An e-mail conversation between Zofia Kulik and Izabela Kowalczyk.200
December 2001 – January 2002
Zofia Kulik: Authority also Has a Body
Izabela Kowalczyk: On first encountering your pieces, one has the impression that private order plays no role in your work; however, on viewing them closer and after one has read some texts, both your own and those of critics, one sees that this order is very important. Therefore, I want to ask you about the interrelations between your art and your private order – all of these things which are your own and personal.
Zofia Kulik: I have already written about my mother’s and my father’s orders (1993) and this division is valid still today. Generally, the first of the orders deals with all “the household things” (eatables, chores, get-ups , while the other – with all of the external matters (work and salary, meetings, military drills, rank and promotion, and so on). In my case, these two orders were reinforced to such a degree that the situation became even exemplary. My mother was a professional seamstress who became a “master” in her chosen field and was obsessively infatuated by it, by its manual scrupulousness… I will always remember her among the piles of so called “bits”, that is pieces of material cut according to patterns which, today, are nothing more for me than “rags”. Rags, threads, pins, patterns, fashion magazines; basting, draping, fitting. And all accompanied by a continual and precise measuring and calculating. And all of those boring, gabbing Mesdames – the clients. Jesus, help me! – everything took place in our tiny flat, next to the table where I did my homework. Well, in the context of home, another person appears: my father, an officer. A uniform, arms, seriousness, service, the state (as an indefinite and mysterious structure), safeguarding everyone and the possibility to carry on. My mother’s profession is the quintessence of all that is feminine (to adorn woman) while my father’s vocation was the quintessence of the masculine (defend woman). This model continued for me up until 1965.
You speak about “rags, gabbing, boredom”, yet, you refashion it into art without any problems. Is this a kind of identification with your mother?
I don’t know. I do not do anything to identify directly with my mother or anyone else. This is rather a kind of “dowry”, the one which I received. This is for example, an ability to think in geometrical terms, a certain manual dexterity and the ability to “feel” a given material. I use the method of, say, my mother (embroidering by photography, with rows of hand-made “negative confiture” and it is this method which makes me a feminist more than the content of the work itself.
Do you find yourself close to feminism?
I am still learning feminism. It’s a question of gaining awareness. Women who decisively depreciate feminism in advance are a particular type of psycho-virgin.
You mentioned your father’s order, the task to “defend woman” but, on the other hand, this order seems to be a threat to the mother’s world? Do you think this is a contradiction?
Well, I said something about a certain model-like opposition between my mother’s and my father’s professions. It was just a strange case in my life. A coincidence, a chance. This extreme opposition is even expressed by a simple contrast: a sharp bayonet vs. a soft fold.
The order of my soldier-father could really “defend woman”; however, we lived in a time of peace. During a time of peace, certain behaviour, rituals and even the “squaddy” look might seem grotesque. Especially, when such a serviceman returns home after work and the home serves as a workshop, too. I think that various grotesque contrasts may have influenced me strongly then. Having lived in a military barracks since I was fourteen, I was stuck amidst some of the characteristic rhythms of military behaviour – right behind my window. Simultaneously, what I saw inside were these women changing clothes, in lingerie or in half-ready creations.
The men – the soldiers were coached by their commanders, using drills, field exercises, etc.; the women – they coached themselves and even though they took some exemplary ideal shape into account, they were free to chose and decide about details. Generally, these two orders were autonomous, separated from each other, especially because FEMALES and MALES were permanently preparing for something, exercising, trying and simulating. I once joined these two orders for my own use in the sentence “I put my father’s content into my mother’s form”.
Why do you direct your symbolic weapon against the order of the father?
“Symbolic Weapon” (this is the title of an exhibition of mine from 1993) deals with the “orders” of a different classification of mine. That is of the “I-perhaps-am-some-kind-of-subject” and “those-who-are-not-myself” type; the latter tackling those who do not ask any question, who are professionally trained for the system to which they are subordinated. The question is whether they could have rebelled against this system but that their own inertia and weakness has led them to a position of power.
