From Siberia to Cyberia, cat., National Museum, Poznan 1999.
A Non-Linear Map of Logical Feelings
When in 1991 I saw at the „Wanderlieder” exposition in the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum a huge montage of Zofia Kulik’s photographs called Favorite Balance, in spite of a different technique at first sight I could identify certain affinities with the actions and performances which I remembered to have seen in Poland and in Germany, done by the artist together with Przemysław Kwiek. In the repetitive narration of the Amsterdam work, in arranging the composition in parallel zones, I saw analogies with the actions of Kwiek and Kulik from the seventies, unfolding in time and developed in a literary manner in a few parallel narrative lines; the present persuasiveness of the combined images I associated with the earlier expressiveness of the performers’ behavior and gestures. However, I quickly realized that my comparison was superficial, as I noticed that, apart from the photographic technique and the preferred form of installation, Zofia Kulik’s art has revealed a new kind of inner tension, stemming from a different metaphorical key to her personal world and radicalization of the present mode of her critique. In this sense, in her works done after 1987, which I soon had a chance to appreciate, both discourses – the psychological and the social – converged at the central point of Favorite Balance (symbolized in the Amsterdam work by the lily and arrow), immediately to radiate towards the narrative periphery, consequently destabilizing the image which tends to achieve closure within the framework of the aesthetic-ideological order (symmetry-frame and domination-center). Since then, I started recognizing in the structure of Kulik’s works a phenomenon which I had first encountered in the kaleidoscope, my favorite childhood toy, a mysterious optical instrument which allows one, peeping into a small hole in a cardboard tube, to build and destroy ad infinitum crystalline arrangements of abstract forms, deeply hidden somewhere in the pieces of glass and radiating from some center according to a regular rhythm of myriad reflections. A quick movement of my hand, turning the tube or changing the angle of incidence, was enough to destroy the old and to create a new array of crystals, flickering with colors or subdued with grey.
A comparison of the structure of Zofia Kulik’s photomontages with a kaleidoscope is, of course, of a limited value, and I used it only to pay some attention to the very process of reconstructing and deconstructing images in time and within a definite repertoire of shapes, not to highlight a fascinating play of glass beads. The problem of encoding the image, as Zofia Kulik herself once pointed out, is interesting for her in the perspective of fractal geometry which allows one to describe the natural world in terms of the symmetry of self-similar figures. What is significant for Kulik in this „chaotic dynamic” of the world – translatable in the mathematical and artistic practice into aesthetic arrangements of „carpets”, „Christmas trees”, „petals” or landscapes – is the very unpredictability of the effect which appears at a moment in time that is infinitely distant from the first transformation of the original pattern. Still, one should not make this comparison too far-reaching. In Kulik’s art the fractal mathematicity of the world is replaced by history and culture that are both endowed with meanings, which, in turn, explicitly points to the psychological and social subject of those sequences of transformations – the succession of human experience in the non-linear „dynamic of time”; nothing but an imperfect metaphor of „fractal history”. Evidently, the basis of history understood in this way will not be a dialectical principle of development with the ultimate Utopia (synthesis) in view, but complex arrangements of symmetry and dissymmetry which may be called with names appealing to the imagination of mathematicians: „dust”, „density”, „leaps”, „broken lines”, „the devil’s stairs”, „free groups”, etc. Thus, in Kulik’s art history takes an aesthetic form, though (like in mathematical theory), aesthetics loses its purely decorative sense, becoming a source and method of the explication and critique of the world. „An ornament is an equivalent of the cosmos”, says Kulik in an interview, by the same token motivating one of her recent series called Ethnic Wars. Large Vanitas Still Life, where a symmetrical arrangement with a recurrent motif of human skull is combined with a folk ornament on the shawls of women mourning their loved ones killed in the war in Yugoslavia – a scene which the artist must have seen on TV.
