This is an english translation of an interview published in: ARTMIX no 9, march 2005.
The shortened version was published in: Opcje. Kwartalnik Kulturalny, 2004, no 3 (56), pp.54-61.
The rebellion of a neo-avant-garde artist
The 1970s. Tradition abandoned
Joanna Turowicz: The notion of “conservatism” became the pretext to our conversation. Actually, what I have in mind, concerning your work, is rather wide associations. If conservatism, then also tradition. Many a time, you have emphasised the revolutionary significance of the return to the tradition in your work after 1987, that is after your broke your co-operation with Przemysław Kwiek who was your partner both in work and in private life. You departed from the creation of ephemeral situations and actions in the KwieKulik Duo in favour of material pieces made independently and studies on old works of art. To understand how revolutionary this return to tradition was in you case, we should go back to the 1970s.
The general background of the 1970s was such: on the one hand there was our artistic stance, reluctant to the past, strongly rooted in a certain avant-garde pattern. You just went forward, the novelty and progress, and the rejection of tradition were the most important. On the other hand, however, there was the contesting trend of the late 1960s and the early 1970s. That was an all-European, as well as American trend: Woodstock, hippies, protests against the Vietnam war, etc. One could read about it in the press and see films on this theme in film clubs, featuring images which were not in a wide distribution or would be shown but a few years later. Polish critics, who were a part of the cultural establishment of Communist Poland like Osęka, Kowalska, Olkiewicz, Janicki… also wrote about the contestation and the deterioration of many respected international events, e.g. i Oberhausen, Venice and Paris. Of course, there was the March of 1968 in Poland, later came the Gierek-era openness and optimism and, closer to us, a series of student festivals, e.g. at the town of Nowa Ruda where almost everybody contested not only the institution of a festival itself, its organisers and the so called activists but, even, each other themselves. Some short-living neo-dadaist groups appeared. After we finished our studies, we started to realise slowly what the mechanisms of the state control were like in Poland, supported by the network of protection, method of passing over some things in silence, or making no mention of uneasy matters. That was rather difficult to notice and expose to possible criticism.
How did the KwieKulik Duo was formed in this atmosphere of contestation around 1971, right after you graduated from the Academy? You both studied sculpture at the Warsaw’s Academy of Fine Arts, starting from a traditional workshop, didn’t you?
We studied classical domains: portrait sculpture, nude study, drawing. Kwiek also studied graphic arts and painting and I dealt with textile art and ceramics. Maybe, it is worth mentioning that we had “dealt” with art quite early, several years before we enrolled to the Academy. When I was 14, I started regular classes in a sculpture section of the Youth House of Culture in Warsaw. There I met Kwiek.
How come you abandoned traditional art? Instead of a painting or effigy – a theoretical commentaries, activities and documentation (slides, films).
Our shift from the study of traditional techniques and themes to what we later called “camera-targeted activities” [dzialania dokamerowe] was not sudden nor coincidental. It was more or less 1967/1968 when Kwiek started to ponder how not to sculpt the other leg of an effigy if he had already proven that he was capable of doing it, sculpting the first one. He started to play with variant potential of an object. He photographed the stages of the transformation of a sculpture. It still was a sculpture. It still was made using traditional materials, clay, plaster, etc. He recorded those transformations on slides and in a film. One can also see in various bits of the film tape how I endeavoured my nude study in a still traditional mode. (I was one year lower as a student than Kwiek but we all shared the same space.) Kwiek had a variant approach to an object, but it still was a single object. I had departed from the object altogether at that time. For the whole year, I recorded various situations and events; I animated people and objects before the lens – I created a kind of a visual memoir in slides. Well… and even before, I was fascinated by the projection as such and the phenomenon of the screen. In the academic year 1969/1970, I constructed a spatial screen on which I projected abstract slides, lighting up certain elements on this screen according to some dramaturgy. A priest from the township of Lesna Podkowa saw this projection and proposed me to make the designs for the lighting in the church. During the vacations of 1970 I worked on it for several weeks, making mock-ups and studying various lighting effects but I finally gave up. I found the atmosphere of the church paralysing. I did not know how much of experiment I could dare to in, after all, the church. Moreover, I was only a student and I did not have much confidence in myself.
In the 1970s there was the so called “conceptual revolt in the world art”. A work of art as an object ceased to be important and it was now the process and its documentation that started to count. Your student experiments were approved by professors Jerzy Jarnuszkiewicz and Oskar Hansen, so, there must have been much creative freedom at your academy?
Indeed. Thanks to Jarnuszkiewicz and, especially, Hansen, the search for the new materials and media was not viewed as a threatening revolt or some whim. It was important that those things were seriously commented by our professors on the theoretical level. Hansen developed his own Theory of the Open Form, which offered us a certain intellectual support in discussions. Initially, the discussion was purely academic, only in confrontation with the so called “life”, outside the academy, did we involuntarily become the so called “avant-gardist” because we wanted to continue with the defence of our “theoretical” stance in the actual reality of such a bureaucratic and conservative state as the Polish People’s Republic [PRL] was, despite its post-revolution propaganda slogans.
