Text published in “Wysokie Obcasy”, a supplement to the “Gazeta Wyborcza” daily, Saturday 19 May 2004.
Zofia Kulik: I Had to Have a Body
“When I was a young girl,” says Zofia Kulik, “I didn’t feel I had clear contours. I did not speak. Well, I mean I produced sounds but I was not able to express myself in public. This was still true during my studies with Przemek Kwiek, Jan Wojciechowski, Bartek Zdrojewski and some other people when we were shooting the film “The Open Form”. I would flee the lens of the camera, so I am practically absent from this film. However, later, it turned out that many of my male friends dropped out from the course while I carried on going forward.”
Przemysław Kwiek saw her for the first time in the Visual Arts Youth Centre in Łazienkowska Street; they were both grammar school pupils then. A sculpture professor, Ms Helena Stachurska, showed Zofia to him. “Look at this girl, she is so talented; look how her eyes are shining.” They met again at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, at the Faculty of Sculpture.
“Professor Jarnuszkiewicz said about her that she had genius in her fingers. It was the first time that I had heard one could apply the word ‘genius’ to a living person,” says Kwiek. Her academy-mates remember her: pretty, serious, a woman of principle, determined.
“With all her charm and beauty she had an un-girlish trait: an analytical mind,” says Professor Grzegorz Kowalski, who at that time was an assistant in Jarnuszkiewicz’s atelier. He liked her but she was already married.
Her first husband was the son of a famous physician. “He was slightly crazy”, says Edward Dwurnik, a painter and friend from the Academy time.
“I trained diving into water. I met my husband at the pool of the Legia Sports Club,” remembers Zofia Kulik. “He once asked: ‘Could you lend me your personal identity card?’ So I gave it to him. And he registered us in the Registry Office on the corner of Nowy Świat and Smolna Streets. It was May 1968.”
Edward Dwurnik: Suspicions are that she married him because she wanted to have good photo cameras. They travelled to England with a car and a trailer; it belonged to her brother Jerzyk. They bought cars and then resold them in Poland. Already as a student she used to sport a Mini Morris along Nowy Świat; she was a kind of VIP. Yet, they quickly divorced. I remember we were once sitting in a cafe near Dziekanka Gallery – I, my fiancée Tereska, Kwiek and Zosia. And Zosia said: “I have nowhere to go. I am not going to go back to my parents.” And Kwiek: “Come and stay at my place”. So, she moved in to his place in Praga district; but they never married. To seal the whole relationship, she quickly became pregnant.”
There were no better ones
“I can see no-one who could be better than them in the 1970s,” says Zbigniew Libera. “They lived for their art and only art interested them.”
Grzegorz Kowalski: “It is said that Polish art is derivative from the West. Their art, however, is an absolutely domestic and new development with no counterpart in the world.”
Maryla Sitkowska, art critic: “They became independent of the official artistic life. They created their own gallery at home. They issued their own newspaper in the form of mailed issues.”
They progressed from making sculptures even during their studies. There was a conceptual revolt in the world at that time. Kwiek and Kulik belonged to the same generation of rebels against the academic division of art into painting, sculpture and prints. They wanted a change. Instead of a monument, a statue, a bust – either from plaster or bronze – there was photography and commentary, slides and activity instead. Their art fed on daily life. It looked scruffy and shabby but, in fact, there was a considered programme behind it.
Their bottom line was “the open form”, borrowed from a professor at the Academy, Oskar Hansen. “Open” because the art object was not important but the process of thinking which generated this object was the thing that mattered. Not a work of art but the documentation of the phases of its creation.
“We never finished anything,” says Kulik. “We went forward as if making a survey. Well, Kwiek is still acting in this way even today. A kind of “marketing misfit.”
Kwiek had left his wife and child for Zofia. They settled in Praga district together with his mother, brother and sisters. His mother set aside two rooms for them in a huge, pre-war apartment. They installed a kitchen and a darkroom in the hall. That became their home, gallery and atelier.
