Polish Contemporary Art Shows Off Its Fantastic Side at Brussels' Palais des Beaux-Arts

Poland is burdened with a difficult past: only just reconstituted as a proper country after the First World War, it suffered the horrors of Nazi invasion before being confined for decades behind communism's Iron Curtain, only to emerge as an early pariah of European migration fears.

Against such a backdrop, you could expect "The Power of Fantasy: Modern and Contemporary art from Poland" at Brussels' Palais des Beaux-Arts, billed as the first comprehensive view of the country's art outside its own borders, to be a bleak affair of darkly cubist, Soviet imagery, and accounts of lifelong hard knocks. Quick glancers will easily see the shapes of a fractured country but although several works initially seem downcast — from Robert Kuśmirowski's full reconstruction of a cemetery and Artur Żmijewski's concentration camp-referencing nudist games to Zbigniew Libera's panoramic photograph of a destitute people's garbage-strewn migration — the exhibition is intently energetic and playful. It unabashedly satirizes, criticizes, romances, and expresses gentle nostalgia for the socialist past, syncing it with the Polish present through commentary that assesses and explores different themes with measured, sharp reflection.

The show centers on a generation of artists who grew up under communism but only began their work after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Still, not all Polish artists are conditioned by their times, insists Olaf Brzeski, taking a quick break between scorching a temporary wall at the museum and preparing to pair the smog stain with his billowing black cloud sculpture "Dream — Spontaneous Combustion." It's a work inspired by something as simple as the artist trying to clean out a stuffed chimney in his apartment — and ending up with his home covered in soot. "Black, black, black. It looked like a tornado or a nuclear blast," the artist told ARTINFO France.

"If you want to really connect it to Poland... you can't. It's rather about how your thoughts can burn you. If you think too much, you become really unhappy. These are universal themes," said Brzeski, declaring himself inspired by the Second World War and the global aspects of the Cold War. "I was born in Breslau, which was a German city before war and then we got it back. I have the influence of my grandparents, their experience with concentration camps and the city, dark and sinister, with tunnels and bunkers. This sparked my imagination."

The exhibition is curated by the Royal College of Art's David Crowley, Zofia Machnicka of the Polish Institute in Brussels and Andrzej Szczerski, of Krakow's Jagiellonian University. Though the trio have openly set the fall of communism as a nexus of the exhibition, they have chosen the more oblique concept of fantasy, engaging the sore points of Poland's past in a refreshingly lateral and unforced manner.

"Art played an important part in the survival of the nation. The imaginary helped the people endure the gray and difficult reality that surrounded them," Machnicka told ARTINFO.

"We wanted the exhibition to attempt to redefine what is Polish about art, with continuity between the artists," added Szczerski. "Their fantasy may not necessarily be the same, but there are ideas of individualism in the oppressive system, freedom and the power of the imagination. There is also a sense of distance from the world — even as many works have universal meanings."

Still, the true force of the exhibition is how this fantasy appears less as a refuge than a tool for defusing the hardship of totalitarianism and nowadays, Poland's image as a scarred country. This makes the approach a direct opposite of the "applied fantasy" that communist-era author Leopold Tyrman spotted in the 1950s youth, who would fashion Western styles and fashions from whichever materials they could find. Here, fantasy is not treated as a cure-all, but a creative tool, boosted by a solid sense of humor and occasionally, a gentle look at old quirks.

Julita Wójcik has knitted a long, winding replica of communist-era, high-rise apartment buildings in thick egg-shell white and pink yarn. On the wall, Zbigniew Rybczyński's video piece "Tango" shows characters streaming through a one-room apartment at a feverish pace — walking, sitting, sleeping, playing, eating, making out — in a circus reminiscent as much of Monty Python as Jacques Tati and Benny Hill. The cold and bland collectivist architecture is then teeming with life and warmth, by the people.