Can one save one’s position of subject in the type system of which you are talking?
This is a difficult question. Well, maybe, I will reply this way: only those who are able to become an alternative can save their own subjectivity, those who do not feel unhappy, not being submerged in some official arrangements, unfavourable to themselves. Such people are still able to do something positive. The Polish philosopher, Kotarbiński, used to give an answer to questions such as these, saying (and this was in the concrete system of the Polish People’s Republic – PRL): do ANYTHING.
Well, asking about the order of the father, I was thinking rather in a metaphorical way. What I had in mind, first of all, was the anti-war message of your works (which can be, for instance, linked with Goya’s works, Picasso’s “Guernica”, and Artur Grottger’s series). One can say that you show “masculine-feminine” culture in your works (e.g. “All Missiles Are One Missile”, “Who Defeated the World”); you somehow de-construct and denounce the meaning of that culture.
Absolutely yes! It’s true that I show the “masculine-bellicose” culture, but it is difficult to speak about it in a metaphorical way. The works themselves are metaphors. Goya’s anti-war works and those by Picasso and Grottger are saturated with terrible emotion. I think that those painters must have been lead by empathy. They were simply able to share the feelings of the harmed and the denigrated; they obsessively identified themselves with victims. I think I find such feelings close to myself. For example, watching various items of TV news, I often think about the difference in the way a piece of information is communicated about a Western citizen who is killed and a Kurd say, or an African or a Vietnamese. Very often, the person from the West is spoken of using his name, while the latter remain completely anonymous. Anonymous victims.
Sarah Wilson wrote: “Kulik must imagine ‘activity’ on the level of a naked body, under the surface of the militarised energy of an army… There is a naked man, the son of a mother in every uniform-clad soldier who is reminiscent of a robot, in every hand carrying a weapon or a banner”. Can thus the act of stripping a man of his clothes be interpreted in your works as a return to the order of the mother?
I believe so, yes. Especially since, after so may years, her stance and profession have proved “universal”. A political system has changed but she did not have to change her opinions and her system of values.
I asked that question also because your own figure in the mandorla in your “Self-Portrait with the Palace” [of Culture] suggests an association with, among other things, matriarchal cult (mandorla as an attribute of the Grand Goddess). Your other works, in which you appear, e.g. “Everything Meets in Time…” features the figure of a strong woman, dominating the whole representation. What is the significance of this woman in your works?
This is the gesture of a person who is pathologically shy: I look in the lens with the awareness that others will look at me in the exhibition hall. In this way, I receive the “visual punches” in advance; yet, I do this on my own, under “artistic” conditions. However, if I do present myself as a domineering figure in my compositions, this figure is enclosed by some form, for example, in the mandorla you have just mentioned, or, more often, it is encased by a circle. I wonder myself why I am not able to flee from this circular cage. This is really quite an awesome juxtaposition: domination and encasement.
You speak about a situation which is not comfortable, dangerous, even. So, I would like to know whether the connections between your art and the body are dangerous?
Dangerous liaisons…. well, only in the case of the body of a human, a human body… When I say that these are safe liaisons, then the whole of its power disappears, and others are used to saying that it is in my works, so that I can perfectly feel it within myself. When I say that these are dangerous liaisons, then comes the question for whom? For the works? For the body? Or for me as their author? So, let’s leave this question partially unanswered. Let the reader enjoy some freedom of choice here.
One could say that you undertake the subjects of “dangerous liaisons between the body and authority”. So, there appears a question “What exactly does authority do with the body?”
