The exhibition “Communis—Renegotiating Community” focuses on contemporary Polish identity, in which religion and spirituality often determine the vision of the national community. The show aims to enquire: How do art works and various activities that emerge from the crossroads of artistic practice and spirituality engage in a dialogue with the community? How do they problematize the community’s vision of its own self? And how do they blur the categories in which the community sees the world?
We concentrate on the Polish reality and its inherent tension between modernity— understood as an emancipatory pursuit by rational means—and religion and spirituality, which claim the right to appropriate various areas of life, because—as their adherents argue—they are either everything or nothing. Such a situation is ever more relevant in Poland, where religious practices and their impact on social reality has evolved to become one of the main topics of contemporary public debate.
Yet the exhibition “Communis” is not devoted to spiritual remnants or post-secular residues in a country where the collective body seems to follow religious emotions rather than assigns them a place in the public sphere by means of rational arguments. We are interested in the strategies used by artists who work to develop a language of collaboration with what we have thus understood as community in the current social and political realm. At a time when the Polish public sphere seems to witness an ebbing of emancipatory pursuits based on rational methods, which are part and parcel of the project of modernity, we ask about the possibility of a dialogue that draws on the sphere of the irrational, on religion, spirituality and affect. Can art serve to problematize the social chasm and profound rift that nowadays haunts the Polish community? Is it possible to delineate the spheres of social life that could be renegotiated? Does the artists’ engagement with the major elements of Polish identity—spirituality and religion—offer a chance to expand the social imaginary and increase the level of acceptance of ethnic, social, or sexual otherness?
The title of the exhibition Communis borrows from the “compositional group activities,” pursued by artist Zygmunt Piotrowski at the Dziekanka student house and art venue in Warsaw in the 1970s. At the beginning of that decade, Piotrowski (the artist behind the spectacle Think Communism, among other projects) was one of the artists, alongside Zofia Kulik, Paweł Kwiek, Anastazy Wiśniewski, and others, who firmly embedded their artistic activity in a sociopolitical frame and proposed art that was intended to open the possibility of rethinking the dominant political doctrine and its underlying ideology. Piotrowski concentrated primarily on the question of community, pursuing a reflection on its nature and conditions. The above-mentioned activities under the banner “Communis”—run in the spirit of alternative education with students of Warsaw universities within Piotrowski’s Art and Research Studio—became an artistic emanation of the artist’s postulates concerning community. Attention was paid primarily to communication and the empowerment of the individuals who were to build the community through conscious interactions and negotiations—as if they formed an artistic composition, whose every element fitted perfectly with the whole but at the same time preserved its distinctive character. Piotrowski argued that community needs to be built from the bottom-up, otherwise when it is decreed in a top-down fashion the result is coercion and a lack of authenticity. Such top-down communities are shown in KwieKulik’s film documentation series Manifestations from the period 1979 through 1982. The film footage created by Kulik portrays public gatherings of diverse character: political, religious, and sporting events (the breadth of their ideological spectrum is striking). Community as understood by Piotrowski differed significantly from such gatherings formed under the pressure of the state authorities or strong symbolic appeal of religion and sports. The artist’s postulate: A bottom-up community formed through interaction between conscious and empowered members opens up the perspective of renegotiation—the key theme of the exhibition at the Labirynt Gallery.
The aforementioned artists, who at the beginning of the 1970s engaged in a dialogue with the social and political contexts, are evoked here due to their approach characteristic of this era. Beyond a doubt, their art was critically charged, yet, and importantly, they also identified with the object of their critique. The activities of these artists were not targeted against communism, but consisted in attempts at enhancing the system by exercising the declared values that lay at its foundations; they were supposed to bring about a more comprehensive implementation of those values. The critical edge of such projects turned out to be complex, since it did not simply operate at the level of firm rejection. The goal was renegotiation.
It is in a similar spirit, although obviously in a radically different political and social context, that we perceive many of the approaches represented by the artists included in the exhibition “Communis.” These artists also bring together art and social reality, yet the reality they currently face is an “enchanted” one—remaining under a spiritual and religious spell. Importantly, the presented works once again bring the question of community to the fore, while the artists themselves often speak as insiders. They attempt to establish a dialogue with the community and participate in its formation in order to reformulate the community’s vision of itself.
The exhibition gathers a number of distinctive artistic practices, characterized by a particular visual language and a need to renegotiate in various ways the notion of community. Some of the presented works focus on collective identity, combining the language of economics and popular culture with forms inspired by religious practices and rituals, whereas others feature direct references to such practices.
An example of a creative practice engaged with spiritual and political communities is Daniel Rycharski’s projects created in collaboration with such organisations as the Independent Self-Governing Trade Union “Solidarity” and the informal group Faith and Rainbow. The artist goes beyond the field of art in his involvement in building a trade union identity and attempting a bottom-up transformation of the Catholic Church—in the spirit of openness of the LGBTQ community. His actions originate from existing movements that pursue the goal of rethinking Christianity—and result from a need to initiate a collective examination of the conscience of the community, which should accept its new hitherto excluded members.