But it was not only the avant-garde gauge that made you break with tradition. It was also the specific, oppressive and “grey” reality of the Communist PRL. There was the ban on quoting the uncomfortable tradition.
Sure. The names such as Pilsudski 1 ozef Pilsudski (1867 – 1935) polititian, statesman, advocate of Poland’s independence; after the May Revolt became the dictaror and national marshal, fought for independence of the country, especially against Poland’s former occupant – Russia (Kiev War). [Translator] [/ref] and Gombrowicz [ref]Witold Gombrowicz (1904 – 1969) Novelist, dramatist and essaist. Co-operated with Parisian Kultura where he launched his Dziennik (Journal). Main works Ślub (Wedding, 1953), Trans-Atlantic (1953), Pornografia (Pornography,1960), Berliner Notizen (1965), Kosmos (Cosmos1965). His works reached far into the future, preparing his readers to go from modern to post-moder messages. [Translator] were absolutely banned from the official existence. I can remember a discussion between students and party activists at the town of Nowa Ruda in 1971. Someone from the audience asked why Gombrowicz was not published in Poland, being so important a writer, etc. A silence fell and then activists tried to explain that there was no paper and money. To this someone replied that the works might be photocopied…. A laughter burst out. At that time a photocopier was a novelty and the possibility to multiply information fascinated the artists but this did not mean the device was accessible to the general public. No way. The access to photocopiers was under strict control. That more or less was the atmosphere of that time. Now, I cannot recall various facts but peculiar terror reigned then, which prohibited one from mentioning any good aspects of the pre-war past.
I believe much depended on an individual home and upbringing, whether some information, e.g. on our pre-war past was transmitted and the reserve towards the reality of Communist Poland was instilled.
Both Przemek and I absorbed at our homes some kind of faith that whatever is spoken in public is true. We had similar upbringing. Both our fathers were army men, colonels of the Polish People’s Army. Przemek’s mother had a managerial post, being a committed Communist. I spent my childhood in the barracks. Nobody could pay us a visit until 1956. The barracks were located in some godforsaken area. They were in the precinct between Pulawska, Rakowiecka and Niepodleglosci Streets in Warsaw. There was the headquarters, the garages for military equipment and accommodation for the soldiers, along with kindergarten and shops. That was a restricted area within the city centre.
A few years after your graduation from the Academy, in 1975, you applied for the Communist Party memberships. You were not accepted. This, probably, was a good turn in your lives (you returned your Candidate Cards only during the Martial Law). One can say you were in such an “in-between” situation.
We have always been “in-between”. Between tradition and novelty, between art and science, between life and theory. The Polish Communist Party’s (PZPR) statutes stipulated a one-year period of being a candidate. That we were not approved as members for several years against the statute, certainly, made us curious. We had been “suspended” for so long that we probably got used to it.
Why did you enrol at the party?
The situation of some incapacity, some social vegetation was unbearable. The Party seemed to be the only legal way of being active outside the private grounds. It had taken us about two years before we decided. Other artists encouraged us to do so. Anastazy Wisniewski who converted his membership into art would say a scornfully artistic “yes” to what was happening. Marek Konieczny encouraged us, too. He, in turn, was a friend of Alfred Lenica’s and Erna Rosenstein’s whose Communist background dated back to the pre-war time. For example, when they paraded in the May Day celebration in 1971 (together with Artur Sandauer) they raised clenched fists in front of the podium in the traditional gesture of old Communists.
One can find many analogies between your stance and that of the pre-war avant-garde, especially Russian one. I mean the commitment, the will to shape reality by art and your attempts at this shaping which, from today’s perspective, seem a little naive but heroic. Well, initially in the Soviet Russia, many avant-garde representatives participated in the transformation and the cultural life of their country. In the 1930s repression appeared and the Socialist Realism was proclaimed the obligatory doctrine so the avant-gardists were totally eliminated, trampled. Consequently, a wide term of “neo-avant-garde” appeared as the name for this type of artistically committed stance of the 1970s.
I cannot recall when the term “neo-avant-garde” was first used. However, the term “avant-garde” did not fit us perfectly because it would suggest we were trying to force the open door in the sense of applying new means to change the already existing reality. Moreover, we were born under Socialist conditions and we practically did not know any other system. We did not feel those winds of history which must certainly have influenced the former avant-garde. The situation in Poland was generally different. In our time, after 1956 1 After Stalin’s death in 1953 and the criticism of his actions by the 20th Meeting of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956, the period of “the thaw” came so the restrictions became milder in Poland. [Translator] , and that is important, there was not threat of loosing one’s life or being sent to a labour camp. There was no risk of life but only that of a bad level of existence – being disdained, being refused good commissions or having the ban on one’s passport. What was the worst was this universal apathy. Probably, that we wanted to change reality may somehow have been in the line with the avant-garde tendency but, actually, we did not want to destroy; we wanted to reform and reorganise. For example, Kwiek and I studied the theory of organisation and cybernetics and were interested in, among others, a “formalised notation”, as we would call the recording of Activities (that is the record of the sequential behaviour and activities of an artist under concrete conditions). We treated a mechanical recording and projection equally to traditional painting and sculpture. All the time, we postulated the “implementation” (this probably was the term very often used in the past) of our experiments in life. Yet, the reality was reluctant to it, it refused being changed. Certainly (and this has already been said many times) we were pathologically naive then. However, the people who made an indirect criticism of the system between the lines, who winked in confidence and would, at the same time, receive their remuneration from the system and reinforce the ruling stagnation were also pathological. They were ill with dubiousness and hypocrisy… well, save for those who really risked their lives in 1 : 1 scale, as Jacek Kuron did.
