Location| Poznan, Poland: A Study in Contrasts

Interior shot from today at the Stary Browar Mall (my photo),
Installation work Wavefunction by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, first shown at
the Venice Biennale in 2007, now on permanent display in Poznan.
Upon checking into my hotel in Poznan, the young front desk clerk grew enthusiastic when he found out I was from Vancouver, “I loved the Olympics” he said, “your city looks so new and beautiful on TV.” We chatted briefly and he helped me with some basic navigation questions to see the older Polish buildings and monuments I had on my list. When I asked about a place to get a bite, he paused for a moment and asked with some surprise if I realized that I was staying directly across the street from one of the biggest and most modern malls in Europe. I smiled politely thinking to myself that he was really doing a great job promoting his home town—he must not realize I live in the land of the West Edmonton Mall and have spent more time than I care to admit in so-called "large and modern" shopping centres, from Caesar’s Palace Forum in Las Vegas to the Mall of America in Minnesota (another conference side trip). But then as I popped across the street to investigate, I was literally stopped in my tracks. He wasn’t kidding.

Stary Browar is the name of the complex which opened in 2003 as a combination of retail space and (as I was about to find out to my delight) dedicated art space. In fact, once I got inside and reviewed the list of artists’ work on display-- including photo works by Vanessa Beecroft and Spencer Tunick, installation pieces by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and Sebastian Hempel, and fantastic works by contemporary Polish artists I was excited to learn more about-- I immediately wondered who was behind the project. As it turns out, all of this would be explained to me in a private tour that was immediately offered to me when I inquired about the art works in the lobby of the swank hotel anchoring the mall. A number of the smaller works are located there and my guide Peter was happy to show me around. Perhaps most impressive was the multi-media installation created by Lozano-Hemmer as a special commission for the hotel, serving as a digitally "immersive" waiting area (recall that Lozano-Hemmer designed the spectacular interactive light show Vancouverites enjoyed during the Olympics). I was not allowed to take photos, so check this link. I was told that the financier for the mall, the art collection, and the art foundation that supports Polish contemporary art talent, was Poland’s wealthiest individual, Grazyna Kulczyk (a woman no less).

As I wandered around the mall and took approved photographs of the interior architecture, I must admit that there was something strangely satisfying about discovering some familiar stores, such as the French-owned beauty outlet Sephora, in the mall. In this sense, Poznan shares with Vancouver the same cultural marks of global place-making and all the attendant anxieties that send subtle signals to visitors. I recall when friends and I discussed how it was possible that Calgary had gotten a Sephora in their city ahead of Vancouver (sorry Alberta, but it truly was confusing). It is as if the presence of certain flagship global brands--or in this case, recognized international artists-- declare just how “with it” and cosmopolitan a city is.

Now I know how deeply ironic it is that I have traveled all this way to a city associated with old Poland to blog about a shopping mall, but I have decided to comment about the city’s modernity since it seems exactly what many of the Poles I have met want to emphasize. Perhaps it is also apropos since the conference I am attending is concerned with exploring the relationship between high and low culture in the history of European modernism (more on this tomorrow). Now I am wondering if the conference organizers ever thought of highlighting Poznan’s famous mall as one of the stops on the traditional city tour.

Poznan Flash Mob (2007) Video from YouTube with great interior shots of Stary Browar. See more of my photos of the mall and Poznan city streets after the jump.