[PL] Four years ago, when I arrived in Poland to direct the Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, I declared I was here not to teach but to learn. The high quality of Polish art, whose main representatives since the ‘seventies at least I was familiar with ; the evident support given to culture by the public administrations; the widespread participation of the people which would shortly lead to the signing of the Pact for Culture with the Prime Minister Donald Tusk: these were all clear signals which raised the cultural commitment of this country to a higher level than that of many other European states. Now I am leaving this place I would like to sum up some of the things I think I have learned.
First of all, it is true, I confirm that I have found a very high cultural level here. Moreover, I have also found depth: depth of content, seriousness of discussion, attention to the true purposes of cultural or artistic activity. These aspects have now disappeared from the lives of many aged, decadent European peoples. I have found here people, many of them young, who visit exhibitions out of real interest, not just in order to be seen or to exchange greetings at opening ceremonies. I have found discussions which are passionate, but also real and deeply felt. I have found an intellectual class which still generates themes for discussion and imposes them on the political agenda.
Obviously I have also learned negative things. And looking back, perhaps I should have taken more seriously the complaints of those I heard criticising the cultural situation: don't be surprised, they were saying, this is Poland. As if to say: things are going badly and it is not possible to do anything about it .... Exaggerations, certainly, but I should have taken some signals into greater consideration.
The first of these negative signals is the historical, I suspect almost ancestral, widespread negativity. It is the pessimistic, slightly masochistic view that things cannot change, which in the end turns into a certain limitation, a lack of willingness to accept new proposals. Of course I have come across this most of all at the CCA, in some of its staff who were used to working in a certain way under the more than twenty years long direction of Wojciech Krukowski and are resistant to change; but it is alas a generalised attitude. It may be because I am Italian, and thus basically a maverick , but I have encountered here a chorus of opposition at any proposal for change I have made. Have I been wrong 100% of the times? I must say that it is only thanks to great determination, which is also what has produced the reaction against me, that I have managed to carry some of those proposals through, including the Bank Pekao Project Room, a project supporting young artists, and Zielony Jazdów , a summer festival based on ecological themes, to name just two.
This position is alas indicative of lack of openness, which is not only negative in itself, it also precludes understanding of what is different from what we already know. And unfortunately that does not only apply to the CCA staff (they have perhaps been a bit diffident of me because of my abrupt manner), but also to the Polish cultural world as a whole. Works and artists of exceptional quality, like the young contemporary sculptors of the exhibition "Figury" , including Thomas Houseago, Huma Bhabha and David Altmejd, have passed by unnoticed, just because they did not fulfil certain set criteria.
Not only this, but some of the main contemporary artists, like Doug Ashford, Suzanne Lacy, Jeremy Deller, Santiago Sierra, in the 2013 exhibition "Razem-Osobno", have been totally overlooked. Now there is the risk that an interesting exhibition which undoubtedly deserves closer examination, "Slow Future", curated by Jota Castro, will also pass unobserved. Where are the Dorota Jareckas, the Piotr Sarzynskis? What are the young Adam Mazurs thinking about? Convictions sometimes act as brakes; we think we are open-minded and instead we are only convinced of our own rightness, and this stops us from seeing all the rest. We believe we are working for innovation and instead we remain reactionaries.
The reaction of a small group of artists led by Artur Zmijewski , who at a certain point supported the protest of the CCA workers, was also a reactionary fight, a nationalist and I would even say a mean-spirited one, without any true vision of a new artistic institution. Zmijewski managed to make it appear as a fight for freedom against the dictatorship of the Italian dictator director, and although I invited him many times to a public confrontation on these themes, he always refused. Like most of the Polish media, he refused any true confrontation. I must say it does not do honour to the declared democraticness of the super-democratic Krytyka Polityczna that they published various articles about the CCA without ever asking its director for his point of view. Likewise the "Forum Sztuki Współczesnej", which took a stand against me (I am actually also one of its members) without ever asking for my opinion. Congratulations to all the journalists who mostly just listened to the vox populi without conducting any real objective investigation.
But at the end of the day these might all seem to be personal gripes. There is a greater and worse phenomenon which I fear is rapidly developing. I believe that in the 1990s, Polish culture was one of the freest in Europe, for the lack of preset rules (they were coming out of communism and did not know what capitalism was), for the fact that culture played a strong role in the creation of the new identity, or simply for the pure disinterest of the political class. Artists and intellectuals were able to move freely as in no other European country. There were famous cases of scandals and controversies, but in the end what it amounted to was simply: better "bad" art than censorship.
Recent cases have however shown a countertrend. The work of Jacek Markiewicz, on display here at the CCA in the exhibition "British British Polish Polish", attacked by the rightwing Catholic media, and the very recent case of the Malta festival of Poznan, where the work by Rodrigo Garcia, Golgota Picnic, was cancelled just before the presentation, I am afraid presage an important change. These are not cases of controversy about works which are of dubious value for some people; here we are faced with much larger attempt of political invasion of the cultural sphere. The situation is rapidly deteriorating, and this threatens to curtail this magnificent era of Polish culture and art, which up till today has been based on depth of content and freedom of expression.
See also On "A Summary"