Anna Zielinska and Anna Rosinska talks to Zofia Kulik on the occasion of opening Zofia Kulik’s exhibition
From Siberia to Cyberia, at the National Museum in Poznan, (May 23, 1999). Published in Exit 3/2000.
I wish to be in a Museum
Anna Zielinska: Your works are visually very attractive. They are carefully finished, their composition is prepared in advance as is also their interpretation. What is your attitude to this kind of form? Can the same subjects be expressed in another form? How important is this form of communication?
Zofia Kulik: The same subjects could by no means be expressed in another form. The growing of the form and of the content is simultaneous, they enhance each other. It would be hard to say which of them is initial and which is influencing which. I’m simply playing with the form. I recall the forms I have seen somewhere and sometimes and then use them as something “ready made”. I use the models that do exist, placed in traditions that vary in time and geography, also those from other cultures. There was such a period in People’s Poland when everything dating from before the war was crossed. I remember when in 1971 at a meeting of students with the authorities somebody asked for the publication of the “Diaries” by Gombrowicz. When the name of Gombrowicz was uttered a thrill passed through us. Bold was the fellow who put that question. It concerned our history, it was the so called castration of the past. It concerned also art. Of course names from history of art used to be called, but only selectively and among the professionals. The official watchword was a break with the past, because “we are building a new reality”. However I suddenly got the feeling that there were immense layers of tradition and they gave me an urge to reach down to them. So 1 started penetrating history of art and draw on its forms.
I was trained to create a dramatic form, open and ephemeral. Still, there came a moment when I started seeking an opposition to all these indications. The process of shaping my new idiom lasted several years. It was a great effort. And it was done in opposition to my past. As well as in opposition to what was going on in the art of People’s Poland. My completed works I showed to the public as late as in 1989.
Anna Rosinska: What is your attitude now to such undertakings as performance? Do you think this kind of art is already outdated, or perhaps it has not fulfilled your expectations?
ZK: One can regard performance as one does New York – one can live there and work when one is young, full of energy and expectations. For somebody who needs reflection and peacefulness performance is of little use, as is that kind of city. But surely one should go through it. But one must not do it like the wild painters who used to run up the price of their pictures by the sort of activities looking like performance. They were not sincere in doing it. They criticized the artists doing performance who rejected sculpture and everything else. As for myself everything I am doing now I do in opposition to that attitude. What I am seeking is durability – durable materials, lasting glue, good transport, endurance…
AZ: To whom are you addressing your art? Is it an average television viewer?
ZK: …perhaps not the television one. But an average one. At one of my exhibitions a couple of old people approached me, the gentleman introduced himself as an university psychologist. What appealed to him was the complexity of my works – the design at a distance and the detail in the close-up. So to such people I wish to speak – to the refined ones. And to uneducated people as well. But as regards the professionals – critics, artists – I do not know.
AZ: You describe yourself as the “critical artist”. You take up current problems and in this respect your art is very clear. You one mentioned people of 500 years ago and said you’d wish to get in contact with them. So let us move 500 years into future – will at that time this art also get people from the automatic seeing or will it only become a document of our time? Because only the carriers of meaning are invariable, while the meanings depend on the time and place. Will the signs, you get out of their contexts provoking thus a formation of new meanings, will they not mean in the future something else? Will your art defend itself?
ZK: I think it will. Because if it did not such would be also the fate of the renaisance art or of the Hindou art.
AR: There is on the one hand a critical attitude and the other a seeking of universality. Don’t you notice a tension here?
ZK: The workshop is universal owing to the analysis of the form, that is my conviction. Owing to the form somebody of an alien culture may stop in front of my work. As for the content I take it from my reality, from my photos. And what is photography? It is, in simple terms, a document of reality. For something to find itself in photographic picture it must first exist in reality. So reality automatically penetrates these works.
AR: What exactly is your criticism?
ZK: It is what Piotr Piotrowski indicated – an analysis.
AZ: You analyse the visual reality around us. But that visuality around us is not only TV, it is also art. After all you, too, increase the crowd of pictures, all those attractive photographs of yours, over the form of which you ponder.
ZK: This is a problem indeed. It is like with the journalists who go to Africa, take pictures of the starving children there and later at the “World Press Photo” win prizes for them, increase their prestige and strengthen their career. This is their trade. While the children keep dying. The problem is insoluble. There were such artists who gave up everything, they did go but did not produce…
AZ: And so stopped working…
ZK: This is an essential question – what methods should be used in the struggle? With what methods should I show that crowd of visuality and how to oppose it?
