The Museum of Contemporary Art in Kraków, otherwise known as MOCAK, sits not far from the banks of the Vistula, which snakes thick and granite grey through the southern part of the city. Despite Kraków being voted European Capital of Culture in 2000, the local municipality waited a decade to open a centre dedicated to Poland’s burgeoning modern art movement. After years of debate, Kraków’s governing body took the controversial decision to build the gallery on the site of the old Schindler factory, among the manufacturing plants and dilapidated tenements of the city’s industrial district. Research into touristic trends for Poland leading up to the year 2000 show that Kraków, in particular, was attracting distant markets through its possession of ‘a unique, historical atmosphere’. It is a city with a cultural landscape molded both by a regal, medieval heritage – embodied in the hulking, monarchical mass of Wawel Castle – and more recently, by the great horror inflicted on its Jewish population midway through the 20th century. This perennial focus on the past, both by those who visit the city, and by local businesses that benefit from the large influx of tourists, has, until recently, pinioned the city into a form of cultural paralysis. In the eyes of its founders, MOCAK represented an opportunity for Kraków to break free from the strictures of history. Renowned for buildings such as the Port Authority at Marina di Carrara and Vertrex Tower in Amman, Italian architect Claudio Nardi saw the project not as an attempt to reject Kraków’s past, but as an opportunity to represent the relationship between innovation and history. When its doors opened on May 19th 2011, Nardi explained to the assembled guests that by integrating the industrial pavilions of the Schindler factory with newly constructed sections, the building attempted to create a collective whole that not only nurtured history, but showed a pathway to the future. Undeniably, to ignore Kraków’s recent past would have been short-sighted; the isolation, exploitation, and eventual extermination of the city’s Jewish community at the hands of the Nazis reduced a pre-war population of 70,000 to just 4,000 in 1945. It is a fact that will be carved into the consciousness of Kraków’s people for generations to come. The more sombre aspects of Nardi’s design, such as a wall made up of dark metallic panels, reminiscent of Rothko’s desolate late paintings, and portions of bare brickwork from Schindler’s factory, bear testament to that period. However, when these elements are paired with the industrial roof-lines of the existing buildings – a visual element uniting the entire project – the viewer is presented with a spirited continuity between preexisting architectural forms and the new construction, pulling us firmly into the present.
When MOCAK first opened, its collections held just a few hundred works. Today the museum is home to around two thousand pieces by 138 artists. This is evidence, not only of the toil of its director, the critic and art theoretician Maria Anna Potocka, to energetically expand and renew its collection, but also the enthusiasm of visitors and donors alike. The exhibitions are split between a series of reflections on culture in society, currently titled Economics in Art (previously History in Art in 2011, and Sports in Art in 2010), and the gallery’s permanent collection. This showcases an embryonic group of renowned works, such as Stanisław Dróżdż’s concrete poetry installation, and a wider variety of abstract art, including pieces that merge into the cross-disciplinary, such as a score by Krzystof Penderecki, an orchestral piece by Dick Higgins, and a series of geometrical sketches from Mieczysław Porębski. Notably, no work precedes the close of the 1960s, showing both an emphasis on modern innovation, and a desire to stimulate conversation about current society, rather than the past. Many criticised the decision to build MOCAK on a site shrouded in a miasma of tragedy not only for the Jewish community, but also for the city at large; 1.8 to 1.9 million people were lost to Nazi policies and the war. A walk back from MOCAK towards the old town will take you through the neighbourhoods that made up the Jewish ghetto, but rather than solely leaving us with the area’s fraught history, a few hours spent wandering the quiet atria of the museum is an indicator of how far this city has come in such a short space of time. More than anything else, a visit to MOCAK reminds us that in the 21st century, Poland is home to a wealth of creative talent.