This Machine is Broken: the Making of Populist Contemporary Art in Warsaw

Jakub Gawkowski

Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art, Warsaw. © Kgbo / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

December 2, 2022

What if a contemporary art center, a space usually conceived as a laboratory for progressive ideas, became the opposite: a tool for promoting xenophobia, exclusion, and far-right propaganda? Under director Piotr Bernatowicz, the once-renowned Ujazdowski Castle CCA in Warsaw has pivoted to align with the values of the governing, populist Law and Justice Party that appointed him. Its latest show, “The Influencing Machine,” curated by Aaron Moulton and featuring regional and international artists from Chris Burden to Constant Dullaart, claims to tell the story of how the Soros Centers for Contemporary Art (SCCA) that sprang up across Eastern Europe in the 1990s were instruments of propaganda. More than anything, however, it shines a light on Polish nationalist populism and its conflicted, contradictory cultural-political mindset.

Since becoming director of Ujazdowski in 2020, Bernatowicz’s controversial program has sought to prove that contemporary art can be a place for conservative and nationalist values, and that an avant-garde might look back to the past, instead of forward to the future. The role of an experienced curatorial team in developing the program has been taken by loyal collaborators who not only lacked their expertise but even took to warning the public of the deleterious effects of contemporary art.1 Thus, at the beginning of his tenure, Ujazdowski invited the Hungarian nationalist band Hungarica to play and cancelled planned events with the grassroots initiative “Anti-fascist year” while the non-conforming performative, discursive, and queer programming of previous directors has been replaced by debates with titles such as “Antifa against freedom” and “Culture in the European Union: a space of freedom or a tool for social engineering?”2 Recent acquisitions include a neon by Polish artist Jacek Adamas (Tonfa, 2018) that, as the deputy director explained, alludes to the “dangers of LGBT ideology.”3 Recent programming has given platforms to the Swedish artist Dan Park, who has previously been jailed for hate speech, and Uwe Max Jensen, who at the opening performed a parody of George Floyd’s murder in blackface accompanied by the Confederate flag (Between the world and me, 2021). This in a politically divided country in which women’s and LGBTQ rights are constantly being violated, and where a racist border regime leaves people to die in the forest.4 In light of this, “The Influencing Machine”—with its international artist list and white-cube aesthetic—looks like a decorative way to legitimize the rest of the program.

The institution’s new and illiberal agenda has led to unexpected dialogues and alliances with the Western art world, including with Moulton, a Los Angeles-born former Berlin gallery owner with an interest in occultism. “The Influencing Machine”—a first iteration of which was presented at Nicodim Gallery in Bucharest in 2019—promises a critical reevaluation of cultural politics in the region after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the role of art as instrument of soft power. It’s true that the influence of George Soros’s Open Society Foundation and other Western funders in shaping post-Communist Eastern Europe requires deep and critical examination.5 Such a re-evaluation could initiate important reflections on the advent of neoliberalism in the region, the construction of new social and political hierarchies, and the distribution of economic privilege. But by focusing on George Soros as a figure rather than on the political and economic system of which his centers were part, or on the institutional ecology which they produced in the region, the exhibition becomes little more than a pawn in the culture wars and an attempt to position the reactionary politics of Ujazdowski’s program in an international intellectual context.

Through works from the 1990s to the present that touch upon the relations between art, economy, and politics, as well as a few pieces directly connected to the history of SCCA and a handful of archival materials and interviews, the exhibition balances a critical analysis of the mission of “the SCCA Network” with a deep-dive into the conspiratorial thinking that today surrounds it. It tries to be witty and postmodern by relativizing notions of truth and power—“all exhibitions are propaganda,” the text reads—and then goes on to conflate Soros’s inspiration by Karl Popper’s vision of an “open society” with the caricature of him as a great manipulator who by promoting diversity and multiculturalism seeks to annihilate traditional society.6

The exhibition’s main problem is that those positions are neither symmetrical nor in good faith. The supposedly politically neutral curatorial position—arguing that art is always “used to control society,” without saying to what end this particular exhibition is working—the fascination with New Age aesthetics and network theory, and a collection of portraits of Soros displayed at the center of the show, might have made for a relatively harmless provocation somewhere else. But not in the Ujazdowski and not now, as the Polish government curtails the rights of women and the LGBTQ+ community. One wonders whether participating artists such as Christian Jankowski and Eva and Franco Mattes are aware of the context in which their work is displayed (next, for example, to the antisemitic conspiracy theorist David Dees). While some of the Western artists might conceivably be ignorant of the situation in Poland and the toxicity of this project, the presence of artists from the region such as János Brückner, Anetta Mona Chisa and Lucia Tkacova, and Ciprian Mureșan is more troubling.

