Bożena Czubak talks to Zofia Kulik.
Zofia Kulik – Self-Portraits and the Garden, cat., Le Guern Gallery, Warsaw, 2004.
Self-Portraits. I am, however, myself not somebody else
Bożena Czubak: The self-portrait theme has been present in your work since you finished your co-operation with Przemysław Kwiek, so one might have the impression that since you started working independently, you have started to look at yourself and your own image more closely.
Zofia Kulik: The first self-portrait I did was the one from the “Medals” (Medale) series. I stand naked but covered in it. I have my breasts hidden behind my elbows. In the place where the delta and stomach are, there is a picture quoting an image from an encyclopaedia: a drawn skull with scientific explanations about its structure. On both sides, two white hooks come from my shoulders like wings. Actually, they are two ceramic hooks from a slaughterhouse but blown-up in scale. At the sides, my figure is embraced in two curved triangles, something like fangs. These two “fangs” are supposed to make a kind of “wreath” with ears of corn around my figure. Their red ends, not touching each other, make an open ogive above my head. The inside of the fangs is filled with a row of repeated male figures with fists clenched tight and hands in a boxing position.
Yet, there is no trace of aggression in this figure, no dynamics.
And that’s the point! This immobile figure is passive, defensive even; although the clenched fists might suggest some movement, some action… The image above my head is also taken from an encyclopaedia – it is a photograph of the aurora borealis. Above it there are reproductions of two stars from officers’ distinction signs. Between them, there is a holy medallion with an angel, which I received from a nun. When I had my residency grant in Italy in 1972, I lived for a month and a half in a nunnery in Rome (I read the whole Old Testament there). My pregnancy was already very visible and it was obvious that I would deliver a baby on my return to Poland. Sister Maximiliana, an elderly woman, was taking care of me. She sent me this medallion when I informed her of the birth of the baby.
Was the medallion meant for the baby?
Because the baby has never been baptised, it did not get the medallion as a present.
Was the photograph of your figure taken deliberately with a self-portrait in mind or did you use a shot which had been made before?
I made a whole series for self-portraits, all of them naked. I remember that I wanted to “come out good”. Initially, I chose only those frames which hid my body’s weak points. I worked under great stress. This was a great breakthrough for me. Suddenly, I found myself in front of the lens. Yet, I also felt a great urge to communicate something.
That I am. I exist. This first self-portrait with the skull was still strongly saturated with psychology. A sketch for it was very close to the final outcome and it probably was my first individual project after the KwieKulik period. The multiple-exposure method had not yet been developed well. There are many elements of traditional collage in this work.
And these psychological vapours…
The skull on the abdomen, on the female’s womb… suggests infertility? Yes. I felt such a spiritual infertility and emptiness. A sense of loneliness. I was looking for something which would interest me in such a human and intense way. “Mandalas, medals, columns, gateways and carpets” – these were the areas of inspiration which I delimited for myself then. This particular work was inspired by the form of medals and medallions.
The medal à rebours for procreation? The reversal of the repressive symbolism which makes woman tantamount to maternity, reproduction?
For instance, in Soviet Russia, a woman who gave birth to many children, the future builders or warriors, received the status of a hero. And she was granted a medal in reward. I have such a Soviet brochure for children with a suitable verse and the illustration of the heroine rendered in pastel.
Let us take your “Self-Portrait with the Palace” – the ambiguity which it evokes and which it joins in. Your figure is embraced here in a mandorla of a vaginal shape.
Mandorlas have such a vaginal shape. The entire arrangement with angels at the sides alludes to representations of Mary the Immaculate.
