Between the Cross and the Jewish Graveyard

After decades in a fiery cultural forge, Polish art emerged sharp and beautiful. But have the country’s ghosts returned to dull the edge?

Image from Zbigniew Warpechowski's 1976 performance Dialogue With a Skull. Courtesy of artist

In a seminal 1976 performance in Lublin entitled Dialogue with a Skull, Polish performance art legend Zbigniew Warpechowski sat with his chin propped on a table, eye to eye socket with a shiny white human skull. Two half moons of light shone from the ceiling. On either side was a full glass of water, each containing a live, thrashing fish. Echoing the grave scene in Hamlet, Warpechowski held the skull up beside his own head in comparison, twin shadows sharply delineated on the wall, and, to end the performance, he ceremoniously gulped down the wat-er, leaving the fish to die in the empty glasses. When speaking about Polish art, it hardly needs saying that the fish evoke Catholicism, and the skull represents not just human mortality but the mass deaths in the Second World War that left Polish soil a very divided graveyard.

Now in his mid-sixties, Warpechow-ski is a squat, stocky man with long white hair, a drooping moustache, and a thick red face. Dishevelled and wearing an old embroidered vest, he looks less like an influential avant-garde artist than like an eccentric peasant from the marshy plains of Volhynia, where he was born and then expelled with his family during the brutal migration Stal-in forced on hundreds of thousands of eastern Poles after the war. The objects of his art—fish, skulls, crosses, coffins, worms, massive stones—are melodramatic, but employed comically. And in performance, Warpechowski is by turns grandly romantic, earthy, quarrelsome, and even buffoonish. He claims that his mature works eschew weighty symbolism for spontaneity, improvisation, and unmediated dialogue with spectators. Yet history and religion, the cross and the endless graveyard, are ever-present in his work. Late one night, sitting in Warpechowski’s modest, book-lined attic study, I noticed a small painted icon of the Virgin Mary on the wall. “I painted that,” he said, chuckling.

Arriving in Warsaw by a dilapidated city bus, I passed through the post-industrial desolation I associate with former Soviet-bloc countries, especially Poland: rail yards choked with dead weeds and rotting wooden cattle cars, vast silent factories heaped with scrapped machinery, warehouses with their windows smashed out, piles of garbage and coal, drunks reeling down muddy streets, and the grimly authoritative cement and steel crosses that reflect the enduring power of the Catholic Church. The ugliness is monumental, and has an eerie, tragic grandeur all its own.

The narrow strip west of the Vistula River that comprises Warsaw’s Old Town, however, presents a different picture altogether. There are stately palaces housing government ministries, rambling parks with gardens and baroque monuments commemorating Poland’s many martyrs, and posh restaurants and boutiques. Sleek glass office towers rise in the background. I should have been prepared for this by the plane trip from London to Warsaw, which was packed with the new breed of international businessmen with their dark, tailored suits and PowerBooks. This is the face of cosmopolitan Poland, member of nato and the European Union, member of the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq, impatiently looking outward toward global markets and global culture. But Warsaw is a deceptive city. During the brutal German suppression of the heroic and suicidal Warsaw Uprising in the late summer and autumn of 1944, the Red Army watched the Wehrmacht reduce Warsaw to a wilderness of rubble and corpses. Every street corner of Old Town was the scene of a desperate battle, and in the basement of one of those ruined buildings, the young actor and poet Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, cowered on his knees praying while SS officers did their deadly work upstairs.

On an island in the middle of the busy intersection of Aleje Jerozol-imskie (Jerusalem Avenue) and Nowy Świat (New World Street) in the heart of Warsaw, is an artificial date palm tree rising some fifty feet high, its bright green fronds ratty from the wind and weather and exhaust. The trees all around are stripped and black, and the streetcars clatter down the centre of the avenue past soot-stained buildings. In the midst of all this, the palm tree is a gleeful absurdity, almost thumbing its nose at a city freighted with monuments to futile resistance movements and failed insurrections. But while the palm tree seems at first glance a lighthearted anti-monument, its presence turns out to be far more ambiguous. Titled Greetings from Jerusalem Avenue, it was conceived and constructed by Warsaw-based artist Joanna Rajkowska.