Hence, Kulik’s history is not the history of events, but of images, where expression is a borrowed quote and idea is an acquired symbol. Images are not traces of past presence, but the very presence of the past which makes itself available to our eyes in the process of regrouping documents, identifying their elements in relations, arranging their shapes in sequences, and, finally, combining them into wholes which do not aspire to constitute the ultimate totality. „All my work”, says the artist, „consists in endless gathering and archivization of the images of this world. Its complexity derives from the abundance of the archive which I possess. It is a very big accumulation of visual information, a storage of its own kind.”
Kulik’s collection resembles a Cabinet of Curiosities which for the seventeenth-century man was a miniature of the universe represented in a private chamber by „human curiosities”, „quadrupeds”, „birds”, „fish and sea zoophytes”, „shells”, „plants, and first wood and roots”, „objects turned into stone”, „antiquities”, and „things artificial”. With the same meticulousness, the artist collects everything that constitutes the modern world – she segregates, classifies, and catalogs the material, finally to put it on display in cabinets and to explain it in lexicons supplementing her expositions. So it was in Amsterdam in 1991, in Poznan and Warsaw in 1993, and in Venice in 1997. Sometimes, among draperies and hanging photomontages, she places on monumental bases her „characteristic” objects or arranges on pulpits under the glass pages torn out of books, old and new photographs, tokens and reproductions, trophies and panoplies. In the description of Favorite Balance she enumerated all the elements of her composition: a male figure wearing a draped robe, the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw, Gorky’s novel Mother, figure of Lenin, triumphant gestures, etc. In an iconographic guide to her show at the Venice Biennale one could read a description and see a whole repertoire of curios: a piece of fabric attached to a human being like the tail of a comet; stars and starfishes in decorative halos, surrounded with gleaming flashes; dried grass and thistle; images of Mickey Mouse and unearthed skulls; metal bolts and tops of shafts, cannon missiles, hammers, pliers, portraits, pieces of sculpture, decorations, and endless images from the press, movies, and TV. „My archive”, says Kulik, „contains various categories of documented reality. There is a category of things as they are: landscapes, architecture, ceremonies. Another category are compositions which I constructed by myself in front of my camera… Still another are various real events from the world ‘flinched’ from the TV screen. Then comes, perhaps first of all, work with the models…”
Historians of science usually assign to the collections and classifications of the seventeenth-century Cabinets of Curiosities a pivotal role. It was there that for the first time, contrary to the predominant theological view, nature became historicized and the chronology of the natural world was severed from the starting point of the last Day of Creation so that time acquired its specific dimension and context. Since then, both nature and art have been endowed with mechanics and movement. It was the rise of the naturalist philosophy and Bacon’s critique of idols which questioned all that did not derive from things themselves, as well as of the social philosophy of Hobbes, based upon an assumption that in order not to succumb to anarchy and tyranny, the egotistic human nature gains freedom thanks to law which is executed for the sake of reasonable justice by a democratic, aristocratic or monarchic system of power.
If I approach Kulik’s collection in this, among others, perspective – and this is not, as we will see, the only frame of reference – it is because I am recognizing in it a source of one of the key problems of modernity, i. e. relations between nature and history and between authority and society, both free of the unpredictable will of God. Of course, in Kulik’s art the original relation has been subject to multiple reversals, nonetheless, there still remains a critical question concerning the permanence and value of significance inherent in images and signs conditioned by the changing, historical nature of the world; a question of the rights, scope, and ceremonial of disciplining authority in social history. In the non-linear plastic discourse of these „unusual” effigies of things and concepts, this question will pertain to the movement of images among new and old forms, full and empty meanings, as well as limits of „self-historicizing” or „self-naturalizing” power which aims at legitimizing its authority over symbolic orders. The simplest example may be the form of swastika which appears in almost every photomontage of Kulik – one of the oldest and most common symbols which „being originally a sign of prosperity, changed”, as the artist puts it, „into an emblem of a genocidal organization. It is now impossible to use the swastika in its primordial, original sense.” In her works, Kulik gets involved in confrontation with the force of an ideological model – she „operates on” the swastika and, by blurring and distorting its form, includes it in various political and cultural contexts, makes it clash with the least expected shapes, derives it from the body, incorporates in ornaments, multiplies in mirror reflections, makes twirl and swivel’. The power of the swastika is irresistible, and its ideology, though compromised, does not abandon its form, thus, in a sense, „naturalizing” it.