You hold the tip of a banner staff; hence, the association with the representations of women as leaders carrying banners, leading people to barricades. Maria Janion, when asking Why is revolution a woman? wrote about the durability of various meanings in allegorical representations using female images; about the usefulness of these images in the rendering of the duality between “a whore” and “a virgin”. This duality is linked to another juxtaposition appearing in European culture: “the whore and the Madonna”. You seem to play with this duality in the “Self-Portrait with the Palace”. Your naked figure in a vagina-like mandorla, in an arrangement depicting the dogma of the Immaculate Conception with male nudes as angels…
I hold the tip of the banner staff, a sharp metal peak which seems to have grown out of my womb; a little like the symbol of a phallus which I do not have. After all, this tipped image continues through the entire composition of the figure, starting from the place were the ankles meet, through an elongated shadow of the crevice between my calves, which then becomes a multi-tipped star. The tip of the star is as if reflected by the tip of the banner staff, which, in turn, becomes a pentagram, and the tip of its arm delimits the symmetry axis of my head, to have its further continuation in the tip of the Palace of Culture, turned upside-down. As a result, we receive a series of tipped elements like beads joined by a string.
I myself am inside the mandorla, but the outline of a black border around my body is reminiscent of the shape of an Egyptian sarcophagus. I am immobilised by this axis, as if pierced by a string and closed in the sarcophagus. I am very domineering with this banner staff and angels on my side, on the one hand, and am rendered motionless and encased on the other. From this contradiction between the paramount and the immobilised position comes the tension, the unrest, the note of madness. The composition is very static; there is no dynamics, no fight. However, there is a formal tension in it, against the static character of the figures. It carries the element of unsettlement and rebellion. And then instantly comes the question: against what or whom is this rebellion?
As you said, the staff tip plays the role of a phallus. It probably is too ostentatious to speak about the compensation for the absence of something. It rather appears to be a scornful lack of the complex of the absence.
The potential dynamics of this work, coming from the multiplication of sharp tips, is almost an illustration of my former utterance: I struggle against some invisible sharp tip and I do not know whether I direct it towards myself or from myself. Moreover, it was 1990 then, right after the fall of the Wall, when I was making “The Idioms of the Soc(ialist)-Ages”. For me, it was the time between the old system and finding oneself in the new context, consequently, an entirely new stage.
It was new also in the sense of looking at oneself. Does the feeling of being inauthentic accompany you always during taking pictures of yourself? A photographed person starts to pose, to create oneself, to arrange for a certain image, to disown oneself. In the case when you are on both sides of the lens, the game is between yourself as the subject and yourself as an object.
As a photographer I appropriate myself. Standing behind the lens and in front of the camera at the same time, looking into the lens from both sides, I look through this lens at my viewer as if focusing his gaze on myself. In fact, I want to potentially appropriate his look. I am not able not to think about the viewer. When I start working, he is already with me in my atelier.
Don’t you have an impression when looking at your self-portraits that they are like the appearance of you as someone else? You as an image? That this is not precisely you?
Yes, I do. But the will to have myself recorded is stronger. Old masters often did their self-portraits, not signing them but remaining hidden somewhere in the tangle of a composition on the wall, in frescoes. There is the will to record oneself in a form unchangeable for 100 or 500 years. An artist who takes a photograph of himself becomes later the element of his own composition. In this complicated field of manoeuvres, which our work is, I place myself as one of the figurines which I later set into action. The question would pertain to the role I play, at least symbolically, at a margin, as it happens while working. “All…” – now I wanted to say “All Missiles Are MY Missile”, instead of “…One Missile”. Such a Freudian slip.
…all are one, that means “mine”. And the simile of the manoeuvre field, which also grasps the duality of your role well. You are one of the chess figures in this field and, at the same time, the one who moves the chessmen.
This way I multiply myself. I create myself.
You create the image of yourself and start to function as an image.
Yes, as a type of icon. This is the will to “smuggle” yourself in. Once, someone rightly and unpretentiously called it “entering art history through the kitchen door”. Photographing myself, I smuggle my own image into the history of art. Certainly, I act out some roles here as well, but this is not my domain, at least not in the same sense as it happens in Cindy Sherman’s work, who exposes herself to far-reaching transformations.
