NOTES ON ZIELONA GÓRA
Last autumn, the Biennale Zielona Góra opened amidst strict Corona regulations and attempted to build a bridge between the legacy of the local 60s Polish avant garde and the discontinued Biennale, which closed in 1993
As a collective, the curators developed not only exhibitions at various venues but also a dense programme of live events, which had to be adapted to this specific situation. Together with the curators, we take a look at the exhibition and its political implications.
AWC: Major art events and biennials had a much smaller outreach in 2020 due to the pandemic, the current economic crisis evolving from it. This allowed for greater attention on local events and communal values. Can you tell us how this shift influenced the curatorial process of the biennale? Was the first meeting of the Złote Grono also marked by this same social intimacy?
Romuald Demidenko: There is a huge gap between 2020 and the early 1960s, meaning that we’re not by any means peers to the pioneers of Złote Grono, but it’s a good question. Last year, just at the very beginning when we took off working on Zielona Góra Biennale we got to discuss how we could thoroughly disseminate the exhibition and its live features digitally and it was shortly before the lockdown. Let’s put it this way — Zielona Góra has a peculiar local context and position, being moderately close to the German border and at the same time being quite distant to many other cities in Poland, and so not too many people from outside are likely to attend events held there if not for relatives or friends of the artists, or gallerists involved in certain ventures. So, long story short, it was the first lockdown which coincided with our most hectic meet-up sessions when we tried to weave and schedule our exhibitions and public programme for the fall. That being said, we anticipated we could end up in another lockdown and limited physical contact with the audience and little interactions with artists. And of course, when you work with artists and other curators, the idea of connection and the need of making sense when articulating your thoughts and purposes is very strong, and thus working solely through the screens requires a different approach, but then — isn’t it something we get to be accustomed to over time?
Dorota Jagoda Michalska: Since the very start of our work, we were keenly aware of the social, mental and economic alienation and isolation brought by the pandemic. Because of this, we felt a renewed urgency to reach out, keep the dialogues going, be there for each other in whatever form was possible. Especially in those first months, art became a platform, a shared space which we turned towards to maintain a sense of connection. After a year into the pandemic, I am seeing the emergence of new forms of working, thinking and being together in the arts. Reading groups, seminars, talks have taken precedence over more traditional formats such as exhibitions. People have a greater need to simply be there, share their ideas and struggles. Those online forms have also made it easier for people from smaller, more isolated places to be in touch with those of us working in bigger cities. As many of us, I do struggle with the “zoomification” of our lives, however, I also see how this has made possible to forge completely new collectives, networks and groups.
AWC: The last edition of the Biennale took place a long time ago - in 1996 - in the midst of an extreme socio political situation in Poland: A systemic and mental transformation, mass unemployment and emigration. 24 years later, all of Europe is in a crisis with no clear means of escape. How does this affect culture-makers and do you think this time gives an opportunity to try out new forms of collectivity?
RD: I believe Zielona Góra knows much more about late capitalism than collectivity, even if collective spirit was so present here back in the day. Certainly, the transformation has left people struggling as they would be starting from scratch and landing a job in the, say mid-1990s which was entirely different or unimaginable, and sadly many did not manage to make their ends. And after that, around 2004, when Poland was entering the EU, it was widely discussed whether to enter or not, take and contribute, lose and win. And we still have to respond to these questions. One cannot overlook the fact that to work within the field of contemporary art you have to be quite self-sustainable if not economically then at least in an emotional dimension, coping with the pressure of staying visible, being creative and still be up to new opportunities. Therefore as I assume we still have to look back to derive from the past when thinking of the present. A certain nostalgia for something unspeakable and forgotten is to be found in the works of Poland-born Przemek Pyszczek who was raised in Canada and after having lived about ten years in Berlin he decided to move to a little town about 40 minutes drive away from Zielona Góra. We had shown his work in the framework of one of the exhibitions coinciding with the main exhibition titled All She Said About the Future. His sculptural installations are directly inspired by the metal constructions found at playgrounds anywhere in Poland in the 1980s or 1990s if not later. The metal spatial ‘drawings’ being covered with layers of paint in pale or vivid colours, were hidden behind a university library, facing one of the wild parks, allegedly a cruising area from the past. To me Zielona Góra is a model mid-large city or big towns with presumably lesser infrastructural backroom or less amount of big businesses while having more small businesses, and a well-developed private sector. And this is what puts many people living in places such as this one in front of a question whether staying somewhere or leaving. But because of its specific location Biennale Zielona Góra has more of a regional dimension and it’s really hard to speak in general sense about bigger notions such as Poland or Europe, as it’s got a quite undefined ambiance. I would say that the need of collectivity has appeared only in the last two decades because of some concrete figures and actors actively working in the field of contemporary art and reflection such as BWA Zielona Góra, or the Institute of Visual Arts at the local university, but also other entities namely Fundacja Salony supporting local artists and touching upon the civic awareness in the framework of its projects.
