Agnieszka Polska brings impotent guns and disembodied lips to Dublin
The Polish artist brings two series of videos to Project. Wit, ingenuity and stories are at their core
I Am the Mouth II by Agnieszka Polska
Agnieszka Polska’s Softly Spoken at the Project is an exhibition in two chapters, each consisting of three consecutively screened video works. Chapter one lasts for about a month of the show’s two-month run and will be succeeded by the next chapter, the other three videos.
Though they depend, as she accurately puts it, on the establishment of a meditative, contemplative mood, Polska’s works are precisely structured, relatively concise and tightly edited.
There’s no sharp distinction between the work in the two chapters – all the pieces have at their kernel stories, whether based on an historical episode or entirely fictitious – although they might be seen as reflecting twin tendencies in her writing, the first towards prose, and the other poetry.
Writing is fundamental to everything she does. Polska was born in Lublin, an important regional cultural centre in eastern Poland, though comparatively isolated, she notes, by virtue of its location. Polska’s own work, with its inspired, disconcerting surrealism and her flair for arresting imagery, certainly suggests a connection with Poland’s exalted reputation in the fields of animation and graphic arts, especially in the latter half of the 20th century.
That is when Polish film posters for mainstream American productions, for example, attained a level of inventive sophistication way beyond the standard commercial norms, and influenced graphic designers worldwide.
Polska studied animation but the teaching was technically conservative. Working digitally allows her to work more flexibly, employing multiple layers of imagery, say, though she observes that animation is inescapably time-consuming, no matter which way you approach it. In time she began to work with actors as well, not as an alternative to animation, which remains close to her heart, but as a natural development of wanting to tell stories.
All the pieces at the Project were made in the past four years. My Little Planet is a succinct but powerful allegory that alludes with wit and ingenuity to the human tendency to accept arbitrary, local norms as universal and natural. A major strength is that, whatever Polska’s own local concerns, the work comments on a widely applicable phenomenon without singling out a culprit, while leaving us viewers free to deduce its relevance in multiple contexts. This terse, fable-like quality is a recurrent feature of her work.
Guns (made with Witel Orski), is on the face of it a more abstract film, largely consisting of hypnotic, rapidly rotating patterns with drilled holes at their centres. The inspiration was an episode in Poland in 1968.
In the midst of student protests, the authorities became possessed by the idea that students might procure weapons from an armaments museum and use them. Their solution was to drill through the barrels of every firearm in the museum, dating as far back as the 17th century, rendering them unusable. A dry narration underlines how using them would have been well nigh impossible in the first place.
Polska sensualises and sexualises the imagery or, more accurately perhaps, points out its clear sexual connotations given its language of barrels, penetration, power and impotence. Perhaps the most startling aspect of the video is its paradoxical tenderness.
Mirrored Garden was filmed in Charles Jencks’s Garden of Cosmic Speculation in Scotland. The garden takes the Chinese idea of recreating nature in miniature, but here the aim is to recreate the cosmos and the laws that shape it in miniature, or about 30 acres. For Polska ideas of symmetry, order and infinity in the garden’s context become metaphors for the imposition of rules, order, sameness and uniformity generally. The viewer is invited to extrapolate. There’s a wintry melancholy to the video that is not untypical of her work. In fact it’s evident even in her more obviously playful pieces.
It’s impossible to watch I Am the Mouth without thinking of Beckett’s Not I. Disembodied lips speak of “the weight of words, describing the way sound waves break through the body of the viewer.” But the viewer is also disarmed. “The soft-spoken words are like a kind of brain massage.” Polska both mimics and questions the languages and methods of institutional and commercial persuasion.
Her work has been described as being “refreshingly post-identity politics”, though it is politically alert and comes with an ingrained suspicion of hierarchical authority. Artists, she implies, bear a measure of responsibility for the world they inhabit, and should accept that responsibility.
Last year she won Germany’s Preis der Nationalgalerie for an artist under the age of 40 based in Berlin. She is thrilled to have won, though she and the other shortlisted artists, all women, wrote an open letter saying they felt uneasy about the way the publicity emphasised their gender and non-German nationalities. They also noted the lack of remuneration, the institutional presumption that the fuel of prestige will translate into subsequent financial rewards. The main part of the prize, a major solo show at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin is looming on the horizon, and she is quick to admit that she feels the pressure. It’s a great opportunity, and a real test.
In the meantime, she has just about completed her first feature-length film. It has taken up much of the past four years and is, she says, destined for the cinema screen rather than the fine art museum.
- Softly Spoken by Agnieszka Polska is at Project Arts Centre, Dublin, until June 16 projectartscentre.ie