Sunday, 2 February 2014

Heavyweight History: Christian Jankowski at the Lisson Gallery

What is the weight of history? Can we measure it, raise it up, overcome it? Might some history weigh heavier on us than other? Thanks to Christian Jankowski and the Polish weightlifting team, we may be a little closer to answering some of these questions. In producing his film Heavy Weight History (2013), the German artist enlisted the help of a group of eleven professional strongmen to attempt to lift a series of historical monuments in and around Warsaw, from statues of the nineteenth century socialist activist Ludwik Waryński to Ronald Reagan.

Poland and, indeed, much of the former eastern bloc, may well be feeling the weight of history bearing down rather heavier than most upon its shoulders at the moment. The violent return of the repressed spectres of the far right and far left alike on the streets of the Ukraine and elsewhere has done little to halt the ongoing erasure of historical monuments from the cities of the ex-USSR and where they are not erased altogether they tend to be shunted into out-of-town theme parks (as in Budapest’s Memorial Park and Grutas Park in Lithuania). As Agata Pyzik remarks in her new book Poor But Sexy: Culture Clashes in Europe East and West, the more countries aestheticise their past, the greater their political passivity. In Poland, in particular, the idols of communism were quickly replaced by Western icons like McDonalds.

And so it is with Jankowski’s experiment. Narrated breathlessly and relentlessly in the manner of a televised sporting event by a commentator who details the history of each monument like a
team’s track record, “eleven brave men” in shorts and tank tops hunker down together in order to “face history”. But while the team are able to shift the mid-nineteenth century bronze mermaid from the Old Town Market Square, and even lift up the sleeping soldier who lies amongst the Monument of Polish-Soviet Comradeship, nonetheless one statue in particular proved peculiarly resistant. “Ronald Reagan is like a rock,” announces the commentator triumphantly. “This is the heaviest weight history!”

Around the screen upon which this film plays hang seven photographs, each one 140 by 186.8 cm, capturing for posterity these heroic attempts at shouldering the weight of history. In high contrast black and white and printed on baryt paper, the images transform the efforts to shift these old monuments into monuments themselves. But one thing especially highlighted in the photographs is the way a sheet of off-white fabric is hung behind each monument before lifting, in order to create a blank, context-free background for the action. It’s this final detail that suggests perhaps that the way historical events are framed in public discourse has some bearing on how easy their burden is to shift.