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Neon Muzeum Warsaw

Warsaw has a unique museum that exhibits neon signs from the Cold War era. Graphic designer David Hill and his photographer wife, Ilona Karwinska, are the founders of Neon Muzeum Warsaw. David and Ilona became accidental curators, and what started as a stroll through the city of Warsaw ultimately resulted in a collection of more than 300 neon signs. POM Magazine’s Giulia Weijerman spoke with David Hill to find out what is so special about Polish neon lights from this particular time period. During the interview, Giulia fell from one surprise into the next.

by Giulia Weijerman

David, why are you so interested in Polish neon lights?
When I met my then future wife Ilona in London in 2005, she invited me to visit Warsaw. Ilona is originally from Poland, but she moved to the UK as a teenager and spent most of her adult life there. She then knew as much of Poland and its design history as I did. When we walked through Warsaw’s streets and boulevards, I immediately noticed these fantastic, but rather dilapidated neon signs on the buildings. I am a professional graphic designer and typographer. It struck me that these neon signs seemed so fresh and original, with letterforms I had never seen before. I found them exciting and incredible and at the time nobody seemed to have any interest in them at all. Ilona is a portrait photographer and she had just finished a major anthropological project in Syria and the Lebanon, and wondered what she was going to do next. So rather cheekily, I suggested: ‘why don’t you go from photographing people to photographing neons?’ This ultimately led us from photographic documentation, to preservation and restoration of these historical neon signs. We now have more than 300 neons,  the first and largest such collection in Europe.

So you were the first ones to recognise that these actually are important pieces of art?
We would love to say that we immediately recognised the inherent cultural value of these neons. But it was initially just a graphic design project, during which we discovered a lot of unusual typography and designs which eventually led to the publication of a book and an exhibition. That is what opened flood gates for us. People began contacting us, asking us: ‘would you like to have these signs?’ We also noticed that many of the signs were being taken down by workers and thrown into skips or lorries. We were horrified that these neon signs, that had been on the buildings since the 1950s, were being taken down and destroyed so thoughtlessly. We always asked the workers if we could have them. Of course, they thought we were quite crazy, but they gave them to us anyway. So initially, the neon signs were either donations or we had saved them from destruction. It was then we started to emotionally invest in the project instead of considering it simply a transient documentation project.

What makes the neon signs in your collection so special?
What’s interesting is that they were created within strict rules and regulations established by state authorities. Graphic designers had to work within these parameters, there was no ‘carte blanche’. Despite this, the signs were so avant-garde and many were absolutely wild. It was a carefully controlled medium, which is why it is incredible that these designers created such beautiful, expressive neon signs. Each neon sign was designed for one purpose; so for one building, one product, one service or one factory. The signs were completely original letterforms and symbols that were created once, never to be used again. Until later, when the original designers had retired and the technicians were charged with making the remaining neon signs. That is when they started using the Swiss fonts. They started using, Grotesk Neue or Helvetica fonts everywhere. All these newer letter forms appeared in the late 80s, which is when the originality of the early style started to fade. The later signs don’t have the same visual or emotional impact, in my opinion.

How did you come to start a museum?
My upbringing was very much geared around collecting and documenting. It prepared me for the museum, I think. It just seemed like a natural process, collecting neon artefacts and showing them to the public in a museum. We found a space in the building that we now occupied for almost 12 years. Ilona originally said to me: ‘let’s open a pop-up exhibition for a few weeks and see what happens.’ Luckily, we were participating in the European Museum Nights Event called The Long Night Of The Museums, back in May 2012. We put an advert out and 6,000 people came to visit the museum in a single night! We were taken aback by the positive public response. We had expected negative commentary from people, since the neon signs were symbols of the communist occupation. Yet they were designed by the best graphic artists, but the initiators of the neonisation campaign were the communist authorities.