Cindy Sherman in her early, black and white photos, in which she incarnated various roles from a housewife to a film star, is almost a paragon of thinking about one’s identity in the categories of a cultural product. Speaking the language of psycho-analysis – an example of identifying herself with her own reflection. However, what is more interesting for us is this tension in her works which comes from the suggestion of the presence of a gazer, i.e. the other one who is invisible in the frame and whose eye is the adversary of the acted-out roles and whose power of gaze forced her to put on a mask. It is as if the other one from the Lacanian phase of the mirror kept guard over the heroine of those photographs, lest she lose track of her role. In your case, however, we are dealing with an entirely different situation because you ascribe the role of the observer to yourself – the role of the one who keeps guard of her own image.
The only role which I consciously act out is the role of the observer. Please, note that I am actually not present. I am absolutely motionless, everything concentrates on the eyes. The only thing I do is gaze. This is what I most like doing: standing and looking or sitting and looking. When I compose these works, I constantly juxtapose objects, shapes and particular elements; I arrange them and I simultaneously observe them. This is reminiscent of someone who plays patience (women play patience). As an observer, I do not have to play any other roles. In this role the compatibility of my two different placements occurs, i.e. the one who is standing in front of and the one who is standing behind the camera.
So, this means that both of them are observers?
The one who stands behind the camera observes the one who takes the pictures. And whom does the photographed one observe?
I play the role of myself – the one who observes what is happening around her. As an artist, a photographer, I constantly arrange things around myself, I am engrossed amidst these shapes and forms which surround me.
So, the one who takes photographs of yourself, this photographing one creates the role of the observer for you, she creates you as a gazer.
As the gazer – and this is the basic difference in comparison with those artists who put on masks, hats, make faces and make all this theatre in front of the camera or before the easel. As the gazer I incarnate myself; I constantly act out myself in subsequent scenes.
Is there not any temptation to emphasise your own importance, not to say – specificity; the temptation to grasp something of your own, your own identity? I do not mean any “truth” of the image but rather – using Baudrillard’s words – “a challenge to any likelihood, the quest carried out in a different place for something which comes from there”.
I cannot think of myself as something finished, ready, and formed. I can rather say about approaching myself, gaining some knowledge about myself. This will always be the imperfect, continuous tense. I can only speak about some aspects of myself. They must find suitable expression in my works, a visual translation.
Are you not afraid that you will be identified with this image, that you will be mistaken for it? That what has actually been translated into it will be taken as you yourself?
This is the fear of people who are photographed by surprise, who have no participation in creating their own images. As for me, I build a studio-like situation and study myself. When I take a photograph, I place a mirror behind the camera, where I can arrange my face. I am wary of creating my own image. After all – this does not only pertain to the visual sphere, a self-portrait can be a written one, for instance, it can be a diary. One can confess very intimate things to the world. Whatever it is, I never do it directly.
When Rimbaud repeated in his correspondence: “Because I am someone else” he wanted to reach that which is non-conscious. He wanted to lose himself in experiencing to the extreme, already outside the form, in some ecstatic, yet, futile, attempt to be someone else. Paraphrasing his words, one would have to reverse their sense when applying them to your practice…
…Well, I am not somebody else, after all. Moreover, it is the form which is the point in my case – this is what Gombrowicz wrote about. When something lacks form, it is simply repugnant to me. Things without a form are irritating. Each object, figure and being and each of its poses must be frozen in a proper form. When I photograph myself, I also look for a form, for some expression. This can be a type of a face, a grimace. It must be associated with some different people, with something which has already existed in culture, which bears some symbolic burden with it.
As it is in the case of “The Splendour of Myself” in which you allude to the portrait of Elizabeth I of England in a very ironic way. You exchange the splendour of royal insignia for a cucumber and a weed, the so called “puff -ball”.
