When a Park Becomes an Arena. The SURVIVAL Art Review in the Tołpa Park / Magdalena Zięba

Public art today seems to engage more abstract concerns and more ephemeral interpretations of site, memory, and meaning. Space and time continue to play a definitive part, but like most philosophical categories, their meaning has grown attenuated. (1)

(Hilde Hein)

In 1981, Richard Serra’s sculpture Tilted Arc appeared in Federal Plaza in New York, which triggered a long-lasting and heated debate on the role of art in public space. Due to numerous critical voices, the sculpture was removed from the plaza and moved to Maryland. The act of the removing of the sculpture equaled its destruction because it was commissioned as a site-specific object. Its expulsion was a result of opposition against appropriating a space which was supposed to be everybody’s by, as it was frequently emphasized, an elite artwork (2). The discussion sparked by Serra’s sculpture forced critics to look anew at the ideological aspect of artworks present in open urban spaces. By entitling the work Tilted Arc, the sculptor himself wanted to break with the modernist tradition of independence of a work of art from its surroundings and to show its contextualism. The material aspect of the sculpture was supposed to become just the background to emerging threads of interaction with the viewer (3). Such a wish of the artist could be dismissed as purely idealistic, i.e. connected with the modernist perception of the role of art in the society, but it is worth examining another issue connected with a paradoxical character of art in public space. An important and hard-to-define paradox concerns the desire of art, which is ‘managed’ by elite institutions, to be democratic and free from restrictions, politically independent, retaining the natural character of public space where rights are granted by the community and access is free for everybody. Inserting a foreign body in the form of a megalomaniacal sculpture became something unacceptable for a group of people, and an attempt to enter space using esthetic means finished with a spectacular fiasco.

The relation between an artwork and a plaza shows the dynamics of tension between authority and striving for autonomy, between what is truly public and what is private. At the same time, the mechanism which the artist used was revealed, which Pierre Bourdieu called ‘an interest in disinterestedness’ (4). An example of interfering with a living urban organism from Poland is the work of Joanna Rajkowska and Paweł Althamer, who represent a fully egalitarian approach – it is not only the artwork that matters, but its emergence in a concrete place and all the problems revealed due to this. It seems that avant-garde art has fallen in the trap of elitism while works that are created in public space more and more often reject institutionalism in favour of open dialogue. Ephemeral artworks in particular play such a role – they can easily be destroyed, but they can also be touched, played with, modified, even moved to a different place, which situates them closer to the viewer. Beyond doubt, the dilemma of temporariness is not alien to such realizations, but maybe it is such one-time actions that have the potential to change not only space, but also the area of thought. In Wrocław, art whose aim is creative dialogue meets the visitors to subsequent editions of the SURVIVAL Art Review. Thanks to the yearly exhibition which introduces artworks into various interesting settings in Wrocław, it is possible to discover numerous reasons which make the venues attractive. Time-space relations as well as the conceptual ones between the artworks and the places where they are presented that occur during the SURVIVAL Art Review are short-lasting not only due to the transience of the installations and interventions, but also because of the formula of the Review, which is based on a temporary rearrangement of the venue, inviting artists to it, and finally ‘returning’ it to its legitimate residents. Thus SURVIVAL is synonymous with an impermanent ‘revival’ of a given space, bringing it back to life in a way, showing its advantages as well as directing attention to historical and social relationships that occur in it. The venues often seem to be completely forgotten or unsuited to presenting art, but one of the main assumptions of the organizers is to abandon the conventions of an institutional exhibition in favour of total freedom, which was limited by the walls of the Strzegomski Bunker last year, and this year – devoid of any barriers to a (well thought-over)full improvisation.

(…) most space is undifferentiated. Once you have a sculpture there, you see the rest of the space differently. (5)

