Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, Poland
February 19—May 1, 2016
The zenith in the career of a garter, My Lord, is generally in the loosening, not in the fastening of it.1
In 1955, the city of Warsaw was endowed with a peculiarly underhanded gift from Moscow: the Palace of Culture and Sciences, a leisure center cum conference hall designed by architect Lev Rudnev in the austere socialist realist style of the Stalinist regime. Inspired by Moscow’s Seven Sisters, a series of towers also commissioned by Stalin, the Palace dwarfed the quaint romanticism of the old town. It rose in an unnerving display of power that lured patrons in on the rather ironic invitation to unwind over a drink (think communist Kool-Aid), go to a concert, or play some tennis. Though hailed by Stalin as an example of pure, nationalist architecture, Rudnev slipped the building into something more comfortable, taking perverse delight in “quirking” or “personalizing” both its interiors and facades with an eclectic décor split between Russian baroque and Gothicism. These embellishments were an attempt to counter the faithless grey of Stalin’s taste with the flimsy, emotional details of counter-classical collapse. In other words, Rudnev’s décor emerged like a mid-century garter for Stalin’s pragmatism, providing a seductive and fetishistic surface (an “elephant in lace panties” as someone described it to me) under which ideology could be concealed. It’s enticing to look at, even more so to venture in.
This is especially true half a century later, when plaques bearing Stalin’s name have been replaced with flashing neons and prismatic ads. Surrounded by the constant bustle of a suave crowd, Rudnev’s details begin to collapse into capitalist phantasmagoria; the building has become a promiscuous body dedicated to more or less concealed consumption. Whatever ideologies were formerly upheld by the décor are buried in amalgams of horror and delight, real and imagined; the eye slips into the seams of multiplex cinemas, theaters, cafés, bars, and restaurants. The gothic ornaments on the Stalinist façade were perhaps a premonition of the postmodern, wherein one might linger over a gin martini for an evening in an oppressive structure.
Assuming that Bataille was right in declaring architecture as the authorial body of society, the Palace of Culture becomes particularly interesting as a counterpoint to its across-the-road neighbor, a modernist glass-and-concrete pavilion that currently, though temporarily, houses the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw (MoMA). The pavilion, about to be torn down by a developer after hosting the museum for only three years, presents an entirely different experience of the threshold, as, in the modernist fashion, it attempts to bring the outside inside through transparent walls.2 This openness was intended to move against secrecy and enclosure, which is to say, against the political aura of ideologies that become reified in opaque and unsociable structures.3
By doing away with the facade, you do away with the meaning that it symbolizes. Yet, since the last century, glass architecture has itself become somewhat of an emblem of power and capital; its promises of honesty, simplicity, and accessibility have been absorbed by corporations looking for ways to market the image of democracy. MoMA had little choice in regards to their interim location. But their plan to relocate, in 2019, to an anything but understated glass cube designed by architect Thomas Phifer warrants a second thought. The museum’s press release describes the forthcoming building as “transparent and honest” as opposed to the “grand, highly-articulated” architecture nearby—a blatant nod at its present location, facing the Palace of Culture.4 As a producer of cultural capital in a city that the museum describes as being in a “pivotal moment,”5 MoMA’s Borg-ish new home, with its commodified rhetoric, presents an uncomfortable double standard, which is to say, a glass building, above all, should know the risks of casting stones.
