Thursday, 30 June 2011

Review: Survival 9 art review, Wrocław

First of all, let's get this out of the way: I am not an art critic.  I'm a socialist somewhat anarchistic social activist who likes to read the sound of my own voice (that metaphor doesn't quite work, but you get my point) and offers observations on life in Wrocław.

'Survival' is an art festival that has been taking place in Wrocław since 2003 in different places, this year in Park Tołpy in Ołbin.  That it is an outdoor festival lends itself to something of which I am a fan of (such as the Crosby men and the Angel of the North in GB, both by Anthony Gormley as well as the 'way of human rights' in Nuremburg and the German constitution in Berlin, both by Dani Karavan) as it is an art which is away from the confines of staid rooms watched by suspicious museum attendants (as usually happens in museums I know in Wrocław) but in a place where people can encounter it, thus turning the art into not just the piece itself but its relationship with its environment (whether that be a lake, some trees, or some children intent on 're-making' the piece, as happened to one piece).

Dunno who did this photo.  Possibly Photo Magdalena Szady on very tall stilts, in a hot-air balloon or while undergoing the highs of the Survival festival

Before I show you some pictures, let me tell you the context of the local environment.  Ołbin is a somewhat well not exactly run-down, more somewhat destroyed by the Siege of Breslau in 1945, still bearing bullet holes and containing buildings lacking not just a lick of paint but a dab of plaster, complete with roads more holey than the Pope's socks and, what is euphemistically termed as 'social problems'.  It's not actually that bad, it's close to the Odra and contains many amenities and its fairly cheap to live there.  Tołpy park, across the road from St. Michael's church usually contains small children playing in the children's play area, dogs with their owners leaving donations in both the place for dogs and dog-no-go-areas, a smattering of alcoholics, old men playing chess, young locals getting some rays on their naked arms and students from the university across the road.  Once while leaving Mass at St. Mickey's with the sacrament still in my mouth (I get claustrophobic so try not to spend too long there) I walked out to the park to see a man pissing against a tree and then walked behind another man stinking the air out with his cigarette.  No?  To Ołbin.

Right, I think the scene is set now.  Here's a few art installations (all photographs stolen from the Survival Facebook group and taken by Magdalena Szady):

Photo © Magdalena Szady

'Filiżanki' (Cups) by Magdalena Kowalewska and Magdalena Durczak

Photo © Magdalena Szady

'Post impresja' by Katarzyna Włodarczyk and Emilia Kal
A landscape-picture-division-aid together with, well, 
some grass forming a landscape by aid of the frame

Photo © Magdalena Szady

'Przejście'  ('Passage') by Jerzy Kosalka is a pastiche of this piece on Piłsudskiego street

Photo © Magdalena Szady

'Wid(mo)st'  (Ghost bridge) by Tomasz Domański
The lines were covered in white lights that lit up at night

 Photo © Magdalena Szady

'PIC NIC' by Aleksandra Wałaszek, Oliwia Beszczyńska
as one can see, this appears to have inspired energy in children

among others, including speakers attached to a tree playing bird songs in response to clapping, a conversation via speakers in a bush; living performances of a girl dressed as St. Bernadette kneeling a black alcove and a man fishing in the lake.

Art is (or can be) political

While art in Poland reflects more than feminist principles, the feminist maxim that the personal is political influences the 'Polish New Left', in that the art often reflects concerns of sexuality and gender roles.  I would only see one piece at Survival of going down that route:
Photo © Magdalena Szady

Or maybe I'm seeing something that isn't there.....

If I am right, this is an assertion of female sexuality, something which is a political statement in itself in regards to the fact that this piece was to be seen by all who passed by, this was something 'out there', something to be noticed, i.e. this aspect of femininity was not to be behind close doors/is more than a bearer of children/should be more represented in parliament.

Now, not all art produced by young people in Poland denotes the New Left.  Art that I have seen in BWA seems to occasionally go more in the direction of commodity fetishism.  While the pictures above may not be showing an outright concern with New Left concerns, the workshops which happened were very much an outreach in order to enable young people in Ołbin area (who tend to be from socially neglected families) to discover their creativity.

I would also call that a political statement.  Bear in mind here that the school system in Poland is apparently one where creativity is stifled and delegated towards a minority of more obviously skilled people (saying that, I know that in GB).  That goes for more than artistic skills, it also goes for participation in civic and political life.

