Conversation on the occasion of the group exhibition POZA, produced by Real Art Ways, Hartford, USA, October 2006 – January 2007.
An e-mail conversation between Zofia Kulik and Marek Bartelik
Marek Bartelik: In one of the e-mails to me regarding “POZA,” you said that your life has consisted of two biographies. Let us start with the question: Why two biographies?
Zofia Kulik: To introduce myself, for a while I would simply say that I had two artistic biographies. The first one relates to my collaboration with Przemysław Kwiek in the years 1971–1987, when we would sign all of our works with a signature combining our respective names, “KwieKulik.” We were jointly engaged in producing Activities, performances, installations, slide and film multi-projections, mail-art, interventions, and theories.
After 1987 I started working individually, and it was in complete opposition to the previous “process” period. I started creating static pieces, works confined in a frame. These are usually black and white photographic compositions.
Today I try to combine these two approaches, which is exemplified in my latest exhibition entitled “Made in GDR, USSR, Czechoslovakia, and Poland” at the Le Guern Gallery in Warsaw.
The common denominator for these biographies is building archives, various kinds of archives.
When examining your work, I became very interested in the theme of paraphernalia both in its subjective and objective form. This might, in fact, be a motif that spans your “two lives.”
I have looked the word up in a dictionary to make sure it denotes the same thing in both English and Polish. “Paraphernalia” in Polish means personal belongings, accessories, equipment. It used to mean personal possessions of the wife. To me this description fits my work very nicely. I am a sculptor, and I sense well the capacity, weight, and structure of a real object. I collect various things, but in reality I would prefer to say that I collect shapes, which in the material world possess their own physical bodies. These are man-made objects or fragments of nature, such as flowers, the fruits of the soil, etc. I photograph them, and since I usually employ black and white photography, these real things lose a lot of their physical properties and automatically change into signs. They lose their “body”. Oftentimes I call back their physicality, and arrange them in display cabinets, which accompany photographs as evidence of the real world.
The dictionary definition of “paraphernalia” as personal possessions of the wife is extremely intriguing; suddenly there appears a feminist theme in here. So I, an artist-archivist, bring the dowry made of different things and appearances into a matrimonial union? With whom? With a spectator? With art?
And further in this vein, can the human body be paraphernalia, as a personal “thing,” an accessory, or a fragment of nature?
The human body understood as a human being, right? A human being as a thing— that does not sound good. A few days ago I had to fix a statement made by a young art historian who called the approach of KwieKulik “antihuman.” I said that our approach was “apsychological,” still human, but without psychological experience. Yes, man had an aesthetic and a perceptual experience, but he did not ask, “Is it worth living?” For me, man was important as a model (a subject and a means of expression) for analysis and auto-analysis. What am I like? In other words: How do I function? How do I communicate? What condition am I subject to? Who am I to others, to the society? It was in accord with the atmosphere prevailing in the state socialist countries that joyfulness was required, as well as stress-free citizens. At the same time, I recall our fascination with cybernetics in the early 1970s. There man was also only part of a system. For example, a cybernetics specialist was not interested in a parked car but in a car in motion. This functioning car “was composed of two clearly different subsystems—a driver and a car…”.1 To call the driver a subsystem—what a soulless approach toward man!
Several years later, during the stage of my second biography, I was using a naked male model for photographic compositions. I called one of my exhibitions “Human Motif,” which was in line with animal or plant motifs. In the early 1990s, I answered several questions from the curators of the exhibition “Dark Décor” on the role of pattern in my works. I wrote:
Man cannot be reduced to an individual assigned to a nation, race, or state. Art cannot be reduced to talking about human ideas, human expansion, and the human psyche. It is not about imitating some sectors of the world; it is not about making a therapeutic gesture by using a brush; therefore it is not about portraying the exterior. There is a certain wholeness of being. It is about discovering in oneself the willingness to participate in that wholeness. It is about this willingness continuously receding and dissipating; the point is to mobilize this willingness and give evidence to the existence of the entirety in art. Such evidence can be given by an attempt at composing a structuralized whole piece, some visual organism, connected by visual associations with nature and with culture.2
A whole, an organism, a system, nature—these seem to be interchangeable notions.
You talk about man as a whole, someone who belongs to a larger reality and, simultaneously, to a concrete one. Your art often touches upon a social theme; somewhere in your works there is, or perhaps was, a homo sovieticus. How did the appearance of man change after the fall of communism in Poland? Is 1987 a symbolic moment of transition from a dual existence into a single existence? And is it somehow related to the historical changes?
Yes, the dual state of being changed into a single existence. I very much find it objectionable that, in the Catholic Church, thinking about any single issue is invariably concluded by referring to the Mystery. And it occurs to me that I cannot find any other word to describe what happened to me in relation to my social environment.
