Ryszard Ziarkiewicz talks to Zofia Kulik, 1992.
Originally published in Magazyn Sztuki, 1/1993, Sopot.
Being nothing but an obedient psycho-physical instrument
Ryszard Ziarkiewicz: Can you describe in the simplest way “the change that occurred in your work in the 80’s? Did this change have anything to do with your artistic “split” with Przemyslaw Kwiek?1 in the years 1971-1987 Zofia Kulik co-operated with Przemyslaw Kwiek running a private Studio of the Art of Action, Documentation and Propagation..
Zofia Kulik: I think that I am just doing the things I used to do as a student in 1970 and 1971 when I was not with Kwiek. But … the things I am saying now and the way I phrase my thoughts – this is my consciousness today… Now, having gained experience and having thought certain things over, I know that the beginning of the 1970s and my present artistic practice are like the spans of a bridge suspended over the co-operation of the duo Kulik -Kwiek. This “over” denotes the aspect of time; it is by no means any kind of evaluation.
Your co-operation with Kwiek can be treated symbolically. One can say that that time of co-operation produced specific forms of media, after all – so typical of the 70s – in which the very process of creation played an important role (as a matter of fact the process itself was more important than the output). After that period of “process art” comes something entirely different: concentration and an independent process of creation which produces a work of art. What were the reasons for this new stance?
People tend to erect walls around themselves, to close in (packed cases and bags) or to nurture in themselves some states of alert uncertainty, to open themselves to new experiences (pendulum). From the present point of view, my stance has always been a stance of the escape from normality – both in so called “social and family life” and in the ways in which I create art and am an artist. The reasons for such a stance? Well, here I must tell you, with a little confusion, about certain psychological motives in my work… For me art is such an intimate issue that I simply hate interviews, all verbal specification imposed by an external situation. I become driven by emotions and stop thinking in a professional way. Instead of giving answers I start to reveal my under-defined inner life. On the other hand; however, this fact should be considered precious because it is an important motive which can prove my reliability. In other words: all I do is not the question of wants – it is a must. It is a must in an animal sense of the word. If I did not do it I would go mad.
Art is your ruler?
Absolutely yes! In the sense of a governing element, not as a certain principle adopted a priori. I would put it differently still… it is not an element, it is instinct. This instinct with its indispensable rules which man cannot overcome is the question. While constructing the work is not that you fall into some kind of trance, or that you yield to your own spontaneity, inspiration, etc. It is exactly the opposite: you must achieve maximum accuracy and be maximally rational in applying all your really accessible means and abilities. And this how you live, with whom you are going, to whom you are attached; all your fears, all the things you want to look at or those you pursue, all your quasi-commonness – all this you try to experience instinctively and with expectation. If you risk being so honestly reflexive every day, art will come of its own will. You should only be an obedient psycho-physical instrument…
How can you match all that you have said with the image of the avant-garde artist who is usually defined as a cool intellectual, a leftist, a structuralist, etc., and whom you were for some time. Were you driven by instinct then?