Perhaps acting as an agent provocateur, MoMA’s current exhibition, Bread and Roses: Artists and the Class Divide, looks at the precarity of those making art in the interstices of class structure, often as conduits or interlocutors between financial poles. Curators Natalia Sielewicz and Lukasz Ronduda take up Pierre Bourdieu in a consideration of artists who “flirt both with the dominant elite and with the emancipation-oriented groups who feel oppressed,” with a particular focus on what strategies of identification are mobilized by those with their pockets weighed down by cultural capital—in other words, privilege—and what agency this implies.6 Bourdieu asserts that those with the most cultural cachet determine taste in society, which is more often than not progressively co-opted under increasingly abstract terms as ideology—that is, reified in surfaces that do not necessarily reflect what they embody. As the curators of Bread and Roses put it, artists want to provide bread for the poor, but can only do so by giving roses to the rich. Suspended between this revolutionary instinct and its instrumentalization in artworks that end up as decorative provisions for the elite, the 36 artists in the exhibition work in modes from total transparency to mute enclosure, either upholding ideology or allowing it to slink off into the elasticity of experience. Twisting this, it seems possible to consider “bread” and “roses” as opposing architectural languages, especially with the museum’s expansion plan looming as a bias toward a futurity that not only prefers a public appearance of openness, but also, through the exhibition, suggests political transparency as a promising future for political art. Guided by a large amount of digital ephemera, screens, posters, inkjet prints, stock images and a printed essay, one is left wondering if art’s capacity to hold meaning in materiality—to suggest and suppose through form and figure—is slowly being phased out.7
In part, the exhibition still clings to art following the legacy of conceptualism, mainly in regards to those who still understand the working class and the financial elite in an oppositional relationship that can be represented in symbolic objects. These objects enclose the “aura” of their making into form, like Rafal Jakubowicz’s The Slab (2014), a podium sourced from a nearby factory, where it was used by unionized workers for pep talks (imagine Richard Serra making stages). In this, minimalism meets its politically inclined doppelgänger as the artist replicates the found object, placing both side by side in an act of allegorical distancing intended to evoke the convergences between art’s labor and its possible unionization. Such “grand” and “highly articulate” statements carry through the exhibition: for example, the well-manicured and discerningly jeweled hand by Christian Jankowski, Monument to the Bourgeois Working Class (2012), which holds within its elegant grip a large drill bit, posing as la dominante dominé, paradoxes and all.8 Gerard Jürgen Blum Kwiatkowski’s Untitled (1964) is similarly guised by displaying knee-patches from workers’ clothing in a decrepit, gilded frame, which appears exhausted from all the abstraction amassed in its wake. Teresa Murak’s photographs in Untitled (1983) document a grass-covered crucifix being carried to its final resting spot within the pews of a church in rural Poland. All of these works identify a common social body through a symbolic materiality (a formal object, art instituted as art), and they succeed, at least at some level, in making a critical point—even if that point is simply, as the artist Andrew Norman Wilson points out, “that things are more profound than their economic relations.”9 These artists—along with others, such as Zofia Kulik, Cindy Sherman, and even Georgia Sagri, with her site-specific commas—preoccupy themselves not with how to best re-strategize art as a tool for escape or alterity, but rather use their work to dwell in these experiences to shape culture through its formal critique. All the same, working with such clearly cut symbolic objects also establishes boundaries to their practices by limiting confrontation to content, presenting a certain inefficiency that may be inherent to all politically inclined art.
Elsewhere in the exhibition, other artists edge on total transparency, that postmodern collapse of boundaries, where participating in the market, brand management, becoming a cultural producer or, alternately, an artist-as-entrepreneur, activist, hacktivist, or a Warholite are all seen as viable ways of revamping social structure, as the outside is brought inside and toppled over in a couple folds of irony and/or critical diagnostics. Who can follow? Form is here overthrown into obsolescent things (products, actions, ads) that seem to exasperate even themselves, prompting slogans like Deterritorial Support Group’s “THE POST POLITICAL = THE MOST POLITICAL” on posters featuring images collected in the wake of the London student protests in 2010. Elsewhere, more potently (at least if the amount of attention it generated means anything), DSG have been spreading the rumor about a fortuitous relationship between Lady Gaga and Slavoj Žižek. Artist Debora Delmar Corp., whose billboard-sized stock image of an apparently pleased woman reclining on a white sofa hangs centrally in the exhibition, adjacent to artificial box trees, and Brace Brace, run by Annika Kuhlmann and Christopher Kulendran Thomas, have wholly assimilated themselves to the language and visual production of neoliberalism in order to grasp at a chance to manipulate its very processes of distribution and the mechanics of globalization. Brace Brace’s contribution—two chic, black life rings and a promotional video advertising their luxurious functionality—brings up the pathologies of high-end design by annihilating artistic autonomy and finding a surrogate in the sardonic lure of commercialism. As Thomas notes: “The artistic operation can be appreciated more fully if it’s understood as part of a circulatory trajectory, rather than at the moment that the exhibition is viewed.”10 It’s a critical stance that falls flat when confronted with the inevitable, if rather inane, question: Then why make art at all? Reifying theory doesn’t imply criticality or critical distance, and it definitely doesn’t make the dodgy synergies any less abstract, let alone resolve why art instituted as anything but art does anything but reinforce the knowledge economy. In When Platitudes Become Form (2013), Thomas’s own contribution to Bread and Roses, the artist purchased artworks from his native Sri Lanka, then re-fashioned them to look like whatever contemporary art is meant to look like these days. A lot of contemporary art is a mess of indulgent and empty abstract ideas, objects being produced simply for the sake of production or, more poignantly, the sake of participation. Yet condoning a strategy that seems only to accelerate art’s obsolescence for another illusory attempt at redirecting the market seems worse. While acknowledging that critical art production sets the so-called highest “standards by which commodity is confirmed,” Thomas nevertheless partakes in the same process of taste-making, affirming a mode of practice based solely on intellectual elitism that bears very little relevance to the objects he presents.11 Art’s capacity to overwhelm, to confuse, to fail, or to expose vulnerabilities and tensions is here replaced by a self-righteous political position that, while busy moralizing, fails to address its own creation. It’s a misleading approach that suggests that transparency may just be another mode of obfuscation and the democratic openness it strives to announce is merely a repositioning of the symbolic value—the cultural capital—that Bourdieu deemed so violent.