DJM: This is an extremely interesting time for Eastern Europe. We are seeing global changes affecting the whole world-system. A reshaping of the core-peripheries structure is happening. What is the role of the region in a reality where the East-West divide is being rearticulated along the lines North-South? All the historical frameworks that have defined Eastern Europe - the II World War, the Communist period - are slowly fading, giving way to a new contemporaneity defined by a different geopolitics. For instance, I am especially interested in the influence of Chinese capital in Poland as well as the presence of Asian migrant communities. Eastern Europe is losing its’ post-Soviet identity and joining the ranks of global peripheries.
AWC: Trying to capture the contemporary state of Zielena Góra, I would like to know - why do you relate to the 60s and the first Biennial in Zielona Góra in 1985? Is this place a seismograph of disruption?
RD: First off, we assumed from the initial point that we want to look critically at the early years of Złote Grono, even if it was not something we were willing to only praise. But weaving our plans for exhibitions and public programme for the Biennale Zielona Góra, we were looking at how interestingly in the past it was about bringing people together and very often holding discursive formats or blending other formats, and merging exhibitions and symposia, as well as there were other plein-airs as it was almost ubiquitous at that time, like a getaway for avant-garde artists seeking to experiment, or basically hang out with other fellow artists and critics. Even by looking at events occurring at that time, we can clearly see how their concepts were articulated in such a way that even from today’s perspective they can seem relevant to some degree and could potentially be revisited especially in the local context. To give an example, the 1975 edition of Złote Grono occurred under the slogan „Przestrzeń człowieka” [Human Space], being an interdisciplinary encounter between artists and researchers looking at what we would call today ecological reflection of the everyday and the role of artists using different resources to work with. Another, which took place earlier, meditated on the city of tomorrow, to put it this way and was entitled “Przestrzeń i wyraz” [Space and Expression], taking place in 1967, which — apart from an exhibition of the Groupe International d'Architecture Prospective (GIAP) and including visionary architects or artists like Yona Friedman — also had seen a remarkable venture, well-inscribed in the local art history, that is an immersive installation by Henryk Morel and Piotr Perepłyś, marking a radical spatial statement at the local museum (Muzeum Ziemi Lubuskiej / Lubusz Land Museum), which was undergoing a solid renovation at that time. What I personally find interesting in the format of a biennale, instead of being a static exhibition, is that it’s more of a mobile vitrine parceled to different locations and this is how I reflected on our curatorial work as a team of four, where no clear divisions would be seen, and more of a dialogue and mediation would have been proposed instead. If we were not responding directly to these past events we were again discussing them and their relevance.
DJM: We try to recuperate those past initiatives, but at the same time to radically reframe them. Among my contributions to the Biennale, there is the text Vertigo. A Decolonial Biennale at the Edge of Western Europe which offers a new interpretation of the exhibition “Przestrzeń i wyraz” [Space and Expression] from 1967. I see this project as an attempt to formulate a decolonial language which would go beyond both capitalist and Soviet modernity. Is it possible to formulate a kind of “border thinking” which would position Zielona Gora beyond the West-East divide? This question seems especially relevant now, when this division is losing importance compared to the North-South narration. Similarly, the show from 1985 can be seen as the last enunciation of the Soviet geopolitical order. So we were interested in those pivotal moments when the status of the city - and often of the country itself - was undergoing radical shifts.
AWC: Many members (almost everyone?) of your team are based in the city, and in addition to the exhibition venues, the art academy offers not only exchange, but also jobs for cultural workers who can be active in the region. How do you assess the impact of the Biennale and the accompanying programme on the local art scene?
RD: Ever since we started working as a team we knew we would be looking at the city and its past from distinct venture points, be it because of our different backgrounds or affinities with the past. Speaking of the differences just to briefly introduce: Alicja Lewicka-Szczegóła is an active artist and has lectured at the Institute of Visual Arts almost since its initiation in the mid-1990s, Wojciech Kozłowski who has since many years served as director of BWA Zielona Góra known for his dedication to the city, yet his perspective is built upon looking beyond and a strong networking attitude. And finally, Tomek who has more of a freelance path as a curator and initiator of exhibitions and encounters, with whom and together with Aurelia Nowak I also co-curated the Open Triennale at the Centre for Polish Sculpture in Orońsko three years ago, As for me, I am originally from Zielona Góra, but have moved several places recently and therefore my perspective on what local means is rather aberrated. On top of that, we worked together with Dorota Jagoda Michalska as researcher and consultant who had ultimately influenced some of our choices. And last but not least, the researcher and art historian Ania Batko who joined the team at a later stage to focus on our publication and worked closely with our amazing Berlin-based three-headed graphic designer Karolina Pietrzyk, Gilbert Schneider and Tobias Wenig.
AWC: The exhibition feeds on the juxtapositions of historical and contemporary positions without a sense of distance between them. How did you translate this experience into the upcoming publication?