There are many definitions of avant-garde but, in general, I agree with what you say. Intellect – yes. Theoretical background, the rule: theory before practice – all this is true. When Kwiek and I were working together it was really different; however, that period requires a separate commentary… When in 1987 I decided that our artistic co-operation had run out of possible new “appearances”. (We should remember that certain epoch was over, there appeared new conditions, and we defined our art as “a reaction to events, especially bad ones”.) We lacked that distance which was necessary for making recapitulations; and now, we seem to lack time for it. (Let me remind you here that in 1985-90, in our interview with Maryla Sitkowska, the artistic output of the duo Kwiek-Kulik is discussed in great detail and let us hope it will be published some day.) Now, I can briefly say that there was a self-imposed constraint and working discipline in a group, which demands the acceptance of another man and understanding his work – on one hand, and, on the other – a rebellion against such enslaving constraint, a rebellion which grew… It turns out that I had the temper of a traditional artist who was passionate about building certain aesthetic unities and who tried to hide the torment of creation from a viewer; however, my skills and inclinations were much despised at that time. Something entirely different mattered, something that Kwiek was just introducing: ideas-without-realization – evanescence, improvisation, documentation, contestation – all this which opposed the traditional notion of a work of art. By the way, the fact that there were so many ideas-without-realization in our work – which earned us a label of conceptualists – made our ideas “utterly unacceptable”, non-conventional, anti-doctrinal; therefore, they were permanently rejected by various juries, commissions and departments. The above-mentioned stance; although alien to my nature (I repeat: which becomes obvious only now), fascinated me, perhaps by the rule of contrast. It was a kind of self-tutorial: do not do things which are easy, in my case – moulding sculptures. What should be done was learning a “foreign language” of artistic utterance and stance. Kwiek -however, had certain features which were innate, trained, acquired – God knows what; they were the features which perfectly matched the 70s. So, we worked together and constituted a weird personal-artistic collage. From a point view of an outsider we were a kind of “monolith” which was being condemned with hardly hidden reluctance or silently ignored by various critical-artistic herds. The lack of acceptance was the reason why the duo Kwiek-Kulik lasted longer than our internal need required. Looking from the inside, it was impossible to unite our two stances; and that is why we were in a state of constant, fierce battle. On my part, it was a fight for “an artistic utterance” which would exist for its own sake. I tried to smuggle it onto a stage where the main characters said nothing but: there is only ME, there is no art.
They got tired with this utterance and with the fact that such a declaration was inevitably inscribed in some form-non-form. Willful or not, it was a certain construction, composition. Remember that in the 1970s there were no “artistic utterances”, compositions, pieces, there were only exercises, experiments, the examination of reality, revealing “a complex form”, “organizing a coincidence”… I remember this fight between us! It was only in 1978, that a break occurred. Precisely speaking, it was a performance during the event “Body, Performance” in Lublin. I had decided that there was no use torturing myself and appearing “naked”, without the “clothing” of a form prepared beforehand without any public interference. I was determined to produce such an utterance which could exist independently, without any author’s commentary. Simply – I had decided to make an art object. Performance as an object… I could no longer stand the process-like quality which was always fully displayed as if on a tray.
Later, in the 80’s, two people played an important role and helped me to arrive at the decision to make art objects – Jurek Truszkowski and Zbyszek Libera. And Andrzej Partum, a little earlier. It was he who asked: Kulcia, when will you make something on your own, without Kwiek? When will you create a piece? If somebody expected something from me, I always began to treat it as my duty… I must admit today that making traditional art objects is easier – this consciousness that you become richer with the flow of time. “Richer” – in a sense of possessing more and more proofs of your work. It ensures certain spiritual peace, compared to our former fight without objects. The fight which was both against given art and given reality, when fear and anger grow because of the lack of understanding, when you notice your own helplessness as a rebel…
Can you specify what was the influence of those two young artists?
Perhaps, it is the question of a new approach to art in general, and especially at the art of the 70s, as well as their attitude to me – the artist Zofia Kulik. They found something potentially important… Yes! Their impact was tremendous! After all we, i.e. Kwiek and I were at that time a well-formed entity and limited ourselves to taking the dividend, and they destroyed this situation. It is difficult for any outsider to understand how great a risk that was, how difficult making the first separate exhibition was. And afterwards, when this first exhibition was confirmed by subsequent ones, by valuations and reactions, I experienced something like a re-birth. I am not able to describe that phenomenon and those feelings.
Coming back to these young people… Their stance was absolutely traditional, even 19th-century. For which prof. Stefan Morawski once criticized them. But they did not care. Moreover, the avant-garde stance became a paper mock-up in the context of the martial law, while a traditional art object – always accepted by official power – became a better weapon against those who were regularly armed with metal- and mass-media. The appearance of the young at that time made the situation totally clear. Tradition became a new point of reference, together with the philosophy of being lonely and lost, “the torment of the self-conscious existence”, as well as the categories of individualism and genius. The grotesque negated the progressive.
There was one more important psycho-sociological aspect -all clans of artists who used the cliche “you know and I understand” collapsed. Instead, appeared the artist facing an outsider and that forced the former to play a different tune.
Well, so we have come to the present day and your exhibition in Amsterdam, which is the main topic of our conversation. Is this exhibition important for European art?
