Let the Archeologist Not Put His Shovel Away (An interview with Zofia Kulik, conducted by Adam Szymczyk and Andrzej Przywara in 1997, published in the first issue of the periodical Materiał in 1998).
Let the Archeologist Not Put His Shovel Away
“. . . remnants of mass graves have again been discovered. . .” – ZOFIA KULIK, Poland’s official representative at this year’s Venice Biennale, meets MATERIAŁ at her home in Łomianki. We talk about death, ornament, archives, and a beneficial philosophy of non-producing. We learn new facts about the 2nd Retreat of Young Sculptors in Legnica in 1971, and reprise Professor Oskar Hansen’s Open Form.
Zofia Kulik: Two years ago the following scene played over and over on TV: sites of mass graves in Serbia had been filmed from the air. The snow had blackened and corpses, skulls etc. had been dug up in those places. In such TV reports – and I’ve noticed this not only in the context of Yugoslavia – there is a strange connection between showing corpses in an ethnic war and scenes of despairing and crying women. Usually they wear head scarves. This skull on a scarf is part of a larger project. I imagined a whole collection of such scarves. The same skull would appear on scarves of different design. A bit like in a library or a collection – an organized array of relatively similar objects. A series of skulls on various ethnic scarves. I’ve titled this Ethnic Wars. Large Vanitas Still Life. In Venice I’m planning to show one cabinet as a sketch of the whole project.
Adam Szymczyk/Andrzej Przywara: Is this the project you couldn’t do for Venice because the decision of your exhibition at the Polish pavilion was made so late, only in February this year?
That’s right. In this way I just want to signal an idea that interests me. I thought of a very large installation. And according to my preliminary calculations it would be very costly. I thought of using illuminated cibachromes arranged in the shape of a huge multi-color screen. An arrangement of very many patterned squares, imbued with color, sensual, decorative, precisely composed, often according to an abstract schema.
In this case you are interested in the lament of women. Is it for a purpose that you want to approach the theme of death from inside, as it were, from the perspective of someone personally co-affected by it?
Lament, despair, but above all the focus is on how this visual attribute is persistently tied up by the media with images of ethnic wars. Here, this is an invitation for the Polish edition of the World Press Photo exhibition with a color image from Tuzla in 1995. And again the same – a group of dramatically despairing women and on their heads the folkloristic, ornamental scarves.
I’d like to ask you about the relation between ornament and death. How do you interpret that?
I know that various designs of scarves are used by women on all kinds of life occasions, not only in the context of someone’s death. But I don’t know the exact combinations, don’t know what ornament is used in what circumstances or ceremonies.
The combination of death and ornament is pretty emphatic here and brings to mind the Mexican esthetics accompanying death, religiousness in the deadly spasm. There is a very similar combination there of decorative ornament and motifs that directly relate to death: skulls, skeletons.
It wouldn’t probably be genuine if I delved into that, for I have no first-hand experience of that culture. I only analyze what is shown on the TV news. I try to be a kind of mechanical, average viewer. On the other hand, though, it’s strange how various facts click together after many years. You’ve mentioned Mexican esthetics and that reminds me that my first sculpture ever, made at the age of 14, was a copy of a statue of Coatlicue, the Aztec goddess of earth and death, with a stylized skull instead of a head. I looked up the image in the catalogue of an exhibition of Mexican art at the National Museum in Warsaw .
Returning to patterned scarves, the question is: why do we women adorn themselves? And generally: what is ornament? Some time ago I saw a documentary by Stanisław Szwarc-Bronikowski on the history of ornaments and it turns out that for the Greeks it was an equivalent of cosmos, only later did cosmos begin to signify order, and people adorned their bodies to attain that order and to manifest or communicate something.
So you are not interested in interpreting the actual ornaments?
Of course, I’d like to know their particular meanings, but what for really? I’d rather remain to some extent on the level of observing the symptoms, retaining the status of an “average” consumer of information, without “academizing” my artistic statements. The historical and ethnographical meaning of the different ornaments is something else than the persistent image of wailing women in ornamented scarves as a recurring piece of TV news. As such, it practically belongs to my reality. But only as a message, for what it shows is absent “here,” and in a twofold sense: firstly because news show what is happening elsewhere, and secondly because they appear only momentarily, soon replaced by other news. Or don’t appear at all if I haven’t turned on the TV.