Let’s return to your neo-avant-garde stance (or avant-garde in the wide understanding as Peter Bürger proposes in his Theory of the Avant-garde, Minneapolis 1984). I mean the socially committed stance, as well as art and life practice joined together and experiments with the new media. In your small flat in the Warsaw district of Praga, you ran the gallery and The Studio of Activities, Documentation and Propagation (PDDiU), where you collected the archives of not only the KwieKulik Duo but other artists, too. How did you support yourselves without a regular state employment?
Occasional commissions and moonlighting. This means we first begged for state commissions in the State Artistic Ateliers (psp), however, we belonged to no coterie so we only got such jobs which others would not accept. Using our own terminology: these commissions conditioned our life, so we started to include them as such into our art by creating the “camera-targeted activities”. A good illustration for this is our work from 1974 entitled “Carving and Acting. Earning and Creating. Having Your Cake and Eating It.” (Kucie i Dzialanie. Zarabianie i Tworzenie. Wilk syty i owca cala.) We were carving an inscription in sandstone: “In this place …. heroically died from the Nazi hands…”. While we were carving consecutive words we placed letters from black cardboard paper on the stone plaque and made new variations of the inscription, e.g. “At the this time while we were carving this stone 300 people died of hunger” or “IN THIS bag is 20 ducats”. A series of slides was made along with a single copy of our authorised album, which featured the commission from PSP on their letter paper, ending with the sentence “We also communicate to you that the date for the unveiling of the plaque is 6 April 1974. Therefore, the deadline for this commission is very urgent”. There are also other works where these two threads: a slipshod commission and art intermingle. In 1979 we made “the MOnuMENT to CULTural Slipshod” (pomniKULTUchaltuRY) where the portrolio of our slipshod works made to that date was the main element. I must not add that the State Artistic Ateliers were the target of our constant criticism and scorn.
You had the power to join art and daily life for so many years because you acted together. When your son was born you included him into your actions, too, and photographed various situations with him.
Sure. This would not be possible if one acted on one’s own. It could only appear as a result of a dialogue. We talked to each other much. Przemek had such a dialectic manner: when you said “white”, he would reply “black”. So you finally said “black” to finish the discussion but then he would say “white. There was no end to it. We just transferred the things we did during our academic studies into our lives. When you are a student you are somehow under an umbrella. You can absorb many things then; you are rather disinterested and radical. We cultivated this academic stance also outside the Academy but then the “adult” reality was at our threshold – a child and the necessity to support ourselves. This was the stance of the academics who simultaneously had to carve some stone slabs in honour of… and they included this carving in their “disinterested insight”. Summing up, it was a weird combination. Well, in our case it was not the examination of the limits of language or the limits of the body but, rather, the limits of the status of an artist. We wondered what our place as artists was in a concrete society. If we did something, like writing a letter of complaint or making an action, we determined our position on the basis of reflections and reactions of various officials and institutions. Their response was often a part of our “oeuvre”. We continued in our ethos of artists who wove their art from occurrences in their own lives. After many years, we planned to publish an interview which Maryla Sitkowska made with us under the title “Art and Theory Illustrated by Various Life Occurrences or the Art out of Anger” (Sztuka i teoria ilustrowana przypadkami zyciowymi, czyli SZTUKA Z NERWÓW). I think this explains much. Later, when the “Solidarity” period came, it turned out that there was hardly anyone who had such authentic, full-blood works on Polish reality. Stefan Morawski was the first to notice this. He mentioned us among those who did something in the time of Communist Poland (PRL).
The 1980s. The avant-garde is flabbergasted – the return to painting
At the beginning of the 1980s the new generation of artists appeared – the painters who made works in the so-called “new expression” style (Gruppa and others). What was your reaction as the neo-avant-garde artists to such a triumphant return of painting?
This ideally fits the theme of conservatism. That was the period when the ethos of avant-garde within which Jerzy Beres and others acted continued. In the early 1980s, everything was pushed away by the “wild” painting. The painters expected, and that actually was fulfilled, that it would be enough to spill some paint on canvas and the museums would buy it on the instant. Indeed, great artists they were. I think that this situation shocked the movement of other media, the conceptualists and contextualists. Even, it was not painting itself that was the issue but it was their arty stance. How could one be so non-analytical, so ego-expressive and splash so much colour around? We had always been the alternative, the opposition to the official, regime-favoured and, actually, traditional art, so when the liberation came, the museums ought to have been interested in the art “excluded” to that day; but, suddenly, panting encroached this potential space of ours. We were astonished – this 19th-century painting again? Where was progress? Where was the research on the medium? Where – the broadening of the language of expression? And where – the experience of the body? We could not understand that situation. After 10 years, it was 1981, what had been forbidden could finally have flourished but – again not? So when? We felt like orphans: we were first slapped in the face by the regime, then the young generation of those conservative painters slapped us again.
