28 Oct 2011 - 14 Jan 2012
28 October, 2011 - 14 January, 2012
Waging war on history
After the fall of the Wall and the collapse of the totalitarian regimes, a door has been thrown open to the hitherto unknown traumas of the War and the political and cultural oppression which lie buried in the recent history of Eastern Europe. It has now become possible to explore the repressed memories, and to analyse and reinterpret Eastern European history - a task to which a number of visual artists in Eastern Europe have undertaken to contribute. Adam Adach is one of them.
As a committed Polish contemporary artist, Adach attempts to deconstruct recent history and exploit the apparent documentary realism of historical photographs. His paintings, with their strong emotional interpretations, reveal that history is political, and entirely dependent on the teller. He works in the gap between personally and the publicly interpreted production, and fills his ex pressive paintings with references, symbols and multiple historical layers.
Adach's works may be viewed as an extension of the interest of the Polish art tradition in documenting the country's bloody and ambiguous history. Several post-war artists, including Andrzej Wróblewski, Tadeusz Kantor and Alina Szapocznikow, refer directly to the traumas of the War in several works.i In the 1990s it was memories of the Holocaust, in particular, that the critical and now world-renowned artists Miroslaw Balka and Zbigniew Libera addressed in their works. In 1996, the latter created the highly controversial and critical work, Lego Concentration Camp, consisting of a Lego box with the bricks and figures to construct a realistic model of a concentration camp.
Similarly, Adach, too, questions our attitudes to familiar narratives and our collective memory. But while they take their starting-point in specific historical facts, and create radical works with a sharp edge, he and his contemporary artist colleagues are more interested in exploring how history is told - and how these tales combine with fiction and our capacity to imagine reality.
In several of his earlier works, Adach refers directly to the Nazi concentration camps. The painting Untitled (Treblinka) from 2004 is apparently a simple depiction of a forest of trees planted by the Germans around Treblinka to hide the camp's existence. But by overpainting and erasing the writing on one of the large signs set up to guide tourists, the artist offers an opportunity to find new paths to a personal understanding of past memories. And in the expressionist painting Birch (2004), in which Adach paints his own memories in the form of a muddy path through a neglected birch grove studded with symbols, he refers both to the Birkenau extermination camp, to repressed history, and to his own childhood in a house surrounded by birch trees.In one of his most recent paintings, Nazi Holidays (2011), Adach made use of a photograph from an album found in Germany a few years ago, and which was subsequently reproduced in several media. The album turned out to contain more than one hundred photographs of SS officers and security guards from Auschwitz. In the photographs, the German executioners are seen in family situations, relaxing and enjoying their holidays - just 30 kilometres from the concentration camp in which several hundred thousand people were simultaneously being murdered.
Adach has painted the scene of sunbathing Nazis against a sickly yellowish background.
Only one person stands out as a black spot in the yellow mass of history.
In this way he criticises, challenges, and seeks out the border between memory and truth, thereby blurring the traditional, established approaches to history. He deconstructs orthodox history and creates room for new understandings of both ourselves and our past.
Adach shows that history is always an emotional and distorted construction. In this, his works form part of current artistic trends in Poland. Here are a couple of examples:
In 2003, Rafal Jakubowicz projected the Hebrew word for swimming pool, ðøéëúÎùçÖäØ, onto the outer wall of a pool which, before being rebuilt by the Nazis, had been the Jewish synagogue in Poznan. Today the building is still a swimming pool, but with his work Temporary Monument, Rafal Jakubowicz subtly highlighted the other side of that reality - namely the extermination of the Jews.
A few years later, Elzbieta Janicka exhibited her small photo series Odd Places, consisting of exposures of the sky over various death camps such as Auschwitz, Birkenau and Treblinka. The almost entirely white photographs symbolise the inability to present or represent the Holocaust as a collective memory.
Historical traces of avant-garde art
In his challenge to the constructed narratives of history, Adam Adach does not merely examine Poland's fascist past; he also focuses in a sharp and original manner on the suppression of historical avant-garde art.
At first glance, the picture Revolution on the Table (2011) is merely a painterly reproduction of a photograph taken in 1980 of an award-winning French living-room design, complete with flowery wallpaper and a fire burning in the fireplace. However, a couple of surprising details make reference to Russian avant-garde art, which revolutionised the art world almost a century ago.
The fireplace cavity is for example painted to remind the viewer of Kazimir Malevich's famous painting Black Square, which represented a reduction of all conceivable content, and was included in the first Supremacist exhibition, '0.10', held in 1915 in St. Petersburg. And on a small table in the foreground of the painting, we see a book whose cover is a reproduction of El Lissitzky's famous graphic image Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge from 1919. The red wedge forcing its way into the white circle symbolises the struggle of the Red Bolsheviks against the 'White' royalist forces after the revolution of 1917.
As a student of Kazimir Malevich, El Lissitzsky was also part of the Russian avantgarde, whose constructivist art was intended to help in the construction of a new socialist society, and was therefore employed in the service of communism immediately after the revolution. Just a few years after the revolution, however, avant-garde art fell out of favour in Russia. It became brutally suppressed, and when in 1934 Stalin declared socialist realism to be the Soviet Union's official artistic idiom, this brought down the final curtain on this innovative art form and its practitioners.
Seen in this light, Revolution on the Table is a work that is critical of ideologies. But it is not just communist ideology and the utopian conceptual system of Supremacism that Adach targets; by placing a utopian and groundbreaking avant-garde work in the middle of the living room table, he also asks whether we in the Western democratic world are prepared to settle for kitsch, retrograde design as an image of the creative utopias of our time.
