Agnieszka Jankowska-Marzec in conversation with Andrzej Szczerski, curator of exhibition: The SLOVAK-POLISH Union.
Agnieszka Jankowska Marzec: On November 27th an exhibition featuring the work of five artists from Krakow opened in Kasárne/Kulturpark (Barracks/Culture Park), one of the so-called K13 institutions (Košické kultúrne centrá). Was the event organised as part of the Košice 2013 programme to coincide with the town being awarded the title of European Capital of Culture, or was it rather considered a separate venture?
Andrzej Szczerski: The project was launched independently. Nonetheless, it can be equally interpreted as the continuation of the European Capital of Culture programme since it also fosters the cultural development of Košice that has become a major cultural hotspot in Slovakia in the last five years. A wide range of initiatives has been undertaken in recent times. It is especially worth noting the establishment of the interdisciplinary cultural hub, Kasárne/Kulturpark. During the season, rarely a day goes by without something taking place, whether it is a play, dance performance, exhibition, concert or conference. Our exhibition is held there too. Vlado Beskid, the artistic director of the ESK Košice 2013 festival, invited me to participate in this project.
A.J.M.: The name “Barracks” has some military connotations.
A.Sz.: Indeed, the centre is situated in the renovated barracks and former military warehouse. Our exhibition takes place in the Alfa Gallery, which used to be a stable. It is an open basilica-like space with a preserved timber roof truss and supporting structure. Organising an exhibition in a space such as this is certainly not an easy task. On the other hand, the space complements the pieces on show perfectly. Experimenting with the additional exhibition architecture is therefore completely unnecessary. What we have here sufficiently helps to represent the main idea behind our exhibition.
A.J.M.: What sort of idea exactly? Is it the Slovak-Polish Union? Could you elaborate on the theme? I have to admit it is slightly confusing for me.
A.Sz.: More confusing would be the Polish-Australian Union or creating the United States of Poland and Portugal! Poland and Slovakia have been neighbours for centuries, although Slovakia only emerged as a sovereign state in the 20th century. It had spent years as a client state of Germany during the WWII and only became democratic republic 21 years ago. We have closer mutual relations than one might think. Needless to say, the exhibition’s title refers to the Polish-Lithuanian Union and its travesty that would have occurred if Poland had made a pact with Slovakia instead of Lithuania. Hence we decided to turn the traditional line of thought about Poland’s relations with its neighbouring countries on its head. We point at an unaddressed issue and pose the question concerning the future of Central Europe and us.
A.J.M: Still, have we ever seriously thought about the Slovak-Polish Union?
A.Sz.: Of course we have. It wasn’t even a utopian vision. A clear idea of founding one country was proposed in the 1930s, however the Munich agreement in 1938 stifled the idea completely. The possibility of a Union was not reconsidered after the Second World War or when the Visegrád Four was founded. Nonetheless, the cultural implications of the supposedly non-existent Slovak-Polish Union were apparent. As a result, in the 1930s for instance several classic works of Polish literature were translated into Slovak; the Štúr Society of Friends of Slovaks was established on the back of an initiative run by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs; and the magazine Ziemia Podhalańska, dealing with the cooperation between Poland and Slovakia was founded in Warsaw. Research on Slovakia was also conducted at the Jagiellonian University.
A.J.M.: Fine, but it is still a new field for researchers. How did you manage to spark the interest of the artists in the issue? How did you select the artists? There must be more to it than the fact that all four of them live in Krakow and have majored in graphics at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow.
A.Sz.: There is. Though I did want to assemble a group of Krakow artists since the exhibition is a part of a series of projects involving collaboration with so-called “secondary cities”. In Slovakia, Bratislavia is the capital and Košice always comes second. The town of Košice thus eagerly engages in cultural exchange with other cities that are deemed secondary in regards to their size and meaning in a given country. As a result, they have already joined forces with Marseille, Barcelona, Debrecen, Brno and Krakow. Moreover, I wanted to collaborate with artists whose works I am familiar with. I had a feeling that they would be interested in the theme and would respond to it perfectly.
A.J.M.: Did you consider the fact that the artists explore motifs of identity, memory, history and myths? Did it form part of the major selection criteria?
A.Sz.: Definitely. However my intention was not to curate an exhibition dedicated to history, and consequently obscure events that have taken place in the past for the two nations involved. I wanted to cover the imaginary scenario, and ask “what if?” What if the Slovak-Polish Union had existed after all? I believe that alternative versions of the past are far more inspiring than actual events. The artists initiated a discussion and gave their own responses to the questions I asked them.
A.J.M.: The artists featured include some acclaimed names, such as Sasnal and Maciejowski, as well as a younger generation of artists, for instance, Woynarowski, Piksa and Niwelińska, the latter of whom is gaining acclaim outside the artistic circle of Krakow. It would seem to me that what these distinct artists all have in common is a particular kind of minimalism that rests upon black and white hues.