This same misdirection is what makes the crystal clear rhetoric of MoMA in Warsaw’s expansion plan seem so duplicitous, as it utilizes glass architecture in an attempt to embody the transparency and openness of democracy, yet fails to recognize the irony of this enterprise. Following the protests in London and across England in 2011, where riotous rocks smashed multiple glass buildings, Mark Crinson wrote: “Glass…may actually be about false accessibility, about temptation and leading astray.”12 By legitimizing this kind of illusive transparency, the museum reinforces its own hegemonic apparatus, namely that of cultural capital. The affirmation of transparency in Bread and Roses seems to push further toward art’s reinvention as something other than itself, as something that, while not condoning neoliberalism, doesn’t entirely condemn it either. Crinson’s theory about smashing glass to actually access a falsely accessible inside (the inside of the art world, for example, or of cultural capital) is thus surprisingly refreshing, and it parallels a third category of artists who seem too loosen the idea of what political art can be, much like Rudnev’s personalization of the Palace of Culture.
Jesse Darling’s disenfranchised, humiliated billboards, which lean shamefully with their faces against the back wall of the museum, seem an equally violent reaction to such institutional ideologies. Embarrassed, abused, the works hide childishly from the spectacle around them, as the soft, painted wood of the billboard suggests a private, intimate moment. Darling’s dejection is put on display, like children sent to the corner to think about their actions. Andrew Norman Wilson’s video, titled Artist caught in an infinite loop of plot mechanisms (2016), is a strangely poetic insert in which a puppet dangles and dances in a stage-like space, accompanied by screeches, honky-tonk and other loud sounds. The video unfolds behind Debora Delmar Corp.’s banner. As the screen flickers through the fabric, it unsettles the passiveness of its surface by casting color and movement like proverbial stones into glass. Darling’s painted wood is in a bad mood and we know why; Wilson’s puppet is reasonably manic. Elsewhere, Marta Minujin’s corn treaty, Payment of the Argentine Foreign Debt to Andy Warhol with Corn, the Latin American Gold (1985/2011), is a playful exchange of status and value enacted through a series of studio photographs, in which Warhol and Minujin pose gleefully on a golden stack of corn-on-the-cob. Leigh Ledare’s portraits were taken by women he found through erotic ads and paid to photograph him in the privacy of their homes. Nearly naked and comfortably sprawled, Ledare resigns to the control of the women in a symbolic reversal of the expected exchange. In Minujin’s and Ledare’s pieces, power, structure, and ideology are undone in acts that address the shattered experience transparency creates. Arguably, these works function because they collapse reality into fiction and emotion into critique. Like Wilson suggests, their agency is packaged from within: “The magic show twisted into something repulsive.”13
The strange and allegorical decor of the Palace of Culture can here be understood (or fetishized) outside of its oppressive symbolism as consisting of facades, features, and expressions. Affect has fastened onto these characteristics, but its grip has loosened over time. Consider it the political fantastique, a kind of literary architecture that codifies the gothic experience by affixing an unknown onto the surface of something stable.14 This may just be its surface, a seductively stern face that invites you into those opaque towers (for a drink, to see a film) under alluring circumstances. Those who venture into this realm of economic tension wear the emotions and murky guises of economic uncertainty, twisting and contorting critique into an uncanny visual psychology. It is not the concept that convinces but the mood.