“I realized that convincing people to do it was part of the project,” Rajkowska told me. “[The Warsaw municipal government] had to create a category of public art for the project, and so it became political. The previous government wanted to give the new right-wing regime a hot potato.” Rajkowska is an energetic woman in her mid-thirties who has earned a reputation for her quirky conceptual projects, such as Satisfaction Guaranteed (2000), in which she produced a line of soft drinks purporting to contain her own bodily fluids and tissues (“watermelon-flavoured drink containing extract of the retina”), and Diary of Dreams (2001), where she organized volunteer groups of total strangers to sleep through a day on the floor of Warsaw’s xxi Gallery, then write down their dreams. Rajkowska likes to present herself as a mischievous entrepreneur, and the idea for Greetings from Jerusalem Avenue came to her upon returning from a vacation in Israel. But it would be no more possible for Raj-kowska to transport an idea from Israel to Jerusalem Avenue without touching the raw nerve of Polish guilt and ambivalence toward Jews, than it was for Warpechowski to wrestle with a dying carp without evoking the demons of Christianity.

The initial response from newspapers to the planting of a fake palm tree in the middle of the city was divided, but the public was hostile. According to Rajkowska, she frequently heard people on the street speculating that the offending tree was put there by Jews in order to mock Christian Poles. When I asked her why anyone would think this seemingly silly palm tree was a Zionist conspiracy, her response was slippery: she suggested that any tree not indigen-ous to Poland would be regarded as an affront, and that at Christmas there was usually a huge fir tree on that particular island. But then, as Rajkowska herself noted, the intersection of Aleje Jerozolimskie and Nowy Świat is near the site of an affluent eighteenth-century Jewish enclave that was looted and driven out, and Jerusalem Avenue itself is a constant reminder of a population that was slaughtered and expelled. The odd story of Warsaw’s one palm tree has still another twist. The vehemence of people’s response to Rajkow-ska’s claims about the palm tree is itself symptomatic of Poles’ often schizophrenic relationship to their own history. The tragedy of Jewish history in Poland often seems to be an affront to Poles’ own well-developed sense of betrayal and victimhood.

National identity, religion, and what can only be described as the palp-able absence of Jews are divisive themes in contemporary Polish art, and no one has confronted them with the boldness, rigour, and simplicity of Artur Z˙mijewski. Represented by the Foksal Gallery Foundation in Warsaw, the hippest and most ambitious independent gallery in Poland, Z˙mijewski is on the cusp of a significant international career—a survey of his work opened at the prestigious mit List Visual Arts Center in Boston in May 2004, and he represented Poland at the 2005 Venice Biennale.

Z˙mijewski is a big, awkward, bear-like man with dark, intelligent eyes. He is also extremely reticent, even cryptic. Many Polish artists are defensive when speaking of Polish history, especially the history of Polish Jews, as though a foreign writer could never grasp their point of view, and as though the issue itself would plunge them back into the stereotypes Poles have often been saddled with—as violent, nationalistic, rabidly Catholic, drunken anti-Semites. As Norman Davies emphasizes in his epic narrative of the Warsaw Uprising, Rising ’44: The Battle for Warsaw, the dizzying scale of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis and the Soviets during their respective occupations, and the communist regime’s campaigns of misinformation, have made the character of twentieth-century Polish history little known. For these reasons and more, Z˙mijewski is extremely sensitive to the ease with which his work could be misread.

Z˙mijewski orchestrates situations, then films them in a spare, classical style. In the first and most affecting incarnation of Singing Lesson (2001), he employed a conductor to teach students from a school for the deaf to sing composer Jan Maklakiewicz’s stirring, romantic Polish Mass. The video follows the often-painful lessons and rehearsal process through to a weirdly magister-ial formal rendition of a fragment of the Mass in a Protestant church in Warsaw. The stone-deaf choir remains in time and on cue, but their voices are not only grotesquely off-key, they are entirely out of control, trailing into guttural moans and shrill screeches.

The choral noise in Singing Lesson has an uncanny spiritual presence, but it also serves as a metaphor for a spirit-uality that is ravaged and divided. And the fact that Polish Mass — a hymn to Polish independence — is sung in a Protestant church is surely significant. “The consequences of the Second [World] War have only recently ended,” Z˙mijewski said, and in that he is wrong. The fact that Poland today is an ethnically and religiously homogeneous country—sharply contrasting with the diversity that existed during the relatively democratic Polish Republic between the two world wars, and with the multi-ethnic Europe of today—is a consequence of the Holocaust and of the ceding of Poland to the Soviet Union at the Yalta Conference.