Does the museum tell us something about the history of the signs itself? Or is it mainly focused on the aesthetic?
We are big on history! We have an archive of thousands of original drawings, project packs and blueprints. In the museum we display a lot of information on text panels alongside the neon signs; information about the history, the designer and the original location of the building the neon once adorned. In the 1950s the public was restless in Eastern Europe. They wanted their freedom back and remembered life in the interwar period. The Soviets and communists were very concerned they were losing control. Some genius must have stood up during a conference in Moscow and suggested- let’s neonise, to make the cities look like they did in the interwar period. Early on we were concerned that the public would perceive our exhibition as a big statement about communism, which it certainly isn’t. Over the years, we’ve managed to carefully strip away the political connotations. We wanted people to focus on the design and aesthetic. It is amazing that a society that was so restrictive and controlled, created such beautiful images in neon.

Do you only collect signs from the Cold War era?
We are specifically interested in the designs from the time period running from 1955-’56 to the end of the regime in 1989. It was initiated by the communist authorities, it was a state project and it was run by an internal trade body. These are not commercial neon lights and they were not advertisements as such. They were socialist messages. They were symbols to ‘inform, educate and amuse’. The state refused to allow competition and in Poland there was just a single company handling all the neon sign production. We discovered that other countries in the Eastern Bloc behind the iron curtain, were also engaged in their own neonisation propaganda campaigns. So there was a vernacular style in Poland, Hungary had a style, and the former Czechoslovakia had its own style of neons.

What do you think the museum will look like in 5 or 10 years?
Well, much bigger! We are currently exhibiting and have fully restored, about 125 neon signs. But in our storage we have hundreds of neon signs just waiting to shine. Some of them are quite large in size. We have for example, both the largest and the oldest neon sign from the former Eastern Bloc. It was made during Stalin’s life who, famously hated Western neon advertising. Why on earth the authorities would build a neon globe of 5 meters in diameter and place it in the heart of Warsaw in 1950, is beyond us. We have the original in our collection and we would love to present it as the centre piece of our exhibition, since it represents the genesis of the neonisation campaign. We currently have about 500-600 m2 of space but we would like to double that. Next year, we hope to move the museum to a new building, located closer to the centre of Warsaw. People visiting us now, are determined to come and see us. We don’t have many accidental walk-ins. Visitors have ventured all the way across the city to find us. The Neon Muzeum is on the eastern side of Warsaw, across the Vistula river, and a fairly long journey across the river to find us. Despite attracting more than 100,000 people per year, by moving to the centre of Warsaw we hope to attract even more visitors.

Do you have a favourite neon sign?
The neon signs are like children to us, we love them equally. But secretly I do have two favourites. One is a large blue circle with an electric red word ‘Mydlła’, meaning Soaps, and to the lower right the word ‘Farby’, which means paints. This is my favourite because people are always so surprised that it was made for such a mundane set of products, soap and paint. When they see this neon, they immediately think it’s a sign for a jazz café or a cocktail bar, it just looks so spectacular. My other favourite neon displays the word ‘Syrena’ in dazzling bright blue. I simply love it because the typography is just stunning. It was found in Elbląg on the Baltic coast, in an abandoned movie theatre that was due to be demolished. The workmen of the demolition company went into the building to check if there was anyone left. All they found were pieces of a neon sign that once adorned the building. The real estate developer offered not only to donate it to us but also to completely renovate it. It was such an unusual and generous act that we had a special lighting up ceremony in the museum, for this neon.

Are there new exhibitions planned for the near future?
We recently won a grant to create a pioneering new exhibition highlighting the work of the many women neon designers of Warsaw – we have called it, Women Designers of Light. Despite the fact that the neon sign companies employed thousands of women tube benders at the time in the late 50s and early 60s, the neon designers tended to be men. Later on however, many talented women began designing neons. On November 21 we opened this fascinating and original exhibition. Going forward, it will remain part of the Neon Muzeum’s permanent exhibition.

