Elzbieta Dzikowska talks to Zofia Kulik.
Lomianki-Dabrowa, 18 April 1998 .
Obedient to the method (method as a strait-jacket placed over emotions)
Elżbieta Dzikowska: When one looks at the work of contemporary artists, one seldom sees such a tremendous amount of materials as you employ in your photo-carpets, or so much consciousness and orderliness.
Zofia Kulik: In a sense my work is composite. I start by creating a visual archive with its own autonomous character. In collecting images I work in successive stages. The stage of looking leads to a chance finding, comparison, arrangement, division into categories, recognition of successive themes and proliferation of problems. I build a collection of images, a lexicon of my own that I can reach for to make up my own visual creations and compose a more cohesive entirety.
And is it only this phase of your work that becomes available to the viewer?
I think that by operating with things you are already acquainted with, that are contained in this lexicon, you avoid having to reach within yourself.
I believe that everything has already been created and nothing must be added to it. It is enough for you to find it. You can have a “scientific” approach to art.
Next to your photographic compositions, you often show real objects which in turn have also been “arranged” in relation to one another. Why is this?
I collect different objects. Actually what I should say is that I collect “shapes” that in the material world possess their own physical “bodies”. In other words they are man-made objects or perhaps some fragment from nature: flowers, fruit from the earth and fruit from the sea. I take photographs of all this but because I employ a black and white technique, such objects lose much of their physical properties and automatically become a sort of symbol. [sign]
You create an ornament from the figures and symbols of a drama. It often takes the form of a carpet and this renders your theme more aesthetic in a certain way, but in another way this places it at a certain distance…
Yes, ornament prevents me from being too literal. I avoid being literal.
Does present-day art need beauty?
Yes, it does. But I find that sensitivity to the beauty of a work of art is beginning to disappear. The same happens with the use of subtle means.
It is usually said that there is an involvement in your art. What is it involved with?
It is involved with reality and it is actual. It is involved with the visible world. My camera documents this reality.
Is there any connection between your art and your personal biography?
Each photograph is a witness to the fact that I visited the site of which I took a picture. Even when I photograph a television screen on which appears scenes from Bosnia, for instance, in a sense it is a record of my having “been” to Bosnia. I make a record of what I see, of what others have to show me, something they want me to see. If television manipulates images and spreads lies, it may well be that these unconfirmed lies will also be found in my work. We, the artists, belong to the world of media to a large extent. The public continues to believe the scenes shown by the TV news programmes, by documentaries and films about nature. In other words, the public believes that they are not made up or electronically manipulated. Perhaps by photographing a television screen on which such programmes are being shown, I shall be able to retain the documentary character that usually relates to photography.
How are your complicated pieces born?
This is a question to ask a poet. Why do you use these words rather than others. Why do you make these associations and not others. I am a poet and a poet finds it hard to reply to this sort of question.
Might one therefore call your photo-carpets a poem?
Yes, in a sense, yes.
Is art obliged to express reality?
It is, where I am concerned, but today there is no common task to be carried out by all the artists. It all depends on an artist’s interests, temperament and strategy.
What then is art’s assignment?
– I prefer not to answer that. I can only speak about what is my assignment: to be an observer, not merely to interpret myself, to offer a testimonial, to stand up for others, for the anonymous and suffering individuals and to avoid shocking anyone. Beckett once said “you can rebel but do it in the framework of convention”.
Does it have to do with morality, with ethics?
In any case it has to do with values that are external to the world of art. An important element for me is the extra-artistic reality; scientific discoveries, actual events and reflecting on the self-destructive character of human activities.
What is then your own part in these compositions? In these beautiful forms that are filled with sophisticated gestures?
Actually I am not interested in beautiful gestures but rather in “possible” gestures. Gestures that are often repeated and preserved on different planes of human essence. The most often recorded gestures are ruling gestures, pointing gestures, gestures meaning aggression, suffering, humility, sorrow, resistance, tenderness and a few others.
But in this work there is a specific kind of aestheticism. They say it contains a visual force.
