MAIN SPACE EXHIBITION
FEBRUARY 26 – MARCH 27, 2010
RECEPTION: FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 26, 2010 AT 8 PM
LOCATION – STRIDE GALLERY
1004 MACLEOD TRAIL S.E., CALGARY, ALBERTA
BUILDING DISASTER explores notions of construction and destruction through Stalin’s “gift” to Poland, the Palace of Culture and Science, as well as other Soviet motifs that take on markedly different meanings in the West. The Palace’s hybrid form resembles turn-of-the-century American architecture, despite being a product of Socialist Realism. The building represents both a clash and an exchange of cultures that questions notions of an East/West binary. Building Disaster is comprised of a series of drawings and a 10′ x 35′ wall piece that attempt to build new content through the use of old forms.
DAGMARA GENDA is a Polish-born Canadian artist who works in drawing and installation. She finished her MFA at the University of Western Ontario in 2007 and has exhibited across Canada since then. Currently Dagmara lives in London, UK.
Dagmara gratefully acknowledges the support of the Saskatchewan Arts Board.
DAGMARA GENDA — BUILDING DISASTER
Dagmara Genda’s installation Building Disaster at Stride Gallery represents an intimate relationship between Poland — Genda’s birthplace — and Canada, her current home. In Genda’s drawings the Palace of Culture and Science is subverted; the familiar icon of Polish identity is transformed into a discursive piece, questioning both contemporary and historical identities within Poland. Genda’s interest in Western and Eastern societies is prevalent in her work; she takes familiar Soviet icons and questions our understanding of what it means to be Polish.
Built between 1952 and 1955, Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science (Palac Kultury i Nauki) was designed by Lev Rudnev – architect of Moscow’s famous State University – to represent everything Soviet Poland stood for: strength, stability and stamina. The 42-floor building was once the highest structure in Poland; originally intended as a focal point for the capital, the Palace never quite lived up to its original expectations after the fall of communism.
Although Lev Rudnev is highly regarded for his Soviet architectural style and the aesthetic qualities employed in his buildings, it is interesting to note that he travelled to the United States to research early twentieth century skyscrapers. At that time, cities such as Chicago and New York were at the forefront of skyscraper design. It seems idealistic of Rudnev to travel to the United States to learn from his peers. However, in a state full of anti-American sentiments, it is ironic that a Soviet architect would use democratic America as inspiration for his Soviet buildings. The skyscraper represented everything that was modern about the United States, and the desire to be modern was also prevalent in communist Europe.
Genda’s drawings play on our personal identification with Soviet iconography. If we think about communism, one of the first faces that springs to mind is that of Joseph Stalin, arguably one of the most feared men of the twentieth century. Genda transforms his identity, introducing new ‘characters’, such as the cats in the drawing Stalin and Cats,that become entwined within Stalin’s staunch face. Many municipal buildings host a variety of uninvited inhabitants, and the Palace is home to many cats that live on the lower floors. The cats are under the care and protection of the Palace and have become part of the fabric of the building (1). In these images, Stalin seems almost human and becomes a charming man surrounded by his feline companions.
In Genda’s drawings, the Palace is repeatedly destroyed and reconstructed into a variety of shapes and new constructs. This mass destruction alludes to the destruction that took place on the land that the Palace now occupies. Up until the Second World War, the area surrounding the Palace was a large Jewish ghetto. After the war, the area was abandoned and eventually torn down in a series of brutalistic modernisation plans by the city of Warsaw. Many historic nineteenth century buildings were destroyed along with the entire community that had been wiped out during the Holocaust.
In 2004, Poland was finally admitted to the European Union along with several other former Soviet satellite states, including Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia. Their admittance to the EU was not an easy task, due not only to economic reasons but also to the fact that in the West many prejudices still existed about Eastern European countries. Germany is currently the only EU nation that still places restraints on ‘foreign’ workers from the Eastern Block. Since Poland’s admittance into the EU it has undergone massive changes. One of the largest changes is internal migration: over 1.5 million Eastern Europeans have moved to the UK since 2004. Many more have migrated to France and Ireland in search of a better life (2). For many, this has been a successful move; the average salary in Poland is still €5,000 a year ($7,365) (3). In 2010, due to the economic crisis, thousands of Poles returned to Poland, as unemployment prevented them from staying in Western Europe. This has had a huge impact upon Poland’s already fragile economy, and the country’s economic future is uncertain.
Poland is still viewed as an emerging economy, but perhaps one with the greatest potential for foreign investors. The Palace has for over 50 years remained the tallest structure in Warsaw, but it is now threatened by large developments near the Palace grounds. Since the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, there have been many proposals to tear the Palace down. A group of Japanese architects visiting the city in 1981 suggested cutting the Palace into chunks and scattering them all around the Palace grounds; luckily this barbaric idea was rejected (4). In the mid-1990s, it was decided that the Palace should remain intact and that a series of skyscrapers would be built around the area, to form what was described by Marcin Swiecicki, a former Mayor of Warsaw, as “the crown of the earth.” These skyscrapers would encircle the Palace and contribute to the vitality of the surrounding district (5).For many Warsaw residents, the building is seen as an icon, a momentous reminder of former Soviet times. The Palace constitutes an irreplaceable part of Warsaw, as it is the only landmark for a lost tourist in the Ursynów District.
After the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, it is disheartening to think that the Palace of Culture and Science will now be hemmed in by a series of tall skyscrapers, obscuring our view of what was once the largest skyscraper in Europe. Warsaw continues to expand at such a rapid rate and is already beginning to look like any other city in Western Europe. The divide between Eastern and Western Europe may already be narrowing due to economic stimulus packages and mass migration, but Warsaw still clings to its Soviet ties with monumental reminders such as The Palace of Culture and Science.
— Michael Birchall
1 – The cats have the attention of a private vet and receive daily care by the staff in the Palace.
2 – Doward, J., Young, Self-reliant, Educated: Portrait of UK’s Eastern European Migrants, “The Observer”, 17th January 2010.
3 – BBC News: Polish Immigration, URL: http://new.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/5080924.stm, June 16, 2008.
4 – Palac Kultury i Nauki, URL: <http://www.pkin.pl/historia>
5 – Ibid.
MICHAEL BIRCHALL is an emerging curator and writer from England interested in collaborative and participatory art practices. In 2008, he attended curatorial residencies at The Western Front (Vancouver) and the Walter Phillips Gallery (The Banff Centre). He holds a Masters degree in Curatorial studies from the University of Sunderland and is currently Project Curator at Künstlerhaus Stuttgart, Germany.