When I mould in clay
In our den in Nowolipie
I look at those who are around me
And I thought arises. It is not a shallow one.
No-one here expects,
Any talents or skills.
Everyone struggles here with their body
And fulfils the need for closeness.
(A fragment of a poem entitled ’Nowolipie’ by Kazimierz Wiejak)
Nowolipie group is a creative collective of people suffering from multiple sclerosis (MS). It grew out of weekly meetings organised at The State’s Art Circle at Nowolipki street in Warsaw’s Muranow district. It was Joanna Grodzicka, who initiated the meetings of MS sufferers in 1994. Grodzicka was a journalist and a co-founder of the Warsaw branch of the Polish Association of MS. She herself suffered from MS and used a mobility chair.
The idea to establish an art group working with clay for manual therapy came from Sweden. The formula of the workshops, which relax and activate people to exercise their hands, was so attractive that the management of The Art Circle was easy to convince. As a result, a ceramics studio was organised and headed by an artist: Paweł Althamer. No-one expected that a young graduate would later become one of the most recognised Polish artists in the world. His role, to start with, was rather ambivalent. Althamer called himself a student rather than a teacher; ‘a sculpture instructor’. The group defined him as a ‘guide’. Althamer was closely related with the Art Circle biographically. That was the place where he took preparatory lessons for Warsaw’s Fine Arts Academy. When he graduated, he got a job there as an assistant of his father-in-law, a sculpturer: Kazimierz Szambelan.
When he started the classes with MS sufferers, he did not have any experience with therapeutic art. For that reason, he focused on cooperation. He was interested in what connects people irrespectively of their disabilities, and that was the need to mould clay. For twenty-five years of Nowolipie existence, as Althamer says in an interview with Adam Mazur, people came and left. Some people resigned, others left because of the illness, but there were those who participated from the very beginning (Urszula Dobrzyniec, Anna Sobierańska – both editors of a quarterly journal ‘The Hope’ issued by OW PSSR), Alicja Samoraj, Jozef Skwarczewski and two Krystyna: Doboszyńska and Sobczak. Joanna Grodzicka (the founder) left the Group because, first the illness made it impossible for her to work, and later because she got cured suddenly. To thank for the gift of returned health, she became a nun. Sometimes Nowolipie organises excursions to see her. The poems are written by Kazimierz Wiejak. They are the starting point for the paintings and group sculptures (for example ‘The Hand”).
( a fragment of a poem by Wiejak ‘The Hand”)
My friends yet again paint something
They strain, drag and work out.
So I ask them, where is this strain from?
The topic of today is a hand.
There is also my left hand,
It gives me so many troubles.
It has problems with a fork
It spills milk from a mug.
And even though they don’t work well,
They still make sculptures and paint
We shall never swap them for anything
Those are our ill, poor hands.
Remigiusz Bąk and Rafał Kalinowski often work as a duo. They do not suffer from MS. Both joined the group by mistake and stayed. They combine introvert and extrovert personalities. Remigiusz Bąk is very focused on work. He realises autonomic sculptures such as the ones in the Bródno Park. Pictures for this essay come from Izabela Skonecka – a photographer and social activist. She suffers from MS and joined Nowolipie later. Skonecka suggested making the group more formal. It was her idea to establish the Foundation, which collects money for open-air work trips in warm and exotic countries. In 25 years of functioning, except weekly meetings, excursions and foreign open-air work trips, the Group also exhibited all over the world: Miami Art Fair, New York, London and Moscow. Nowolipie exhibitions in Poland took place in the Contemporary Art Center: Ujazdowski Castle and at PGS (National Art Gallery) in Sopot.
The group also organised an action called ‘Winged’, which was a flight over Warsaw. It was an undertaking crossing multiple layers. To start with ordering a plane, which was organised by Izabela Skonecka by contacting her friend a pilot, dealing with the logistics of people in mobility vehicles, putting the chairs in appropriate angles, to end up with the experience of flight itself. This situation happened before a performative action called ‘Common Issue’ which was a flight to Brussels in golden uniforms of aliens from the East.
In order to understand the phenomenon of the group and its method of work, Althamer suggests a totemic approach:
‘What we do here is like a totem (…). our objects stimulate the memory about who we are and what relations we have. They talk about how different individuals we are. We live together and it expresses itself in the simplest act of moulding a form by one group. Every person moulds what he or she thinks most appropriate. Next, we put it all together’.
The artist calls this co-created society ‘a futuristic society’, it is a society which cannot be accepted at the moment, although it is happening here and now in the classes of The Arts Circle in Nowolipki.
Izabela Skonecka sees the Group’s activity in a social context. The performances can introduce real change. During the exhibition in Sopot’s Art Gallery, she suggested an action which collected funds for building a wheelchair-amphibia. It would allow people with disabilities to enjoy the same attractions as everyone else at the beach. It would help to cross over the barriers dividing the healthy beachgoers from the ill ones.
Irrespectively of what key we use to explain the actions of Nowolipie Group: the mystical one concentrated around a person of an artist-shaman glueing together the collective and art as a ritual, or the one suggested by Iza – the activist method of socially engaged group, Nowolipie Group is an example of a long-term cooperation for which the illness was an inspiration. Art practice is here, something that enables to cross the barriers dividing able people for the disabled ones, the artists from the amateurs, the individuals from the collective. Those ‘over-lappings’ are easier to do in the four walls of a studio in Nowolipie. To test them outside, we would need a symbolic capital. And here we know that it is related to an institutional and commercial art market, and the members of the group together with the ‘instructor of sculpture’ use it in an interesting way.
It works like a reversed political representation, where an artist-leader is replaced by a group of creative people, who in everyday life are denied the visibility and access to the commercial art world. Their presence in this field is like a message from a different, parallel reality. This infusion of impossible to pair environments evokes the effect of exotic art outsiders, whose works get a label: authentic and they function in the art fairs as an expensive fetish. Then the golden uniform used during the performance in Brussels stops having a magical function. It becomes an object of market speculation. The income from the sale of such aesthetic artefact flows into the Nowolipie Foundation and allows to organise an open-air work trip for the Group in some distant, warm country. The action is again re-filled with the content. And if it is true what Iza says, that in contemporary art, it is all about surpassing the barriers, it is only possible by first marking them and skilfully using the disproportions in the access, to the beach, material and symbolic capital, to the visibility by those who need it in cooperation with those who presently possess it.
*’Winged’ catalogue from the exhibition edited by Adam Mazur, PGS Gallery Sopot 2016, p. 37-38