Any Bomb Can Be a Dud.
The First Edition of Mediations Biennale, Poznan 2008
For the past two years or so Poland has been witnessing a major art-boom. Institutional, but intensive. Every big city is building or has built a new contemporary art museum, new galleries and art-spaces flourish spontaneously. It is trendy, smart and in good taste to be interested in culture, because art is a hot topic in Poland. The benefits are obvious and simple – more events contribute to popularization of culture, more money for artists allows for more art production. Yet, quantity isn't necessarily quality.
The idea to have a biennale in Poznan, a Central European city, but very close to Berlin – (Western) Europe's artistic capital – is brilliant in itself. But a great art show takes more than a good localization and some money. Artists are amongst the most critical and vanguard thinkers and their audience cannot be fooled easily. The disappointing titles already give a hint of what the show could show: Corporeal-Technoreal – bland; Voyage Sentimental – stale; Identity and Tolerance – immature. Then the works themselves are just too clichéd, using a language so simple in its symbolism, that it becomes vulgar at times by insulting the spectators intelligence [sic!].
The key to understanding the failure of this seemingly promising endeavor lies in the very texts written for the Mediations catalogue. As the Biennale's director, Tomasz Wendland writes, the exhibition “attempts a dialogue about reality from our, Central European perspective, and on the soil of our sensitivity.” Not quite an ambitious statement for a biennale, rather an obvious starting point. Should one even try to give that sentence a chance, the organizer's inconsequence is striking. Out of three curators, only Hungarian Lórand Hegyi is from Central Europe. Even with political correctness and global thinking neither Korean Yu Yeon Kim nor Chinese Gu Zhenqing can be qualified as Eastern Europeans, even distantly. As we further read in the catalogue, with an allusion to Soviet state-controlled art, Piotr Piotrowski writes: “The present mechanism of control is also hidden, but now it is the 'invisible hand' of the market.” Further on, the Director of the National Museum in Poznan, Wojciech Suchocki prophetically comments, “the above stereotypical disposition of this venue would doom artistic endeavors to being marginalized.” The press release wishfully states that the event “is intended to become one of the largest events of the kind in Central Europe”, but such condition could only be true when backed with a grand vision, rather than third-rate marketing strategies. Including a show of Chinese art in a “Central European” event is a cheap trick. It goes without saying how popular the word “China” has been in the recent months, or even years, in reference to the art-world withal. Furthermore, Mr. Wendland's essay states that “the axis of the Mediations Biennale is determined by a dialogue of two exhibitions” - Corporeal-Technoreal and Voyage Sentimental. Chinese Identity and Tolerance just kind of is. And how, above all, does one fit William Kentridge in all this? Big names, big countries, big nothing.
Central Europe needs its own major art event. However, the world does not need just another biennale. What this area really needs is its own It – an event not just located in the region, but providing a solid platform for Central European mediations. Not several worldly names, but local entrepreneurs with global force. Not easy slogans, but subversive thinking rooted in its geographical origins.
Interestingly, as cited before, the organizers on the Polish side express a lot of hidden concerns in their texts. Tomasz Wendland doubtfully sums up his introductory essay with these words: “In the Central European understanding, and using a paraphrased title of Jerzy Andrzejewski's 1948 novel, which became the basis of Wajda's film, one does not know which will remain of it all: Ash or Diamond?” It is Ash for this time. But let's wish the next Mediations Biennale the best it could get – a Revolution!
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Bartek Kraciuk is a freelance writer in New York.