The basements of Polish housing estates are home to countless DIY gyms, filled with improvised weights, hand-welded bench presses and makeshift pulley machines. They’re havens of masculinity, spaces for men to hone their bodies and escape the outside world. Marcin Dudek grew up on one of those estates, going to those gyms as part of a ritual deeply tied to the country’s pervasive hooligan culture. Now, in an ongoing effort to deal with the violence of his youth, he’s recreated one of those gyms in a London gallery.
A pulley machine sits against one wall, its weights made of old radiators, with the heads of two Slavic gods watching over you as you work out. In the middle of the space sits a roughly welded bench press. A boxing bag has emptied its grey, mulch-like innards onto the floor, a shattered mirror hangs off a rail. On the wall opposite, a huge grey canvas is made from thousands of pages of magazines, art catalogues and medical textbooks; it’s a tombstone, a mortuary slab propped against the wall.
Dudek has created a rusting, rancid space here. You can almost taste the sweat that would drip down these claustrophobic walls in the heat of exercise, feel the rust of the metal leaving marks on your skin; it’s uncomfortable, aggressive, nasty. And more than that, Dudek has thrown himself, his past, into these works. He’s taking the books, magazines and knowledge that he’s accumulated and radically reforming them. He’s taking the spaces that shaped him and reclaiming them. This work is brutal and horrible, but it’s also clearly and obviously critical of its own roots.
Toxic masculinity is a big topic in art, and Dudek’s work is a confrontation of it from within. This is someone who has experienced violence, has perpetrated it, lived it – this isn’t some vague, distanced, societal analysis. This isn’t an academic takedown of some faraway physical concept; this is the reality of male violence. If it feels scary, uncomfortable and wrong, that’s because it is, and Dudek knows that better than most.