Artist: Mirosław Bałka
Location: Otwock, Poland
Year of completion: 2011
Researcher: Lesia Prokopenko

“Otwock” is a long term-project held in the eponymous town by established Polish artist Mirosław Bałka, together with curators Kasia Redzisz and Magda Materna, since 2011. As the authors state in their concept, it is “a project revolving around a place perceived through the lens of art — with the aim to look at the town in question from the angle of art.” It is both a ‘total artwork’ in its own right, and a platform for international artists to infiltrate and participate in a life of a small Polish town.

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In a project like this it is essential to understand the context in which it has been developing and which it is based on. As the authors proceed to describe, “Otwock is a town located 24 kilometers southeast of Warsaw, on the river Świder. Its current population is about 44 thousand inhabitants. In the interwar period the town was a fashionable health resort, popular among the Warsaw intelligentsia. Before the Second World War, Jews made up almost 75% of the city’s population. In August 1942, they were transported from the Otwock ghetto to an extermination camp in Treblinka. After the war the town gradually slid into decline and never regained its former splendor. Pre-war villas, abandoned or inhabited by new owners, fell into disrepair. The 1950s saw the construction of a villa for the First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party and the Head of the Security Service (which is currently home to the local museum). In 1958, the Institute of Nuclear Research in Otwock launched its own nuclear reactor ‘Ewa’. The privatization and the construction boom that followed after 1989 resulted in even greater urban chaos. The present-day architecture seems accidental and chaotic. In the city centre, commercial pavilions erected in the 1960s were turned into a construction site, abandoned now for years. Reinforced concrete foundations of an unfinished retail park remain a bitter reminder of the current condition of local landscape.”

Mirosław Bałka was born and raised in Otwock. Eventually, he kept returning there, and transformed his old family house into a studio. The transformation of a familiar space has catalyzed a reflection on the relations between art and the location where it appears. Therefore, the artist launched a residency for fellow creators, who could inhabit his studio, study the town, and present the results of their work in different places around Otwock. The initial role of the artist’s studio has vanished, and the whole urban area has become both the material and the location for work.

Every year the project unfolds in a thematic “season”. In 2011 it presented its first season ‘Town’, introducing the results of research conducted by Lara Almarcegui, Charlotte Moth, and Anna Molska. Their works dealt with the typical architecture of Otwock, demolition of particular sites, and bonds between history and present day. In the consequent years it was followed by an introspective ‘Studio’ season with Mirosław Bałka, Tacita Dean, and Luc Tuymans; ‘Nothing About That. Fictional narratives’ season, in which Bałka, along with Jos de Gruyter & Harald Thys, and Aleksandra Waliszewska focused on the town’s relations with literature; the fourth season, ‘Duties and Pleasures’, was based on the exploration and use of objects related to Otwock that came from the National Museum in Warsaw (by Katharina Marszewski and Błażej Pindor), as well as dance performances organised by Bałka’s students; finally, during the latest season — ‘Silvohortiaromatherapy’ — Habima Fuchs and Taus Makhacheva explored the city’s past as a former health resort and the unique character of the local natural environment.

The project is followed by an extensive public programme, containing art and urban research. It has been able to engage the local municipality and public institutions to support the development of artistic research and interventions in the town. At the moment, it keeps offering new ways to perceive urban life and history of the area.

Miroslaw Balka, by years of individual practice in Otwock, has been able to create the international experimental ground engaging the whole territory of the town in Poland. The project has a strong cultural impact on the community and accentuates the need of research and innovation in order to transform the environment of the run-down Eastern European city with the complicated legacy of the 1980’s.

Otwock project has been co-organized by Open Art Projects, the non-profit foundation devoted to contemporary art which produces projects, materialises artistic concepts, organises exhibitions, and pursues publishing activities. Its further implementation connects institutional partners and artist's research of the area of Otwock.

All copyright belongs to Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, Shanghai University.

Progress Agency