Magazine article Artforum International

Opposition Research: Joanna Mytkowska on Art and Politics in Warsaw

Magazine article Artforum International

Opposition Research: Joanna Mytkowska on Art and Politics in Warsaw

Article excerpt

ON OCTOBER 3, a work from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw took to the streets. It was the day of the "Black Monday" protest, a women's strike against a bill that, if passed, would have tightened Poland's already severely restrictive abortion law. Women across the country abandoned their professional and domestic duties and gathered to make their voices heard. Streets and squares in Warsaw were filled with crowds dressed in black. It was a rainy day, and black umbrellas became a symbol of the demonstration. The protesters also carried handmade banners, many featuring an image from Sanja Ivekovic's Invisible Women of Solidarity, 2009, which was commissioned by the museum. One component of Ivekovic's work was based on an iconic 1989 political poster, produced for the first free elections in Poland after the fall of Communism and featuring Gary Cooper as a righteous, victorious cowboy sporting a Solidarity badge. In Ivekovic's version, the cowboy was swapped out for a cowgirl, raising a question that had long gone unasked in Poland: Why had the women of the 1980s opposition, who had built the underground state, institutions, and media, been erased from politics and public life? Why, in a democratic country, was there no place for them? As a companion piece to the poster, Ivekovic made a set of barely visible white-on-white portraits of the best-known female opposition leaders, with biographical documents to be shown alongside them.

Invisible Women of Solidarity had the force of the obvious but ignored: The emperor stands naked; Poland's social transformations have bypassed women. The cowgirl in a skirt launched a wave of national debates about gender politics in 2009. And in 2016, when the need arose to articulate a new opposition to the authorities' designs on reproductive rights, Ivekovic's iconography once again exerted its force. Her poster was spontaneously chosen by the protesters as a representation of the tradition of fighting for women's participation in public life. And we at the museum believe that the street protests were the best possible context in which to present this piece from our collection, this work that does the work of making women visible-and, more than that, we came to feel that our institution exists for such moments, those instances when art fulfills its social and political potential.

As for the current Solidarity trade union, heir to the historic Solidarity movement of the 1980s, it did not take the opportunity to embrace this feminist adaptation of its famous poster and, in so doing, partially redress the erasures in its past. To the contrary, after Ivekovic's work was so widely displayed in the demonstrations, the union made an attempt (ultimately unsuccessful) to legally prohibit the artist from using its familiar logo. Solidarity today stands behind the success of Poland's right-wing government, its leaders having decided that anti-European, anti-immigration policies serve the workers' interests. This should surprise no one in Trump's America.

Since the Solidarity trade union threw in its lot with the conservative right, the women's protests have become the best-articulated political opposition in Poland. Women's groups, though informal and ad hoc, formulate demands that complicate reductive conceptions of contemporary politics as a struggle between populists and defenders of the neoliberal status quo. It is the women's movement that consistently foregrounds issues of individual freedom and that puts forward propositions for building communities based on respect for identity, diversity, and nature and for protecting the rights of minorities, while also exposing the hollowness of free-market dogma.

This is not, of course, to deny that such dogma seems to gain more traction by the day. In Warsaw, as in urban centers around the world, politics and daily life are increasingly shaped by real estate development for and by the wealthiest, but reprivatization issues unique to the city strongly inflect the dynamics. …

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