Even before it opened, the “Political Art” exhibition at Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art had shocked a part of public opinion in Poland. There was even a call for a boycott of the institution published in Gazeta Wyborcza. What exactly triggered such an emotional response?
The controversy surrounding the exhibition “Political Art” will be the subject of a TV programme in the series Co dalej? [What’s Next?] — Thursday, September 16 at 18.25, TVP Kultura
The exhibition at Ujazdowski Castle features paintings, collages, video installations and other art forms relating to contemporary issues that are the source of serious political disputes in the world. The authors of the works are international with a strong representation from Scandinavian countries. The issues discussed at the exhibition include state oppression, women’s rights, racism, nationalism, and terrorism, the clash between Western civilization and Islamic fundamentalism, and sexual crimes of the Catholic clergy.
Meanwhile, from the perspective of left-liberal circles, “Political Art” is a manifestation of the far-right discourse, which — as they claimed — appeared at the CCA when Piotr Bernatowicz became the director of this institution at the start of 2020. Bernatowicz has curated the exhibition together with Jon Eirik Lundberg from Denmark.
The controversy around the works shown at Ujazdowski Castle was mainly caused by the presence of collages by the Swedish artist Dan Park. He is accused of Nazi views and Holocaust denial. In Sweden, Park had problems with the law — he was twice sentenced to prison for publicly displaying works that were of racist nature.
Unsurprisingly, Jewish institutions and organizations operating in Poland have protested in response to the news that one can see the work of someone like that in a publicly funded institution. In a letter addressed to Bernatowicz, we read:
“In Poland – a country where six million citizens died as a result of Nazi policy, the activities of artists such as Dan Park is offensive to all Poles and all decent people.”
The director of the Centre for Contemporary Art, however, remained steadfast. He justified his position as follows: “I will not bow to this call and I will not remove Dan Park’s artworks from the exhibition. I do not accept the argument that no “decent person” should be able to see this artist’s work. On the contrary, I believe that we should confront anything that worries, irritates, or offends us. Art institutions give us an opportunity to do just that — they are a platform for discussion, debate, and confronting our views. I fully agree with the appeal “to not be indifferent” mentioned in your letter. For me, this means a need to take on the challenge of confronting the painful and the difficult — escaping such issues would amount to censorship.”
In a video posted by OKO.press on YouTube, Park sheds more light on this turbulent discussion. When asked by his interlocutor about whether he has compassion for the victims of the Holocaust, Park replied that these people are now dead, and he cares about what is happening today, rather than what happened in the past.
What we are clearly dealing with here is a game of cat and mouse. It seems that this is the Swede’s strategy in dealing with the media trying to force him to make explicit political declarations. We can assume that he treats all public activity as one great artistic provocation.
This is evident in Park’s collages exhibited at the Centre for Contemporary Art. For example, one features the image of Adolf Hitler, on whose raised, enlarged hand we read: “We like Islam.” (in Swedish). It is worth mentioning that the artist regularly compares the Muslim faith, which he holds responsible for the acts of violence in Sweden, to Nazism. He implies that in the West, political correctness ruthlessly fights Nazi ideology, but simultaneously is lenient towards Islam, the minority religion of immigrants.
Another Swedish artist, whose works can be seen at the Ujazdowski Castle, has also fallen foul of Islam — Lars Vilks. The exhibition includes his famous drawing of a dog with the head of Prophet Muhammad. In the past, this blasphemous caricature drew the wrath of Muslims — there was even an attempt to kill him.
While Dan Park — as part of artistic transgression — allows the media to portray him as a Nazi, Vilks expresses attitudes typically associated with the left. If he attacks the Muslims, it is not because of a hostile attitude towards immigrants from Islamic countries, but because of his critical attitude towards every religion. Therefore, he is on the same side as the scandalizing artists who attack Christianity.
On the other hand, Park’s strategy seems similar to that of Dane Uwe Max Jensen. Both artists share the opinion that their works politically support organizations that are burdened with reducing anti-immigrant, xenophobic sentiments.
In the Ujazdowski Castle, you can see Jensen’s collages that are re-creations of famous old photographs. In one of the works, a Soviet soldier conquering Berlin in 1945 holds the flag of the LGBT movement in his hands (title of the collage: “Rainbow Warrior — This Is What We Fought For”). Another work presents a scene from the Warsaw Ghetto: a German soldier with the head of Elvis Presley aims a machine gun at a Jewish boy (collage title: “In the Ghetto” — the same title as Presley’s song, but the latter talks about a boy from a poor Chicago suburb).
During the opening of “Political Art”, Jensen presented a performance, but because he managed to get the audience involved, it was more of a happening. It started with the artist waving the Confederate flag (i.e., the American states of the South, which during the American Civil War were against the abolition of slavery). Then he stripped naked and while shouting “Black Lives Matter!” — he painted his entire body black. Later, rolling on the floor, he imitated the dying George Floyd (the black man who was brutally overpowered and killed by a white policeman in Minneapolis in 2020), to get up and chant again: “Black Lives Matter!.”
What is more, Jensen managed to get a group of Polish “defenders of democracy” (including the famous “Grandma Kasia”) involved in his project. These people showed up at the Ujazdowski Castle to disrupt — what in their opinion was — a “fascist” event.
