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Modern art in Utopia

Birgit Rieger reports from the "Ideal City - Invisible Cities" exhibition in the Polish town of Zamosc

Eva, a young city guide, stretches out her arms towards the colourful facades and archways surrounding the Rynek Wielki, the large rectangular marketplace. "Zamosc is a dream come true," she says. The man who realised this dream now sits just a few blocks away on a bronze horse: Chancellor Jan Zamoyski. In 1580 he brought the Venetian master builder Bernardo Morando into the country and with his help, cut an ideal Italian Renaissance city out of the Polish fields. A work of art realised with rare perfection.

Map of Zamosc with exhibit locations. Courtesy "Ideal City - Invisible Cities."

Today Zamosc, or the "Padua of the North" as it is otherwise known, has been forgotten by the world. Despite it's being made a World Heritage Site in 1992. Rosa Luxemburg was born here. And Pope John Paul II visited. But were it not for the groups of Polish school kids and lovers who pilgrim in their droves along the right-angled streets in summer, the Old Town would be depressingly empty.

And it is to this place, near the border with Ukraine, that Sabrina van der Ley, artistic director of the Berlin Art Forum, and former Berlin gallery owner Markus Richter are now enticing the international art scene. And in so doing they are fulfilling their own little Utopia: the dream of art in the back of beyond. The idea came from Warsaw curator Anda Rottenberg, who back in 2000 proposed Zamosc as a location for Manifesta.

200 guests from all over the world travelled to the opening party of "Ideal City – Invisible Cities" in the Polish provinces and raised their glasses to one another in the former fort. The pair of curators from Berlin brought together 41 major artists, from Miroslaw Balka and Pedro Cabrita Reis to Francis Alys and Teresa Murak. A number of different exhibition locations play host to ideas of the ideal city, the invisible city and the grid. A flock of artists from Berlin is also involved – almost biting off their teeth on old Utopias. Ideal cities, whether Renaissance or Modern in conception, are dream and nightmare at once. This chasm is all too palpable in Zamosc.

Kai Schiemenz, Endeavours watchtower for the Fourth Internationale, 2006. All photos © Krzysztof Zieliski, courtesy of the artist & European Art Projects

At the city's salt market, where normally cars are parked, the Berlin artist Kai Schiemenz and four Polish assistants saw away at his idea: a transparent wooden tower, several metres in height with a spiral staircase and arena. "Ideal city – the concept is utterly foreign to me," Schiemenz says, brushing dust from his trousers. Why bother with hysterical ideas about the future that are long obsolete? With the drive to absolutes? The most interesting part about that is the failure involved. And the artist found this in its purest form with the Constructivists. "Andy Warhol's Watchtower for the Fourth International" is the name of his tower. A contemporary counterpart to Vladimir Tatlin's never built monument to the Third International.

Franka Hörnschemeyer, Konditional, 2006

The Historical Museum in Zamosc is crawling with paintings of Jan Zamoyski. In it, Potsdam-born artist Tilman Wendland struggles with his favourite cardboard: Dutch cardboard, light and thin. The curators fed the artist with ideal city material: picture books about Le Corbusier's Chandigarh, Oskar Niemeyer's Brasilia, Oskar Hansen's buildings in Lublin. Somebody had to address the formal language of these modern masters in Zamosc. The artist lined the museum space with white cardboard, covering the windows. This is no longer Zamosc, this is a view into Wendland's brain. He lets his cardboard have its way, utilises its tension, builds a two-meter high sculpture that looks like a shelf. And in it the forms criss-cross. A sheet of MDF bends on the floor, imitating Niemeyer's sweeping curve. Wendland's memory of form is not bothered about understanding, about Zamosc.

Daniela Brahm, The New Town, 2006

The 14 site-specific works outside in the city struggle with this. Tabula rasa through art? In a city which for 400 years has had to put up with whatever was put in front of it? Rather not. Instead a friendly dusting off of the situation.

Franka Hörnschemeyer from Berlin constructs a man-high labyrinth in the shape of the Zamosc's orthogonal ground plan. Daniela Brahm fictitiously declares the lawn in front of the Franciscan church a construction site. A sign shows a caravan on one side, on the other a modernistic concrete tower block. "Participate" is written on it in silver lettering. A pointer to the obsolete modern Utopias. Automatically you ask yourself, how do I want to live?

Lucas Lenglet, Columbarium, 2006

The reality for countless families in Zamosc is back courtyards. These are social combustion chambers with morbid charm. In one of them the Berlin-based Dutch sculptor Lucas Lenglet (images as pdf), on a stipend from the Berlin government, has built a columbarium, conceived more as a living space for pigeons than a place for urns. The residents have already adopted the five-tiered brick tower. The artist too. Vodka and flowers are served at the topping-out ceremony. A Polish custom. "This is how I imagined things" enthuses curator Markus Richter, as the artist, the three lads from the construction company and few neighbours stand about contentedly under the trees. Networks are important. You don't want to land in the city like a UFO. Which is what happens anyway to some extent.

Colin Ardley, Pyramid for Zamosc, 2006

Dresden-based Scottish artist Colin Ardley also sensed that real life in Zamosc is not so easy to pin down. He didn't want just to leave his mark on the city. Then the idea came in a flash. The artist realised that the corner houses on the main market place were supported by wedge-shaped columns which did not obey the dictates of the right angel. Ardley experimented with this form in his studio and suddenly found himself holding a pyramid in his hands. Now it stands on the square, seven metres high, clad in wood.

Eva the tour guide, always takes the visitors around the Rotunda, a ring-shaped brick building in front of the city gates. "Prisoner transit camp security police" it says on the wooden entrance. The former artillery post was used by the SS during the Second World War as a remand prison. Zamosc was the point of departure for the Nazis' "Generalplan Ost". In 20 damp cells, photos and flowers honour the murdered Jews, Polish partisans and Russian prisoners. Thousands of people were killed here, or were brought to the nearby death camps of Sobibor, Majdanek and Belzec.

Miroslaw Balka, Witaj / Wilkommen (Welcome), 2006

A "no art of dismay" attitude is nevertheless reflected in the artists who blend the traumatic history out of their works. Only Miroslaw Balka, one of the best-know artists, has summoned the requisite gumption. He detected echoes of the formal principle of the ideal city in the death camp of Auschwitz. On the grass in front of the New Lublin Gate, a former entrance to the city, Balka erected a wooden sculpture covered with mortar, reminiscent of a barracks wall. As soon as someone nears the wall, a German march plays.

The Utopias in Zamosc seem to pile up on top of one another. With "Ideal City – Invisible Cities," the city shows the courage and the will to renew its ties with Europe. The city contributed 50,000 euros to the show, whose complex intentions in all probability leave both tourists and locals cold. At night the lights disappear from Ardley's pyramid, bricks in the columbarium are destroyed. There was even a petition against showing the expensive art in the beautiful city. In September, a new version of the show will travel to Potsdam. Just in time for Art Forum. Unlike in Zamosc however, the financing has yet to be secured.

The exhibition "Ideal City - Invisible Cities" can be seen in Zamosc until August 22, and in Potsdam from September 9 - October 29.


The article originally appeared in German in Die Tageszeitung on July 17, 2006.

Birgit Rieger is a freelance journalist.

Translation: lp. - let's talk european