OPINION JOURNALISM IS NOT OUR FOCAL POINT
based on the interview with Sebastian Cichocki
When I enter the rooms of Galeria Labirynt in Lublin where the exhibition entitled The State We Are In is presented, at first, I feel uncertainty and slight anxiety. The stark, austere space surrounded by white walls invites visitors to admire works from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. I slowly walk by the installation by Roman Stańczak, which features an old and ruined wall unit. I have a look at the sculptures by Kader Attia, which represent stunted men’s heads, and at the expressive and somehow eerie panting by Miriam Cahn. Walking further I can see three pictures by Jadwiga Sawicka They Screamed, They Cried, They Died. I walk by and I start feeling uneasy. All these works immediately evoke difficult and unpleasant associations. I start thinking where we are and where, in fact, we are heading. My thoughts focus on Brexit, growing nationalism, mass migration flows, social protests, ecology and other phenomena that had their beginnings during the late capitalism. An interesting idea strikes me – maybe (as Zygmunt Bauman claimed) we are living during the interregnum phase, when the current world order is not ready to surrender yet, while the new order is still in its formation phase, getting ready to assume the dominant role. There is an increasing number of people who cannot be sure what the next day will bring. Their existence is precarious, which in French means that they are constantly walking on shifting sands.
Galeria Labitynt prepared a short video on this topic. In the video we see people answering the question of what exactly is the state we are in. Interestingly enough, every respondent chose totally different things they wanted to share in their answers. What is more, their understanding of the same question varied considerably. Some people analysed the issue at a very personal level, others understood the question as merely a polite way to ask how they were doing. There were people talking about their financial situation, while a certain group, who was probably used to taking part in public opinion polls, spoke about politics. In this context, can we accurately define the ‘state we are in’, taking into account how many interpretations of the notion are possible? Personally, I associate this concept with a collection and collecting, as well as making an inventory, which is a common practice for collectors. Sebastian Cichocki, the curator of the exhibition presented in Lublin, explains this mysterious notion quite differently, though. When answering the question mentioned earlier he referred to one of the works presented at the exhibition.
“The State We Are In is the title of the work by Wolfgang Tillmans, which our visitors can see here. It refers to his anti-Brexit campaign which, as we all know, failed to reach the planned goal. The work is intended to make the audience feel anxiety, discomfort and realise how it is to see the crisis approaching. What was a constant and used to form the basis for a long-established order is no longer a certainty.”
A lot of works at the exhibition directly refers to current affairs and politics, for example, the pictures by Olga Chernysheva showing the streets in Russia, which serve as an indirect tool to depict the post-Soviet society. Other examples of politically-engaged artworks which our visitors can admire are those presenting historical narration, mostly focused on power, colonialism and violence. It is worth seeing the clock by Ruth Ewan and pictures by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, to name just a few. I ask Sebastian Cichocki whether he is afraid that these works may become vague and outdated in the future, especially when they will be presented with no context that is crucial to their understanding. He strongly disagrees with my statement.
I think that there are no works of a pure opinion journalism nature in this collection. I see no reason for them to become obscure in the future. I would never say that they would not have different meanings in the future and would not be interpreted by the new reality. Actually, this is what we can see at the exhibition in Lublin. So many works touch the current political and social issues, but the form in which narration is presented is timeless and universal. Take the photo by Wolfgang Tillmans, who is a genuinely politically-engaged artist and who is able to properly use sophisticated means of visual expression. His works are very attractive to the audience, no matter of their experiences, expectations and the level of understanding culture.
The exhibition “The State We Are In” is very coherent when it comes to presented topics. As I admire the presented works, I sometimes have the impression that they are not there to present an analysis of a given issue, but they are simply artworks collection presented for art’s sake. The collection is unique because it is not composed of works by artists of a single nation and is not the collection of works by the most prominent artists of the past couple of years either. You will see no chronological narration here. The collection of the Museum of Modern Art has been gathered for the past seven years. This is what Sebastian Cichocki told me about the collection:
“At the moment we have 571 objects and we are in the process of buying another 23 works. We hope we will be able to acquire 30 more works in 2019. On the one hand, the collection is gathered in order to show clear reference to traditions that are important for modern art and culture. On the other hand, it follows modern art. Works which accurately present the current times are a significant part of what we have in stock. We mostly collect works created within the period from 1968 (the year which marks the beginning of what we call modern art) until 1989 (the beginning of a political transformation in Poland and Eastern Europe). We collect works by Polish artists and works by artists from other countries which show the broader view on the topics elaborated upon in Polish art.
Undoubtedly the crucial work at the exhibition in Lublin is an installation by Cathy Wilkes (a world-famous artist) created in 2014. The topic behind the work is world hunger. The installation will not leave anyone indifferent, even though the whole concept was based on the 19th-century photography. So, as we see, although the means of expression used by the artist can be considered old-fashioned, her work appeals to contemporary audiences in an incredible way. This work is presented in a separate room, which adds to its monumentalism and gravity.
I asked Sebastian Cichocki what is the rule the museum team follows while selecting artists whose works are to be included in the collection. This is what he said:
“We do not have a separate set of rules and guidelines for collecting works by Polish artists and works by foreign artists.What we are focused on in both cases is the significance of the message the work communicates and clear intentions. We try to find works which will potentially show audiences in the distant future something important about our times. The museum’s collection is truly a representation of world art; it forms an intricate network of historical, social, aesthetic, political and economic references. In the earlier period, we only focused on major narrations and mottoes while selecting works to purchase. Currently, we try to think more comprehensively because we know that we will have a new venue available soon which will house the collection on a permanent basis. We already think about how to arrange the exhibition in the new building and how to put together works for each exhibition room. We are also discussing topics we want to present to our future visitors.”
Construction of a new exhibition venue for the Museum of Modern Art at Plac Defilad in Warsaw has been extensively discussed for many years. The new building is supposed to be a permanent place where the museum’s collection will be presented. Currently, parts of the collection can be seen only during much smaller exhibitions, mostly related to specific topics, just as the exhibition at the Galeria Labirynt. In this context, I asked Sebastian Cichocki about his ideas for presenting the museum’s collection in the future.
“Our exhibition in the new building at Plac Defilad [in Warsaw] will be of semi-permanent nature. We will be introducing certain changes on an annual basis. We will exchange 20-30% of presented works each year, but the division into main topics and the links between them will stay the same. In general, we can say that the exhibition will be evolving slowly, but constantly. In the meantime, we are planning to present our collection in art institutions in Poland which we find most prominent and trustworthy. This is how we will operate until we can move to Plac Defilad for good. Our next exhibition will take place at the BWA gallery in Zielona Góra. It will be curated by Łukasz Ronduda. Every time we organise an exhibition, we strive to present new crucial topics of the collection, but we always discuss our approach with the team working at the host institution.”
We are eagerly awaiting the next exhibition of the “collection in exile” and we hope that it will find its permanent place at Plac Defilad in Warsaw sooner than we expect.
Written by Michalina Sablik
Translated by Joanna Pietrak
Edited by Contemporary Lynx