Anna Molksa’s film ‘The Weavers’, 2009, shown this year in Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw, Broadway 1602, New York, and Kunsthalle Basel, is based on a play by the German Nobel Prize winner, playwright and novelist, Gerhart Johann Hauptmann (1862–1946). The social drama, written in 1892, depicts the mid-19th century weavers’ riots in the Owl Mountains of south west Poland. Molska’s re-make is set in the present day, in the context of Silesian miners. She has chosen only those scenes she thought were actual, but kept the original text, choir and author’s staging.
Although the original play was revolutionary, there is no rebellion in Molska’s film. We hear the choir’s song, and a dialogue between two miners and an unemployed worker in which anger and frustration are articulated, but nothing actually happens. The monotonous, complaining nature of Molska’s characters is striking, especially in the context of the controversies that arose around the staging of The Weavers in 1892. At first the show was forbidden, as the authorities were afraid that this kind of divisive play, referring to workers indigence, would cause some kind of social protest; a year later it was finally permitted. What is significant is that ticket prices were overstated in order to attract only ‘the proper’ (wealthy), audiences. During this scandal, Hauptmann was almost arrested, and Kaiser Wilhelm ostentatiously demonstrated his displeasure by cancelling the royal box at the Deutsches Theater.It’s quite surprising that today’s audiences are indifferent to the same themes. In Molska’s video, realistic sections (where the idea of revolt confronts a lack of any action) show how the status of the once proud worker has been washed away. He is helpless, he complains, but doesn’t position himself in defiance. ‘The Weavers’ is a piece on the failure of classical norms, an issue that appears quite often in her videos. The work can be read as a comment on neoliberal capitalist order where the worker’s ethos has been pushed away from the contemporary world’s interests.
‘W=F*s (Work)’, 2008, one of three works included in the 5th Berlin Biennial, features several men in the middle of a muddy field building a scaffold—like structure made of wooden planks and metal bars. When it’s complete they all climb onto it and pose for a picture, creating a kind of ‘human sculpture’. This scene evokes associations to Rodchenko’s two famous photographs ‘Male Pyramid’ and ‘Female Pyramid’, which are the essence of modernist ideology. The men Molska asked to take part in this video are from Oronsko, a small Polish town, famous for its Centre of Polish Sculpture. During the Communist era it was very influential, a place where ‘open-air’ programmes and outdoor exhibitions were held. Today, it’s neither as vibrant nor so often visited. The glitter of antiquated splendour is reflected in the centre’s sculpture garden, where workmen of Oronsko once helped artists turn their visions into reality. Back then, it still seemed possible for art to construct new worlds. And now, we see them putting their energies into the creation of a rusty, primitive scaffolding. The effort of Molska’s crew, as Tomek Fudala suggests in his text in ArtForum, can be regarded as a parody of this utopianism.
The other video on view during the 5th Berlin Biennial was ‘P=W:t (Power)’, 2007/2008, shown concurrently in a dual projection at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art. In it we see a harsh juxtaposition of two spaces: a muddy field and gray sky, and a clean white squash hall. But it’s also a division between a place of hard work and one of entertainment, a synonym of old and new, traditional and innovative. While in ‘W=F*s (Work)’ we see the actual work, a process of building scaffolding by workers, in ‘P=W:t (Power)’ we see white balls set in motion by an invisible source (another link to the contemporary world’s neoliberal capitalist order). As they come faster and faster, the balls bounce and roll in every direction until, succumbing to gravity, they finally come to a stop. The video’s image is projected upside down and this technique pushes the work towards abstraction: an important notion in Molska’s work, as the relationship between reality and abstraction is often evoked.
Such a relationship is explored in ‘Tanagram’, 2006/2007, shot in Grzegorz Kowalski’s (Molska’s professor) studio. It is a direct visual reference to an ancient Chinese puzzle in which players are supposed to create various shapes from 3D triangular blocks, the pieces of a black square divided into seven different geometric shapes. In Molska’s video we see two athletic young men, wearing only futuristic-looking helmets and black jock straps. They are moving large black building blocks on the white floor of Kowalski’s studio.
The first shape of the game is a black square—a reference to Kazimir Malevich’s ‘Black Square’ 1915—and a ‘zero’ point for contemporary painting. The image is accompanied by the deep male voices of the Red Army Choir. The strong association with the Russian artistic avant guard is clear, along with those of imperial power and ideology. Molska’s video suggests the modernistic fascination with the body and the cult of physical health and strength, also immortalised by Rodchenko’s photographs. Together, these elements are powerful; geometric-abstracted forms immersed in the history of the Russian avant guard, reduced to a jigsaw puzzle. Molska plays with classical canons, not denying them but pointing out that sometimes they cannot describe contemporary culture categories, as, for example, in the video ‘Perspective’, 2006, when, during the annual winter ‘open-air’ in Dluzew organised by Kowalski, the artist ties several strings to her back and films her walk through the snow. We can see the strings tighten as she walks, and as they tighten they momentarily form a classic one-point perspective, only to be destroyed seconds later. Trying to conquer a point of convergence, she fails when finally the strings tear and she falls into the snow. The work also reveals Molska’s interest in present time, when the real confronts the abstract.
In another video ‘Academism’, 2006, a naked female-model performs several yoga positions while standing in a cube, her arms and legs tied to four vertexes of the figure. As in ‘Tanagram’ and ‘Perspective’, Molska relates abstract geometric forms to real, bodily experience. In ‘Academism’, she refers openly to Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Vitruvian Man’ and to Le Corbusier’s ‘Modulor’ which both attempted to describe man through mathematics and geometry. Molska, through exaggeration, render’s them ridiculous.
Malgorzata Mleczko is a writer and curator based in Krakow