11th edition of the SURVIVAL Art Review, Wrocław, 22–30 June 2013

> Anna Stec
curatorial collaboration during the Review


It has been for the last 11 years that the SURVIVAL Art Review has been filling in a new space in Wrocław on a yearly basis in order to emphasise its advantages or – at times – imperfections. Each subsequent edition is accompanied by a keynote and a motto which complements it. This time, water became the main theme of the Review, together with the notion of “(…) the presence of a river in cityscape and its simultaneously life-giving and destructive powers”, as the curators put it. For that reason the venue for the 11th edition of SURVIVAL was an embankment of the Oder, near Xawery Dunikowski Boulevard and the Academy of Fine Arts and Design. The motto of this year’s event was We’re Sailing!, borrowed from Roman Polański’s film Knife in the Water.

Water has always mesmerised artists, who struggled to capture its beauty and transience. The uniqueness of the element is particularly noticeable in sculpture and architecture – be it small forms such as city fountains or gigantic and spectacular landscaping. In painting, it was William Turner who was fascinated by the fleetingness and beauty of aquatic phenomena and mastered the art of depicting the changes in water’s state of aggravation, from its liquid to gaseous form; later, the Impressionists attempted to capture the light skimming water surfaces on canvas. But only when photography emerged were painters given the possibility of reproducing in detail the fleeting moments featuring water (as it was the case with David Hockney’s Bigger Splash, which was painted from a photograph). Hence, scientific and technological progress provides contemporary art with ever greater possibilities to seize the spontaneity and ephemerality of the element.

During this year’s edition of SURVIVAL, these possibilities were especially evident in video works, e.g. the Double Dream series (curated by Małgorzata Sobolewska), Luiza Zimerman’s installation Vibrating Waves, or Maja Wolińska’s impressive video Fading Away (which was in fact prepared for the 7th edition of the Review), shown this year in the ruined Bricklayers’ Bastion. The majority of artists, however, attempted to face the subject of water by focusing on that had already existed in the area (which is, after all, SURVIVAL’s customary practice).

The subject of water and the presence of a river in the cityscape was addressed by the artists in a variety of ways. Some of them perceived water in a sentimental way and focused on its romantic symbolism by drawing on the picturesqueness of the river in the city; others highlighted its destructive character and presented water as a threat. And there were those who took up the challenge of provoking interaction with the audience. During this year’s edition there was no shortage of references to the history of the city and ironic comments on the existing reality. Some artists skimmed the surface of the subject of water while others explored it in depth. Among the latter was Mira Boczniowicz.

Her work titled Archeology WROH2O ‘The Obvious Quote’ introduced the inhabitants of Wrocław to that which remains distant, mysterious and inaccessible, hidden deep under the surface of water – the riverbed of the Oder, as it was filmed by divers and shown at the festival club.

The current edition, contrary to the one before it, was situated right in the heart of Wrocław. The visit (and for many recipients – the accidental encounter with art) usually began near the Piaskowy Bridge, a noisy spot which bustles with life round the clock. The small bridge is also known for its traffic intensity, carrying both vehicles and tramways. Large numbers of inhabitants take this way to reach a local covered market or head towards the University of Wrocław. Although the bridge offers a splendid view of the river and its banks, few people stop to admire it.

One of SURVIVAL’s works, however, did make passersby stop. Among the drone of traffic, a soothing sound could be heard, in stark contrast with the usual hum. Marylin Monroe’s velvety and calm voice, known to all, whispered these words: If you listen, you can hear it call, / Wailaree… Wailaree… / There is a river / Called the River of No Return / Sometimes it’s peaceful / And sometimes wild and free. It was a simple yet extremely ‘picturesque’ trick of Marta Szmyd, whose work If You Listen, You Can Hear it Call prompted passers-by to slow their pace and give in to a moment of reverie. It introduced a romantic ambience and triggered associations with love (after all, Monroe sings of a lost love). The singer’s tragic story, however, made it impossible to resist the feeling of melancholy.

The gentle sounds of River With No Return constituted an interesting background for another work that could be seen from the bridge. A black object secured to the river bank – a boat whose shape resembled a sarcophagus (created by Agnieszka Popek-Banach and Kamil Banach) – evoked associations with mythology: the final crossing of the Styx, from which there shall be no return. The peculiar object was given an ironic title borrowed from the motto of this year’s edition – We’re Sailing. As it later turned out, the associations were much less metaphorical and more literal, resulting in a feeling of sheer terror among a sizeable proportion of random passers-by. Thus the artists succeeded in proving that the presence of a river in the cityscape may bring not only idyllic and aesthetic sensations.

