Up in the Air

This report from the Sokolovsko ephemeral art festival appeared on artforum.com:

Joanna Rajkowska, Forcing a Miracle, 2012, at the Contexts 2013 Festival in Sokolovsko, Poland. Photo: Marcin Polak.

THE AIR, this year’s chosen theme for Contexts 2013, the third Sokolovsko Festival of Ephemeral Art, could not be more appropriate. Set amid the wooded hills of the Stone Mountains, close to the Polish-Czech border, the health resort of Sokolovsko boasts a microclimate uniquely suited for the treatment of lung diseases. Consumptive patients have been employed over the years to carve out the unusual, childlike motifs adorning the concrete grey facades of local buildings. In Situ, the contemporary art foundation that runs the festival, has set out to restore these buildings, along with the ruined neo-Gothic Brehmer sanatorium (the world’s first dedicated to treating tuberculosis, and to people both the buildings and the sanatorium with artists.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more evocative setting for an ephemeral art festival—an original mix of performance, experimental music, and site-specific installations emphasizing the “live” element. In their respective offerings, the invited artists responded to the genius loci as much as to the chosen theme. Though many of the events took place in a musty cinema acting as the festival hub, some of the more memorable ones took advantage of public and outdoor spaces dotted around the village and the sanatorium grounds. In this vein, large candlelit cubes were aligned to gradually reveal the words granice (borders) or gra o nic (play for nothing)—summing up the place and our collective pastime—in a spectacular and well-attended performance staged in the main square by the Polish collective Akademia Ruchu.

The theme proved a versatile one, allowing for as many different inflections as there were artists. In a piece that brought together the four elements, Norwegian artist Rita Marhaug swam around an overgrown pond, releasing helium-filled blue balloons that climbed into the air until they disappeared from view before she lit a torch by blowing on it. Lisbon-based artist Marta Wengorovius, who felt the need to apologize for the poetic nature of her work, asked a group of us to “observe the wind and the movement that it unleashes in everything that it touches” through a circle cut out of a paper drawing. Fueled by an air pump, Czech sound artist Martin Janicek’s heaving installation consisted of branches laid out on a piece of canvas, which rhythmically rose and fell to form a Breathing Landscape.

Marilyn Arsem, The Cure, 2013, at Contexts 2013 Festival in Sokolovsko, Poland. Photo: Marcin Polak.

As if to offset the specter of death and disease hovering about the place, air as a life force was explored in a number of artworks. Staged near what used to be a morgue, Marilyn Arsem’s poignant durational performance saw the artist, eyes shut and stretched out on a hospital bed, beckon observers from the crowd gathered round her to come forth and engage in a brief, whispered exchange about the future with a dying woman. Joanna Rajkowska’s breathtaking installation Forcing a Miracle, commissioned as a 2012 Frieze Project in London, took place in a grassy field surrounded by woodland, which filled with incense smoke emanating from hundreds of hidden sources. An accompanying film documented a Kabbalistic ritual involving incense, designed to cure an eye disease of Rajkowska’s daughter, and was projected on a dilapidated wall of the nearby Brehmer sanatorium.

At night the woodland, with the ruins of the sanatorium as a backdrop, became the SoundPark. Daily concerts gave emerging experimental musicians such as Paulina Zielińska, whose compositions draw on a traditional form of throat singing known as “white voice” still practiced on Poland’s eastern borders, the chance to play alongside punk rock legend David Thomas in free, improvised music sessions. On one evening, the rain had us all retreat to the Villa Rosa, the festival hearth, where Thomas presided over musicians and artists who took turns extemporizing until dawn. Somewhat ironically for an ephemeral art festival, a great deal of effort was expended on documenting all the events, which were transmitted live on the festival website. But no recording can truly render an atmosphere. As the old ditty goes: You simply had to be there.

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