Contemporary Art in Poland has always been provoking huge controversies and extreme reactions. Often misunderstood and used by right-wing politicians to favour their radically conservative views, it has electrified not only the art world but the general public too. To such extent, that damage to works or it’s removals were common, as were exhibition closures and protests in front of art institutions. Politicians, clerics, artists and critics – the whole country was involved in the national discussion. There is always something much more important hidden behind the accusations of profanation, and that the artist is simply seeking notoriety. These works described below were not made to be scandalous. They were made to point out significant issues and problems, which are still present within Polish society.
Pyramid of Animals by Katarzyna Kozyra, 1993
“Pyramid of Animals” was made in 1993 as Kozyra’s graduate piece. It is inspired by the Brothers Grimm tale of ‘The Traveling Musicians’, in which a group of animals run away from their cruel owners. The sculpture consists of four stuffed animals: a horse, a dog, a cat and a rooster, standing one upon the other. The work is exhibited along with a film recorded during the killing and skinning of the horse. After the Pyramid was exhibited for the first time, it provoked an ongoing public debate in the national press. Criticized for cruelty, and falsely accused of killing the animals, Kozyra became a target of countless attacks and accusations. “Pyramid of Animals” made headlines again when Maurizio Cattelan’s 1995 sculpture “Love Saves Life” was revealed, because of the striking similarity between the two pieces. Now seen as a classic, Pyramid of Animals was at the centre of a huge controversy in the 90s, resulting in a witch-hunt conducted against the artist.
Lego. Concentration Camp, by Zbigniew Libera, 1996
Libera’s Lego. Concentration Camp was made in 1996 and is seen as the artist’s most famous work to date. The idea of using Lego bricks came from a collaboration project between the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art and Lego, who offered their products on a barter basis. Although Lego did not want to constrict the artist and his freedom of artistic expression and agreed to support Ujazdowski Castle in exchange for being mentioned on the box (“This work by Zbigniew Libera has been sponsored by Lego.”), it was not happy with the final result and tried to sue the artist. Libera’s Concentration Camp was thought to be an actual company product, because of its resemblance of, and boxed presentation as, an actual Lego set. In 1997, Libera was invited to exhibit in the Polish pavilion at the Venice Biennale, but he was told not to show Lego; he therefore refused to participate. His work was seen as controversial, and even perceived as trivialising the Holocaust, but its message was the opposite. This is why it was bought soon after by The Jewish Museum in New York, where it inspired the 2002 exhibition ‘Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/ Recent Art’.
The Adoration of Christ, by Jacek Markiewicz, 1992
The Adoration of Christ by Jacek Markiewicz was produced in 1992. It is a film, created during his diploma course at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. The piece was successfully presented – and the diploma passed – in 1993. In the film, Markiewicz is provocatively rubbing his body over the figure of Christ crucified. The cross in the film is a medieval crucifix, which was sourced from the National Museum, also in Warsaw. Since its initial presentation and exhibition, Adoration has featured in a number of different shows. In 2013, it was exhibited at the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art in a show titled ‘British British Polish Polish: Art from Europe’s Edges in the Long 90’s and Today’. It was spotted and seized upon by ultra-conservative politicians as very good ‘material’ for their agenda; they lodged a complaint at the district prosecutor’s office. Protest in front of the Ujazdowski Castle Centre began, once it was publicised that Markiewicz and his work had been accused of offending religious feelings. Although the work has been presented as a profanity in both political and media circles, the piece has endured and is accepted as a typical work of the Polish Critical Art movement of the 90’s.
Passion, by Dorota Nieznalska, 2001
Nieznalska’s Passion was first exhibited in 2001. It is a two-part work, juxtaposing a video of a man working out at the gym against the photograph of male genitals, presented in a crucifix-shaped frame. Passion was exhibited for the first time in a private gallery, Gallery ‘Wyspa’ in Gdansk. The work was then reported to the city prosecutor’s office, by members of right-wing “League of Polish Families”, on the grounds of blasphemy and offending religious feelings. It is important to note, that the people making the complaint hadn’t seen the exhibition and that the report at the prosecutor’s office was lodged some time after it had been taken down. Dorota Nieznalska was taken to court, and in 2003 she was sentenced to carry out six months of community service. An appeal was lodged, but it would be six years before she would be acquitted (June 20th, 2009), and finally cleared on all counts – a binding ruling that effectively blocks a re-trial – on March 11th, 2010. During this time, Nieznalska was obliged to suspend her artistic activity; this is a circumstance that she shall no doubt address in future works.
Nazis, by Piotr Uklański, 1998
Nazis was one of the works exhibited at Uklański’s retrospective at the Zacheta National Gallery of Art in 2000. The work contained 164 reproductions of film stills, presenting famous actors – including Polish ones – who have played roles as Nazis in films. Daniel Olbrychski, a well-known Polish actor, appeared in one of the images. During the exhibition, he entered the gallery with a television crew and a sword, which was hidden beneath his coat. While being filmed by the television crew, he cut a number of the exhibited pictures before leaving. This ‘act’ was the main story carried by the evening news and it triggered a broad discussion covering patriotism. People were heading to the Zacheta Gallery to see the exhibition, even as the police were securing the evidence. Uklański’s work was misunderstood to such an extent, that it was described as glorifying fascism. Despite this, it was soon sold at a London auction house and it currently stands as one of the most expensive works in the history of Polish contemporary art.
Rainbow, Julita Wójcik, 2012
Wójcik’s Rainbow was a sculpture made of multi-coloured, artificial flowers. It was erected in Warsaw’s Saviour Square in 2012 before being permanently removed in 2015. During these 3 years, the sculpture was vandalized several times by being set on fire. Although the sculpture was thought to be a universal, apolitical symbol, supposed to evoke positive feelings of unity and openness, it began to be identified with the LGBT movement by right-wing politicians and Catholic groups. Right-wing media were attacking the work, calling it “disgusting” and “provocative”. Who would have thought, that the innocent gesture of exhibiting the Rainbow, in a vibrant point in the city, would reveal such militant intolerance, and be subject to acts of violence?