AR: My question has to do with your work “The Magnificence of Myself”. Let me quote your earlier statement: “While accepting subordination as my problem and subject, full of fear and also of hatred for the situation in which there is a forced subordination I avenge myself artistically seizing any arm (symbolic and formal) that is used against me”. Is the “Magnificence of Myself” one of the manifestations of that revenge? Or is it a cynical statement on the world?
ZK: No. This is my early text and it concerned the revenge on the previous reality. In the “Magnificence of Myself” the proportion “I – the World” had been already changed.
AR: It sounded like a cynical pronouncement.
ZK: Ironical perhaps, I’m not a cynic. Everything I do derives from some emotions. The method comes later with the wish to arrange these emotions. If I were a cynic I would first define clearly my purpose and then would achieve it consequently. But in my case it is impossible, I would not be able to create anything.
AZ: The next question concerns the museum – does the museum isolate, in your opinion, art, does it allow it to perish in the steady flow of information?
ZK: A very good question. In fact I was waiting for it. Because this is the problem I’m concerned with, I also try to investigate it with the professional museum workers. We have the feeling that museum is a guarantee of their durability, preservation for future generations. This is absolutely untrue. Museum workers should reflect, stop using myths which are very convenient for them, the bulk of collections is immense, it is impossible to care for them. So I reject all those adjectives attributed to the museums, those about durability, preservation of values etc. The contemporary collections are accidental, there is no proof that they are important for history. Will ever anybody return to our contemporary art amassed by Polish museums? I do not believe it.
AZ: Let me defend history of art. Not the museum workers, but history of art.
ZK: This is wonderful. I’ll wait and see.
AZ: Is the museum an institution that shapes up the visual culture?
ZK: This depends unfortunately on which is the museum. From what I have been learning, people responsible for the museums definitely cease caring for contemporary art. And this is terrible. It condemns Polish artists to become beggars at foreign museums or to live in loneliness. It is a painful feeling that nobody stands behind me. If I win a contract I do it on my own, nobody speaks on my behalf. Another thing, in the Polish museum no methodology is being formed to study contemporary works. The assumption that there is no place in the museum for contemporary art restrains that art’s development. We are condemning ourselves that a “dictator” will come from a foreign museum, who has worked out his own methodology, and in using his methods will prepare our reality for demonstration. This is very dangerous. We do not understand in this country that just now a relentless struggle is beginning for a presence.
AZ: And the vision of an ideal museum…
ZK: It should to open, it should absorbe, give place for contemporary art to reveal itself. Without an interest in that art in Poland there will be no Polish artists in the world. Some waiting keenly for me make another show abroad… If nobody helps me -director with the curator – I shall not be able to do it by myself. Only an idiot can think that a Polish artist can do everything by himself. The amount of naivety to be found in this expectation is shocking.
AZ: The last question concerns the works that were removed in 1999 from the National Museum in Poznan before the opening of the exhibition.
ZK: It was a painful experience. I did not expect it.
AZ: Would you tell us about those works…
ZK: I wanted to respond to the space in the museum hall, but not so as to screen it. The interior looks very much like the front of my house – there are balustrades, columns, a tympanum… I thought I would move part of my house there and make it imitate that interior. And besides I wanted to link up with the reliefs which are there and which I describe as sexless. In 1997, in St. Petersburg, still without anticipating this exhibition, I was filming statues in the Ermitage. Starting with the whole figure I would then make close-up of the phalluses, as I call them “male pubes, complete or chipped”. I made these close-ups in relation to the museum reliefs. Very beautiful frames, very sensual despite being of stone. That is to say 14 coloured photographs 60 x 40 cm, close-ups of stone phalluses -works of art. I was photographing the television screen during the video projection, so it is a double medial distance. In addition there were attached below them photograph captions of all the works, that is the work’s title, sculptor, date (e.g. 2000 years B.C.) in Russian, in English… And then I got a telephone call: “We have to communicate to you a very difficult problem, the management does not agree…”
Why, in all the rooms there were hanging my works depicting a stark naked fellows with a real phallus, with pubic hair, that is in a most naturalistic way, without any distance. One could go and look at them. Without consequence.
I called the series of photographs with stone phalluses “The Treasures of Ermitage”. What is a treasure? The private parts of human body can be called variously, and the geishas do it like that. But treasure is also something acquired, brought from a journey. Their are many meanings of it. I brought the treasure from the Ermitage and wished to show it in another museum in Poland. An object from one museum transferred to another one through the electronic way. But here intervened the precedence case of censorship. When I tell about it abroad people do not believe me. It seems that the management itself was embarassed as well. I do not know how I should comment it.
AZ: How did the exhibition curator receive it?
ZK: Here is a formal problem that was not in the scenario. We have exchanged an open letter with the curator and so explained the matter.
AZ, AR: Thank you for the conversation.
ZK: Thank you too.