Łukasz Mojsak, Łukasz Ronduda

Two Aircrafts

Imagining the outcome of the process, initiated by Roman Stańczak, of turning an aircraft inside out posed considerable difficulties. Based on a seemingly straightforward transformation algorithm, the artist’s concept was challenging, if not downright impossible, to visualise. Stańczak himself declared that for him the final result was shrouded in mystery. Thus, from the very beginning, Flight has borne characteristics of an artwork that seeks to convey an unimaginable situation — one that needs to be experienced in order to make any attempts at understanding possible at all. Stańczak’s inside-out aircraft is a piece devoted to unimaginable reversals, extremely rare and often inexplicable events, paradoxes and shocks that shape history and determine the modern-day condition of Europe and the world. It is a monument to the obverses and reverses of reality, which — however difficult it is to imagine — penetrate each other or unexpectedly swap places.

Such a reversal of reality was experienced by Eastern European societies at the turn of the 1990s, when the collapse of communism ushered in the capitalist transformation. Having abandoned a regime whose end seemed difficult to imagine, those societies adopted a new one, which is also said to last forever. “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”[1] — wrote Mark Fisher, seeking to prove that there was more to capitalism than a mere economic system. It is the foundation of the all-embracing condition of “capitalist realism”, which penetrates and determines all spheres of reality. It draws on the conviction that capitalism is the only possible socio-economic regime, to which there is no alternative, or at least alternatives are impossible to imagine; a system that subdues and absorbs all previous history; a hidden dark potentiality inherent in all previous systems.[2]

Poland witnessed the advent of capitalist realism at the turn of the 1990s as a result of the transformation “shock therapy”,[3] which led to the economic and social exclusion of entire segments of the population and peripheral regions abandoned to degradation, or even compelled to return to pre-modern reality of life and methods of securing necessary resources.[4] A reflection of the radicality of that change, the image of the condition of its victims and the degradation of their material world has been discerned in Roman Stańczak’s early practice from the beginning of the 1990s.[5] The artist conveyed it via the very figure of reversal — turning objects of everyday use (e.g. kettle, women’s tights, bathtub) inside out, or through their methodic devastation, depriving them of their outer layer. He therefore concentrated on the realm of extreme destitution.

In the world of capitalist realism, the opposite end of the spectrum to the poorest masses — people like those to whom Stańczak referred to in his early pieces — is occupied by a narrow group in possession of resources that exceed many times over the wealth and income of the other social classes. Today, this so-called 1% — the global financial elite — is already in control of half of the world’s wealth.[6] At the same time, more and more people in the countries with the highest economic inequalities suffer from destitution, while efforts towards reducing poverty levels have failed to deliver intended results.[7]

Yet, as Richard H. Tawney wrote at the beginning of the 20th century, “what thoughtful rich people call the problem of poverty, thoughtful poor people call with equal justice a problem of riches”.[8] The situation of those at the top of the income and wealth ladder influences the situation of those on its lowest echelons, while increased poverty levels usually go hand in hand with higher financial status and earnings of the wealthiest.[9] Albeit different in every conceivable way, the narrow circle of the richest and the masses of the poorest are not detached from each other, they do not function autonomously in the economy and society. They are the two sides of the same coin that affect each other.

Stańczak’s sculpture — an inside-out private aircraft, a means of transport of the 1% — stands as an expression of this very obverse and reverse of the social and economic world troubled by dramatic inequalities. It does so not only via the mere gesture of reversal, but also through the meanings that this gesture came to acquire in the early period of the artist’s practice — during Poland’s capitalist transformation, with his work based on the deconstruction of objects of everyday use recognised as a reflection of the condition of the destitute. Of note are also the methods and tools, derived from that very period, employed by the artist, who operates without the support of specialists, advanced technologies and sophisticated machinery.

Besides the flourishing of financial markets, which largely catapulted representatives of the 1% to their current position, the main factors behind the growth of inequalities also include globalisation and development of technology.[10] All these elements of the late capitalist landscape are symbolised by the luxury private aircraft which Stańczak turned inside out. In this light, the artist’s very work on the sculpture acquired a performative character as it became a confrontation — based on simple, “poor”, pre-modern methods — with a technological symbol of the lifestyle of the world’s narrow financial elite and its international mobility.