That’s your interpretation. Critics welcomed the new trend in art.
Of course! Finally, true art returned to the parlous! One could smack and indulge in metaphors. However, we had our own approach to it. We assessed it from the perspective of the 1970s when we negated painting and the object. We could never find a common platform with such true artists. The arty artists were something which we had always opposed.
So, you found a common language only with the artists of a still younger generation, such as Zbyszek Libera and Jerzy Truszkowski, linked to the so called “Whip-Round Culture”, didn’t you? They also did not have any scruples to use tradition and create works of art. Simultaneously, they were interested in body art and the new media, although they painted pictures.
However, for them, art was still a work of art, not the process and talking about it. Libera and Truszkowski were post-conceptual artists; they used the new media and turned the conventional and stale relations between artists and critics and institutions upside down. That was what made them different from the “wilds”.
The muteness of the neo-avant-garde female artist
Another important issue for the theme of conservatism is the difference between sexes and the cultural context. I will begin with something which has absorbed my attention: your silence, emphasised in some texts and interviews. You yourself say that when you were a young girl, you somehow felt no clear borders of yourself, You did not speak, that means you were incapable of speaking in public. For years, you have not commented on the activity of the KwieKulik Duo. Such a feminine silence is the traditional motif of the patriarchal culture and the symbol of oppression. In your case the woman is acting, she is active but she is silent.
True. A certain situation may illustrate it well. At the Dreamers Meeting in Elblag in 1971, Anastazy Wisniewski was preparing a catalogue which featured declarations and various manifestos of the participants. He approached me with a tape recorder and asked whether I would like to declare something. I shook my head. Certainly, this gesture was not recorded. He asked me whether I was shy to speak. I negated again, shaking my head. Then I saw a sentence printed next to my portrait “I announce to everybody that citizen Zofia Kulik has very important information for all of us but she is not shy to reveal it. A. Wisniewski”. It was like that. I was never pushy about speaking. I couldn’t gather my thoughts whenever someone expected me to say something; although, every often everything would simmer inside me. I think that if we lived in the time of a revolution, my role would be next to some leader fighting for beautiful ideas. I would organise things, carry pamphlets, bombs or whatever. I dreamt of serving some matter. This remains an unfulfilled desire, unrealised in my life. I was born for ideals not for myself.
Perhaps this is a variation of the dream of a fairy-tale prince? A revolutionary prince? An externalised cliché or a more noble model of feminine subjugation, thus a cultural topos important for the Polish tradition? The model of a woman who exists only in relations and the relations are mostly related to sacrifice. Take all of these women who followed their beloved on the way to the expulsion in Siberia or these terrorist women with bombs at the side of a leader, (e.g. the tragic figure of Kama in Agnieszka Holland’s “Fever”).
Perhaps. I expected my partner to be a stronger personality but that was not linked to the traditional division of roles. It was rather the expectation of him to exceed the average, to be an outstanding man whom you serve for the sake of the idea he cultivates. He might have been a doctor, a discoverer, etc.
So, we can say that you acted silently at Kwiek’s side; although, Przemek emphasises that there was balance in your relationship, that you always made decisions together. Well, when did this silence start to be tiring to you?
It seems to me that there must have been some deep psychological process and it continued for years. Maybe, first moment like that happened around 1978. I told Przemek I did not want to participate with him in spontaneous public appearances, without a script. To that time it was like that: We created some artistic situation the core of which was, for the most cases, a slide projection, a few gestures, but the commentary was the most important. Kwiek was the speaker. He explained things while I was sitting silent. I told him I was not going to participate in such a situation again, that I find it embarrassing. Almost always, we treated our viewers with some dish like bigos or something at the end. Even if Przemek prepared the dish, I was the “scullion” at his side performing all the simplest kitchen tasks. Moreover, I organised the events from the, as it is today called, logistic point of view. I cared for us not to forget anything, have it well packaged, carried to the site and then cleared away. So, these were all of these mundane tasks which one quickly wanted to forget and especially artists eliminated them from their lives; but in our case they were always in the foreground. That was a terrible grind for me. Moreover, I had to find a way to get all of these products for our dishes. We really did not have money. For all the time when we lived in our Praga flat, I visited my mother every second day and brought some food from her. The worst was the distance between the ZOO stop to the corner of Targowa and Wojcika streets which I had to cover with full baskets. Everything was in the baskets: soup, chops, cakes – mostly processed food because I was ashamed to take raw food like fresh potatoes. My mother believed that this was the way to save our time and work, not that we did not have anything to eat. So, in 1978 I had the idea of this performance with a washbasin. We were thinking then what we could do during the “Body Performance” even at the Labirynt Gallery in Lublin. Later, we developed the idea, adding buckets on our heads and the heads on chair seats. Finally, our appearance was in three parts. In the second part I was sitting on the floor, my head projecting through the hole cut-out in the washbasin. Kwiek poured water into it and, next, he washed his face and legs in this water. Then he wielded a knife at the back of my head and yelled: You bitch! Say something! Say! From the moment of that appearance I started to feel better. Yet, I think that Przemek still slighted such pre-arranged appearances. He preferred the things which looked spontaneous. In 1981 there was another situation. We went to Brussels. We brought lots of equipment and documentation but had no script. The people were entering the room and Przemek asked me “What shall we do?”. My nerves refused to bear such situations any longer.