One of Z˙mijewski’s most recent videos, Our Songbook (2003), shot in Israel, is among his most moving and painful. In it, he asks elderly Polish Jews living in nursing homes in Tel Aviv to sing songs, in Polish, remembered from their pre-war childhoods. The fragmentary songs, sung in frail, laboured voices, are often patriotic. Several of the people Z˙mijewski approached fiercely refused to participate, one of them shouting (in Polish) “I don’t want to speak your language, I don’t want to hear your voice!” Z˙mijewski’s comment on this was curi-ous. “I’m interested in anti-Semitism in Poland,” he said, “and anti-Polishness in Israel.” This may seem merely naive, or worse, disingenuous, but it isn’t. Most artists in Poland insist upon viewing Poland’s significant Jewish cultural past as part of a complex but specifically Polish history that was erased by the Nazis and Soviets. “There is nothing between Russia and Germany. This part of Europe is invisible for the West,” he said, suggesting that the work of the Soviet and Nazi imperiums was complete. Our Songbook, with all the agonizing irony in the “our” of its title, brings back to consciousness a form of identity that has become virtually inconceivable. But Z˙mijewski is deluded when he insists that this work is about Poles in Israel and not the Holocaust, about now and not the past. When history is as unresolved as it is in Poland, when its meanings are still so difficult to sort through, it is impossible to remain wholly in the present.

On a bleak, snowy Friday evening in February in Lódz, the Atlas Sztuki Gallery, set in a spacious, elegantly renovated nineteenth-century Jewish market hall, was packed with an upscale crowd of TV camera operators, photographers, reporters, professors, and artists. Waitresses in skimpy black dresses whisked glasses of wine to the guests; burly guards in tight-fitting suits flanked the glass front doors; the gallery director rushed about with harried self-importance. This was the new corpor-ate Poland, confused and on steroids: the menacing bouncers drove drunken guests back out into the alley. When the gaunt figure of Zbigniew Libera arrived to deliver a speech introducing his first solo exhibition in Poland in eight years, a big, derisive smile on his face, the crowd surged and cameras flashed.

Now in his forties and admired for the intensity and intelligence of his work, Libera is part of the last generation that fully experienced communism and the birth of Solidarity, and for whom December 13, 1981, the day martial law was imposed by General Jaruzelski, is pivotal. One senses that Libera’s ironic pessim-ism is born of the experience of the power and machinations of the state.

After coming of age during the Po-lish conceptual art movement in the late 1970s, Libera spent a traumatic year in prison during martial law for printing illegal brochures containing, among other things, his own satirical political cartoons. That an artist of Libera’s stature has not had an exhibition in Poland in eight years is partly explained by his intransigence. He withdrew from the 1997 Venice Biennale, for instance, when the curator refused to include his infamous Lego: Concentration Camp (1996), an edition of Lego sets with images of meticulously built concentration camps on the cover.

Formerly a writer for a Warsaw newspaper, Libera is attuned to the ways in which the media, art, politics, and history are perceived. In his most recent project, Libera staged “positive” or “happy” versions of canonical historical photographs with perverse veracity, printing some as enlarged magazine covers and the rest as press photographs. In one, he takes the famous image of skeletal death-camp survivors in ragged striped uniforms, pressed up against barbed wire and staring hollowly toward the viewer, and turns it into an image of happy campers, well fed and smiling, mugging for the camera. Another image re-enacts the equally famous photograph of villagers fleeing an American napalm attack in Vietnam. In Libera’s version, the naked girl is white, attractive, and ecstatic, the people around her are recreational parachutists, and a beautiful black-and-white thunderstorm rises in the background.

If Lego: Concentration Camp suggests the ways in which the Holocaust has been absorbed into popular culture, the happy magazine covers mirror the uncritical pleasure with which we consume historical tragedy through the media. Libera’s humour is sharp and whimsical, but in the end these images feel sinister, the original photographs hovering beyond reach behind them.

Outside the gates of the legendary Gdańsk Shipyard, there are three towering steel crosses with ships’ anchors (symbol of the Polish Home Army resistance fighters during World War II ) looped around their tops. Set in the crosses’ bevelled shafts are huge bronze-relief sculptures of heroic shipbuilders wielding the tools of their trade. On the outer walls of the shipyard are wreaths of flowers, plaques commemorating those killed during the strike of 1970, photographs of Pope John Paul II, and reproductions of paintings of the Madonna. Hideous though this monu-ment is, it is historically important and enormously popular. Designed by a shipyard worker and constructed during the year of Solidarity — such a monument was one of the workers’ demands in the pivotal strike in the summer of 1980—it is a shining example of the problematic unity of Christianity and Polish nationalism.

