Imagination Takes Revenge. A Political Turn in Contemporary Polish Art

You can ignore politics pretending it does not exist and focus on your own basic problems, but it does not mean that politics is going to ignore you as well.

The seventh Berlin Biennale opened to high expectations from both the Polish and international audience in May 2012. It was a moment of symbolic significance for the Polish art scene as both curators of the Biennale—Artur Żmijewski and Joanna Warsza—came from Poland. Much more important in a wider context was, however, the promise of a politically engaged and engaging art event different from everything that happened before. Żmijewski was at the apex of his political commitment at that time.

Just a few years earlier, he issued his political manifesto bearing the emphatic title Applied Social Art.1 It lambasted contemporary art for its lack of social relevance and for not being able to take its political efficiency beyond the model of a virus disturbing the status quo. He proclaimed his faith in a different kind of art, one that would function like an algorithm taking social problems directly and solving them. Żmijewski is considered to be one of the most important artists of his generation and remains a prominent figure in the group of artists emerging in the late 1990s and early 2000s from the studio of Grzegorz Kowalski, an artist and art educator at Warsaw’s Academy of Fine Arts. Żmijewski is also represented by the most important Polish commercial art gallery, Foksal Gallery Foundation, so at least for these two reasons his brave act of political engagement provoked a great deal of debate and comments.

The fall of the old regime in 1989 and the transformation of the early 1990s brought a great number of changes to Polish culture and thus to contemporary art as well.

The Biennale curated by Żmijewski was hardly a political or social success. It tended to create social problems rather than solving them as was epitomized by the failed project of the London-based artist Nada Prlja, who erected a much-contested wall in the middle of Friedrichstrasse enraging many members of the local community. It’s the title—Peace Wall—turned out to be ironic at least, if not cynical, given how much hatred it generated. The inclusion of the Occupy Movement in the program of Biennale and in the daily functioning of its main venue, the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, came about in the most awkward way possible with activists entrapped in a kind of human zoo in front of the most bourgeois and upper-bourgeois Berlin art audience.

At the very end of that edition of the Berlin Biennale, Żmijewski got into a fight with a group of Brazilian street artists, Pixadores, who were invited to take part in the event, but who were also censored for their attempts to spray their artwork on the walls of a church that was not supposed to be used for that purpose. This was a typical internal contradiction of an art event that tried to be radical without breaking any rules. Despite his critical attitude, Żmijewski had no objections against calling the police, when the angry Pixadores poured their paint on his head.

A Radical Return of the Political in Contemporary Polish Art

Despite being a failure, the seventh Berlin Biennale remains interesting as a symptom. In the psychoanalytical use of the term, a symptom is an indication or a token of truth that breaks through a lie or an illusion. As such it is directly opposed to a fetish which is a lie devised in order to cover the truth. What is symptomatic in Żmijewski’s attitude and his manifesto is the radical return of the political in contemporary Polish art, where it has been somehow repressed or hidden throughout the decades of the 1990s and early 2000s. Let’s take a brief look at this interesting and still unfinished process.

The fall of the old regime in 1989 and the transformation of the early 1990s brought a great number of changes to Polish culture and thus to contemporary art as well. State censorship was gone and this meant that a lot of artists felt that they could finally express their minds in a supposedly liberal regime. It was, however, not entirely true. The liberal order was installed in Poland in a very peculiar and perverted way. Polish (neo)liberals were closer to American neoconservatism than the old European liberalism that advocated both economic and social liberties. A free market was implemented in Poland in a swift and radical way while individual freedoms remained frustrated by traditional, conservative arrangements.

