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The Silence of the Wolves

"Old Europe" or "New America"? The 1968-born Polish artist Piotr Uklanski lives in New York and likes to think of himself as a "new European." Indeed, works such as Uklanski's photo-installation "The Nazis," which had him plundering film archives in search of prominent bad-guy actors, are an attempt to mediate between mass culture made in Hollywood and critical reflection of a more European kind. On the occasion of his exhibition in the Kunsthalle Basel, Cheryl Kaplan traces how Uklanski again and again tracks down the rift between the two cultures in his own ironic way.

Say the word scandal and Piotr Uklanski easily comes to mind. Best known for two works created in 1998, The Nazis and Untitled, (The Full Burn), Uklanski is no newcomer when it comes to causing public outrage. Born in Poland in 1968, Uklanski lives in the West, hovering between New York and Paris, though he sometimes retreats to Warsaw. His latest show Earth Wind & Fire at the Kunsthalle Basel is organized into groups of red, blue, yellow, and black and white. While Uklanski is ultimately a conceptualist, his work also contains threads of appropriation; some of his work bears striking reference to John Baldessari's, who's best known for tampering with pop-culture icons.

"I want to be all of the following: a modernist, a post-minimalist, a Pop-conceptualist, a photographer, a dilettante, a painter's muse, a political artist like Boltanski and a filmmaker like Polanski," Uklanski admits. While this sounds like massive ego, what he's really talking about is a way of bleeding art and political history, East and West, to form a way of seeing that gets under the skin, leaving viewers feeling two extremes: anger and disinterest. Underlying his strategy is a volley between cultures, played out not only in the artist's own personal geographic straddle, but also in the way Uklanski restages Hollywood-based imagery, from World War II to cowboy westerns. When asked if he was an "'Old European' or a 'New American,'" Uklanski politely offers himself up as a "New European."

In 2003, Uklanski created a spray-painted sign installation, Untitled (Boltanski, Polanski, Uklanski), which was shown at the Frieze Art Fair. The work appears as light-weight pun, but a second read finds Uklanski in the middle of an odd cultural association, lumped in with a Frenchman of Polish heritage, the artist Christian Boltanski, and the director Roman Polanski, also born in France to Polish parents. Polanski returned to Crakow at age 3. Soon after, his mother, four months pregnant with her second child, was killed in a gas chamber in Auschwitz. Boltanski, Polanski, Uklanski artificially nominates Uklanski as part of a cultural trio while locating him in a geo-political net between East and West. It is here, in this state of in-between, that Uklanksi operates best, playing both ends against the middle.

The Nazis, an installation of 166 fourteen-by-ten-inch C-prints of film actors, taken from film stills without the actors' permission, was first shown at the Photographer's Gallery in London in August 1998, then in Warsaw in 2001, and later at the Jewish Museum in New York in 2002. The London Evening Standard accused Uklanski of highlighting the "glamour of Nazism." During an exhibition in Poland, the actor Daniel Olbrychski (known for his role as Jan Bronski in The Tin Drum, 1979), pulled a sword from under his coat, destroying a portrait of himself playing Karl Kremer, a Nazi officer, in the 1981 Claude Lelouch film Les Uns et Les Autres ("Within Memory or Bolero"), slashing his image and that of three others while a TV crew and reporters documented the event. Olbrychski vehemently declared: "There are some frontiers of decency that were clearly overstepped in this exhibition. … I did it in the spotlight … because I wanted Poland to know about my feeling about such 'artistic practices'. … I received the agreement of other actors whose portraits were in the show, including the French film star Jean-Paul Belmondo, who agreed I should protest in their name."

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