They were taking photos all the time. They called it The Studio of Activities, Documentation and Propagation (PDDiU). Taking pictures was the “camera-targeted activity”, photographs – “aesthetic time-effects”; as for themselves, they dubbed themselves “KwieKulik”. The equipment, materials, photographic paper, prints, the mailing of postcards, leaflets and invitations – all of this was paid for from their private money.
“I used to sleep,” Zofia Kulik says, “on a mattress placed atop a wardrobe.”
In the 1970s, their flat in Wójcika Street would host Alison Knowles from Fluxus and Giancarlo Politi, the publisher of “Flash Art” magazine; the anarchic dadaist-poet Andrzej Partum was also a guest there. He, always demonstrating a slightly counter-reality stance, always with no steady employment and no stabilisation, was a model for them. His Bureau for Poetry, actually a poor, hired room full of leaflets, books, paintings and people, was a template for an artistic institution, which meant it was something informal, free and independent. Such people as Edward Dwurnik organised their exhibitions at KwieKulik’s PPDiU Studio of Activities…
Dwurnik: “When their son was born, they made an action of it; they photographed him. When they decided to cut a German encyclopaedia into pieces, they also made an action of it. It might look banal but there was enormous consistency behind it. Andrzej Partum was infatuated with Zosia. When he phoned, she would tell him: ‘Partum, remember not to come empty-handed, bring some cakes or sausages’.”
“We lived in utter poverty. We would often think how to make one egg suffice for three people. We lived on menial commissions. We had no steady employment, well, such an idea did even not come into our minds,” says Kwiek. “The artist was to create, to break fossilised forms. If anyone would like to employ us, they would have to take into account the fact that the first thing we would do would be the reorganisation of his institution.”
Zbigniew Libera: “There is their film, an excellent one. First, you can see them making decorations for a meeting of journalists. They are writing a slogan, then they film a TV screen featuring Gierek 1 Edward Gierek (1913 – 2001), the 1st secretary of the Polish Communist Party (PZPR) from 1970, when he succeeded Gomułka after the riots in Gdańsk and other places in Poland, to 1980, when he was deposed because of the Solidarity strikes in Gdańsk and other places in Poland. standing under this slogan and clapping his hands. They worked out their own style using the means available at that time: brown wrapping paper, black-and-white photography and red-and-white creased tissue paper. They made such announcement boards as the ones placed in factory halls; they imitated the visual tawdriness of that time. My favourite work of theirs is “KwieKulik Circle” (Koło KwieKulik), which is a shocking documentation of their environs: devastated walls, yards, streets – photographs arranged in a circle on a board. They could not show it at exhibitions.”
The youth are always with the Party
If they were an opposition, it was an aesthetic, not a political, one.
Grzegorz Kowalski: “They believed that they could offer the Authorities a new, efficient and effective form, visually shaping the human environment. This, however, was distasteful for the Party officials.”
Maryla Sitkowska: “They wanted to co-operate but only on their own conditions – as reformers and menders. That was doomed to end in fiasco.”
“We were pathologically naďve,” says Zofia Kulik. “In 1971, an artist, Zygmunt Piotrowski, organised a closed show of new art for officials entitled “Think Communism” (Pomyśl komunizm) in the laudation hall of the Ministry of Culture. A group of young committed artists called “Proagit” participated in the event. KwieKulik were also invited and they made a slide projection. They showed “Edward Gierek’s Way” (Droga Edwarda Gierka) and “Variations of Red” (Odmiany czerwieni) on two screens simultaneously. The first series was photographic copies of the title pages of newspapers in which Gierek shook hands with people while travelling all over Poland. The “Variations of Red” was a sequence of photographs in which a red element appeared. Przemysław Kwiek can remember the foreheads of activists becoming sweaty.
In 1975, KwieKulik applied for Party membership. They were never accepted.
Zbigniew Libera: “Przemek’s mother was a committed Communist. Zofia’s father was an army officer. She spent her childhood in barracks. In their youth, they both lived in an enclosed world. When they started their independent lives, it turned out that things were not like what they had been told at their homes. Today Przemek knows what the reality of Communist Poland (PRL) was like, yet he is still a Marxist. This is manifested in his conviction that all people are equal, that everyone deserves the same. Well, even today, he still writes applications to the Ministry of Culture for grants. They reject them but he is still writing.”
