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//A Controversial Artist from the Vatican// - Jaś Kapela

A Controversial Artist from the Vatican - Jaś Kapela

At first glance, it appears that Pope John Paul II has not been very well-known in Poland. But is that really so? We know that he liked cream cakes and that he skied. Some of us have probably seen a film or read a book about him, seen his photographs or passed his monument on the way to work. But is the Pope in the film, in the book , in the photograph or the figure on the pedestal the same man who for twenty seven years held the Holy See? Or was he perhaps someone quite different? And, above all, who are we vis-à-s that someone? What can we do with his incessant presence in our lives? All these questions arise when paging through the album The Open Throne: Contemporary Art and the John Paul II Phenomenon, which is our topic.

This book, beautifully published by the Centre for Creative Work in Wigry, provides the documentation of the unrealised exhibition of the same title. The exhibition failed to materialise because the Church authorities, which had been leasing out the old Camaldolian monastery – housing  thehousing the Centre for Creative Work – to the Ministry of Culture, refused to extend the lease by another fifty years. The negotiation came to nothing and ended with the minister Bogdan Zdrojewski cancelling the contract. Although it was not possible to finalise the exhibition and although the process of closing the Centre is still in process, the administrator has not only has not blocked the publication of the catalogue but, indeed, contributed to it. Perhaps this has been the only occasion of its kind, with the liquidator publishing a book. Its title speaks volumes, and the texts by Agnieszka Tarasiuk and Sebastian Cichocki dot all the i’s. The situation is particularly perverse. The works and texts accumulated by the editors-cum-curators do not attempt to be exhaustive, ratheron the contrary. Although we are presented with a review of the more important works related to the Pope, produced by various contemporary artists (starting with Dwurnik, then on to Czerepok, Bujnowski and Catellan, and ending with the silhouetted of John Paul II in ivory), but – as Agnieszka Tarasiuk admits in her introduction, speaking on behalf of the entire team, ‘We discovered no significant, powerful works in the area of contemporary art.’ Baudrillard’s description from his essay The Conspiracy of Art applies very well to the collected works: they ‘appropriate banality, the leftovers of mediocrity both in terms of their merit and ideology’.[1] This applies equally to the series of photographs of Igor Omulecki, which show the charm of the Wigry landscape, on which the Pope’s eyes had once rested, as to those which feature the presents given to the Pope and collected by the John Paul II Foundation in Rome.

One suspects that the album is not only a symbolic revenge of the artists on John Paul II, but on the Church as such. An unconventional revenge, because it is unlike anything that we would normally consider critical art. The Open Throne is neither critical nor committed. Quite the opposite. It makes an effort to do justice to the papal art and its recipients. It is not coincidental that apart from the examples of works clearly derived from the artistic arena there has been included a selection of photographs by Zofia Rydet called A Presence, or by Łukasz Baksik entitled I Was a Fan of John Paul II. The first one is a documentary, sociological attempt to demonstrate the presence of John Paul II in the Polish homes of the 1980s, ;of course, a presence mediated via photographs, etchings, statues, posters and other forms of reproduction of the papal appearance. The second illustrates the collectingor passion of the author who, since 2005, has been collecting seeking out papal souvenirs. In his collection, he has not only thermometers or clocks, but also tumble toys and cuddly toys. The first lot of photographs is dead completely serious, the second – ironic through and through. What both have in common is their fascination with the banality of the papal rubbish tip.

The materials about the Milewski family, hosts to John Paul II during his 70s visit to Poland, is yet another example of commemoration of the old Camaldoleseian monastery, visited by the Pope. A ritualistic and frequently repeated tale of the head of the family is as unbearably predictable as it is authentic. The same applies to the entire album. We don’t learn anything from it that we did not know already. Because we can be hardly surprised by the story about the chairman of the League of Polish Families who – as Anda Rottenberg recalls when talking to Roman Pawłowski – ‘used to send his party members or sympathisers to check out the content of galleries of contemporary art all over Poland.  (p. LXXXIX).  After all, we do know that it was the members of parliament of that particular party that who drew the attention of the entire nation to the installation Passion of the until-then unknown artist from Gdańsk. Nor can we be surprised that Polish theatre finds it even harder to square up to the papal phenomenon thant art does; as a result, such monstrosities as Papa Boys Forever are created – a fact noted with attention to detail that would have been better spent elsewhere in the essay by Roman Pawłowski. Similarly, we have been familiar with Tadeusz Bartoś as a spokesman for the issue of the papal pontificate for quite a while. Incidentally, since the editors saw fit to include a text about the theatre, it is surprising that there are no similar essays about literature or film. As regards the cinema, Artura Żmijewski’s text Katyń: Karol’s Testimony or the Work of Ideology , from the book Polish Cinema 1989-2009: A Critical History, covers the ground to an extent. Papal literature appears to be still awaiting its historian.

Such predictability is not, I think, a fault, but a deliberate ploy, or even a necessary result of the curators’ work. If we want to take on board the John Paul II phenomenon, we cannot not tackle reality. According to the data from the beginning of 2011, some 640 monuments of the Pope were have been erected in Poland, a drop in the ocean of the total number of his representations. To quote again Baudrillard, we have found ourselves in a situation, in which ‘it is not the subject that represents the world, but it is the object that – thanks to new technical means available – imperceptibly breaks and diffuses the subject, imposes his presence and its – merely incidental – shape. [2] The impact of the representations of the Pope, which cannot be constrained by any authority, is much more powerful thant his human presence, which – with every next reproduction – recedes into oblivion. The Pope becomes more and more a beer opener or a chocolate cake than a human being – as The Open Throne demonstrates with dispassionate cruelty.

Slowly and inevitably, the person of the Pope is being appropriated by art, thus losing its religious dimension. When the Pope becomes art, the bitter diagnosis of Baudrillard who denies art any raison d’ ‘être begins to apply to him. Do the curators, by placing the Pope not only in the position of an art object, but also as an artist and a performer, in this perverse way, wish to remove from him, and also from his religion, any raison d’ être, something which has already happened to their own field of activity? I find it hard to resist the impression that this is exactly what is taking place in The Open Throne. The Pope as an art object is a simulacrum, an objectified sign devoid of meaning, a triumph of banality and a collector of debris. All that does not stop him from demanding the historically due homage and a privileged position in the market. However, by becoming just one of the objects in the marketplace, he loses his privileged position. This symbolic death of the Pope makes our own position stronger. If he is an artist, he is nothing. Just as we are.

 

Jaś Kapela – (born 1984)
Writes poetry, prose, essays. Member of Political Critique. Author of two volumes of poetry (Advertising and Life Live) and two novels (Sexual Intercourse Does Not Exist and Janus Hrist). Recently, a collection of his essays appeared How I Took Away Terlikowski’s Children.


[1] J. Baudrillard, Spisek sztuki [The Conspiracy of Art], Wydawnictwo Sic!, Warsaw 2006, p. 79.

[2] J. Baudrillard, Spisek sztuki [The Conspiracy of Art], Wydawnictwo Sic!, Warsaw 2006, p. 59.