Piotr Uklański teaches an American audience that Biało-czerwona “The White & Red” is a common name for the Polish flag. This colloquialism is similar to our flag’s nickname “The Red, White & Blue.” In the spring of 2008 Uklański’s first solo show with the Gagosian Gallery in New York featured work on a Polish theme. Two sculptures are of particular interest here. One is of the Polish flag: Untitled (Polonia) 2008 & another is the Polish coat of arms: Untitled (Eagle) 2005.
The Polish flag is installed in a straight-forward presentation consisting of a stainless-steel framework that is covered in white & red enameled glass. It is simple rectangle that is bisected with the upper half white & the lower half red. The flag’s overall effect is minimal & perfectionistic. The white eagle (Poland’s coat of arms) is presented as a substantial faux-stone bas-relief made of Styrofoam with an interior steel framework.
The white eagle (Orzeł Biały) & the flag (Biało-czerwona) are symbols of Poland–they are signs of the state. These signs are representative of a people, a history & a country. The crown on the eagle, originally the symbol of a sovereign monarchy, was removed by the communists & now a restored crown on the regal bird is used to signify pre & post-communist Poland. It is suggested that Uklański used the Styrofoam & glass to convey the fragility of statecraft (via a kind of neat yet frail stagecraft). Both of his delicate signs are impressive & one can envision that they were to be presented on the side of an imagined state building, government office or municipal lobby. However, Uklański’s formal handling of the signs is not sarcastic enough to untangle these symbols from their history & politics. The signs are part of a Polish continuum, now finally pulled away from bureaucratic communism & the humiliations of WWII. Uklański’s materials might be “cheap,” but his respect is obvious. This is a dignified artistic statement.
Flags (as art) have been utilized & reexamined by Jasper Johns, David Hammons & even Donald Judd. Aligero e Boetti used world flags on his embroidered maps of the world. Any number of minimalists made works that looked like flags, as with Blinky Palermo or a more heraldic-minimalism of Daniel Buren. More recently Polly Apfelbaum’s playfully perfect logo-like flags are a fun offshoot of the theme. Daniel Knorr’s fraternity flags & the deathly flag of Teresa Margolles, are additionally worth consideration from a critical standpoint. These examples do not take into account the obvious glut of patriotic-flag-art that manifests itself on coffee mugs, t-shirts, posters, bumper stickers, yard-art & lapel pins the world over.
The issue of coming to terms with Poland’s history hangs close to Uklański’s art. One can compare this to the early work of the Russian-American Ilya Kabakov, who made an art that referenced a Soviet childhood without an overt sentimentality. Ai Weiwei’s personal & public negotiation of Chinese cultural themes is connected in spirit to Uklański’s impulse of presenting a communal & a now democratic Poland.
It is clear that Uklański (in this instance & with these particular sculptures) is conversing & alluding to nationalism. We automatically compare his patriotism with our own American brand of patriotism, while knowing that the two histories are very different, but not completely foreign. Our flag-waving nationalism has its own fragile pratfalls, but it also has its own honesty & integrity. Can we measure another’s patriotic expression?
Uklański’s state signage is precise & sharp enough to be authentically Polish. It is the way that his flag & white eagle are so perfectly appropriated that reflects the symbol’s integrity & persistence. We in the U.S. are not always familiar with the histories of the former Eastern Bloc, so when Uklański presents these emblems of Poland, we are asked to simply consider & regard her with the history, the politics, the signs & the people–in or out of the news. Remember, true curiosity is not a political act.
“Za wolność waszą i naszą” (For our freedom and yours).