“Kwiek was a man of idea,” says Edward Dwurnik. “He constantly dreamt of and invented new concepts. Zosia necessarily wanted to implement all of this. She listened to him, gaping, and took down everything in her notebook. And he was making a fool of himself.”
Sources close to ASP say that, at that time, she was nick-named “Krupskaya.” 1 After Nadezhda Krupskaya (1869 – 1939), Lenin’s assistant and wife.
The drop in the charts
Their line of enthusiasm began to drop around the mid-1970s. They tried to include their art within the renovation of the system; they failed.
“We did not want to criticise,” says Kulik today, “but it somehow ended up like that. That was neither our fault nor our contribution.” They denounced the absurdities of the system. For them, the main absurdity was that an artist had to earn his living by doing some degrading and menial jobs in a Communist system which, after all, was the system supposed to reward everyone according to their work and talent. Their temporary menial jobs were, among others, visual supervision over display boxes in the Polish Journalists’ House in Foksal Street and the conservation of exhibitions in the Lenin Museum.
“We ‘inherited’ these jobs from the Dwurniks,” says Kwiek. “These were jobs distributed by the Visual Arts Ateliers (Pracownie Sztuk Plastycznych).”
In 1975, they made such a photograph: a huge plaster eagle leaning against the wall with Zofia in an apron next to it. There was a text in ball-point pen on the photograph: “A bird from plaster in the barracks of visual arts.” They showed it at an exhibition in Malmö. A scandal broke out. The clue was these “barracks”. They were refused their passports for the next five years.
In 1978, Kulik was sitting on the floor during the meeting “Body, Performance” (Body, Performance) at the Labirynt Gallery in Lublin. Her head stuck out of a hole in a metal washbasin. Kwiek undressed from the waist up and poured water into this basin. He first washed his face in it, then his legs. He poured more water into the basin, until the water covered Zofia’s mouth. Then he placed a knife against her throat, shouting “Say something, you bitch! Say!”
In 1985, there was the performance entitled “The Festival of Intelligentsia” at the Dziekanka Gallery in Warsaw. KwieKulik put slices of raw meat on their faces, then they crawled to each other and touched each other with their faces.
In 1986, they showed a few actions at Dziekanka. “Arcadia” (Arkadia) – a huge fist from wrapping paper projected from the wall; a chain went through this fist and they, wearing dog-like collars, were chained by it. In such bondage, they would go into the crowd of people, swearing terribly and cursing. The chain became so tight that they almost strangled.
“A Banana and a Pomer-grenade (sic!)” (Banan i granat): their son Maksymilian unveiled a white curtain, decorated with silver stars and crescents. Behind the curtain, there were consecutive still scenes with Kwiek and Kulik on chairs, buckets on their heads. The following things were placed on the buckets: a pig’s snout, a glass of water, an axe, a broken milk-bottle and a sculpture featuring a couple copulating in a standing position. There were 12 such unveilings.
“We were off-off,” says Zofia Kulik. “We were unpredictable for the Party. The Opposition treated us as collaborators because we mucked about with the criticism of real contexts.”
The “Solidarity” surge of 1980 did not swallow them, nor did the wave of underground activities during Martial Law. They found the patriotic and religious rhetoric repulsive, being themselves rationalists, pragmatists and leftists. In April 1982, Kwiek had an exhibition at the Studio Gallery in Warsaw; Zofia did not participate in it. It was the time when the boycott of art institutions was beginning. They returned their Party membership cards at the beginning of Martial Law, but they both joined the Association of Sculptor-Artists which was a new, locally created body established after the Communist-controlled Union of Polish Visual Artists (ZPAP) had been dissolved. They worked for the establishment of an organisation which would be devoted to such art which was neither painting nor sculpture, nor graphic art. The Association of the Artists of Other Arts (Stowarzyszenie Artystów Sztuk Innych) was founded in 1988. Its members, apart from Kwiek and Kulik, were Jan Świdziński, Anastazy Wiśniewski, Andrzej Partum, the Łódź Kaliska Group – the artists of Polish “ephemera.” When KwieKulik finally managed to legalise their artistic union, their life union was already falling apart.