Ania Batko: At the beginning, we wanted the publication to consist of two parts combined by photographic documentation. On one hand, the narration was supposed to go from the past to the future, and on the other hand, the opposite. I still like this idea, however while working, we decided to change the concept. Also because of the very hybrid and distinctive form of the past futures. In the end, this nonlinearity of time turned out to be much more interesting than the previous approach, it emphasized the aesthetic resemblance, but also the meanings that were often created at the junction positions of two temporalities. Anna Gapińska-Myszkiewicz's quite dreadful painting played well with Dominika Olszowy’s ghostly installation, adding some sticky sweetness to it, but also evoking romantic ghosts of the history. It was similar with alchemical works by Piotr Łakomy and the painting by Erna Rosenstein from the 1960s, or Inside Job’s environment. This installation was composed not only of rubble, but also of archival artworks taken from museum storages. The specific link between past and present is the painting by Zbigniew Szymoniak from 1981. The artist who was also one of the initiators of the New Art Biennale. The concept of this work was a gesture of adding a date each time whilst it was displayed, but this time Szymoniak not only painted the date, but also added a declaration of love. The testimony of religious conversion that he experienced a few years ago. I think that the publication, more than a catalogue, resembles a kind of sketchbook, collage of the pasts and the futures. We wanted the structure of the openness, to emphasize not only dogmas, but the process. Apart from the artworks presented on Biennale, we also show sketches, inspirations and practices that have not been shown before, so to speak, they are part of the leading theme. The artworks are accompanied by quotations that provide different contexts. For example Stanisław Antosz, when he settled in Zielona Góra, painted symbolic and a bit kitschy landscapes, but earlier with his girlfriend Andzia he created totally slapstick videos inspired by Western action cinema. This discrepancy brings to mind the dialectics of utopia and dystopia, but also futurological visions and ambiguous versions of the past. It asks who we are and from what positions we speak, but does not give a single answer. It forces you to put it back together with these scraps.
AWC: Maja ∀. Ngom´s work, which deals with otherness and exoticisation, differs from the above description. How do you deal with otherness in a country for which it is new both on a practical and discursive level?
RD: Like many works in the show, Sweet Taste of Otherness was alluring and not so obvious. The installation was composed of different elements, such as plants with names suggesting having originated from elsewhere and being invasive or migrant, or having to do with something obscure, ie. ‘Wandering Jew’ or ‘Black Magic’, the plants were also in beautiful dark ceramic pots resembling body parts in their shape. Not to mention all of the features in the room and decipher their meaning, Maja ∀. Ngom who is of Senegal-Polish origins has been working on transposing the language of the ‘other’ in close relation to her upbringing in Poland which is to a large extent a homogenic nation to put it subtly as someone not fitting to clear descriptions when it comes to her skin colour. And so, the installation comprises of different associations to the language of racism, or xenophobia embedded in quotidian life and its jargon being used widely and only recently being examined in the public sphere after the last year’s Black Lives Matter marches when finally Black or Brown persons in Poland had a chance to speak or publicise and being listened to when they spoke out their reflections on experiencing racism and constant reluctance, be it aware or not, from a society so white as in this case. The work presented in the framework of our event does not make any deal with anyone. It rather poses questions which already years ago should be asked. To me, it also examines the problem of being put alongside the objects by other artists, being the only ‘different’ in the room. It works very interestingly as it was located in a local museum, which in fact is a very non-cohesive venue housing a range of different items, spanning from mediaeval altars, paintings of disputable value from the end of the 19-th century, artefacts reminiscent of the local winery production, and finally great pieces of art from the 1960s-1970s being acquired or donated after the Złote Gronos editions, or else: curiosity objects such as ‘shameful stones’ used ages ago and other punishment and torture devices…
DJM: Troughout Polish history, there have been - and still are - many figures of the Other: the Jew, the queer, the immigrant. Each time, we witness a similar mechanism of violent dehumanization. Indeed, we seem to be dealing with a vicious circle with the same social mechanisms happening over and over again. Poland can be - especially now - an incredibly toxic place. Indeed, a lot of commentators are comparing the current situation to the climate of hate of the 1920s and 1930s. Many of our friends have decided to emigrate because they were unable to deal with the atmosphere of hate and widespread violence. While Poland is indeed slowly becoming more diverse, the price paid by those of us that decide to speak publicly about their non-normative identities can be very high. Indeed, the current social and political situation in Poland was among the main reasons why I decided to move to the UK.
AWC: What to expect from the next biennial in Zielona Góra?
RD: The question as well could be: how this first edition turned out to respond to the assignment from the beginning, which was to work with the past and look at the present. If we get to be lucky enough and receive positive feedback from the municipal authorities, as well as from the ministry of culture, pretty much being in the hands of a right-wing human algorithm at the moment! And then there’s still a great chance to continue, with more people onboard hopefully. The next edition should undoubtedly respond to other questions and dig further in the past, for instance towards the obscure years when some women or men were accused of witchcraft.
AB: The practice of witchcraft is deeply rooted in the history of Zielona Góra. The part of the Lubusz Museum is a torture exhibition dedicated to instruments of punishments, as well for witchery and heresy. I’m also fascinated by the tradition of the grape harvest, a folk festival that was revived in Zielona Góra after the Second World War. Wine is not only the city’s identity, but also a part of socialist propaganda and a myth commodified by capitalism. It’s a witch’s tool. Plato, who is the father of all rational philosophy, claimed that the best things we owe to madness, mad women from Delph who changed the world by drinking wine.