10 x 10: See You There

European Culture Congress, Wrocław, Poland

Wrocław (formerly Breslau) is a city in Lower Silesia that stands at the crossroads of central Europe; ruled over the centuries by Poles, Bohemians, and Prussians, it eventually became a stronghold of the Nazis and the last city to surrender to the Soviets in 1945. 70% destroyed by war, the city was returned to Poland, and, following Poland’s annexation to the Soviet bloc, hosted the 1948 World Congress of Intellectuals for Peace, famously attended by the likes of Bertolt Brecht and Pablo Picasso. An extraordinary historical melting pot, it is small wonder that Wrocław is scheduled to be European Capital of Culture in 2016. The three-day European Culture Congress, held at the partially revamped site of the 1948 Congress, attracted thousands of visitors with an ambitious programme of events designed to interrogate what it means to be European, today, and to propose culture as a key agent of social change. The visual art component was largely overshadowed by the Congress’s music and theory programmes (Penderecki and Bauman, respectively, both packing thousands into the enormous ‘Jahrhunderthalle’ – a landmark of Modernist architecture designed in the 1910s by Max Berg). Nevertheless, the exhibition section, a project entitled 10×10 in which ten young curators were each asked to show work by ten artists, yielded an understated gem of an exhibition: See You There, curated by Ivana Komanická, from Košice.
See You There explored contemporary cultural economies in relation to giving, taking, and responsibility. Komanická asked important questions about the vulnerability of art and artists, particularly in post-1989 Central Europe. It was therefore fitting that the exhibition was installed in a precarious non-place of sorts, one that, at first glance, would seem to be a curator’s nightmare: a passage with a staircase, a corridor, and four doors leading off, and a continuous stream of cultural tourists passing through. Through a series of interventions, Komanicka transformed this transitional space into one where passers-by paused, congregated, and engaged in discussion.
A short, intense man with long hair and a beard sat outside, smoking. He invited all and sundry to rummage through the contents of what looked like an open coffin – a car roof box full of letters and magazine clippings outside a dilapidated pavilion. People took whatever they liked, morphing into vultures feasting on his precious yellowing documents, not without a discernible sense of unease as their once-owner, Milan Adamciak, watched this sifting through of his intimacies, with a smile. He was giving away his archive, amused at the spectacle of others’ desire for this detritus, which, only a few years back, had been strewn across the main street of a Slovak village, following its owner’s eviction from temporary accommodation. But he seemed like a man who has let go of such things a long time ago. Occasionally he would get up and rummage himself – pulling out a book to offer to someone. The installation was conceived of as a gift. In addition to threatening to exceed her airline baggage allowance, the spectator receiving this ephemera became implicated in the dispersal of a living archive, and had to assume responsibility for this act of destruction.

János Sugár: Wash Your Dirty Money With My Art (2008). Stencil on the VAM Design Building, Budapest, 19 June 2008. Image taken by Sugár in June 2009 and courtesy of the artist.
János Sugár: Wash Your Dirty Money With My Art (2008). Stencil on the VAM Design Building, Budapest, 19 June 2008. Image taken by Sugár in June 2009 and courtesy of the artist.

Inside the pavilion, a wall panel entitled A Trip to the Imperial Capital (2011) by a Viennese artists’ collective exposed capitalist neo-coloniality across the former-East, by charting the role played by foundations such as Soros and Erste in re-writing central European art history since 1989. Nearby, a can of spray-paint and a stencil, propped casually up against a wall, became another talking point. The stencil, also sprayed on the wall above, read Wash Your Dirty Money With My Art. János Sugár’s piece was conceived as an interactive offering. People could take the stencil, use it to spray the sign wherever they liked, and bring it back. In so doing, they marked their solidarity with the artist’s right to freedom of expression – a freedom whose limits, in the Hungarian context, were rendered very clear when, after spraying his invocation on the walls of two cultural institutions in Budapest in 2008, the artist was sued and landed a five year jail sentence (later suspended).

Sugár’s dramatic story echoed the story of Adamciak’s precarious existence on the margins of provincial Slovakia. In a piece called Trans-Action. Altruism as Art – Art as Philanthropy. Social Sculpture vs. Social Care, the younger artist Michal Murin described the perpetuities that led him to raise money to buy Adamciak a house near the mountains, when he discovered, in 2005, that his older colleague was destitute. Murin describes his form of Social Sculpture as a ‘targeted, rational, managerial intervention’ simulating ‘the role of a private gallery manager’ in a country with an inadequate cultural infrastructure. Its goal? To enable an important artist, in danger of being forgotten artist, but once a key player, to reappear on the art scene, and to survive, in real terms. Murin’s pragmatism makes for an interesting dialogue with the Viennese critique of private capital’s interventions in the cultural field.
For all the concerns it brought to the fore, the show suggested restorative potentialities. And for the early birds, there was even pre-congress peace on offer, as each day began at 7am with an hour-long meditation designed ‘to remove all fears and fulfil all wishes’ in a Japanese garden. The sessions were led by U We Claus, a member of the FREE INTERNATIONAL UNIVERSITY collective, and one-time collaborator of Joseph Beuys. It was perhaps the collective’s other member, Anna Tretter, who provided the punctum of the exhibition, however: an extraordinary video examining the archive of journalist Erich Everth – a forgotten Weimar Republic critic of Nazism. Echoes of a darker history haunting Central Europe lent the contemporary themes in the show disturbing depth.
10×10: See You There was on show 8 – 11 September 2011 (visit www.culturecongress.eu).