WARSAW — What do you get when you throw some of the world’s most well-known, socially engaged artists into a public park? One stroll through the Bródno Sculpture Park will show you. Spearheaded by the veritable patriarch of Polish relational art, Paweł Althamer, together with the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, Bródno has been gaining notoriety since 2008 through a legacy of artistic projects that challenge the traditional boundaries of sculpture. Today, it is one of Europe’s most important nexuses of performance, participatory, and relational art. Located on the left side of the Vistula River in Warsaw’s Targówek district, a working-class area boasting rows of Soviet-style housing blocks, the sprawling public park is challenging the conceptual edifices of sculpture by attaching it to practices that underlie forms of usership (rather than spectatorship).
Curated this year by Zofia Czartoryska and Katarzyna Karwańska, the long-term project is the brainchild of Sebastian Cichocki, deputy director of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw since 2008. Cichocki conceived of the park as a “testing ground for the museum, where different forms of building relationships with constituencies are constructed and the limits of what might be understood as sculpture is seriously tested. We refer to the rich legacy of public and community-based art practices, trying also to incorporate ‘art beyond art’ tactics as often as possible.”
Cichocki and an expanding team of curators and artists have taken it upon themselves to focus on relational work that is in dialogue with local residents. He and Althamer began collaborating with local city councilors on bringing together the work of local and international artists at the forefront of socially engaged sculptural practice. Though it sounds ambitious, the project wasn’t really designed for an international art audience, but rather for a community. The first work realized in Bródno was a project in cooperation with nearby residents and children of a local primary school, “The Garden of Eden” (2009), which consists of shrubs, trees, and a terra firm foundation, displaying topiary arches that frame the rows of surrounding apartment blocks, a work conceived by Althamer while he was tripping on drugs:
The special and relatively easy to recall “moment of passage” in Bródno happened when taking drugs. An acceleration occurred. I then saw that it was I, it was I who had been lost. I saw myself as if I had gone back to my childhood room and recognized it all, as if I remembered my forgotten childhood, the ties which connected me to that time and the awareness of the consequences of the choices which took me to where I am now. I then stopped looking around somewhere out there and discovered the whole potential of what was here, around me.
The park fascinates me because of social sculptures like “The Garden of Eden,” which I see as informed by the spiritual legacy and ethos of Joseph Beuys, in particular his well-known pronouncement: “Jeder Mensch ein Kunstler” (every man is an artist), but also because of Bródno’s physical makeup, which includes beautiful fountains, a recreation center, outdoor basketball courts, comfortable benches, vast interconnected pathways, large trees for shade, and, most importantly, interventions by some of the world’s most recognizable names in contemporary art. Since 2008, Cichocki has overseen contributions from the likes of Olafur Eliasson, Jens Haaning, Susan Philipsz, Katarzyna Przezwańska, Roman Stańczak, Monika Sosnowska, Honorata Martin, Ai Weiwei, and Rirkrit Tiravanija.
There is, however, a catch: most of the sculptures are invisible to the naked eye. For example, Weiwei’s “To Be Found” (2014), which was delivered to the park while the artist was under house arrest in China, consists of smashed remnants of a large replica of an ancient Chinese ceramic vase scattered and buried throughout the park. “The Sound Never Dies” (2010), by Susan Phillpsz, examines the history of time through a synchronized sound installation that is designed to chime eternally with preprogrammed radio signals every 15 minutes.