It seems to me that we are used to speaking about authority as if it were only other people who have it; however, each of us enjoys some authority. Authority also has a body. And, for sure, it also has problems with its own body… It seems, however, that the body in such situations does not have a head at all. (This is totally the reverse of the situation in “Activities upon the Head” of the KwieKulik duo, for example, in “The Monument Having Sensations” from 1979, where the body was hidden in a plinth, because it was only the sensations felt in one’s head which were important; its ability to feel a certain situation, to imagine things, etc.) Well, in democracy, bodies should not have any heads, should they? Moreover, there has been so much of the naked body in art recently. You feel like saying waywardly: there is no body, there is no flesh. What is more important are the aesthetics of a game of chess, more than a bloody bout of boxing. (But this, certainly, is not true.)
I do not quite understand. Do you mean violence, which can be stronger in premeditated, cool actions (as in chess) than in mere physical violence; or do you mean being bored with boxing, a drubbing being inflicted upon the body, this messing about with the body, etc.?
It is not only the question of violence. There are also operations of the mind next to the whole carnal and sensual world. Mathematicians can have bodily sensations while reading through rows of digits and signs; they, for example, speak about the elegance of a mathematical proof. I recalled “Activities Upon the Head” but KwieKulik also did another work (“Activities with an Unknown X”, 1972-74) which subsumes some activities with the body of a child, where the material, heavy, tired and repeatable was replaced by an abstract, “cool” model and that model served “to help one to imagine” the material world. The point was to give one’s imagination a momentum; then the body freezes, immobile. Therefore, I have mentioned a game of chess. Certainly, one can associate an intellectual game with the calculation of, say, a crime. Indeed, anything can be dangerous.
And why did you say that there was no body, no flesh? I believe that this would rather apply to consumer culture (advertising, etc.) than to art itself. Philosophers have indicated a paradox: that the body is over-represented and, paradoxically, the body, the flesh is absent – the same as you say. Moreover, I have an impression that such a situation has been described in your art (certainly, not in the context of consumer culture). Do you agree?
Well, I said that one could waywardly say: The visual world has become so pushy that, I feel, critical, “fleshy” images blur into one with advertising images of bodies, which seduce us with their “un-fleshy” appearance. (This, probably, isn’t any symptom of my being blasé, is it? – I don’t know).
Michel Foucault wrote about the body within power relations, e.g. in his “Discipline and Punishment”. Are his considerations important to you?
He wrote about the creation and propagation of methods and techniques for the disciplining of bodies in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, his subtitle being “the origin of prison”. However, what I find interesting is to show how a direct and physical disciplining of bodies (which is relatively easy to show e.g. in photography or film) has with time been transformed into an invisible, unclear and mutual disciplining. External power can lose a little of its physical sluggishness; it aims at incorporeality. And the point in all of this is…. to expand the means of production, develop economy, propagate education, … accelerate growth and accrual. Thus, order, discipline and supervision are meant to serve this purpose, so is the dissemination of information, supporting accumulation and centralised knowledge. However, I would like to turn your attention to our own contribution to this issue. I feel that this is becoming the most prevailing and difficult issue today. We are stuck in a panotpical machine, entrapped by the effects of its power, to which we have contributed ourselves. We have (among others) fostered it ourselves. (An e-mail conversation permits endless quoting).
So, the point is that authority is being dispersed, while we ourselves are both the disciplined and the disciplining. You speak about “today”. Do you also have “Cyberia” in mind? (Oh, Gee! Where is our conversation taking place? Isn’t the space called the same as the title of your work: “cyberia”?)
Exactly! Cyberia – the homeland of the dispersed owners of keyboards and screens. Yet, what I also have in mind is the fact that one’s professional career and mobility have today replaced one’s former belonging to a given class, nation, line of kinship, and so on. Moreover, that former stability facilitated the location of power centres. Today anyone can be anything; on top of that, one is this or that for only a limited time, not for ever. Elections to parliament every four years, a president – for two terms; an employee suddenly becomes unemployed, a teacher – a businessman. The possibility of such combinations makes the density of dispersion bigger. And there is an ever increasing number of us, that is to say, people. These are objective parameters; therefore, you cannot draw the arrow of power in only one direction today: from the unchangeable who discipline to the unchangeable and disciplined.