I cannot say this at the moment because, as it turns out, it is not only in Poland but in Amsterdam, too, that people who prepare such kinds of exhibition run a certain risk and you can never tell in advance how the exhibition will be received. For me the exhibition is very important because I participate in it. However, for the Western public this exhibition is one in the string of current and equally important events. For example: when I was there for the first time to see what technical conditions were like, I walked around the Museum and watched. I entered one of the rooms and – what did I see? Two guards standing on either side of a canvas in intense red color with a strip of – perhaps blue – color at the edge. That was Barnett Newman, a minimal artist. But that is not all. In front of the painting was a low glass-fence running along the wall for about 15 meters. You could not approach the work closely. Like with elephants in the Zoo. I started to wonder, I did not understand.
Later the staff explained to me that ‘recently a young spectator has “reacted” to this red – he had approached the painting and cut it in a few places. Then the whole affair began. Specialists in conservation sewed the canvas up but there appeared a problem: whether to re-paint the broken fragments with a brush or a roll, as the artist had done. A discussion aroused and the press started to argue. For them – a serious matter. And for me? Well, just an interesting anecdote about such a place in the world where they treat art seriously… I had also considered the possibility of refusing the invitation. This was provoked by a polite and considerate question by the curators – if I agreed. For me it was obvious that Yes! And, it seems, I did not answer anything. Instead I started discussing organizational details. Later, I learnt that Immendorf, who had also been invited, first accepted the invitation but afterwards rejected it because he was working on his retrospective and devoted all his energy to that. The organizers were just about to invite Kiefer, but he had already had his two shows in Stedelijk, so they abandoned the idea. Until the very last moment, they were not able to tell who was going to exhibit work. Understand? I cannot answer your question whether the exhibition is important. Moreover, I have always been sensitive to smuggling to Poland an information about a foreign success in such a way. The success is blown up to ridiculous size. Let us wait.
What does the title of the exhibition mean?
“Wanderlieder” – “Wandering Song”. It is a song which is about 300 years old and which was sung by itinerant craftsmen in Germany and the Netherlands. You can interpret this title in the following way: certain motifs have been wandering all over Europe for ages, today as well. They are universal truths, problems, tragedies, symbols which all dance throughout history… In such a way I understood my task – to include in my works these dancing motifs of European culture. According to the originator of the title, the director of the Stedelijk Museum Mr. Wim Beeren1 Wim Beeren has been the director of Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam since 1985. He worked there in 1965-1971 as a senior curator under the director E.de Wilde., the exhibition was to have epic character. It was expected that artists would “develop the stories of bygone days”. A narration of a monumental kind was also expected. I found it very interesting to observe how a huge, international exhibition was being organized by such an important institution as Stedelijk. The director-commissary-originator of the event behaved as if he were writing a poem, that is: it seemed that he wanted to express something. Not say, not deliver a speech, not declare and prove but just express. My impression was that he had some personal problem, called “Wanderlieder” to be solved and invited artists to answer him by their realizations. Do you understand? They do not answer any anonymous public, not the society but him, a concrete person – because the theme of the exhibition was formulated in so individual and personal way. The rest, i.e. the exhibition, the public, comes later.
Can we also treat the exhibition as an opposition towards other cultures? E.g. Europe vs. America?
Yes, I think that was the goal of the organizers. In the introduction to the exhibition, entitled “This is the thread of my thought”, Wim Beeren ponders over the issue whether contemporary achievements in the sphere of culture in Western Europe can resurgence the cultural endowment of the Old Continent and “make America less interesting”. Already in the 70s I had noticed certain attempts to juxtapose across this personally in 1976 when the English and Germans were organizing a film and video section during Documenta 7 in Kassel and were gathering material for the purpose. (They invited Warsztat Formy Filmowej – The Film Form Workshop, from Lodz). I also noticed that many Dutch people hate America.
Do you feel a great rift between the East and the West?
