Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Aliens in Brussels - Althamer's "Common Task"

On June 4, 1989, Poland held the first (partly) free elections of the so-called Eastern Block.
It was the first time since WW2 that opposition parties could legally participate in the political process, and the result - a smashing success of the opposition - was the end of communism and the beginning of a new, free Poland. These elections are generally considered the single event that began the overcoming of the totalitarian regimes in this entire region of the world.
And among the ways in which Poland will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of these events, one is particularly interesting.

Tomorrow, the excellent Polish artist Paweł Althamer (I've written a short note about him before), will land with 160 other passengers of a Boeing 737 in Brussels. They will all be wearing golden suits that look like a combination of space suits and fairy-tale costumes. Even the plane will be specially designed and painted gold - all as part of Althamer's work Common Task (the Polish expression "Wspólna sprawa" could also mean "common issue" or "common quest"). Their first stop in the city will be the Expo 58, a modernist dream-town. A model of an atom will be a starting point of the visit to the European Parliament and "meetings with the residents of the city" (How does that work?). They will be making a tour of the city as strange, alien visitors. 160 gold-dressed aliens.
Who are they? Mainly Althamer's neighbors, family and friends, who have been joining him for other performances he organized.
Who are they? Poles. Strangers. People from outer space.
They are the winners. The visiting winners. The happy neighbors. The curious onlookers, the modernist dreamers, the naive children of freedom, the believers. They are the pure creators, the dreamed Europeans, the perfect people, they are the unexpected turn of events, where everything turns gold.

The words on the page of the entire commemoration state:
The motto of the commemoration, It all began in Poland, is a bold reference to the fact that Poland was the first European nation to oppose, in 1939, the spread of Nazism and communism, and was the first to remove their communist government from power in 1989.
The gold suits seem to fit. And yet, what I like about this social sculpture (as Althamer sometimes calls his works) is something quite opposite to that spirit of heroism and pride we so desperately claim. It's... you guessed it - the lack of pathos.
Or rather - the way pathos is masked by the gold suit.

(In the video, art critic and curator Anda Rottenberg talks about Althamer's
social sculptures: "It is about involving everyone in the area of the work of art as an activity where a new reality is created together and the chain of events is directed together".)

UPDATE 05.06.09:
Althamer told the media:
There are no VIPs here. This is a grass-roots project, in which ordinary people participate. It reminds that ordinary people are the ones who can change reality. 20 years ago no one expected that Poland would be free. We thought it was impossible. Our astronauts also never expected to fly to Brussels in a golden airplane. We set to have fun and enjoy freedom.

and the project's curatorial decription tells the story in a broader context:
The participants, i.e. the residents of the Bródno district in Warsaw appear in various places in extraordinary golden spacesuits. The joint activities are aimed to cross not only the mental but also the physical barriers; in addition to the meetings which are set in everyday reality, the participants also set out on peculiar journeys offering them new possibilities and unusual experiences. Clad in extraordinary spacesuits they balance on the border of two worlds; the one that they know and the new one which is very often a projection of their imagination. The world that they know quite frequently means the unattractive space of the grey and gloomy blocks of flats. The participants are “ordinary” people who have “ordinary” jobs and who are just “people from across the street”. “Common Task” allows them to leave the twilight zone and to appear in a public space which is completely new to them. For them, it is a different world full of people communicating in a foreign language. But it is also the world in which they become visible. What is more, they become the focal point and draw attention of the other people.In this context the Project of Paweł Althamer can be viewed as a social sculpture. The sculpture which is a material object, is transformed into a common experience, a process aimed to introduce a deep going change in the registers of everyday habits. Subject to this artistic transformation is not only a physical object but also the person, consciousness and mental habits. At the same time, Common Task is a meeting and integration place of various social groups and people whose everyday realities do not merge in any way and who are often excluded from the social and cultural rites. The symbolic crossing of the borders thus occurs at many levels.

It's curious how the vectors of meaning change. The beginning of the project seems to have been indeed a venture into the unknown, a play with the modernist ideas and ideals of unity, purity, but also of exceptionality of the individual. The trip to the city of Brasilia which they undertook underlines it quite clearly. However, by now the project is huge, the date is a specific date, not a coincidence, and these "neutral" people are not neutral any more - they are the golden ambassadors of the Polish cause. They are, whether the artist wants it or not, the symbol of the Polish events in 1989. And to some extent it becomes irrelevant what their reasons for going were, as the impact of their presence puts them in a very specific role, molds them into a social sculpture quite different from the one described in such a neutral way by the artist. There is a tension between the way the work "should" be seen, and how it appears. Curiously, the media's coverage shows the ambiguity: the journalists would like to show the richness of stories and levels of the work they are participating in (they, too, have to wear the golden suits), yet the bottom line keeps bringing them back to this "gold-medal" aproach, where the Poles are the clear winners of some strange competition.
This development of the "Common Task" is a great example of how the historic identity challenges, distorts, and often overwhelms the personal-narrative-identity.

(with a little help from Polandian)

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