Another, somewhat more contemporary frame of reference for Zofia Kulik’s art, to which I would now like to pay some attention, is a tendency to fragmentarize and contextualize the image which was characteristic of the art and art history of the early 20th century. This process has been often associated with the sense of disintegration of man and the world in the era of alienating production and history which entered the phase of war cataclysms. An example of this phenomenon in modern art would be, on the one hand, the rise of the collage in cubist painting and the assemblage of objects in the art of the dadaists, and on the other, the search for distant analogues and inspirations in the expression of primitive and marginal forms, so characteristic of the artists of expressionism. Yet I find the photomontages of Kulik akin not so much to the early modernist art, but rather to a specific method of image analysis, represented in the art history of the period by Aby Warburg who proposed to study the ideological meanings of works of art in contrast to the stylistic formalism of his predecessors. The originality of the method developed by Warburg, an expert in the fields of history, philosophy, ethnography, archives, psychology and anthropology, as well as archaeology and ethnology, consisted in an approach to the work of art as a form of expression laden with humanistic meanings and modified by various ideological contexts. In Warburg’s view, the work of art as a combination of heterogeneous and conflicting images functions just like ideas, losing some meanings and acquiring others in the labyrinth of time and space. Hence, for the art historian the object of analysis is the non-linear movement of visual expression, charged with ideology in changing social contexts. Warburg’s workshop was, on the one hand, an enormous collection of books and manuscripts covering all the humanities, which is known today as the London Warburg Institute Library, and on the other, a never completed set of reproductions of paintings called Atlas (Bilderatlas). The Atlas, which is most interesting for us in the present context, resembled in its form the structure of collage. On particular tables Warburg would put in utter chronological disorder hundreds of reproductions of works of art or fragments of paintings, sculptures, and engravings, mixed with contemporary postcards and stamps, press photographs, advertisements, etc. All the images were grouped according to visual „pathos forms”, i. e. recurrent schemes of representation and gestures of expressive figures. The symbolism of scenes was related – in Warburg’s view – to the key problems of human culture, stemming from the tension between the irrational thought (the astrological tradition) and rationalism which provided a dynamic ideological axis of all art history. For Warburg there were no good or bad images – all of them, both the most banal ones and the most original, constituted by their expressive form a cipher for social ideas and impulses coming from the unconscious.
The structure of Kulik’s photomontages – a limitless aggregate of images constituting one image, those innumerable „missiles which are one missile,” is based upon recurrent and mutually exclusive antinomies. This time we do not deal with the microcosm of the Cabinet of Curiosities, but with the macro-space of the Atlas of Images whose symmetrical mosaic forms a topography of tensions binding heroic gestures and doll-like bows, victorious banners and religious attributes, triumphal arches and calculated executions, military parades and vaudeville pageants. The images, reflecting one another, seem to constitute a single image: an irrational-rational spectacle of the present world. In Kulik’s art, a critical question about the historical nature of a schematized image is replaced by the critique of visual meanings in their self-cancelling ideological contexts. The abundance of meanings will turn out to be an arrangement of ornaments, a ruse of the absent sense, an abstract image of the empty symbol.
Let us focus on an example taken from the repertoire of „visual devices and references” – a recurrent male statue with its hand raised in the orator’s gesture of persuasion and command, as well as salutation and greeting. „We immediately recognize it”, Kulik says, „this is Lenin, this is Mao, this is a Roman commander. We may just as well find someone making such a gesture in the Western democracy. When we impose on something the same thing again, and then again and again, when we juxtapose all gestures and all manners of representing various ideas, then, even though each object has been determined by a different context, the contexts cancel one another and what is left is the sign itself, as well as,” adds the artist, „in a sense, abstraction.” What is left in Kulik’s art of the historicization of nature known from the Cabinets of Curiosities is the „singularity” of empty meaning; what remains in it of the Atlas of Images is the nonsense of the spectacle of representations. The images are deprived both of their context (in self-cancelling history) and their text itself (in a denaturalized, empty sign) – now they are associated with the production of waste. „Values and meanings are still out there, but only as entries in a hypothetical lexicon”, says Kulik. „For me”, she adds, „a value could be today some philosophy of abstaining from production. In art as well. This is quite a dramatic vision… a silence of production.” Let us realize that a radical sense of this statement borders on the helplessness of the modern artist who believes that he or she cannot break out of the circle on which he or she has been cruising from politics to consumerism, between the irrational impotence of abstract power and the rational concreteness of market requirements – and the other way round, between abstract rules of the market and the determination of rational power. This is the absurdity of rotating movement whose epicenters are occupied by lexical symbols – the atlas of empty images.
