Stages of Public Art in Poland
Public art in Poland has only really started to develop again in the last ten years. During a time when the country’s democratisation and political transformation allowed such activities, the regional administrations saw them as a way to revitalise the cities, facilitate social integration, make the environment more aesthetically pleasing, create a local identity and stimulate social dialogue.
Artists like Joanna Rajkowska and Jarosław Kozakiewicz began working at the end of the 1990s and were later joined by younger artists like Maciej Kurak and Jakub Szczęsny. As sculptors and architects, they work internationally and present contextual art in public space. Murals and graffiti have become very popular in Poland over the last ten years. Polish municipal and cultural institutions soon became more interested in such activities. The political changes made it possible for Poland to return to a democratic Europe and to participate in the international art scene and culture exchange, for example with its Western neighbours. In an era of freedom of travel and with rapid advances in communication systems, the distance between countries became much shorter. Now it was possible to travel from Warsaw to Berlin in just six hours. This made it possible for people to get to know each other more quickly and exchange experiences. However, Poland is still not an attractive art market and has not become a country in which foreign artists would be keen to exhibit their work. Artists who do come to our country cannot expect to be adequately remunerated for their efforts. It is rather their curiosity and the quest for new experiences that make them come to Poland.
But Poland is far from being a no man’s land when it comes to art in public space. In the 1960s, Polish Modernists already began to produce contextual art. One attempt to promote art in public space was the Elbląg Biennale of spatial forms, which was organised in 1965 by the EL gallery in collaboration with a local company, Zamech, a producer of turbines, gear drives and heavy shipbuilding elements. The biennale took place five times, with the last in 1973. The result of the co-operation between artists and workers was a large number of mostly abstract sculptures and objects. The idea tied in with the Constructivist tradition which championed a rapprochement between art and technology, artists and workers, as well as between works of art and recipients. The intention was to organise urban space by creating abstract scrap metal sculptures with the help of factory workers. The biennale served the interests of Polish communists, who promoted such “fraternisation” with the working class and saw art as a harmless outlet for the “reining in” of the intelligentsia. Nevertheless, in this context a large number of objects and sculptures were created which belong to the earliest examples of Polish art in public space. Apart from the social concern, the biennale also had an educational one-the honing of people’s taste in art by immediate contact with sophisticated art. The Biennale for Metal Sculpture which took place in Warsaw in co-operation with the Kasprzak radio manufacturers had similar aims. Sixty spatial compositions were produced, of which some can still be seen in the Wola area of the Polish capital. Involved in these projects were members of the Polish avant-garde who quickly became inspired by Conceptual Art. Talks, manifestos, actions, photography and video art all became popular forms of artistic output. At the beginning of the 1970s art forms such as performance art and street theatre also gained in popularity. Despite the strained political situation, the 1980s saw several big international events which also comprised projects in public space. In 1981, just before the introduction of martial law, the “construction in process” took place in Lodz. The wave of enthusiasm for the Solidarność movement made artists team up with workers again, but this time against those in power. Artists like Richard Nonas or Sol LeWitt wistfully remember those halcyon days. In the second half of the 1980s, it became possible to organise two international art seminars in Warsaw with the cooperation of the Fluxus artist Emmett Williams. This entailed the creation of the Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw’s Ujazdowski Castle, which is one of the largest cultural centres in Poland.
The political upheaval in Poland after 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall brought about a more intensive exchange between Polish and international artists. One of the most unusual artists I have come across in this context is Thorsten Goldberg from Berlin, who in 2000 participated in the international exhibition project Intrigue and Provocation in Kaunas, Lithuania. On that occasion the artist showed a kinetic installation entitled Detached House. A monitor attached to a trolley runs along a track installed under the ceiling of the gallery space, hits the wall, then continues with this steady movement in the opposite direction, returning to the point of departure. A static video image shows a detached house in the German provinces. The video shows what happens in this place in real-time. Apart from the odd car going past, a cyclist, a grey cat and a black cat, a postman and the movement of the clouds in the sky, nothing much happens. It is boring and dull. The artist livens up this monotony by making the monitor collide mechanically with the wall. Its course, however, remains predictable and unavoidable just like the impact of the monitor. The art therefore has hardly any effect apart from a few dents in the gallery wall. At the same time, this installation is a socially relevant contribution to the discussion on the power and powerlessness of art. And although it is intended for presentation in exhibition spaces, it is also an example of art in public space.
Since 2000, Goldberg has shown his works several times in Poland, amongst other places in the Amfilada Gallery, in the National Museum in Szczecin, in the Arsenal Gallery in Białystok and in the XXI Gallery in Warsaw. His installation 3 Chinesen is a piece of visual poetry which consists of multicoloured pieces of toast that have been bitten into letter shapes and are covered in Nutella, jam and slices of German sausage. Together they spell out the words of a popular German nursery rhyme. These pieces of toast on the street and on the floor of the exhibition hall enraged a number of Polish visitors. They demanded that bread be treated respectfully and even put it in a sacral context, i.e. relating it to the Eucharist in Catholic mass. The installation was meant to be ironic, but unexpectedly provoked reactions to do with the cultural context of Catholic Poland.
In Context — Selected Works by Thorsten Goldberg
When Thorsten Goldberg provokes, it is a rather intellectual type of provocation, which is supposed to encourage the spectator to analyse and investigate specific areas of reality. His works can be interpreted on different visual and semantic levels. They tie in with many different aspects of the surrounding area, the geography, local history or the group for which they were created. They are more “context-specific” than “site-specific”. A great number of factors may affect a work of art in outside space: social and political events, the official language and the type of surroundings. Goldberg closely examines this space before he embarks on a project. He wants experts from different disciplines to work with him in order for his work to be perfectly attuned to the given space and to enable his observations and analyses of the location to be transferred. By using symbols, signs and allusions he subtly hints at experiences, emotions and sensibilities. His works, even the openly critical ones, are not intended for superficial provocation. The artist emphasises synergies and cleverly draws the spectators’ attention to those aspects of reality that are important to him. He suggests possible solutions, calls for harmony and tries to make us dream and sometimes even laugh.
