Irena Kalicka continues her 2015 project “The Horse You See is the Horse You Get” in her latest series of works. The staged photographs illustrate an 18th-century vision of the world of “New Athens” as seen through the eyes of Father Chmielowski. In reaching for a publication fraught with superstition and prejudice, which is nonetheless widely touted as the first Polish encyclopaedia, the artist takes a subversive stance in stacking stereotypes and playing with banal associations. The imagination, feeding off phantasmagorical imagery, is enlivened with a medieval dance macabre performed by frenzied football fans dressed in the white-and-red of the Polish flag. The extravagance of these strange figures and their crude behaviour is combined with various cultural codes and references to works of art of yesterday and today in a way that is characteristic of the artist.
Delving into the text of “New Athens”, Kalicka doesn’t pursue the genealogy of the themes that are served up, dance macabre and ars moriendi are played out by figures that inscribe these performances into a contemporary narrative. The work, dating several centuries back, strives to illuminate the world through topics in the areas of contemporary culture, visual arts and popular culture, through images that absorbs the rhetoric of post-colonial discourse, gender studies, queer theory and increasingly overt narratives of nationalism, gender roles and racism, much like our everyday language does. Nationalist revivals take on a grotesque form on a photograph of a hussar in fishnet tights and exaggerated makeup, the pride of the Res Publica in the guise of a queer masquerade.
Kalicka’s eclectic mise-en-scènes, photographs of men and women in traditional highlander dress, a recidivist and his piety, football fanatics and ethnic minorities, set the scene for a range of inclinations to play out – folklorization, exotization, demonization – along with a sentimental replaying of notions prevalent in the arts. The perfectly staged still lifes are not only a photographic re-enactment of archetypes of painting. The artist refers, rather, to the perception that is drawn from visual memory, to the imagination that is the result of reception, a frame of seeing, its spectacularization and subjectification. An outwardly “neutral” work of a still life shows its dragon’s claw, punishing the eye with the sharp cultural constructs of visual visibility.
Text: Bożena Czubak