You watch the faces of those people in the camps and you realize that they are the living dead. Their image as living persons reaches us as a piece of news, then some days or weeks pass, a season passes, and let the archeologist not put his shovel away, for remnants of mass graves have again been discovered. When these people are filmed, still as living persons, do they realize that the recorded image of their faces and figures will spread freely around the world whereas they themselves, their bodies, like in a dream, are glued in place. I had a sense that the eyes of some of them revealed that they did realize that for, after all, they too had at one time or another watched similar reportage of ethnic cleansing and wars, and I also thought that they were kind of embarrassed and ashamed of their situation as a victim in front of the camera. When watching news, what is striking is how they attack us with their externality, their surface, their “body,” but not their meaning. An image recurs, resembling another image from a different situation, and in the end the circumstances and historical context no longer matter, what is left is the stamp of an image. I don’t want to talk about the psychological processes that are occurring in us, moral insensitivity and so on. In my Iconographic Guide, which will be presented for the first time in Venice, in the part titled “Visual Tricks and References,” I juxtapose analogical visual facts from different contexts. And we instantly recognize: oh, this is Lenin, this is Mao, and this a Roman commander. But equally well we can find someone making a similar gesture in a Western democracy. When you overlay something with the same, the same, and the same again, when you put together all these gestures and ways of representing various ideas, even if each is the product of a different context, these contexts cancel themselves out and what is left is the sign itself.
Rhetoric, an empty sign.
“Abstraction,” in a way. It is foolish to believe that there are any meanings left.
Do you believe that?
Values and meanings exist, but as entries in a hypothetical lexicon. Everyone can browse through it, but it’s hard to agree on a specific set of values and meanings that would be obligatory in practice. For me today one such value would be a philosophy of non-production, of abstaining from producing. Including in art.
We really don’t need to produce so much. Imagine a situation where the whole world, all countries and regions, including the poorest and most underdeveloped ones, today’s garbage dumps of the West, by some miracle enter on a path of accelerated growth and start producing. The whole globe producing, intensely, rhythmically, efficiently. No one idling. More and more. Everyone producing. Zaire, Madagascar, and Bangladesh on a par with Germany or Japan. More shirts, cars, fridges, pots and pans, computers, installations. But who will buy all that? Where to offload the discards and outdated styles? This is a truly dramatic vision. The only antidote to it seems to be a philosophy of non-producing, a production silence.
A rather unrealistic proposition…
I believe in what I’m saying now. But do I stop producing? Photography also has its wastes, the different acids, developers, and fixers, like every production process. We are all entangled in this.
Returning to signs without meanings, the decontextualization of image, sign, and symbol has been a rather widespread phenomenon, in advertising, for example. Advertising is interested in persuasive value, in conjuring up the right visual mood for the advertised product. Another area of symbolic appropriation is ideology. If I were the swastika, I’d probably commit suicide. What has happened to the sign is quite incredible: it has turned from a symbol of luck into the emblem of a genocidal organization. To use the swastika in its original sense is no longer possible. Actually, I’d like to know what the Hindu or the Japanese think about the Nazis using “their” symbol.
Is the absence of color in your photographs meant to emphasize this phenomenon of the dramatic loss of semantic potency, of the confusion of symbolic meanings? Is color eliminated here because it is associated with concreteness?
I use black-and-white photography for various reasons. I keep rediscovering and exploring it. Obviously, color photography conveys more information and black-and-white photography conveys less information. But this is a deficit that I try to turn into artistic profit.
Your black-and-white photographs emphasize the form and structure of what is represented.
First of all, they are close to sculptural thinking. They very much resemble a chiaroscuro relief. I wonder whether what I do with black-and-white photographs could be done in the form of a huge relief that would produce a light-and-shadow effect as opposed to a two-dimensional paper representation. I usually picture single objects or figures, illuminating them evenly and placing them against a black background so that they are distinguished from it, or actually deprived of it. They seem a bit lonely, abandoned. At the same time, I strive to show their figures as clearly as possible, to emphasize their contours. Sometimes I label them as luminescent shadows or white shadows. So I photograph single motifs, individual, atomized. Small atoms, as it were.