Another artist who made use of the picturesqueness of the river and the romantic symbolism of water was Magda Grzybowska. Her installation Water Lilies, which consisted of circular skirts with a flowery pattern, floated on the surface of the Gondola Bay, a charming little marina with a history going back over a hundred years, which nowadays offers kayaks for rent.

It was in the same bay where Tomasz Matuszak’s work under the title Ophelia was situated. The artist recreated the drowning Ophelia as she was depicted by John Everett Millais. The scene was complemented by the artist’s comment, postmodernist in spirit – the corpse of Ophelia was carefully observed from the riverbank by a plastic bunny and a garden dwarf. In spite of this ‘wink’ at the audience, the work triggered a feeling of unease and consternation among the passersby, who sometimes failed to spot the reference to the pre-Raphaelites.

A work which also used the picturesque quality of the Oder riverbanks was an installation by Szymon Hanczar. A mosaic of glimmering mirrors the size of a brick was attached to the revetment across the river from the Boulevard, which reflected the water, plants, passing boats, and the changing light. Each year, judging by the number of requests to leave it permanently, one artwork becomes the informal ‘winner’ of the SURVIVAL Review. This time it surely was Szymon Hanczar’s 12m2.

Yet another installation which emphasised the aesthetic appeal of the Oder was Marta Szmyd and Dominika Uczkiewicz’s work On a River Which Is. At the top of the Polish Hill, next to each bench, a poem about the Oder, or a river as such, could be found. However, the benches faced the opposite direction, which stirred the reader’s imagination. The installation became an accurate comment on the abundance of visual stimuli which flood our everyday lives.

The power of imagination was called for by Krzysztof Furtas, whose work was viewed with great fondness. The artist turned the embankment into a seaside promenade by placing full-sized ‘concrete’ breakwaters along it (which were in fact an imitation made of Styrofoam). Those who upon seeing it felt a gentle breeze from the sea on their faces would testify how powerful a visual form may be in triggering memories and affecting the senses.

Right by the main pedestrian walkway of Xawery Dunikowski Boulevard, Szymon Wojtyła placed his Public Aquarium. A transparent object made of Plexiglas had the shape of a litter bin and was half-full of water. The refracted light formed a rainbow halo, which guaranteed intense aesthetic sensations. Not for long though. The purity and transparence of the object were soon to be disturbed. Within an hour from the opening of the exhibition, the object was full of rubbish. The work seemed to have made an interesting comment on the problem of environment pollution, reminding the visitors to the Review how quickly our surroundings are flooded by refuse.

The rain pouring down during part of the Review paradoxically emphasised the impact of some of the works.

Among them was an installation by Grzegorz Łoznikow titled 97 – the year when the city was struck by a devastating flood. It imitated the remains of a floodbank and took on particular significance due to the weather conditions, strengthening the feeling of threat, which had originally been part of the artist’s intention. The water brought to the Boulevard by the rains had an interesting effect on Joanna Jopkiewicz and Paweł Borkowski’s Parasigns. The twisted forms of road signs, as if reflected in the water, triggered a sincere feeling of admiration even on sunny days; later, surrounded by sizeable puddles, they aroused general confusion. It was hard to tell which objects were real and which just a distorted image in the water sheet.

The rains harmonised well with the work entitled Borda d’Água / Water’s Edge by a Portuguese duo of artists Luis Placido Costa and Andreia Santana. This land art installation was based on the idea of taking out and lifting the external layer of soil, thus creating a large hole. Once the hole filled up with water, the work benefitted both visually and symbolically. A continuation of the installation, under the title No Water On the Other Edge, was presented by the same artists a few days later in the Mieszkanie Gepperta gallery – which was an untypical situation for SURVIVAL. A dry and pristine room in the gallery was overgrown with lush natural grass, which complemented the aforementioned installation in an interesting way.

Another installation that was processual in character was Michael Merkel’s Schmelzwasser / Meltwater[s] The artist placed seven gigantic blocks of ice at the junction of walkways. Each of them was made from the water of the seven rivers in Wrocław. Differing in colour (the water from the Oder turned out to be the darkest shade of brown), the blocks gradually melted during the Review and disappeared altogether on its second day.

An avid interest in the secrets and remnants of the pre-war Breslau is what characterises artists from Wrocław, who frequently (not only during SURVIVAL) use the language of art to introduce the inhabitants to the mysteries of their city and raise historical awareness.

