A bleached blonde in Technicolor red bathing suit splashes frothy white water on herself; the ecstasy of swimming is apparent, her eyes closed and her mouth joyfully open, laughing. Adjacent, another magazine cover depicts a mustachioed and bearded man clad in a hardhat (a model of manliness), lighting a cigarette with the sharp tongue of fire from a blow torch, spraying its flame toward the buxom swimmer in the abutting picture. Soft porn and industrial machinery, this is a match made in Soviet Poland.
In Covers from Morze (1958-80), recently displayed on the second floor of the Wattis Institute as part of the exhibition Moby Dick, artist Paulina Ołowska brings together covers from the now defunct Polish magazine Morze (“Sea”). The monthly maritime publication existed in the years 1924-2000, and covered the pressing topics: sailing, yachting, the history of sailing and yachting, as well as ship- and boat-building technology and industry, and anything else that might fall under the rubric of general sea culture. One might imagine that these tattered and creased remnants of recent history have been rescued by Ołowska from bins of old publications for the express purpose of being arranged in this plain, deadpan row. Framed on a simple cream matte board, the Morze covers are presented for our closer inspection, the stretch of history between us and it, adding to the covers a penumbra of lost proletariat fantasies. Ołowska’s collages bring out the curious relationships of labor, culture, and State-controlled industry in Communist Poland, all under soft-haze of misplaced nostalgia for a past that never was.
Ołowska, born in 1976 in Gdańsk, has significantly chosen the time bracketed by the years 1958—the middle of First Secretary Władysław Gomułka’s four year rule, known as the Gomułka Thaw that followed the harsh Stalinism of previous years—and 1980, when Solidarity, the first independent workers' trade union in any Communist Bloc country, was founded in Gdańsk by electrician Lech Wałęsa and other shipyard workers, characters who might also fall under the rubric of general sea culture, as if such illegal movements were anything but verboten in print during the Soviet years. Spanning the 1960s and ’70s, Ołowska’s chosen magazines allude directly to her own hometown and birthplace of Solidarity, and to the years of the “People’s Democracy” in Poland, a term used by countries begrudgingly falling into USSR’s sphere of influence, whose dictatorships maintained a thin façade of formal parliamentary democracy, a charade that would end in Poland as Solidarity gained rapid support, and officials reacted with the blunt force of martial law. With these circumstances in mind, Covers from Morze (1958-80) offers a meditation on the strange society that produced the Solidarity movement, which in turn would soon thereafter lead directly to the fall of the entire Eastern Bloc.
(Image courtesy of artist)
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