Monday, November 15, 2010

Poland, part 2

It's not like Poland doesn't have books and printed material ready to go. One of the first things that struck me when I started snooping around museum bookstores in Warsaw was that there are already quite a few scholarly anthologies in print, many of them in bilingual editions. Monographs, too, are in abundance and not just for the big names. But there is absolutely no distribution system for these books, and actually kind of a hidebound bureaucracy in place that resists sending the books out of Poland! I asked everyone I met if they knew this was the case and what they thought about it. For most of those I spoke with, it was not news that the books didn't get out but they were surprised that there was a ready and eager market for it if they did. More on that to come. But happily, one book did reach me a few years ago, a slim volume by Nicholas Grospierre. I'd been impressed by what I'd seen -- I even had him on a roster for a show I was considering -- but I just assumed he was French. It turns out Nicholas is half Polish and has spent much of his adult life in Warsaw. When Jan said this was going to be the first stop on the first day, I was pleasantly surprised that it was an artist I knew of and had been curious about for years. Nicholas has a number of satisfying and exciting projects, but I think the best are his explorations of how photography can be sculptural. His installations in 1:1 ratios of the original object, such as "The Library", are equal parts essay, sculpture, and photo. I'm less excited by his documentary work, but all of it is of a consistently high quality. He has a solid, well-developed body of work that is just waiting for some smart US gallery to snap him up.

The Centre for Contemporary Art is a beacon in the Warsaw art scene. Situated in a former castle overlooking the city, it is one of the few institutions dedicated to contemporary art. From my perspective, it is significant because it is the first Polish art institution to name a full-time curator of Photography. (Photography is still the poor cousin in the mind of the Polish art establishment. It is under-recognized, under-funded, not well researched, and often poorly archived.) The curator of photography at the CCA is Adam Mazur. Adam is an articulate and intense advocate for all things photographic in Poland. He's keenly aware of the deficit of information about the history of Polish photography both inside and outside of Polish borders. He's published a number of books and has curated numerous well-regarded shows highlighting Polish work. Here's a link with Adam talking about his book, "The Histories of Photography in Poland 1839–2009", from Krakow Month of Photography site. And another link with details about his exhibition of 21st Century Polish Photography, "The Red Eye Effect", which also had a published catalog. He's virtually alone in his position in Polish photography. Definitely someone to watch; he's smart, ambitious, and ready for prime-time.

One of the artists in the Red Eye show is named Wojciech Wilczyk. His website, for some reason I can't explain, doesn't list the book he did, called "There's No Such Thing As An Innocent Eye", which creates a typology of structures in Poland that had been Synagogues or Jewish prayer houses and are now something else. It's a super book, and yet another example of a publication that could sold in a hundred US venues to commercial and critical success.

Raster is an independent art space in Warsaw, established in 2001, exhibiting and representing emerging artists from Poland and abroad. They are one of the most well-known and well-funded of the galleries that consistently show in the West. There is also a Raster Foundation which follows generally the same program as the gallery but doesn't have the commercial component. The program of Raster is not merely focused on visual art but also includes screenings, discussions, literature events, concerts as well as informal meetings focused on the local community. Raster is run by Lukasz Gorczyca and Michal Kaczynski who have been established in the art community for some time due to their dynamic activity as critics and curators.I met with Lukasz and had a lively discussion about the Polish art scene and about the roster of his gallery. He was eager to introduce me to the opus of Aneta Grzeszykowska. I'd seen (and disliked) her "Untitled Film Stills" at Basel Statements 3 years ago, but there are a number of projects which I found satisfying and complex. The best for me is a photo album work which is culled from her actual personal family archives, but in which she has carefully edited out any trace of herself. I also liked her riff on Thomas Ruff portraits made entirely out of manufactured, fictitious physiognomies.

Coming next, more from Warsaw and 24 hours in Poznan.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Poland, part 1

Poland has been on my mind for a few years now. Asia Zak of Zak/Branicka Gallery in Berlin was the first guide to show me that there were interesting Polish artists beyond the stars we know from the big galleries. Her gallery (originally on her own and then teaming with Polish art scholar Monica Branicka) has become an ambassador for Polish art outside of Poland. Since meeting Asia, I've been keeping an eye out for Polish galleries at fairs and Polish artists showing with Western galleries. The fact that the art I was seeing -- in a variety of media, styles, and perspectives -- was all of a remarkably high standard and complexity, whetted my appetite to know more. I was developing a curiosity about what art I wasn't seeing; what art hadn't found a gallery or was not being taken to fairs. It seemed unlikely that a culture and art scene that had developed so many art stars would have, to use a sports metaphor, no bench.