Susanna Inglada

Spanish artist Susanna Inglada has been in The Netherlands for many years. She lives with her young son in Amsterdam and exhibits her work all over the world. Susanna creates large figurative drawings that she transforms into three-dimensional sculptures. They seem to float in an exhibition space, radiating a dark undercurrent. In an interview Susanna talks about the undercurrent and its underlying sources of inspiration.

by Anna Geven

You use realism and symbolism in your works. You like to play with the dimensions of your work too. Why do you use so many aspects?
When I make a work, I always think about the narrative. It might be based on personal experience or what’s happening in our society. All research and all my emotions I transform directly into a work. If I make detailed sketches first, I will lose that first energy of all these emotions, thoughts and ideas. Until recently the characters in my work were dressed in clothes that represented their role in society. I showed a work in Paris in which the characters are naked. They have strings of braided hair all around them. The work is inspired by motherhood and my childhood memory of my grandmother. It was custom in her village that women always had long hair until they married. After they were married, they cut their hair short and so did my grandmother. She kept her hair in a large braid. To me the braid is a symbol of losing her freedom, it symbolizes vulnerability. I tried to use this idea in the installation called The Fit. In this work the braid has a double meaning because it also resembles an umbilical cord. The naked characters interact with each other, and it is not clear whether they enjoy the interaction or whether it’s a struggle.

What is the role of the spectator in your work?
It is important that my installations surround the spectator by attracting and raising questions. The main characters activate the work by confronting the viewer so that the viewer becomes the protagonist.

You studied at various art schools, but you also studied performing arts in Barcelona to become an actor. Do you use your experience as an actor in your artwork?
I brought theatre back into my work, in the way I use space and in the gestures and expressions of the characters I draw. Every time I have an exhibition, I consider it a stage where I put up my props and place the actors. I am using the space as an opportunity to show new work. Sometimes I create something especially for that space.

My impression is that there is anger in some of your works. Is anger a source of inspiration for you?
The trigger to make a work comes from something in our society which I don’t understand, and which creates emotions which fill me with an obsessive urge to research and find answers. Before I went to Rome to study there, the newspapers wrote about the rape of a young woman in Spain and how this case was handled in court. In Rome I saw these beautiful sculptures made by Bernini like The Rape of Proserpina, and Apollo & Daphne. Wonderful sculptures with beautiful images about rape. I was shocked how women were depicted in these sculptures, all this romanticism. I decided to make an installation showing big hands, like the hands created by Bernini in the sculpture, The Rape of Proserpina. I took these hands and blew them up. They became monstrous hands and also a bit deformed in order to take away their power.

Are you pointing in your work to the ones responsible for the harm done?
I don’t think I am pointing at people, I try to show a universal story. In my work I never put a specific face on the characters. I like to keep them open, so that they become universal. The problems I am talking about are not specific for one place, but they are all around. I don’t expect spectators to change or act. I like it when they start asking questions about certain topics I am pointing out in my work. I want to confront them with issues we are currently dealing with; issues we don’t pay enough attention to.

Are there other sources of inspiration that feed your creating process?
I discovered that using new crafts is inspiring. It makes me step out of my comfort zone and suddenly something new happens. Now I am trying to translate my work into ceramics, textile and animation. Working with animation is interesting. Normally I work with fragments of drawings with narratives interacting with each other. But working with animation is different because you have to work with time frames and a screen. Working with textile means working with needles and sewing. It offers new possibilities.

You have lived in The Netherlands for a while now. Did Dutch culture inspire you in your work?
Being in The Netherlands made me aware that I come from a different culture. It gave me a view on Spain from a distance and I started to create work that was inspired by this reflection. The art scene in The Netherlands inspired me, I met a lot of artists and was offered interesting commissions. Of course, local issues influenced my work. I think if I wasn’t in The Netherlands, I was not making the work I create now.

What is your upcoming project?
This summer I will show a big sculpture in Drenthe in the biennale, Into Nature. I created it specifically for this location and it was inspired by the history of the location and its folk stories. I have a solo show coming up in Spain, in Tarragona. And I am preparing an exhibition with Gallery Maurits van de Laar in The Hague. Next year, in 2024, I am doing a couple of art-residencies. One in Germany and one in Morocco. So, a busy schedule with super interesting projects.

Photographer- Arja Hyytiäinen

For Finnish photographer Arja Hyytiäinen, analogue photography is the only way to shoot pictures. Her photo documentary series are shown all over the world at art festivals and in galleries. The scenes she shoots seem to capture a frozen second of rawness and eeriness. From her home in France, Arja Hyytiäinen explains to Klaartje Til her life, lived with photography.