Throughout the 1990s, Polish contemporary art took two distinct approaches to this new social and political reality. Some artists tried to work with issues and problems that had some social significance, although their interest was usually limited to the sphere of individual freedoms and mainly focused on questions related to the body, gender, sex or existential issues such as death, illness, disability and ageing. The most important figures in the circle of so-called “Polish critical art” of that period—Katarzyna Górna, Katarzyna Kozyra, Alicja Żebrowska or, last but not least, Artur Żmijewski— fall into that category. On the other end of the spectrum, there were artists who seemed to be completely uninterested in any social or political issues of the time. Important painters and sculptors such as Tomasz Ciecierski, Edward Dwurnik, Leon Tarasewicz, Teresa Murak or Mirosław Bałka, were focused on subjects at best loosely connected with the social and political reality of that period and more often on issues without any socio-political relevance whatsoever.

The situation in media art with such dominant figures of the time as Józef Robakowski or Zbigniew Rybczyński was quite similar. There were some outsiders, of course—artists whose art had always been deeply political, such as Zbigniew Libera, Krzysztof Wodiczko or collectives such as CUKT or Luksus, but they remained in the minority and were going against the dominant Zeitgeist of the time. Even artists who would later become radically and openly political like Grzegorz Klaman tended to invest their creative interests in the sphere of individual and existential problems during that period.

The Art of the 1990s Did not Deal with the Neoliberal Transformation

There was one colossal gap in Polish critical art of the 1990s, a genuine elephant in the room as one might call it from todays’ perspective: a complete lack of interest in issues of class and social hierarchies different than the ones related to gender and sexual orientation. It is a kind of ironic and even funny blindness that Polish “critical” art of the 1990s literally did not deal at all with the most important social and political process of the time: the neoliberal transformation that radically pauperized about one fifth, or maybe even one-fourth of society. Polish artists remained uninterested in any forms of oppression related to the class position at that time, or even worse: they were not aware of the existence of class structure altogether. Even as late as the mid-2000s, I had a long and bizarre conversation with an important Polish artist associated with critical art who claimed that as an artist she did not belong to any social class (sic!).

On the other end of the spectrum, there were artists who seemed to be completely uninterested in any social or political issues of the time.

It is against such a background that the attempt to introduce the political to the artistic creation undertaken by Żmijewski in the late 2000s needs to be considered. It is not true that Żmijewski discovered the importance of politics and the political; it was rather the opposite: the political penetrated the realm of art. For that reason, I view Żmijewski’s attitude and endeavors to be firstly and mostly symptomatic. That penetration took place on two levels—local and global—and we need to briefly address both of them to understand the political turn in contemporary Polish art.

The Resistance of Conservative Elements within Polish Society

Throughout the decades of the 1990s and early 2000s, artists and curators dealing with sensitive issues such as sex, religion and gender had to face the important resistance of conservative elements within Polish society. In some cases, it cost them a great deal. When Jarosław Suchan, an art historian and curator, currently the director of the Art Museum in Łódź, decided to organize a panel discussion about a widely commented exhibition Irreligion, the gallery he headed at the time—Bunkier Sztuki in Kraków—was literally sieged by a group of religious bigots trying to block the event. Local politicians who engaged in the protest used the first available opportunity to fire Jarosław Suchan.

Polish artists remained uninterested in any forms of oppression related to class position at that time, or even worse: they were not aware of the existence of class structure altogether Even.

Throughout the entire decade of the 2000s the problem only grew worse and worse as attacks on contemporary art were becoming more and more ruthless. Two spectacular assaults on contemporary art occurred in National Art Gallery Zachęta in the year 2000. First the installation entitled “The Nazi” by Piotr Uklański was destroyed by Daniel Olbrychski, an actor whose image was reproduced by the artist. The project consisted of dozens of stills from Polish film where Nazi soldiers were impersonated by various actors. Olbrychski did not like the fact that his picture was there so he brought a spade and smashed it in front of cameras.

You can ignore politics pretending it does not exist and focus on your own basic problems, but it does not mean that politics is going to ignore you as well.

Just a month later, the installation La Nona Ora by the renowned contemporary artist Maurizio Catellan was attacked and demolished by two right-wing politicians who objected to the fact that the artwork depicted Pope John Paul II crushed by a meteorite. The most troubling and traumatic moment came about in 2002 when a young artist Dorota Nieznalska was put on trial for her allegedly blasphemous installation entitled Passion.

