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The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Solidarity for Suckers
Piotr Uklanski
Fatal Attraction
Photo by Piotr Uklanski . Source: metmuseum.org
Piotr Uklanski, "Untitled (Skull)" 2000

Solidarity forever? Not for Piotr Uklanski.

For Uklanski, Communism may not deliver on its promises, but his career can match the forward march of history. The banners recreate his "living photographs" from 2007 on a grander scale, as part of a retrospective of his photos, through August 16. Now based in New York, he is happy to lay claim to his native Poland, as with Solidarity's raised fist paired with a duly kitschy Christmas crèche in 2008. For the 2004 São Paulo biennial, he had already boasted an aerial view and a cast of thousands, all Brazilian soldiers, for the Polish-born pope in profile. Did he care one way or other about the pontiff's conservatism—or only about commanding an army and an art fair? Other photos document Poland's performance scene, but as jumbled and anonymous as everything he touches.

Photo by Piotr Uklanski . Source: metmuseum.org
Piotr Uklanski, "Untitled (Joannes Paulus PP. II Karol Wojty a)" 2004

For a bad boy of the art world, solidarity is for suckers. Born in 1968, Uklanski got off to a racing start in 1993, with a spread for Artforum—accompanying text by Alison M. Gingeras, a writer and curator, with a photo of her behind. The Mets would like you to know that it derives from the critical spirit of Lynda Benglis, who famously posed nude in the same magazine with slicked hair, a cocked arm, a confident sneer, and a dildo. Yet Uklanski is hardly making a feminist statement, no more than with his skull composed of naked bodies. He owes more to Pierre Molinier and Surrealism, only clumsier. To the extent that he comments on the art world, it is on behalf of networking, for he and Gingeras were a couple.

"Fatal Attraction" looks awfully small for a retrospective—all the more so since most of its thirty works belong to The Joy of Photography. The series recreates an old guide to photography from Eastman Kodak, with a misty waterfall, an ungodly yellow sunset, and more. Still, the curator, Doug Eklund, insists that this is a "labor of love." Uklanski does not just rephotograph stock subjects, you see, like Sherrie Levine or Richard Prince. Rather, he mimics their rude excesses from scratch. No doubt he loved the clichés and shiny surfaces of his 1996 disco dance floor, too.

Of course, he is also deadly serious. One needs a reputation for that, too, to appeal to museums and collectors. And, sure enough, love and death come together at last in a second installation of works from the Met's permanent collection. The artist's choices, not necessarily photographs, have to do with yet another less than feminist statement—the hoary idea of sexual rapture as a kind of death. The tributes to eros and thanatos (that love fest for Sigmund Freud or Egon Schiele) include some nice objects at that, from death masks to a doll with a gun for a head as photographed by Laurie Simmons and The Accommodations of Desire by Salvador Dalí. If some look rather overblown, like red-splattered gunk for a beaten and bloodied heart, they are Uklanski's own. And if they are hard to identify in a salon-style hanging, hey, this is his show and not theirs.

Photo by Piotr Uklanski . Source: metmuseum.org
Piotr Uklanski, "Untitled (Yellow Sky)" 2000

He succeeds most at shocking. Yet the shocks treat sexuality and politics alike, as fodder for him, rather than subjects for critical attention. Uklanski also contributed to "Mirroring Evil" in 2002, a show about artist responses to the Holocaust with more than enough shocks of its own. His grainy appropriation of actors playing Nazis purported to prove how TV and the movies shape memories of the unspeakable. If one fails to recognize the head shots, though, maybe pop culture did not do such a good job after all. And if one does recognize them, one has seen through the artifice—and belongs, in solidarity with the artist, to the right club.

Piotr Uklanski
Fatal Attraction
Curator: Doug Eklund

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Tuesday, March 17 to
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