National pavilions at design festivals often range from predictable to tiresome. After all, when government-funded PR opportunities meet creativity, the result is usually fudge and compromise.
So the London Design Biennale’s decision to theme pavilions around the nebulous idea of utopia this year was an inspired move.
The most intriguing works included a huge kinetic courtyard sculpture from the UK’s Barber and Ogersby, as well as Moscow Design Museum’s Lost Archives of Soviet Design. But it was Poland’s Cadavre Equis by designer Maria Jeglinska and art historian and critic Klara Czerniewska that spoke most to the fragile nature of utopian ideals, conjuring up memories of the avant-garde architectural theorists Archigram.
Jeglinska and Czerniewska’s utopia is a game that uses yellow boards that are like giant Post-Its or Wizard of Oz-esque tombstones to ask questions as visitors wander through a room that is part green screen and part surrealist sculpture park. Social media, artificial intelligence, and sense of self are at its center, although the absurd is never far away. A question about forgetting to pay your Internet bill forces you to ponder your outstanding debts or chat to the dishwasher about your Tinder date. It also might lead you to a statue of Pygmalion’s Galatea, the very first AI.
The recent political climate added tension to the duo’s utopian vision. Shortly before the show opened, it was announced that the UK’s 831,000 Poles are now the nation’s largest overseas-born population. This news came against a backdrop of Britons voting to exit the European Union and reports of xenophobic attacks on Polish immigrants.
Something of a dystopian welcome for the pavilion’s creators. Although it hadn’t dented Jeglisnka’s mood as she explained the ideas behind this unusual exhibition piece. "We spent a lot of time working on it and reading about utopia," she says. "The more you go into it the more you realize it is impossible to pinpoint. We are not coming up with answers. You create your own idea of utopia."
Of course, architecture is always wrapped up in the notion of utopia or dystopia, with both encapsulated in an image of the Polish housing project Przyczółek Grochowski that game-players are asked to consider.
"Zofia and Oskar Hansen designed this social housing project in Warsaw that is like the one in Ballard’s High Rise, that turns into a nightmare," says Jeglinska. "The designers took the goodwill of human beings, thinking man can only do good. It turned out to be the opposite." Jeglinksa believes this vast housing estate, which was well-intentioned but ended with barred windows and social problems, could well be a direct metaphor for Poland’s recent past, the country having endured almost 50 years of post-war Soviet rule. On paper, the population was in utopia. But, as the game demonstrates, that is always a subjective notion.
Modern Poland has suffered something of a population exodus, but things look to be on the turn and it certainly seems to be an exciting place to be young and creative. Jeglisnka relocated to Warsaw via France and the UK, with others following suit to take advantage of rising wages, new colleges, and a faster creative career path. "For people of my generation, it is amazing," says Jeglinska. "In the West, people would have to wait one more decade to do it. Because there are so many people who are already qualified. So, for example. I have friends in their mid-20s who are directors of the biggest radio stations. We still have so much to do. But it is amazing. I didn’t want to miss that momentum and being part of this." A utopia for young designers? Poland may just be that right now.
All photos by Jędrzej-Sokołowski
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