In its overlapping paranoia, questioning of verifiability, and the insecurity that sits on its very surface, Metahaven’s dizzying film The Sprawl (2015) serves as a fitting, final example of the narrative potential of critique woven into the unconscious. The film itself elides identification, as it slides through propaganda about propaganda masked as newscasts, all brought together in a sort of intermittent Europop music video. Throughout the film, selected experts are interviewed on topics such as the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, the Syrian uprisings, and drones. Literally shrouded in smoke and mirrors, the film blurs the distinctions between boundaries and thresholds in a way that Walter Benjamin would make no allowances for; this spurious surface is arguably at the core of why glass architecture and market-affirmative or “transparent” art practices fall short. Yet, in Metahaven’s total collapse of topic, genre, narrative, and site, space is renegotiated by breaking down the idea of enclosure altogether. Instead, The Sprawl builds on the idea of network ideology and communicative capitalism as materials for virtual architecture, which can be uploaded and downloaded as information. The space they describe is a rather dystopian understanding of multiple parallel meanings that appear to our consciousness like pop-up advertisements online, always mutually exclusive yet unavoidably overlapping. Whatever exchanges we imagined the Internet to facilitate are unbound as a clusterfuck of propaganda, which replaces transparency as a rhetorical device in the media. Though it collapses the borders between the so-called truth and its antitheses, it also yields to a future imaginary by carrying within it the idea of fantasy, much like Rudnev’s Palace of Culture. This is to say, rather than relying on the transparent rhetoric of media and other governing institutions, whose “truths” are lost in differing and misleading agendas, Metahaven proposes an acceleration of projected individual realities that can “design their own truth.”15 The Sprawl is propaganda, not unlike monolithic Stalinist architecture—but its propaganda can potentially be shaped, or decorated, for the creation of a new status quo. This involves looking for cohesions within the overload of indices and signs present in our knowledge economy, which, given the sheer quantity, seems positively apophenic. Yet flashing neon signs, cocktail-sipping crowds, and ambivalently capitalist artists lend the present moment an apparently meaningful pattern—one which would probably do better unraveling into uncertainty than guising itself in the underhanded austerity of “transparent” politics.
Sabrina Tarasoff is a Finnish writer who divides her time between Paris and Los Angeles. Together with Naoki Sutter-Shudo, she co-runs the loosely Los Angeles-based space Bel Ami.
- Isak Dinesen, “The Deluge at Nordernay,” Seven Gothic Tales (New York: Random House, 1934), 14.↵
- The museum was founded in 2005. Its new building, on Defilad Square, was designed by architect Thomas Phifer and is due for completion in 2019.↵
- Walter Benjamin reminds us of the paradox of this in his essay on Paul Scheerbart’s Glassarchitektur from 1913, in which Benjamin argues that glass as a material has no aura, as it lacks the capacity for anything to attach itself onto it. Glass, he writes, is the “enemy of progressiveness.” See Walter Benjamin, “Poverty and Experience,” Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings 1931–1934 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 734.↵
- Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, “Here Is the Design of the New Buildings for Our Museum and TR Warszawa,” September 18, 2015↵
- Natalia Sielewicz and Lukasz Ronduda, “Curatorial Statement,” in Bread and Roses (Warsaw: Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, 2016), http://breadandroses.artmuseum.pl/public/breadandroses.pdf, PDF, 10.↵
- Andrea Fraser’s essay “L’1%, C’est Moi,” is mounted on the wall in the entrance of the museum. The text was first published in Texte zur Kunst 83 (September 2011).↵
- The dominante dominé recalls Bourdieu’s concept of the “dominated part of the dominant class,” which the curators refer to in the exhibiton’s virtual catalog. See Natalia Sielewicz and Lukasz Ronduda, “Curatorial Statement,” in Bread and Roses (Warsaw: Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, 2016), http://breadandroses.artmuseum.pl/public/breadandroses.pdf, PDF, 10.↵
- “‘When I steal food, I only steal from large-chain stores’: Natalia Sielewicz talks to Andrew Norman Wilson and Brace Brace (Christopher Kulendran Thomas and Annika Kuhlmann),” in Bread and Roses, 153.↵
- Ibid., 153.↵
- Ibid., 149.↵
- Mark Crinson, “Glass Architecture: A Riotous Mythology,” Mute Magazine (February 9, 2012).↵
- “‘When I steal food, I only steal from large-chain stores,’” 150.↵
- Clive Bloom, Gothic Histories: The Taste for Terror, 1764 to the Present (New York: Bloomsbury, 2010), 8.↵
- Billy Muraben, “Making Propaganda About Propaganda: Metahaven’s New Film Considers Fantasy and Truth within the Internet Culture,” It’s Nice That, February 11, 2016, http://www.itsnicethat.com/features/metahaven-thesprawl-110216.↵