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Confrontations: Sessions in East European Art History

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Travelling Methodologies

editorial8 March 2020

Maja and Reuben Fowkes

The third session of Confrontations saw participants journey between two cities in one country, Warsaw and Łódź, breaking the pattern of visiting pairs of art centres in neighbouring countries, namely Zagreb and Ljubljana in April 2019, and Prague and Bratislava the following September. This gave the group the opportunity to delve more deeply into Polish art history and to observe the differences between the state of art infrastructures and atmosphere of the art scene in the capital and in an important regional centre. In the contrast between the self-referential narratives of national – in this case Polish – art history and the informed transnational perspective developed by the Confrontations group, the contours of a novel methodology for the art history of Central and Eastern Europe could be discerned. A collective close reading of an early text by Piotr Piotrowski on Polish the art of the 1980s was the starting point for a crescendo of intensive discussion of the challenges of comparative art history. On the one hand, how did the rise of the Solidarity movement and the period of martial law in the early 1980s differentiate the course of artistic development in Poland during the decade, changing also perceptions of the political transformations around 1989? On the other hand, what do regional parallels reveal about the dynamics of the generational shift that accompanied the eclipse of the neo-avant-garde, the rise of neo-expressionism and the vogue for post-modern aesthetics and attitudes?

Mapping Łódź Eighties

editorial3 March 2020

Juliane Debeusscher

Tomasz Załuski’s comprehensive presentation “Lodz in the 1980s – The Local is Networked” immersed us into the atmosphere of the local cultural scene of the decade. With the introduction of martial law on December 1981, artistic initiatives sought to explore a “third way” far from any political, religious and even artistic authority – and, possibly, ridiculing it. The idea of “embarrassing art” invented by Łódź Kaliska epitomises this attitude of anarchism, surrealism and self-mockery, promoting art as “unfruitful, insignificant, stupid, uninteresting, unconstructive, incoherent” (and so on…).

Particularly interesting to me were the critical discussion on the authoritative position and legacy of the neo-avant-garde of the 1970s and the emblematic phenomena of the “Pitch-In-Culture.” Understood primarily as a means of collecting money for alcohol (vodka) and food, it manifested itself through gatherings, performances, screenings and exhibitions in private locations, like the Attic (Strych) run by Łódź Kaliska. While many projects focused on black humour, absurdity and excess, they also reflected a sense of community, self-organisation as well trans-generational and transnational cooperation that could provide a ground for a fruitful comparison or dialogue with other Eastern European initiatives of that time.

Such communal experience was not devoid of agonistic dimension, as Tomasz remarked. No consensus around common principles, but rather a particular form of “atomization” – also evoked by Piotr Rypson in Warsaw – that allowed these practices to survive under martial law and even be continued in other forms after the system’s change in the 1990s.

PRL – GDR

editorial3 March 2020

Constanze Fritzsch

A local art history and mapping of the art scene of a single city can be very problematic because of flattened art history that proposes only a very narrow narration. Nevertheless, as in translocal, comparative art history the scale plays an important role, the art history of a region or a city may permit a comparison that otherwise would not be possible as in the case of Poland and GDR. A Polish, East-German comparison is especially challenging because of the lack of significant translocal exchanges or networks as well as different chronologies due to different socio-political settings. The presentation of the Łodź art scene of the 1980s by Tomasz Zaluski provided a common ground for parallels of the art scenes of Łodź, Leipzig and Dresden beyond a strict chronology and without neglecting the very specific context. Parallels can be drawn and studied between the necessary irony and sarcasm to deal and face an over-ideologized everyday life and a disastrous economic situation in the exhibitions of the Eigen + Art Gallery or the performances of the Auto-Perforations-Artisten. As a result, in parts of all three art scenes the art practices are characterized by a disillusionment with the socialist project and a network of private initiatives, as the production of Super film in Dresden or the different groups around A.R. Penck shows. Moreover, the church serves not only as a host for art events, but also as a spiritual resource and biographical background for artists like f. e. Else Gabriel (member of the Auto-Perforations-Artisten) as well as a platform which would allow a forum to debate and communicate. This analyze of similarities can be embedded in a Europe-wide art history of tendencies, characteristics and issues of the art of the 1980s.

Sounds of the Underground

editorial3 March 2020

Johana Lomová

In his talk Daniel Muzyczuk (a curator at the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź) presented research behind two exhibitions that he had prepared together with David Crowley. Sounding the body electric mapped connections of sound and visual culture in Eastern Europe, and Notes from the underground concentrated on the underground culture where music and visual arts has merged. A few important issues came out during the presentation. Besides the regional interest of both curators in Eastern Europe that included Russia (St. Petersburg has a special place in their research), we have been introduced to a different time frame for research of culture under socialist politics as the second mentioned exhibition ended in 1994. In this way Muzyczuk and Crowley were able to show how the underground culture reacted to a new political regime. A rather provocative thesis of connection between neoprimitivism and right-wing radicalism opened a discussion and our attention was drawn towards a concept of overidentification, politics of self-representation and other. The blurriness of the boundary in between official and unofficial art (or rather the uselessness of this division) was illustrated by the fact that a number of nonconformist artists did have an artistic licence.

Deterritorialising Modernity

editorial3 March 2020

Asja Mandić

After the group seminar and thought-provoking presentations in Museum Sztuki/MS 1, the group headed to the newest museum branch, MS 2 for a guided tour with Joanna Sokolowska who showed us the museum collection through the Atlas of Modernity exhibition.