She was acquitted by an appellate court in a ruling delivered on a symbolic day: the fourth of June 2009, the twentieth anniversary of the 1989 elections that marked the end of Soviet rule in Poland and the beginning of at least a verbally liberal order. During, however, that difficult period of seven years she went through an ordeal of judiciary proceedings that, according to her statements, ruined her personal and professional life. All these events provoked a deep change in the Polish art-world. They demonstrated that you can ignore politics pretending it does not exist and focus on your own basic problems, but it does not mean that politics is going to ignore you as well. It proved that the political is real in the structural, psychoanalytical meaning of the term: it is something that is always going to return and haunt you no matter what you say or do.

A Ban on Thinking and of Imagining

There was yet another global factor that greatly contributed to the political turn in Polish art that Żmijewski’s manifesto and his later curatorial practice were symptoms of. The mid-2000s and the second half of that decade were marked by a mounting crisis of legitimacy of neoliberalism and a gradual decline in its global hegemony. 2008 was, of course, a decisive year, although the cracks began to appear earlier. When figures such as George Soros or Joseph Stiglitz, who had been deeply implicated in the very creation of neoliberal globalization, began to fundamentally question neoliberalism, it was obvious that it would not last long. Already after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 it was clear that the neoliberal slogan “There is no alternative” and the self-comforting belief of the (neo)liberals that history had ended, were dubious at best and ridiculously false at worse. An alternative was clearly there, just not the one the (neo)liberals had been fighting against and the progressives hoping for.

We need to recall that neoliberalism had relied on a specific Denkverbot— a ban on thinking, and not only thinking but, in general, of imagining. If there is no alternative it is wasteful and harmful to spend time trying to imagine it. Instead, we should all make an effort to adapt to the neoliberal rule of the market, which in the Polish context meant the liberal rule of the market combined with the conservative hegemony of the Church. Politics was completely irrelevant in that situation and should be replaced by management. As this ideological edifice began to crumble in the mid-2000s, imagination took its revenge on the end of history and all sorts of political speculations and ambitions were reborn. And where imagination reins, art will always flourish.

Thus the turn of the years 2000s and the following decade, which is now coming to its end, mark a sharp political turn in Polish contemporary art. A new generation of Polish artists—from Roman Dziadkiewicz to Łukasz Surowiec to Janek Simon to Julita Wójcik—have created art that is intimately intertwined with politics, departing sharply from the realm of personal-existential issues that was the domain of the critical art of the 1990s.

Most institutions also follow this line engaging more and more in overtly political projects; the anti-fascist exhibition Never More (pol. Nigdy Więcej) on display in Warsaw’s Museum of Modern Art in Autumn 2019 is only the most recent example of this tendency. The change is not, by any means, uniquely or even primarily generational. Well established artists, already active in the late 1990s—like Joanna Rajkowska, Grzegorz Klaman or Zbigniew Libera whom I mentioned before—also subscribe to the same trend.

The mid-2000s and the second half of that decade were marked by a mounting crisis of legitimacy of neoliberalism and a gradual decline in its global hegemony.

One may, of course, ask, what is the effect of all this and whether political works created by artists have any influence on actual politics. This is a legitimate and important question, but it remains a different subject that would have to be addressed in a separate investigation. Whatever the answer would be, the political turn in contemporary Polish art is undeniable and it looks like it is here to stay.


  1. See A. Żmijewski, Stosowane sztuki społeczne, „Krytyka Polityczna”, no 11-12, 2007.

Jan Sowa

is a dialectical materialist social theorist and researcher. He holds a PhD in sociology and a habilitation in cultural studies. He is a member of the Committee on Cultural Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences and he works as the curator for discursive programs and research at Biennale Warszawa. He edited and authored several books and published numerous articles in Poland and abroad.

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