No, no, no. Yes, yes, yes. – You see, I try not to analyze the issue at all; however, I often think about it. I do not need it in my work because I am searching for global references just to smuggle into my work especially all this which is not to be found in Western work. I search for this which is our, and even more: Eastern characteristic and tradition. I feel satisfaction, hmm, sometimes mixed with a little malice, when my works generate interest in the West. It is a sort of my little, private, almost guerrilla-like fight against the overwhelming -eventually – civilization of the West. And, after all, isn’t contemporary Western art nothing more but a contemporary Western art? … No?
What was your reaction to the invitation to being invited to this exhibition?
It was exactly like this: I was not happy but I was proud. I was not happy because, having certain practical experience, I knew that the thing involved a lot of work and tension. Instead of contemplating my courtyard I had to spend days in a dark room. On the other hand, of course, I was glad because it was me who had been chosen from among Polish artists after a meticulous selection by the Stedelijk Museum staff. And they are professionals who act in a professional way. Here, in Poland, they had met almost everyone, used all possible contacts, watched works by many artist from various milieux – The Museum of Art in Lodz, “Foksal”, Ujazdowski Castle, Gdansk, the Warsaw Academy. I’d like to add here, that other curators went with a similar mission to Romania, Czecho-Slovakia, the former Soviet Union, Jugoslavia (as it still was at that time). They did not need to go all over the Western countries to search. They knew who did what. Poland was visited by two curators: Ada Stroeve and Geurt Imanse. They presented all the gathered material to the director of the Museum and he had the decisive say. Later I was told in a restaurant that he had not hesitated to choose me.
What did you show in Amsterdam?
Having examined the exhibition hall (I had been invited earlier for two days to do so) – which I found very inspiring. I made a new piece, especially for the exhibition. It is 3 meters high and 7,5 meters long. I entitled it “Ulubiona Rownowaga” (“Favorite Balance”). The second, proper, visit to Amsterdam lasted two weeks and ended with an opening ceremony. It was a peaceful stay. I had my work ready and everything went smoothly. However, I had certain difficult moments at my home, between my two visits to Amsterdam. I was afraid that I would not manage or that something might happen – something that might interrupt my “artistic doing”. I had very little time: three weeks for the project and the realization of a work which was to be – according to the requirements – monumental; almost twice as big as anything I had done before. The piece comprised 75 segments – “multi-exposure black and white photos”. Any ponderings, hesitation, samples or mistakes were out of the question. I had to aim at the target precisely. There was an additional difficulty. I wanted to achieve the “shadow” effect in the background that was composed of several segments, from a lighter centre to darker “peripheries”. I could not look at the whole work at the same time because it was too big. Thus, I put consecutive fragments on the floor and visualized the entire composition. And I managed! Later, in the process of construction, when I was sitting in the museum canteen the director approached me. He had seen only a blueprint before. He said: Beautiful. And I replied: And it is the very category of beauty which has been forgotten in art today. He: Even more, it is being ignored… I said that I used this category deliberately and it was an artist from Iceland who had inspired me. He lived, by the way, in Amsterdam. His name is Sigurdur Gudmundsson. He was talking about the notion of beauty when we met in 1981. The director: your work is beautiful and dramatic. Enjoy your soup.” – I was eating leek soup.
Please, say something about the participants of the exhibition.
Unfortunately, only a few of the invited artists came, Stars e.g. Gilbert and George have their assistants who hang their works following a precise, architectural project. This is pretty comfortable. Combas did not come, but he is always a problem because he does not in general – like leaving his home. At that occasion no one was sure till the very end whether he would participate in the exhibition. It was only during the last weekend that a curator went to Paris and fetched his works.
What is Kabakov like?
Very nice. He was with his wife who is also his assistant. I noticed that all questions about where he came from, i.e. from which part of the unhappy Russia, made him very uneasy. (He lives in New York). He is a very straightforward man. Simple, without any posing or star-like aura. He asked me if I knew Siemion.
And who impressed you most?
It is difficult to say. I liked Milan Kunc both as a person and as an artist. He made an intelligent thing. As you know, the programme of the exhibition assumed that the artists would execute their works on the spot, in Amsterdam, and make them directly on the wall. This, certainly, was only a theory and wishful thinking. In practice it proved difficult; however, Kunc coped with it by painting a composition on the wall and treating it as a background for his paintings and objects that he had brought with him.
