There are no bars here. There are no libraries, cinemas, pubs with billiard tables, dancing clubs or community centers, there are no playgrounds, flower shops, bowling clubs, swimming pools or basketball halls. No pinball saloons, no land plots. There are only small gardens you reach descending the brown stairs from the first floors of the blocks. The blocks stretch indefinitely or even farther, to the sea, set on the green hills and rooted in the valleys (…)
Łukasz Orbitowski, Inna dusza (The Other Soul)
The “backyard affiliation” of the 90s kids whose childhood dates back to the beginning of the 2000s, crumbles in the hands. Although squeezed into the framework of nostalgic contemplation, the growing up period of the present twenty-four-year-olds remains undefined. The memories included in its definition are reminiscent of a colored film with Marian Kociniak in the main role. Similarly to the reality of Frank Dolas, we have accepted the past decade with a tender sigh. Because someone deprived us of Viva Polska music channel, card collector binders, the first groans uttered by the characters from Mortal Kombat or school discos to the rhythm of Agnieszka by the band Łzy.
Nowadays, the process through which a narcissistic individuality is being shaped has transformed into the need to belong to the generation that once inhabited the precast concrete blocks, even though back then, not everyone leaned their head out of the multiplied windows of modernist forms, and not everyone had a buck to spare on a bubblegum strip. The seemingly shared memories, as if forced into the backyard life, are run through a grainy filter and the thoughtless aesthetics of the polyamide raincoat with the three stripe trademark. We treat the imperfection of McDonald’s toys as we feature them in literature and cinematography. Paradoxically, the then ineptitude has become the generational excitement, something we can identify with. The exhibition Life Is a Backyard climbs into the storyline of DVD recordings. Although it is clad in nice rags, it lacks joy. Stylized and pleasing to the eye, but with the narrative that emphasizes the theme of transience. According to the older generations, the backyards no longer exist: crucified, they have become an ideal material for absurd revitalization. However, kids scattered around concrete neighborhoods continue fighting to be recognized; they keep knocking the gates down and scribbling tags on pastel blocks. The only generational difference is that the rebellion looks less distinct on the dull paint.
Therefore, the title of the exhibition refers to the everlasting struggle with peers and the artificially constructed “generationality”. We all want to sing “how I hate your generation”, have our own toys, architecture and post-transformation traumas. One of them, hidden in our mother’s suit and our father’s oversized jacket, seems to co-create a community-shared memory. Family resentments clad in the colors of melancholy become more than individual disasters. They are scars shared by the whole community.
The motive of the generation archiving has increasingly been observed in the Polish contemporary literature. Visions of families living at the time of political changes and at the beginning of the new millennium were created by Paweł Sołtys in Mikrotyki (Microtics), Kuba Wojtaszczyk in Roztopy (The Thaw) and Łukasz Orbitowski in Inna dusza (The Other Soul). The last of the above novels features Jędrek, a young murderer from Bydgoszcz. The story of the 19-year-old confectioner is based in the Polish reality of the 1990s. Every now and then, the reader is lured into the plot with various nuances such as a new folding bike, a gym located in one of detached garages in front of the blocks, the first sexual attractions. The archetypal world of Jędrek has been inscribed into the rows of blocks stretching indefinitely throughout Bydgoszcz or even farther, to the sea and beyond. The dull reality of the narrator, a friend of Jędrek’s, Krzysiek, is intertwined with the not-so-bestial murders committed by the main character. But the most attractive quality, the one that arouses the above generational excitement, is a kind of a literary storytelling about the ghosts of the bygone era. Drawing from the aesthetics imposed by the generation, the exhibition Life Is a Backyard, adopts the description of the past world and laminates it.