Since, however, the problem is more complex, one cannot leave it at that. First of all because in Kulik’s art the poignant emptiness of images is accompanied by specific figural patterns, some mnemosyne, deeply rooted in the artist’s psyche („… be nothing but an obedient psychic instrument…”, she says) and in the social experience of her generation („I am an artist of the seventies”, she insists). In order to see her art in this perspective, we need some third point of reference which I would call the Socialist Iconosphere, a sphere of images which are well-known to all who lived after World War II in any country of the so-called „communist bloc”. And even though the length of the period of socialist realism as a specific doctrine of the regime connected with specific techniques of social disciplining varied from country to country, everywhere it has left a deep trace on the landscape of the milieu and mentality of those who happened to encounter that reality. Marked with internal contradictions, the socialist realism would everywhere take on the forms of a political doctrine, a rhetorical method, a theoretical-artistic system, and, finally, various artistic practices.
As a political doctrine, it was supposed to organize all walks of social life (in the Marxist terminology, the superstructure, than also the base) in order to instrumentalize all the manifestations of thought and social action. As a rhetorical method, it was a way of generating and overcoming contradictions, a specific dialectical ideology. That method disturbed human communication, and its expected result was social disintegration. As a theoretical-artistic system, the socialist realism was a set of diverse rules, regulations, and critiques. It was a system of prescriptions which proved discrepant enough to effectively cancel artistic relations, even though it pretended to carry on the search for the canon. As a practice of the execution of power, the socialist realism allowed for all means of persuasion and oppression, both mental and physical, including seduction, blackmail, rewards, and imprisonment. As an artistic practice, it was modeled in terms of power and submission, in this sense always containing an element of compromise (of either a positive, or negative value).
In the Socialist Iconosphere, the image underwent the process of specific stylization, ritualization, and ideologization. It had its distinctly banal, superimposed form (a particular pastiche of classical and realistic fragments – columns, finials, porticos, statues, portraits…); it took part in the rituals constituting the official history of the proletariat party and its leaders (May 1 parades, anniversaries of communist victories, ceremonies of rewarding shock workers…), based on codified, yet semantically capacious propaganda meanings (unyielding, progressive, favorable, hostile, reactionary…).
A feature of the Socialist Iconosphere which is most interesting to us in the present context were the aforementioned disturbances of social communication, caused by the disruption of an objective and semantic relationship between illusion and reality, between the fiction of images and the truth of experience, which resulted in a number of rifts in the cognitive and emotional perception of the world. The task of the socialist-realist painting was to abolish the distance between itself and reality, as if it had been all the reality there was. The aforementioned naturalization of the symbol or perhaps, more precisely, its transformation into a thing, allowed the socialist realists to create the world of a fantastic political Utopia and to treat it as real. Just like the spire on the top of the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw was not a symbol of victory, but the very victory of the „socialist development”, the Socialist Iconosphere was not the realm of pictorial illusion, but a physically perceptible element of reality.
