I suppose being Polish is a strange thing for an English art critic to be. No doubt the nation is packed with z-less native connoisseurs whose job I have stolen. I can live with that. What concerns me more is that I am uneasy writing about Polish art. I’ve been trying to work out why. It can’t just be that I imagine you don’t want to hear about it. Poland’s over there. You’re over here. You know as well I do that over there and over here are now commingled. The waitress who served you coffee this morning was Polish. The guy you got in cheaply to paint your hall was Latvian. With the entire Baltic surrounds joining the EU, writing about Polish art shares its validity with writing about French or German art. You could even say it’s more important, because it so obviously tackles the future.
All this I know, but art isn’t politics. It’s a play of honest emotions, not a slick exchange of falsehoods. I don’t like writing about Polish art because it upsets me too much. My Polish heart jumps onto my sleeve and I write things I regret. The judgment goes, the timing collapses. I wouldn’t usually risk it, but what with John Paul II going, and all this eastern European art now pouring into Britain, I find myself thinking things you may not be thinking. It’s time to run the nostalgia gauntlet.
The Whitechapel Art Gallery has a show called Enthusiasm. It’s a good title, managing simultaneously to be very appropriate and very misleading. It is misleading because this fine word, Enthusiasm, promises perkiness and joy, but the show it describes is gloomy and angsty, a long nocturnal sampling of samizdat Polish film-making by people who worked in factories, from the 1960s until the fall of the Iron Curtain. However, it remains an appropriate title because the curious energy that charmed all this darkness and misery into the open was, indeed, a delightful amateur enthusiasm.
Apparently, one of the ways in which factory bosses sought to keep their Polish workforce quiet in the days of communist rule was to encourage the setting up of amateur film clubs attached to factories. Workers were prompted to join and to churn out films about May Day celebrations, official visits by Russian cosmonauts, that sort of thing. What they did instead was to steal all the extra rolls and make their own films about whatever was really inside them. Longing, says one of the exhibition subheadings. Love, says another. Sex and Vodka and Rock’n’Roll could have been a category. So could Long Hair.
Two venerable installation artists, Neil Cummings and Marysia Lewandowska, have gathered this peculiar material and transformed it into a travelling immersion kit that plunges you like a reluctant lobster into the oily waters of off-road communist Poland. Expecting to encounter the obvious signs of enthusiasm you’ve been promised by the title, you walk, instead, into a grubby youth-club space with horrible beige armchairs, a tatty projection screen, home-made trophies, giant ashtrays and vessels for keeping coffee hot, made out of a particularly soiled white plastic I recognised immediately. That’s communist plastic! Rarely can Hollywood have felt quite so far away. We have here a careful re-creation of a typical Polish film club of the period.
By working hard to maintain this authentically poky atmosphere, Cummings and Lewandowska may be doing themselves a disservice. It is not everyone who will choose to remain in this soiled beige glumness and explore it. Many will take one look and run. In many instances, I’d beat them to the door, but art has never been in the business of peddling mere enjoyment. Its chief currency has always been insight. So sometimes you have to grit your teeth, settle down in a soiled beige armchair, ignore that lovely day out there and put in some dark aesthetic homework. You will learn something critical about the tearing down of the Iron Curtain: that it was slow, unheroic, unglamorous, dull as a migraine and more of a sagging than an actual fall.
As well as re-creating the authentic, impoverished misery of a typical Polish film club, our artists have set up three mini-cinemas, each of which plays an endless round of flickering amateur movies produced by the nightshift workers-cum-Scorseses into whose furtive imaginations we are being delivered. The Longing section comes first, and has some superbly naff period seating in it. The opening film, Butterflies, was directed by Franciszek Dzida, who worked in a sugar refinery and longed, as so many did in here, for girls with looser morals than the ones he knew.
Dzida’s film manages to get into focus now and then as it shudders after a brawny bunch of old-looking youngsters who career through the woods of Poland in their underwear, guzzling Bulgarian wine and smoking furiously. It’s 1971. Somewhere, somehow, a degraded report of the antics of the flower-power generation must have reached Poland and inspired this belated, cut-price imitation. Unwittingly, the bosses of the sugar refinery have ensured the survival of some alarmingly authentic evidence of San Francisco dreaming in communist Poland.
The film itself — flickering, fragile, all over the place — is like a butterfly and lasts only a few minutes. Everything in here lasts only a few minutes. Film-club enthusiasts can’t do sagas, any more than they can do special effects or falsehood. A fly-poster guy spends the afternoon pasting information onto a kiosk until a drunk comes by and pisses on it; so the fly-poster guy has a beer himself. Another guy goes round to see his ex-girlfriend: he drinks himself into a stupor with huge tumblers of fake French brandy, then they make love.
It’s all so unheroic, so desperately unglamorous, so lacking in three-act drama. But that’s exactly how it felt. I can vouch for that. And how interesting that all that Turner prize-type video and film that continues to crowd painting and sculpture out of the modern art mainstream feels so much closer in effect to this than it does to regular television and film-making. There isn’t a film in here that Andy Warhol couldn’t have made. Instead of slick creativity, we get a flickering, full-on exposure to the grim little facts of the times. Everything in here has been carefully edited by amateurs, yet nothing feels edited at all.
Enthusiasm has plenty of Benny Hill moments in it, but basically it remains an innocent experience. Lots of fumbling with bra straps; not much going to the next stage. Yet among the eastern European shows that have descended on us, one by a young Latvian photographer, Arnis Balcus, frightened me with its unconstrained decadence. The photographer and his naked girlfriend feature in most of the pictures. It’s one of those terrifyingly truthful shows that encourage you to examine unexpected pimples in unexpected places. From the other side of the continent, you can smell the drugs. So this is what the sagging of the Iron Curtain has achieved.