Fitting in space

The “Fitting in Space” exhibit features works from contemporary Polish artists Pawel Sysiak, Nicholas Grospierre and Kasia Przezwanska.

Art based on heavy thematic concepts is almost inevitably the exclusive realm of the intellectual elite. Fortunately for any tentative aficionados, Nicholas Grospierre brought stickers to the opening of the “Fitting in Space” exhibit of contemporary Polish artists, hosted by the 98weeks Project Space, on Saturday.

One of three contemporary artists showcased, Grospierre took pictures of the prefabricated high-rise panel buildings, popular in communist-era Warsaw, that remain standing in modern-day Poland. He cut his prints into same-sized parts and invited his Beirut audience to assemble their own prefabricated apartment blocks on the walls of 98weeks’ Mar Mikhael studio, which will display along with other featured artists until March 16. A complimentary event is also running at Zico House on Spears Street in the Hamra area.

The result of the audience’s contributions to Grospierre’s work is a decorative take on the bland, standardized, urban planning concept. The imaginary, living complex plastered on the wall defies the laws of gravity - although even the participants’ creative, sticking angles can do little to disguise the drab uniformity of the buildings’ components.

The adjacent wall not only provides a refreshing dose of color, but puts this participant artwork in its context. Here, pages from an old Polish children’s book are reproduced, enlarged and displayed. As they did for communist-era children, the approachable illustrations explain to the present-day audience how the uniform apartment blocks are made.

The entire exhibition is essentially the result of curator Marta Bogdanska’s five-month sojourn in Beirut last year. While exploring the city, she saw many aesthetic and thematic similarities to Warsaw. Both cities have difficult histories, she says.

Modern-day Warsaw has the legacies of World War II and communism, while Beirut is pock-marked with reminders of its brutal civil turmoil and foreign invasions. Both have been all but destroyed and re-built.  They are phoenix cities, according to Bogdanska.

But reconstruction in the traditional sense is not exactly what piques Bogdanska’s interest. Instead, it is the thematics that underscore both cities’ similar reconstruction processes that attracted Bogdanska and co-curator Magdalena Kepka – particularly the manner in which artists make sense of and/or interact with their respective cities.

“They function as fictions of newborn cities often not coherent with history and spatial logic. Artists and cultural operators enter into a dialogue with space and signs of destruction both in Beirut and in Warsaw and create ideas and innovations,” reads the exhibitions explanatory leaflet.

Exploring these ideas and showcasing their artistic responses is the basis of the co-curators’ larger project: Fenix Cities.

The current “Fitting in Space” exhibit is only one part of this umbrella project. It was preceded by its exact inverse: modern Lebanese artists exhibiting their reflections on Beirut in Warsaw. Finally, a series of thematic workshops and an eventual publication based on these explorations will complete the project.

The core goal of the Fenix Cities project and the “Fitting in Space” exhibit is to spark a dialogue between the two cities that the curators find have a lot in common. And, if nothing else, a piece on display at the Mar Mikhael branch of the exhibition is an apt launching point.

Pawel Sysiak was inspired by footage of a young Iraqi boy dreaming of leaving his war-torn country for one more idyllic. This video clip is screened next to his piece, aptly titled, “To Other Beautiful Countries.”

The artwork is essentially a colorful representation of the map of Poland, painted onto a dark curtain that hangs from the bare white walls of the 98weeks Project Space.

It is the culmination of Sysiak’s thoughts on how outsiders might view Poland, Bogdanska explains. “He was imagining that to some people Poland must seem like this beautiful country, like the boy wants to escape to,” she says.

But with Poland’s own complications and unresolved history, Bogdanska believes the boy’s idealization is hardly merited. In fact, Sysiak’s piece shows how this idyllic conception of the country entirely ironic.

It is quite interesting then that such a piece is on display in Lebanon, a country where there is more than a grain of truth to the running joke that collecting foreign passports is a national pastime.  This may be the greater irony, but it is also a powerful point of departure for discussion.

The “Fitting in Space” exhibit will be shown at 98weeks Project Space in Mar Michael until March 16.