Art Criticism: Polish Artist Janek Simon’s Deft Probing of Cultural Imperialism

At Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw, Simon’s art is a prescient critique of art-making itself

No business is business-as-usual today. Once-routine practices of showing art are getting shock therapy, as ascendant scrutinies (concerning, say, museum funding) and representational demands (regarding identity and inclusivity) disrupt yesterday’s exhibition-making protocols. This is what progress and accountability look like. But, at their extremes, such calls to action confer a cloud of doubt on art-making itself. Wringing your hands, you ask: is art a problem or solution?

This question guides the work of Janek Simon. Since the 2000s, the Warsaw-based artist’s multifarious sculptures, actions and videos – shown in this intelligent, dense retrospective, ‘Synthetic Folklore’, curated by Joanna Warsza – have examined the power relationships, globalist entanglements and technological infrastructure informing today’s cultural production. Simon takes us to electronic junkyards in Lagos, to the experimental commune of Auroville in India, or sites of industrial mega-production in Shenzhen in order to tease out the imbrication between global capitalism and culture.

Janek Simon, ‘Synthetic Folklore’, 2019, exhibition view, Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art, Warsaw. Courtesy: the artist and Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art, Warsaw; photograph: Bartosz Górka

Perhaps it was Simon’s upbringing in Poland, with its restive artistic and political histories, that allowed him to cast a sceptical eye on the cultural sector and its soft power. Consider the ostentatiousness of the Venice Biennale’s national pavilions or the way that influential organizations, such as Germany’s Goethe-Institut, post up in places that lack the artistic infrastructure of wealthier nations, bringing with them a circus of artists, academics and DJs for a week of shows, conferences and after-parties. Do such forums constitute truly meaningful cultural exchanges or are they just pretexts for businessmen to cement new economic relationships over cultural canapés? For an early project, titled Polish Cultural Season in Madagascar (2006), Simon installed a mock cultural-event-cum-pop-up-exhibition for central European artists across the road from the Goethe Centre Antananarivo. This droll, quasi-satirical action jibed at the arrogance of one-sided ‘intercultural promotion’. It also undusts a little-known fact: that, during the 19th century, Madagascar was ruled for two years by a Polish adventurer named Maurycy Beniowski. As recently as the 1930s, the Polish government was still discussing wresting Madagascar from the French and sending Polish Jews there. For Simon, a spoof outpost for Polish art in Madagascar nods to these uncomfortable histories while also serving as a kind of scarecrow against other, soft-political intrusions.

Janek Simon, ‘Synthetic Folklore’, 2019, exhibition view, Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art, Warsaw. Courtesy: the artist and Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art, Warsaw; photograph: Bartosz Górka

Simon’s critical yet emphatic embrace of the artist-ethnographer recalls that of Austrian artist Christoph Schlingensief. For both, cross-cultural production means jumping headfirst into a foreign place, involving everyone around you and documenting the results, as in Schlingensief’s Operndorf Afrika project in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. In 2012, Simon invited Polish artists to stage an exhibition in a utopian community in southern India (Auropol, 2012–19), then detailed how their utopian project about utopia fell apart. Just as Schlingensief’s actions gained meaning from their setting in 1990s right-wing Austria, Simon’s work is deeply informed by contemporary Poland: a country that was once a model for a successful, if neoliberal, economy in a globalized European Union but, recently, has relapsed into ruinous exclusionary politics and neonationalism. Yet, Simon’s work goes a step further, seeing how today’s postcolonial or decolonial thinking might be mapped onto the history of former Soviet bloc countries, with their continued experience of economic instrumentalization and foreign military presence.

Janek Simon, ‘Synthetic Folklore’, 2019, exhibition view, Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art, Warsaw. Courtesy: the artist and Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Ar, Warsaw; photograph: Bartosz Górka

For the work Alang Transfer (2012), Simon travelled to a massive, international ship-scrapping site in Alang, India: a graveyard for global goods flows. There, he purchased more than 130 signs, drawings and paintings from the ships’ hulls, living spaces and kitchens: we can see yellowing signage, portraits of long-forgotten political leaders, outmoded safety diagrams, landscape paintings, smiling loved ones. Too often, today’s blaring iconoclasts bore me with their obvious cultural pessimism and their ignorance of humanistic concerns. Now, more than ever, it feels urgent to recuperate such cultural detritus, as Simon has, into something arcane, vibrant and oddly meaningful – like a forgotten photograph rescued from a sinking ship.

Janek Simon, Synthetic Folklore was on view at Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art, Warsaw, from 22 February until 19 May 2019.

Main image: Janek Simon, ‘Synthetic Folklore’, 2019, exhibition view, Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art, Warsaw. Courtesy: the artist and Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Ar, Warsaw; photograph: Bartosz Górka

Pablo Larios is senior editor of frieze. He lives in Berlin, Germany.

Issue 205

First published in Issue 205

September 2019

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