In the next room, Katarzyna Józefowicz has stacked dozens of doll-house size rooms of utilitarian, identical furniture sets that pervaded Polish homes in the 1960s and 70s. Created in the early 1990s, the artist wanted the work, "Habitat," to record standardization as a way of thinking, before that reality disappeared. "It's about unity — reflecting a period when cities in the East and West of Poland looked exactly the same," said Józefowicz, adding that she still keeps a piece of furniture from that time at her house. "It used to be part of the bigger scheme, but it's a separate object now," she said.

One of the internationally best-known Polish artists, Gagosian Gallery's Piotr Uklański strikingly questions the relationship between unity and free disunity with two large-scale aerial photographs of workers at Gdansk shipyards. Dressed in red or white, hundreds of men stand in shape to spell out "Solidarnosc," the name of the Polish trade union that became a pillar of worker's rights advocacy in the last decade of communist rule — a clever riff on similar photo-staging by the Soviet propaganda machine. But in the second image, as the workers freely disband, the crowd becomes two sides, going opposite ways — and opening up at least a theoretical possibility of conflict.

The wide span of "The Power of Fantasy" welcomes installations, sculpture, video art, historical photographs and prints — but it is with paintings that a historical timeline of Polish artists is best drawn. There's Jacek Malczewski's biblical, Old Masters-inspired 1903 work "Vicious Circle (Bledne koto)"; the frozen expressions and twisted bodies of Andrzej Wróblewski's "Rozstrzelanie suurealistyczne" (Surrealistic Execution) from 1949, as the Soviet Union replaced Germany as Poland's occupier; the monstrous collectivist ride of Bronisław Wojciech Linke's "Bus (Autobus) from 1959-61; and the sadness of Wlodzimierz Pawlak's lone figure in "I won't leave this world alone (Nie zejde z tego swiata zywy)," from 1986.

The opening room juxtaposes two of the exhibition's most interesting works: Józef Mehoffer's Renoir-esque surrealist 1903 painting "Strange Garden (Dziwny ogrod)" and Jakub Julian Ziółkowski's epic and minutely detailed "The Great Battle Under the Table" — which appears almost like a depiction of a glorious Ottoman Empire battlefield, before you notice the bugs carrying the coffins of the dead, soldiers drowning in vodka — and a Napoleonic figure doing a Nazi salute, evoking Hieronymus Bosch as much as the Chapman brothers.

Several works poke a bit of fun at economic planning and the tough, paternal line coming from Moscow. As Maciej Kurak turns an old-model Fiat on its roof and connects its spinning wheels to a plastic sewing machine, he light-heartedly evokes the old manufacturing lines and how industrial production can suffocate creativity and appropriate individuality. A questioning of communist planning is sensed here: it is impossible to see whether the car drives the sewing machine, or vice versa, which presents a conundrum about machine power against people power. Meanwhile, Janek Simon's adds a surrealist touch to his daily "Chleb krakowski" ("Krakow bread), setting a loaf upon robotic bug legs that threaten to run away with the meal.

Even the aforementioned darkest pieces offer hope. Robert Kuśmirowski's "D.O.M.," on loan from the Olbricht collection, is a graveyard installation of tombstones and mounds of real dirt, set behind rusty gates and a genuine cemetery wall. It comes with a background score of electronic beats, much like a heartbeat of dead souls, that had at least one museum attendant doing a jig. In Artur Żmijewski's unsettling video piece "Berek (Game of Tag)" — one of the most openly political works here — a group of people, young and old but all naked, frolic in a stripped and desolate basement. The sight revives images of concentration camps, gas chambers and the home dungeons of recent history's child molesters — but the laughter and playfulness adds an element of tribute to the human spirit and the strength to overcome.

At the center of the room, Wojciech Bąkowski has built a chest-high, claustrophobic and sound-proof cabin to show a video stream of abstract illustrations painted directly onto 35mm tape, accompanied by a narrative of poetic impressions in a Marcel Proust-like stream of consciousness. "I'm not political; I'm on the side of doubt. I work only with reality of the lowest rank, what I can easily find, touch and hear," said the artist. He added that he did not quite know how to relate his work the others in the show, perhaps a final indication of true neo-Polish, free individuality: "Maybe we have something special in our Polish mentality? But I don't know what it is."