So, during all these years of your co-operation you did not breech the “Duo stipulations”?
In 1978 I made an independent mini-gesture entitled “Zofia Kulik’s Plea for Pardon” (Prośba o przebaczenie Zofii Kulik). For the first time did I try to do something without Kwiek. The Duo did suffocate me too much: all of these repetitions; we were speaking always the same things, we were doing always the same things. Strange emotions accumulated within me. I was inspired by a fragment of an American film “Jezebel” from 1938. It was a story from the time of the Secession War, starring Bette Davis. She was completely infatuated but she wasn’t humble. He left her and married another woman. Later, he came and paid her a visit. She did not know he was no longer free, so she wanted to return to him. I can remember the scene when the heroine dressed in a white gown fell before her beloved onto her knees and begged his pardon. She was so pathetic. Later I went to Podwale street to the costume centre to hire a white dress. I wanted to plea pardon from the public, making the same gesture as the actress and falling onto my knees before it. What was the public supposed to forgive me? I didn’t know exactly. Probably that I was not present in person, even if I seemed te be. I was nothing but a part of a dimorphic hybrid in which my role was not clear, nor how much space I occupied, what my shape was. I was tired with that muteness of myself. “Zofia Kulik’s Plea for Pardon”. Look what the title it was: a concrete person with a given name and surname asks her public for pardon.
Was it on the occasion of the KwieKulik performance “Grave Hardships Kill Life” (Ciezkie bolaczki zabijaja zycie) at Warsaw’s Dziekanka in 1978?
Yes. First, there was the KwieKulik performance with stones. We wrote down the things which perplexed the public on slips of paper and glued the slips to these stones. We placed the stones in a big burlap bag that was hung at the ceiling. The bag was supposed to fall down on a cardboard box because of the weight of the stones. There was a living creature in the box. It was smashed, only bloody pulp remaining. Then the second part occurred. (Please note, Kwiek forgot to put the title of my appearance next to the title of our joint piece on the poster). Dressed in a white satin gown, with a long train and holding a suitcase in which I had brought the gown from the costume centre in my hand, I tried to bow to the public. I approached the public several times to fall onto my knees. I must have been really pathetic, as that actress had been. When I made a few bows I felt totally humiliated but… I asked for that. I needed such a situation and I had it.
Did this prefigure your split?
Perhaps. Earlier in 1957 – 1979 we had this case with the ban on our passports. It was evident we had to be together. No way for our parting with each other lest we might be totally smashed. But later, we did not have to. There was “Solidarity” and the Marital Law. Later we had a series of appearances at Dziekanka, every week for about a month in subsequent years from 1984 to 1986. So, in fact, our parting from each other lasted from 1984 to 1987, 1989 even. Quite long, for several years.
One cannot evade associations with feminism in case of your performances. As if you were acting feminine humiliation in them. This activity with the basin – even when one would translate it into universal issues (there was censorship, the oppressive system, the regime), one could not fail to notice the feminine aspect of the acted-out and externalised subjugated role.
That’s the point. And Przemek would indeed humiliate me in public. I have never discussed it in my interviews but this may have been the main reason of our split. I know he will negate it, but he was a master in making a mountain out of a molehill. At home, you could pass over it somehow but in public it was terrible. For instance, such a situation from 1981. I knew some English, he did not. We had lectures with slides for students in Holland. He wanted to explain all of our Polish and Communist contexts. However, I was not able to render all of his flamboyant language, so I made some shortcuts. He would scold me for this. The students were waiting for the continuation of the story but I lost the thread. Yet, Kwiek took no notice of it and continued reprimanding me. Such situations were really embarrassing. It was more or less 1982 when I did not want to deal with art at all. I did not want to go to all these events and symposia “starring” Kwiek, Jozef Robakowski, Andrzej Partum and others. Therefore, I had the idea to move from Warsaw to Dabrowa. This also was the moment when I told Kwiek: Do art yourself, make career and I will help you. I was prepared to realise the traditional model of a couple: he is professionally active and she helps him in the background. I was physically very strong and a good organiser, so I really could be helpful to someone who would really want to do something. But Kwiek didn’t.
So, He turned out not to be this revolutionary prince?
