedicated for experimenting with the collection and hosting temporary exhibitions, screenings and educational activity) has emphasized the role and purpose of the museum in a socio-political context. MS2 is facing one of the most socially troubled and poorest parts of the city one side and a commercial center and entertainment mayhem on the other. Suchan characterizes the museum as an “alien” in this context and poses the question “how does one operate under such circumstances?” There is not a simple answer to this, but several that include projects that engage the locals outside of the museum, public programs, education, and also, I noticed, very cheap entry prices. It costs only half of a cup of tea in the café, whereas it would be at least twice the price back in Denmark.

13walking 14walking 15MS2 16MS2

Social change is idealistic and also needed, it seems here in Lodz. Social change can be reached on various levels, that is. Dynamic (in)stability or loosing your balance for one moment to encounter the unforeseen or learn something new, can also be an ideal. You come, we’ll show you what we do. On dance improvisation is the title of a temporary exhibition at MS2. We meet curators Sonia Niespialowska-Owczarek and Katarzyna Sloboda who tell us about the reception and conditions of modern dance in Poland.


“We want performers, dancers and visitors to share the same room”, they explain and have invited Krakow architects BUDCUD to design performative furniture for the space. We witness a rehearsal for a performance and the training of ‘contact improvisation’, an important part of contemporary dance from the 60s and onwards. “Improvisation is not that much a matter of spontaneity and looseness, as of openness and readiness to constant changes”, the exhibition pamphlet states. And the curators emphasize, “it is not about being in the moment, it is about being changed by the moment”. And indeed. The performative furniture has an impact on all of us, initiating a totally different behavior, far from our regular curator poses. Art as a tool for social change.

18Rehearsal 19Curators 20Curators

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Studio Visit – Józef Robakowski  

By Andrea Roca

Today we went to visit the legendary gallery of the Polish artist Józef Robakowski (b. 1939). The gallery is located in Robakowski’s own flat on the 9th floor of a typical  block house  built during the Soviet time.  The gallery is an independent art space ran by the artist himself and was a very important meeting point for the local art  scene from the 70’s to the late 90’s. Robakowski not only  created  a nest for artistic activities but also made it possible for the artists to share and exchange their art works. The space is  a hidden treasure, an art work in itself and a real time installation of Robakowski’s art works. The display of the works, documents and publications resembles a cabinet and  a living archive.

During our visit Robakowski showed us a very interesting and touching video work Video From My Window (1978-1999). From 1978 to 1999 he filmed the building’s parking lot from his window, observing and commenting the daily activities of his friends and neighbors. The viewer follows their daily lives and witnesses the passing of time bringing forward the political changes from Communism to the transformation era.

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Great view from Robakowski’s flat

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Miejska Galeria Sztuki Lodz  

The Miejska Galeria is hosted in a Garden Pavilion dating from 1904. Twenty years later it was converted into an exhibition space, with a specific focus on the local art scene, as well as Lodz cinema academy and art schools. The institution is now completing the restoration of a fourth gallery space in a historical art deco house.

The current exhibition #20LATFOTOGRAFIIWPWSFTVIT was realized with the Department of Photography at the Film School and shows works from over 20 Years of Photography from PWSFTViT in Lodz.

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Lodz Design Festival

Lodz Design Festival was created in 2007 as a review of Polish activities in the field of design. The 7th edition of the design festival is one of the most  important events for Lodz and  attracts about  40.000 to 50.000 visitors form all over Poland and abroad. Lodz has  a great  heritage of industries in cotton and in linen and many workshops and small factories in the region are still functioning. Today the city suffers from a difficult economic situation and migration problems (many young people leave the city for a better life elsewhere). Therefore the  local government is determined in creating new markets for the  region and supports an initiative such as the design festival with the intention to establish a new creative industry.

The design festival is held in one of the many abandoned  industry  buildings in the center of the city. There are three curated exhibitions  DEEP NEED | Empathy and Design, IN-HABITATION. Garden City, Gated City and Food | Design | Humanity. Additionally there is the  Make Me! competition and exhibition, a format for young Polish designers between 25 and 35. For the competition they have to present a  prototype which is reviewed by a jury. The winner is awarded a 4.500 Euro grant. The Must Have exhibition shows a selection of the most interesting industrial products from Polish designers and manufacturers.

The curated exhibitions bring three of the most relevant topics in the design world on display: social design, urbanism and nutrition.  Contemporary design producers are engaged in many social themes of our time. Design thinking and research orientated design have become essential for questioning dynamics in our society and for finding solutions for urgent problematics. Beyond industrial design a new generation of designers deal with substantial issues linked to  consumer society where the search for new values have led to interesting new design approaches. For example, design becomes less product oriented and integrates different domains such as health and education in a research process where the idea of community plays an important role.

The thematic exhibition IN-HABITATION. Garden City is based on research materials and discusses a very delicate and highly actual problematic in Polish society. It raises the question of public space and its use compared to the urge of individualism and the need of private space in Poland today. In this context, the trend of new gated  communities is an example of the paradox Poland is facing today, caught in a fight between social ideals and neoliberal ambitions.

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Design Strategies/Appearances in Fine Art Institutions

By Andrea Roca

As the only person in the group with a design background my focus on the many visits we made in Fine Arts Institutions also often went towards design approaches supporting institutional infrastructures and communication channels. Design does manifests itself strongly in Museums, Kunsthallen and Galleries, creates impact and it is certainly used as an instrument to support institutional communication.

In the last seven days of our trip I have experienced a very strong and vivid design appearance in mostly all of the cities and institutions that we have visited and I made a collection of my personal favorites which I would like to share.

In this sense I point out the Contemporary Art Center CAC in Vilnius for its wonderful so called Reading Room (by Anouk Vogel, Johan Selbing and Bart Guldemond 2009). The table system with about twenty pieces are al asymmetric and if the museum needs a big conference room, you can bring them together to form a giant square table. Here for there is on one of the walls an instruction. And of course a must-visit for every passionate graphic designer the George Maciunas Fluxus Cabinet.

Also in Vilnius at Rupert we found a strong architecture by  Lithuanian Audrius Ambrasas. The in the periphery situated building integrates itself very nicely in the surrounding of nature. Inside the reduced but functional interior design (by Nauris Kalinauskas) is very convincing.

The artist-in-residency program  A-I-R Laboratory in Warsaw and the  The Nordic Artists’ Centre in Norway (NKD) have worked together  for furniture for their facilities and invited Polish and Norwegian designers  to cooperate and create, as they call it, a Rooted Design for Routed Living infrastructure.

At the Museum Sztuki MS1 and MS2 the Polish design collective Wunderteam (Paulina Stępień and Magdalena Koziej) created not only the very innovative Museum Café Infrastructure but they also build the architecture design for the exhibition The Herbsts. Unfinished Stories.

SztukiMS2 SztukiMS1 Rupert5 Rupert4 CAC2 CAC AIR2 AIR


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