The venue, located inside Manufactura, the former 19th century factory complex, now the city’s main touristic hub, associates the museum to the world of spectacle, entertainment and leisure culture of the post-industrial consumer society. Enveloped in the redbrick, it does retain the image of the mill factory, nevertheless the interior gallery spaces are somewhat conscious of the modern white cube. Atlas of Modernity reflects a similar mode. Modernity, the ideas about it and the experience of modernity in the 20th century art as well as its traces in recent artistic practices, as the main conceptual framework of this show, directs presentation of national as well as international pieces from the collection. Rather than providing an historical overview of modern art in Poland, the exhibition pinpoints several themes, like the points in an atlas or a map, among which are machine, progress, capital, revolution, emancipation, but also autonomy and the self. Arranged in a manner to correspond to this web of ideas or fragments of modernity, the works from various media, time periods as well as stylistic features, make very interesting juxtapositions.

This inspiring museum visit brought us back to some questions addressed in our previous discussions, such as relationship between socialism and modernisation, issues of socialist modernity… as well as to the notion that “socialism and modernity do coexist”. (Tomáš Pospiszyl)

Galeria Wschodnia

editorial3 March 2020

Hana Buddeus

After an intensive day spent at Muzeum Sztuki, we were happy to go out and experience the reality of the post-industrial atmosphere of the city of Łódź. During a visit to the Galeria Wschodnia, we were presented with an opportunity to zoom in on the image of the 1980s Łódź art scene, which we had been introduced to through the presentations that morning.

The gallery – established in the early 1980s and one of the oldest artist-run spaces in Poland – is still situated in the same location, an old apartment building on Wschodnia street. It consists of two gallery rooms, a guest room used by artists in residence, and a kitchen, the place of social interaction, under the reign of a cat, Benek, who has experienced the gallery’s entire long history. Adam Klimczak, one of the two artists who has run the space from the very beginning, was kind enough to not only show us the current exhibition but also let us enter the kitchen, where he recounted some of the adventures connected to the place. A recently published book Galeria Wschodnia. Dokumenty 1984-2017 / Documents 1984-2017, edited by Tomasz Załuski, confirms (and reassesses) the historical importance of the space.

Museum in Process

editorial3 March 2020

Agata Pietrasik

During our visit to Muzeum Sztuki in Lodz the Confrontations group had a chance to see the highlights of the collection of Muzeum Sztuki, as well as reflect on the history of the institution. We began our tour with visiting the most famous part of the museum – the Neoplastic Room designed by the pioneer of Polish avant-garde Władysław Strzmiński. Daniel Muzyczuk, curator at the Muzeum Sztuki, presented the complicated history of the space, which was opened in 1948, destroyed only two years later due to introduction of socialist realism, and eventually re-created in 1960.

We also discussed how museum tries to activate the space with interventions by contemporary artists. We also paid a visit to the Museum’s library, which is one of the oldest art libraries in Poland and possesses many unique books and documents. Some of them were on display. For example, we could read a letter to Strzemiński written by his Jewish colleague Jozef Kowner. The letter resonated strongly with the earlier lecture by Luiza Nader.

Our group was taken away by the visit to museum’s storage rooms, where we could see a fascinating combination of artistic practices: avant-garde artworks of Karol Hiller, socialist realist paintings by Wojciech Fangor and rarely exhibited 1949 Strzeminski’s sketch for the Egzotyczna cafe in Lodz.

Touring Muzeum Sztuki

editorial3 March 2020

Marta Zboralska

At Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, Maciej Cholewiński introduced us to the institution’s library collections. They include the personal correspondence of key figures in twentieth-century Polish art, a selection of which was on display inside a dedicated vitrine. Maciej also hand-picked other archival materials relevant to the interests of our group – such as the pamphlet issued by the Łódź branch of Solidarity for Construction in Process, the 1981 exhibition discussed during the presentations the day before.

We then had the privilege of being shown around the museum’s open storage by Paulina Kurc-Maj. Few of the paintings we saw were straight-forwardly Socialist Realist, instead complicating the coherence of this category. Some of the period’s inherent contradictions were exemplified by Władysław Strzemiński’s study for a wall relief entitled Colonial Exploitation, made during 1949: the year that both followed the opening and preceded the destruction of the famous Neoplastic Room. As we toured the Room’s reconstruction with Daniel Muzyczuk, we had the opportunity to reflect on the historical intersections of figuration and abstraction – or the plasticity of this very dichotomy.

Complexity

editorial3 March 2020

Gregor Taul

After a week of inspiring meetings and discussions we sat down for the closing session to phrase some of the overriding questions we had been so far trying to find answers to. The following list of inquiries, by no means conclusive, offers also a practical introduction to our last gathering in Paris and London: Where is transnational art history being done? What is the relationship between national and transnational art history? How to come up with meaningful terms for comparison? Are we looking for similarities or differences? Who has the right to write comparative art history? Do we actually need national art histories? How to avoid simplifications? How to avoid the appeal of the Other? How important are political events for comparative art history? What is the role of art museums and national collections in telling transnational art histories? Which museological approach is most up to date?

Exchange Gallery

editorial3 March 2020

Pavlína Morganová

As Tomasz Załuski put it in his essay On Art History and Its Advantages for Living, Józef Robakowski is a one-man institution: he is an extraordinary multimedia artist, gallerist and archivist at the same time. In 1979 he founded along with Małgorzata Potocka The Exchange Gallery. Located in their studio apartment on the 9th floor of the Łódź tenement building called Manhattan, it invited artist to exchange ideas in original presentations as well as all kinds of textual and visual archival records.

Now into his 80s, the artist accepted the group on Friday evening and generously answered all our questions about the history of the Workshop of Film Form, The Exchange Gallery and his own work. I was especially interested in the series of his famous films From My Window shot from the windows of the apartment from 1978 until 1990s. Robakowski started to film the series on film camera and later in 1980s switched to video camera. His apartment is not just witness of many artistic experiments, exchanges, exhibitions, but also the site of creation of his extraordinary audiovisual pieces.