At the very same moment, at the turn of the 1980s, the change in the political system in Poland coincided with a total change in my life, and it was not about my personal life but rather my mental life. After parting with Kwiek, and after a few years of very intensive individual efforts, my works started to be perceived as some sort of settling of accounts with the past, with communism, and even with authority in general. In reality, I was settling accounts, or perhaps grappling, rather, with myself. I grappled with my own growing up in a group—as a youngster I was a socialist pioneer, then a scout, and as a grown-up, together with Kwiek, tried to join the Communist Party, which did not work out, as we were far too critical. There was also the absence of tradition in Polish culture during those years, as tradition was considered an obsolete relic of the past, the non-continuance of history,3 as the past was ridiculed for its bourgeois and decadent characteristics. I was constantly asked the question why so often in my works I make references to the old forms, dating to the Middle Ages, or even ancient times…. I do not know. At that moment of transition from one state to the other, I simply had a strong need to study the past. Instinctively, I was searching for what was permanent enough to have survived hundreds or thousands of years. For example, the inspiration behind the mandala forms was a search for something that exists beyond history. I keep analyzing and probing those issues, feeling a bit like a guinea pig that oftentimes painfully experiences experiments not of its own devising.
It is the individual that makes history and not history that makes the individual, although at times they try to convince us otherwise. Such was the case in socialist Poland, and the situation in Bush’s America is similar.
When standing in front of the works you display in “POZA,” my thoughts focused on the subject that seems to be vital to discussing your art: its philosophical or theoretical base. Zbigniew Libera is best known for a concentration camp made of Lego bricks. You photographed him naked in a way that makes him look like a matchstick, similar to figures in Giacometti’s sculptures and drawings. Giacometti redefined figuration after World War II and endowed it with a different meaning. What about you?
My life model is naked, but as emphasized many times, he is asexual. In 1999, in “Treasures from the Hermitage,” at the National Museum in Poznań, I presented the photographs of stone genitalia taken from sculptures,4 and, in the adjacent room, I hung over four hundred photographs of a naked model (Libera) in various poses and gestures 5. The first work was censored and removed from the exhibition, while the multiplied bare Libera caused no controversy at all.
In my photographs, Libera is a defenseless figure. I do not know whether he is defenseless as a person and an artist, or if he requires care and tenderness. But he is a brilliant model. He totally subjected himself to me. I was under the impression that while modeling he took himself out of reality and stripped himself of his conscience. I felt like a biologist filmmaker who recorded bugs, birds and other animals under glass. Obviously, during our sessions there were no quotidian situations. Complete affectation prevailed. Libera would make successive gestures, following my earlier script.
Giacometti modeled a figure into a figurative sculpture. I photograph a figure. This is a fundamental difference, leaving aside the expressiveness of the two types of figures. Photography registers, and in its nature is “evidence.” Obviously, today, at thgraphy registers, and in its nature is “evidence.” Obviously, today, at thgraphy registers, and in its nature is “evidence.” Obviously, today, at the time of digital pictures, it ceases to have a primary importance, but still the mechanical aspect of recording images remains crucial. Suddenly, I have realized that I, just like Giacometti, was a sculptor. I used to make clay figures. My hands came in contact with the non-light-sensitive material.
Returning to your question about the sense of my photographic figures, I think that their defenselessness is strongly palpable. This defenselessness is emphasized by the black background, the empty space around the model, and the lack of any bearing. Later on, when I combine the figure with other elements, by way of multiple exposures of the photographic paper to light, the figure—although no longer solitary—still exists separately in spite of the presence of other shapes, such as objects, plants, or materials. (The series of photographs of the “Garden” was made in the following way: I kept putting various flowers from my garden on the same black and white photo of naked Libera and made consecutive color photos of it.)
What do archives mean to you? Is archiving a way of recording history? If so, what dimension or aspects of history?
I opened your e-mail message with this question when reading Hal Foster’s article “An Archival Impulse” in a 2004 issue of October magazine. I was on the third page when I stopped to answer your question.
I am a “multiplier” of archives; from the word “archduchess,” I also refer to myself as “arch archivist.” The first archive, created together with Kwiek in the 1970s, was about process and ephemeral art. Nobody took our collections seriously then, but today they prove priceless for art historians. Some time ago we offered our archive to various institutions to be properly catalogued, including the Institute of Art and the Center of Contemporary Art in Warsaw—in vain. Today, I use it only for my presentations, for example, during the exhibition “Interrupted Histories” in Ljubljana and my latest exhibition at Le Guern. Art historians today are disappointed that they cannot get access to those documents. Too bad. A week ago, during a symposium called “On the Margin of the Idea and Practice of Archives,” young artists and historians acknowledged that, historically speaking, the KwieKulik archive is “our weapon in the fight for the presence” of works from the 1970s. I felt like I was on a war front, but that is the way it really has been for me since the beginning of my career.
After parting ways with Kwiek, I began to create consecutive archives of gestures and patterns in stills (“From Siberia to Cyberia”). For example, now I am preparing a series of works that are going to be photo-patterns that resemble cloth samples. I have a collection of photographed still and motion cameras, projectors, and other analog equipment we used in the 1970s and the 1980s (“Made in DDR, USSR, Czechoslovakia, and Poland.”)
When making preparations for any new work, I initially collect something and then archive it; that is, I arrange and label it. Only then do I make something of it. In actuality I only make use of a small percentage of a given collection. What has not been used does not have to be thrown away. But I carefully arrange my consecutive collections into individual entities. Perhaps one day I will exhibit my archives as a “collection of collections.” I might have gone too far, I guess—right now it is a utopia.