By Klaartje Til

I am originally from Finland but I moved to Sweden when I was 21 years old, because I wanted to study psychology in Göteborg. However, I didn’t enrol into the psychology program and instead, started a photography course at night school. I met people who encouraged me to do something more serious with photography, and I was very surprised when I was accepted to a photography school in Angermanland, in the North of Sweden. At school we spent endless time in the darkroom and we learned how to print and develop films. We did little reportages where you could figure out different types of cameras, to more or less, find your signature.

Karelians, is the title of my first exhibition, where I showed a photo documentary about Karelian people. For this documentary I lived for one year in a village in the Russian part of Karelia, just across the Finnish boarder. It was a very small village with only six villagers and a few cows. There was no public transport and no electricity. During the winter you couldn’t leave the village because of the snow and no one would clean the roads. After one year I returned to Sweden, to the dark room, to develop the black and white prints for my first exhibition. After my Karelian year I went to Prague to study photography at FAMU. So, from Russia directly to Prague more or less. At FAMU I did my theses on subjective documentary, from Daidō Moriyama to Anders Petersen to Antoine D’Agata. Anders Petersen was, with his pictures, a spiritual father to me. The way he lives with photography touched me a lot. I feel someone being alive behind his images. Anders Petersen and Antoine D’Agata have a street photography background. Their work shows encounters with people and can give you an idea of the smell of the room these people were in.


Train, Serbie, 2004

I made many trips to Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia, Poland and Moldavia, during my study in Prague at FAMU. The night trains were there, the light was there and I got to know other young photographers while traveling. I photographed a lot and developed the pictures in my bathroom. FAMU wasn’t very happy that I missed so many classes. I left school and lived one year in Berlin before I moved to Paris. I did photography jobs in Paris and lived in Berlin where I developed the photos in a darkroom. I sat a lot in night trains going back and forth between Paris and Berlin. I only felt at home in a night train, because I had left and I hadn’t yet arrived. I lived in night trains for quite a long time until I did an art residency in Marseille, with Atelier De Visu. They published a book, Le Quartier, showing my diary notes and my pictures to illustrate the notes. In Marseille I was busy finding my own language as a photographer. I tried to figure out who I was, traveling all over Europe and living everywhere. It shows in the work I made then, bits and pieces everywhere. A lot of pictures of bars and the Marseille night scene.

Rue de Clignancourt, Paris, 2003

I wrote a mail to Gallery VU’ and I asked them if there would be any possibilities for me to work with them. I sent them the pictures I made in Eastern Europe. They accepted me and I thought that my whole life would change. It didn’t, until I met Christian Caujolle. He was the artistic director of Gallery VU’ and the organiser of an amazing exhibition with work of Antoine D’Agata. I visited this exhibition again and again. Antoine D’Agata’s pictures deeply touched me, also because of the way these pictures were presented. The show was on Boulevard Henri IV, in an old cellar. The walls were painted red which contrasted with the black and white pictures. The pictures were in different sizes and fitted so well with the cruelty and the insomniac atmosphere in the whole place. It was so well done. At the time I met a lot of big photographers. They were all a bit lost, but somehow they were a family to me. I got some assignments via picture editors I knew, but life was really difficult. Eventually Paris grew cold on me. It became really difficult to find a darkroom. Gradually the darkrooms were shutting down in Paris until there were no darkrooms anymore. I moved back to Berlin where I found a large darkroom.

Vinyl, Paris, 2006

In the darkroom time disappears. The importance of the experience that I had at the time when I took the picture, disappears. That’s vital to me because when I am still emotionally connected to the event I photographed, I cannot be objective. What is interesting about fixing a moment in time in an image, is what comes out of it after I have printed the pictures. The images can be so far from what really happened. The story comes afterwards, during editing, when one image starts to talk to another image. In the darkroom I translate a photo to what I want to say with that image. I can highlight with a little white tone or closing up a circle. I always print the pictures myself. I love the process of defining the grain, the heaviness and the cut of the paper. It makes the image. Most of my prints are quite small. Some are smaller than others, but I go up to 50X64 cm at the most. Because I want to go to the essence when I create an image, I don’t want to waste energy on large prints. They are time and money consuming. The darkroom is a time machine where I bring up bits and pieces of a different life. I can go into the darkroom in the morning, when it’s light and leave in the middle of the night. When I come out of the darkroom I am completely in a different frame of mind. It’s like reconnecting with reality, like waking up and seeing things very clearly, for a very short time. That’s magic and wonderful.