A.Sz.: Yes, their educational background in graphics is clearly reflected in their work. More importantly however, their pieces not only visualise but also critically comment on the theme of the exhibition. The paintings by Wilhelm Sasnal for instance, depict the stereotypes reigning over our perception of Slovakia and Slovaks perception of Poland. However they also note the things we share, such as Christian allegories and signs, like the cross made out of two birch branches and the portrait of Primate Wyszyński with a blurred face. Furthermore, we are presented with distorted upside-down mountain ranges, a stork against a backdrop of green fields, and a pile of cabbages. Suffice to say, it is both rustic and romantic. The works pose the question of the value and reliability of stereotypes.
A.J.M.: Whereas Maciejowski strikes a chord of sentimentality.
A.Sz.: Not necessarily. Marcin has the ability to connect history with contemporary popular culture. The paintings chosen for the exhibition could stand for the collective consciousness of both Polish and Slovak people. Their components include stills from Polish films made in the 1960s and 1970s, such as Pan Wołodyjowski based on novels by Henryk Sienkiewicz. In the pre-war period, Slovakian people loved Sienkiewicz and they translated a number of his works into Slovak. The new painting, made especially for the exhibition in Košice, was inspired by the Polish TV-series Trzecia granica (“Third border”) from the 1970s, which tells the story of the relations between Poland and Slovakia during WWII. The series focuses on messengers who illegally crossed the border in the Tatra Mountains. Marcin decided to highlight the unrequited love affair between a messenger from Zakopane and his ally, a Slovakian girl.
A.J.M.: Yet our history is rife with far less sentimental stories, such as the above-mentioned heroic deeds and fights for freedom…
A.Sz.: Sure, but some subjects are difficult to talk about. Monika Niwelińska excels in this area. She created a map, which undergoes constant change and outlines the territory that would have been formed if the two countries had been united. The piece is made from photosensitive chemicals, which react to the light. Moving borders has its consequences. Niwelińska’s map points to both the alliance and hostility brought about by such a decision. In 1938, after the Munich agreement, Poland counted on the declaration of independence by Slovakia. The declaration was never made, thus Poland invaded a small territory of Slovakia considered important strategically and apparently inhabited mainly by Polish people, as it feared the influence Germany had on Slovaks at that time. It caused great dismay among supporters of Poland living in Slovakia, but now this marginal event has been completely forgotten. Niwelińska depicts therefore both maps: the map of Slovakia drawn by Polish geographers in the 1930s in the name of future cooperation, as well as pictures from history books, which described the actual events of 1938.
A.J.M.: Quasi-political themes are also tackled by Kuba Woynarowski….
A.Sz.: Kuba provides his audience with a visual identification of the Slovak-Polish state. He draws upon 1930s Slovakian graphic design printed both in the mainstream state and avant-garde media. His work portrays the power relations at play between the two countries in a remarkable manner. In fact, Poland wanted to use the union with Slovakia to strengthen the position of power it held in Central Europe back then. The aesthetics of Kuba’s work correspond with the ones prevailing in the 1930s, and comment upon it ironically.
A.J.M.: While the works of Agnieszka Piksa seem to be a moment of relaxation among these pieces…
A.Sz.: That’s true. Agnieszka creates illustrations for specific texts. This time she felt inspired by the account of a scholarly expedition several students of Jagiellonian University took around Slovakia in 1931. Some fragments became inherent in the work and thus we translated them into Slovak. In Polish the accounts sound like dream journals written in an archaic scientific jargon, which make them sound surreal and lyrical. The drawings illustrate this feeling. During the exhibition I noticed that Slovaks also enjoy this kind of humour.
A.J.M.: Don’t you think that Polish artists have already explored the theme of history exhaustively?
A.Sz.: Not at all. Like I said, it is not a “historical exhibition”. The featured pieces do not refer to given historical events or memories. They comment casually on possible scenarios of the past that were never enacted. I hope the exhibition prompts people to pose questions about the present, not the past: What conditions need to be fulfilled for this part of Europe to work together? Who are the Poles and the Slovaks today? What exactly is contemporary Central-Eastern Europe?
A.J.M.: Thank you.
Andrzej Szczerski (born 1971) – lecturer in Institute of Art History, Jagiellonian University in Krakow, visiting lecturer at the Goethe University in Frankfurt (2003) and University of St Andrews (2004). Author of “Patterns of Identity. The Reception of British Art in Central Europe Around 1900” (Kraków 2002) and “Modernizations. Art and Architecture in the new states of Central-Easter Europe 1918-1939” (Łódź 2010). Curator of exhibitions “Modernizations. The Future Perfect 1918-1939” at the Museum of Art in Łódź (2010), “Symbolism in Poland and Britain” at the Tate Britain in London (2009) and “The Power of Fantasy. Modern and Contemporary Art from Poland” at the BOZAR Palais of Art in Brussels (2011). Since 2009 president of Polish Section of International Association of Art Critics AICA, since 2013 vice president of AICA International. Member of Historians of German and Central European Art & Architecture (USA) and Association of Art Historians (Poland). Member of the Board of Trustees of the National Museum in Warsaw.
Agnieszka Jankowska-Marzec – an art critic and historian; a lecturer at the Interfaculty Department of Theory and History of Art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow; and at the Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski Krakow University. Author of books on the 20th century and contemporary art. The member of Polish Section of International Association of Art Critics AICA and Association of Art Historians (Poland).
interviewed by Agnieszka Jankowska-Marzec
translated by Karolina Jasińska
edited by Maggie Kuzan