Impossible objects in the Polish Pavilion

The presentation in the Polish Pavilion at this year’s edition of the Venice Biennale may surprise you. Instead of an overloaded encyclopedia of 100 years of modernism, the team had decided to present one structure focusing nearly all of the problems of Central Europe from the interwar period, when newly established states endeavored to build their identity using modern architecture as the tool. You shouldn’t expect a happy ending though. The exhibition is a disturbing tombstone erected for the modernist utopia

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Several editions now, the Polish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale has been standing out from the presentations of other countries. Perhaps it is due to the fact that its creation is supervised by an institution whose daily bread is art, not architecture. Hence the exhibitions resembling provocative artistic installations rather than classic reviews of local architectural accomplishments. Zachęta – The National Gallery of Art can advertise considerable achievements in the organization of exhibitions as part of the Polish Pavilion. At the last edition of the Biennale, Polish exhibition received honorable distinction and in 2008 – the Golden Lion itself. Yet again, the exhibition surprises us with its original approach to the subject. And that’s great! This years edition of Biennale was filled with pavilions which seemed to have taken Rem Koolhaas’ statement a bit too literally. Visiting the Giardini, every step we take, we encounter archives, libraries or warehouses recording the 100 years of subsequent states “absorbing modernity”. What would definitely present well in comprehensive, encyclopedia-like publications, makes us nauseous at exhibitions, overloading our brains with superfluous information. Passing through the Japanese or Croatian pavilion takes a lot of time and patience.

In this light, the Polish pavilion stands in the avant-garde. As has the German team, the Polish artists designed one structure only – an architectural replica scaled 1:1. The German pavilion decided to present an ultra-modernist chancellor’s bungalow, taken straight from Bonn, whereas the Polish pavilion consisted in a centerpiece, a structure seemingly distant from the 20th-century notions of modernity. It is a reproduction of the canopy roofing the entrance to Marshal Józeł Piłsudski’s crypt, the original counterpart of which is located in the Wawel Castle in Krakow, right next to the Wawel Cathedral, the place where dozens of Polish kings and other outstanding personalities are buried.

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Photo By Andrea Avezzù / Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia

This monumental assumption is a lens that focuses the dispersed scope of problems related to building modernity in the interwar period in Poland and in the Central Europe of that time. After World War I, Poland reappeared on the World map, regaining its independence after 123 years of partitions (the country was divided into three parts and annexed by the Russian Empire, the Prussian Kingdom and the Habsburg Empire). The newly established state was looking to create a new identity and architecture was one of the keys in forming a new national character, in creating new myths, in tying with the past, but setting the directions for future development as well. The author of this monument was Adolf Szyszko-Bohusz, one of the most prominent Polish architects of the interwar period, a renowned monument preserver. A graduate of the Saint-Petersburg Academy, a contemporary to Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, he strained from the purist architecture of white boxes. His creative oeuvre may be compared to the works of Josef Plečnik. Likewise, he absorbed modernity whilst scooping out of tradition and heritage, former styles, in which he left his mark – one could easily claim that he was Poland’s first true modernist. Szyszko-Bohusz, whom David Crowley has labeled as “Piłsudski’s architect”, had performed many a commission from the highest authorities. He was the author of numerous mausoleums and monuments erected to celebrate national heroes, whose funerals (some of which were repeated due to relocation of their corpses) constituted an element of state propaganda to build new myths and dramatize death. Szyszko-Bohusz was also the author of the president’s summer residence, the so-called Hunter’s Castle in Wisła, or the Józef Piłsidski House of the Legions in Krakow – the offices of the veteran association gathering those who fought side by side with Piłsudski in World War I. It was therefore natural that Adolf Szyszko-Bohusz was appointed to design the crypt for the Marshal to be buried in. He not only fought in the Legions, but also worked as the general preserver of the Wawel Castle, proving his skill in approaching such a delicate matter as the former Polish kings’ residence.

The canopy is a reflection of contradiction which often accompanied Polish architecture of that period. On the one hand, the young state strived at modernity, and on the other hand, it was not entirely entitled to resist the forms that associate with the Polish thought, the extensive history and heritage. What is more, by definition, a monument is nearly impossible to realize on the basis of modernity, since its essence is to commemorate the past. Lewis Mumford claimed that “…The notion of modern monument is veritably a contradiction in terms..” The curators of the exhibition, representing the Institute of Architecture, affixed a motto thereto. It was hung above the entrance to the room and included the words of Adolf Loos: ‘…Only a very small part of architecture belongs to art: the tomb and the monument. Everything else that fulfils a function is to be excluded from the domain of art…” Szyszko-Bohusz has thus created a work of art, laying the foundation for the myth of the great Marshal, the father of Polish independence, the man who built Poland’s national identity, which was not easy for a country that had remained under various influences for more than a hundred years. In order to even further magnify the symbolic resonance of the monument, its elements originate with the spolia, trophies collected after the three annexationists. In result, we have the base of the canopy built from granite obtained from a dismantled Bismarck monument which stood in Poznań until 1918. Bronze elements are melted down Austrian cannons. In turn, marble columns were extracted from the Alexander Nevsky Othodox church in Warsaw – the symbol of Russian domination, torn down after Poland regained its independence.