Micro-level closed forms.
Yes. Black-and-white photography is perfect for that. The object has no color of its own here.
So isn’t this a kind of text, a sequence of signs on a neutral background?
These are image-words. They have to be legible, like writing. A kind of calligraphy.
In the work that is going to Venice we can read certain lines as narrative sequences of images, and other ones as being rather decorative. Hence the question about text. Is there a general idea here that organizes the contents and narratives or is the whole thing decided by esthetic considerations?
In the beginning I always determine a compositional schema for, as I’ve said many times before, I don’t invent anything but use forms that already exist in the world and would exist without me. A work as complex as this photo-carpet I usually build from the center outward, by adding successive images and sequences.
So should it be read from inside out as well?
Not necessarily. Someone once offered to describe one of my works. I suggested that the description would depend on the course traced by the gaze around it because the piece was a complex, labyrinthine structure. If we started from the left side, the description would convey a different image of the work than if we started from the center. The left side of this work is devoted to the woman, and the right one to men. Those are scenes from TV, e.g., Miss America pageants and the like. These fields are occupied by the kind of patterns that are formed by marching armies. The way is important: how you “walk” around this work will determine your reading of it.
That’s why I asked about reading from inside out. It makes possible interesting clusters of meaning. Leaps that reflect how the work evolved. What decides when this work ends, closes?
If I make a work based, for example, on a carpet pattern, it’s obvious that a carpet ends with a kind of border. Size is often a function of the scale of the space where the work will be exhibited.
What is the principle behind those micro-scale combinations? They seem incredibly powerful and simple. E.g., skull and Mickey Mouse’s head, pincers and people. These are semantically quite obvious juxtapositions.
It’s pure visual poetry.
A “chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella”?
No, there’s no randomness here. Then it would be pure surrealism. These are not surrealist pieces from a dreamy collection, but these are poetic collections.
What exactly is their poetics?
In a way, it is simple, banal, and kitschy. The subtlety of this work consists in its complexity. I think it’s an important virtue of my work – the fact that I’m a talented organizer of very complex visual structures. All details, though, are simple like in an ordinary song about love, death etc.
All my work is based on the fact that I permanently collect and archive images of this world. The complexity of my work stems from the vastness of my archive. It’s a huge accumulation of visual information, a kind of magazine.
What kind of archive is that? Of objects, photographs?
Here, for example, I have photographs from Legnica in 1971. Shortly after graduation, I was invited to participate in the 2nd Retreat of Young Sculptors. It was a retreat that allowed graduates to produce a work in real space using materials provided by a local industrial plant.
During the retreat, I noticed that the workers and the manager were unwilling to part with rationed materials, such as stainless steel, whereas the political authorities urged them to give those materials to the artists so that they can produce beautiful sculptures and install them in the streets and squares. The town was shabby. Those abstract forms, placed in its public space, disgusted and repelled me so much that I thought I’d never do anything like them. First of all, it’d be a waste of material. This element of material economy is very important to me, which is why there are many things that I don’t do. So instead of designing a spatial forms with rationed materials, I went to the waste dump. I was given a pass allowing me to enter the premises of the Kombinat Górniczo-Hutniczy Legmet engineering plant, and assigned a guard because I wasn’t allowed to be there alone with a camera. I took pictures of metal discards, scraps, shavings, cogwheels.
Here is a little spring that keeps appearing against the background of a mass of scrap metal.
Yes, it resembles my scarves, where a single isolated element is shown against different backgrounds.
Have you been developing this photographic archive since the 1970s?
This has been connected with the attitude of documenting and archiving everything, all aspects of life and art as well as my own individual contexts.
Such a strategy was characteristic for many artists of the 1970s.
I am a 1970s artist. To 1980s painters it would be inconceivable.
But how did you manage to establish yourself in the 1990s, to find a leverage for the present?
I simply decided to make artworks, objects, and photographs. Through the very fact that I started making artworks, I was noticed by the so called serious museum institutions around the world. I didn’t stop on the level of researching, archiving, collecting, on the level of permanent activity that leads to nothing. I told myself I’d do a kind of “closed form.”
From open form to closed form.