And how can one define the body against the power structures of which we are now talking?
This reminds me of a certain linguistic problem. I once had an idea for the title of an exhibition: “Ciało struktury” and I thought it could be translated as “The Body of Structure”; however, it turned out that it did not sound good in English. “The body” would rather be understood as “pedagogical body”. Yet, my thinking was this: NO THINGS EXIST and there are no creatures as separate beings, encased in their own “sheaths”. THERE ARE ONLY configurations, parts which are sub-parts of other parts. The world as a network of configurations. Configurations, arrangements, systems and structures. Constitutions, agreements, customs, alterations and interrelations. What we see as static, permanent and excluded, i.e. what we see as bodies, are only short-lasting film-stills in the permanent transformation of a structure. The body of a body – the body of a structure – the structure of a structure. When I say “the body of a structure”, I can see disbanded parts formed into a conventionally composed unity; otherwise I would say “there is no body”.
So, it means there is no body which could be defined as such? There is no body beyond a configuration. The body is always in some form of arrangement, relation, structure. But, how can one describe these structures, how can one define them? Is this a power relation, a social relation, a matrix?
I would like to say that the body is always “liquid”, only the speed of oozing varies and also the absorptive qualities of the environment. The body is in arrangements and relations. But the same body is a compound arrangement of parts, organs, arteries, members, etc. Which, increasingly, we will be replacing after they have become inefficient. Have people already established how many parts they can replace to still be able to say that the body has retained identity with its “original person”? In a TV series on the human body, I saw with amazement how a camera was placed into subsequent parts of the body and its organs to create digital, spatial models of them. Reaching increasingly deeper, its blow-ups featured subsequent layers of some entangled mesh. There was no end to it. A network-like structure. Thus, one could enumerate solid bodies, liquid bodies, gaseous bodies and “networked bodies” next to each other.
Certainly, this is not a good answer to your questions. So, let’s look at it another way: if it were possible to make a hierarchy of all the inanimate and animate items on the earth, including feelings, ideas and dogmas, (to count and formalise them), thus achieving a template for a mega-structure, would it be possible to encapsulate this in a gigantic mathematical equation? Would such an equation be balanced?
And what about an individual perception of our bodies, feelings, experiences – are these also dictated by those structures?
Rather, yes. But, our feelings and experiences must first be felt and experienced, we don’t know whether they will be this or that beforehand. Robert Musil wrote in his “Man without Properties” that even “destiny will gain a static content one day in a more enlightened time…”.
Is the freedom of an individual still possible in such a strictly structured world?
Certainly, not… but what kind of freedom do you actually have in mind?
Let me put it another way: is the individual, whom you present, at all capable of reaching the state which we call ‘freedom’? If this individual is fated to exist only in those structures, then the message of your art seems very pessimistic…
Perhaps… but, luckily (!) my works are limited constructions. Well, they are similar to the works of any other artist: notwithstanding whether they are optimistic, playful, sarcastic, sociological or of any other type.
And do you describe your art as critical art?
I can recall a fragment of a different conversation here. Elżbieta Sitek from the TV in Wrocław asked me (regarding my participation in the Venice Biennial) “What totalitarianism is?”. This question about totalitarianism may be replaced with a question about critical art. I replied then (written from a video-tape): actually, in my programme, I am not interested in the imaging of totalitarianism. I am interested in beautiful things and, basically, if I lived in an ideal world, I would probably try to create beautiful things, not necessarily art. I could, for instance, grow beautiful flowers. However, my artistic biography is such that I have carried a photo camera on me for 30 years and register everything around me. My compositions contain rather a large portion of visual information exactly because I use mechanical recording. If I, for instance, tried to paint the things which surround me, then my efficiency would be much lower; so the medium I use influences the appearance, the aesthetics of my works. It is an aesthetics based on a large amount of visual information.
Cyberia, December 2001/ January 2002
Translated by © Marzena Beata Guzowska