This year’s SURVIVAL took place in the Tołpa Park, which is situated in the Ołbin housing estate, a space which is dominated by dilapidated tenement building, not without a peculiar charm. It is also an estate inhabited to a large degree by a Romani community, which however was not highlighted during the ‘exhibition’ (if a presentation of artworks among park trees and ducks swimming in the pond may be termed so). The curators put emphasis on the character of the landscaping, its spatial unlimitedness and naturalness. Agnieszka Popek and Kamil Banach made one of the most interesting works of this year’s SURVIVAL, under the title Better. A pink inscription which resembled commercial logos was placed among bushes on an island, which made it the most visible commentary to the entire Review. It seems that making the Tołpa Park the venue of the ninth SURVIVAL has been the best choice so far. The works which mostly followed the land art convention became part of the park space: walking the alleys among untamed wilderness (the Tołpa Park still remains unspoilt by various fountains and pseudo-monuments) and discovering ephemeral installations was a special experience. The arrangement of the works and their placement revealed the artists’ relationships with the space around them – they did not try to dominate it or change it, showing works which corresponded with elements of nature.  The conception, which was visible in every artwork, was a combination of intervention in public space, usually perceived as an urban square, and the postulates voiced by the so-called Earth artists in the 1960s. What SURVIVAL succeeded in achieving was to combine the idea of dialogue and the natural character of nature, which was arranged but not transformed. The effect was fluidity and permeating art and nature, which by the way is a perfect example of how to arrange urban public space. It may be concluded that the curators succeeded in achieving a similar level of interest and involvement as in the case of the Bródno Sculpture Park in Warsaw. Unfortunately, the whole project is ephemeral in nature and only one of the works was left permanently. It is Truth’s installation, who planted a new tree in the park, propping it up against a concrete cast of the old tree which had been dug out. Everybody can come and find this installation, and water the new plant.
An interesting arrangement of tree hollows was done by Grzegorz Łoznikow, who inserted into them installations inspired by a park chapel. Instead of figurines of Mary, the artist used images of exotic animals, decorating the inside of the hollows and the space around them with trinkets and lace, which resembled a kitsch entourage of shrines looked after by elderly ladies. The charm of the work was in its intentional camouflage – in order to find the trees adorned by Łoznikow, it was necessary to make an explorer’s effort, to look for something unknown and unsaid.

Ludomir Franczak used natural circumstances in order to create an artificial situation of interaction: he put wooden birds on a tree, and they would start to sing and swing when somebody clapped their hands. The installation seemed to mock our pseudo-romantic associations with parks; it could also be interpreted as an attempt to direct our attention to hardly visible fragments of the world, such as birds hidden among the branches. Łucja Grodzicka and Monika Łukowska’s sound installation True Love Stories, which used a hill with benches, was also romantic. Referring to the stereotype of a charming tryst place, they contrasted fragments of Adam Mickiewicz’s letters to his beloved Maryla Wereszczakówna with fragments of contemporary e-mail messages. The effect was an interesting play on words and fixed patterns of ‘love’ behaviours, which remain universal despite changing vocabulary. Referring to the memory of the place, where many similar words had probably been uttered, was also important. Memory was also the subject chosen by Alicja Patanowska, who used the issue of identity when she made viewers look into mirrors with an outline of Polish borders. The mirrors themselves turned out to be so attractive that they disappeared several hours after the opening of the review, which could be treated as an ironic coming-out of the deepest layers of our national identity.

However, Patanowska’s installation was an exception in comparison with the majority of other realisations whose subject was uniqueness of park space and which referred to its numerous uses. Flora became both an indispensable element of works surrounded by it as well as their main subject. Such approach was visible in case of the works of Katarzyna Włodarczyk and Emilia Kal Post Impression, Mikołaj Smoleński and Bartosz Zieliński’s Weed Garden and Ewa Kubiak’s Greenhouse of Pain. There were also works which used elements of park and garden furniture: three raised hides were placed next to one another, which had been done independently by two artists, Piotr Macha and Tomasz Koszewnik, and the curator Michał Bieniek added an almost identical object which had been created for the Back from Hunting exhibition in the Mieszkanie Gepperta gallery. Patrycja Dąbrowska put forward a conception of a series of park furniture made from recycled objects, while Wojciech Puś and Karol Jurkanis created a kind of a dais which they placed on the highest hill in the park, from which one could admire the impressive view of a Department of Architecture building, but which could also be used as a platform for doing sport. This purely designer object had another feature as well – from time to time its interior revealed a sound installation which drowned out the piece of the park.

A kind of park ‘furniture’ was also created by Aleksandra Wałaszek and Oliwia Beszczyńska. Their work under the title PICNIC , a huge picnic blanket made from many smaller pieces carefully sewn together, had especially utilitarian functions. Ordinary fabric and simple form, as well as the temporariness of the object, resulted in a huge interest in it, especially among children who participated in the workshops organised during the Review by Beata Fertała-Harlender, Agnieszka Ćwieląg and Tomasz Opania. Thanks to placing PICNIC on a hill, it was possible to roll down the slope, which adults did, too. Huge interest was aroused among the youngest by the performance of the OKO Group (consisting of: Aleksandra Grunholz, Klaudia Jarecka and Olga Ozierańska). The girls were wearing a strange costume, organic in shape and made of soft sponge, resembling the uniforms worn by Sigma and Pi from a popular programme for children from the 1990s, which provoked active participation in the performance. It turned out that the curiosity aroused by the costume, the impossibility to see what was inside, its mysterious form and strange dance performed by the artists, met with enthusiastic reception from children who were eager to interact. It was also the case with Adrian Ziębiński’s installation Arin One, which was supposed to refer to an overscaled spider web placed between trees. Adult viewers behaved like children, entering every corner of the installations, exploring their fragments, so in the case of Ziębiński’s work everybody wanted to be like Ariadne trying to unravel the web and discover the secrets of its structure.