I haven’t gone back to my archives for a very long time, because they always make me melancholic. I meet myself again because there is so much of myself in each photo. But I think it’s interesting that these captured moments remain in archives and they stay there. An archive shows a time lap because you can go back and forward in time. It is very close to cinema. The French film maker, Stephane Breton, made a film called Chère Humaine. Chère means “dear” in French, but it also means “flesh”. He contacted a few photographers, including me, and he composed a film by using our pictures.

Today I live in the countryside in France. That’s where my daughter was born. With the birth of my daughter, Finland came back to me again. It brought back childhood memories, and memories of the culture I grew up in. My work radically changed then. I exchanged the Hasselblad for a baby wagon, bought a little foldable Fuji 6×7 rangefinder camera and set-up a darkroom next to our house. I travelled a lot to Finland to shoot childhood scenes with this new camera. It resulted in the Ile d’Enfance series, The Island of Childhood. Because the Fuji camera is much slower than the Hasselblad, the pictures became more staged. For example, I would burn leaves in the backyard and my daughter would wrap herself into her father’s jacket, watching me burning leaves. Later I recreated this scene. I reorganised the same scene but the images came from a real life event. I think I always staged the scenes, even when I did street photography. I remember a girl I suddenly noticed in the middle of the night in Malmö, Sweden. She was at a street party and wore a beautiful white dress and a necklace of pop-corns. She told me she was supposed to be a pop-corn. She asked me why I wanted to photograph her. I just laughed and asked her to stand on the other side of the street. I took her out of the context. So I already staged scenes, but today I do more research before I create the scenes and take pictures.

Fin de saison, 2018

As a child I hung around horses a lot. Here in France I have three horses and they changed my life completely. These horses have an energy level that’s visible up to 3 metres away. You can feel this energy. It is a deeper level of communication and completely authentic. I don’t photograph as much as I used to. I still have my darkroom and I give photo workshops here at home. A few years ago, I held a photo workshop for young criminals. These boys came from Paris and they were very different in energy. Standing around a table was difficult for them. The horses acted like magnets. They calmed the boys down. Horses don’t judge, they don’t speak, they are impressive, you don’t fool around with horses. The boys asked whether they could take pictures of the horses. That’s how these therapeutic photo workshops started.

Movement is life, even if it is not directly related to photography or the work I did before. There is a time for everything. Photography has very little to do with photography, like music has very little to do with music. It is all about the output, the experience of what we want to tell with the medium we use. I think I am on this night train again at the moment. I will see where it brings me and how it will feel.

Inge Aanstoot – Small Change, Little Changes

Dutch painter Inge Aanstoot, has been very busy over the last two years. For the Rotterdam Museum, in 2020, she made a mural for the exhibition, Lions on the Coolsingel. In 2020 she also worked under the name, Marie Pop, with photographer Anique Weve. Marie Pop work was on display this summer at the ART Rotterdam fair.

At the end of July, Inge opened an exhibition of 15 paintings at the Amsterdam gallery, Vriend van Bavink. The paintings are large and small and in typical Inge style, expressive, figurative and symbolic. In this series, Inge investigates both well-known and unknown key figures in history: kings, emperors, scientists, inventors, male and female. These people made a difference in the past and they all look you right in the face. Inge is not shy to appear in her own paintings. In this series, you will also see her in some of her works. In Small Change, Little Changes, she wears a pink dress she seems to have borrowed from the French queen, Marie Antoinette. It is the icing on the cake, a painting full of symbolism and reflection. Usually, birds and flowers are not easy to paint without the risk of reducing them to decoration or symbolic elements. Not with Inge. In Temperance Is Wickedness V: Headspace, you feel as if you are in a jungle, enshrouded by flower arrangements. In The Avian Reptilian Complex, forty birds form a stilled image in which every detail is captured. However, when looking at the painting you feel an urge to say to those birds: “Oh please sit still so Mrs. Aanstoot can start painting you quietly.”

Until September 4th, in the Vriend van Bavink gallery, Geldersekade 34, Amsterdam.

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