> Anna Stec
Due to media hype concerning sports events in 2012, the world of art also went crazy about sport, like it or not. In London, to celebrate this year’s Olympic Games, a giant work of art – the Olympic tower – was designed by one of the busiest architects of recent years, Anish Kapoor. In Poland, in connection with the intense emotions surrounding the Euro 2012, contemporary museums made a decision to incorporate sport in their everyday activities, with resulting exhibitions such as Sport in Art in MOCAK, Cracow, or Only a Game? in Wrocław Contemporary Museum.
The curators of the SURVIVAL Art Review, Michał Bieniek and Anna Kołodziejczyk, also decided to take up sports themes. Since the idea for the Review is not only to ‘introduce problems raised in young modern art into public discourse’ but also to react to what is currently going on in the city, this year’s tenth jubilee edition could be held nowhere but at a stadium.
A Short History of Survival Skills
SURVIVAL dates back to 2003. The first two editions were organised by students of Wrocław Academy of Fine Arts and their teachers (the originators of SURVIVAL are Michał Bieniek and Przemek Pintal) in abandoned buildings of former Soviet barracks in ul. Koszarowa. The main principle of the event was taking art out of the traditional exhibition spaces as well as enabling a frank exchange of ideas and thoughts in an open, freely-available space.
Further editions of SURVIVAL moved it from the outskirts towards the densely populated city centre. Art appeared in different venues in Wrocław, more or less demanding in terms of their adaptation. Among them were Browar Mieszczański (City Brewery), the complex of swimming pools in ul. Teatralna, the Central Railway Station or the Four Temples District – along with their various contexts, local communities and all their problems, emotions and entangled mutual relations.
Before long it turned out that modern art may not only provoke discussion but also influence actively the reality around it. What is interesting, almost all the places visited by SURVIVAL, which had previously been forgotten, were ‘brought back to the city’: the bunker in pl. Strzegomski nowadays houses Wrocław Contemporary Museum, the Four Domes Pavilion became the venue for the 2011 European Culture Congress, and the swimming pools in ul. Teatralna were thoroughly renovated.
At the same time, the idea of the Review started to take on new, increasingly complex meanings. Thus, just like the organisers of the Review, the artists and their works (many of whom take part in the Review each year) are ‘growing up’, SURVIVAL itself is growing and evolving. Today it is much more than a students’ experiment in art – it has become an important event whose tradition and years-long experience have been skilfully used to result in exceptionally good organisation. Year after year we have to do with an exhibition which has a more and more professional character and which, being the catalyst of many amazing stories in the last ten years, carries with it now a huge load of emotions, experiences and impressions. Although it does not show ‘young’ art anymore, the organisers are still full of youthful zeal and ambition to bring up difficult subjects in the open space of the city.
Let the Art Games Begin
In the curators’ introduction to the tenth edition of SURVIVAL we can read: ‘In consequence of choosing a venue of this kind [the ‘Oławka’ stadium in Wrocław], the content of the jubilee edition of the SURVIVAL Art Review will be determined by key words and phrases such as: competition, struggling for perfection, spectacle, games, collective experience etc. Sport and physical culture are connected with a wide array of notions and human desires: with perfecting the body and the spirit, fair play, the need for competition. (…) Situating the tenth edition of the Review on the premises of a functioning sports centre will also take on significance in the context of the approaching EURO 2012 Football Championship. Contemporary sport is just one of many commodities on the global market, and the element of rivalry connected with it becomes visible as soon as countries and cities begin the competition for being the host of the most important sports events. The world of art is also being increasingly dominated by market rules. Some of the rules governing the world of contemporary art may resemble those functioning in the world of sport.’1 Thus, this year’s SURVIVAL aims at criticising and revealing the ridiculousness of certain phenomena that can be observed both in the world of sport and art, rather than enthusiastically combining plastic arts and physical culture.
