‘ ’ Flight Roman Stańczak
28.04 – 03.07.2022 ‘ ’ Flight Roman Stańczak
curators: Łukasz Mojsak, Łukasz Ronduda
producer of the exhibition at Zachęta: Michał Kubiak
producer of the 2019 exhibition at the Polish Pavilion: Ewa Mielczarek
Roman Stańczak’s sculpture is a real aircraft, turned inside out, so that its interior — elements of the cockpit, on-board equipment and passenger seats — becomes visible on the outside, while the wings and fuselage are inside. The artist applied the same strategy of turning things inside out in his works from the Misquic series (in the first half of the 1990s) to everyday objects: a kettle, a bathtub or a wall unit. These works were interpreted in the context of the brutal economic transformation in Poland. Three decades later, the inside-out private luxury aircraft becomes a symbol of global economic inequalities.
For Stańczak, however, turning things inside out means above all crossing to the ‘other side’ of reality and searching for spirituality in matter, as well as revealing the paradoxes of modernity. The ‘impossible’ change of places between the inside of the aircraft and its outside also brings to mind unexpected and unimaginable catastrophes — situations in which reality collapses. This is what we have witnessed since the first presentation of the sculpture at the Polish Pavilion at the 2019 Venice Art Biennale. The coronavirus pandemic has transformed the way we think about life and death, the relationship between human and non-human entities, the individual and society. Shortly before the new iteration of the Flight exhibition, Russia launched a barbaric invasion of Ukraine. Before our eyes, an unimaginable tragedy is unfolding for the victims of this war, people who are losing their lives, their health and their country. The world is returning to the era of Cold War polarisation, revealing its imperialist violence underpinning.
These are different times, much more ‘interesting’. The grimly ironic title of the 2019 Biennale, ‘May you live in interesting times’, is becoming reality. Flight is also no longer the same sculpture, not only because each display is preceded by the artist’s work with the matter of the piece, giving it a final shape and a different form. It is not the same sculpture because it has acquired new meanings in the meantime, inscribing itself in the transformations, paradoxes and reversals occurring at the foundation of reality. Its message rings even more true today, and the work has clearly shown its disturbing topicality.
Roman Stańczak (born 1969) is a graduate of the famous ‘Kowalnia’, Grzegorz Kowalski’s studio at the Department of Sculpture of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. Kowalski was a disciple of Oskar Hansen, the visionary architect behind the Open Form Theory. Aside from Stańczak, other students at ‘Kowalnia’ around the same time included Katarzyna Kozyra, Paweł Althamer, Artur Żmijewski and Jacek Adamas. Stańczak made his debut in the 1990s and his works were created on the margins of the then-forming critical art movement. Between 1994 and 1997, he presented his works at solo exhibitions, after which he consciously disappeared from the art scene. He returned in 2013. As he explains, ‘My sculptures speak of life; not among objects, but among spirits.
Artist's works in the Zachęta collection
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” — 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.
Poland witnessed the advent of capitalist realism at the turn of the 1990s as a result of the transformation “shock therapy”, 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. 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. 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. 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.
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”. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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”.
Roman Stańczak’s artistic practice can be seen to express the multi-layered degradation processes experienced in some Polish regions with the advent of capitalism and the country’s entry into the global market at the turn of the 1990s. The neoliberal reforms in Poland — as compared to other Eastern European states — brought about particularly dramatic consequences leading to an exponential increase in income inequality, unemployment rate and the share of population living below the minimum subsistence level. On the rise throughout the 1990s and reaching its peak in the 2000s, the degradation suffered by some social groups adopted a complex character: both material and psychological, social and class-related. Stańczak’s performances and sculptures, with their depictions of ruined bodies and objects, closely correspond to that reality, which for a long time remained outside the scope of interest of Poland’s neoliberal governments and the young generation of artists debuting in the early 1990s.
What is more, not only does the artist’s work convey the specific post-communist condition, but it may also be considered in a broader perspective as an illustration of the degradation of the human subject that occurred on the global peripheries, which suffered the crisis of the 1980s and entered the global neoliberal circulation in the 1990s. In this context, the time spent by Stańczak in Mexico City in 1993 becomes highly significant as it opens up the possibility to draw meaningful parallels between his artistic practice and the realm of gore capitalism — the capitalist management of death that characterises late capitalism in the countries of the broadly understood Global South. This aspect makes itself manifest in Stańczak’s work, which challenges the binary divisions between life and death, animate and inanimate matter, performance and sculpture. Contrary to previously formulated interpretations, undermining these categories does not result solely from the individual artistic strategy with its roots in the artist’s biographical experience, but it may also be viewed as an effect of the capitalist machine at work, whose dynamics, among its other manifestations, blurs the above enumerated dichotomies.
The prism through which I discuss the relation between Stańczak’s works and the capitalist reality is the category of Surrealism, although it may at first seem far-removed from the social and class perspective adopted in this text. Historically, Surrealism was one of the main targets of post-war leftist criticism both in the West and in Poland under communism (in texts by theatre critic Jan Kott, among other figures) as a manifestation of “bourgeois” aesthetics, focussed on individual experience. Yet, my intention is to follow a different understanding of that avant-garde tendency as proposed by Michael Löwy in his book Morning Star: Surrealism, Marxism, Anarchism (2010). The French-Brazilian philosopher and sociologist situates Surrealism in a transnational and transhistorical perspective that transcends hitherto delineated geographic, temporal and gender-related frames. For Löwy, whose interests concentrate primarily on the history of Marxism in Latin America, Surrealism was, on the one hand, a result of a shrewd analysis of the capitalist reality, while on the other hand — a tool of resistance against that reality. The author outlines the dynamics that develops between the acknowledgement of one’s position as a victim of the neo-colonial economic system and an attempt to formulate a critical stance. I believe that the perspective proposed by Löwy offers the possibility to meaningfully situate Stańczak’s work against the backdrop of the global transformations that occurred in the 1990s, both in Poland and in other peripheral countries of the neoliberal system.
