Art of Darkness

What does the new music genre 'necropolo' reveal about Poland's current political situation? 

‘I got this thought looped in my head / it keeps me tethered to the earth / somehow I got so used to how things are / that I missed out on my own demise […] it’s all so boring and far from droll / so I compose my necropolo.’ Crooned in Polish to torpid guitar riffs and a droning bass clarinet, the opening lyrics to ‘Nekropolo 2017’ (2017) by Nagrobki (The Tombstones) are both confessional and programmatic. The band’s founders, Adam Witkowski and Maciej Salamon, shun any punk identification, preferring the self-coined ‘necropolo’, whose hallmarks are macabre themes, a healthy dose of profanity and deadpan humour. As a genre, its emergence feels timely.

Necropolo is a spin off of ‘disco polo’, a musical style that developed in Poland in the late 1980s, just as hurried political reforms had ushered in a mood of happy-go-lucky consumerism and economic individualism. These changes resulted in some Poles transitioning from rags to riches overnight, whether through entrepreneurialism, a canny knowledge of legal loopholes or both. With its roots in dance music, disco polo embodied the spirit of the times: light-hearted, ribald lyrics about love found or lost, or carefree holidays, typically backed by electronic keyboard or guitar. Reaching its heyday in the mid-1990s, the genre combined the foreign-sounding ‘disco’ with ‘polo’ – a word widely affixed to Polish products and enterprises to add a whiff of exoticism: hence Polo Cockta, an ersatz of Coca-Cola.

Necropolo should be viewed against the broader context of Poland’s current political and social backdrop, where the democratic state apparatus has been progressively dismantled since the double victory of the right-wing Law and Justice party in 2015’s presidential and parliamentary elections. The most immediate consequence has been a politicization and, effectively, a subjugation of the state media, military and judiciary. But the underpinning narrative, rooted in historical instances of martyrdom, sacrifice and exclusion, largely unfolds in the symbolic sphere of culture and memory. The everyday language of power – militant, patriarchal and resentful – has translated into policies of symbolic violence that replace plurality with a homogenous reading of the past. This state of affairs has invited what Polish artist Artur Zmijewski described in his recent diagnosis of the current political situation in Poland, ‘A Confession of Love’ (2016), as a ‘leap into hard identification’.

In a purported bid to deliver historical justice, legislation passed in April 2016 banned the ‘propaganda of communism or any other totalitarian system’ on buildings, architectural objects, organizations, events, individuals or dates. This has triggered sudden overhauls and apparently contradictory decisions: retaining the street name that commemorated the Soviet liberation of the city of Sopot from Nazi occupation (23rd March), for instance, but decreeing it to celebrate instead Hungarian-Polish Friendship Day, adopted in 2007 by the late president Lech Kaczynski. Following a June 2017 amendment, local officials and landowners are expected to remove public monuments and memorials (other than those in resting grounds) deemed to represent totalitarian regimes, which in reality encompasses communist as well as right-wing monuments. While these damnatio memoriae practices are not uncommon today, in Poland they are accompanied by a plethora of new monuments unveiled across the country. These are mostly devoted to President Kaczynski as well as to the victims of the 2010 Polish Air Force crash that claimed the lives of 96 government delegates en route to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the 1940 Katyn massacre (mass executions of Polish nationals carried out by the Soviet secret police), and anti-communist resistance fighters.

The flipside to this discourse of the dead presently animating Polish daily routine is another more passive and nefarious force. The effort to rectify history and rid it of ambiguity cannot succeed in the face of change, attempting as it does to enforce an illusory standstill. These necropolitical mechanisms govern by means of symbolic violence, drawing lines of division that define who can speak as well as who can constitute a member of Polish society: witness the country’s persistent, pernicious regulations that refuse to accept asylum-seekers under any circumstances whatsoever.

Within this desire for ostensible homogeneity, cultural institutions that acknowledge and pursue their own agonistic potential – stretching between the past, a constructed ‘new’ past and the actual plurality of the present – are more important than ever. Culture is capable of denouncing the workings of necropolitics for what it is, throwing this purported homogeneity into relief. As Nagrobki add, with bitter irony: ‘Hey, exorcist from lands beyond / come on, pop by my home / this gloomy castle / all painted black’.

Main image: Nagrobki, Granit, album cover, 2017. Courtesy: the band

Krzysztof Kościuczuk is a writer and contributing editor of frieze. He lives in Warsaw.

Issue 191

First published in Issue 191

November - December 2017

Most Read

Ahead of ARCOMadrid this week, a guide to the best institutional shows in the city
At La Panacée, Montpellier, Nicolas Bourriaud’s manifesto for a new movement and attempt to demarcate an artistic peer...
A report commissioned by the museum claims Raicovich ‘misled’ the board; she disputes the investigation’s claims
In further news: Jef Geys (1934–2018); and Hirshhorn postpones Krzysztof Wodiczko projection after Florida shooting
If the city’s pivot to contemporary art was first realized by landmark construction, then what comes after might not...
Ignoring its faux-dissident title, this year's edition at the New Museum displays a repertoire that is folky, angry,...
An insight into royal aesthetics's double nature: Charles I’s tastes and habits emerge as never before at London’s...
In other news: Artforum responds to #NotSurprised call for boycott of the magazine; Maria Balshaw apologizes for...
At transmediale in Berlin, contesting exclusionary language from the alt-right to offshore finance
From Shanghai to Dubai, a new history charts the frontiers where underground scenes battle big business for electronic...
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, UK
Zihan Karim, Various Way of Departure, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Can an alternative arts network, unmediated by the West's commercial capitals and burgeoning arts economies of China...
‘That moment, that smile’: collaborators of the filmmaker pay tribute to a force in California's film and music scenes...
In further news: We Are Not Surprised collective calls for boycott of Artforum, accuses it of 'empty politics'; Frida...
We Are Not Surprised group calls for the magazine to remove Knight Landesman as co-owner and withdraw move to dismiss...
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is both gorgeous and troubling in equal measure
With Zona Maco opening in the city today, a guide to the best exhibitions across the Mexican capital
The question at the heart of Manchester Art Gallery’s artwork removal: what are the risks when cultural programming...
In further news: Sonia Boyce explains removal of Manchester Art Gallery’s nude nymphs; Creative Scotland responds to...
Ahead of the India Art Fair running this weekend in the capital, a guide to the best shows to see around town
The gallery argues that the funding body is no longer supportive of institutions that maintain a principled refusal of...
The Dutch museum’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake is part of a wider reconsideration of colonial histories,...
At New York’s Metrograph, a diverse film programme addresses a ‘central problem’ of feminist filmmaking
Ronald Jones pays tribute to a rare critic, art historian, teacher and friend who coined the term Post-Minimalism
In further news: curators rally behind Laura Raicovich; Glasgow's Transmission Gallery responds to loss of Creative...
Nottingham Contemporary, UK
‘An artist in a proud and profound sense, whether he liked it or not’ – a tribute by Michael Bracewell
Ahead of a show at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, how the documentarian’s wandering gaze takes in China’s landscapes of...
In further news: Stedelijk explains why it cancelled Ettore Sottsass retrospective; US National Gallery of Art cancels...
With 11 of her works on show at the Musée d'Orsay, one of the most underrated artists in modern European history is...
Reopening after a two-year hiatus, London’s brutalist landmark is more than a match for the photographer’s blockbuster...
What the Google Arts & Culture app tells us about our selfie obsession
At a time of #metoo fearlessness, a collection of female critics interrogate their own fandom for music’s most...
A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018

frieze magazine

March 2018