Magazine article Art Monthly

Alternativa 2012: Materiality/Now Is Now

Magazine article Art Monthly

Alternativa 2012: Materiality/Now Is Now

Article excerpt

Wyspa Institute of Art Gdansk' 25 May to 30 September

Since September 2004, the Wyspa Institute of Art - located in the grounds of the Gdansk' Shipyard - has been the home of the Wyspa Progress Foundation, an artistic organisation combining the presentation of contemporary art with reflections on the shape of social culture. Wyspa itself has grown out of the activities of artists in Gdansk' in the second half of the 1980s, who first began to stage installations and performances in the roofless ruins of Granary Island - a desolate pocket of land in the centre of the city - in May 1987.

The move to the shipyard has brought Wyspa into a complex relationship with Poland's post-transformation neoliberal economy. The physical character of the former VI Lenin Gdansk' Shipyard (now simply Stocznia Gdanska)' is overwhelming. The site, the cranes, the massive shipbuilding sheds, have a visceral effect - immediately evoking the legendary political events of the early 1980s - resonant, melancholy, above all material. The dockyard provokes one to search for meaning in all its complex contradictions, from the activities of the development companies currently sweeping away swathes of industrial heritage to make way for the development of a 'new city', to the realisation that one of these developers is the owner of the vast warehouse in which the Alternativa exhibition is currently housed, and the sponsor, with Gdansk' City Council, of the Subjective Bus Line that takes visitors on tours around the site, guided by the personal stories of former dockyard workers.

Alternativa describes itself as 'a two-year pilot programme, which aims at the establishment of a recurring large-scale, knowledge-based and politically informed curatorial practice'. Like certain UK initiatives - Glasgow International, the Liverpool Biennial and Folkestone Triennial in particular - it represents a home grown, ongoing and rooted approach to the making of an international contemporary art exhibition - and an alternative to the travelling brand of 'Manifesta'. It aspires to attract the attention of the international art world, but is also deeply attentive to its local context and to the political traditions of Gdansk'. It sees itself as concerned as much with investigation and acquisition of knowledge as it is with exhibition and display.

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The current Alternativa is the second chapter in this story. The first, launched in May 2011, was built around two themes: 'Labour and Leisure' and 'Estrangement'. The materiality of the Gdansk' Shipyard, and its imminent transformation into a place of immaterial labour - or perhaps of privatised leisure - has provided the cue for this year's principal exhibition, an investigation of the theme of 'Materiality', while a second, smaller exhibition considers the history of independent artist-led activity in Gdansk' since the 1980s, taking its title 'Now is Now' from a two-day exhibition on Granary Island in October 1988.

Both exhibitions are marked by a high degree of sophistication in their curatorial approach. 'Now is Now' is a compelling demonstration of the problematics of historical recovery. It addresses the Wyspa Progress Foundation's archive as a kind of layered archeology, a palimpsest of fugitive traces. Photos, press cuttings, books, magazines and other documents from the archive are gathered under four headings - Location, Meeting, Labour and Myth - presented in stacked and scattered trays made from wooden pallets roughly glazed and lit by Anglepoise lamps. …

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