Seen from such a point of view, the tables of Kulik – particularly those from the early nineties – are not so much the photomontages of the emptiness of socialist patterns, but acts of critical dismantling of the reality of „real socialism” which was the substance of its imagery. By introducing into the ornamental structure (associated here with artistic illusion) the decomposed real discourses (which used to conceal their unreality), Kulik denounces them as grotesque mechanisms governing the political iconosphere of the socialist realism. This brings about a new kind of tension between, on the one hand, the already familiar monumentalization and globalization of forms and concepts (symmetry, repetition, stereotypization, domination…) and, on the other, their concretization and privatization (the Palace of Culture in Warsaw, the May 1 parade in 1972, a mass celebrated by the Polish Pope, devotion pictures, instruments of liturgy, a postcard, a familiar interior, the loved ones, one’s own portrait…) which yield a paradoxical synthesis of coded rituals, fossilized social roles, and visual clichés. In all these works Kulik used strongly contrasted wholes or meaningful fragments (material vs spiritual, communist vs Catholic, male vs female, superior vs inferior, circle vs square, vertical vs horizontal…), in order to establish between them a relationship of mutual inclusion, obfuscation or abolition. The Socialist Realist Iconosphere, as Kulik seems to imply by turning to it her attention, is a grotesque state of the image oscillating between the plenitude of codified symbols and emptiness of emerging meanings.
On the one hand, Kulik’s critical reflection pertains to a psycho-sexual aspect of visual relations encoded by means of the cipher of an ideological game of equal opportunities, revealing the actual place of the woman in the masculine order of the communist system of power (an interesting analysis of this dimension of Kulik’s art has been proposed by Ewa Lajer-Burcharth in her article „Old Histories: Zofia Kulik’s Ironic Recollections” included in the catalogue of an exhibition called New Histories, The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 1996), on the other, to social manipulation – a mosaic of disciplining mechanisms which under the rhetoric of the people’s rights in a parliamentary democracy conceal a totalitarian image of one-party rule. While the former type of analysis – a spontaneous reaction to the disintegration of the communist bloc and its image in 1989 – prevailed in Kulik’s earlier works, the latter, universalizing her critique of the techniques of control and subjugation and, in a way, characteristic of her photomontages from the outset, became prevalent in the mid-nineties, resulting in a crucial shift of emphasis. However, it should be remembered that both perspectives are difficult to tell apart, since psycho- and socio-manipulation are aimed both at the oppressed mind and at the body. The difference stems not so much from the method, but from different modes of defining the subject observing his or her own experience, which in the former case usually tends towards ironic identification with the image that, like a banner, has been stuck in the body, and in the latter most often consists in refutation or, in other words, somewhat hopeless rejection of the evidence of too personally felt presence, in search of some state of „zero gravity” in the image, which could let the artist regain balance, disturbing the experienced world with a sequence of further and further-reaching generalizations, within a closed circle of the power of authority and emptiness of signs. By no accident, in a letter of 1996 the artist wrote to me: „I would like to leave this soc-Europe somewhat behind, as it has been identified to be the main source of my work.” And indeed, while at the beginning there was the critical analysis of the image of the Socialist Realist Iconosphere, eventually the dominant question has become the place of the image in the post-communist landscape. The local aspect of Kulik’s photomontages has been naturally reduced, and the problems of the consumerist culture – its dominant symbolic orders, the relations of power and law, desire and consumption, political ideologies and advertising campaigns, and, finally, the redefined critical role of the artist – have acquired much more significance.
Let us now take a look at the examples of those two perspectives and shifted emphasis, without, at the same time, forgetting that in Kulik’s art both approaches overlap, and stressing the fact that in both cases, defining the totalitarian, communist or consumerist system in terms of history and myth, desire and belief, seduction and sacrifice, Kulik endows the symbols and allegories of the Socialist Realist Iconosphere and Post-Communist Landscape with distinctly erotic and religious connotations. In Self-Portrait with the Palace, which will be the first object of my attention, the artist undertakes an ironic stylization of her nude body, following the Immaculate Madonna represented in a mandorla and adored by the angels. In the Christian tradition, this scene usually symbolizes overcoming dualism. In Kulik’s work, the order has been slightly modified and the antinomies highlighted. The artist replaced the angels with male nudes tied with a drapery, while she herself – occupying the vertical center of the composition – holds in her hands a phallic top of the banner’s shaft with a sputtering red star, placed vertically on her lap. In place of the clitoris of the vaginal mandorla there is an upturned picture of the Stalinist Palace of Culture whose spire, like an electrode, approaches the artist’s head, lighting the fires coming out of her body like beams. The spire – a symbol of power, torture, and penis (here: „an ironic signifier of male domination”) is an object of desire of the two upper „angels”, in vain stretching to it their sweating hands. The lower „angels”, closer to the female body and stricken by the mandorla’s glow and the burst of the star, seem to fall down into the abyss of hell.
