What the Barbarians Did Not Do. Mateusz Choróbski

What the Barbarians Did Not Do. Mateusz Choróbski

Vernissage: 4.09. 2021, 6 p.m.

The exhibition is open until 17.10.2021

Curator: Łukasz Kropiowski

In the famous Dialectic of Enlightenment, Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer discuss the consequences of development of a modern society and consumerism with no illusions and a fair dose of bitterness: “[…] there is no difference between a person and that person’s economic fate. No one is anything other than his wealth, his income, his job, his prospects. […] All are worth as much as they earn. […] People judge their own selves by their market value and find out who they are from how they fare in the capitalist economy.”[1]

At its most fundamental level, the exhibit “What the Barbarians Did Not Do” oscillates around the notions of wealth and poverty. These notions positioned on the opposite ends of the ownership spectrum are rearranged – Mateusz Choróbski tips the scales and gives rise to an eerie confluence of paucity and excess. The columns are made of “spare change”, a glass ceiling crumbles, golden room looms are discarded. However people who “find out what they are through ups and downs of their economic life” [2] are merely the point of departure for consideration of a series of issues addressed by this – only seemingly scarce – exhibit. Within the bare walls, we face the issues of creation and destruction, elevation and devaluation, norms and their transgression, production and relinquishment thereof, aesthetic and biological needs. We experience the sentimental and ironic, the grandiose and subdued, the poetic and strictly calculated, the lavish and austere, we see the squandered opportunities, fallen ideals and statistical abuse.

The exhibit is based on three powerful gestures: disassembly of a majestic glass ceiling of an institution; molten pennies with a nominal value of 0.01 PLN that together amount to the so-called “minimum of existence” for a two-person household in Poland (1056.24 PLN per month); and the golden illumination of the gallery space. On the one hand, these gestures are characterized by visual austerity, on the other they demonstrate panache and evocativeness. Choróbski limits “production” by way of using the architecture of an institution, which he fills with industrial forms and artistic travesties. His works are embedded firmly in a specific physical and social space, whereas critical and aesthetic tensions emerge from ironic subversion of meanings, realignment of values, simultaneous emphasis and eradication of the aesthetic. This exhibit, this structure verging on sculpture, installation and architecture, is erected from rather flimsy, fragile and delicate materials – mere pennies, glass and light. Meaning stems from the ironic juxtaposition of ostentatiously inflated value and its spectacular downfall.

The historic ceiling of an institution, which visually elevates its architecture, is degraded and displayed as a remnant. Instead, the artist uncovers the original raw architecture of a building that was originally designed as a coffee house in between a gallery (which was never built) and the adjacent Jan Kochanowski Theatre. The sum calculated by experts and corresponding to “the poverty threshold”, meaning the minimal subsistence level of “an average person”, is converted into single pennies and transformed into columns. Though slightly rickety and supporting virtually nothing, the emerging architectural elements arranged in a circle allude proudly to the baldacchino of St. Peter’s tomb – the structure created by Giovanni Bernini at the request of Pope Urban VIII (Maffeo Barberini). The ancient bronze bars of the Roman Pantheon utilized in the construction of this magnificent piece inspired the proverb “What the barbarians did not do, the Barberini did.” One of the gallery rooms remains empty yet bathed in golden light emitted by the objects placed outside exhibition space – street lamps with shields made of coloured glass reminiscent of glass panes inserted in the interior doors of private apartments, especially in the 1980s and 1990s.

The piece by Choróbski consists of a series of paradoxes, shifts in perspective and obvious antitheses. Institutional space is flipped upside down, the ceiling above the top rooms falling onto the floor in the room below. The “baroque” installation is defined by a social criterium aimed at diagnosing the problem of socially and economically excluded individuals, an opening overlooking one’s cultural needs. It also alludes to the budget saving practices in the sphere of artistic production prevalent even in St. Peter’s Basilica. The status of an empty room filled with strong light is ambiguous – public space acquiring an almost intimate quality, a quasi white cube permeated with a tacky yet sentimental retro aesthetic. Blinding light causes discomfort, the optimal conditions for viewing an art show are disturbed. However, one’s experience of the “honeyed” light and its hue, ever-changing throughout the day, is almost poetic in nature. In addition, the external lighting seems to expose the audience itself, which becomes the “panoptic specimen” in line with Foucault’s dictum of “he is seen, but he does not see.” Here, “neutral” architecture, quantitative analysis, theoretical abstraction, statistical norm, “an average man” fashioned by the experts are juxtaposed against unique imperfections, personal marks, exceptional details and private associations. It all begs the question about the identity of the eponymous barbarian – is it someone who doesn’t fit into the norm defining “a common citizen”? A person who ticks all and even more boxes, yet is entirely oblivious to those “strapped for cash”? Or is it someone who doesn’t even intend to uphold the norm, or stakes their claim over this kind of taxonomy?

Let’s change the optics: one could also view the exhibit by Mateusz Choróbski as a big fat joke. “Pulling a Bernini” and using tiny coins in the amount representative of the poverty threshold, making a bold, symbolically spectacular yet actually pointless (somewhat congruous with the tactics of political populism) gesture of bringing down “the glass ceiling” – a figurative barrier of social advancement – might as well boil down to biting self-deprecation and poking fun at engaged art. Still, the joke is serious, imbued with poetic quixotism and bitterness, not unlike the argument posited by Adorno and Horkheimer on the nature of the human ego that “expands and contracts with the individual’s prospects of economic autonomy.”[3]

1  T. W. Adorno, M. Horkheimer, Dialektyka oświecenia, trans. Małgorzata Łukasiewicz, Warsaw 2010, pp. 209-210 [English translation by Edmund Jephcott].

 2. Ibid., p. 210.

3.   Ibid., p. 91.