I needed to have a body
In the mid-1980s, Zbigniew Libera, a young artist from the circle of the Łódź Whip-Round Culture (Kultura Zrzuty), which was the alternative circle of artist-photographers and actionists, made friends with KwieKulik. The duo had just moved to Łomianki near Warsaw, where Zofia had bought a dilapidated villa from the 1930s. They renovated the house unaided; they mixed the concrete themselves. As before, they did not have any money. Libera would accommodate himself in an outhouse; he welded his first sculptures from scrap metal there.
“They were already lonely; they had nothing to talk about and nobody to talk to. They felt their relationship was collapsing, so was their art. They felt the bitterness of loss,” remembers Libera. “I can recall a hot summer we had. Przemek was sitting in front of the TV set for 12 hours. For an artist who had worked intensely for 20 years such inactivity was a tragedy. Zofia was also in depression; moreover, her elder brother disappeared. No-body knew what had happened to him. He was never found. He just left home and never returned.”
“He had a car-repair garage,” says Przemysław Kwiek. “He was building his house in Warsaw, like us, in the 1980s. I believe he suffered from the so-called ‘house-builder’s syndrome’, an infliction described in psychology books. We had the same fears. For example, you dream that you have used the wrong proportions of cement in the ceiling and the house is collapsing onto your head. He couldn’t bear it.”
In 1987, Kulik, Kwiek and Libera went to the open-air workshop in Olsztyn. There are different versions of how Libera became Zofia Kulik’s model.
Libera: “Nothing came out of this workshop save for one thing. Once Zofia entered my room and saw me sleeping naked. Later she asked me to pose for her.”
Kulik: “One evening, the boys got really drunk. Next day, I entered Libera’s room. I looked – he was sleeping covered up to his chin with a sheet, only his head protruding. It looked like the head of a wounded bird to me”.
For several subsequent years, he would pose for her naked against a black curtain in the house at Łomianki. 700 shots were made. In these pictures the naked Libera stood, crouched, hung, lay, fell down. The poses and gestures were borrowed from art history books, Greek vases, Roman tympanums, Mediaeval and Baroque paintings, and monuments from the times of Hitler and Stalin.
“I needed to have a body,” says Kulik. “Using Libera, I created the archive of gestures.”
“It was rather cold in there; moreover, these torture-like poses. If you are Zofia Kulik’s model, your hands and legs must be placed with pinpoint accuracy. A small change spoils the whole photograph,” says Libera. “It was hard work. I paid my rent by posing.”
From the time of her studies, Kulik had always carried a camera with her. The idea of archiving consecutive stages of movement of a model placed in front of the lens was nothing new. Her diploma work from 1971 used the same principle. She worked out her own technique of multiple exposure of the same sheet of paper. First, she made small-sized works.
“For me,” says Kwiek, “they were fantastic commercial objects. However, I knew what it was for. In Poland, an ephemeral artist would sooner or later fall into a slough, would reach the situation of biological threat. She wanted to get out of it.”
“KwieKulik considered the creation of an aesthetic object for a wall a disgrace,” says Libera. “Zofia left Przemek at that time. Przemek said then ‘I do not have any grudge against her because she betrayed me as a woman but because she betrayed our ideals.’ But I know that it was only thanks to art that she found a rescue for herself.”
A grave case
Zofia Kulik: “I was on the verge of a precipice. Later, when I studied Jung, I understood that I might be the template of his patient. In the middle of one’s life a breakdown happens, well, that’s what it looks like at least from the perspective of a life race. At a certain stage of this process, the experience of mandala-like symbols happens, which can be perfectly seen in my work. My personal crisis was even compounded by the crisis in the external world – the shift of the political system and the changes in art.”
In the mid-1980s, young expressive artists appeared who had neither the burden of theory nor a scientific language: Jerzy Truszkowski, Zbigniew Libera. Truszkowski cut his own body over and over. Libera made drastic videos. The first exhibitions of Gruppa were mounted – they were a group of young painters who splashed paint over canvas and made crazy performances not caring about anything or anybody.