Every night on a bridge in Berlin, the Oberbaumbrücke, neon signs light up which Thorsten Goldberg installed there in December 1997. The bridge, which was built at the end of the 19th century to replace an earlier wooden one, has always been a regional and administrative border point and still remains one of the city’s most important traffic hubs. Cars, bicycles, pedestrians, and also trams and underground trains convey a continuous stream of people across the river. The bridge is a “time document, for bourgeois as well as imperial Berlin, of the antagonism typical of the late 19th century between the desire for metropolitan modernity and a deep-seated conservatism.”(1) During the reign of Friedrich Wilhelm I. the construction, built on logs, was the border between Berlin and Cölln. Its design and decoration were unique. Today the Neogothic building, designed by Otto Stahn, connects the Berlin districts of Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain and has become a landmark of the city whose bridges are said to outnumber those of Venice.
In 1945 Hitler ordered the bridge to be blown up and in the 1950s it underwent makeshift reconstruction. As a result nearly all traffic across the bridge stopped during the Cold War. It became a barrier between East and West Berlin across which “coming from the East was a small trickle of OAPs old enough to be allowed to leave”, who were exchanged on the other side for “an even smaller trickle of people from West Berlin…”.(2) In the 1990s the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava restored the bridge and gave it a new centrepiece which added a new quality to its historic shape. The original elevated railway bridge structure was also refurbished. Furthermore, on both sides of the new centrepiece, Thorsten Goldberg’s light objects were installed which show the movements of the well-known children’s game “Rockpaper-scissors”. On the spandrels of the steel girders, between the two towers above the central shipping lane, powered by random generators, two out of three possible hand gestures light up every six seconds, permanently trying to win a game that cannot be won. The objects which are supposed to appear as normal as traffic signs, have become an integral part of the historic bridge.
At the same time, the light objects, installed 30m above the surface of the water, point to the eight glass mosaic city arms of the Brandenburg cities of Küstrin, Stendal, Brandenburg, Potsdam, Prenzlau, Frankfurt a. O., Salzwedel and Ruppin, which can also be found on the reconstructed post-war bridge. The simple and apparently harmless game of “Rock-paper-scissors” represents two people communicating with each other without recourse to violence. “The game which combines chance and inevitable decisions is a metaphor for the predicament of the people of Berlin, who were involuntarily involved in a hopeless situation and enslaved by the borders.”(3) The project on the Oberbaumbrücke, at the former border between East and West, reconnects both sides, each of which was seen as a symbol of the “other”. Thorsten Goldberg seems to tell us that the game played continuously cannot be won by either side.
Another of his works in public space which has, however, not been realised, is Die Potsdamer. The film about a Berlin street, Potsdamer Straße, is a kind of homage to it and its aim is to appreciate its history and give a unique opportunity to its residents to see their city in a new way. Potsdamer Straße is normally a loud and busy street. Everybody is always rushing off somewhere. “The Potsdamer Straße is no magnificent avenue where you show off your new clothes,” says Thorsten Goldberg. “Mothers and daughters would not walk down it arm in arm for some window shopping. Nobody strolls along it and nobody stands around just looking, although there’s a lot to see — nobody stands still here at all. Here everybody has something to do. Resting and relaxing is not part of it. (…) This animated chaos, the nice mixture of shops, the visible presence of residents from all over the world lend it a certain quality which makes it very different from other Berlin thoroughfares (like for example Unter den Linden, Kurfürstendamm, Frankfurter Allee).”(4) At the same time, the old magic is still alive, dating back to the halcyon days of the street, when it was part of a bridle path leading from the Berlin Stadtschloss to Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam.
The artist suggests stopping the traffic on the street for an entire day and wants to film a female rider in full jockey regalia, slowly making her way along the 1.8 km route. During this time the street is cleared, it is peaceful, there is no-one. This event is totally different from the usual daily noise and frenzy. It was planned to involve the street’s residents and give them the opportunity to experience their street without the normal daily buzz. Social cohesion would have been achieved by all residents working together in preparing for the project. The street in a state of full expectation — this is an unusual situation and the dream of all residents. Once the film was finished, it would be shown on an LED screen mounted high above the street. It is intended as a present to all residents of Berlin who themselves move about their city like tourists. The petite female rider is a counter-quotation to heroic war statues which represent power in countries worldwide, like for example the equestrian statue of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Tranquillity wants to be interpreted as an event. The artist offers us a moment of relaxation, a break in the middle of all this commotion, a reflection on our surroundings and their history as well as on the reasons for our rushing around. Such projects can be found in contemporary art more and more. Projects which are based on the desire for a slower pace of life, on breaking the circle of work, consumption, fun and rapid impressions. They are characterised by the desire to get the balance right. Thorsten Goldberg gives us the opportunity to dream about an ideal world whose vision he develops in his art.
(1) Maria and Ludwig Deiters: Berlin baut, no. 18.
(2) Karl Schlögel: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 3. 12. 1994.
(3) Anna Krenz: Potencjał pustki. Berlin jako miasto biedne, ale seksowne. Biblioteka wizerunku miasta: miejskie powitanie. Warsaw 2007, p. 9.
(4) http://www.potsdamerstrasse.com/files/ort.html, 2012.