The curators’ ironic attitude may be observed even in the motto of the Review, which is (as if taken directly from an advertising campaign of one of giants of sports clothes brands) Up To You. In the context of years-long struggles of the Review with various obstacles, it has a perverse character. The majority of the artworks presented during the four-day exhibition at the ‘Oławka’ stadium in Wrocław share in this ironic spirit.
War and Other Physical Activities
Among the numerous artworks, there was no lack of realisations which playfully referred to the issues defined by the curators. Probably none of the visitors to the exhibition needs reminding of Jerzy Kosałka’s work – an artist who has delighted SURVIVAL’s audience with his distance and sense of humour for many years. The video installation entitled High Jump, from the series: My Private Championships is a short film which shows a snail overcoming (at its usual speed) an obstacle in the form of a tiny stick – all this accompanied by exceptionally emotional sports commentary.
The subject of sport and games was approached in a similarly joking way by: Grzegorz Łoznikow (in a series of funny collages under the title Champion, which transformed old German photographs of heroes of Olympic games), Kamila Szejnoch (in the work which dominated above the pitch, entitled Euro Mast) and Franciszek Buchner (in his work Podium, in which the usual height of the elements of this object was reversed). There were also bitter-sweet works, like Michał Łagowki’s Fags, which, although it was funny, in fact revealed a sad truth about verbal aggression directed at rivals on the pitch. Many probably found Agnieszka Popek-Banach and Kamil Banach’s work Exercise entertaining (but simultaneously bloodcurdling and evoking traumatic memories from childhood) – it showed a vaulting horse, known to everybody from their schooldays, presented as an instrument of torture.
Exercise was not the only artwork of this artistic duo. The Banachs yet again displayed the accuracy of their observations (they are already known to the fans of SURVIVAL for their exceptional installation Better, which was shown during the ninth edition of the Review): in the work Race Rankings they referred to the notions of competition and rivalry, which are present in the worlds of sport, art, as well as in everyday life. On the obstacles in a hurdle race, they put the names of the most influential artists, curators, art theoreticians and gallery owners from the last ranking of the ‘Obieg’ art magazine.
At the Review there were also several artists who resisted the sports madness and in their works focused mainly on the history and the site-specific aura of SURVIVAL’s venue – the ‘Oławka’ stadium.
Maja Wolińska, an unquestionable master of video art, used her exceptional sense of aesthetics to create an unusually beautiful film, which stood out from the whole exhibition due to its (untypical for the world of sport) reflexive character. The work referred directly to the reality of the ‘Oławka’ stadium – or, to be more precise, to its immediate surroundings. Just behind the fence of the sports complex there are numerous allotments. The artist decided to transfer a part of that world-behind-the-wall to the premises of the stadium. The curators’ decision to show the video inside a typical garden house, built just next to the fence, is not without significance. Because of this trick, the visitors stood in front of an entrance to a different world – a world in which time passes much more slowly than at the stadium. Although all gardening activities do share certain qualities of physical activity, they are carried out at a relaxed pace, adequate to the participants’ age, being at the same time free from rivalry and competition. Each stunning frame of Maja Wolińska’s film testifies to the perseverance and tenacity of the slow process of looking after that which is important. The artist shows us a world in which it is nature that sets the pace and nothing can be artificially ‘sped up’ (e.g. because of a desire to overcome one’s limits). Hence the title of the work – Slow Sport.
Alicja Patanowska worked on the same plane – of pensiveness, reflexion, reminiscence. She also referred to the uniqueness and history of the ‘Oławka’ stadium. Years ago, on the premises of the stadium there used to be the most well-known open-air market in Wrocław, which prompted the artist to create a lawn sale of various items, typical for such a market. All the items came from her peculiar private collection and were given to visitors in exchange for free space. Each item had a label which said how many percent of emotions, reminiscences and reflections it carried. The most curious visitors could hear from the artist the history of their finds. The work referred to the phenomenon of collecting and gathering material objects, which is known to all of us, and then getting rid of them – as a form of psychological cleansing and coming to terms with one’s own past. It also made a reference to the memories of many inhabitants of Wrocław, who have probably at least once hunted something at the famous ‘Niskie Łąki’ market. That way, thanks to Alicja Patanowska’s Lawn Sale, many art recipients could triumphantly leave SURVIVAL – with a beautiful souvenir and a proper dosage of reminiscences, reflections and emotions, although not sports ones this time!
