Inflammatory state in the city? A diagnosis and remedial measures

> Magda Ujma


The 12th edition of the SURVIVAL Art Review was held in a building that had just been sold by Wrocław Medical University to a development company. The former Faculty of Pharmacy was based in a historical building that resembled a palace, situated in a picturesque spot by the Odra river, opposite Ostrów Tumski, the oldest part of the city. It had previously housed a natural museum and the German Pharmaceutical Institute. Having been abandoned for some time, the building had become somewhat dilapidated and consequently the monumental entry hall and the pompous, neo-Baroque stairwell did not make an overwhelming impression any more. The venue was full of surprises: labyrinthine passages, side stairwells, tiny rooms next to grand halls, balconies and entresols. All of them were full of meanings that referred to the past, and the entire venue was permeated with a certain spirit of melancholy. The curators of SURVIVAL, Michał Bieniek and Anna Kołodziejczyk, worked in a way that did not contradict this context; on the contrary, they amplified its meanings.

The main role at the exhibition was played by architecture, and after that – by plants. It was hardly surprising: the history of pharmacy began with plants, and the Review picked up on pharmacy and the array of associations triggered by it. Although I am not sure whether all the artists who used floral elements made a conscious reference to pharmacy, it remained undisputed that it was plants in a multitude of forms: live, dried or wilted, in flower pots and on the pages of herbals, whole and shredded, that initiated a vast range of topics, which varied from devastating famines that decimated populations to poisoning (with historical connotations) to the most obvious one: healing. Let us add the art of food seasoning and enhancing the mood using the colour and aroma of plants. The practical aspects were accompanied by the symbolic meaning of plants. The Latin names endowed ordinary weeds with an aura of mystery.

Magdalena Franczak (Folium Stramonii) built her installation on a genuine chemist’s chest of drawers. There were still some remains of authentic herbs, dried up saps and parched chaff. Also original were the red calligraphed inscriptions. After all, belladonna is highly toxic and no other colour would be suitable to describe it. The piece of furniture resembled a dreamlike sculpture surrounded by an unreal aura. Dagmara Angier-Sroka employed a similar strategy, although on a grander scale. It was as if this solution suggested itself: arranging thyme in plant pots in an existing space above the lecture theatre and under a skylight, which thus became a readymade. (Will the future users of the building accept the prompt and arrange this space, which was previously abandoned, in a similar way?) Karolina Brzuzan showed fragments of her Hunger Cookbook. When poverty strikes, people revert to self-set plants. It evoked some half-forgotten truths: knotgrass is more edible than grass. Although it sounds like a hipster tip from the Cooking Channel, Brzuzan’s herbal reminded us what people who really suffered from starvation ate: on slave ships that reached the American shore, in Ukraine during the Great Famine or in China at the time of the Cultural Revolution. These were not dishes for the sophisticated palate.

Poisons obtained from plants directed the chain of associations in another way. Bad health, death, and its causes: greed, desire to rule, aggression and violence. Not long ago, classes that were taught at the Faculty of Pharmacy and the experiments conducted here showed the positive face of science. Today, thinking in this way borders on naivety: everybody knows that science can become a lethal tool completely devoid of its aesthetic dimension. Try to guess what the result will be depending on who financed the research. Which is healthier: tea or coffee? Chicken eggs or cow milk? In his installation Toxicity, Tomasz Bajer filled a huge lab with the names of chemical substances. Old-fashioned sinks, tiled worktops, tarnished drainpipes and words written in big white letters. These were the ‘chemicals’ commonly added to food and cosmetics, code-named with a letter E plus a number. We devour huge quantities of them every day without knowing it. We are the guinea pigs of pharmaceutical, food and cosmetic corporations.

