What is the mission of national museums? As publicly funded bodies, it is, in my opinion, to preserve collections for the nation, to inspire and educate. Looking closely at the recent events in the cultural scene in Poland, as well as the increasing weaponization of art and art institutions against the LGBTQ community, it becomes evident that the ways the directors of key museums are defining the Polish nation are intentionally non-inclusive.
One artwork that demonstrates this stance was unveiled at the end of September at the National Museum in Warsaw. The latest commission in the museum’s courtyard is a sculpture of Pope John Paul II by a Polish artist Jerzy Kalina. The commemorative piece, titled “Poisoned Well” (2020) (on display through November 8th, 2020), portrays the pontiff as a supernatural titan holding a meteorite as if attempting to throw it into a red pond surrounding him. It evokes a feeling of déjà vu, and rightly so. Kalina’s sculpture is a riposte to Maurizio Cattelan’s famous piece showing the same pope crushed by a meteorite, “La Nona Hora” (1999). When first displayed in Poland at the Zachęta National Gallery of Art in 2000, “La Nona Hora” caused public outrage because of its seemingly blasphemous nature. The installation was damaged and the gallery’s then director, Anda Rottenberg, was forced to resign.
When I found out about the new commission, I was disappointed but not surprised. The idealized image of John Paul II as shown in Kalina’s installation corresponds with the collective consciousness of this country’s fundamental catholic traditions. The pope constituted a symbol of hope and resistance to foreign oppressors in the pre-1989 communist regime and his appointment as the head of the church was considered to be a strong catalyst for change. The sentiment around him remains, even though his pontificate was highly criticized — predominantly for silencing the child sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.
As with the hundreds of John Paul II’s effigies around the country, this one is at most mediocre and the symbolism, as well as the execution, are weak. While Kalina’s bitterness about the “La Nora Hora” is a bit boring, it is the surrounding red pond and its link to the current moment which are problematic. In a recent statement for Onet.pl, one of Poland’s largest online news portals, Kalina extended its meaning from reflective of the communist era in Poland to the contemporary “multiplying forms of the red revolution,” particularly “the rainbow one.”
Poland is at the very bottom of the list of modern democratic countries in terms of state support for LGBTQ communities. There is an absolute lack of protections for health services, against hate crimes and hate speech, and additionally, the community has become a scapegoat for the current right-wing ruling party, Law and Justice. Within the last few years, we have witnessed the introduction of anti-LGBTQ zones around Poland, police brutality, and general anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric. The atmosphere is particularly tense after this past summer’s “Polish Stonewall” events, which erupted following the arrest of Margot, a member of the feminist and queer collective “Stop Bzdurom” (“Stop Bullshit”).
“Poisoned Well” is also representative of the systemic dismissal of competent individuals across art and cultural institutions in Poland. Only last year, the National Museum in Warsaw censored two feminist artworks which precipitated banana-eating protests. Earlier the same year, the former director of one of the pioneering contemporary art institutions in Poland, the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw, Małgorzata Ludwisiak, was replaced by Piotr Bernatowicz, who has been accused of anti-Semitism and misogyny.
The position of the National Museum’s leadership points to the larger issue of the role of cultural institutions within Polish society. In a special announcement following the unveiling of the work, the director Łukasz Gaweł urged the public not to “entangle the museum in ideological disputes that have nothing to do with the freedom of artistic expression,” but instead encouraged “a discussion on this project, on the role of art in society.” This plea puts into question cultural institutions’ responsibility to the public. Can museums distance themselves from collaborating artists? Is it morally acceptable to endorse art calling for hate and discrimination? For many citizens the answers to these questions might seem straightforward, but it is not the case with Polish institutions, which have been losing their independence and gradually adopting the ruling party’s socio-cultural agenda since it won the 2015 parliamentary election.
The situation at the National Museum in Warsaw is not a singular event or an oversight. It is a sign of gradual governmental control and creeping authoritarianism in the art ecology. “Poisoned Well” is representative of a dangerous direction in Polish arts and culture: that of using contemporary art as bait to encourage hostility toward minority groups. This needs to stop.