Lech Kaczyński, the former Polish President who served until his untimely death in a 2010 plane crash, made a surprise, posthumous appearance outside the President’s Palace in Warsaw yesterday. The unsanctioned sculptural tribute, by the Polish contemporary artist Pawel Althamer, was timed in anticipation of today’s eighth anniversary of the national tragedy that took the lives of Kaczyński and 95 others.
Arriving unannounced at the President’s Palace on Monday at approximately 3pm local time, Althamer and a group of about a half-dozen volunteers manning a heavy truck and crane delivered the 13-foot-long wooden sculpture. As the sculpture was lowered onto the street directly in front of the Palace, a crowd of local students, tourists, and members of the media quickly formed. The funereal-looking sculpture features Lech’s face — carved and painted and set inside a circular frame in a large tree trunk — with a solemn, sedated expression, his eyes open, looking to the sky.
“The birch tree log with the face of the late president Lech Kaczyński, sculpted in a piece of ebony wood with a golden aura, is a totem for the conflicted and divided tribe, the Poles,” Sebastian Cichocki, chief curator at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, who was in attendance as Althamer unveiled his newest work, told Hyperallergic. “The birch tree has martyrological connotations in local [Polish] culture,” Cichocki explained. “All the anonymous graves of guerrilla soldiers are buried under birches.”
Speaking to local artist and activist Mateusz Kowalczyk, Althamer expressed his reasons for unveiling the sculpture. “To put it simply, through this sculpture I am trying to arbitrate with the right wing,” Althamer said. “It was not an easy gesture or a trick. Rather, I thought, as I looked around more carefully in my artistic practices, that often people accuse me of changing sides. I would not attach so much importance to this, I would generally focus on manifesting love and compassion through my work.”
As one of the most recognizable names in Polish contemporary art, Althamer’s work often involves social engagement, participation, and collective labor. His sculptures are held in the collections of many major museums, including the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Tate Modern in London. He is also known for making collaborative works with local communities in Poland; one of his longest-running collaborations is with the Nowolipie Group in Warsaw, an organization for adults with mental and physical disabilities, with whom he has been teaching a Friday night ceramics class since the early 1990s.
The first image of the renegade sculpture appeared on the Facebook feed of the Foksal Gallery Foundation, a gallery in Warsaw that presents works by some of Poland’s leading contemporary artists, including Althamer. According to a representative of the Foksal Gallery Foundation, Filip Rutkowski, the sculpture is meant to “encourage dialogue.” He added: “We hope that with this work, it will be possible to ease social tensions around the subject of Smoleńsk.”
The entire process of delivering the sculpture was observed and filmed by a group of policemen, who only intervened to interrogate Althamer for about 15 minutes, according to Cichocki. It was also documented in part live on Facebook.
Kaczyński’s death remains a controversial subject in Poland, with members of the right-wing government — led by his twin-brother — often invoking memories of the event in attempts to stir up nationalist, anti-Russian, and divisive sentiments. The plane crash occurred while Lech was en route to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre — the mass execution of Polish nationals carried out by the Soviet Secret Police in April and May 1940. According to preliminary reports, the pilot tried to land at Smoleńsk Airbase in fog that reduced visibility to about 1,600 feet. The plane attempted to approach the runway but was too low, striking birch trees in the fog, turning around, and falling to the ground 660 feet from the airfield in a densely wooded area.
According to Jaroslaw Kaczyński, Lech’s twin brother — who now acts as the de facto head of Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS) — the catastrophe was part of a broad Russian conspiracy. In the eight years since the crash, Jaroslaw Kaczyński has led monthly marches to mark the catastrophe. These marches are often rallying points for ardent PiS supporters. On Tuesday, the ritual is due to take place for the last time.
Under Jaroslaw Kaczyński, the far-right PiS government has promoted the idea of a Russian conspiracy to fuel Polish nationalism. Without evidence, Jaroslaw Kaczyński has been using the plane crash and subsequent tragedy surrounding the death of his brother to harness a disturbing blend of conservatism and Russophobia, elements that are now being used to stir fear, anxiety, and an anti-immigrant sentiment within Poland’s electorate. He has also repeatedly made public allegations that his foremost political rival, Donald Tusk — the current President of the European Council and head of Poland’s Center-Right Civic Platform Party — was somehow involved in the plane crash and is the architect of a subsequent cover-up.
Althamer’s latest move is “a gesture of objection, against national division and hatred,” Cichocki said, “fueled by the mythology and conspiracy around the tragedy, which also affected his relatives.”
Althamer concurred: “Yes, it is a gesture of love for people who are tormented by certain problems, but also as an expression of being one of them. I put so much warmth into it, I did it with great empathy, for both the president’s supporters and his opponents.”
This is not the first time the tragedy in Smoleńsk has been dealt with by Polish contemporary artists. Last year, the radical feminist performance artist Aleka Polis took soil from Smoleńsk and gave it away in small bags to people in Warsaw who had come to commemorate the tragedy on its anniversary. In a similar vein, Althamer’s guerilla action attests to the radical contingency of art in being able to activate political discussions in public space.
As of this writing, Althamer’s sculptural tribute to Kaczyński — with a bouquet and a sash that reads “RIP President” at its lower end — was still in the plaza in front of Warsaw’s Presidential Palace.
Update, 4/10/2018, 9:45am EST: The sculpture was moved late Monday night back to Althamer’s studio, where it remains.
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