The show makes a connection between the socially engaged artistic practices nourished by the SCCA and the neoliberal market, in which the former created the space for the latter. The curator refers to the exhibition’s mission in terms of decolonization, but it is he who comes with colonial assumptions: contemporary art existed in the region before SCCA funding enabled a generation of artists and curators to develop their own projects and ideas in context-specific ways, from Budapest to Almaty. To claim that a generation of Eastern Europeans has been manipulated to serve a foreign agenda to facilitate economic transformation, and not because of their own historical experiences, convictions, and practices—such as the local histories of unofficial art which SCCA researched—is to treat these cultural workers as if they had no agency over their own destinies. It’s especially strange to present this in Poland, where the Soros-funded Foundation for Contemporary Art existed only for two years without realizing any substantial projects: most of the country’s radical art after the economic transformation was presented either by grassroots initiatives or in public, state-funded institutions, including the Ujazdowski.

While Soros’s influence in the region, as with every philanthropic Western presence, can and should be analyzed in relation to forms of neoliberal soft power—and I write this as an alumnus of the Soros-funded Central European University in Budapest—the materials gathered here are not substantial enough to do so. The exhibition proudly claims to include “a large archive about the entire SCCA network that allows first-time research,” but much more thorough research on the subject already exists; some of these books are even displayed next to the “archive.” Some things seem directly to contradict the show’s thesis. An interview in which Suzy Meszoly, executive director of the Soros Foundation turned spiritual healer, talks about her relationship with Soros goes little way towards helping viewers understand the economic context of his network. More than that, her suggestion that it was she who convinced Soros of the importance of contemporary art, thus initiating the creation of the SCCAs, undermines the assertion that the network is the expression of some grand propagandizing masterplan by the Hungarian-American businessman. The exhibition seems led by cynicism and prejudice rather than research.

It was the ruthless free-market neoliberalism fueled by the West in the 1990s, and the frustration of those it left behind, that allowed populists to gain power across the region, and the world, in the 2010s. But this show does not even attempt critically to revise this history. Instead, we are confronted with multiple portrayals of Soros by, among others, Adrian Ghenie, Şerban Savu, Hortensia Mi Kafchin and Jon McNaughton, making him and his appearance—and not his financial or political agenda—the focus. It is not irrelevant that Soros, who is Jewish, is presented as financier mastermind of some vast conspiracy in a country troubled by historical and contemporary antisemitism. While in Hungary Viktor Orbán’s government has set up Soros as a hate figure (playing on antisemitic sentiment), he is not particularly well-known in Poland, so it’s tempting to conclude that the show in Ujazdowski has nothing to do with revisiting the past or even the present, but rather with creating a narrative. Populism feeds on a fundamental opposition between “good people” and a demonized “elite,” and that’s why both conspiracy and New Age spirituality fit into the picture here—the world reduced to a cosmic struggle between good and evil.

In the Polish art community, discussion of this weak and confused exhibition has been almost nonexistent due to the widespread unwillingness to give any attention to Bernatowicz’s program. Not only that, but with the war in Ukraine, humanitarian crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border, and the accelerating economic crisis, another lousy attack on the ideas of Open Society and George Soros feels outdated regardless of what side of the culture war you are on. The façade of Ujazdowski displays a Polish flag above the entrance, and two huge prints on its sides that refer to the invasion of Poland by Germany and Russia in 1939. Playing on historical sentiment and adopting the role of victim are common strategies for the nationalist right in Poland, which likes to insist that it is threatened by both Moscow and Berlin (or, rather, Brussels). And yet the commitment of these seemingly anti-Putinist figures to fighting the “moral corruption” of the West, and its use of conspiratorial arguments to justify its illiberal, xenophobic, and anti-LGBTQ position, only aligns them with the views of the Kremlin.


Curator Krystyna Różańska-Gorgolewska speaking on Telewizja wPolsce as part of a discussion entitled “Modern Art. How does it affect young people?” in November 2020


Hungarica’s concert was boycotted and cancelled after a backlash. For the statement from “The Anti-fascist year” see: “Open letter of The Anti-fascist Year regarding censorship at the Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle,” L’Internationale Online (March 2020),


“In Poland Museum Director’s Anti-gay Acquisition, Critics Find Ominous Portent,” Artforum (September 2020),


“Poland starts building wall through protected forest at Belarus border,” The Guardian (January 2022),


Open Society Foundations (OSF) was created as Open Society Institute in 1993 by George Soros to support his foundations in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in advancing justice, education, public health, and independent media. Today, OSF is a grantmaking network active in more than 120 countries around the world. The group’s name was inspired by Karl Popper’s 1945 book The Open Society and Its Enemies. See: “The Open Society Foundations and George Soros,” Open Society Foundations (December 2020),


“The Influencing Machine,” Ujazdowski,

Fascism, Populism
Eastern Europe

Jakub Gawkowski is a curator in the Modern Art Department of the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, Poland.

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December 2, 2022

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