“They laughed at our art,” says Zofia Kulik. “… ephemeral, analytical, concentrated on the scrutiny of the medium. They ironically said that we had no output in the form of finished works or art. And I felt that it was the end of such art which we had been making – avant-garde, emphasising novelty and breaking with the past. The ban on quoting certain traditions, names and facts was there in the entire Communist Poland – there had been nothing before us, everything commenced with us, then.”
Zofia started to work out her own way of breaking the crisis around 1989. She made concentric compositions. “A Self-Portrait with a Flag” from 1989 is a circle-arranged puzzle of black-and-white photos. Centrally located is Zofia Kulik’s passport photo with a red flag behind her ear. Around her, in five rings, Libera multiplied like a naked ornament. In the first ring, he points at her with a metal spike, like the one ending the pole of a flag; in the second – he kneels, pointing the spike downwards, as if mercy-killing someone. In the third, he stoops holding the spike against his forehead; in the fourth – he stands erect, in the fifth – he places the spike against his temple like a gun. Metal spirals, photographed by Kulik at the scrap-metal heap during the open-air workshop at Legnica in 1971, were placed in four corners of the composition. Kulik: “someone who knew me commented on this work ‘A grave medical case’.”
There was no question about authorship in KwieKulik. They made a film together, they made a performance together. Yet, in the pseudonym KwieKulik, the last letter of his name became the first letter of her name. A female artist was incorporated by a male artist. Kwiek says that this notation is a mistake. “It should be Kwiek-Kulik written like a graphic sign, one name atop the other, where two big ‘Ks’ flank the sign at the ends.” When I observe that, once again, Kulik is underneath, he says that this is in accordance with nature.
“There was an absolute balance in our relationship; I never did anything to which Zofia would not agree.”
“It was Kwiek who spoke for and represented us in public,” remembers Zofia Kulik. “Unexpectedly, it was in 1984, Jerzy Truszkowski asked me about something related to our work. With my heart in my mouth, I started to speak about KwieKulik in my own words. It was the last straw and led to my total split with Kwiek.”
“She did it in such a way that this Truszkowski fell in love with her,” says Edward Dwurnik.
“And she in him? Some people say that Zofia is a praying mantis.”
In May 1998, Jerzy Truszkowski demolished Zofia Kulik’s exhibition at the Mała Gallery in Warsaw.
“What she showed was very good,” says Libera.
“Zofia,” says Przemysław Kwiek, “made her choice twice. First, when she left her husband to say with me. She rejected a classical family and a safe life. However, this was not an impulse; this was an absolutely rational choice. She knew she would be able to realise herself through art with me. The second choice was when she opted for the young people and left KwieKulik.”
Zofia Kulik had her first one-person exhibition at the Mała Gallery in Warsaw in 1989 when she was 42. She made compositions from dozens, later from hundreds, of b/w photographs, arranged like Oriental carpets, tapestries, mandalas. They were increasingly larger and would more openly touch the issue of death and violence, with a constantly repeated motif of naked bodies, missiles, monuments, banners, palaces, military objects, altars, parades, executions and skulls. In 1991, she prepared the work “Favourite Balance” for the “Wanderlieder” exhibition in Amsterdam – 3 metres high, 7.5 metres long. For the Venice Biennial in 1997, she prepared an even larger work “All Missiles Are One Missile” – 3 m by 9.5 m.
“Przemek meant improvisation,” says Libera. “Zofia prepared a formal structure for it. She has always had order around her, even when she is in crisis. Zofia is able to manage people, to organise life. She can say, ‘Now, you mow the grass, you dig the garden, and you paint the fence.’ When she has a plan, she can realise it like a formidable machine. Order is the principle of her art.”
Zofia Kulik still lives in the villa at Łomianki. Alone. She has her atelier there and her archive. There are rows and piles of notebooks, boxes, staples, folders, files and catalogues. You just name an entry and in a blink of an eye the appropriate file, photo or notebook lies on the table. A hand-held vacuum cleaner for collecting the remains is fastened to the table. When Kulik offers me a biscuit, crumbs fall onto the white surface. I feel like I am dropping a bomb.