Kwiek turned out not to be much interested in his own career. Moreover, there was another very important reason why I remained in this Duo for so long – I was sorry for this great output of the KwieKulik in the form of a huge archive. As I said, the archive did not have any closed form, so it was fated to annihilation without our presence. Therefore, all of this lasted so long. Had Kwiek had a different character, the split would not have happened. Think, how determined I must have been to break with all of this; simply – the razor at your throat. He forced me to emancipate. Like parents trying to kick out their child from a cosy home. And now, he is building his own mythology that it was I who broke with him.
The 1970s was the period of contestation movements in the West, including the second wave of feminism. However, this wave did not reach Poland. Maybe, you ran across feminist ideas in a different way in the time of the Communist Poland?
I can remember a propos feminism that I was annoyed by Natalia LL’s opinions on feminism. These were sheer slogans. They did not exceed nice-sounding sentences-openers. It was too little for me. Ewa Partum – the same: feminism, feminism. When I thought over their feminism I concluded: there is the Woman’s League 1 The Woman’s League – communist organisation of women, meant to help them in dificult life situaitons and propagate socialist / communist ideas along with general education, elements of hygiene, job training, etc. [Translator] in Poland, why don’t they join it as activists? Let them develop contacts with international organisations. Or, let them organise themselves independently and propose something.
Well, this is the KwieKulik approach. Moreover, feminism in art really appeared with the wave of feminism as a social movement, not only theoretical and artistic phenomenon.
Yes. After all, if we speak of feminism why did Partum put mascara on her eyelashes and applied make-up foundation to her body when she undressed, preparing for a performance? She would put on her stiletto hills and only then was she a “feminist”? And at that time, there were so many women’s problems to be solved. So, my approach was like that – pragmatic. When I heard the word “feminism”, I rather thought about a non-artistic context: what a woman-feminist could do for other women in Poland. I would rather be interested in such things.
Ewa Partum and Natalia LL had contacts with the world feminism. So did Maria Pininska-Beres.
Yes. They were influenced by it. They used western terms; yet, this was incomprehensible in the Polish Communist reality. They were radical in their commonplace texts but they did not reveal any single bit of the secrets of their own experience and thoughts. Well, at least I cannot recall anything like that.
Rebellion, individuation and the return to tradition
In 1987 was the final collapse of the KwieKulik Duo. One may say that the process of individuation (terminology after Jung) commenced. Your independent work started with “The Archive of Gestures” (Archiwum gestow) – a series of photograph with a male nude model (Zbigniew Libera), often assuming poses after old masterpieces or reproducing monument-like poses. According to your words, this is the first work in which the “temperament of traditional artists” manifests itself. Sometimes, your appearances were accompanied by self-commentaries. You regained your power of speech earlier but now you started to make it increasingly more public.
In my text which I hanged on the occasion of my first solo exhibition at Mała zpaf Gallery in Warsaw in 1989, I wrote about the closed form, about the fact that I have no-one whom I could serve, about subjugation, etc. My point was to realise again who I was and what I wanted to do. The answer was that I would never again do any open form. I wouldn’t do it as this was the basis for the KwieKulik Duo – this permanent activity when one did not know what was the matter and limit of art. At the moment when I started to work with Libera, to arrange his poses before the camera, my atelier-based work began. Similar to Cezanne who studied and painted landscapes, I started to study and photograph gestures. A certain baroque of research commenced. I would then penetrate albums and, indeed, I went through all possible epochs. During these studies, I started to think about my own psychological motivation.
Perhaps it was the thirst for tradition?
Yes, but this thirst and curiosity developed during cognition. Something like the situation when one enters a forest, one does not want to be an ignorant in this forest. One starts to scrutinise and gather knowledge on a given theme. So, my entrance into the forest was not pre-programmed but spontaneous, pretty intuitive. Later, I started to realise things, to recollect facts from the time of PRL: about the bans, this Gombrowicz and Pilsudski case, etc., and I started to perceive myself in a model-like way – previously, I was radical in one way, now in another, opposite to the former stance. This created a certain form of pleasure, both cognitive one and that which was elated to a new exciting adventure. I managed to say, although first in an intuitive way: down with the open form, from now on I am dealing with the closed form. I wrote a text on it in an absolute amok. I did not know myself what I was writing. I somehow drew it from my guts, only later my consciousness caught up with it. It was fine, that I was going to spite myself, and spite KwieKulik, too. The more I sank in my search of traditional forms, the better I saw myself in a former role, in art, behaviour and expectations, etc. I started to behave in a “conservative” way and demanded from various institutions to treat me as a regular traditional artists. I envied my younger colleagues, who worked with the new media, that they entered into official relations just after graduation – galleries, museums, press, etc. They never questioned these institutions and relations, probably there was no need for that any longer. Even when they were criticised by some right-wing centres, they had already enjoyed the status of a professional artist. One could not even dream about such a situation in the 1970s. So that was the reason why I craved the role of the “traditional” artist for myself even stronger. Which, however, did not mean I felt at home in this role. All the time something hesitated in me whether I should, perhaps, go back again into this alternative independence of the previous period.
What was the response to your first solo appearances and exhibitions?