In Poland, wealth and income inequalities are not (yet) perceived as an urgency. Although they have not reached such levels as, for instance, in the United States, a recent study conducted by the World Inequality Lab at the Paris School of Economics has shown that income inequality is greater than previously estimated.[11] Jakub Majmurek argues that, in the longer run, this issue might expose the Polish society to a greater division than the current ideological conflict provoked, among other factors, by the 2010 presidential airplane crash in Smolensk, Russia.[12] The fact that Majmurek draws a line between these two issues is telling. Inequalities are not devoid of impact on social cohesion and form strong relations with political conditions and social polarisation caused by ideological issues. In the United States, this phenomenon has been defined as “the dance of ideology and unequal riches”.[13]

In today’s Poland, it is still the political and ideological divisions around such questions as the Smolensk tragedy that make themselves more clearly felt. Smolensk actually seemed to be the first connotation triggered by the idea to exhibit in the Polish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale a sculpture that resulted from the process of turning a real aircraft inside out. It also appeared to loom from underneath all other motifs and contexts in which Stańczak’s sculpture sits. We may even go so far as to say that the atmosphere around the project in Poland was marked by a Smolensk “ideosis” — to refer to the term used in 1984 by Andrzej Turowski[14] in the context of Polish post-war art that functioned in “an ideologically saturated space that limits unconstrained manifestation of thoughts due to a top-down omnipresent perspective”, which “does not allow the artwork to preserve its innocence”.[15]

Yet, the conflict around the Smolensk tragedy is yet another iteration of a more fundamental social rift,[16] otherwise manifested by the antagonisms and inequalities provoked by the capitalist transformation, among other factors. The shock of the transformation opened up the possibility to deploy drastic neoliberal methods, while the presidential airplane crash in 2010 changed the rules of the country’s political game and aggravated social polarisation. The transformation in the 1990s introduced capitalist realism in Poland, whereas the Smolensk tragedy gave rise to a faith that unites all those for whom there was more to that event than a mere aviation catastrophe; for whom its meaning connects with the sphere of the sacred — it bears a spiritual dimension as an expression of the suffering of the nation treated cruelly by history.

Yet, are the foundations on which capitalist realism rests are indeed so-far removed from faith? Perhaps they are closer to the very realm of faith than to rationality? Although, as Fisher wrote, “capitalism brings with it a massive desacralization of culture”,[17] a closer look may blur the seeming opposition between these two spheres. As Joseph Vogl states, “Political economy has always had an affinity with spectrology, pointing to invisible hands and other such ghostly presences to explain the course of economic events. This may well be because there is something uncanny about how, in economic processes, circulating objects and signs take on a spectral willfulness”.[18] A perfect illustration can be found in financial markets, allegedly „the purest distillation of market activity in general”,[19] to which, as we have already remarked, today’s global financial elite largely owes its current position. Vogl argues that the mechanism and functioning of these markets seems to be founded on faith rather than rationality, as can be seen, for instance, in the fact that economics — “this dogma of our time” — is hard-pressed to clarify the inexplicable crashes and crises that occur therein, and which have actually accompanied capitalism since the 17th century, for example in the form of bursting speculation bubbles.[20] For that matter, the author of The Specter of Capital writes even about an “oikodicy”, a theodicy of the world of the liberal capitalist economic doctrine, which “views contradictions, adverse effects, and breakdowns in the system as eminently compatible with its sound institutional arrangement”.[21]

In this context, the aircraft that symbolises the 1%, which Stańczak deconstructs, may be perceived as a figure of faith in the free market, not so far-removed from religious faith. From the very start, Stańczak’s work has been characterised by a high dose of spirituality: for the artist, the act of penetrating an object, turning it inside out, serves to reach the spiritual foundations of reality. Such gestures also bear a strong relation with the exploration of the moment of passage to the other side — death and preparation for it. Stańczak declares: “My sculptures speak of living not among objects but among ghosts”. As for Flight, one of such ghosts is surely the Smolensk tragedy and its myth, which, although it seems to have been exhausted and lost its essence, still remains unburied and continues to haunt the Polish community and polarise it. But another such ghost is the “capitalist spirit”.[22]

Financial markets with their derivative instruments were designed not only as a stable system, but also a step towards a world in which risk has been essentially eliminated — where “indeterminate future can be assimilated into the present since it is offset by determinable expectations about the future”. A world that “moves gently and continuously from moment to moment, knowing neither crashes nor sudden leaps and bounds”.[23] Yet, that vision has been challenged by crises that troubled financial markets, such as that in 2008.