Inside the gates, a poorly maintained memorial to the collapse of communism called “Roads to Freedom” contains Grzegorz Klaman’s The Gates (2000), a very different kind of monument. Commissioned to recognize the twentieth anniversary of Solidarity, it has two parts. The first resembles the hulking, rusted bow of a sinking ship, and inside are electronic light boards, across which stream alternating statements from communist, Solidarity, and other ideological voices that are surprisingly difficult to distinguish from one another: “Each factory should become our fortress.” “Giving up agitation is a total and irreversible resignation from democracy.”

The second part is a precariously tilted, clunky version of Russian constructivist Vladimir Tatlin’s model for the spiralling Monument to the Third International (1919– 1920). The Gates is an ambiguous but provocative work, insistent upon the importance of historical thinking in democracy. The sinking hull is a kind of archive where conflicting discourses remain open-ended, and the evocation of Tatlin’s tribute to the revolution suggests the collapse of utopian ideologies, as well as the import-ance of utopian vision. Unlike the triad of crosses, Klaman’s piece was received by the city authorities, the shipyard workers, and the public at large with hostility and derision. “They wanted a memorial,” Klaman told me, “and I wanted an anti-memorial.” Joanna Raj-kowska’s palm tree anti-monument is allusive and absurdist; Klaman explicitly invites dialogue, viewing history and our understanding of it as unfinished.

I met Grzegorz Klaman and the writer and curator Aneta Szyłak, Klaman’s long-time partner and collaborator, at the shipyard gates. Klaman and Szy-łak are both energetic, combative, and polemical. We took the road into the shipyard. It is owned by developers, operates at a fraction of its capacity, and is now mostly abandoned—huge, empty factories with their windows boarded up, rusting conveyor belts and cranes, and heaps of scrap metal. In an enclave of arts organizations that lease space from the current shipyard developers is Klaman and Szyłak’s Wyspa Progress Foundation. This wildly ambitious space will be used for special projects and storage until the millions of zlotys required for renovation are secured.

One of Grzegorz Klaman’s most talented former students in the sculpture atelier at the Fine Arts Academy in Gdańsk, Dorota Nieznalska, exhibited Passion from December 2001 into January 2002 at the Wyspa Gallery. Described by some as “the penis of Christ,” Passion consists of a large metal cross suspended by a chain, in the centre of which is a close-up colour photograph of male genitals, and a projected video of the silently straining face and torso of a man bench-pressing weights. According to Nieznalska, who was raised in a devout family, Passion is not intended as a transgressive attack on Christianity, but is rather an exploration of the male cult of the body. Nonetheless, after the work appeared on television, the League of Polish Families (and a member of parliament) filed a complaint with the regional prosecutor’s office under Article 196 of the Polish Penal Code for “offence against religious sensitivities.”

The League of Polish Families is a highly organized group whose leaders have become adept at exploiting loopholes in Polish law. Article 196, for instance, was originally ratified in order to protect religious minorities from harassment and defamation. Nieznalska’s ten-month trial between September 2002 and June 2003 was presided over by Justice Tomasz Zieliński, who permitted the prosecution to bring forth a procession of witnesses to testify that the conjunction of the cross and male genitals would, under any circumstances, offend their religious sensitivities. The expert witnesses in art history, law, and religion proposed by the defence, however, were summarily excluded as redundant and irrelevant.

What testimony there was on Niez-nalska’s behalf, such as Aneta Szyłak’s admittedly forced suggestion that in Passion the cross might be read as a more general symbol of suffering, was treated with condescension and contempt. “[I]t remains doubtless,” Zieliński wrote, “that in the Polish context, in the Polish tradition of civilization, the cross is unambiguously associated with the martyrdom of Christ.” As for Nieznalska’s underlying motives, which had to be established for a conviction: “the Defendant strived to achieve an artistic and personal success and to do so she was even ready to offend religious sensitivities, as the Judge finds it impossible to accept that a person with a degree, living in Poland where 95 percent of the population are Catholics would not realize the repercussions of placing male genitals on the cross where usually there is a figure of Jesus Christ to be found.” For Zieliński, the Catholic character of Polish civilization is fixed and uncomplicated.