Talking about destruction and violence, Piotr Blajerski showed photographs of Church Demolition. He neither accompanied them with a comment nor explained his motives. We were supposed to look at the process itself and contemplate the aesthetic quality of destruction. Apart from a fascination with demolition, which unambiguously referred to the contemporary iconosphere, as if by the way he raised the issue of municipal policies, proprietorship, and developing new urban spaces. In her work titled EURO 2014, Katarzyna Kmita showed Russian tourists in Wrocław who cheered their football team on before their games during the Euro 2012 Championship. Two years later, in a new political context, with the conflict in Ukraine and Russia fighting for its position in Europe, their chant “we have come to win” lost its innocence and sounded like a threat. Aleka Polis completely departed from the issue of the policies of Wrocław and other Polish cities and showed films shot in Maidan Square in Kiev in February 2014 (NEVSEREMOS): an ordinary day of the protesters in their camp, the iconography of the protest. How was it connected with SURVIVAL in Wrocław? Political mobilisation of citizens for the public interest. Self-organisation, social activism, a collective in place of neoliberal politics catering to individuals, who end up on the shrink’s couch swallowing antidepressants. Communality instead of feeling responsible just for yourself. We have forgotten about these values in Poland, rushing to adopt market rules and capitalism with all its ugliness. Karolina Brzuzan took up the issue of art’s incompatibility with life (Pondus). The former seat of the Faculty of Pharmacy is situated between the main building of Wrocław University and the Ossolineum. A prime location that is about to become a luxury office

The sound projects’ influence was more subliminal. As if drawing on the rules of visiting an exhibition in a ‘cultured’ way, RSS BOYS in their S000ND WYTH W000ND disrupted the calm and sophisticated perception by recreating the atmosphere of a sandstorm. The room was filled up with beat and thick colourful smoke, which was intended to deafen, blind and disorientate the listener. If you suffered from claustrophobia, you would instantly rush out; even if you did not, you would anyway get lost in this smoky room with no contours of the walls and no possibility to grasp the layout.

Eyesight was of little use, you had to rely on your sense of touch and hearing in spite of the deafening sounds and the unbearable smell of smoke. Miguel A. Garcia and Gerard Lebik used basses that blasted out the narrow corridors of the room, which used to be devoted to aseptic processing (hence the title: Aseptic Sinus Infection). The low bass reached the limits of audibility, making the walls and the bodies inside them vibrate. It was empty, but you immediately wanted to leave.

Subjects such as illness, antidotes and treatment were present in a whole array of works. For example, Katarina Poliačikova tinged the panes of the window in a stairwell with cheerful, pastel colours of pills. Today, medicines (or substances that are termed so in commercials) are available in any corner shop. Aga Piotrowska showed a massive heap of empty tablet blisters that resembled leaves and titled it Dry Leaves. Personally, I would have preferred it if the work had not been accompanied by the neon light reading I DON’T KNOW. Too much or too little, overactivity or refraining from action are symptoms of melancholy and bipolar disorder. A sign of our times. A sign of how the market works nowadays, how absurd quantities of drugs to alleviate recently invented maladies are produced, could be found in Dominika Uczkiewicz’s Rush. Anybody who knew the stresses of modern life would easily understand the work: a heap of tablets was placed on a bathroom shelf next to a woman’s handbag. Marcin Łuczkowski’s Madness was a room filled with drawings and prescriptions from the floor to the ceiling. Inside, a goggle-eyed sculpture and crumpled drawings in every corner screaming with nudity, ugliness of bodies, heads, mouths, vaginas and penises. Obsessions resembling medieval psychomachia. Magdalena Popławska’s curatorial project titled I See it All, in turn, reflected on the need to create spaces and conditions in such a way that anybody would feel good in them and relax – hence Agnieszka Bar’s openwork baskets with live plants and the symbolically present ‘surgery’ of a witch-quack (Kosmos Project – Ewa Bochen, Maciej Jelski).

