This was the first museum exhibition in Poland, and a major homecoming, for London-based Goshka Macuga (b. 1967), a 2008 Turner Prize finalist, whose eclectic, mixed-medium projects often involve substantial historical research. Here, Macuga delved into ZacheË?ta’s exhibition archives, from conservation reports and documentary photographs to press coverage and guest books filled with comments. She transformed what she discovered into a deeply compelling show that addressed the assaults on and censorship of contemporary art in post-Communist Poland, where provocative artwork has collided with nationalist inclinations, religious convictions and all sorts of political maneuvering.
For the series “Anti-Collages” (2011), Macuga enlarged and altered archival photographs showing controversial artists, curators or critics, and created silkscreens in which the offending figures are replaced by black silhouettes, recalling how the Communist-era government airbrushed shunned officials from the visual record. Included are Piotr Uklanski, whose now famous The Nazis (1998) was attacked at ZacheË?ta by the well-known Polish actor Daniel Olbrychski wielding a saber, and Julita Wójcik, who dared to highlight the drudgery of “women’s work” when she peeled 50 kilograms of potatoes in a daylong performance. Knowing how the press has willfully fomented anti-art fervor, Macuga used groupings of rabid and frequently inane press clippings to create five lively lithographs, each responding to a different artist. For instance, she presents the media reaction to Katarzyna Kozyra’s Men’s Bathhouse (1999), a surreptitious video of naked men in a Budapest bathhouse, and to the young Dorota Nieznalska, who was charged in a Gdansk court with blasphemy for her installation Passion (2001).
The showstopper, however, was the elegantly installed Triptych (2011), three photographs responding to Maurizio Cattelan’s infamous The Ninth Hour (1999), a sculpture of the Polish Pope John Paul II struck by a meteor. Appearing in a 2000 exhibition at ZacheË?ta, curated by Harald Szeemann, Cattelan’s work generated an enormous national outcry against the museum’s director, Anda Rottenberg, who was ultimately forced from her position. Macuga’s enticing images, with prominent red, white, gray and beige shapes, evoke minimalist painterly abstraction. They are actually enlarged versions of photographs from a conservation report detailing damage done to Cattelan’s work when it was attacked-amazingly-by two members of parliament. In one, the sculpted Pope’s white stockings and red shoes nestle against a red background (the carpet in Cattelan’s work), with the gray meteor nearby; another is a near monochromatic section of the sculpture’s damaged surface. While lovely, these photos are disturbing, functioning as evidence from a crime scene.
Elsewhere, a huge wall-hung tapestry (The Letter, 2011) was based on a photograph of a performance orchestrated by Macuga. It shows seven men dressed as postal workers carrying through the city a large canvas banner painted to look like an envelope; the envelope is addressed to ZacheË?ta and features stamps with the likeness of Solidarity leader Lech Walesa. This work plays off of a legendary 1967 Warsaw action by artist and theater director Tadeusz Kantor (1915–1990) in which several actual postmen brought a giant canvas letter to Foksal Gallery, where it was destroyed by onlookers.
Macuga’s giant envelope loosely suggests demonstration banners from Solidarity times, but also the immense volume of enraged mail sent to ZacheË?ta in 2000-01. In a long vitrine were examples of the condemnatory letters (many of them anonymous) sent to Rottenberg. Along with assertions of Polish nationalism and religiosity, anti-Semitism and misogyny abound. Rottenberg is called a Jewish bitch and a shameless prostitute and is instructed to leave immediately for Israel. Macuga’s deft decision to turn handwritten letters from the public into art for the public coolly turns the tables on the accusers. Small things loomed large and old things assumed fresh meaning in Macuga’s excellent exhibition.
Photo: One of three photos in Goshka Macuga’s Triptych, 2011, material from the conservator’s report on the damaged work by Maurizio Cattelan, La nona ora, photo Justyna Butyniec-Podlaska, 26 by 393⁄8 inches; at Zacheta National Gallery of Art.