During the ninth SURVIVAL there was no lack of works with a wider context, which revealed the artists’ unusual personalities. The biggest names during the review were Jerzy Kosałka and Dorota Nieznalska, who created works referring to the realities of Wrocław. Kosałka placed on the lawn a series of sculptures of geese, imitating the motif of coming out from underground and emerging on the surface. The sculpture Passage was a pastiche of Michał Potocki’s truly dramatic sculpture, which stands (or rather walks) in ul. Świdnicka and which is well-known to all inhabitants of Wrocław. Nieznalska made a reference to phrases which promoted cities competing for the title of European Culture Capital 2012: Nec temere, nec timid (‘neither rashly nor timidly’ is a sentence found in the Gdańsk coat of arms) and Nulla ethica sine aesthetica (‘there is no good without beauty’ – the slogan of Wrocław), which she inscribed in metal banderols among trees. The ribbons promoting culture, which is supposed to contribute to European integration, were arranged in a way which revealed the hypocrisy of such slogans – the sharp endings of the ribbons were aimed against each other like sword blades, which was a metaphor of the rivalry between the two cities, generated artificially by events such as ECC.

The performance of Dy Tagowska, a young artist from Wrocław who includes in her artworks elements of mythology, Catholicism and Carl Gustav Jung’s philosophy, had an individual character. In Revelation, the artist referred to the location of the Tołpa Park near a neo-gothic church (the temple used to be an integral part of the park before it was halved by ul. Wyszyńskiego in 1936). A minimalist scale model of an angular chapel, resembling somewhat a space object, was assembled almost in front of the church. In this place Tagowska, wearing coarse clothes of a modest shepherd, knelt to pray and meditate. Passers-by could feel the atmosphere of concentration and the artist’s peculiar isolation, who managed to find refuge in the park, a kind of anachoresis (something that Andrzej Wasilewski – who was planning to live on an island among bushes during the review, but disappeared mysteriously after the first night – failed to achieve).

While the secluded Dy Tagowska encouraged the crowd of people who were watching her to calm down and contemplate, Monika Drożyńska used an entirely different method. The artist drew on her experience of having a baby and taking daily walks in parks and invited visitors to the Tołpa Park for a stroll. It was a kind of performance during which the artist and her baby in a pram walked the park alleys, talking to people about being a mother and discussing the conventionalism of this role, which is revealed during such slightly boring daily rituals.

When it was getting dark in the park, Tomasz Domański’s installation Ghost Bridge, barely visible during the day, could be seen in all its splendour. It was one of those works which could permanently stay in the park because it matched its surroundings in a perfect way and at the same time made them look more attractive, creating a slightly intriguing atmosphere. Domański used a simple trick, creating a minimalist, site-specific object: the artist built an outline of a bridge from strings of lights, which connected the mainland with a small island in the middle of the park pond. The installation’s character was even more ephemeral because such a bridge could exist in reality, which, together with conceptual supposition and non-literal message, resulted in an original artwork, a sculpture, but so fragile and elusive.

Art placed in institutions is in fact cut off from everyday life. Amputation from public space and forcing art into exile to the cluttered world of museums and art galleries make art’s message weaker, ambiguous and available only to privileged groups. However, art shown in the street, in an open space, enters the daily life and denies its elitism. It seems that SURVIVAL’s aim is not only to make art more available, but also to use it to bring back the memory of a place by transforming their traditional image. Changing perspective through shifting the centre of gravity from the functionality of a given space to its purely aesthetic features and historical context enable the viewer to see not only art, but the place from the angle of the art. This year’s display in the Tołpa Park revealed a huge potential of the venue, which could be not only a meeting place for elderly ladies and mothers with children, but could become a place with cultural potential. The process of discerning the properties of the park was based on a simple mechanism which had already been used during the previous editions: directing attention to those parts of the city which we are too used to to see more in them than just a grey space. Comparing this year’s SURVIAL to previous reviews, it seems it has gone far beyond ‘survival’, which may herald a wider dialogue with context as well as a broader field of vision and participation in art in the next edition, in one year’s time.


1. H. Hein, What Is Public Art?: Time, Place and Meaning, ‘The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism’, Vol. 54, No. 1, 1996, p. 1-7.
2. G. M. Horowitz, Public Art/Public Space: The Spectacle of Tilted Arc Controversy, ibid., p 8.
3. C. Levine, The paradox of public art: democratic space, the avant-garde, and Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, in: ‘Philosophy & Geography’, Vol. 5, No. 1, 2002, p. 56.
4. Ibid., p. 54
5. J. Tusa, Art in public spaces should be decided by the people, in: ‘The Observer’, Sunday 11 May 2008, available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/artblog/2008/may/11/artinpublicspacesshouldbe.