Wednesday, August 8th, 2012

Artworks in the Present Tense: ALTERNATIVA at Gdansk Shipyards

Report from… Gdansk, Poland

ALTERNATIVA: “Materiality” and “Wyspa: Now is Now” at The Wyspa Art Institute.

May 26 to September 30, 2012
Doki 1.145 B. 80-958 Gdansk, Poland.
open Tuesday to Sunday, 11am to 7pm.

Katarzyna Jozefowicz, Sights, 2010-12. Hand-stitched vinyl envelopes with cut images.  Courtesy of The Wyspa Art Institute, Gdansk
Katarzyna Jozefowicz, Sights, 2010-12. Hand-stitched vinyl envelopes with cut images. Courtesy of The Wyspa Art Institute, Gdansk

Gda?sk is one of the 20th Century’s most pivotal cities. Strategically located along the placid waters of the Baltic Sea, it was here that the Second World War officially began.  In the 1980s this centuries old city (Danzig in its German incarnation) became a hotbed of revolutionary ferment. It was here in the hometown of Lech Walesa and the birthplace of Solidarinosz that a  major blow was struck upon the Iron Curtain’s seemingly impenetrable armor.

But now the vast Gdansk Shipyards, scene of the momentous  August 1980 strikes, stand idle, a crumbling red brick ruin, slowly being reclaimed by the forces of nature. Interspersed among the trees and tall grasses that make this former symbol of communist productivity resemble an urban park, the Wyspa Institute of Art stands defiant.

Wyspa’s history, like so much of its surroundings, is intimately tied to the 1980s. It was during this period that sculpture students from the Fine Arts Academy, among themGrzegorz Klaman, Kazimierz Kowalczyk and Beno Osowski, began exploring the ruins of Granary Island, a section of Gdansk untouched since its destruction by allied bombs in the 1940s. In their hands the island was clandestinely transformed into an open-air experimental exhibition and studio space.

This alternative space, where the history of the city is made palpable by the exposed layers of the ancient structures surrounding them, eventually gave rise to a more formalized vision: the Wyspa Progress Foundation.  A non-profit organization launched in 1994Wyspa is committed to exploring varieties of artistic practice and art in public spaces.

In 2004, the WPF founded the Wyspa Institute of Art in a former technical college in the shipyards. Since 2010, under the directorship of co-founder Aneta Szylak, this “laboratory of new thinking” has sponsored ALTERNATIVA, a series of large-scale international exhibitions, performances, publications, and meetings.

The current exhibition “Materiality” is a jointly curated investigation into how “different generations of artists, thinkers, and cultural operators have reconsidered their approach to materiality and its turbulent political history.”  Housed in the spectacularly renovated Hall 90b, over 30 works range from the coldly conceptual to the invitingly tactile, the massive space echoing  to the ubiquitous sound of clicking slide projectors.

Katarzyna Krakowiak’s Reconstruction of the Shipyard’s Broadcasting Center (2012), which involves the artist transforming herself into a human antenna, is part video documentary, part historical display. A slickly edited film features Krakowiak precariously balanced along the roof of Hall 90b. Clutching a hand-held transmitter, she broadcasts snippets of sound from the archives of a former shipyard DJ. The LPs, tape reels and other ephemera from the archive are tactfully arranged within a vitrine next to the video monitor.

Hiwa K., Nazhad, 2009-12. Video and (displayed in photo) digital prints. Courtesy of The Wyspa Art Institute, Gdansk
Hiwa K., Nazhad, 2009-12. Video and (displayed in photo) digital prints. Courtesy of The Wyspa Art Institute, Gdansk

This fitting introduction to “Materialty” lays bare its central critical problem: How do artworks exist in the present tense? Like several of the pieces in the show, Reconstruction of the Shipyard’s Broadcasting Center assumes a documentary character that has problems transcending the weight of its own past. Hiwa K.’s Nazhad (2009/12) encounters a similar problem.  The film records the activities of an Iraqi man who melts the spent remains of military conflict into ingots to sell. The documentary, along with the attendant photographs of the craftsman at his forge, are thoroughly engaging. But the intense physicality of the process, the heat, sweat and hard work required to turn bullets into bars, are vaporized by the immateriality of the photographic medium. What remains underscores the fact that these moments are now lost in time.

Actuality in the past does not guarantee a work’s status as art in the present. Undoubtedly this sentiment is an intended consequence of the exhibition, but it gets repetitive. Even the most compelling documentary examples, such as Sally Gutierrez’s Organ Market (2009), a horrifying film that explores the market for paid organ “donation” in the Philippines, feel insulated from attempts to engage with attributes other than the ideas they represent.

To the curators’ credit, “Materiality” genuinely seeks a dialogue between multiple approaches to contemporary art-making. The show gracefully balances its more cerebral aspects with several beautiful displays that accentuate the physical properties of the artist’s chosen medium.

Lex Pott addresses the passage of time in the present tense in his simple but powerful work Transience (2012). A series of 14 silvered mirrors arranged horizontally across the wall, each section is progressively darkened by the application of sulfur as an oxidizing agent. The result is a color spectrum that ranges from silver through golden amber to a deep purple-blue. Its unit-based structure recalls Judd and Andre, but the stress appears to be less on the literalness of the object than its effects upon the reflected imagery. Gazing at the mirrors, one feels an increasing detachment from the reflected space as the oxidized surface darkens. Pott’s work strikes a somber tone.

Katarzyna Jozefowicz also applies a modular  approach to composition in her hanging installation Sights (2010/12). Composed of hundreds of hand-stitched, clear vinyl envelopes – each containing small images of homes, streets, or landscapes — the work is a rumination on dreams, a kind of scrapbook for events that have never occurred. Jozefowicz tackles time, space and material in subtle and sophisticated ways. By collapsing the distance between these elements and reordering them in a non-linear fashion, she allows for the creation of new narratives generated by the physical presence of the sculpture rather than merely by the artist’s claims on its behalf. Sights is one of “Materiality’s” most impressive statements.

Across the cracked pavement from Hall 90b, in the Wypsa Institute of Art’s rear gallery space, curators Ewa Malgorzata Tatar and Dominik Kurylek have re-imagined the WPF archives as the companion exhibition “Wyspa: Now is Now”.

Organized around four major themes  that define Wyspa as a cultural force — labor, location, meeting, myth — the films, photos, books, objects, and stories that represent 30 years of activity (including the decade prior to their foundation) are laid out in a series modular square sculptures. Theoretically this aids the viewer in experiencing “the archive as a present”. In practice, the materials used possess the patina and authority conferred by age and only act to assert their historicity.

This, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing. “Now is Now” may not live up to its curatorial premise, but the experience of the show is remarkably haptic. The darkened gallery feels damp and a faint musty odor permeates the space. The peeling walls and aging concrete floors set the stage for a thoroughly immersive experience of the past in space that exudes its own history.

It is tempting to label ALTERNATIVA as yet another festival that ends in ‘A’, but unlike dOCUMENTA or Manifesta, ALTERNATIVA bills itself as a kind of “anti-festival”, spread out over a series of years rather than days.  ALTERNATIVA is perhaps best envisioned as an ongoing experiment — albeit one that appears incredibly well funded — that began in the heady days of the 1980s. By emphasizing not just display, but also art’s social role in the accumulation and distribution of knowledge, “Materiality” and the Wyspa sponsored exhibitions that have preceded it remain true to the roots of its host city.

Lex Pott, Transience, 2012 . Oxidized mirrors, dimensions variable.  Courtesy of The Wyspa Art Institute, Gdansk
click to enlarge