Also in the case of the shock therapy that served to implement capitalism in Poland everything was supposed to go well, as assured by the apostle of laissez faire Jeffrey Sachs, who played a major role in designing the process in question. It was supposed to bring about nothing but “momentary dislocations” caused by prices skyrocketing overnight, “But then they’ll stabilize — people will know where they stand”[24] — Sachs argued.

One of the inherent characteristics of capitalist realism discussed by Fisher is the expansion of bureaucracy and its essentially simulated control function: “Inevitably, a short-circuiting occurs, and work becomes geared towards the generation and massaging of representations rather than to the official goals of the work itself”.[25] Bureaucracy therefore becomes akin to a performance of control pursued for its own sake, to sustain an illusion, which removes its object from the field of vision. What is more, as the circumstances of the recent Boeing aircraft crashes have demonstrated, neoliberal capitalism can also effectively undermine state control systems,[26] conjuring up a parallel reality, whose phantom-like character is laid bare only at the moment of a catastrophe.

As shown by the Final Report of the Committee for the Investigation of National Aviation Accidents concerning the crash of the presidential Tu-154 aircraft in 2010, the causes of that catastrophe can also be seen through the prism of a similar performance of control that remains blind to deficiencies.[27] In this case, it was only the unimaginable tragedy that revealed the shortcomings of the supervision of preparations to the flight and the journey itself.

In nearly all of those cases, an immense role in laying bare the shortcomings of seemingly stable and rational systems and the illusionary character of efforts towards minimising risk was played by the so-called “black swans” — extremely rare and inexplicable events that nevertheless exert an extreme impact on reality; shifts “that interrupt the linear sequence of events, leaving behind an island of turbulent activity that are scarcely credible, and excess of randomness”.[28] Touches of the Real. Moments when reality says “check”.

Such events, albeit often tragic, not only mark the end of a certain chapter by turning reality inside out, but also open up a new one, compelling us to draw conclusions. Perhaps this is how we should look at Flight — as an image of an inexplicable, improbable catastrophe that had no right to happen. Created through destruction, Stańczak’s sculpture contains a creative force in the sense that it encourages us to reflect on our condition, open up a new chapter and prepare ourselves for the possibility that reality may suddenly witness a complete reversal. Perhaps this is what the artist has in mind when he declares that turning things inside out is about hope[29]

The catastrophe that struck Stańczak’s aircraft is a collision of the forces of the market, capitalism, technological advancement globalisation and modernity with the world of poverty, faith and spirituality. These two spheres are the obverse and reverse, while their conflict indicates the axis of conflict that divides the Polish and global community, in which a response to unfulfilled promises of capitalism and modernity comes in the form of populism, resentment and antagonism.

Suspended between Polish “ideosis” and capitalist realism, Stańczak’s sculpture is a monument to the world where unimaginable things happen, capitalism reveals its irrationality and ideologies dance with unequal riches. The artwork not only demonstrates the conflictual nexuses of ideology, politics and economy that form the modern-day global condition, but also compels us to confront those conflicts and work them through. By showing that seemingly polar opposites are actually not so far-removed — that the obverses and reverses of reality mutually permeate each other — Flight invites us to rethink the essentiality of the divisions that separate us. It does not call to thoughtlessly abandon them altogether, but encourages us to check whether their foundation is perhaps a mere play of the inside and the outside devoid of substance.


[1] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism. Is There No Alternative? (London: Zero Books, 2009), 2.

[2] Fisher, Capitalist Realism, 5.

[3] Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine. The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (London: Penguin Books, 2008), 177.