Of course, there are names that are familiar to many of us through museum shows, art fairs, and high profile gallery affiliations.  Paweł Althamer, Wilhelm Sasnal, Monika Sosnowska, Piotr Uklanski, Robert Kuśmirowski, and Paulina Ołowska are to name but a few. Perhaps less well-known to US art consumers are Tomasz Kowalski, Katarzyna Kozyra, Zofia Kulik, and Joanna Rajkowska. Along with Zak/Branicka, there have been a few seminal Polish galleries that have had a presence at the big fairs -- Raster and Foksal, for example -- who have had an impact on the awareness in the West of Polish artists. But despite the high profile of these galleries in Poland and at major art fairs, I'm betting that most US art lovers are unaware of them or are under-informed about their rosters and programs.

Readers of this blog will remember that I visited Krakow a few years ago. That was my first foray within the borders of Poland which yielded, with the help of Galeria Zpaf i s-ka, 3 of the artists that I used in my Camera Club show in September. Zpaf i s-ka may be less off the radar after their participation in Paris Photo next week, but even then you couldn't say that they were unknown. For some years they were organizing Krakow Month of Photography, which (along with Lodz MoP) has been developing a loyal following every May. From Zpaf i s-ka and the gallery scene in Krakow, I was really starting to get a taste that there's more going on in Poland than we see in the US. I was determined to go back and make a more thorough investigation.

Before I really dive into the substance of my week in Poland, I need to say some thanks. Karol Hordziej from Zpaf i s-ka was my primary resource who got me started off with some introductions to galleries and institutions. Artist and curator Katarzyna Majak, who I met through a friend in Bratislava, was also a generous resource and translator. Martha Kierszenbaum, whom I met briefly at an opening at the Contemporary Art Center in Warsaw, is a young curator of French/Polish background who is working now in Poland but has experience in the US at the Whitney and the New Museum. She led me to some galleries and artists I wouldn't have found otherwise, and seems to be someone to watch for on the curatorial scene in the coming years. Her perspective is right on the money.

But my biggest debt of gratitude goes to Jan Dziaczkowski. Jan has been written about a few times on this blog and I included him in my Camera Club show last September. He's a talented and intuitive artist. I simply could not have done this trip without him. He spent whole days with me leading me from gallery to museum, to artist studio, to artist café. Needless to say, my Polish language skills are not, shall we say, fluent, so even if his contribution had only been as translator, I would be in his debt. But he was so much more. Jan is tied into the scene as a relatively recent graduate of the Warsaw Art Academy, so he knows who's doing what and where they're doing it.

Rather than make this an endless, run-on post, I've decided to break Poland up into multiple parts. I'm still struggling to digest all that I saw, so I can't say that I yet have a cohesive, overall impression of what I experienced. Perhaps that will come with time and maybe a few more visits (I'll go back in May for MoP in Krakow and Lodz). For now, I'll tell you about the places I saw and a few of the people I met (mostly with links to explore). Perhaps a picture will develop as I replay the trip for you. As always, I welcome your comments, impressions, and amendments. More to come.....


Thursday, November 11, 2010

Bratislava Month of Photography 2010

Last week was the opening week of the Month of Photography in Bratislava. This is their 20th anniversary season so I expected big things. When I had been here 2 years ago, the festival had a few really first-rate shows, but the whole operation suffered from some shoddy administration and not a little bit of crony-ism. Still, there seemed to be a different perspective at play in this sleepy post-Soviet appendix of Vienna plus I saw some artists that don’t really get west all that much, so I hoped this anniversary edition would hold some hidden treasures for me. For the most part, no such luck.

Administration was again the principle roadblock. This is not a big festival – much smaller than the likes of Arles or Photo España – so one should be able to take in virtually every exhibit in one, well-planned day. But you can’t. Venues are open sporadically, and even sometimes not open when the schedule said they would be. Also, the festival has a tradition of sequential vernissages, so the whole festival doesn’t open on opening day. You have to wait until the official opening or after – which sometimes happens 3 days after opening day – to see the show. I would follow my trusty festival map, with its address and opening hours clearly printed, only to find the venue locked up tight with no one in sight. Arles gets this part right. All of the exhibits of the Rencontre are accessible from the opening bell, but there are celebratory vernissages spaced out over the course of the first week.

But finding the place when it was closed was, it turns out, a kind of victory. There were 3 venues I never found at all. There was a Witcacy portrait show I really wanted to see which was not exactly in the center of town. But I trekked out to find it and spent an hour hunting to no avail. Then I went back 2 days later with a friend who had more language skills than me. She, too, asked questions, pointed at the map, showed the page in the festival materials. No luck. We never found the show. It’s not like I can’t read a map or find an address in a foreign city. I found galleries in Tokyo, for heaven’s sake, but Bratislava didn’t give up its secrets. I wasted 3 hours, at least, looking for various exhibits, and heard similar complaints about phantom exhibits from other attendees. This is a failure on the part of the festival planners no two ways about it. I don’t think I’m setting the bar too high to expect that I should be able to find the shows using the festival map.

