Woman about Woman, cat, „Bielska” BWA Gallery, Bielsko-Biala, 1996, pp. 32-35
Art of Zofia Kulik
Zofia Kulik’s works of several recent years are the example of how art, while constantly changing, uses the links with its own tradition, with what is considered classic, eternal and specific. Even the most shocking, avant-garde manifestations of art did not break these links, e.g. dada, surrealism, conceptual art, or the process-art trend in which Zofia Kulik participated in the ’70s. It was only that the references to certain models or notions in art were hidden deeper or based on anti-theses. In Zofia Kulik’s work her latest pieces constitute such a phase in which appear more legible references to certain forms that have been present in art long since. The decision to create material works of art that can be included in the aesthetic categories of painting is the very reference to tradition is already, and so is the application of certain modes of composition, geometrical figures, accessories and positions of human body – here the associations reach even the art of the times before Christ. There is also a closer perspective of looking at her works, i.e. slightly longer than 150 year’s tradition of photography and the story of its bonds with art; it is so because Zofia Kulik in her recent works applies mostly the technique of photography.
Nevertheless, for an ambitious artist alluding to some tradition there is never a return; there is only a better mean of expressing the issues of contemporary times, among which the deepest existential problems of the artists are included. In the works we are going to discuss in this essay what can be associated with the tradition is applied in a way that excludes a reconstruction of a certain past model in art, instead, it directs our attention to contemporary questions. On the other hand; however, numerous allusions to the art tradition allow us to avoid any too literal associations between these works and up-to-date political events.
This sort of the artist’s works was first presented in public in 1989 – in the period when the totalitarian communist system had already been breaking down in Poland, as well as in other countries. Therefore, that kind of artistic creation could be perceived as an example of a universal process there; a process of giving vent after a few dozen years of restrained freedom in all spheres of public life. Political context was also important, even in the earlier phase of Zofia Kulik’s creation. However, against the background of that vindictive trend, her works distinguished themselves thanks to a formal discipline and a distance towards miscellaneous symbolic elements. Her work is not a political satire or a critical documentary of concrete social phenomena. It is a generalization of certain states of bondage, of being subjected to a system. Truly, there sometimes appear some motifs which can raise very concrete associations in the mind of a Polish citizen, e.g. the 1st of May Manifestations against the background of the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw (symbol of the Stalinist era) or images of star-shaped medals with Lenin’s head. Nonetheless, a thorough knowledge of the history of these motifs is not necessary because the influence of the works comes from the form of represented objects. The shapes that evoke particular historical events dominate: flags, spearhead, ribbons and draperies, spiral figure, butcher hooks, various tools, plants (thistle, lilies), and, firstly, a figure of a young naked man-sometimes holding a wooden stick or wearing drapery – who takes different postures. All the forms come from the collection of objects photographed by the artist and are merged into particular places on photographic paper by a mask system prepared on the basis of a thoroughly worked out project. Identical forms are usually transformed many times in the process of exposure to create rhythmical and symmetric patterns. By skillfully arranging the masks the artist creates white and black fields of maximally exposed or not exposed at all areas on the photographic paper. These fields produce lines and surfaces which are as an architectural skeleton of a composition filled with photographic repetitions of various motifs.
Different works represent a different level of complexity. A sheet of photographic paper measuring 60 x 50 cm is a basic module. A finished work can comprise a number of joint sheets: 4, 9, 12, 18, and more (e.g. at Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam the artist presented a work composed of 75 segments which measured together 3 x 7.5 m).
The eventual shapes of these compositions evoke the form of mandalas, gothic windows and altars, mosaics and carpets – all these figures that often contained cosmological imagery. Through the mediation of such figures the world becomes defined as a system organized around an image of the centre. Such a system is based on symmetrical twin divisions, or quadruple -sometimes combined with triple – and their multiplication. Similarly, this is also a way in which Zofia Kulik’s works are constructed. They have always followed the rule of sacral, mystic symbolism in which the symbolism of numeral divisions is accompanied by the symbolism of figures included in these divisions (e.g. the symbols of divine creatures, elements, zodiac signs, etc.) Such images expressed, in a multiple-layer way, a dogma of the fundamental order of the universe hidden under the surface of constantly changing phenomena of the sensual world, and the ultimate message of these images was harmony and perfection of the existence of the world, both in a spiritual and physical sense.