Photo © Magdalena Szady

This social neglect can not just be due to family background, but also ones ethnic group.  One of the hits of the festival for the organisers was a Roma family whose children participated in creating some sponge installations, to the pride of what seemed to be the whole family who turned up.  That young skilled people (belonging or not to the New Left) are prepared to do workshops in order to engage with people outside the usual group shows the value of events like Survival.  Sadly, these young Roma faced discrimination from the other children taking part in the workshop.  One doesn't hear about that when one hears about 'Wrocław: The Meeting Place'.  Actually, such a workshop demonstrates for me what 'Wrocław: The Meeting Place' could be; not just about encountering the 'other' that does sexy food but the 'other' that doesn't offer commodities but their own beings.

In this sense, art is something which is egalitarian, inclusive.

Art by the elite or by everyone?

At the same time, a focus of art is not with such a 'missionary' approach but rather people who are very skilled producing high quality pieces.  There is here a tension involved between on the one side the elite-centred approach of trained and gifted people receiving support, while on the other side the desire to liberate artistic abilities in all people regardless of their background.  Certainly, the Academy of Art in Wrocław contains members who don't come from socially neglected areas and families.

Within the New Left group are those who believe that art should exist only to stimulate social change.  There are also those who see art is being the preserve of a select talented few.  Now, this socialist self-appointed critic tends to lean towards music and art that have some kind of campaigning aim; however, I do not believe that all art has to be about changing societies.  One can only take so many paintings of female prostitutes or men playing with gender roles (to give an example of what I have seen).  I gather themes of the nation and identity are also dealt with, but I haven't seem any of that so far.

Such a focus of the New Left is somewhat Fabian, whereby more educated people missionise to those less advantaged, in a manner however that doesn't really address their needs.  As someone who has been in gay parades and worked in a gay museum I can say that there is a strong need for work regarding sexuality in Poland; however, in order to reach poorer (educationally speaking, though economically speaking as well) a greater focus on their needs would be more successful.

This tension was further clear during a workshop by Christina Doumpiot about ‘Urban Architectural Interventions: Material, Communication, Participation’, where she at first showed us examples of people engaging with their social landscape through extreme gymnastics or artists taking over a disused railway line to turn it into a garden.  Through this we learned about how the area in which we move is a something we share, a something that can be used in ways that show our connections with it and with each other (this socialist would add 'a something that is not a commodity but rather a thing in its own right, a thing that however can also engender social cohesion if managed in the right way).

On the other hand she also showed us fascinating developments in technology where bricks and other housing materials are designed to react to environmental changes, such as by enabling holes to open (plant like) in bricks when a certain temperature is reached thus letting buildings breath naturally.  That would certainly be a more effective and natural system than air conditioning!

In response to a question by some awkward bastard she explicitly said that she advocates a top-down approach, whereby those who are skilled (and have the money) are the key movers in the process whereby local people are asked about the needs of their local environment.  This was presented as a more democratic approach (I would say in comparison to the mushrooming of ugly buildings for people of above-average incomes in Wrocław, currently demonstrated through the exhibition currently on Plac Solny) and something which isn't just about business.

The gentrification of Ołbin?

In another workshop led by Przemysław Witkowski  it was asked whether Ołbin would go the way of Kazimierz in Kraków or Praga in Warsaw, i.e. to become cool places where young artisans live; a place with cool restaurants and coffee bars.  Guesses as to how long this would take ranged from two to ten years (This reviewer guesses longer).  As it is, there is a lack of places to go out in Ołbin.  Apart from Laluna there is no decent restaurant, and no decent bar I know of.

I guess that, eventually, bars and a restaurant or two will open in Ołbin.  More people will move here.  The rents will slowly increase (as one sees now in Neukölln in Berlin) and drip by drip not only the poorer people but also students will move further away from town.  Provocatively it was asked whether the likes of Dom Edyty Stein and Żółty Parasol (a RC sponsored charity that works with poor children in the area) will contribute to enabling Ołbin acquiring a cool reputation and therefore also the raising of rents in Ołbin.  While these RC-connected NGO's are most deffo not to be seen as cool (sorry, certain readers) I do guess that other organisations will benefit financially from their work in the area in the future.

Survival shows us that art can act as a social glue

Photo © Magdalena Szady

A more varied mix of people were there than seen in this photo, honest!