The other photomontage, All the Missiles Are One Missile, whose complex narration, ordered by the geometry of symmetrical fields, contains images from TV screen, scenes from movies, press photos, reproductions of statues, photographs of objects and plants, as well as male and female nudes. Contrary to the former work, here the quadruple self-portrait of the artist, this time holding a cold point of the banner close to her breasts, is located on the periphery, as if it were leaving the scene – certainly marginalized in the corners of the huge composition. The axis of the whole arrangement is based on a square and a horizontally extended form of the cross. In the center there is a many-pointed star surrounded with doll-like male nudes whose bent shoulders and swirling draperies form the shape of a multiple swastika. Around them, in subsequent black-and-white quarters, there are four skulls, bunches of dry thistle, screws resembling candelabra, and, finally, ornamental nudes peeping into the cups of flowers towards some mystery inside – all that imitating, as it were, a slow-motion film. The central quarter is demarcated by a belt of the photos of a hammer and pliers, as well as a somewhat blurred crowd, „lifted” from the Chinese TV. Outside that border, the composition stretches out sidewise, arranged in analogous and ambiguous forms suggesting both the facade and interior of a gothic cathedral, and the short wings of a rocket which is about to be launched. In the left rose window of the cathedral, or in the heart of the missile, there is a socialist-realist statue of a woman holding in her hands a flower garland – a symbol of the Mother-Land from the Leningrad cemetery, surrounded by a circular frieze with a woman with an absent face marked by inner tension, holding a spread kerchief, perhaps a shroud. In the right rose window we can see a double statue of a man holding in his raised hands a sword – a monument of glory from Magnitogorsk. The statue is surrounded by a circular frieze of male nudes whose penises, slightly slanted arrowheads, are no longer covered by the loincloths. In the empty space between the border of the center and the foundation of the cathedral/rocket engines, the artist placed two masks – male portraits with mysterious yet meaningless faces, and right next to them the already familiar punches, bravely waving the banner of revolution, with their heads covered by „tiaras” with the cross, resembling the tops of liturgical vessels or church spires. The interiors of the cathedrals/rockets are covered with the ornament of a human-shaped spermatozoon imitating the movements of military drill. Against this background, we can see the photos of the Brandenburg Gate, outlines of missiles, and female and male nudes in absurd or sensual poses, all cut, as it were, out of a sheet of cardboard. In the abstract space of the cathedral spire or the soaring rocket there are minute particles of TV news, scattered in boundlessness. The border of the carpet composition, pierced with the phallic head of the missile/top of the spire, is constituted by two belts – one is a sequence of frames from a Russian film from the 1940s recording an execution by shooting, the other is a photograph of a male nude, repeated ad infinitum, which is like a puppet on a string – the same which elsewhere carries the symbols of revolution and the church, and which is frozen in an unnatural pose, with a piece of fabric draped to look like a grotesque tail.
