I haven’t written for a while, I’ve been busy adjusting to the time, climate and cultural differences between North America and Europe. I’m currently residing, however briefly, in the Upper Silesia region of southern Poland, where I was born, partially raised and where most of my family still lives. Today and yesterday I had the distinct privilege to go ‘gallery-hopping’ as it were, with my uncle who is very involved in the artistic scene here as a renowned photographer [marek beblot]. It was amazing to see a gem of culture in this dirty and poor pocket of the world, full of deserted industrial spaces and crumbling antique buildings (which would be beautiful if they had been kept from destitution and the polluted surroundings). I am amazed and astounded by the level of artistic production in an area which seems frozen in time, and not in the best sense of the phrase. The production, in my eyes, is one of raw artistic expression which is perhaps a bit passé in the west nowadays. However, I think the works and the creations of the artists cannot be read in the contexts of the Anglo-centric western cannon, one must understand that the idea of free expression is relatively new in this area of the world, and the idea of the artist as we (westerners) see him, as a lone genius, is new and still being adapted to a culture where the people have, for almost a century, been told to serve the ‘greater good’ of the proletariat in every area of life.
Yesterday, we went to the Sielecki castle in Sosnowiec. It’s a wonderful place, a beautifully restored castle from the middle ages now used as an exhibition space. A very apt place for the exhibition which it housed (until the 17th January 2010) called “Pocztówki Sosnowca” (Postcards of Sosnowiec). It’s the resulting exhibition of a photographic competition for amateurs and professionals alike, where the only guidelines were that the photos must be of the greater Sosnowiec area, a poor and dilapidated city, but one where beauty can still be found. The photos ranged from a portrayal of rare pockets of brilliance in old castles and sleek new architecture to an expression of the desperation of this area – in shots of crumbling factories and mining complexes to peeling paint on the doors of fragmenting residential places. The whole exhibition was amazing, and kudos must be paid to the curator. Instead of a catalogue, the exhibition was recorded in a series of postcards given out to visitors, a very innovative and apt idea linking in the title of the exhibition itself into a physical object. As an aside, the lovely lady who received us at the reception was so kind, giving us amazing printed matter not only about the exhibition, but about the art and architecture of the region, both contemporary and historical.
Today we headed to Nikiszowiec, an outer suburb of Katowice (a town close to my heart, as it is where I was born). It seems to have changed little in the last century, an area full of old red-brick buildings in medieval styles, with windows painted red (in the Silesian custom). A very photogenic area. However, we didn’t stay long. We headed closer to the centre of Katowice to the Galeria Szyb Wilson (Any translation has me puzzled). The exhibition space is HUGE as the building used to be part of the mining complex which the area was famous for, before the reserves of coal were exhausted. The entrance hall was really stunning, and a portrait of Lenin in a Santa hat greeted visitors, as well as a statue of a jazz pianist chained to grand piano, topped with a somewhat disturbing dismembered mannequin, amongst mixed-media and found-object works. The first (somewhat smaller hall) was lined with contemporary paintings on both the lower and mezzanine levels. In the middle was an amazing wooden statue which I think exemplifies contemporary work in Poland – the struggle of self-expression coupled with the expression of weighty, interesting, long and tragic national history – a lot of which contemporary artists remember and have experienced firsthand (most people, even of my generation, remember the end of communism, the inflation and the food-shortages).
The second (main) hall was lined with painting and photographic work while large-scale canvases were suspended over the immense interior of the space. The lighting of the area is perfect with huge windows, almost floor-to-ceiling, at one end of the space. All around the hall are smaller spaces for site-specific installations. One was painted a candy-purple and a reflection of contemporary consumer culture clashing with religion and traditional spiritual values, another was a red and gold communist indoctrination chamber while another still contained medical instruments and technology wrapped in saran-wrap creating the illusion of a massive, glossy spider web. Others were simply a continuation of the work in the main hall. The works struck me as very raw, expressive and loaded with cultural and personal histories, a trend in postmodernism world-wide. However, my personal connection with the culture and interest in the history of Eastern Europe made these works all the more enthralling and remarkable.
Last on the docket for the day was a trip to the Rondo Sztuki (Square of Fine Art – own translation) at the very heart of Katowice. Having studied and watched some of the films of David Lynch before (and being quite a fan), I was beside myself that I was lucky enough to be there for an exhibition of David Lynch’s prints and photography. The prints and his video installation had the same grittiness that I noticed in the works I’d seen earlier, and of course loaded with surrealist symbolism and references to psychoanalysis, violence and sexuality. However, it is his photography that stood out most to me. The series ‘Distorted Nude’ was by far my favourite, although quite disconcerting, as it showed nude bodies with strange objects in various orifices, not to mention orifices which are not present on the human body (holes in torsos and the like). What was perhaps the most disturbing were the images of floating biomorphic forms in a wall-papered room – very clearly echoing the work of past surrealists from the first half of the 20th century.
On the upper level of the Rondo Sztuki, there was an exhibition called Hotel Landszaft, which was pretty stunning. A collection of 7 ‘hotel’ rooms, filled with site-specific installations by 7 contemporary artists, inspired by the works of David Lynch. It was pretty fantastic to see how differently the work of one artist can be interpreted by other artists. Plus, I really enjoy the total immersion of the spectator in site-specific works and big installations. They allow for a more direct communication between the artist and the audience. Plus, it frees the artist from the limits of a ‘canvas’ and allows more freedom to play with space and image as interacting and intersecting principles.
Having always seen possibly the worst parts of the region, it was a relief and it instilled some hope in me to see some progressive contemporary culture and artistic development. I can’t help but wonder why I see this developing with such fervour in this corner of the globe, more so than in all my other travels. Perhaps I have seen things that are really current and not yet established or institutionalised, through the help of my uncle as my guide for the day. Perhaps it is because there is much to express, as the country, culture and society are in a strange and terrifying threshold, which could give way to a new golden age or yet another era of hardship. Perhaps, having seen more drastic change than most westerners, the people have more to express. Perhaps they enjoy the freedom of expression and use it to its full potential, while we, in the west, take it for granted and assume it as a natural right, rather than a privilege of location. I’m sure there are many different explanations that could and will be put forward by anthropologists, historians, theorists, sociologists and psychologists. All I know is that these galleries have filled me with hope and pride and that I can say, with total conviction, that this is an area of the globe to be watched and it would be a great loss if this mass of artistic production was overlooked by the Anglophonic world.
Yours truly enjoying the work of David Lynch [photo by Marek Beblot]