Polonia. A new body of work. The artist has created an entirely new body of work that engages imagery related to his native country. Using a deliberately eclectic range of media and formal styles, he has distilled the highly charged symbols of the Polish state into a cliched version of nationalistic iconography. He has transformed Poland's red and white flag into a monumental sculpture made out of two 6 meter long panels of colored, enameled glass.
Maurizio Cattelan: Do you identify yourself as a Polish artist?
Piotr Uklanski: I do. I don't think there's a way around it. The place or your origin always stays in you, no matter how you wish to deal with it. At the same time, I find discussing the issues of national identity less and less interesting. It seems that now it has become solely a public relations term. You know, national pavilions, international quotas at biennials, etc. If you master the right nationality, it might prove very beneficial.
"Earth, Wind and Fire: A conversation between Piotr Uklanski and Maurizio Cattelan." Flash Art International (May-June 2004).
For his second solo exhibition at Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin, Piotr Uklanski has created an entirely new body of work that engages imagery related to his native country, Poland. Using a deliberately eclectic range of media and formal styles, Uklanski has distilled the highly charged symbols of the Polish state into a clichÃ©d version of nationalistic iconography.
As the centerpiece of the exhibition, Uklanski has transformed an emblem of national pride, Poland's red and white flag, into a monumental sculpture made out of two 6 meter long panels of colored, enameled glass. Borrowing from the legacy of American Minimalism, Poland's bi-color flag has been converted into a spectacular mirrored surface that dominates the main gallery. Uklanski's decision to "translate" the national flag into a slick object metaphorically echoes the perceived necessity to seductively package any country's identity for export. This phenomenon strikes a particular chord in regards to Poland's long standing aspirations to break with its past by joining such institutions as the European Union and NATO, and even go so far as to make political compromises to achieve these goals (such as sending Polish soldiers to Iraq).
In a complete formal reversal, Uklanski made a figurative sculptural rendering of a Polish eagle. Like the flag, this crowned eagle is an insignia of Poland's collective identity. The eagle is a ubiquitous motif in almost all official governmental contexts in Poland (as well as in many other countries). The Polish eagle often decorates State buildings as well as the Zloty (the national currency); it is also reproduced on vulgar tourist products, such as "Polska" t-shirts and mugs. The use of Russian Cyrillic script on the exhibition poster plays up the popular tendency to lump all Eastern countries into one generic category that simultaneously exoticizes them while ignoring individual cultural differences. Uklanski revels in mistaken identity.
This exhibition, "Polonia" represents the culmination point of several of recent projects that have also overtly played upon internationally recognizable icons of Polish identity. In fact, Uklanski has progressively transformed his national identity into a conceptual medium. Untitled (Boltanski, Polanski, Uklanski)â€”a graffiti piece that was spray painted on a wall at the 2003 Frieze Art Fair in Londonâ€”was one of Uklanski's first works that playfully exploited Polish stereotypes. When invited to participate in the French Ministry of Culture's season dedicated to Polish artist and culture, Nova Polska in 2004, Uklanski proposed a monumental sculpture entitled "Untitled (La Flamme eternelle Ã l'amitiÃ© franco-polonaise)". Installed on Paris's "Parvis du Droit de l'Homme," situated between the dramatic colonnades of the Palais de Chaillot, Uklanski's sculpture was actually a simulation of a memorial torch. Four-meter tall wooden cut-out "flames" were illuminated from below and turned on a pedestal hidden inside a black cupola as to give an optical illusion of an actual fire while deliberately resembling an enlargement of a cheap toy. The whimsical execution of this sculpture was an ironic gesture in response to the socio-political context in which it was madeâ€”France was "celebrating" Polish culture while at the same time these two countries were embroiled in a tense disagreement about the war in Iraq as well as French nervousness about Poland's integration into the European Union.
When Uklanski was nominated as the Polish representative to the 26th Sao Paolo Biennale in 2004, his contribution took the form of a portrait of Pope John-Paul II (Karol Wojtyla). The image was composed by carefully choreographing the disposition of three thousand five hundred soldiers from the Brazilian Armed Forces on a large grass field. Using aerial photography, he took the image with enough distance to bring the portrait to life. As the recent phenomenal outpouring of public grief over Pope John-Paul's death proved, this Pope has transcended his specific religious role to be come a secular icon of Polish-ness. Since being shown in Sao Paolo, Uklanski's portrait of the Pope has been on display since February 2005 as a billboard in central Warsaw in front of the Stalin-era Palace of Culture and Science.
Piotr Uklanski emerged on the New York art scene in the mid-90s with an emblematic work, the Dance Floorâ€”a sculpture that integrates the legacy of minimalism with the blurring of art and entertainment that characterizes the current era. Dividing his time between New York, Warsaw and Paris, Uklanski has constructed a diverse body of work that exploits as many types of media (sculpture, photography, collage, performance, and film) as it promiscuously absorbs cultural references. His work has been internationally exhibited in various contexts including the 2003 Venice Biennale, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Manifesta 2, the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, 2004 Sao Paolo Biennale, and the Kunsthalle Basel. Uklanski's work often draws polemical reactions since the artist does not shy away from potentially controversial subjectsâ€”such as his photographic series The Nazis or his precarious performance engaging a professional stuntman The Full Burn.
In 2005, Uklanski will participate in the upcoming Biennale de Lyon in September. In 2006, Uklanski will have a solo exhibition at the Centre for Contemporary Art at the Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw. He has also received several public art commissions that will be realized over the course of 2005 â€“ 2006, including a new work on the faÃ§ade of Vienna's Arbeitkammer and at the Museu do AÃ§ude in Rio de Janeiro.
Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin
76, rue de Turenne Paris 3e