At the same time when I had my exhibition in Lublin in 1990, Jerzy Bereś had his performance during which he spoke seemingly in general terms but he simultaneously looked at me. He spoke about kitsch. I felt a little stupid, although, I was not absolutely sure that he alluded to me.
Deriving from your photographic archive, you started to construct increasingly complicated compositions (collages and photo collages) the structures of which resembled mandalas, mosaics, gothic windows and altars, and carpets. Many motives of the Socialist Realist iconography appeared in you first works, especially those form the early 1990s. Your first solo exhibition had the title “The Visual Idioms of the Soc-Ages” (Wizualne idiomy Soc-Wiecza). It revealed your obvious inclination to use the elements of monumental, state-supporting, and often totalitarian aesthetics.
Yes. There are many such motifs. I invented the title of the exhibition “The Visual Idioms of the Soc-Ages”. The idiom is a phrase typical only of a given language, impossible to be translated literally. It was in 1989. My experience with KwieKulik was still fresh and I was frustrated that I might fail to describe and explain certain things. The whole richness of the context of various interesting stories was lost. As for the totalitarian aesthetics, it abundantly derived from tradition. Here, I encourage you to view my “iconographic guide” to my work “All Missiles Are One Missile” (Wszystkie pociski sa jednym pociskiem) which was issued on the occasion of Venice Biennial in 1997.
What turns one’s attention is the high emotional level of your early self-commentaries. By contrast with your previous silence, this initial period of your individual work is reminiscent of a rebellion, some revolutionary outburst in the field of art and privacy. The return to tradition, reconciliaiton but, also, anger, aggression directed to the outside: art as a must (compulsion), reaction to it and self-treatment. You write “I am not filled with meekness but a subdued need for attack. And there is only a question of where to direct it: from myself or toward myself.”
This was one of the first self-commentaries. Indeed, it was written in a very emotional way. It is quoted everywhere. I carry some aggression within myself – maybe this already belongs to the time gone, I do not know. Is it caused by upbringing or, perhaps, life in the time of regime? Maybe, it is caused by my shyness, the reluctance to expose my inner life, I don’t know. This aggression does not appear directly. I do not want to harm physically neither myself nor anyone else. Hence, for instance, the title of the series of my exhibitions “Symbolic Weapon” (Bron symboliczna).
Do you sublimate this energy into symbolic art.?
Yes. Into art, symbolic art because there are also artists (I am not one of them) who express their strong emotions using the body in a direct way, e.g. by cutting it. Here, one should find analogy to this aggression against the surface of the body. Perhaps I do the same but use a different “body”. How can I call it?
I will quote another fragment of your self-commentary. “When I make images of subjugation, do I appreciate and prize it or scorn and abolish it? I accept subjugation as my problem and theme. Full of fear and, simultaneously, full of hatred to the situation in which the constraint of subjugation appears, I take an artistic revenge by grabbing all sorts of weapons (symbolic and formal) directed against me.” Certainly, your works feature the deconstruction of power systems perceived in universal categories, as well as the category of feminist criticism of “masculine-martial” culture. However, I can also see fascination here (the beauty of structure ordered so much that it hurts). It is as if these visual symbols of serfdom raised fear but, also, fascinated.
I was afraid of this fascination of which you speak. Later it was eliminated thanks to the fact that others started to write about me much, calling it “critical art”. The most terse commentary said that I “apply an astonishingly efficient manoeuvre – I realise the sweetness of formal compositions by building them from images of bullets, skulls, naked figures, etc.” A form looks like a flower from a distance but when you approach it, you see the barrels of canons instead of beautiful petals. That’s how I feel, that the cover of aesthetic expression, beauty and harmony, this shining and vibration, hides some horror of life and potential decomposition. “The World as a War and a Decoration [Adornment]” (Swiat jako wojna i ozdoba”) – this is the title of my work from 2003.
Summing up, my point is also that the critical potential of your works has already been very well analysed. However, to avoid the oversimplification of the range of their possible reception, I waywardly emphasise the element of your fascination with the totalitarian gesture and structure. Perhaps, it is something of the Stockholm syndrome when a victim begins to identify or becomes fascinated with her tormentor?
Certainly, there is fascination. But there is something else at stake – to learn what you were enchanted with, what was the method, the way. Because totalitarianism apply archetypes and psychologically deeply rooted forms and visual “tricks”, it would be good to cognise them lest we may be enchanted too easily.
Photographed stills from various TV programmes became a module of your most monumental work “From Siberia to Cyberia” (Od Syberii do Cyberii) 1998 – 2004. You included these photos even earlier in your carpet-like compositions (among which were “Who Conquered the World?” Kto zycięzył swiat? 1994, All Missiles …., 1993). These works were rightly perceived as the analysis of the instrumental treatment of image by power systems. I like Piotr Piotrowski’s opinion that “information is one of the means of “adding the aesthetic to politics ‘ in totalitarian countries”. And you show it in your works. This opinion, actually, does not pertain only to strictly totalitarian countries (e.g. selected information on conflicts using arms). However, let us return to the genesis of “From Siberia to Cyberia”. When did you start to photograph stills of the TV screen?