The exhibition opens with the work of Jan Baszak. Boję się dotknąć tego, czego widzieć nie chcę (I am afraid to touch what I do not want to see), consisting of hard candies filled with hair obtained from a dissecting room and arranged in a crystal bowl. The turpist character of the sweets, inviting the viewers at the entrance to the exhibition space, is a synonym for human mortality, but, at the same time, it ridicules the artist’s own adolescence. Baszak reminisces how, on his return from the backyard, he reached for a similar sweet in his grandmother’s house, and how his tongue felt a piece of hair in the candy. The crystal bowl, often featured on the shelves of wall units or thick wood benches, was taken from the time when guests were greeted with sweets stored in crystal bowls. The spiritual object reminds of the decade in which communism had been a recent past and capitalism – a promise made by the party. Baszak makes a similar promise to the viewers, guaranteeing torsions hidden under the apparent sweetness. Such dualism is also typical of the generational nostalgia. The reflection on the past, tinged with tenderness, is a sweet glazing for the period that had been condemned to imperfection from the very beginning. However, we keep celebrating it, most likely as a joke.
Falling into stagnation in our cities, in the representation of the concrete, post-transformation Poland, we will forever remain the products of the home-made capitalism. It would seem the history of our childhood – the childhood of the kids growing up at the beginning of the new century – should eventually wear off. However, the reverse is happening: we are rediscovering it, as if the plastic trashiness has become the determinant of luxury and belonging. That world was the world of the large concrete panel, towering blocks. It has belonged and continues to belong to the hordes of former nerds, former rappers, former everyone, who, a few years back, did not know they belonged to one generation. The issue of taking the space over and existing in it is the theme of Maciej Cholewa’s work Behaton. By placing his own cervical vertebra in a paving stone, he is returning himself to the city, the city that is just being formed. In the 90., the Bauma paving block was a determinant of taste. It absorbed not only the backyards, but also the awareness of the townspeople. Until recently, it was regarded as a dull waste of the nouveau-riche. As the mythologizing of the Polish modernism continued, it has become symbol of the unnamed epoch.
Every era has its own people. Even though the transformation was initiated by our mothers and our fathers, we took over the paved backyards. Similarly to the photos of Agnieszka Murak, in which the photographer immortalized two outfits designed by Tomasz Armada. Both pictures feature models photographed beside paving blocks. Both men, one of them being Armada himself, wield the surrounding space. Lying on a small pile of uneven paving or standing en face in a white-and-red – virtually papal – outfit. Aesthetic photographs “dress” the local landscape, following the convention of blogspot images that derealize and idealize the existing reality. They resemble Armada’s fabric hanging upside-down in the gallery space: having lost its original function it has become a backlit monitor during the exhibition.
Another motif emphasized in the show is thermal insulation of residential blocks. The series Termokoloryzacja (Thermal Colorization) by Bartosz Kokosiński is a reflection on the idea of pastel colors that have replaced the grey concrete in the process of modernizing the blocks. According to Filip Springer the “pastelosis” uses bright shades of purple, pink, lime green and lemon to hide the phantoms of the communism. The artist himself associates the phenomenon with folk art, which, according to him, resulted from the past migration of the rural population to the cities. In the series of works featured in the exhibition, Kokosiński covers single parts of furniture, doors and mirrors found or obtained from his house with painted Styrofoam.
Hiding the relics of the past period – be it the blocks from the People’s Republic of Poland or more private objects – is another form of transformational fantasies. Funnily enough, the dull process has not been explicitly accepted. As one generation, we are guided by a certain type of selectivity that requires us to glorify selected phenomena of the period. And just as a number of objects recorded in the collective memory, including the little red Fiats, orangeade “for here” or the volumes of Świat wiedzy (The World of Knowledge), are regarded as attractive artefacts of the era, the pastel creativity is not necessarily so. In this regard, the work Hopscotch by Adrian Kolarczyk acts as a contrast. The sculpture whose shape makes reference both to the hopscotch game and the cross, was installed in one of Szczecin’s backyards. Again, featured beside a carpet beating rack, it belongs to a medley of desirable relics.
