Art channel

The fulfilled need of closeness

"Sto lat", painting of the Nowolipie Group

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 living with 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 in 1994. Grodzicka is an ex-journalist and a co-founder of the Warsaw branch of the Polish Association of MS. She herself lived with MS and used a wheelchair.

"Jesień / Autumn", painting of the Nowolipie Group

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. 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.

"Najważniejszy dzień życia / The Most Important Day of Life", painting of the Nowolipie Group

When he started the classes with people living with MS, 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 (dis)abilities, 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 have been coming and going. 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.

"For Julia", painting of the Nowolipie Group

Remigiusz Bąk and Rafał Kalinowski often work as a duo. They do not live with 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 lives with 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 wheelchairs, 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.

Drawing of the Nowolipie Group

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 abled beachgoers from the disabled ones.

Dancing people, painting of the Nowolipie Group

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 re-filled with content. And if it is true, as Iza says, that contemporary art is about overcoming barriers, it is only possible by first marking them and skilfully exploiting the disparities in access, in the beach, in the material and symbolic capital, in the visibility of those who are deprived of it, in collaboration with those who temporarily have it.

*’Winged’ catalogue from the exhibition edited  by Adam Mazur, PGS Gallery Sopot 2016, p. 37-38


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