Text by Lauren Dyer Amazeen
Accompanying text by Lauren Dyer Amazeen for Office for Monument Construction:
Albert Camus wrote, “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” Camus believed in the Absurd, the friction between humanity’s pursuit of some sort of order and meaning in life, and a world that is indifferent and harsh. Polish artist Karolina Breguła’s new video work Office for Monument Construction is a tale of people from a place that no longer exists. Displaced they have inhabited an empty concrete complex within a city whose sounds reverberate throughout the video’s soundtrack. Within this bleak, grey architecture the characters of this story seek orderliness and fortitude by devising their own logic and reality, carrying out strange repetitive routines –– ultimately to create some meaning to this insecure existence and to build an identity.
The characters do not address each other by name and we are not sure if they actually know each other that well. Yet they interact resolutely. As these actions occur and are repeated, a narrative emerges. The lead character, a middle aged woman, meticulously organizes and categorizes teeth, as if they were art objects in a prominent museum collection. Her male colleague participates in her reality and an absurd conversation and series of actions between them develops. At one point he proclaims that by building this collection she has gained power. Here the work alludes to how culturally, museums have the power to determine and conserve particular pieces of culture that will serve historically as the identity and values of a society. The seemingly more benign power of the everyday is also eluded to when the woman sits behind a desk that could be a ticket window, and several people come to purchase tickets to a fictitious place while she is only interested in eating her buttered bread, telling only one customer that the tickets are all sold out. This ticket seeker acquiesces and walks away. Outside in the pouring (Glasgow) rain, he sleeps on a bench. This man moves two benches back and forth, trying to make a structure with them.
This is all somewhat absurd, but as the tale progresses it makes more sense within the logic of this precarious world where the characters are in a state of transition –– in between a place that no longer exists and whatever comes next.
Commissioned for Glasgow International 2016 by the artist-run space Market Gallery, the work was made over 9 months. A key part of Karolina Breguła’s practice is working with non-actors living in the city where the piece is made. In this work, only the lead actor is a professional and all are from around Glasgow, chosen through an open call very early in the process. Because the piece is heavily scripted, the artist had lengthy conversations with the key performers to give a deeper understanding of what she is trying to achieve through the unusual dialogue and actions in the video. Part of the process for this project turned out to be the overall integration of the members of the Market Gallery Committee –– they served as the production crew. Traditionally the young artists who serve on the Committee volunteer to mount the exhibits they commission. For this ambitious project, the experience of working as crew on an advanced video production of this sort –– taking responsibility for everything from finding the locations, getting access permissions, taking care of performers, finding props, and everything else needed –– was a new experience for almost everyone. It was crucial that the learning curve was short in order to attain the artistic vision, and to meet budgetary and time limitations. (Access and permission to work in the particular buildings can take months and loads of negotiation to procure –– as was the case in Glasgow!)
For the artist, the architecture in which the story takes place is essential to the meaning of the work. As the story is about characters without an identity — she looked for buildings that lacked any distinguishing features. To frame the transitional state in which her characters are living, she looked for spaces with long corridors and passages. She found these in some of Glasgow’s concrete modernist buildings. And the material of these buildings gives a feeling of impermanence and decay.
Architecture as metaphor is resonant throughout the work –– the grey cold ambience of the buildings and the displaced people within. The concrete exudes a political state that is unreliable, harsh. It conjures images of the Cold War that were projected to me through films and stories from people I met who lived in Eastern Europe. It reminds me of the first time I entered East Berlin before the Wall came down. While living in Stockholm, I became familiar with the experience of those who had lived in the Baltic region during that period. As a member of the Swedish Art Critic’s Association, I participated in a seminar designed to encourage discussion, from a cultural perspective, about the then recent EU membership of several of the Eastern European Baltic countries (a group of them joined on May 1, 2004). Poetically speaking, they were wedged between post-Soviet realities and becoming members of the EU. Many revelations emerged from the rigorous discussions about the preservation of their cultural identities. There was particular resonance around how these societies lost, and/or preserved parts of their cultures – language, traditions, religious beliefs, values – during and immediately after the Soviet period. Some of the cultural leaders were concerned about the influence of “the market” on these societies upon joining the EU. Although they welcomed EU membership, they questioned whether culturally these societies had the proper amount of time to reflect and rebuild their cultural identities on a deep level. They were in a culturally vulnerable state in between.
Politically, Office for Monument Construction relates to the ongoing international upheaval –– refugees who have been forced to leave their homelands, now living precariously in between what they lost and an uncertain future. This is coupled with the return and rise of nationalistic tendencies and societal angst –– those who are trying to return to, hold on to, or construct identities, some real and some unreal, while demanding the power to decide who may share those identities and who may not.
Karolina Breguła has created a story that is non specific, so that it has the potential to change and gain new resonance and meaning when shown in different contexts.About half way through the film, the lead character tells her colleague:
“This place used to be the offices for construction… But something went wrong and now everything has been left empty, as you can see. We’re the only ones here.
It’s a good place. All I need to do is fill it with content, determine its nature, give it a pure distinctive character. Do you understand? …Something refined. I have to impose some sense on it.”