A combination of crime story, novel and non-fiction literature, The Other Soul by Łukasz Orbitowski is the starting point for the whole exhibition. Its task was to conceal the works featured in the show under a literary, harmless veil. Similarly to the exhibition, the novel is a fictionalized story based around the motif of death. I invited Iza Sobczak to participate in the exhibition in order to emphasize its fictitious nature and introduce a social element into the structure. Sobczak used an excerpt from Orbitowski’s book in her monologue entitled Sherman. The text is a recount of the artist’s own childhood relationship with her father who was an alcoholic. Bitter words of the girl, interspersed with heartfelt and, at the same time, repulsive memories, are concluded with a request addressed to Jędrek: “Kill my father, Jędruś. Riddle him like Darek or worse, then cut his throat so that the motherfucker doesn’t get up.” Iza’s fantasies deconstruct the vision of the innocence of a child, at the same time showing how a family pathology can become a tamed everyday life.
The performance features one of Tomasz Armada’s outfits. Invited into collaboration, the designer decided to create a piece of clothing that would reflect the fragility of Sobczak’s silhouette and her drowning in the form of the father. The suit-cum-sweat set design matches the words spoken by the performer; and the memories of the first passions are complemented by the erotic movements of the girl’s body. Sobczak’s hand plays with the zipper sewn into the trousers, reaches for the neckline, touches the bare calf. In this way, sexuality is tightly dressed in the suit of the father, whose absence, emphasized by the clothing left after the performance, can indicate Jędrek fulfilled the request.
Another gap in the number of lives, we are supposed to experience according to the title of the exhibition, is the second work of Maciej Cholewa. In the installation Historia furtki (The Story of a Wicket Gate), the wicket is an alleged witness to death, at the same time acting as an indirect and nonintentional perpetrator of a crime. As we learn from the recount of the artist’s grandmother, two men intended to fix a wicket gate in a small village. While digging a deeper hole, they found a metal object hidden in the ground. We can hear: “As he hit, it exploded, killing both of them.” Due to its melancholic mood, Historia furtki is a simple yet moving story we could hear in the walls of our own houses on a number of occasions. Similar tragic accounts reach the ears of the grandchildren, becoming tangible testimonies of death. Revived between words, between the nowadays and blurred memories, they are post-war signs of the past. On the other hand, the emotionlessness of the memory itself finds its extension in another family story.
The video Musisz mi opowiedzieć o ważce (You have to tell me about the dragonfly) by Julia Popławska recounts a story of a difficult family relationship. The camera focuses on one character, Paulina Popławska, a girl who is prone to arguing, but she mostly stays calm. The artists puts her paranoid sister suffering from schizophrenia to subsequent tests. At the same time, her actions are not invasive – as the artist puts it herself, they are of a documentary nature. The film is intertwined with fragments of old, louder recordings and more recent, static ones. We see Paulina as a smiling teenager, and as a much older person talking about her illness. The distinctive shooting style with the use of static frames emphasizes the image brutality and the temporality of the moment. The situations shown by the artist are captured moments in which the burden of the illness overwhelms not only Paulina, but also the people around her. The warmth of the family relationship, like in the scene of collecting yellow dandelions, is interwoven with descriptions of schizophrenia.
The theatrical monologue of Sobczak or the references to authentic family tragedies made by Cholewa and Popławska prove we also struggle with our own little traumas. We are aware of the fact that aside from nostalgic attempts to define the first years of the new century, we want to control out terror. The terror that has elements of grotesque and black humor. As if we too were saying “death became us”. We currently operate in a post-transformational, modern world in which childhood is a vision of the slapdash West and a goodnight tale beginning with the phrase “when we were young”. Inconvenient family relationships, diseases, tragedies are fragments of the generation set design. We are aware of the decline of the era, and we are ready to describe its imperfections, to take away what partly belongs to other generations. We create our own art and it seems that we want it to be exclusive. Life Is a Backyard thus becomes a summary of generational tendencies, in which manipulating and appropriating history is a kind of a pleasant obsession.