Power Games: Contemporary Art from Poland

Curator: Tami Katz-Freiman

January 24 - June 20, 2009

The contemporary Polish art scene is characterized by radical, critical, ebullient and intellectual art making. Post-communism - the contact with consumer culture and the rapid growth of the free market and communication media alongside an accelerated lifestyle - is clearly evident in the art being made in Poland today. It is possible to point to common denominators between Polish and Israeli art, especially in terms of the preoccupation with victimhood, history, nationality and memory. Yet it appears that the concern with the trauma of World War II, and with a tradition of violence and protest that overlaps with Poland's national narratives, is the most prominent concern examined by Polish artists. Indeed, it seems that the war has become a central component of the search for identity undertaken by many Polish artists.

The exhibition "Power Games" presents a range of works created by six prominent visual artists currently working in Poland, and features members of three different generations: the generation that began exhibiting in the 1980s, and whose work is grounded in the avant-garde traditions of the 20th century (Grzegorz Klaman); the intermediate generation that began exhibiting in the 1990s, and which was concerned with the body and the media (Artur Żmijewski and Zuzanna Janin); and the young generation that began exhibiting at the turn of the millennium, and whose works are concerned with the culture of simulacra, with computer imaging and with virtual reality (Janek Simon, Hubert Czerepok and Norman Leto). The works of these artists all touch - whether explicitly or implicitly - on different representations of violence. Their varied approaches to representation - which range from the conceptual to the symbolic, poetic and narrative - embody a ludic element that is related to the use of force. Some of these works are concerned with Poland's historical traumas and with various forms of institutional violence, such as the power of the church and the injustices of the communist regime; others relate to this subject in a universal manner. The themes of these works attest to an obsessive preoccupation with various aspects of violence, and to an emphasis on the self-reflexive examination of the means of representation itself: gender identity and the body in the context of death, struggle and memory (Janin); mechanisms of power, systems of punishment and surveillance, madness and policing (Klaman); instances of intolerance and near-violent states related to social, nationalist and religious conflicts (Żmijewski); apocalyptic images, depictions of catastrophe and survival (Simon); Holocaust scenes, violent demonstrations and terror attacks (Czerepok); and power games unfolding in a virtual reality, alongside a critique of the media's aestheticization of violence (Leto).

The exhibition thus mirrors the complex and paradoxical reality of Poland, a country that has rapidly gone from post-communist to postmodern. It reflects the creative outburst that is reacting critically, after years of oppression, to representations of power and violence in Polish society - which may be read as a metaphor for the problematic state of affairs characteristic of Western culture more generally. The presentation of this exhibition in Haifa, as part of the Polish Year in Israel, infuses these works with an additional charge, which is related to the bitter historical past shared by Poland and Israel.


The exhibition was co-organized by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, Warsaw, as part of the Polish Year in Israel 2008-2009, with the support of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.

Hubert Czerepok

Hubert Czerepok's work is characterized by the use of a wide range of mediums - video, new media, installation art, drawing, painting and photography. Like other members of his generation who are part of the Polish intellectual avant-garde, Czerepok undermines exhibition conventions and other art-world procedures. The artist's ironical process of negotiation with the art world is similarly given expression in the video work Do You Know Anything About Polish Art?, which introduces viewers to the current exhibition cluster. This work exposes the embarrassment of passersby and art connoisseurs asked to answer the same questions about Polish art.

In recent years, Czerepok's visual lexicon has become suffused with violence, fear and premonitions of an impending catastrophe. Among other things, it makes reference to mysterious UFO appearances and apocalyptic conspiracy theories. His images are always "second-hand," and are borrowed from a hodge-podge of sources - the Internet, online photography archives, newspapers, literature and cinema. The strategic piracy he employs enables him to make use of an existing image, while endowing it with a new context and interpretation. This is done by means of a variety of artistic tactics - such as a drawing technique characterized by fluid, almost caricatural outlines that capture the image in a minimalist manner, reminiscent of the outlines of victims at a crime scene. The violent elements in his work are thus always camouflaged, and the neuroses of contemporary culture are translated into lighthearted, easily digestible forms. The video Playoff, for instance, features a violent confrontation between two groups of soccer fans, which has been processed into a delicate linear animation work. The drawing series Séance was inspired by images of the destroyed Twin Towers, Holocaust scenes, violent demonstrations and terror attacks. It seems that by transforming such troubling documentary materials into insouciant drawings in large-scale formats, Czerepok manages to conjure up the ghosts of the dead.