In both cases, the subject matter is an approach (in fact, two quite different approaches) to power relations. In the Self-Portrait, power is recognized and subjugated, yet, experienced as repression, it seems to belong to the past (which will quickly turn out an illusion). One might say that the artist „keeps it under control” – pulling the strings, she plays with the meanings whose clear ideological codes (political and religious), concealing the masculine frustration, make themselves ridiculous in the close circuit of the system. In the photomontage All the Missiles Are One Missile the situation is different. Here, Kulik, whose portrait is just an element of the endless ornament of images, easily recognizing the old actors (puppet-like males), false allegories (of justice, redemption or labor), conventional gestures, attributes, and symbols (rose windows, gates, statues, crosses, swords, flags), notices also the new configuration of the background; the simultaneous space of the screens invading all the hitherto empty and free spaces. In place of the socialist realist imagery creating „true” reality, the new extensive Videosphere proposes the image which is pure perception of mutually self-cancelling contexts. Reality which is not experienced directly as fact seems to be a fiction, while the authority, which does not bear the name of the Central Committee, seems to be an illusion of power. The contemporary „strangeness” of control consists in the de-contextualization of sign in the world of abstract consumption. „When I watch the news”, says Kulik, „it occurs to me that they attack us with their exteriority, their surface, their ‘body’, and not their significance. If we really grasped the meaning of many pieces of information, we should react to them in one way or another, but actually we do not participate and do not experience all those pictures. Some image repeats itself, resembling a picture from a different situation, and finally the circumstances and historical context are no longer important – what remains is just the stamp of a certain time.” Would the only antidote be, indeed, to reverse one of Kulik’s reflections, the „philosophy of abstention”, the „silence of production”?
This time the critical question posed by Kulik does not refer either to the expression of form, or to the construction of ideas in the artistic message, but to the social role of the artist in making the videosphere and to the efficiency of its criticism. The question is as much difficult, as it is dangerous, since, deeply rooted in the tradition of the engaged art, it has been and still is most eagerly recuperated by every authority, thus quickly turning into a mode of its affirmation, not challenge. This problem is particularly relevant for the history of the twentieth-century photomontage, a technique which was invented and applied by the artists of the avant-garde who identified their art with social revolution. In view of the Russian constructivists and Berlin dadaists, the photomontage was an artistic and ideological weapon, combining the „poetry of the real” with the literalness of the political commentary. It was an instrument of art in combat. Thus, by no accident photomontage was the first to become in the thirties a tool of the party propaganda in Stalin’s Russia, while in other European countries it became a vehicle of mass culture.
The use of the photomontage today is an obvious challenge, a kind of provocation which the artist undertakes by reaching to the very heart of an unfinished debate. According to Debora Vogel, the art critic from Lvov who was active on the artistic left in Poland before World War II, the photomontage can be treated „only as an equivalent of the worldview which is the closest to the idea of narrative simultaneity.” As though to respond to this requirement, in an interview of 1997 Zofia Kulik made a direct statement: „My mode is visual narrative, that is, a broad stream of story-telling, which is not, however, based on linear narration where one sequence follows another, but I construct something of a map on which I make various visual facts collide with each other.” And now, again, Debora Vogel, in 1934: „The question for art is which facts are important. It may as well be that apparently crucial ‘facts’ that occupy a vast stretch of life will turn out insignificant for life, and, consequently, also for form, be it even shooting of a human being. Another question is; do literal facts exist at all? Isn’t it that any single fact, let alone their selection and combination, is a kind of interpretation of the crude stuff of life, and that there are no mere ‘facts’ at all?”
Debora Vogel wrote poetry and short stories – she died during the liquidation of the Lvov ghetto in August 1942. The writer Bruno Schulz outlived her by less than three months. Schulz and Vogel were tied to each other by the feeling of friendship, a logical equivalent of impossible love. They corresponded with each other for many years. Schulz sent her fragments of his Cinnamon Shops, she sent him her Akacje kwitną [Acacias in Bloom]. „No, more discussion of this matter would not be a waste of time”, Vogel wrote in a letter to Schulz of January 1939, „anyway, what else are we to do, separated from each other by the oceanic space of a three-hour ride on a slow train, having at our disposal nothing but mainly logical feelings, those bizarre colorings whose basis is thinking and judgments? I also admit – in this case – that I have a propensity to abstraction; for me, interesting combinations of thoughts have the hue of poetry and form, they bring about a thrill of suspense similar to that caused by irrational (alogical) arrangements of elements – why shouldn’t we then discuss them, why shouldn’t we use this means, too, in order to feed in ourselves the fire of colors which sometimes appears to subside?”
Zofia Kulik has told me once that she would like to call her exhibition „Logical Feelings”.
Le Four á la Pérelle, September 14, 1998