Among the works created by Stańczak during the first half of the 1990s, I distinguish a group of pieces that may be defined as “degraded sculptures”. They originate from the period of the artist’s studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw (1989–1994) and the following two years of intensive creative and exhibition activity (1994–1996). This group comprises such pieces as Cabinet (1990–1991), Chair (1992–1994), Couch (1995) and Shelving Unit (1996). They all share the artistic strategy that consists in removing the outer layer of objects. Stańczak used his chisel as a sort of scalpel with which he tore off the surface to reveal the inner structure. The remnants of that process — shavings, sawdust, springs, scraps of fabric — are usually scattered around the works. The hitherto formulated interpretations most often concentrated on the metaphysical aspect of that sculptural gesture, which offered an insight into the essence of things and the possibility to discover their inner workings. Stańczak himself declares that his works can be perceived as an “exercise in dying”, which consists in uncovering and exploring the negative side of reality. When asked about what turning things inside out means, the artist responds: “It’s a preparation for death; it’s waiting for the death of certain people. … I’m waiting for the death of my mother, the death of my father, my siblings, I’m waiting for the death of the Pope. … By reversing everyday situations, I can show people the world from another angle.” This statement clearly orients potential interpretations towards an idiomatic existential experience. Yet, the above enumerated works can also be situated in the context of the 1990s. Such perspective lends a historical dimension to Stańczak’s artistic practice and allows us to shed light on the relation between his works and the socio-political realm.
Against the expectations of politicians and the society, the initial years of the new political regime in Poland brought about a rapid economic collapse and a profound social crisis, whose origins date back to the second half of the 1980s. The most significant phenomenon of the early 1990s was a marked rise in unemployment rates ushered in by the mass closure of state enterprises, the deindustrialisation of entire regions and the dissolution of the network of State Agricultural Farms (PGR). Those processes caused a traumatic shock that left a profound mark on a segment of the society. They grew more and more intense throughout the 1990s in order to reach their peak at the beginning of the 21st century. The tension was partly eased only after Poland’s accession to the European Union in 2004, which made mass economic migration possible. That multi-aspectual socio-economic crisis, which led to a genuine collapse in some of the country’s regions, was described by anthropologist Tomasz Rakowski in his book Hunters, Gatherers, and Practitioners of Powerlessness. An Ethnography of the Degraded in Post-Socialist Poland. Rakowski describes a reality “after a catastrophe”, which experienced a sudden regression to a pre-modern social, economic and infrastructural realm. Instead of participation in the modernisation process, those regions suffered a civilizational collapse, which forced their inhabitants to seek alternative sources of income, such as gathering and hunting. The world depicted in the book brings to mind a post-apocalyptic reality, where mankind struggles to survive on the ruins of the old world.
The notion of “degradation” aptly describes Stańczak’s sculptural strategy deployed in such works as Cabinet, Chair, and Shelving Unit. By removing their outer layer, the artist deprived them of their function, while their material disintegration undermined their identity and place in a given category of objects. The sculptures provide an example of a “negative transformation”, which manifests itself as an experience of loss and painful rupture. Thus, they resonate strongly with the material and infrastructural situation of some Polish regions — a world of devastated industrial plants, houses, buildings and public spaces, initially abandoned, and later destroyed and plundered. That act of destruction bears connotations that pertained both to social class (as a testimony to extreme poverty) and to history (as an embodiment of the rapid transformation process).
The artist’s works portray transformation as a time when things lose their former meanings. They cease to docilely satisfy people’s expectations. They become unruly, unclear, fleeting. Such a vision of the everyday object closely corresponds to the message conveyed by André Breton’s text Crisis of the Object, which accompanied the exhibition of Surrealist objects at the Charles Ratton Gallery in May 1936. Breton writes: “Our primary objective must be to oppose by all means the invasion of the world of the senses by things which mankind makes use of more from habit than necessity. Here, as elsewhere, the mad beast of convention must be hunted down. … With this new focus, on the contrary, the same object, however complete it may seem, reverts to an infinite series of latent possibilities which are not peculiar to it and therefore entail its transformation”. Breton’s essay reveals similarities to Stańczak’s artistic approach. Both artists pursue the goal of extracting the object from its natural circulation and subjecting it to transformation processes that reveal its different meanings.
Stańczak’s sculptures depict a dark face of the capitalist transformation, which adopted the form of “ruining modernisation” in some regions of the country. In order to shed more light on this aspect, it is worth turning to the experience of the inter-war Surrealist avant-garde. In his groundbreaking book Compulsive Beauty, Hal Foster argues that the Surrealist artists and writers were the first to capture the dialectical nature of history, which frequently manifests itself as “regressive progress”.
Guided tour of the exhibition in PJM
Trailer of the film "Flight" directed by Anna Zakrzewska and Łukasz Ronduda
21.05 (Sat) 12:30Zachęta Signs!Guided tour in Polish Sign LanguageZachęta – National Gallery of ArtZachęta
21.05 (Sat) 16:00Zachęta Signs!Guided tour in Polish Sign LanguageZachęta – National Gallery of ArtZachęta
30.06 (Thu) 18:00FlightFilm screening and meeting with the authorsZachęta – National Gallery of ArtZachęta
‘ ’ Flight
28.04 – 03.07.2022
Zachęta – National Gallery of Art
pl. Małachowskiego 3, 00-916 Warsaw
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Tuesday – Sunday 12–8 p.m.
Thursday – free entry
ticket office is open until 7.30 p.m.