Born in Słubice, Poland, 1973; lives and works in Warsaw

Do you Know Anything about Polish Art?, 2002 (video still), video, 14:47 minutes, sound, courtesy of the artist and Żak | Branicka Gallery, Berlin

Séance, 2009 (originally from 2003), black marker on a wall, variable dimensions, courtesy of the artist and Żak | Branicka Gallery, Berlin

Séance, 2009 (originally from 2003), black marker on a wall, variable dimensions, courtesy of the artist and Żak | Branicka Gallery, Berlin

Playoff, 2006 (video still), video-animation, screen projection,

1:33 minutes, silent, black & white, courtesy of the artist and Żak | Branicka Gallery, Berlin

Zuzanna Janin

Zuzanna Janin's multifaceted work touches upon the themes related to memory, time, identity, the body and space through a variety of expressive means - video, photography, sculpture and installation art. Her preoccupation with the elusive boundaries of social norms and their challenge to individual liberties, and with the limits between art and life, is perceived in Poland as highly provocative. The video work Fight features Janin fighting a professional heavy-weight boxer in a boxing ring. Her Sisyphean, futile efforts, which do not follow any rules, constitute an allegorical choreography that represents the universal dialectic between force and weakness.

Janin's attraction to the twilight zone of repressed, taboo subjects, which exceed the accepted norms of the contemporary artistic discourse, is given expression in her intensive concern with various aspects of death. In Seven Deaths, she presented various forms of death - offering a catalogue of sorts from which one could "order" the desirable form of death. The staging of the scenes dialogues with the familiar art historical and cinematic iconography of death, employing a poetic language to portray the worst human fear.

This concern with death reached its apogee in Janin's most radical work, I've Seen My Death, Ceremony / Games, in which she staged her own funeral procession. On April 6, 2003, she published death announcements in several newspapers; the following day, she was "laid to rest" in the Warsaw cemetery, with a real priest officiating. She herself stood beside the open grave, disguised as an older woman. Beside her were more than a dozen members of her family who had been advised in advance of the hoax, alongside dozens of fellow artists and art critics who had no idea they were participating in the creation of a new art work. This work became controversial from an ethical point of view, and triggered extreme reactions in the Polish art community. Many perceived this performance to be scandalous, hurtful and ethically questionable. Only a scant few treated it as a subversive form of expression capable of promoting the contemplation of existential, philosophical questions and of encouraging an honest discussion of death. Beyond the extraordinary courage required to cope with the subject at the core of all human fears, this work may be read as a desperate attempt to domesticate death.

Born in Warsaw, 1964; lives and works in Warsaw

Fight [Walka], 2001-2005 (video still), video projection, 30:00 minutes, sound, courtesy of the artist and local_30 Gallery, Warsaw

Seven Deaths [Siedem śmierci], 2003-2005 (video still), single-channel video, 5:00 minutes, silent, courtesy of the artist and local_30 Gallery, Warsaw

I've Seen My Death, Ceremony / Games [Widziałam swoją śmierć, Ceremonia / Zabawy], 2003-2005 (video still), video projection, 7:00 minutes, sound, courtesy of the artist and local_30 Gallery, Warsaw

Grzegorz Klaman

Grzegorz Klaman is one of the pioneering members of the contemporary Polish art world, and a prominent figure on the Gdansk art scene. Klaman's socially engaged and subversive works - mostly large-scale, site-specific sculptural installations - respond to contemporary politics in Poland. Klaman's political stance was shaped in the context of the social upheaval caused by Lech Walesa's Solidarity movement. His sensationalist examination of questions related to power, technology, medicine and invasive medical procedures have triggered severe criticism of his works, which at times took the form of actual censorship.

The monotonous movement of the three figures in this installation, together with their hermetic withdrawal, call to mind states of trance, possession or hysteria. Below their cloaks, they are wearing Western clothing indicative of their identity and class. Their cloaks and bodily posture clearly allude to religion, while also hinting at a dimension of vulnerability or sacrifice. The expression "fear and trembling" originally appears in the Book of Psalms, and recurs in the Yom Kippur prayer "Unetanah Tokef" - which describes man's inconsequential status of man vis-à-vis God, and his fear of the Day of Judgment: "The great shofar is sounded / A still small voice is heard / The angels are dismayed / They are seized by fear and trembling / As they proclaim: Behold the Day of Judgment!" Klaman's choice of this title, however, alludes to the writings of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard - which are concerned with the paradoxes of religious belief, with expressions of religious zealousness and with the limits of personal sacrifice. Kierkegaard's well-known book Fear and Trembling, which was first published in 1843 under the pseudonym "John the Silent," sought to reach the root of the conflict between morality and faith, and to examine the paradox that brings together obedience and deep understanding. The intersection between these different fields of meaning expresses a critical stance towards the familiar paradigm that calls for self-inflicted or collective injury in the name of faith. This work thus touches upon the growing surge of religious fundamentalism in the contemporary world; upon a state in which faith, no matter what faith, does not only envelop but also obscures; does not only protect, but also detaches and separates. There is no doubt that its presentation in a local context, in a mixed city like Haifa, which is charged with intercultural tensions, amplifies its resonance.

