Radoslaw Gryta’s Oppitunnit / Lessons – showing at Helsinki’s Galleria Sculptor (22 March – 9 April 2017) – exudes a haunting air that at once feels distant and familiar. The presentation makes reference to a schoolroom, but with compelling twists to the content of the subjects taught in class.
Perusal of the space reveals much hardware that is part and parcel of the schooling process. Among those included we find a blackboard, an abacus, 3-dimensional models of land forms and planet earth, and a vintage slide projector displaying an exotic and faded scene that could be set in Asia or the Middle East.
Noticeably absent, though, is the expected printed matter. Shelves filled with reference books or wall mounted charts and maps are no where to be seen. Textual elements do appear, but there are only a couple of them. Though their role is limited, it is also a very important one and not necessarily immediately recognisable. For me, their notice presented the first clues of the exhibition’s true substance.
Before that my attention was held by what could be called the preamble: the inherent beauty of Gryta’s choice of materials and ways he’s treated their surfaces. The crumpled fabric used to cover unused children’s furniture, the gilded entablatures, the well worn blackboard, the patinated wood of the abacus, and the scratched and besmirched skins of the metal discs collectively convey a sense of absence and melancholy connected to some misbegotten past. One might all too easily assume these visions derive from the fragmented memories of Gryta’s childhood. In actuality, some of them go back further. Moreover, they span a much wider range of concerns.
Things changed when I begin to look at things a little more closely and finally focused on the textual components. As a casual viewer, the list of names on the black wall mounted plaques meant nothing to me, but once I read the work’s contradictory title: Vuoden 39 luokkakokous / Year of 39 class reunion (2014), I was hit by its most tragic aura and everything suddenly came into focus. The horrific feeling is also echoed in the minute lines of Adam Zagajewski’s elegiac poems. Etched into parts of Yhdistetty maantiedon ja historian oppitunti / Consolidated geography and history lesson (2017), they reference unspeakable events. Zagajewski variously notes a black landscape, a blackened river, endless winters and speaks about the plight of refugees at different times and in different places around the world.
Taken together, these works question history’s teachings. Gryta effectively capitalises on Polish history and uses it to highlight what continues to be a global concern, for even to this day, people continue to be subjected to the same type of crisis – one that is marked by upheaval, displacement and the loss of life. As such, the exhibition is most perplexing and bears an unexpected sense of urgency.
And, perhaps, it is the seemingly benign circle-drawing hand of Luokan edessä / At the front of the class (2016-2017) that ultimately makes the greatest impact in this regard. At first the rather weak and plaintive screeches produced by the hand marking the chalkboard seem insignificant, even amusing. But stand there listening to it for an extended period of time and the sound begins to annoy, then infuriate. Just imagine having to listen to it day in and day out. Just imagine the trivial gesture’s mind numbing potential. Just imagine how minor disturbances ostensibly turn into major catastrophes.
Gallery visitors, of course, have the option of walking away from anything that makes them feel uncomfortable. Others may consider the artist has become far too self-absorbed. For anyone with acquaintances, friends, parents or grandparents who have experienced and spoken about such atrocious events, Gryta’s work is supremely credible. Most importantly, he reminds us that such affairs are not necessarily consigned to the past. Despite the many who have suffered, there may continue to be many who will not be able to influence their fate.