An Open Letter to Piotr Bernatowicz, the Director of the Ujazdowski Castle Center for Art

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An Open Letter to Piotr Bernatowicz, the Director of the Ujazdowski Castle Center for Art

Dear Piotr Bernatowicz,

Before I discuss the exhibition that prompted me to write you, I want to congratulate you on your unilateral, non-competitive appointment by the right-wing ruling party of Poland. This call to arms as the director of the Ujazdowski Castle Center for Contemporary Art (CSW) must be invigorating. Perhaps when the time is right, you will reappoint yourself and celebrate with a parade!

The exhibition booklet accompanying Political Art, which you co-curated with Jon Eirik Lundberg, contains your introductory statement. In this “manifesto” of sorts, you note:

Looking at the Facebook accounts of many contemporary artists, I get the impression that even the absence of a willingness to join the current righteous political action expressed by the lack of an appropriate overlay on one’s profile picture, let alone expressing a personal opinion, can have serious consequences for that person’s career.

Here is an example of an artist who expressed her personal opinion and as a result had her exhibition canceled: In one of your first acts as new director of CSW in early 2020, you canceled an exhibition by Miet Warlop. Officially, this decision was justified by citing budgetary shortcomings. But her “cancelation” has a different origin. In 2019 Miet Warlop and co-organizer of her exhibition at CSW Krist Gruithuijsen were both signatories of a petition to the Polish Minister of Culture asking for the withdrawal of your nomination. You decry the “disease of hypocrisy” in your text for Political Art, yet you do not acknowledge your own.

Your co-curator Jon Eirik Lundberg writes the following in his exhibition statement:

Distance and truth give us the possibility to analyze and reflect, and to improve our ways …. Therefore, art, and not least political art, is a bulwark against the deception and scheming at the hands of the political authorities. And artists pay a high price for this. Some are imprisoned, some are exiled; others are killed, broken or “cancelled.” That is the reason why we have created this exhibition — to counter the tendency to give in to these forces.

You, Mr. Bernatowicz, and your co-conspirator Lundberg are political appointees and affiliates. You are in a terrible position to be lecturing the public on the hidden agendas of “political authorities.” But let’s play your game for just a moment to demonstrate how you trip over your own low bar.

Wojciech Korkuc’s 2014 poster “Achtung Russia!” was created as direct response to Russia’s incursion into and partial annexation of Ukraine that year. Due to laws in some European countries like Poland and Germany, the use of Nazi symbols is heavily regulated and often banned. Artistic appropriation that does not promote these symbols is considered an exception to these laws. Korkuc’s use of the SS runic insignia led to questioning by police and to charges of “propagating fascism.” These charges against the artist were eventually dropped.

Wojciech Korkuc, “Achtung Russia!” (2021) poster and lightbox (photo by the author)

Korkuc’s case demonstrates a functioning civil society: an artist gets falsely accused, public outcry follows, charges are dropped, the artist wins. The narrative promoted by you, Mr. Bernatowicz, of artists who are silenced by political authorities simply for speaking their mind, does not add up here. There is nothing easier than pointing the finger at Poland’s eternal boogeyman Putin while turning a blind eye to Poland’s own oppressive regime.

Over the past few years, your ruling party has been making the lives of the LGBT-community in Poland miserable. Anti-LGBT sentiment is running free, even flourishing. It is further fueled by remarks of party leaders like President Andrzej Duda who stated that the LGBT “ideology” is worse than Communism. And your patron, Minister of Culture Piotr Gliński, in a 2016 interview delivered a lesson in whitewashing by claiming that gays were once prosecuted in 19th-century England, but not in contemporary Poland. I assume you would deny any connection between these remarks and the creation of LGBT-free zones in one hundred municipalities and five voivodeships in nearly one third of the country. The 2013 Russian federal “Gay Propaganda Law” matches your party’s ideology to a tee.

In 2020, you reallocated funds from Poland’s national art collecting program to purchase several works that had not been included in the initial application. Apparently, the committee overseeing the approval had no objections and waved through the acquisition of the newly added works. It probably was to your advantage that you are a member of said committee! One of the works you acquired is included in Political Art. Jacek Adamas’ “Tonfa” (2015) (T-baton) is a neon installation which is in line with your party’s anti-LGBT ideology: a perfidious attempt to cast the oppressed as oppressor.

Political Art includes 28 artists such as Dan Park who was sentenced multiple times for hate speech in his native Sweden, or Kristian von Hornsleth whose exploitation of impoverished villagers in Uganda received wide coverage back in 2006. The exhibition is defenseless, no matter whose work I describe. It is a personal vendetta, made possible by the ruling political authorities, and dressed up as art.

Kristian von Hornsleth, “Hornsleth Village Project Uganda” 100 C-type prints, (2006) (photo by the author)

Mr. Bernatowicz, in your introductory text you talk about the need for honesty, the disease of hypocrisy, overreaching governments. You do not fulfill a single one of your own ideals. I am under no illusion that this letter will change your heart. Your response to the open letter by the representatives of the Jewish community of Warsaw is proof of your inability to listen to any other voice than your own. That is why I want to conclude with a quote by Walther Benjamin: “The logical result of fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life.” And this remains true even if, one might add, fascism tries to lie to us by saying that the true fascist is the anti-fascist.

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