Born in Nowy Targ, Poland, 1959; lives and works in Gdansk

Fear and Trembling [Bojaźń i drżenie], 2007 (installation detail), installation: three mannequins, electric mechanism, clothing, latex paint, variable dimensions, courtesy of the artist

Norman Leto

Norman Leto is the pseudonym adopted by Lukasz Banach, a representative of the young generation of contemporary Polish artists born in the postmodern age. The works of this autodidactic painter, new media and video artist are concerned with the philosophical and psychological implications of the culture of simulacra - fictional identities, virtual reality games and the construction of substitute realities. In 2006, for instance, Banach staged a film concerned with the fictional figure of a supposedly deceased young artist named Norman Leto.

Virtual reality and 3D simulation technologies developed by the artist enable him to create a parallel world - a more protected environment that allows him to transgress the limits of our reality. Leto produces works designed for virtual spaces in fictive galleries. He perceives the violence present in almost all of his works as a cynical expression of art's presumptuousness, and of its inability to give expression to the real violence rampant in today's world. At the same time, he also critiques its aestheticization and its power to attract media consumers. Fascinated by the operation of physical laws in the case of explosions, Leto perceives shelling attacks and bellowing smoke, destruction and catastrophe, disintegration and annihilation, as suffused with a spectacular form of "beauty" related to the movement of particles. In his work Georgia, Leto used digital means to create a modern house punctured by virtual bullets, describing it as a "memorial to violence." In the work Conceptualist, which was also created using virtual reality technologies, a helicopter is seen hovering within an exhibition space, imprisoned in a white cube. The work's name alludes to the artist's reflexive critique of the impotence of conceptual art, which touches upon the subject of violence while remaining within the protected space of the gallery.

Born in Krakow, Poland, 1980; lives and works in Krakow

The Conceptualist [Konceptualista], 2008 (video still), VR space recorded on DVD, black & white, 1:00 minute, sound, courtesy of the artist and local_30 Gallery, Warsaw

Georgia [Gruzja], 2008 (video still), VR space recorded on DVD, 1:00 minute, silent, courtesy of the artist and local_30 Gallery, Warsaw

Janek Simon

Janek Simon is a member of the young generation of contemporary Polish artists. His works - most of which are interactive anarchist installations, video works and objects - are mainly influenced by computer games, pop culture, cinema, the Internet and the media. Like other young Polish artists, Simon is seen as a critical and subversive artist who examines his country's history of violence, global processes, political change and the relationship between art and political power. Apocalyptic themes, disaster, survival scenes and virtual battles between "good" and "evil" are characteristic of Simon's work, which is based on the iconography and visual language of computer games.

His work Departure features the skyline of Krakow, which is known for its ancient churches. A digital animation technique creates loud explosion sounds, which resonate through the pastoral night; one by one, the churches' gothic turrets are launched into the sky, tearing through it like spaceships and flattening out the urban horizon line. The Polish title of this work also alludes to a euphoric state related to drug use. Krakow is considered to be one of the country's most politically and culturally conservative cities, and the Catholic Church plays a central role in maintaining this status quo through urban mechanisms of power. In his nihilistic and amusing way, it seems that Simon has found a radical solution for this state of affairs.

Born in Krakow, Poland, 1977; lives and works in Krakow

Departure, 2003 (video still), computer animation, video projection, 6:44 minutes, sound, courtesy of the artist and private collection, Warsaw

Artur Żmijewski

Artur Żmijewski is considered to be one of the most prominent and radical figures on the Polish art scene. His work tends to examine human behavior under a range of extreme conditions, while studying existing social mechanisms of power and oppression and liminal states bordering on violence. Many of his works are concerned with personal and collective traumas, while relating to specific historical contexts and to complex ethical, moral and political questions.

This work touches upon fundamental questions concerning freedom of expression, freedom of action, limits and morality. In the context of this work, which resembles a social experiment, Żmijewski brought together representatives of four radical ideological groups active in Poland: a group of conservative Catholic women, a fundamentalist Jewish youth group, left-wing human-rights activists and representatives of the nationalist youth group All Poland Youth. During a series of consecutive meetings, each group was charged with defining its ideological credo by means of a sign or poster, and with responding to the other groups. In this manner, participants had to both express a clear stance by means of words, images and symbols and to engage in an active process of negotiation, argumentation and explanation. Yet with every consecutive meeting, further escalation leads to a deeper ideological rift between the groups, while the possibility of dialogue, co-existence or compromise is entirely forgotten. The work's title, Them, is an expression of repression and exclusion, the indexical marking of a third person plural that bears the burden of guilt.

Born in Warsaw, 1966; lives and works in Warsaw