What was the first reaction of the professional press to the exhibition?
I do not know. I left the morning after the opening.
On your return to Poland you said that despite comfort and care and the hospitality of the staff you felt lonely. You said that they were at home…
… and I was a “quotation” from the East! This is the topic for a separate chapter in the history of Polish contemporary art (maybe not only art). However, very few are eager to talk about this issue openly because a Polish artist undergoes a painful experience in the West. It suits the title of your exhibition “Dopplete Identitat” (“Double Identity”). On one hand, the artist who strongly feels the surrounding reality would speak about what is painful to him, the conditions that model him – true? On the other, when he finds himself in the West and becomes equal to Western artists, speaking about these issues will be nothing but wailing and complaining. Hence appears the question: how to show one’s own context without complaining? This, however, is but one aspect which, moreover, is becoming obsolete even if the political situation can be substituted by the problem of poverty and, let’s say, “parochialism”. Deep at heart, we still feel we are worse.
You reached the highest levels of importance in the artistic hierarchy and you are still talking about loneliness?
There is no doubt that only famous and magnificent artists participate in “Wanderlieder”. I am proud that my name is printed among these best names in the world but this does not change my situation in Poland even a little.
It is so because our institutions dealing with art, our way of promoting, exhibiting, editing and our market do not co-operate with similar organizations in the West. And I am afraid that actually no-one knows how to manage in practice two parallel and efficient channels running in that direction. Well, today, it is not the question of knowledge – we may even possess it – it is rather the question of a support ensured by a wealthy society, or good infrastructure in service. In general terms: people do not feel the urge to self-realization outside family and Church. This is what we have got recently.
Coming back to our field, there are no mechanisms which, when the artist reaches a certain level, guarantee him some luxury of functioning and being present in the world in a natural way. It is not possible if you live in Poland. In 1989 I saw a one-man exhibition by Arnulf Rainer at the Guggenheim. A small plate accompanied the exhibition. On the plate there were the names of sponsoring institutions. As far as I remember, all of them were Austrian firms, so it was the native country of the artist that provided funds for his success in America. And we here, in Poland, have got used to the idea – by necessity – that someone from the West will come, notice us, invite, feed us and pay for fame and splendour. Yes, such cases do happen sometimes, but they are sporadic and temporary. They do not build our history. They are only light, ethereal moments of dazzlement; thus, the moments of numbness. Then, there is the return… A good way to prevent feeling alone in the world is to have one’s country rich and respectable.
And if it is not like that? Is this only a technical kind of problem?
I have participated in many events throughout the world. I have experienced much sympathy and professional service, but it was for the first time in Amsterdam that I felt exceptional like a precious stone. To say “good care and service” is too little. I assume that for the staff of Stedelijk the artist’s mental comfort is an important element of all this fun connected with making art and exhibitions; the element which must be accounted for with professional regularity. This is part of their job: to create such a protective atmosphere. After all when “the curtain is up” the artist is left to himself. Isn’t it so?
Are you planning any important exhibition in Poland?
Nothing special. I am in the period of self-accumulation. Nearest plans? On 27th December the exhibition “Voices of Freedom. Polish Women Artists and The Avant-Garde” was opened in the Washington National Museum of Women in the Arts. In March I participated in “Raume Biennale Balticum 1992″ in Finland, in June in “Frontiera 1” in Bozen (Bolzano) in the Southern Tirol, North of Italy, and in the, lasting two years exhibition organized by Independent Curators Incorporated, New York, entitled “Dark Decor” which is touring the USA.
Whom do you consider your spiritual brother? What fascinates you in form?
I experience the deepest reaction, I would say – mystical, while contemplating the “decorative nature” of old ornaments on fabrics, carpets, artefacts, in architecture. Also – the “creature-like” appearance of biological forms… These are “mathematically composed visuals”. The quantity and richness of the “visuals” which our organism can experience is simply tremendous. And how much still remains out of reach?… When I look at certain patterns and structures, I try to reduce them in my thoughts and to read their logic to be able to say: I understand. However, this moment never comes, so I keep on staring…
Translated by © Marzena Beata Guzowska