New York Times: A Polish Artist With Varied Talents

Growing up in Lublin, Poland, Agnieszka Polska had little access to contemporary art. So a visit to the Tate Modern on a trip to London as a teenager, she said, was “a revelation.”

Two decades later, Ms. Polska is an artist and filmmaker whose video works have been featured at institutions like the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, the Centre Pompidou in Paris and Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof, where in 2018 she was awarded the Preis der Nationalgalerie.

But she continues to be influenced by that visit to the Tate Modern, particularly one piece she saw, Bruce Nauman’s video “Good Boy Bad Boy” (1985).

“It is a work about how art can affect the viewer, about how powerful art is and how it can be used for good and bad reasons, good and bad practices,” said Ms. Polska, 37. “I remember this feeling of not being able to understand what it was about and I couldn’t figure out where it belonged.”

In her own art, Ms. Polska has delved into that same sense of being both drawn in and disconcerted. Her video works are deeply hypnotic, with a strong focus on historical events or moments.

‘I try to create this sensation of being at the same time immersed and disassociated,” Ms. Polska said. “I always make the viewer realize that it is very easy to manipulate them into feeling certain emotions.”

She works mostly in film. Her first feature film, “Hurrah, We Are Still Alive!” about a group of actors vying to work with a charismatic director, was released in 2020 and she has recently finished the script for her second feature, which takes place in 19th century Australia.

But she has also created moving sculptures for two solo shows this month focused around the French historian Fernand Braudel’s opposition to the idea that history runs on a linear timeline.

Her London-based gallery, Union Pacific, featured her in a solo show “Braudel’s Clocks” at Frieze London, while from the same body of work her Warsaw-based gallery, Dawid Radziszewski, will be presenting her sculptures in a solo show at Paris+ this week. Early next year she will be directing a theater piece for Lisbon’s Biennial of Contemporary Arts (BoCA).

“Polska wants her sculptures to merge contradictory imagery powered by humor and melancholy,” Nigel Dunkley, the director of Union Pacific, wrote in an email about “Braudel’s Clocks,” a set of six spinning clock-like sculptures that were developed by layering circular prints on laser cut aluminum and acrylglas. He added that the hypnotic quality to her works, “is a result of her engagement with affective technologies, as well as immersive storytelling.”

That deep connection to storytelling goes back to her childhood in post-Communist Poland, where her father was an engineer and her mother studied art history. She loved how stories unfolded in books and on film. She said that to this day, once she starts a story — from a heady work of literature to a bad romance novel — she has to finish it.

Poland’s rich cinematic traditions also influenced her, in particular the works of the director Andrzej Zulawski. “There is a certain emotional expression of the actor that is present in Polish film,” she said, “I find that very intriguing.”

Japanese animation was also an inspiration. “I was fascinated by all the possibilities that you have in animation; you are always in control of the image,” she said. “At the same time, you can achieve everything that is not possible in traditional cinema.”

She completed her M.F.A. at Krakow’s Jan Matejko Academy of Fine Arts and, after a year-long exchange at Universität der Künste in Berlin (where she currently lives), she did postgraduate studies at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam.

At 23 she started working with the now-defunct Berlin gallery Zak Branicka as well as with a Krakow gallery, ArtPol, where she first came across Mr. Radziszewski.

“There are many interesting aspects in Agnieszka’s work,” Mr. Radziszewski wrote in an email. “But what I think goes in line with the program of the gallery is how she looks at history, referencing the past and manipulating it by obstructing the concept of time.”

Misal Adnan Yıldız, the co-director of Germany’s Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden, where Ms. Polska’s work was featured earlier this year in the exhibition “State and Nature,” said that the way she chronicles events through her art is similar to the Spanish artist Francisco Goya.

“I see a very close connection between her work and painting history in terms of portraiture,” he said. “The story of that person is not a personal story and it’s more a universal story, it is literature.”

“The Demon’s Brain” is a good example of this. For a multichannel video installation she created for the Hamburger Banhof, the story is focused around salt mining in 15th century Poland; the mineral was a valuable commodity and a source of wealth for the country.
It imagines letters addressed to the manager of the mines and the journey of a young man who is dispatched on horseback to deliver them. He gets lost in the forest and encounters a demon who launches into a soliloquy that mixes Christian ideas with modern concerns around environmental destruction, resource consumption and artificial intelligence.

Sven Beckstette, a curator at the museum who sat on the jury for the prize and later curated her solo show there, said at first he found her submission — “The New Sun” (2017) — for the prize to be full of obvious moral platitudes.

“I was like, ‘I don’t buy this’, that was my first impression,” he said. However, when he took a closer look, “I understood you have to get through all these clichés that are in there. That work is very much about manipulating your emotions.”

Playing with the audience’s feelings is another strong thread through her oeuvre.

“There is a general quality of my work that I try to create this sensation of being at the same time immersed and disassociated,” she said. “I always make the viewer realize that it is very easy to manipulate them into feeling certain emotions.”

Maria Lind, who as the curator of Gwangju Biennale in 2016, which featured one of Ms. Polska’s works, said that she is a remarkable image maker. Ms. Polska is an artist, “who can capture our visual attention without being spectacular or bombastic.”

Photo credits: 1) Credit…Jueqian Fang;  2) Agnieszka Polska by Ben Marvin; 3) “The Demon’s Brain” Clemens Bilan/EPA, via Shutterstock