Talking about cleansing and breaking free, one work stood out against all the other realisations at the stadium. It was Michał Bieniek’s artwork, which referred to an issue that cannot be encapsulated within the subject-matter framework that emerged at the stadium (because in fact it was far from the subject of sport).
The artist referred to the motto of this year’s edition – Up To You – using metaphysical rather than physical associations. He showed Plato’s Phaedo, a dialogue about the immortality of the soul and its being separate from the body. The pages of the book were alternated with single drawings which, when one had a flick through the book, showed an Olympics-style jump into the water, using the principle of time-lapse photography. The trick referred to the story of Cleombrotus, a philosopher who was a contemporary of Plato and who was so fascinated by the notion of an immortal soul that he could not wait and leaped from the city walls and drowned, in order to be transferred to a higher level of existence. The work may also be a reference to another, more contemporary story – of an Olympics diver Greg Louganis.
During the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Louganis was injured during his jump and entered the swimming pool with a bleeding head. It was not until several years later that he admitted that at the time of the jump he had already been HIV positive. The artwork poses questions about the real possibility of influencing our existence by ourselves, but also raises the issue of the feeling of responsibility of the contemporary human. In the liberal world we live in, which reassures us that everything is up to us, is there room for responsibility for words, actions, decisions? Isn’t responsibility perceived nowadays as being contradictory to freedom? And what must be the state of a world in which these two terms are mutually exclusive?
Among the numerous artworks, some of them took up subjects referring to the issues of nationality, nationalism and the similarity of sports games and military actions. The latter is best illustrated by Marek Ranis’s 10:07:01. The video shows American crowd watching a speedway race. Thunders of applause and satisfied cheers are interrupted by photographs of bombing raids in Iraq. The work is an uncompromising and deeply critical commentary on the issue of ‘international games’, which are not always played fair.
During this year’s edition there were several works touching upon the issue of national animosities (Tomasz Opania, Polish Parents of German Children) and how they are fuelled in sport and through sport, which in turn is inextricably connected with historical grudges (Piotr Macha, Grill).
Aleka Polis’s work under the title Lucio had a political and social tinge, too. It recollected the story of Lucio Urtubia, who forged Citibank travellers’ cheques, which depleted its funds by 50 million dollars, and used the money to fight regimes, especially in South America. The artist designed a light (which burned throughout the duration of the Review) which resembled the Olympic flame and which was made to look like Urtubia’s profile, suggesting thus that he is a type of contemporary hero. Moreover, she likened Urtubia with a mythological character – Prometheus, and added a description of the idea of ‘anarcho-tricksterism’, with Prometheus and Urtubia being its most prominent representatives. A real trickster’s trick, since gullible visitors who lack vigilance (including the author of this text) were made to believe that this current really does exist (in fact, the artist originated it).
In the context of nationalities, probably the most controversial work turned out to be Dorota Nieznalska’s Construction of Race. The artist presented images of football yobs accompanied by nationalistic inscriptions. In that way, she referred to Ernest Gellner’s theory, which says that it is not nations that create nationalisms, but nationalisms – nations. The work stirred up controversies among the fans of Śląsk Wrocław, who were irritated by the fact that one of the photographs showed the scarf of Arka Gdynia, a club they treat as ‘enemy’, and stole the work one day before the opening of the Review (the banners were retrieved by the police and were presented during the Review).
