/ 10 April 2019

The Week of The Festival: Gdansk, Poland

Daniel Rycharski's Island as an example of ahistorical thinking

Temporary Installation in Sierpc

Artist Daniel Rycharski (b. 1986) develops his practice by creatively transforming the context of places related to his biography: small towns and villages in northern Masovia. On many occasions, his actions have shed light on the local experience of Poland’s systemic and economic transformation after 1989. Working with the inhabitants of his native village of Kurówko, he traced the changing identity of the region in the face of modernisation, enforced, for instance, by accession to the European Union. From the small town perspective, he creates a narrative about the highly polarised social reality, conflicted along the axes of centre – interior and religion – sexual identity. Occupying the middle ground between various groups and social classes, Rycharski touches upon the most important contemporary fears and anxieties. One example of his action that very poignantly juxtaposed seemingly disparate problems was a temporary installation in the largest town of the artist’s home region.

Island was a project realised on Jeziórka, a reservoir located near the centre of Sierpc. On a small island in the middle of the pond, the artist placed fragments of the set design of Aftermath, Władysław Pasikowski’s film about the Jedwabne pogrom. Artificial matzevot were additionally decorated with a floral rainbow, where the number of flowers was meant to approximate the town’s Jewish population in 1939. For over three weeks, the installation – operating during the day and at night – visually dominated the public space. On weekends, Volunteer Water Rescue Services operated short cruises on Jeziórka, enabling to see the Island from up close. A noteworthy fact is that the reservoir itself was created by Jewish forced labourers, who often deepened it using nothing but their own hands. Rycharski’s project was complemented by his action on the site of the town’s former synagogue, burnt down by the Nazis in 1939. In cooperation with the town’s authorities, the area became the temporary location of the Monument to a Peasant – one of the artist’s most famous artworks, a mobile statue serving as a moving platform during grassroots social protests. Decorated with used firefighting equipment and painted red it visualised the notion of ‘rescue history’, bringing aid in spite of differences. Like the intervention on the island, the monument presents an ahistorical way of experiencing farmer revolts, introducing them into the context of the Jewish community’s disappearance. Rycharski’s actions in Sierpc referred to one of the key debates for Polish culture, namely our society’s attitude to the former Jewish neighbours, combining it with a discussion on the current manifestations of intolerance. Island may be interpreted as a project about the lack of language to talk about contemporary exclusions related to class, race or sexual orientation. The work attempts to find this language by referring to anti-Semitism and WWII history. The installation, based on a combination of artificial elements, signalled the use of clichés and visual codes in a manner that enables intuitive, purposefully nonchalant juxtapositions of various types of experience.

In one of her essays, Joanna Krakowska noted that ahistorical thinking, with its seemingly bizarre pairing of registers and memories, is able to spark debate and offer an alternative, even a momentary one. Island alludes to the absent memory of the Jewish community; as we acknowledge this fact, the work confronts us with the absence of LGBT people in the space of the town, their invisibility and lack of language to talk about this group. Then it moves us back to the past, observing that non-heteronormative people also fell victim to the Holocaust and – like Sierpc Jews – should be returned to language and memory. An additional element that further complicates this landscape of overlapping contexts is the Catholic church’s attitude to homosexuality. Will the institution reconsider its stance, like it did with anti-Semitism?

Seen from this perspective, Rycharski’s actions seek a third way despite the divides marking our social reality, in opposition to analysing involved artistic gestures as leftist or disgracingly conservatist. He makes this attempt as an artist, believer and gay, working in a small locality on difficult historical subjects and their contemporary interpretation. If critical projects are to spark a debate that refuses to follow set ideological divides, yet triggers polemics from friendly factions, forcing them to abandon their pre-conceived positions, this objective has been achieved by the Sierpc experiment with its funerary set design, rainbow and statue.

The right-wing public sphere, with a tenacity worthy of a better cause, blindly pushed Rycharski’s art into the well-defined sphere of anti-church propaganda, rejecting any interpretations that would break away from the framework of cultural clash. This type of denial masks the inability to function outside the logic of conflict. A particularly perverse attitude, given the many reasons why Rycharski may be seen as one of very few visual artists who successfully refer to the 1980s ‘art-at-church’ movement, where socially-engaged exhibitions were organised at churches, outside of the official network of state-controlled museums and galleries. From a symmetrically reverse perspective, the ‘leftist’ art world is systematically confused by the inadequate (too literal) form and proposal of bizarre alliances, for example designing a platform for farmers, who are traditionally placed on the right of the political spectrum.

Actions related to Island and its consequences form a sequence of ‘previously unthought of ideological configurations’ that cut across different ways of perceiving reality: combining LGBT+ issues with small-town communities, political art with specifically defined religiosity and memory of peasants’ revolts with the Holocaust. In a way, the actions taking place around Jeziórka owe their strength to this nonchalance in combining incompatible registers, transgressing the rules of decorum and activating camp language to talk about experience that is still missing its own form of expression.

By Szymon Maliborski, art historian, cultural scientist, PhD student at the Department of Anthropology of Literature and Cultural Research of the Faculty of Polish Studies at the Jagiellonian University, curator at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw.

Artist's portrait:

Article edited and commissioned by Versopolis' guest editor Ola Halicka.