Inspired by Auguste Rodin’s “The Burghers of Calais” (1884–95), Althamer’s latest manifestation in the park, “The Burghers of Bródno” (2016), had its public unveiling on September 3. It’s a work that perfectly epitomizes Althamer’s practice. He began his career as a figurative sculptor while studying at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts between 1988 and 1993; his work there was influenced by the idea of “process as a work of art.” However, much like his peers in the Polish contemporary art scene, notably those like Artur Żmijewski, his work contains deep-seated concerns for tenets emerging from critical performance art rather than traditional sculpture. “The Burghers of Bródno,” an ambitious idea that evolved from engagement workshops with 10 different neighborhood groups and associations, is perhaps Althamer’s crowning artistic achievement to date. Realized over a three-month period, the piece was developed as a way of bringing diverse community groups together through art. Each figure in the sculptural arrangement is a testament to Althamer’s concern for community building, a conceptual practice that has as much to do with analyzing social dysfunction as it does with analyzing alienation in post-communist society. The groups included: mothers with children from the Centre for Foreigners (refugees) at Targówek; parishioners at the Church of the Holy Mother Magdalene; local children working in the studio Umbra; Targówek district councilors; members of a local seniors club; members of a local gym; runners from the Park Run club; and customers and employees of local restaurants Bella Napoli, Verdiana Calia, and Mattia Montemezzano. The final result, including among its figures a woman made of bread, another of wicker, and another of aluminium foil, is mesmerizing. “The Burghers of Bródno” spoke to me as the material trace of an expanded sculptural engagement, using office supplies, stationary, polyurethane foam, wood, metal, and materials found in the local forests of Bródnowski and Grodzisk, together forming an exercise between art-making and social reconciliation. The massive sculpture emerges not as an artwork per se, but rather as the functional outcome of a residential-oriented process. The work is now being cast into bronze and will remain a permanent fixture in the park, just like Rodin’s realist masterpiece, completed over a century earlier.
In Stephen Wright’s “Towards a Lexicon of Usership” (2013), the art critic, curator, and theorist describes how practices such as Althamer’s can be seen in lieu of “artistic coefficients,” a term borrowed from Duchamp, as the basis for his theory that repositions art-related practices that pivot into other disciplines. To speak of artistic coefficients, Wright suggests, is to distinguish between extraterritorial conceptualizations of art that, in practice, bleed into other fields and areas.
This echoes a process of an escape from art, like an exit strategy, that conceives of art beyond the gallery or museum wall. Thus, when Duchamp famously left “retinal art” behind, he did so by refusing to produce an assembly line of idle “readymades,” arguing instead that there should be some greater “coefficient” to his work beyond its material essence. In short, it is this type of practice that is taken up by artists involved in reshaping Bródno as one of Europe’s most interesting sites of “sculpture” by integrating it with measurable social and community coefficients.
Not far from this idea is a performance I saw that weekend by Helga Wretman, “In-Group Photo” (2016), a choreographed yoga/dance workshop for 20 local residents. Watching it, I thought about how the specter of Althamer’s relational sculpture influenced other artworks found within the park. Wretman’s work drew parallels between contemporary art, public performance, choreography, and everyday usership. The work was an extension of Wretman’s well-known “Fitness for Artists” (2010–15) series — a web-TV program and art installation influenced by her experience as a stuntwoman and former “interpreter” of Tino Sehgal. Her performance basically sought to eschew its performative frame all together, evoking something exterior to art, an alternative activity based on an idea of usership and coefficiency. The performance was, as I saw it, a social act that involved nearby residents, who were invited to form a happenstance ensemble dancing and doing yoga. In this way, it simply became embedded into the fabric of the park itself. Like Weiwei’s invisible ceramics or Althamer’s trees and shrubs, Wretman’s work was intended to leave the sandbox of art all together, a beautiful gesture made for neighborhood and community building rather than disinterested spectatorship. Toward the end of Wretman’s performance, participants and the audience were invited to pose for a massive group photo to commemorate the event, taken by a drone hovering several meters overhead. The photo evoked a similar photo taken years earlier by Althamer, also with neighborhood residents of Bródno — the main difference being that Althamer used a crane, while Wretman used a drone.
Far from appealing to the glitterati jet-set art world audience, Bródno Sculpture Park has come to be one of Europe’s most enticing and important sites of relational and social sculpture. It’s through the body of work on view (and invisible) here that art-world escape strategies are being plotted and realized.
Bródno Sculpture Park is located in Bródno Park, Warsaw, Poland.