The work that seemed to be dominating the stadium – which is interesting, since it did not have a physical form – was Paweł Modzelewski’s Match. The artist decided to play (throughout the duration of the Review) the recorded commentary to the 1974 World Cup match for third place, in which Poland defeated Brazil, from loudspeakers placed in the stands of the ‘Oławka’ stadium. It was only after the recording was turned off when it became clear that the stadium – and, consequently, the whole Review – would have been very different without it. The commentator’s voice, which wafted in the air above the three football pitches and further, created an unusual, somewhat melancholic impression when combined with the empty stands and pitches. Thoughts about the transience of fame and the fleeting nature of ‘days of glory’ spring to mind. The names which could be heard in the recording, such as Smuda and Lato, in 1974 were chanted proudly by all Poles, whereas nowadays they trigger rather negative associations (especially the latter2). The work may be an illustration of a peculiar void experienced by Polish football fans after 1974 and their high hopes that never came true, represented by the victory over Brazil. It is also a sarcastic commentary on how a national hero (especially one who does not know when to leave) may become an object of mocking and disdain.
Because ‘spectacle’ and ‘collective experience’ were among the key words of this year’s edition of the Review, there was no lack of lectures and debates on these issues in the programme of SURVIVAL. There were also numerous performances.
The Krasnals group appeared at the opening of the Review, playing a game of table tennis with rackets made from… ice (in accordance with the guidelines prepared by the curators). Lighting flares as part of Krzysztof Furtas’s work Capitalism and Schizophrenia was also quite spectacular. However, the most striking, although least visible (because buried in the ground up to their necks), were the girls from the ŁUHUU! group (Karina Marusińska, Agnieszka Rzeźniak, Natalia Rzeźniak, Katarzyna Goleń – work under the title 4:0). Four heads sticking from the ground of one of the pitches stirred up the most profound (and extreme) emotions among the visitors.
Young Talents and Experienced Players, Fame and Oblivion
Among the 50 artworks there were certainly some which triggered emotions strong enough to persist in the visitors’ memory for a long time. There were surely several works which the visitors passed by without any deeper reflexion, judging them to be mediocre, overlyintellectual, or simply incomprehensible ‘oddities’ of modern art. It was curious to see, in the context of the similarities between the rules governing the world of sport and art, how the artists had to compete with each other to place their works in the most attractive spot possible – so that it would be the most visible and, consequently, attract the biggest number of visitors. Which work won this race for visibility and attention remains to be decided by the passing time and the visitors’ selective memory.
Although some of SURVIVAL creations will be criticised or forgotten, the Review has a big advantage of not being afraid to show the works of beginning artists. Although the organisers’ years-long experience and the tradition of SURVIVAL enable its curators to invite famous names from the top of ranking lists, they regularly decide to give a chance to less experienced ‘contestants’. Such action may be risky from a ‘decent curator’s’ point of view, but that is the only way to select new talents who may soon join the honourable circle of those who stand on the podium of the world of contemporary art.
The Rising Tide of Enthusiasm: on the Excellence of Art and Sport
The SURVIVAL Art Review each year faces problems resulting from the chosen way of presenting art. It appreciates the successfulness of art in public space, but it does not forget its failures – it makes use of them, draws conclusions and shares them with the visitors. As a result, we all gain from this clash of art and public space. Observing the yearly events around SURVIVAL – the visitors’ negative and positive reactions, the bonds and relationships that emerge – we learn a lot about ourselves, about our neighbours, about places we frequent or avoid as well as, to put it as broadly as possible, about the city we live in. Although we may think we know it all too well, each year it turns out it hides immense reservoirs of fascinating stories and inexhaustible depositories of subjects which we may unexpectedly discover with the help of modern art.
Naive though this conclusion may be, triggered by the rising tide of enthusiasm around Euro 2012 – can it be helped…? – this positive spirit of fair play seems to be shared not only by those who believe in physical culture, but also by fans of intellectual exercises and art games.
- http://www.survival.art.pl/,120; last access: 29.06.2012.
- Grzegorz Lato – from 2008 until now (2012) – President of the Polish Football Association (PZPN). Before the 2012 Euro Championship in Poland he declared that if Poland did not qualify to the cup phase, he would resign. Poland did not qualify to the next round, but Grzegorz Lato did not resign from his function.