Dorota Nieznalska was convicted under Article 196 and sentenced to six months of limited freedom, twenty hours of social work per month, and financial responsibility for the cost of the trial. While artists signed petitions protesting her conviction, no politician from any party came out to support her or to defend the broader issue of freedom of artistic expression. Even Lech Walesa, hero of the Solidarity movement and the “road to freedom,” came out publicly against Nieznalska, commenting that her sentence had not been nearly severe enough.

The Nieznalska affair signals the degree to which the cultural freedoms promised in the early 1990s have been retracted. “There was a chance to move forward,” Artur Tajber, professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow, told me one night, “but by the mid-1990s we lost energy.” There is, however, a ray of hope. In May 2004, the regional appellate court in Gdańsk overturned Judge Zieliński’s ruling on the grounds that Nieznalska’s right to full defence had been violated. A new trial will take place next year.

Whereas Grzegorz Klaman and Aneta Szyłak are both worldly and sophisticated thinkers, Dorota Nieznalska, now in her early thirties, comes across as shy, intense, and in many ways naive. The force of her work rests in its earnest wilfulness. Early pieces, such as The Thighs in Camelias (1995 ), a pair of thighs modelled in resin and leather with artificial flowers sprouting between them, and Fetish (1997), which includes a hammock woven from willows, beeswax, and women’s hair, use materials in a luxurious and allegorical way. Her more recent work, however, has tended toward austere multimedia installations. In an untitled piece from 1999, she photographed a naked man with a whip in front of a pregnant dog, wearing a sinister leather muzzle over his penis. In Omnipotence II, Gender: Masculine (2000), a precursor to Passion, steel mirrors are mounted on scaffolding on the wall, a chalk-covered exercise mat lies on the floor, and a recording plays the groaning sounds of a man lifting weights. The whole installation is bathed in lurid red light. Justice Zieliński’s interpretations aside, Passion surely needs to be understood in the context of Nieznalska’s explorations of the body and gender in a male-dominated religious culture.

The consequences of the trial for Nieznalska have been far-reaching. Solo exhibitions in the provincial towns of Slupsk and Ostrow Wielkopolski were cancelled due to the intervention of the League of Polish Families. Unlike savvy artists such as Katarzyna Kozyra, the ferocious Alicja Zebrowska (who made a photograph of herself defecating in front of an image of her mother), or even Zbigniew Libera, Nieznalska is not by temperament a fighter, and she was genuinely shocked by the reception of her work. Several prominent Polish artists think that the domineering Klaman and Szyłak pushed Nieznalska to create art whose implications she did not fully understand in order to advance their own radical aesthetic agendas. Artur Tajber complained that they should at least have warned Nieznalska about what might happen, and performance artist Wladyslaw Kazmierczak, director of the Baltic Gallery of Contemporary Art, commented bitterly that Passion was virtually created by Szyłak and Klaman.

And now Nieznalska herself seems trapped in the role of victim. In a recent group exhibit, Nieznalska simply displayed footage from her trial, which was shot by Kazmierczak. She admitted to me that she obsessively follows the blogs on a website devoted to her case.

In the meantime, Klaman and Szyłak forge ahead with the new Wyspa Pro-gress Foundation, which, given Szyłak’s rising international career, is virtually guaranteed success, and they continue to curate Nieznalska’s work. “We are a generation who saw communist times,” Szyłak told me, breathless. “Like the people of the forties, we saw both, and for us this past is not just a generational responsibility, but a kind of fate. We hope to build a new foundation.”

In Lublin’s drab culture centre, I sat and watched hours of footage with artist and visionary festival organizer Waldemar Tatarczuk. In one perform-ance, a bone-thin, slightly hunched old man with long white hair and a scraggly beard paints words onto his naked body. His penis rendered the red and white of the Polish flag, he delivers a speech questioning the nature of art and wheels in various contraptions made of logs and branches, fitted with crude banners. Naked and glistening with paint, he invites the audience to drink vodka with him. This is seventy-five-year-old Jerzy Bereś. Virtually unknown in the West, Bereś and his work are regarded by most Polish artists with what can only be described as awe and reverence. Bereś sets the standard in Poland for seriousness, purity, and commitment in art.