Other threads could be multiplied: hospitals, secluded places, living in a big city, urban activism, healthy-unhealthy, normative-non-normative… As I have already mentioned, the works referred to the character of the venue, the history of the building and its uses. This is what the specificity of SURVIVAL is based on. After 12 years of existence, we can clearly see that, first of all, it provides us with a fresh look on the city, emphasises its neglected parts or allows us to perceive well-known places from a new perspective. Secondly, it encourages us to take a walk around Wrocław and penetrate various nooks and crannies, yards, lawns and pavements. Let me remind youbuilding, a symbol of wealth and power. While the building awaited an overhaul, homeless people started living next to its walls. Pondus was an abstract sculpture: three metal bars (from aluminium, copper, and steel) poked in the ground right next to their camp. By making this work, the artist created an opportunity and a challenge for the excluded: would they dare to steal the bars and sell them as scrap metal, pocketing decent money, or would the fear of possible consequences prevail? Important in this context was also a social or ‘class’ barrier: maybe the homeless would not dare to do it because they instinctively felt they would be violating ‘higher’ culture, an event sponsored by the municipal authorities, which made the stakes more than just the money – they could lose their attractive accommodation.

that SURVIVAL, organised in a different venue each year, has already been held in the streets and inside buildings (private and public), at a train station, football pitch, open-air market, on the river and in a park. Its open formula based on competition of submitted works allows it to become training grounds for young or less well-known artists (avoiding at the same time the label of an exclusively local event). It might be an interesting idea to treat the carefully prepared catalogues that are published on an annual basis as a kind of guidebook to the city.

On the other hand, SURVIVAL succeeds in avoiding a certain duality that is extremely common in the art world nowadays: a declared interest in as wide reach as possible while simultaneously limiting itself to the nearest milieu. SURVIVAL occupies a spot halfway between a sophisticated curatorial concept and a spontaneous art event. It is a source of some weaknesses, too. In this context, Łukasz Paluch’s work Malpractice, shown at the Faculty of Pharmacy, became a confession that could be extended to include the entire strategy of the Review. The curators are not afraid to test different artistic attitudes, including those that approach the central theme in a somewhat naïve and direct way. Another weakness could be the festival’s apoliticality, refraining from presenting independent opinions on the policies of the authorities of Wrocław. However, it is hardly surprising – open critique would be suicidal for the organisers. Politicality and involvement in local problems are present during the debates. SURVIVAL is more than just an exhibition; its part and parcel are the numerous performances, curator-led tours, the Sound Art Forum, discussions and the Festival Club. And it is these elements that make it possible to directly react to current affairs.

It is worth emphasising that SURVIVAL has been one of the first events in Poland after the political transformation that is held in the open public space. Since its inception, it has been posing the same question, which is encapsulated in its name – how to survive in the city? By often entering places that are about to be changed, expanded or renewed, for 12 years it has witnessed the transformations of Wrocław, which have been conducted – like everywhere else in Poland – in the spirit of neoliberal free market. This year, the motto of the Review referred to an inflammatory state in the city and urban fever. These phrases themselves diagnose the condition of Polish cities (Wrocław is no exception here). Similar topics were brought up during the debates: new urban movements, ways of action, their effectiveness. These topics became relevant also because of holding the Review in a sumptuous palace that used to belong to the Medical University, i.e. served the common good, and which has recently been sold to a private owner. It has triggered the interest of artists (and the homeless!), but this process is fairly typical – big business and big money will do their best to acquire an attractive real estate in a prime location.

Must it be so? SURVIVAL emphasises certain problems rather than offers solutions, although it does provide some methods, especially during the debates. Throughout the entire period of its existence, it has frequently highlighted the process, which still enjoys approval in Poland, of appropriating and limiting access to public spaces where anybody can make a statement, live any lifestyle they want, where people from different walks of life can meet and interact. It has emphasised the importance of common spaces, even dilapidated ones and not as attractive as shopping centres.

Looking back on all the editions held so far, it seems reasonable to say that using art to ask important questions in public places is a worthwhile endeavour. How to survive in a modern Polish city with a complicated history and an equally ambiguous presence? A city that is quickly developing and struggling for its position not only on the present-day map of Poland, but also in the region and in Europe? A city that is the arena of political fight and political marketing, but also a place where many people want to live a calm, comfortable and meaningful life. Beyond doubt, art will not provide us with a remedy for this inflammatory state and conflicting interests of different groups of people connected with the city, but it will make us aware that this state does exist, and even analyse the reasons for it. And this is no small feat.

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