Agnieszka Polska’s signature video animations incorporate found material, such as archival photography and vintage illustrations, re-contextualised and revamped to produce a unique world of her own making. For the 19th Biennale of Sydney, Polska presented two works on Cockatoo Island and a third as part of The Long Program at Carriageworks.
Polska’s surrealist-looking work references the narrative of history in general and the history of art in particular, bringing attention to how personal and political subjectivities affect what is included and what is left out. How the Work is Done (2011) is a quasi-documentary about a 1956 strike by a group of students at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków. Polska’s piece surveys the sculpture and ceramics workshop where the students lived and slept for several days, during which time they refused to produce any artwork. Although ultimately uneventful, both the strike and Polska’s reworking of it pose questions about the social value of artistic practice and the power that lies in creative work.
Polska’s practice is deeply engaged with the philosophical history of the twentieth century, especially the legacy of psychoanalysis chartered by Sigmund Freud. The Forgetting of Proper Names (2009) takes its title and voiceover from Freud’s essay on the phenomenon of compulsive forgetting and substitution in human memory. Polska’s ambiguous animation resembles visual memory under a microscope, with iconic artworks by Robert Smithson, Robert Morris, Walter de Maria and Wolf Vostell floating in an interior space – a common artistic motif used to represent the subconscious. Beyond the cognitive world of the individual, The Forgetting of Proper Names speaks to the collective memory of the art-historical canon. As Freud famously theorised, there is a type of forgetting that is motivated by repression, and a number of Polska’s video works are dedicated to seminal Polish artists who have largely been left out of ‘official’ art history. Another work, Sensitization to Colour (2009), for example, draws on a 1968 performance of the same name by Włodzimierz Borowski, a key figure of Polish conceptualism.
Polska’s fascination with the phenomenon of memory is undoubtedly linked to her Polish heritage and the collapse of communism across Eastern Europe in 1989, which engendered a revisioning of state-sanctioned versions of history. Her predominantly black-and-white moving-image collages evoke a nostalgia most often reserved for historical documents; yet Polska’s artworks are reimaginings imbued with the artist’s own creativity and subjectivity, rather than dedicated reconstructions of personae or events. Her longer-format film, Włosy/Hair (2012), looks at the idea of revolution through the murky lens of the 1970s Polish hippie movement – informed by its American counterpart but operating under very different circumstances.
Polska graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków and from the Universität der Künste, Berlin. Her solo exhibitions include ‘Pseudoword Hazards’, Salzburger Kunstverein, Salzburg (2013); ‘Nonsense Syllables’, Summer-hall, Edinburgh (2013); ‘How the Work is Done’, PinchukArtCentre, Kiev (2012); and ‘Gardener’s Responsibility’, Georg Kargl BOX, Vienna (2011). Her work has been shown in group exhibitions at 21er Haus, Vienna (2013); Calvert 22, London (2012); Museum of Contemporary Art, Kraków (2012); Tate Modern, London (2012); and KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin (2011), among others. In 2012, Polska was shortlisted for the Future Generation Art Prize at PinchukArtCentre, Kiev.