Orderliness is something I found existing in myself. My star-sign is Virgo; I am also a woman. I don’t think any man would be capable of doing this type of work. It requires so many ant-like gestures! It is like in weaving. Actually I work rather instinctively, without programming anything. I draw my inspiration from shapes that already exist in shapes and patterns. Choosing individual visual pieces, making an inlay of images into the diagram of a composition, is what I call defining. A composition becomes “defined” when all the empty nooks have been correctly filled. Quantity is irrelevant where I am concerned and yet quantity seems to be one of the basic elements of our civilization! A great deal of visual information, but also a great deal of references contribute to the aestheticism of my work. Quantity and variety, on the other hand, contribute to linking something, to bringing it together, to arriving at a unity…
Is this what is important in your process?
Yes. I constantly seek to get somewhere…
How does this translate on the material plane?
– By photographing, in my case. A certain style of photography. I place objects and figures against a black background and thanks to this “non-existing” environment I can proceed to link the photographed elements together without resorting to scissors and glue. Each element placed against a black background looks like some comic body that hangs in total emptiness, having arrived from no one knows where…
Does this mean that content is more important than form?
Content without form is nothing. I prefer the word “statement” to “content”. I don’t know if what matters in my work is some content unrelated to form, a content severed from its author. Only a stranger can be the judge. “Statement” contains everything that “content” lacks.
Would you say that a “statement” is the relaying of something, a message…?
It is the expressing of an opinion. Indirectly so. It is giving a testimonial about oneself, about reality and about oneself with regard to reality. To achieve this purpose photography is the best tool for me.
Do you agree with assumptions?
Assumptions are also close to tools. There must be exchanges and there is much more of them in my work. Compositions contain dozens of visual exchanges although of late I became interested not only by “form”, or “content” or “reality”, but by the method in the progress of my work. I realize that thanks to method it is possible to reach one’s objective. A method is in a way a certain autonomous quality. When you look at method in someone else’s work, it can show you more about him than the wisest or silliest of his comments. It is thanks to method that I can try to represent a certain complication that exists in our world. Instead of a programme, I have a method and I follow it.
There are no concessions?
There’s only method, openness and a readiness for action.
Readiness to make reality believable?
I only make it individual. Everything exists beyond me in an objective way.
What course does your infinitely complicated process of working take?
I start with a very general idea; a certain atmosphere. This is not an artistic atmosphere but that of a person relating closely to matter, to reality, to everyday life. Sometimes emotions take the upper hand, Sometimes it is experience. What matters is for you to keep your balance. Entering the right mood depends on your workshop. Atmosphere is when I reach the stage when I see that I hold something inside me and wish to express it.
So a workshop is important?
A true artist must have an iron-clad workshop.
So you make decisions in the course of working? What does work mean to you?
It is a pleasure, of course. Sometimes taking up a difficult task is a sort of self-therapy. Maybe this means protection against madness in the medical sense? There are people who, not knowing me personally and based on just a few of my pieces, consider me as a very ill person. This is a need and a calling.
So you only create for yourself and yet are so precise about it…
I create for myself but I place my work at my viewers’ disposal whenever they may need it. I allowed myself to be convinced that an artist is indispensable to society, as a result of which an artist demands that his work is presented to society. Today I think that an artist has become a fully-fledged citizen, like everyone else. If this is true then art has no particular mission to accomplish and consequently must not claim to have one. We are governed by a democratic majority and the majority prefers a good performance in sport, to art.
Art has to do with morality. When you work with models do they agree to you showing their likeness?
Certainly. Particularly because they themselves have revealed their bodies. They are all artists and are friends of mine. I can do what I want with myself, but a stranger, someone I don’t know, “mustn’t be touched”. In this case the only way out is to pay that person for modelling.
I think that the problem of death is a very basic one for you.
Perhaps it is. However I think this is a subject one should not be ashamed of. It is intimate enough for me not to want to talk about it. The same happens with other problems that cause emotion. Perhaps the way to go about it is to place a strait-jacket over emotions. Method is a mask.
A mask incapable of hiding the dynamics you seem to be a slave of…
It is an unfulfilled type of dynamics, it became frozen in its potential. I am petrified at the idea of expressing emotions. In my work there are two elements constantly at odds: method and emotion.
The pattern is static but the elements it contains are very dynamic.
Indeed, inside me static is at odds with dynamics. The pattern is abstract but its execution is realistic to the point of causing pain. The need for orderliness is a consequence of fearing chaos. For freedom to exist, there must be order. Excessive fear of any change and of the unforeseen can be destructive. You can only create when there is peace.
I think it is the peace of anxiety.