Polish contemporary art doesn’t aim for esthetics. Much of the time, what you encounter are pieces that seem more the product of a potato-vodka hallucination than a carefully planned set of brush strokes. The thing to remember about Polish art is that the Poles are messed up–they’re still waiting for their Golden Age. The partitions, the Holocaust, the Communists and the current sickly democratic environment have transformed Polish art into a political medium. Contemporary Polish paintings and sculptures, with an ever-present hint of the irrational, are a means of social discourse. They are not Sotheby’s collector’s items.
Which is why "Architectures of Gender: Contemporary Women’s Art in Poland", sponsored by the Polish Cultural Institute, works so well here in New York City. What better way to materialize the psyche of the Polish feminist than in an old trolley repair shop smack in the middle of a Queens industrial park? The exhibit, on display through June 8 at the SculptureCenter in Long Island City, is the first major showing of Polish female artists in New York.
The 16 participants, handpicked by curator Aneta Szylak, represent a multigenerational spectrum of Polish women whose works not only "gender" space, but also contain universal themes about sexuality and relationships with men. In the case of the SculptureCenter’s new facility, in use since December 2002, the question is how the artist can express herself while working in a concrete basement full of water pipes and exposed wires.
"The move to this new space follows the American trend of using factories as contemporary art galleries," says Szylak, who in 1998 founded the Center for Contemporary Art "Laznia" in Gdansk, Poland. "This move to a new space ties in with the main theme of this exhibit. Many of the artists here are examining how we interact with the space around us, how we adapt ourselves to it.
"The artists use different means–sound, light, video–to transform space around them. As a result, we, the viewers, get a different sense of the space around us. Our bodies react to the change in ambience of space."
Izabella Gustowska’s Passions and Other Cases actually changes according to the conditions around the display. In the main space of the gallery, three table-sized pods containing alien-green video projections of kissing couples open and close through motion detectors. Like a Venus flytrap, each pod senses the surrounding movement and reacts based on the condition of the space.
Dominika Skutnik’s basement display looks like a giant gyros cone made of speaker wire. By passing a current through it, the piece comes to life with the humming of an electrical field within. The eerie thing about Skutnik’s piece is that it blends in so well with the dank, unfinished cellar. Viewers forget they’re at an art gallery. Instead, they’ve entered some mad scientist’s underground laboratory.
Szylak’s ensemble highlights the achievements of female artists over the last 30 years. In Poland, contemporary art has been dominated by men. The first real display dedicated solely to Polish feminist art only took place in 1978 and was organized by Natalia LL, who is part of Szylak’s group. Natalia LL was the first Polish artist to join the international feminist artists’ movement in the mid-1970s and helped develop feminist issues in Polish art.
The slow evolution of feminist art in Poland can be attributed to the slow evolution of feminism itself in Poland. Polish feminists never burned bras or marched for women’s suffrage. After World War II, the Communist government granted women the right to do anything they wanted; everyone was a comrade, everyone was equal, and everyone was expected to do their part for the state.
"For the Polish woman, she could work in the factory or in the office just like her male counterpart," says Natalia LL. "But there still remained the maternal responsibilities. Polish women were still expected to be mothers while balancing their working lives. In Poland, there are still strong cultural expectations of the Polish mother."
Natalia LL’s Hortus Eroticus, a photographic display in the basement area, is based on the anthurium, a flower with a striking resemblance to the male reproductive organ. The long sheets of black-and-white prints are set up as an ebbing wave, representing the mortal life cycle of a human being–a life cycle that is not complete without the presence of the opposite sex.
"Eroticism is not only about the body and the act," Natalia LL says. "The idea is to depict eroticism and sex without using the human body. And though it may seem that only one sex is depicted, there is always the understanding, the implication, that the one sexuality cannot exist without the other. The being cannot exist without both the male and female."
Another artist who explores sexuality with her use of space is Dorota Nieznalska. In Omnipotence, Gender: Male, she transforms her corner into a weight-lifting facility complete with a black mat, mirrors and bars for doing chin-ups. But the dim red lighting and recording of grunting men lifting weights give the impression of other muscle-building activities.
"My work focuses on how to be a ‘man’ in these times," says Nieznalska, who is one of the younger artists on display. "A man has to have a perfect body. He has to be good looking because women expect beautiful men. The entire piece is meant as an observation on male sexual omnipotence."
As with all contemporary art, this exhibit isn’t for those who expect pretty pictures of sunflowers and ballerinas. There’s a place called the Met for that. "Architectures of Gender" explores the "diversity of attitudes and interest of Polish women artists within the context of the politics and social dynamics of the past decade, with reference to the history of the last 30 years."
"Some pieces work even better here because the issues they touch upon are issues still controversial back in Poland," says Szylak. "For example, gay and lesbian issues are recognized in a different way here in New York. People are more tolerant here.
"More recently, with the democratic changes in Poland, art plays a role in social discourse. Artists no longer practice modernist escapism as before when they remained on the edge of society. They are more about getting back to talking about important topics."
In other words, you’re going to see someone planting a garden at Court House Square. You’ll see a whole room full of those rainbow streamers that come shooting out of those little plastic bottles when you pull the string. And, by golly, you’ll definitely see some penis.