Artur Tajber took me out to see Bereś in the modest flat he has occupied for decades in a standard communist-era building on the outskirts of Cracow. The apartment is full of hand-carved wooden sculptures, a surrealist screen in the main room, and abstract objects by his late wife, the much-respected sculptor Maria Pininska-Bereś. Despite what his old friend Warpechowski described as his misanthropy, warmth radiates from Bereś’s still-taut body, and his sense of humour is big and generous. Bereś has lived through a singularly ugly period in Polish history, but there is not a trace of bitterness in him. He seems to float above the noise of the world. To one of his sculptures from the 1990s is attached a banner on which is written Wiatr Historii (the wind of history). It was not long before Bereś, with his impeccable old-world manners, broke out a bottle of vodka.

Educated in Cracow during the darkest years of the Stalinist regime, by the beginning of the 1960s Bereś found that the communist state had so alienated him from reality that he had a crisis of belief. “I wanted to find something without the baggage of history,” he said. “I decided to go back to a deeper tradition. The only ground was nature in those years, the first meeting [of people] with nature, how they made tools.” The works Bereś began creating in the mid-1960s were wooden structures made without nails or any modern equipment; they often reference tools such as wheels, plows, and harrows. The symbolism in Bereś’s sculptures is powerful and primordial, mostly crosses and phalluses, and involves a dialogue with nature, between the working human body and organic matter, where the wood itself is not an object but an equal partner.

Then, beginning in the late 1960s, he began incorporating his own naked body into his work. In a way, he had always used his body in his sculptures, but performance allowed him to make explicit the ritualized and process-oriented nature of his art, its existence as an open conversation rather than an object. He began including bonfires, toasts of vodka that explicitly evoked the Eucharist, actions in which he strapped himself into his sculptures and read manifestos. The great power of Bereś’s performances is the sense that he has stripped down to his most basic and archaic elements. His humility and shamelessness give his words and gestures authority.

When I asked Bereś what he thought of the contemporary art scene in Poland, his answer was characteristically philosophical. He is not interested in art as such, in art as a defined category of objects, but rather in the nature of creativity, in the process of transformation. “In today’s situation,” Bereś said, “what is presented as art is not creation, but reflects how culture is. Art isn’t created by artists but by institutions.” For Bereś, this is partly a result of the fact that, in democratic, capitalist Poland, artists no longer feel the same division from the state and other official institutions that they felt during the communist era. Younger artists are hypnotized by the possibilities offered by the market and the global art world. Yet for Bereś, “the future of artists is inside themselves,” suggesting that the capitalist state, like the communist one, is a constant threat to inner freedom. Bereś is a very Polish artist—his works constantly allude to Catholicism and Polish nationalism. But for him, the ultimate task of the artist remains essentially personal and inward-looking, wherever one happens to be in the winds of history.

Back in Warsaw, I went to curator Dorota Monkiewicz’s party at the imposing National Museum, half a block away from Rajkowska’s palm tree. The hall of the museum is massive and gloomy. Twin stone stairways climb operatically to the second floor. Inside were hundreds of professors, critics, curators, artists, and, most importantly, business people. Since this fundraising event in support of the museum’s nascent collection of contemporary art was staged on the last Thursday of Carnivale, known as “Fat Thursday,” there was a table piled high with Polish doughnuts, to go with the array of deli meats and pickles, the heavy red wine, and the inevitable vodka. Monkiewicz, an accomplished scholar, delivered a nervous, effusive speech praising this new wedding of art and commerce. She was followed by a representative from a sponsoring law firm, who announced both his enthusiasm for the project and his total ignorance of contemporary art.

Later, an auctioneer got up and began calling, in a rapid-fire, sing-song voice, bids on works by hot young Polish artists, sounding as though he was selling cattle at a country market. A drunk, flushed, and giggling Monkiewicz dragged me by the arm to the women’s washroom for a cigarette and exclaimed, “I’m not really like this!” At one point a riled-up businessman, tie loosened, accosted me and bellowed, “If you write anything bad about Polish art, I’ll beat you up!”

In art centres like New York, London, and Berlin, commercialization has led to art that lacks the specificity of history and place, and is defined by institutions and market trends. The same will certainly happen — is already happening — in Poland. Bereś’s comment that “the future of artists is in themselves” is simple, wise, and hard. To be inward-looking one cannot be focused on the market or in denial of the past. The past is everyone’s fate. I left wondering whether the new Poland will have room for work that is as intense, intimate, pure, and strange as the art of an older generation.

Daniel Baird
Daniel Baird is a regular contributor to The Walrus, Canadian Art, and Border-Crossings.