“The Splendour of Myself” is related to my fondness for collecting. If I were a well-off person, I would busy myself with collecting, not necessarily art. In old times, rich ladies from the aristocracy collected precious things, jewellery, some curiosities. Because I do not have financial means at my disposal, I collect images. One could say I am rich in images. I dress myself in them. Hence comes “The Splendour of Myself”. My costume in this self-portrait is almost “simmering” with the lavishness of images. Moreover, “The Splendour of Myself” is in three versions and I planned an even larger series. Something like a changeable “jacket” for the painting of the Black Madonna from Częstochowa – a repeated image of the Black Madonna which is “dressed” in various jackets: with rubies, with diamonds. The general arrangement of composition is the same, but the encrustation is different each time.
And the choice of characters? A grand monarch who, according to popular lore, preferred to die unmarried than share power and expose herself to the loss of independence.
I ran across Elizabeth I accidentally. This work stems from various overlapping inspirations: some thoughts on Catholicism, on the one hand, and my interest in costume, in fashion throughout the ages, on the other. When I had studied different books on the history of fashion, intuition told me about some links between the richness of the dresses of English female monarchs and the copiousness of Spanish Catholic churches. The exhibition showing jewellery in 17th-century painting, which I saw at the Tate in London in 1996, was an additional impulse. Then I had an opportunity to scrutinise royal portraiture and began my search for information on clothes. It turned out that English female monarchs took the fashion of very Catholic Spanish rulers as their model.
Elizabeth I, fighting the Spaniards, defeating the Catholics, excommunicated for the restoration of the Anglican Church… Yes, but there certainly were earlier dynastic links and influences of the Spanish court before the time of her reign.
I partially took the title for the self-portrait in Elizabeth I’s costume from the catalogue of an exhibition in Northern Carolina, “Splendours of the New World”, subtitled “Spanish Colonial Masterworks”. The exhibition indicated the relation between the discovery of America, accompanied by the plunderage policy of the Spanish rulers and the splendour and riches of the Kingdom of Spain and the Church. This wealth and splendour came back with blood in the form of cathedrals in Mexico, in South America.
It was the baroque “bountifully supplied” with unbelievable grandeur of ornament and figures of saints in lavish attire. Moreover, the ritual of clothing is still alive there in the custom of dressing-up the doll-like figures of saints. Women dressing Madonnas in laces, satins and velvets, decking them with pearls and beads are like little girls who play dolls. They probably do not know themselves whether they are celebrating a religious cult or the dressing-up of figurines.
Perhaps the celebrating is the point in itself.
An even more archetypal need for celebration, notwithstanding the cult.
I find something enchanting in your two recent self-portraits from the last years, “Light Rose” (2000) and “Land-escape” (2000), which I would call a symbolic void, or, using not my own words, “nothingness in the very heart of the image”. Despite its formal development, almost visual overabundance, the accumulation of different, more or less significant elements in which your face is wrapped and, in contrast to your earlier self-portraits which compose certain symbolic units, here we are dealing with something like the suspension of a narrative, ellipsis and even mocking someone who would search for some binding explanation for these images.
This is a kind of object-symbolic infinity. No dominant. All elements counterbalance each other, there is no dominant form. Everything is based on circular combinations. This is slightly reminiscent of the sky: stars revolve and shine and nothing happens except that.
A state of somewhat idle contemplation.
In “Land-escape” this is a little like the state of transcendence and a little of absence. The motif of landscape over which my face is floating. And, certainly, the play of words in the title: scenery, ground, escape…
In the second self-portrait, the face, or – rather – the look sinking in piled-up circles of frieze and the hands which move the folds of drapery to show the void around the glowing neon light.
Neon light offers a mystical flavour at a cheap cost. A cheap effect of mysticism in space. Over the neon, there is a stone figure of a ballerina photographed at the Powązki cemetery, and above it a still from TV featuring genetic code. The juxtaposition of these three elements is the most important because it is a kind of a funeral self-portrait. Well, there are many more cemetery references. In the upper part, over my face, there is a skull photographed from the bottom. At the sides, there are three paws of a squirrel which my dog killed, the dog being dead itself now. In another concentric circle – chrysanthemums. The Polish title of the work “Róża światła” sounds a bit kitschy, but its original, English version is derived from the compass rose.