First, they organized a modest demonstration in front of Ujazdowski Castle, which they then continued inside. During Jensen’s happening, they waved rainbow flags and accosted the artist. When the artists chanted: “Black Lives Matter!”, the protesters responded by shouting loudly at him: “Fascist!.” After a while, Jensen… joined them, repeating their words. Thus, he gave his antagonists the voice — he allowed them to symbolically discharge their anger on him — on the one hand “fascist”, and on the other hand — “black person”, because he was still painted black.
One can only wonder if the “defenders of democracy” are aware of the fact that they took part in the performance of an artist whom they condemn and who ridiculed their exaltation and ideological ardour – unless that is what they meant.
Another thing is that those looking at Dan Park and Uwe Max Jensen’s work may not be amused, especially those whose relatives or loved ones died in Auschwitz. Treating the memory of the Holocaust as a field of artistic provocation constitutes a violation of an existing taboo. If it brings something to the public space, it is cynicism and nihilism. It downplays the enormity of the terrible crimes. It takes away suffering and death seriously. And this really is a problem, as opposed to the promotion of “fascism” imagined by the “defenders of democracy.”
But in the context of the storm surrounding “Political Art”, it is also worth exposing the hypocrisy of the left-liberal circles. In order to do this, it is enough to remember the video installation “Berek” [Game of Tag] by Artur Żmijewski (Piotr Bernatowicz talked about this work on Polish Radio 24).
In 2011 this work was to be included in the exhibition Side by Side. Poland — Germany. A 1000 Years of Art and History” at the Martin-Gropius-Bau Museum in Berlin. The video installation shows a group of naked people — men and women of different ages — who have been locked in a naked, cold, dark room. Staying there, they get increasingly colder so to warm up, they start running and playing tag. This state forces them to overcome their shame and embarrassment. One girl, however, does not want to participate in this game, she moves with her face covered with her hands. The fact that the video was recorded in an ordinary basement and the gas chamber of a former German extermination camp adds horror to the video.
In the exhibition catalogue we read: “The juxtaposition of the room where brutal genocide was perpetrated with the carefree play of naked — like the victims stripped of the simplest signs of dignity — people is shocking, is also meant to evoke a psychotherapeutic return to traumatic experiences in order to overcome them.”
However, such an explanation did not help and “Berek” has been removed from the exhibition. The management of the Berlin museum argued this decision was taken out of respect for the victims of Nazism and their descendants. Unofficially, the discreet intervention of a prominent representative of the Jewish community in the German capital influenced this matter.
Anda Rottenberg, the curator of the Polish part of the exhibition, opposed the removal of “Berek.” “Gazeta Wyborcza” came to her aid: “ >>Berek”<< might be unbearable, perhaps even offensive. But it has to be unbearable. It is supposed to offend.”
So, Artur Żmijewski found lawyers in circles that today denounce “Political Art.” Why? Because of a close-knit circle of people whose thinking is limited to a leftist vision of the world, who are trendsetters who dictate fashions within the circles of contemporary art in the world, regardless of who wields political power. These people claim the right to decide what taboos can or should be disturbed, and in what way, even if they are sometimes inconsistent in this matter – as evidenced by the example of “Berek.”
In 2001, Dorota Nieznalska caused a scandal with the installation “Passion”, one of the elements of which was a photo of male genitals placed on a cross. If this project were to be exhibited at the Centre for Contemporary Art today, Gazeta Wyborcza would certainly not protest.
Left-liberal circles see nothing wrong with profaning what is sacred for Catholics. They treat Christianity — at least in the institutional dimension — as the authoritarian, patriarchal religion of the majority, which is exempt from all protection. However, it is different with minorities — people with irregular sexuality or followers of Islam. Hence the condemnation of artists who assume that freedom of expression cannot be limited by political correctness.
By the way, “Political Art” is a pluralistic worldview, which cannot be said about most contemporary art exhibitions. It shows various faces of ideological clarity. Yes, what is striking is what Dan Park and Uwe Max Jensen prepared (it is possible that mainly because of the aura that surrounds them). However, left-wing point of view is also included in the exhibition — for example, the feminist critique of law and customs imposed on societies by Islam. It is worth noting the sculpture “Stoned” by Tasleem Mulhall, an artist from Yemen living in London — it is clear that the concept of multiculturalism favouring Muslims in Europe collides with standing up for the dignity of women.
Another example is the documentation of how the Turkish state discriminates against ethnic and religious minorities living within its borders –the series of photos “Confiscated Armenian Cemeteries” by an Armenian from Turkey Öncü Hrant Gültekin.
Finally, it is worth noting the work of British artist Séamus Moran, “Give me this child”, attacking the Catholic Church. The artist stuck illustrations from the children’s Bible and a mousetrap on a crucifix. Moran’s is quoted in the exhibition catalogue: “I created this work a few years ago partly in connection with paedophilia in the Catholic Church and partly to show consent to the religious indoctrination of children. Unfortunately, nothing has changed.”
Therefore, if there is something that justifies the presence of Park and Jensen’s works at the Ujazdowski Castle, it is the pluralism of the exhibition. Catholics may be offended by Moran’s work, which equates paedophilia and catechesis, and yet, Gazeta Wyborcza does not intervene to support them.