Exactly. I remember the desire to do something to spite my past. The whole wave of “closed art” that emerged in the 1980s, all those “wild” artists, they were terribly proud of their “artiste” image and spoke disparagingly of artists of the 1970s. We were simply treated as failures, we weren’t artistic enough for those young people from the 1980s. And there was a moment, after I’d returned to “close form,” when I realized that it was very easy. Being a 1970s artist, a permanent, creative artist who closes nothing but is instead in a constant processual trance, is very difficult, very risky. In confrontation with the outside world it’s sometimes humiliating. Whereas “closed form,” i.e., making objects, is simply easy. So I did it in a way to spite them, those Artists. I’m leveling with you here.
Paradoxically, as a 1970s artist you have returned in the 1990s to closed form, to representation; many 1990s artists in turn are going back to all those 1970s phenomena that deconstructed image, form, object. Isn’t your archive a substitute of living experience that traditional artists translated into a physical object, an artwork?
That I don’t know. But it certainly has to do with computer technology. Organizing a set is a necessary prerequisite of storing it as a data set in the computer. The computer, or the Web, requires imposing a certain schema or structure on the often vague and complex facts that we create or participate in. Notice the contradiction. On the one hand, being an artist: individualistic, unique, irresponsible, a bit crazy; on the other, the requirement of communicativeness, a desire to share information about often highly complex practices and contexts.
It would be very interesting for me if art historians tuned in to the contemporary tried to analyze the technological, social, or cultural conditions faced by artists today and in the 19th century, or up to the mid-20th actually. The 19th-century artist myth, which still endures, is hardly compatible with the present times. Think about the role and status of the artist when there exist things like “artistic production,” “production of images,” or “exhibition industry,” things like mechanical recording, when there is actually a surfeit of information, leading to the phenomenon of infotainment, and when there exists a mass media culture driven by accelerated change and novelty. In the music industry they say, for example, that “commercial success requires a new sound.” All that didn’t exist before.
Speaking of the archive and of infoglut, I am reminded of Borges’s cartographer drawing a 1:1-scale map of the world. I’ve always been interested in the starting moment of the cartographic procedure: “He began with a kilometer of the road outside Buenos Aires.” The moment of downshifting to the concrete is strange. What kind of issues or doubts did you have when setting this vast archiving machine in motion? And aren’t you terrified that everything – everything “else,” I mean, outside the archive – slips away anyway?
You’ve answered yourself here. I archived in the 1970s, when everything slipped away, was ephemeral, and it was the moment when the mania began of documenting things to preserve them. But today’s my objectives are a bit different: I don’t document that which slips away, being aware of the impossibility of good enough documentation, but even when I do, the question remains: for whom, what for, and who is going to use it?
The question of documentary value.
I can say that this or that document is very important for me, but I see that others too have their very important documents, and who would be supposed to decide which is more important. I think of our 1970s archive with a profound sense of powerlessness. Everything is on file, hours of recordings, of discussions that were like a revelation at the time. A storeroom, a reflection of the events that took place.
When you’d decided to “make artworks,” you didn’t solely use the existing archive.
I set about vigorously creating a new one. I arranged situations which I recorded.
But that was already present in the photographs of the metal springs. You also composed them in a sense.
My archive includes black-and-white photographs of various categories of reality. There is the category of extant subjects: landscapes, architecture, ceremonies. Another are compositions that I arranged myself in front of the camera. Here I need to mention that the first “for-camera action” that I am aware of was carried out by Kwiek in 1968. Still another category are various real events from the world, copied from the TV screen. Also, or perhaps most crucially, working with models, who, Gadamer says, “serve only to wear a costume of to make gestures clear – like dressed-up [or undressed] dolls.” But a model with a personality is much more than a doll.
What part of it is used in your large-format compositions?
In terms of quantity, perhaps a tenth, perhaps a bit more. A fraction of the archive. There are persons who have explored this archive who say that it could function publicly in artistic spheres, as a standalone work, regardless of my photo-compositions. I feel the same way. Using these images in such a mass, I weaken their impact. I act against the power of the individual pictures.
But that’s just a part of it. I practice visual epic poetry, which means a broad stream of narration, not linear, though, where one sequence follows another, but more like a map where I bring together various visual facts.