Among the works of this kind was Tomasz Bajer’s installation, which contained an intriguing story in a monumental form. The artist takes a keen interest in the facts and legends connected with the history of Breslau. The Unterwasser Stadt installation referred to a historical fact, namely the flooding of underground tunnels by the fleeing Germans, who also bricked up the entrances to the ‘underground city’. Over the years, the legend lived on and grew. One of its versions mentions a hidden treasure flooded somewhere under the city…

The history of Wrocław inspired also Dy Tagowska, who created a scale model of a pre-war bathing resort for women, and Michał Sikorski. The latter, in his work Memory Hill, referred to Anders’ Hill, an artificial heap of rubble in Wrocław containing the debris from the buildings destroyed during the war. The artist presented during the Review a part of his unusual collection of items belonging to the previous inhabitants of the city, which he finds on the hill after each hard rain.

Obviously, there was no shortage of irony and humour at this year’s edition of the Review. Due to a substantial number of bridges and canals, Wrocław is sometimes termed ‘Venice of the North’. Paweł Marcinek commented on this somewhat pompous comparison by placing a sign with the symbol of a gondola and an inscription ‘Attenzione’ in the proximity of the Gondola Bay. Tymon Nogalski in turn indulged in a funny game with passers-by. His work Crossing consisted of two sprinklers placed on both sides of a path in such a way that one had to wait for the right moment in order not to get wet. The installation was highly appreciated during the heatwave, only to become public enemy number one during the cool and rainy weather a few days later. The opposing aspects of water were revealed yet again.

Krystian TRUTH Czaplicki, in his usual way, utilised a succinct and minimalist form to create a practical object. Being fully aware of the character and function of the place (a slope of the Polish Hill, near the Academy of Fine Arts), the artist displayed a seemingly banal but highly functional object – a bottle rack. During the opening ceremony, he staged a small performance by placing a beer bottle in it to unveil a functional sculpture titled Wrocław 2013.

Piotr Kmita presented a modified version of a city fountain. His Multimedia Fountain was not only a parody of the monumental (and hugely expensive) Multimedia Fountain in Wrocław, but of contemporary art as such. He referred unequivocally to the master of the avant-garde Marcel Duchamp, who is probably one of the most frequently quoted artists in modern art. Kmita also used a readymade – a toy potty – and displayed it in a pseudo-museum style (on top of a pedestal, in the hall of the Academy of Fine Arts). The artist emphasised the multimedia features of the item, but also inspired interaction with the audience – after pressing the right buttons, lights would come on, accompanied by a variety of electronic sounds. The work referred also to the German period in the history of Wrocław – it played German songs. Therefore, the installation included all the elements indispensable to a contemporary artwork, with a pinch of self-mockery, of course. Kmita in his practice frequently quotes references to both highbrow and low-brow culture.

The SURVIVAL Art Review was more than just the works displayed in the proximity of Xawery Dunikowski Boulevard. There were special events: the unveiling of Michał Smandek’s installation in the Black Water pond (whose shape changed as the water level increased or decreased), or the intriguing performance Styx by Jakub Słomkowski and Loic Bertrand, which closed the Review. The eleventh edition of SURVIVAL included debates as well as the surprising and unconventional Sound Art Forum, which is worthy of an extended review. Its curator Daniel Brożek invited artists who performed startling feats, such as playing symphonies of underwater sounds from a boat on the river, or performing a concert for birds (Marek Brandt’s project Music for Animals, which concluded the Review).

This year’s SURVIVAL was assessed in a variety of ways – from highly enthusiastic opinions, praising it as one of the best editions so far, to critical ones, accusing the curators of failing to show ‘where to sail, with whom and for what?’ (but is it curators’ or artists’ task to provide straightforward answers and solutions?). One thing is for certain – art in the public space is presently on the rise, and the organisers of SURVIVAL face a tough choice whether to continue swimming against the tide, as they have so far. What seems certain, however, is that the general audience continues to react to SURVIVAL in a lively way, as it has always been the case. For instance, Szymon Wojtyła’s aforementioned work Public Aquarium triggered in the local inhabitants a feeling of responsibility for their immediate surroundings. One of the visitors decided to become personally responsible for protecting the artwork and scolded anyone who dared contaminate the bin. The passers-by, unaware of the gravity of their offence, got into panic and in some cases offered to undo their inappropriate action by removing the rubbish from the ‘work of art’. Moreover, during one of the last nights of the Review, the work by Agnieszka Popek-Banach and Kamil Banach Flooding Us (Polish: Powodzi się) was altered to become Clearing Up (Polish: Pogodzi się).

Thus, for the eleventh time the SURVIVAL Art Review has proven that it is not so difficult to reconcile contemporary art and random passers-by.


WROH2O – Part of the title of Mira Boczniowicz’s work (Archeology WROH2O ‘The Obvious Quote’), presented during the 11th edition of the SURVIVAL Art Review.

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