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I Travel: Paulina Olowska Takes Us To The Booking Office
John Quin , January 22nd, 2022 09:35

John Quin visits Christen Sveaas Art Foundation: The Travel Bureau, Selected by Paulina Olowska, an installation with works chosen by the Polish artist at the Whitechapel Gallery, London

Pierre et Gilles, Les Cosmonautes, 1991, C-Print edition after the original work Les Cosmonautes – Autoportrait, 1991. 40 x 55 cm ©Pierre et Gilles. Courtesy Christen Sveaas Art Foundation

Going a bit stir-crazy? Got a touch of cabin fever after two years of restrictions? Dreaming of far-off lands but too scared or too skint to go in search of adventure? Help is at hand. Paulina Olowska invites you back to the halcyon (pre-Expedia, days of the old High Street travel agencies. Her judicious selection of works that line the fake office walls here is taken from the Christen Sveass Art Foundation based in Norway. Fittingly there’s a poster advertising the delights of the North with the bright summer nights of Scandinavia captured in Harald Damsleth’s stylized poster design from 1937 for Norwegian State Railways. Steep mountains frame a quiet fjord while a fiddler plays for a group of villagers dancing outside attractive timber framed houses. Edvard Grieg’s melodies are conjured and only the price of a pint up there stops you from wanting to put down a deposit.

A large desk sits where you might discuss destinations with the salesperson. Fixed under the glass top are postcards featuring resorts like Brixham and Polperro. This ‘sculpture’ is, I think, something of an in-joke referencing Olowska’s one-time collaborator Lucy McKenzie. The latter makes confounding trompe l’oeil surfaces on tables not unlike the one on display here. A small globe and an elaborate porcelain vase with a fruity design by the Latvian collaborative Skuja Braden called Ima Woman (2017) sit enticingly between you and the imaginary assistant.

Pride of place behind the desk is an enormous canvas by Rosson Crow, Relics of the truth tellers (2017), where giant pink cacti foreground an abstracted desert landscape. A small section of text is overlaid with foliage, the meaning obscured: it may be cheaply misogynistic, like a naff gag from one of those old Donald McGill postcards found by the seaside. To the left of this blazing image is a cooler affair, Julia Rommel’s Ex-husband (2018), a sea blue and scarlet painting that recalls the Ocean Park series of Pacific abstractions by Richard Diebenkorn.

But maybe you’re not into a beach holiday: perhaps the Alps are more your thing. In that case here’s Ed Ruscha’s canvas Mountain Standard (2000) whose ridges of rock and snow and ice have something of a 3D effect. Perhaps this is a consequence of positioning – to its immediate left hangs Fredrik Værslev’s Untitled (2018), a painting that juts into space like a lopsided pyramid, the canvas stretched over a steel construction.

Ruscha is referenced elsewhere by Brian Alfred’s Hollywood (2005), a small collage featuring the famous signage sat proudly on the city’s heights. Caragh Thuring’s painting Night (2017) reminds us that not all mountains are as benignly impressive as Ruscha’s: here is another pyramid, this time a volcano spewing orange lava, the bright light in a dark smoky ash-grey mist. Hard to look at this and not think of poor Tonga after the recent eruption.

Paulina Olowska, Window Display G.U.M., 2018, Oil, gouache and acrylic on canvas, 190.5 x 198 cm © Paulina Olowska. Courtesy Christen Sveaas Art Foundation

A more ambitions destination is suggested by the inclusion of Pierre et Gilles’ Les Cosmonautes (1991), one of Olowska’s many references to life in the Soviet sphere before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The boys pose like space heroes from the CCCP. On another wall Jerzy Srokowski’s poster design for the ORBIS Polish Travel Office from 1958 puts us right back in the days of Khrushchev and Zawadki. A windswept young woman with flaming red hair wears a chic blue and white striped scarf that chimes with Olowska’s well-known interest in woman’s fashion. Her own two short videos here, seen on old bulky TV sets, also tap into Ostalgia. After Veiled Visions (2022) features fast-cuts, monochrome shots of train travel, SAS passenger jets, an airship, lighthouses and cruise ships, tunnels and curving roads, piles of luggage, and other loaded signifiers of viatic pleasure.

The other, Univermag GUM (Episode Airport) (2018), has historical footage of Minsk airport spliced with old murals done in the style of socialist realism. Here too are air hostesses dressed in slick fetish-like military-style outfits typical of the era. The video finishes with misted vistas seen through a window obscuring aircraft grounded on a runway. We all want to get away but can’t.

There’s always the option to stay in bed and read. Interior travel is the subject of a lightbox transparency: Rodney Graham’s Sunday Sun 1937 (2012). A person (Rodney himself?) lies under the sheets, their face obscured by the open spread of an old pre-WW2 newspaper they’re intent on devouring. What we see are the funny pages, cartoon strips that feature a deranged army type boasting about his feats as a flyer.

Rosson Crow, Relics of the truth tellers, 2017, Acrylic, spray-paint, photo transfer, oil and enamel on canvas 274 x 365.8 cm © Rosson Crow. Courtesy the artist and Honor Fraser Gallery Photo: Joshua White

In an interview for a 2013 monograph book on Olowska, the curator Adam Szymczyk talks of her interest in “abandoned modernism" and the “residues of aesthetics and techniques from the past” as evidenced by her own canvas here, Window Display G.U.M. (2018), where a young woman poses in a field wearing bright 1960s fashions that might have featured in the Moscow department store of the title. The clash of applied arts and high art (that Szymczyk draws attention to) is key to the destabilizing effect of The Travel Bureau. Olowska has said “the multi-layered perspective that I would like to achieve is close to such forms as reconstruction or tableaux vivants”. But The Travel Bureau is quite different in texture to, say, Robert Kuśmirowski’s Lindenstr. 35 Berlin (2017): an exact recreation of a Lufthansa travel agency from the 1930s. Olowska’s installation is no mere simulacrum; she’s less interested in a time travel effect. Her intentions are more open and less interested in pure nostalgia, or a sense of the uncanny.

There’s a fanzine aesthetic at work here, an enthusiasm for fellow artists, liberated women taking a revenge on history as she puts it. Olowska’s referencing to once neglected predecessors such as Pauline Boty, Eva Hesse, and Alina Szapocznikow is well recognized.

So… faced with a choice of venues and escape routes where should we head off to? We’re finally brought up short by a vitrine with a copy of Marc Augé’s classic anthropological text, Non-Places (1992), and a Monica Bonvicini mirror work that reads Same Old Shit (2018). We’re returned, brutally, to our stasis.

Christen Sveaas Art Foundation: The Travel Bureau, Selected by Paulina Olowska is on at the Whitechapel Gallery, London until 8 May 2022