This story is again a broad hint dropped in the garden of feminism. For years, I was with Kwiek who always cooked. Later, Kwiek moved to the utility building at the back of our garden so, there was nobody to cook for me. I was left alone with our son. I began to learn cooking. The TV set was in the kitchen. I would install a camera on a tripod opposite the set. And, here was I peeling potatoes, and here – I push the camera button. Later, I bought a video recorder and started systematic recording. I developed a kind of addiction: lunch or supper time and I look up what’s on TV in the newspaper to know what time precisely is worth going to the kitchen to have an interesting recording at the same time. It was like that for several years. Were it not for my kitchen duties, this work would not appear; well, it would not be of that size and so uniform. As you say, I had used TV images before but I collected them in a fragmentary way. Now, I wanted to make a work composed only from them. I needed the whole mass of them, and I got it. At that time, I also started to work a little on a computer, so pixels, the points which build the image appeared. Consequently, the associations with pointillism came, along with embroidery and lace. (I am skipping here fractals which caught my eye then.) A lace pattern appears where stitches become denser. You gather some stitches and let others drop – that’s probably what’s it called. I was interested in such things then. The zigzag pattern in “From Siberia to Cyberia” was made because certain fields on a photographic paper were not exposed to light, they are like these dropped stitches.
Sewing, handiwork as inspiration to create a form… Your mother was a seamstress and your father worked in the military. These contrasts must have had strong impact upon you, as you yourself remember. At a certain moment you say that you “put your father’s content in you mother’s form”. So, let us return to form. Is this the form of your “feminine genealogy”, the experience transmitted from mother to daughter?
I do not know. Probably the experience really comes from my mother. But that happened without my consciousness. As a girl, I would observe my mother, constantly bending over some fabric. She laboured over patterns, adjusting models. I helped her a little. At that time sewing machines did not overcast the edges so you had to do it manually. This job would continue late at night. Once a big event came – scissors from America which cut toothy edges, so the fabric did not go off. Of course, the sewing machine was propelled by a pedal and was always… in the kitchen.
You started making references to your past and personal experience rather late. However, today this experience has already been included in the analysis of your works. Thanks to this fact their critical context becomes deeper not only as the deconstruction of the universal power but also the “masculine-martial” history and culture which is pinpointed by such critics as Sara Wilson and Izabela Kowalczyk, among others. As we can see, the feminist slogan of the 1970s “what is private is political” has remained up-to-date.
Well, I find it difficult even to imagine that such references to one’s past and personal history would be possible earlier. In the 1970s the obligatory model of an artist was that of a universal person, which probably also implied a sexless one. While we were sunk in the avant-garde trance, there were no personal sentiments. Even if we, that is I and Kwiek, took “conditions” into account in our art. We would reveal many details from our lives and external “necessities”; however, that was an attempt at the construction of a certain objective model, as science did, or create a universal warning for the so called “society”. Such things, however, were not meant to pertain to an individual experience. “Yes” for general and social issues, “no” for anything private. No way. This would mean derision. Therefore, I subdued these things for so long. These things accrued within me and they can be explained to a large extent only in the context of my concrete psyche and my personal experience. Today, the performances with the washbasin and the white dress may be better understood using the language worked-out by feminism. Where you have terminology, you find it easier to notice something.
You cognised feminism later, yet today, one can say that the interpretation of your individual oeuvre without feminist tools is practically impossible.
By the way of feminism. I once watched a TV programme (certaintly!) on the occasion of the Feminist Conference in Krakow in 1995. I had already been active on my own for a long time. So, American feminists came, I re-wrote their names from the video tape: Elizabeth Kennedy, Claire Kahane, Carolyn Korsmeyer, Isabel Marcus. They answered the question “My road to feminism”. I listened to them and oops! I could see my former Gehenna. I had had to achieve everything of which they were telling now solely by myself. So I listened and every sentence I heard was about me. I thought to myself “That’s the point! It is like that!”. Luckily, I started to go back to my own personal experience and recalled various things. Had I not done it, what would have been with me now? I am not a person who will instantly reveal all of her private matters. Speaking about myself in public was a really great trespass for me. Even now, in this interview, I dig out various facts under the influence of your feminist questions… but, come on! Let’s not exaggerate. I do not want to be reduced to a single label…
June 2004, Dabrowa-Lomianki
Heartney Eleanor, 1996, April, Into the International Arena, “Art in America” (recenzja z Kwangju Biennale).
Kowalczyk Izabela, 2002, Niebezpieczne związki sztuki z ciałem, Poznań: Galeria Miejska ARSENAŁ.
Kulik Zofia, 1992, Na temat repetycji, [w:] Obecność III, kat. wyst., Poznań: Galeria BWA, Galeria ON, Muzeum Etnograficzne.
Piotrowski Piotr, 1999, Między Syberią a Cyberią. O sztuce Zofii Kulik i o muzeach, [w:] Zofia Kulik. Od Syberii do Cyberii, kat. wyst., Poznań: Muzeum Narodowe.