[4] Tomasz Rakowski, Hunters, Gatherers, and Practitioners of Powerlessness. An Ethnography of the Degraded in Postsocialist Poland, trans. Søren Gauger (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2016).

[5] See e.g. Dorota Michalska, “Rzeźby zdegradowane. Twórczość Romana Stańczaka wobec transformacji ustrojowej po 1989 roku,” Miejsce, no. 4, 2018.

[6] Rupert Neate, “Richest 1% own half the world’s wealth, study finds,” The Guardian, November 14, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2017/nov/14/worlds-richest-wealth-credit-suisse, accessed April 20, 2019.

[7] Anthony B. Atkinson, Inequality. What Can Be Done? (Cambridge, MA, London, UK: Harvard University Press, 2015), 23–24.

[8] Richard H Tawney, “Poverty as an Industrial Problem,” in Memoranda on the Problems of Poverty (London: William Morris Press, 1913), quoted in Atkinson, Inequality, 25.

[9] Atkinson, Inequality, ibid.

[10] Atkinson, Inequality, 82.

[11] “Income Inequality, Poland, 1980–2016”, World Inequality Database, https://wid.world/country/poland/, accessed April 20, 2019.

[12] Jakub Majmurek, “Nierówności podzielą nas bardziej niż wrak Tupolewa,” WP Opinie, April 5, 2019, https://opinie.wp.pl/majmurek-nierownosci-podziela-nas-bardziej-niz-wrak-tupolewa-opinia-6367051682219649a, accessed April 20, 2019.

[13] Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole, Howard Rosenthal, Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), quoted in: Aktinson, Inequality, 12; see also: Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012).

[14] Andrzej Turowski, “Polska ideoza,” in Sztuka polska po 1945 roku. Materiały sesji Stowarzyszenia Historyków Sztuki, Warszawa, listopad 1984 (Warsaw: PWN, 1987), 31.

[15] Ibid.

[16] As stated by Michał Łuczewski, among other figures, in „Łączą nas różne paniki, nie tylko dziecięce. Także antyuchodźcze, antysemickie, homofobiczne czy antyklerykalne”, Michał Bilewicz and Michał Łuczewski interviewed by Grzegorz Wysocki, Gazeta Wyborcza, April 13, 2019, http://wyborcza.pl/magazyn/7,124059,24647085,lacza-nas-rozne-paniki-nie-tylko-dzieciece-takze.html, accessed April 20, 2019.

[17] Fisher, Capitalist Realism, 6.

[18] Joseph Vogl, The Specter of Capital, trans. Joachim Redner, Robert Savage (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015), 1.

[19] Vogl, The Specter of Capital, 11.

[20] Vogl, The Specter of Capital, 10–11 .

[21] Vogl, The Specter of Capital, 16.

[22] Vogl, The Specter of Capital, 3.

[23] Vogl, The Specter of Capital, 78.

[24] Quoted in Klein, The Shock Doctrine, 179.

[25] Fisher, Capitalist Realism, 46.

[26] Will Hutton, “The Boeing Scandal Is an Indictment of Trump’s Corporate America,” The Guardian, April 7, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/apr/07/boeing-737-max-regulation-corporate-america, accessed April 20, 2019.

[27] Committee for the Investigation of National Aviation Accidents, “Final Report from the examination of the aviation accident no 192/2010/11 involving the Tu-154M airplane, tail number 1010, which occurred on April 10, 2010 in the area of the Smolensk North airfield,”, https://doc.rmf.pl/rmf_fm/store/rkm_en.pdf, accessed April 20, 2019.

[28] Vogl, The Specter of Capital, 9. See: Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (New York: Random House, 2007), xvii–xviii.

[29] Jakub Banasiak, „Tworzenie przez niszczenie. Rozmowa z Łukaszem Mojsakiem, Łukaszem Rondudą i Romanem Stańczakiem,” Szum, January 11, 2019, https://magazynszum.pl/tworzenie-przez-niszczenie-rozmowa-z-lukaszem-mojsakiem-lukaszem-ronduda-i-romanem-stanczakiem/, accessed April 20, 2019.