By incorporating a pair of avant-garde icons into the bourgeois room, Adach also points out the eternal dilemma and trauma of avant-garde art: the threat of being absorbed and reduced to an item of use and decoration in the service of another ideology - as was the fate of Kazimir Malevich's icons Black Cross and Black Square, which adorned German military vehicles during the war, and the street art of our own time, which is gradually being reduced to the status of commercial products for sale.
Adach also combines references to interior design and Russian avant-garde art in the two portrait paintings Kobro alone with her daughter (2011) and Strzeminski (2011). The first of these is a portrait of the Polish sculptor and avant-garde artist Katarina Kobro, who was married to fellow artist Wladyslaw Strzeminski, the subject of the second portrait. Both were students of Kazimir Malevich around 1920, and were part of the circle of the world-famous master in Vitebsk, as well as Lissitzsky's group Unovis.
In the early 1920s the couple travelled to Poland, where they introduced Malevich's Suprematism and founded their own Unism as a constructivist but autonomous style, in which, in both painting and sculpture, abstract spatial structures were constructed on the basis of mathematical principles.
Adach has reproduced the portraits of both these artists in a naturalistic style, but the surface is filled with abstract geometric forms. These forms were apparently applied by Adach using one of the popular rubber paint rollers commonly used in communist Eastern Europe to decorate living-room walls.
In this way, Adach rewrites the pioneering avant-garde art which, in Poland, too, was 'forgotten' during the totalitarian regime of the past. And once again, we are reminded of the oppression of totalitarian regimes and their speculative exploitation of the early experiments of historical avant-garde art.
Salt in old wounds
Adam Adach's current exhibition, 'Cease-fire', consists of paintings inspired by motifs drawn from places much further removed from the Polish context.
The work Last chef last turnip (2011) is for example based on a photograph of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, who, during a visit to the kitchen of a military camp, is seen examining one of the large radishes upon which his Red Army is apparently fed. The motif is painted on a blood-red, monochromatic background, and by giving the vegetable the appearance of a grotesque detail from a still life, Adach ironically underlines the anachronistic character of the totalitarian regime.
Another painting, Dictator's Cradle (2011), was also inspired by a North Korean photograph. The model was a stereotypical propaganda picture of the birthplace of Kim Il-sung, which many North Koreans apparently visit. The house is a simple wooden building with mountains in the background, and serves as a well-written allegory of the greatness for which the child was destined.
Adach has added a lot of trees to his version, as well as white blobs of paint. These alter the story and make it much more ambiguous. Are the paint blobs meant to be kitschy snowflakes, for example? And can abstract blobs of paint sweep away the totalitarian figurative narrative? Either way, both the fragile construction of the narrative and the ideological power structures have been tampered with.
In the painting Nebula Hunting (2011), Adach shifts his focus to reflect on the actual process of myth formation. The picture was inspired by a photograph of the house in which Bin Laden was found hiding in Pakistan earlier this year. In Adach's further processing, the building has become a rudimentary line drawing against the background of the painted blue sky. In this way, the building fades into the background and loses its materiality; while on the other hand, a crowd of press photographers can clearly be seen in front of the solid concrete wall topped with barbed wire. By presenting these in a plain and realistic manner - in contrast to Bin Laden's house – Adach suggests how stories and news are often constructed through the creation of images.
Adach's artistic strategy is a kind of reinterpretation of history - a quest for traces of the untold, the ignored and the suppressed. The artist focuses on how people fitinto, or are excluded from, the great historical narrative. He also examines how ideologies such as communism and fascism have affected people, and explores traumatic facts by reawakening the past to life. In brief: he rubs salt into the old wounds.
Art as healer
But with his art, Adach most certainly also helps to heal the open wounds of history.
To understand how, we need to touch upon the sphere of psychoanalysis.
Utilising the Freudian concept of nachträglichkeit ('afterwardsness'), the American art theorist Hal Foster has claimed that a traumatic event can only be registered through another person, who re-encodes it.II It thus always takes two traumas to produce one trauma, and the first can only be healed when we encounter it again.III The neo-avant-garde art of the sixties was thus not a farcical repetition of the historical avant-garde of the 1910s, as the German theorist Peter Bürger has long since concludedIV, but rather a playing-out of the avant-garde for the first time.V
In the same way, Adach's paintings replay historical traumas. He forces his way into collective memory and challenges the established historical narratives. He questions our historiography and analyses the ways in which history manifests itself today.
What traces does it leave in our cultural consciousness? And how does this affect the ways in which we construct our immediate reality?
From this point of view, the image processing of Adam Adach's art constitutes an absolutely necessary form of artistic therapy.
By Henrik Broch-Lips, art critic, master in art history and European cultural studies
I Andrzej Wróblewski depicted German atrocities during the war in his raw series of paintings, Executions, in the late 1940s. Tadeusz Kantor is known for his theatrical pieces and installations such as The Desk (1975), commenting on the status of Jews under the Nazi occupation, while the Jewish artist Alina Szapocznikow, a survivor of the extermination camps, has repeatedly used her own body, marked by cancer and tuberculosis, in her sculptures, particularly those from the 1960s.
II Hal Foster, The Return of the Real - The Avantgarde at the End of the Century, Cambridge, London: MIT Press, 1996, p. 29
III Op.cit., p. 264
IV Peter Bürger, Theorie der Avantgarde, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 1974, p. 80
V Foster, op.cit., p. 24