The motif of light and flashes repeats in the circle of light points surrounding my face. I found precisely the same motif in a photo showing “From Siberia to Cyberia”, on a photograph from the church interior in the town of Legnica. A candelabrum with a circle of burning bulbs “floats” over the altar and the monstrance. Amazing similarity. I am meticulously looking for such formal references but am always astonished when a network of various visual interrelations reveals itself to me. I often have an impression that I am out-moded, devoting so much time to form and formalisms.
Garden and the images of images
“Self-portraits and Garden” is a title which has a little nostalgic sound; well, at any rate it carries a goodly potential of sentimental associations.
The title “Garden” derives from my thinking about the entire exhibition because it suits self-portraits. I used fresh flowers, right after cutting them down in the “garden” series but I have been collecting the images of flowers for a long time. I live several hundred metres from the Puszcza Kampinoska forest and a garden surrounds my house. I brought various plants to my studio which fade away with time, get moulded and dry. I photographed all these stages. The floral-herbal elements built my works as much as the motifs of a naked body, architectural forms and TV images. The same thing happens in my self-portraits: my garment seems to be woven from various images, the majority of which are plants. I am hemmed in by garden-like, orderly compositions. Their geometric arrangements may bring French gardens into mind, those of the Versailles type, where everything is precisely designed, and trees and bushes are trimmed into artificially regular forms.
I can remember your postcard from a few years ago: a human skull lying on a floral, glowing red background…
Yes, that was a photograph of a skull placed on a folk kerchief; a fragment of an incomplete project from 1995, entitled “Ethnic Wars. Large Vanitas Still Life”. I used to collect kerchiefs and fabrics with flowery patterns then. I have a large collection of these fabrics, cut into various squares; you can look at them as if browsing through, page after page, or – pattern after pattern. I like the diversity of conventions in which flowers are presented. There is an unbelievable number of them and almost all have been created by anonymous designers.
Your mania for archiving, collecting and documenting has been written about many times but collecting is also a sentimental gesture, isn’t it? You have kept your “Garden” in a drawer for some time, treating it rather as a working collection of images, a kind of a sketchbook.
It is good when an artist has time to do a work for nothing, for nobody, for no deadline. Then he can experiment a little and “have his head in the clouds”. I have always been interested in the issue of “reproductiveness”. I have treated reproductions as equal to the photographs of directly recorded reality. But at that time, I wanted to solve a different problem. I juxtaposed and overlapped various negatives in my multiple-exposure method. It is very difficult to determine the common exposure time for negatives made under different lighting conditions. So I decided to duplicate the negatives in such a way that their “density” would be the same. I used one of Libera’s “gestures” for my first attempt. I made an optimal enlargement on photographic paper and then reproduced it, thus obtaining a negative with optimum light exposure.
Out of these improvements of your workshop technology entirely new works appeared which were visually rather distant from what you had done before.
Indeed, it was something of a coincidence. It was spring at that time, flowers were blooming around everywhere. I started to play a little. I became engrossed in combinatorial possibilities. A series of the same photographs but each frame is different from the previous one. A repeated background with a figure and changing arrays of flowers. Each composition resulted form the character of the plants and their visual quality, e.g. sharp, spiked leaves of iris crossed like two sabres next to the grapes of acacia flowers as if hanging down one’s arms.
Did you put the flowers directly onto the photographs?
It was the same photograph each time. Having arranged the composition, I took a coloured slide. The figure was the same – the straddled Libera, a little stooge-like with his palm fingers spread out. And the arrangements of poppies, linden flowers… with a rose and iris leaves. I got the rose from my son, the rest came from my garden, the poppies prevailed. In spring there is a red field of wild poppies in front of my house.
On the photograph which you took, similar to others, from the “Archives of Gestures”, Libera as a model is rather asexual. However, after you introduced flowers, a tension between the model and his body versus the shapes of flowers appears. A flower bears much eroticism in itself: phallic and vaginal shapes. On one of the photographs this game becomes a little perverse with a penis touching a flower bud.
