Thursday, March 26, 2015

A Cheerful Pessimist as Artist

“The quality of human effort is really intimidating.
Piotr Uklański

The Polish born, New York based artist Piotr Uklański has two shows running at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fatal Attraction: Piotr Uklański Photographs is a retrospective of his photography and Fatal Attraction: Piotr Uklański Selects from the Met Collection is his selection of works from the museum’s archive. For his “selects” exhibition he chose as a theme the juxtapositioning of life and death, or as he prefers to call it Eros and Thanatos. And on the gallery wall Uklański has written in Polish “Life is a terminal disease transmitted via sexual intercourse.”

As he told Artspace’s Karen Rosenberg, “Often, these thematic shows have quotes. I wanted to echo that. I like that quote a lot. I didn’t see it on the street but it’s in the Polish cultural discourse—it’s very famous—and it does come off the street. Everybody knows it. It’s a bit of a cliché, but I found it very fitting.”

Uklański grew up Warsaw and although born 23 years after the Second World War its shadow loomed large over his childhood. As he told Studio InternationalAs a child, I walked to school past buildings with walls still filled with holes from bullets and mortars. They had not been patched since they were privately owned and people didn’t have the money. When you’re seven, you’re used to it; you think its normal… I grew up with it, but it is more of a storytelling experience. It was removed but also present, but present as a legacy.

After obtaining his BFA in painting from Warsaw’s Academy of Fine Arts  Uklański secured a MFA in photography from New York’s Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. To these two disciplines he has added sculpture, film making, installation and performance to his repertoire. Whilst Uklański’s flashing disco floor at the Passerby bar introduced him to New York audiences it is his photography that has made the more lasting impression in the wider world.

In particular his 1998 work Untitled (The Nazis) depicting Hollywood actors dressed in WWII German Uniforms which attracted protests at its London opening and physical damage two years later at its Warsaw showing. About which Uklański has said “Everybody knows Nazis in Germany. I had a drink with a German artist who said if he had made this work they would have killed him but because I am Polish, I could. My point is more this. In that context, because Germans have such a long history of analyzing the Second World War, the reaction to my series was very measured, very civil. But in Poland, it wasn’t. So it depends on context and the debate of the moment, and both bring very different reactions. At the Jewish Museum in New York, it was also judged differently. Its context and what the viewer brings to the work that causes the scandal, the strong reaction, more than the work itself.

And what does Uklański bring to his work? He freely admits its “cheerful pessimism.”

Uklański’s two exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art are currently on show with Fatal Attraction: Piotr Uklański Selects from the Met Collection running through to the 14th of June and Fatal Attraction: Piotr Uklański Photographs on the walls until the 16th of August.

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