The canopy rests on 6 Corinthian columns and is fenced with a balustrade. However, what is most interesting is the roofing itself. As if contrasting the historicizing supports, it features a bronze form, a modernist flat roof, the ideal monolith and the perfect Platonic archetype. It may be interpreted as a metaphor of the modern state set on the foundations of complex history and multi-plot tradition. However, the paradigm is shaken by a peculiar dramatic event – the column is separated from the roofing by an aperture. This way the roof board does not rest directly on the Corinthian capitals, but on light, nearly invisible supports. This very aperture contains the titular “impossible object’, which may be interpreted twofold. Firstly, in the spiritual realm, as related to the essence of burial, which also bears reference to the Latin inscription on the edges of the roof – “Corpora dormiunt, vigilant animae” (the bodies are asleep while the souls awake). The columns remain in the earthly realm, contrasting the roofing, which is a metaphor of the spiritual realm, pertaining to a different, higher order. However, arranging the canopy replica in Venice, the curators created an interesting interpretation of the piece. This aperture is a dischord between the drives of the modernists, their struggle at achieving mythical modernity, and the reality that is full of history, repetition, populist inclinations of the masses that tend to favor historical styles. Artist Jakub Woynarowski emphasized the levitating property of the roofing – in his interpretation, the modernist board rests on two crystal cubes which intensify the impossible nature of the object, thus intensifying this dischord between tradition and modernism. In the context of the state, politics and its propaganda, modernity is impossible to achieve. Visions always fail, having passed the quern of populism and mass taste. Compared to other pavilions, boasting their one hundred of years of accomplishments in modernism, sometimes breathing a fresh air of optimist, the Polish pavilion is a bold statement of the utopia accompanying each endeavor to build modernity.

There was concern that an exhibition raising issues specific to the Central European region could have proven too hermetic for a wider group of recipients. Although the Marshal’s monument and its history bear great reference to Koolhaas’ statement, they tend to leave the recipient with an explicit and ready-made interpretation imposed by the curatorial description and the iconography accompanying the replica.

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Photo By Andrea Avezzù / Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia

The exhibition was unnecessarily outtalked in the pavilion vestibule featuring photographs (printed on porcelain, as the photographs on traditional Polish tombstones) which were to introduce various funeral-related issues. On the one hand, these were the tombstones of renowned architects, great modernists, such as Mies, Le Corbusier, or Alvar Aalto. The curators purposefully placed one fake among the photographs – a fictitious tombstone including a form resembling the CCTV in Beijing, authored by OMA – was it a hypothetical tombstone for Rem Koolhaas? This bit of irony seems inappropriate, since it undermines the overtone of the centerpiece. On the other hand, however, the pavilion presents generally known assumptions for monument construction representing the spirit of modernism, such as Lenin’s mausoleum on the Red Square, or the Anitkabir, Mustafa Anatürk’s mausoleum in Ankara. What is more, the photographs are mixed with drawings presenting earlier concepts for the canopy, which display the author’s search for the optimal form, browsing through the specimen of Baroque, through simplified Renaissance. The curators attempted at building a wider context for the reception of their exhibition. Unfortunately, the outcome was that they distracted its message, which is strong and clear enough on its own. Unfortunately, it is also a bit too martyrological. In the Polish culture, death is an indispensable element of the mundane – the All Saints’ Day that celebrates the dead is one of the most important holidays in the Polish calendar. Building monuments, mortifying oneself and pessimist are the Polish specialties. However, despite all of these doubts, the exhibition in the Polish Pavilion is one of the most interesting ones in the Giardini. In fact, it is the tombstone laid for the modernist utopia.

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Polish Pavilion at the 14th International Architecture Exhibition

„Impossible objects”

curators: Institute of Architecture

(Dorota Jędruch, Marta Karpińska, Dorota Leśniak-Rychlak, Michał Wiśniewski)

cooperation: Kacper Kępiński, Iza Wałek, Agata Wiśniewska

artistic project: Jakub Woynarowski