The question of atonement also appears in the work by Michał Dobrucki, titled “Confession.” From the artist’s perspective, such practice is indispensable to the admission of an individual into the Church community.
The juxtaposition of these two approaches to penance generates an interesting tension: the confrontation of opinions as to who should actually show contrition.
An important theme of the exhibition is the question of form and the manner of artistic expression. In the discussed context, the use of realism, or borrowing from popular culture, surfaces as an interesting strategy aimed at developing a visual language accessible to the community—a code that is as close as possible to everyday experience. Such experiments deliberately adopt forms commonly recognized as conservative. It could be said that one of the distinctive features of such an aesthetic in the Polish context is a combination of the language of religious images with the visuality of identity-related realist motifs—a combination that generates a particular visual code of national realism. Artists including Daniel Rycharski, Jerzy Bohdan Szumczyk, Stach Szumski, and the collective Rozdzielczość Chleba, find different ways to tap into such a code, but their practices seem to be underpinned by a similar goal: work with national identity forms. Although in many cases this visual code is used ironically, its presence does not result merely from aesthetic appropriation, but also seems to mark an attempt at a dialogue with the community.
A similar strategy is implemented by Ada Karczmarczyk, who performs under the nickname ADU as a singer and pop evangelizer. One of the elements of her artistic approach consists in the use of social media, popular culture, and music videos to generate a larger audience—namely, with religious people who see the need to modernize the form of preaching the gospel. Interestingly enough, such practices, distinguished as avant-garde conservatism, are often meet negatively by their target audiences.
Elements borrowed from popular culture are also present in the work Whosoever Possesses the Holy Lance, Holds in his Hands the Destiny of the World by Małgorzata Malinowska/Kocur. The work was commissioned as a decoration of a church altar. It emanates openness—characteristic also of the earlier work by the duo Kijewski/Kocur—to the mysticism of capitalism. The work brings to mind traditional church illuminations, which stand as a symbol of spiritual enlightenment, while it also flirts with the easily accessible language of modern-day religious art, which verges on kitsch. We may also draw a parallel with the work of artists who in the 1980s collaborated with the Catholic Church in Poland. In turn, Milena Korolczuk proposes her own way of experiencing the sacred, based on trance and rapture in dance.
Other works on display that investigate community-building processes shift the focus from the aesthetic and material sphere to the question of the force that binds the collective body through the energy of common experience. After all, community is not consolidated only by its rational choices, but it also draws on affective forces. Select examples illustrate the strategies of revealing the affects that bind the social tissue. Tear Dealer by Alicja Rogalska and Łukasz Surowiec is an archive-collection of materialized social lamentation. The work actualizes the Catholic devotion of Bitter Lamentations (Gorzkie Żale), which is a distinctively Polish devotion sung during Lent and deeply embedded in Polish culture; presented here, the only difference is that the community of the faithful is replaced with one arranged by the artists. A community formed around compassio—commiseration in suffering—a secular ritual involving the joining in misery and shaking of sorrows through the act of crying. The work by Rogalska and Surowiec reveals one of the forces behind a temporary collective body—whose development and existence is underpinned by a similar emotion. It also refers to certain mental clichés, and the habitual perception of “Polishness” as an identity founded on suffering. Przemysław Branas follows a similar trope in his reflections on society in the work Hyena, which can be interpreted as a commentary on the Polish problem with the process of mourning that has not yet been completed by the society, which thus witnesses eternal returns of national martyrs from the dead.
In turn, Paweł Althamer’s practices rely on a subtle game between the mundane and the extraordinary character of situations of everyday life, eliciting both charm and a spiritual dimension. The exhibition illustrates this approach with a project produced through the co-creation of the sculpture Paradise with the residents of the Warsaw high-rise residential estate Bródno. Building a fragment of the garden of Paradise in a municipal park resembles an attempt at establishing a secular holiday, forming a community around an object that provides an opportunity to meet and act together. A photograph showing the group of people involved in building the garden later became part of the decoration of a parish church. In this case the strategy of “enchantment” profited from the aura and authority of the Church.
A similar role of facilitation is played by an art space in the presented work by Piotr Wysocki, who invited the members of the Ingush and Chechen communities to perform zikr—prayer in a ring—at the Królikarnia Palace in Warsaw, which houses the Xawery Dunikowski Museum of Sculpture. The rotunda of the palace became home to a community united through religious experience and a traditional ritual, the more so special that it gathered Ingush and Chechen people from migrant environments across Western Europe.
The dark side of community marks the focus of Huber Czerepok’s neon sign Foe Is Born. The artist identifies the process of forming community on the foundation of hostility to the Other. Czerepok warns us against a situation where the need to defend values deeply rooted in tradition and religion compels community members to view the Other as an enemy.