However, Zofia Kulik is by no means copycatting these perpetual visual matrices; she only alludes to them in some general way. In her works there are no sacral, astrological or esoteric symbols, only objects pulled out from everyday reality; and yet, a pursuit for the means to express a certain symbolic message can be seen in these objects or persons. This is most conspicuous in the pictures of a posed naked man. Some of his postures imitate the patterns known from the art history, other evoke military drills, shows of athletes or a choreography of political manifestations, and all of them express unnatural discipline and curb. Although in the case of objects the matter and form seem to constitute some unity when their images are incorporated in compositions meant to express harmony and perfection, the palpability and aggressiveness of their shapes also generate tension and conflict. In such works the rhythmic patterns of straining human figures and aggressive objects adore an enigmatic centre that is nothing but a mere middle place in the composition – empty or filled with one of many shapes so much alike. There is no sacredness in it. This can be understood as an accusation of those political systems that annexed sacral symbolism to strengthen their own pretence to absolute power and eternal existence. However, very few accessories deal with concrete historic situations and, instead, the artist seems to express a certain timeless conflict rooted in deep strata of human consciousness. It is the conflict between the need for self-definition within some coherent system and chaos and threats that human beings meet in their efforts. Zofia Kulik once reckoned that the symbols of subordination generate both awe and fascination within herself. On the one hand, she applies the symbols of order and hierarchy and, on the other, stresses the repressive character that emanates from the form of presented objects. She does not make any attempt to analyze the situation rationally; she tries to express it in an intuitive way by selection of various forms and specifying the senses included in the very shapes.
In what Zofia Kulik shows us, photographic compositions lie somewhere in between real objects and ideal figures. This can be easily noticed at the present exhibition where the artist also presents us with a collection of objects used as motifs in her photographs and three-dimensional, illuminated models of abstract figures. These models that symbolize a complete order find their counterpart in photographic compositions in the form of divisions of surfaces; however, in the latter case they start to conflict with various photographic images. Such a situation is in a way inherently linked to the presence of the photography in art. In the 19th century artists who painted from a photograph were accused of not only lack of dexterity but, first and foremost, of betraying timeless ideals in art, e.g. in realists’ or impressionists’ painting ancient sources of sacral, mythological or historic themes served to present scenes that the critics described as trivial or vulgar. At that time, many photographic studies of people or objects were meant to make artists’ work with a model easier. (A man photographed by Zofia Kulik resembles in his postures famous photographic studies by E. Muybridge.) However, the artist was expected not to reveal these photographic sources in his paintings so as to be able to reach the level of spiritual unity. It was only the developing avant-garde approaches that consciously applied this charge of tension which is produced by a clash of conventional “ideals” with the concrete of a photograph or the object itself, as well as the clash of juxtaposed objects. Even though post modernism has recently revised many assumptions of the avant-garde ethos, it did not question the justification of the most important problems which avant-garde dealt with. In fact, all that happened was the abolition of the myth that the clash of contradictions leads to the elimination of one of them (and to progress). That Zofia Kulik chose the method which in modern art defined the conflict between tradition and avant-garde does not mean the artist supports either side.
A photographic portfolio which the artist gathers and applies in her compositions presents both the artifacts of previous epochs and modern objects along with the scenes photographed by her from nature and television screen. In this way Zofia Kulik creates a collection of forms and by doing so continues the activity that she started during her studies at the Academy of Fine Arts. Total expression of the image of the contemporary times, including the past inscribed in them, seems to be her objective. She constructs this image from documentary-like elements and reveals chaos and dramatic tension in our present. Order serves as a compositional skeleton which; however, is only loosely related to photographic elements and can well function as an independent structure.
Nevertheless, we can trace in the artist’s work the conviction that it is possible to transmit some crucial knowledge about our contemporary times. Moreover, she does not aim at providing the essence of information broadcast by mass media or the essence of ideologies which various objects stand for. Such knowledge may be based on grasping what a symbol as such is in social rituals and. henceforth, it is not necessary to create any special symbolic form. The form of real objects can be a knowledge which we are not able to read fully because of our too big an involvement in their status as real things. Abstract structures applied by Zofia Kulik can thus become a certain analogy or suggestion only.
Transl. Marzena B. Guzowska