The artist’s immersive, archly ecstatic video installation The Thousand-Year Plan at Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw (MSN) interrogates the ‘nature’ of energies
In 1962 the journalist Ryszard Kapuściński wrote that Poland’s ‘electrical communism began in the year ’58’ and that the peasant now had what he wanted, ‘heaven and hell in a single switch’. This observation, which succinctly registers a critical meeting point between technology and political and religious ideology, undergirds Agnieszka Polska’s immersive, archly ecstatic two-channel video installation The Thousand-Year Plan (2021).
Within the quasi-basilica of MSN, the audience sits on long benches between two massive projections. Thus our heads are constantly turning, interrupting full immersion. The films’ parallel narratives are anchored in the 1950s, when ‘The People’s Republic’ cultivated a workforce that reflected socialist principles of gender equality and universal education, and, meanwhile, ‘cursed soldiers’ – nationalist partisans now lauded by Poland’s right as anticommunist heroes – hid in forests, tuning makeshift radios, awaiting another war that would liberate their homeland.
Thus, a pair of engineers, one notably female and a graduate from the peasantry, traipse the countryside, drenched in evening sun, scouting routes for the electric grid. The sumptuous cinematography of this reedy, boggy land is redolent of classic Polish cinema (Krzysztof Zanussi, Andrzej Wajda). Yet here, subtly animated flames – animation being a characteristic of Polska’s work – haunt the protagonists. On the opposite screen, a couple of partisans hiding in the same forest wretchedly compete over past savage glories, and are similarly ‘alight’. A meeting of the pairs feels imminent, a confrontation of their investment in electrification to seemingly different ends. When this happens, the films also ‘meet’, fusing into an animated section that is at once a spectacle of electrical power, accompanied by a mournful folksong, and absurdly reminiscent of a screensaver.
Acknowledging that the peasant masses considered electric light ‘unnatural’, Lenin declared, ‘but what we consider unnatural is that the peasants and workers should have lived… in such backwardness, poverty and oppression under the yoke of the landowners and the capitalists’. No communism without electrification; but true communism has arguably never come to pass in Eastern Europe or, indeed, anywhere, beyond a corrupted, meta- physical version. What has, conversely, as Kapuściński speculated, is the proliferation and evolution of the electric ‘switch’, and the ‘heaven and hell’ contained within its mechanism.
As I cross back from Poland into Germany, the sun is setting over the River Oder, and I’m struck by the unnatural appearance of the blazing orb in that moment, as though superimposed on the landscape like Polska’s flames. I’m reminded of how she interrogates the ‘nature’ of energies, and how electrification’s practical and spiritual implications speak as much to a local audience in Warsaw regarding the East and the West as they do to a broader climatic anxiety about the sun, now sunk beyond my westward gaze, and the earth.
Agnieszka Polska: The Thousand-Year Plan at Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw (MSN), 2 July – 19 September
From the September 2021 issue of ArtReview