A poppy flower is in its early stage closed inside a green bud. When it matures, the cover bursts open and red, crumpled petals spring out. I placed a poppy bud with its hairy cover only bursting open on the photograph in a way that it looked as if it was about to clasp Libera’s phallus between its pincers. Well, on the photograph with a rose, the figure is as if stuck on a stiff stem with thorns.
Yes, and on other photographs with leaves, with a body covered by poppy petals, some erotic tension appears which cannot be precisely located. Barthes says that an erotic photograph does not make sex the central motif, moreover, it can even not show it at all. He calls eroticism disturbed pornography, violated by the presence of something which distracts one’s attention, something from behind the frame which directs lust behind the frame, too. This is something which would locate our tension not in the representation itself but, instead, in the relation between the visible and the invisible.
I would say that flowers and plants function here a little like clothes. In the first picture, a fully opened flower covers the entire torso, as if the man was dressed in this flower. In another – the figure covered by flowers from its head down to the belly button resembles a woman with her skirt lifted up.
Pornography is unequivocal, everything is uncovered, everything that can be shown is displayed, while there is a game between the displayed and the covered in my “garden” compositions. However, the core of the game is that you uncover by veiling. If certain parts of the body were not covered there would be no tension revealed by those parts which remain uncovered. Paradoxically, eroticism appears when you try to veil something.
This is the moment where it passes pornography by. Undoubtedly, the nature of flowers themselves lends sexual eroticism to these images. Especially, poppies which have so much sensuality in their nimble shapes, clearly exposed in your compositions.
Anyhow, photography is not able to grasp the entire sensuality encapsulated in flowers. The more you try to approach them and catch on nature, the more kitschy the effect you can receive. A poppy flower is unbelievable in its beauty, it has delicate, fragile petals and creases on its silky surface. When red petals peep out from a hairy, green bud it is an unbelievably erotic moment.
These qualities work in your works independently of flowers. They set into motion something which can be dubbed after Deleuze “the constraint of sensitivity”, the operation of sensuous signals, moving memory and unintentional imagination.
A certain air of the grotesque accompanies sensuality in these photographs. It stems from the juxtaposition of the living matter of coloured flowers with an inanimate photograph.
I arranged the flowery compositions on the figure of a naked, immobile man, pinned-up like a butterfly, deprived of the warmth of carnality. The human figure, submerged in the nebula of photographic grain, is a weakly lit element of the black background. Flowers are reproduced here while the figure is reproduced; one can say it is the image of an image.
With this emphasis on the “natural character” of flowers, their belonging to another system than black and white photography with an unnaturally posed human figure, makes you avoid the trap of symbolic associations, the importunity of cultural stereotypes. Flowers, on the other hand, being “quotations” from reality, bring a certain nostalgia-like distance to surrounding things in which we also see our own mode of looking.
This is related to technicalities. As I said, a coloured slide is a reproduction of the photograph of a figure and, simultaneously a direct shot of a flower lying on this photograph. Thus the overlapping of two layers occurs; the tension between the precise images of flowers and the misty, slightly out-of-focus figure in the background.
The overlapping of two layers accumulates two dimensions of gaze. When we look at flowers, we simultaneously see the view of our gazing selves in the same look. Hence comes the distance which pertains more to looking than to the seen image itself.
When remains of flowers were found next to the oldest remains of human beings, the gesture of placing flowers next to a dead man was interpreted as the first instance of cultural thinking.
Someone laying flowers and gazing into a tombstone can only see one’s own reflection in the polished plates of the monument, whatever one may be thinking of. One’s look stops at one’s own seeing in this nostalgia of a gaze.
The gesture of placing flowers next to the cadaver of a dead person seems to be the first instance of “superstructure”, if we were to quote Marxist terminology, ha… ha…
Translated by © Marzena Beata Guzowska