“When we were together,” says Kulik, “I always did the cleaning while Przemek was the cook.”
In the gigantic work which she showed this year at Warsaw’s Zachęta Gallery and at the Bunkier Sztuki Gallery in Kraków, the order reached its apogee. Seventeen thousand photographs arranged in rows. Seventeen thousand frames copied from television. And the frames feature the crimes of the 20th century: genocide, wars, revolutions, diseases, catastrophes but also scientific inventions, theatre revues, natural science discoveries and marvels of nature. Everything seemingly mixed, but the frames follow the order in which they were photographed. “From Siberia to Cyberia” is the record of her TV-watching for the last 15 years.
A zigzag of empty fields runs through the whole composition – like human figures holding hands. “From Siberia to Cyberia” is 21 metres long and 2.4 m high. Kulik used 800 films of 36 frames each.
Przemysław Kwiek: “She has beaten a Guinness record in terms of the number of hours spent over a single photographic work. When she was working on it, you couldn’t even ask her what time it was because she had no time to answer. ‘So, make this work bloody shorter!’ I said. No. She would spend up to fifteen hours in the dark room.”
Sliced brown jelly
Przemysław Kwiek is sorry that KwieKulik broke up. They could have made many more works. “We did not separate from each other for even a moment during those 17 years. And since the time of our split we have talked about art for circa 2 minutes or so.”
He is sorry that their son Maksymilian has not become an artist. “This is our great defeat,” he says. “A fantastic talent for drawing. He was accepted to the Lycée for Visual Arts but he withdrew his documents a week later.”
Maksymilian Kwiek is an economist. He delivers lectures at Southampton University near London.
Przemysław Kwiek lives at Łomianki in the renovated outhouse, the same one which Libera once rented from them. Otherwise, he would have nowhere to go. In a year from now he will be 60 years old. He is unemployed, with no right to unemployment benefit for the last 8 years. He says that the real artistic feat is to live and create on 10 zloty (ca. 3,5 USD) per day. He has recently exhibited his works at the Kronika Gallery in the town of Bytom and the Museum of the Cieszyn Land in Zielona Góra. He runs art classes for children in the local area. He goes to the Łomianki bazaar, trying to sell his paintings for 1000 zloty each. He has not sold a single one yet.
“I will never recuperate,” he says.
When the weather is warm, he paints flowers in the Łomianki garden and takes photographs of himself painting. Later, he shows these paintings and photographs in large compositions entitled “The Avant-Garde is Painting Lilacs” (Awangarda bzy maluje). His other work is “The Art of the Ministry of Culture and Art II” (Sztuka Ministerstwa Kultury i Sztuki II) – the first part was launched in the 1970s. This is the collection of applications for an artistic grant to the Ministry of Culture, rejected in the majority of cases.
“Of the two of us, it is only me who is continuing the performance mode, which was the core of KwieKulik,” Kwiek says. “Zofia made a complete U-turn and switched to object-art.” Przemysław Kwiek has dubbed his activity “appearances”. “Appearance” is the current shape of an art-piece, which will never be finished. Total spontaneity and freshness without repetitions, without rehearsals.
“Just imagine a sliced brown jelly”, he explains. “If you slice a piece of brown jelly in two, this coincidental act of slicing is exactly the ‘appearance’, that is the artist’s condition today.”
Zofia Kulik apportions a certain sum of money for food to Przemysław Kwiek every day. He does the shopping, cooks and re-sells one lunch to Zofia. This way he has his lunch for free. “A while ago she told me that she didn’t like my cooking, that my cuisine was too spicy for her. She decided to cook for herself. I was free for two years. At last! What a relief it was that I didn’t have to do it day in day out. Yet, about three-quarters of a year ago, when she started preparing for the exhibition at Zachęta, she asked me to cook again. As you know, shopping and cooking take two hours a day. This is two hours taken away from your working time.
She has always been these two hours a day ahead of me.”
Translated by © Marzena Beata Guzowska
[English translation proof-read by Tadeusz Z. Wolański]