Ok, enough about logistical challenges, what about the art? There were some good shows. The best were three historical shows. The first was a Frantisek Drtikol essay from Czech archives. It really yielded no surprises but it was good to see some vintage prints of images I hadn't seen before along with some quotes by Drtikol and a few biographical details. 

The second was a fun assortment of work spanning the years 1840-1950 culled from the Russian State Archives of Literature and Art. The work ranged from early wet collodion glass plate prints made by Russian photographers to 1rst rate constructions and photograms by El Lissitzky. It was an uneven and loosely connected exhibit -- the only real thread was that they are all stored in the same archive -- but a pleasure to see nonetheless. 

The best was a super exhibit called “In the Shadow of the Third Reich” which were official photos of the Slovak State from 1939-1945. This was dramatic documentary footage of Slovaks eagerly accepting the Nazi program and forming their own units and paramilitary groups to support the German aggression. The photography was of a very high level and the message packed a wallop. 

On a more contemporary front, winners of World Press Photo 10 were predictably moving and powerful. As strong as the pictures were, the indelible image in this show came from the comment of one of the jurors. He stated that even the tens of thousands of images submitted for the competition did not give an adequate sense of the amount of suffering in the world. I am humbled by the thought.

The most contemporary work was part of group shows highlighting work done by students from two Eastern European art schools. The first, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Institute of Creative Photography at the Silesian University in Opava, yielded little pleasure. But the show from the Poznan Academy of Fine Arts was chock full of exciting and promising work. As I write this, I'm sitting in a hotel room in Poznan looking forward to a meeting tomorrow morning with the director of the Academy. I'd heard that Poznan was the one of the best art schools in Poland (if not the best), so I shouldn't have been surprised by the show. I'll wait to comment on individual artists until I've gotten more background from the director, and I'll weave it into my larger overview of the Polish part of my trip which will be coming soon. 

I'm sure I'd have more to talk about if I'd been able to find and see all the exhibits I'd hoped to see. Oh well! You can follow the hyperlink to the festival site to see what was on offer and to perhaps get a sense of what was in the program. I'll take a pass on commenting on the shows I didn't like. Suffice it to say that the problem wasn't that they were bad (for the most part) or provocative, but that they were so bland and predictable as to not inspire comment. I think my disappointment in Bratislava is partly because I feel it could be so much more. I strongly believe in regional differences of style and perspective, a perspective which Bratislava has an opportunity to highlight and celebrate. I know that there are talented and accomplished Slovak artists that are excluded from the Festival, but that quibble is only a fraction of a larger gripe at the curatorial choices of the festival as a whole. Arles is a long way from perfect, but their choice to have a guest Commissaire who lends a guiding principle to each year is perhaps something Bratislava should investigate. In  any case, I hope future editions of the show will begin to provide a forum for that which is most important and new in photography especially work which originates from that part of the world. If that could happen, it would be a must-see stop on any curator's itinerary.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Dear Readers:

It has been some time since my last substantive post. I've had a lot of questions about the value of Fugitive Vision and of blogs in general, so there's been a bit of a moratorium on my contributions here. But I'm at the front end of the kind of trip that inspired Fugitive Vision in the first place; an art excursion that touches spots that many are unable to see themselves. Starting at the opening week of the Month of Photography Festival in Bratislava, I travel in a large counter-clockwise circle touching Warsaw, Poznan, and Berlin before finishing with a week at Paris Photo. It seemed a good time to start the dialogue once again. But before I start my Bratislava report, I'd like to share a few thoughts and questions about the blog itself.

I've spoken with a few of you about why you read Fugitive Vision, but I've failed to come away with a distinct sense of who my readers are and why they visit the site. There's so much content out there, so much information fighting for screentime, what makes Fugitive Vision a destination for you? Ferdinand Brüggemann, of Priska Pasquer gallery says he only posts a few times a year because he views his blog as a kind of archive. He knows that when the artists he writes about come up in searches, people find his blog. As opposed to Twitter and Facebook -- which he characterizes correctly as writing that has, at most, a 24 hour lifespan -- a blog post lives in search engines long after its original publication. Perhaps this is the answer for me. I've noticed that my "hits" numbers don't change much no matter how much or little I post. So perhaps a regular contribution doesn't really add much to the site. Should I email a reader list when I do a new post? Should I only post on, for example, the first day of the month so you know when to check the site? I don't want this site to be an onanistic enterprise (as most blogs are), and I really began to question my goals in writing here.

So I turn the question over to you, dear readers. Please post your comments here telling me what you can about what makes Fugitive Vision useful for you or what you'd like to see in the future. If I can read a consensus in the responses, that will be my path for the future. I'm eager for your input. If you don't want to write publicly or navigate the Blogspot spam filter, you can write to me directly at With luck, the address won't get trampled by spam after I've posted it in an open forum.

Coming soon, a report from Bratislava. I'll post 3-5 entries about this trip after which I trust I'll have some responses from this post. From there, we'll see........