Unlike, say, in Falanster where people belonging to a certain interest/lifestyle group (including that of the New Left) dominate, the Survival festival showed a great mix of people.  While various artisans were to be seen here, many local people also came to the event.  The use of a tent serving excellent vegan food, Czech beer, wine and soft drinks brought people together; we sat together under the naked sky (not drinking alcohol, says I in case the police are reading this, honest guv') looking at the art installations around us interacting with the lake and university building.  There was a place where, while we are not having deep conversations with each other, we did not see each other as nuisances getting in our way in a queue or a fellow competitor for resources.  People from different ethnic groups (the New Left, local poor children, Roma, the local alcoholics, old biddies sitting on their park benches) were able to be together and share a space, all inspired by the art around us.

Permanence versus transience

The Roman Catholic church in Poland likes to think of itself as being a social glue, one which is permanent.  Certainly, many more people go to the RC church across the road from the park than attended the festival.  On the other hand (and I say this as someone who occasionally goes to that church) the Survival festival was much stronger in the sense of encountering one another.  Different to the RC church in other countries I have lived in, the RC church as I know it in Poland is not a social glue insofar that people actually talk with each other.  People go to church alone or in their families and keep their attention to their we-group.  Going to the RC church here does not appear to be a social occasion.

During Survival we looked at art together, we sheltered in the tent from a storm together (and shared fear when a nearby tree got struck by lightning!).  It was outside and the transient nature of both the art and the cafe/meeting tent seemed to increase the effect of appreciating what was there.

I am not saying that art should be more important than the RC church in Poland or the other way around.  I am more fleshing out what Stach Ruksza from the Kronika gallery in Bytom spoke of when he spoke of working on tolerance not through the narrow frame of nationalities or religions, but rather on diversity in Poland which is more noticeable, things like sexualities and Roma.

In that is again the tension I spoke of, a tension that Survival seemed to acknowledge.  As I spoke of here, this tension can be creative.  Perhaps the RC church in Poland could learn from that.


  1. I think your comments on the political interpretation of art are long overdue. The Left has an uneasy relationship with art - what could be more bourgeois - and leftist art tends to be functional, obvious, bad and easy to ridicule. I find professional art hard to justify in any acceptable take on socialism - why should some members of society shirk for the benefit of the elite? So, as you state, we are left with art as a driver of social change, yet this implies that the artist has 1) insight worth communicating, beyond that of the common man and 2) the skill to do so. I have yet to see either of these realised; I am not ashamed to say I don't "get" twentieth century art (visual at least). Where I think you hit the nail on the head - and what sparked the comment - is that there is a niche for art to convey social reality, especially around the treatment of minorities. I have said for some time that a well-crafted sculpture of two men in concentration camp uniform kissing would do a lot for Europe, and for the UK, and for the USA - bearing in mind that while other minorities were treated favourably following the clearing of the camps, the incarceration of homosexuals (largely illegal for some time after the war) was tacitly condoned.

  2. and the award for the 'quickest reply to an article on my blog' goes to....

    Thanks for the comment and kind words, Mike. Hope you're doing alright.

    Actually, I thought of mentioning socialist realism. To be honest, I take a less philosophical approach to political beliefs than you do (so far) and the point you liked (about minorities) was one I stumbled into.

    The words I had in my head about campaigning art was socialist realism, which I had understood you to mean as leftist art, but then you support art that 'convey(s) social reality' which sounds to me (not just with the similar words) to socialist realism. Shall I understand you to mean that leftist art/socialist realism is different to the art that you would like, as the former would be more representative of an ideology, a message, rather than portraying what is there?

    As a socialist, I see no bother with art myself. I don't work as a wide term. As a younger and angrier man I did associate it with the ruling class and escapism, but on the other hand while I may intellectually support art which is 'realistic' it doesn't move me as much as, say, some Matisse.

    I'm not so developed in my thinking with this, and am therefore glad that you liked my article.

    Here in Poland, at least, any form of recognition of Nazi persecution of gays and discrimination against lesbians would be most needed (though not welcome!)

    I think though that the likes of the photographer Don McCullin has done art which has helped to turn people against war, to name one example of art driving social change (many films have helped that, as well). I consider Dani Karavan's work to also have that potential.

    Anyway, thanks again for your comment (I actually considered this article to be one of my weakest so was surprised to see you commenting on this one!)