VENICE, Italy — When you enter the Polish Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, the first thing you see is an inside-out airplane. The once-functional plane has been cut in half widthwise and reconstructed; its various interior parts — including passenger seats, flight controllers, wiring, and hydraulic equipment — are messily welded to its exterior frame and exposed to the viewer.
At first glance, this monumental sculpture, called “Flight,” by Polish artist Roman Stańczak, seems like a frank response to the 2010 Smolensk plane crash that killed Poland’s then-President, Lech Kaczynski, along with 95 other government delegates on board. But after some sustained thought, the work becomes much more than a singular reference to the Smolensk tragedy; it reads as a symbolic illustration of the discombobulated reconstruction of Polish society after the fall of communism.
Perhaps inevitably, the plane crash in Smolensk, a city in Western Russia, has become a divisive political issue in what was already a starkly divided Poland. Despite a Polish government report that declared the crash an accident, far-right supporters of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) continue to promote a conspiracy theory positing that the crash was part of a plot orchestrated by Russia. Among the supporters of the conspiracy theory is President Kaczynski’s twin brother, Jaroslaw Kaczyński, who remains the de facto head of the ruling PiS party.
“Flight,” then, offers a rather straightforward visual metaphor for the ways in which Poland is being turned inside out, so to speak, by resurgent nationalism and so-called “alternative facts.” “The Poland of today seems increasingly like an ideologically feudal outpost, its politics once again ridden with the legacy of communism, conspiracy theories, and exclusionary discourse towards opponents,” Natalia Kopytnik recently wrote in the Foreign Policy Research Institute blog Geopoliticus. Against this fraught cultural backdrop, Stańczak’s sculpture “bears a spiritual dimension as an expression of the suffering of the nation treated cruelly by history,” as Łukasz Mojsak and Łukasz Rondud, curators of the Biennale’s Polish Pavilion, write in the exhibition’s press release. The curators suggest that, while the Smolensk crash is just one of many tragic events that have shaped Poland’s post-capitalist transition, the politicization of the crash perfectly encapsulates the broader social and spiritual issues currently dogging the nation.
During the opening vernissage days of the Venice Biennale, it is customary for the ministers of culture from each country to attend the opening of each national pavilion. After all, these government ministers serve as de facto commissioners who appoint curators for each edition. This year, however, the Polish Minister of Culture and National Heritage, Piotr Gliński, was conspicuously absent. And while Gliński’s absence is not entirely surprising, it nevertheless served as a reminder of where the government’s cultural alliances really lie. As a vocal member of the ruling PiS Party, Gliński has been in the news lately for attempting to draw cultural institutions into the orbit of the ruling-party’s far-right, nationalist ideology. Earlier this year, in fact, Gliński was widely criticized for attempting to wrest control of various artistic institutions, including the European Solidarity Center (ECS), located in Gdańsk, by attempting to cut the institution’s funding.
Like a cenotaph slicing through layers of Polish identity, “Flight” reveals the inner guts of national conflict and division. It’s a monument to a world in which unimaginable things have become real, where far-fetched conspiracy theories percolate within the mainstream. By visualizing conspiracy theorists’ attempts to see inside the anatomy of the crashed plane for themselves, it asks us to reflect on the historical forces that have fueled their mistrust of official government narratives. After decades of Soviet occupation, followed by nearly thirty years of violent capitalist transition, Stańczak’s work seems to question the numerous unfulfilled promises of salvation, whether in the form of religion or economics, that have continued to haunt Poland like a recurring nightmare.