Art&Business 5/6 1994.
Zofia Kulik. Hope and Consolation.
Sometimes looking at this art, it seems that human being has already perished or has not been born yet. Yet he was surpassed and become dominated by his own, created by him, symbols. This difficult to establish a point in time, when human being has started to treat himself as less and less important addition to religious symbols dispossessed of their initial meanings and to newly interpreted signs of pagan cults transformed into 4 emblems and totems of political power, is the beginning of the totalitarian era.
Does the discussion about the art of the 80s – the art of the last (?) decade of totalitarianism, the art which was not so long ago very much alive and abounding in themes – belong to the past? This art was accompanied by attempts of more or less convincing evaluations as well as by access to immortality acclaimed by “gruppa” or individually by artists themselves or on their behalf by critics and historians of art. Here and there, a question was raised about artistic expression of totalitarianism. Although the understanding of the question varied, it fundamentally satisfied all those involved. However, the expectations of getting the answer were met by various attempts not always free from demagogy and groundless pretentiousness which again led to disagreements. In the meantime, the answer came from somewhere in the background, independently from discussions and resolutions made by societies of mutual admiration. Quietly and imperceptibly it turned into a monumental work which carries a universal message.
The exhibition of Zofia Kulik, organized by Ryszard Ziarkiewicz in 1993, was presented in Sopot (State Art Gallery) and Warsaw (Zachęta Gallery), and at the beginning of 1994 in Poznan (Jesuits’ Gallery). It was a great artistic event which unfortunately went unnoticed by the critics and mass-media; not for the first time, they have been disloyal to their vocation and misunderstood service for the society with the obligations of social life. At the same time, an exhibition of “Ars Erotica” was opened at the Warsaw National Gallery among loud applause of claqueurs. Our culture has for some time been overshadowed by triviality and pretentiousness. It becomes even more striking now, when an artist appears and gives testimony of something entirely different.
Zofia Kulik has chosen photography as artistic form of expression, being aware of its specific nature of expression, which is completely iconic and submissive, and at the same time, abstract and stubborn in its own way. All artistic material possesses some kind of memory. Stone used to create a sculpture somehow contributes to the history of culture its own history and attributes of the material it is built of. Although stone does not have to become material for a sculptor and can remain only a stone, photography does not possess such univocal, anterior form. When we disregard the history and technology of photography, it reveals its metaphysical distinctiveness by being a material but only from the moment when it becomes a picture. Its history – the history of photographic picture – is younger than the history of culture. However, this is not the reason why photography becomes so quickly an icon of something that is gone or will soon disappear as if it suffered from youth complex. The present – the domain and the sovereign of photography – is so ephemeral and relative. From the moment it was created, a photography melts its own history with our past; and although it is deprived of great and terrifying permanence which for example is specific of a word, in the hands of an artist it turns out to be a material more durable and suggestive than the word.
Zofia Kulik makes use of this material with significant responsibility, which also means with responsibility for photographic reality. She introduces herself and her life into abiding space of a work adding to it the final credibility. She almost writes with photography and the style and essence of this original “writing” reveals the inspiration of decorative art, the magic of pattern and visual structures appearing on fabrics, carpets, every-day-life objects, in architecture from almost all epochs; but it is also present in folk paper cut-outs, in the pattern of formal gardens and in the theatre understood as conscious, logically constructed, rhythmic sublimation of gesture of human body which undertakes the task of mergering with really existing form so as to change it from the symbol of deceit and slavery into the symbol of truth and freedom. The “theatre” of Zofia Kulik has its own ideal model, a mime, a parodist and an actor, but what is also important, an artist; Zbigniew Libera, who transforms himself into a ornamental link of subjection, obedience and submission, and co-creates the artistic expression. The richness of formal solutions becomes once again, after overcoming the esthetic tradition of colleges, the domain of photo-graphic craftsmanship and is directly connected with iconosphere and the richness of iconographic topics. Therefore, it is possible to create a scene of executions appearing on TV, as well as a reminiscence from plates of major Muybridge or a motive of a painting from Middle Ages, the example of which most frequently becomes a drapery – a mute witness to the history of art.
The history of drapery – a cover, a shroud, a curtain, a banner – is a rebours the history of mankind. Gathering and then dispersing of motives, the fluctuation of iconographic topics and at the same time crystal bright decision of compositions tell best how great the imagination of the artist is. She does not submit to melancholy – the state of human psyche appearing when a human realizes the triviality of his efforts and accepts that everything vanishes and is destroyed. Zofia Kulik identifies existence with creation, with starting from scratches or – as she puts it herself – with the artistic “functioning”. Longing for an absolute harmony of things and feelings which is beyond reach in this life, knowing, however, that even the motherland of the most beautiful harmony – the East is also a motherland of despotism, she creates from this photographically well-preserved material of disintegration, coercion and disappointment the music of invented by herself ornaments which is supplemented by a “silent” commentary of the contents of show-cases and models. Those shiny models are as if they were a realization of the dream of Creator, epitaphs of idolatrous utopia, reminders of conceit and serfdom. Sometimes looking at this art, it seems that human being has already perished or has not been born yet. Yet he was surpassed and become dominated by his own, created by him, symbols. This difficult to establish a point in time, when human being has started to treat himself as less and less important addition to religious symbols dispossessed of their initial meanings and to newly interpreted signs of pagan cults transformed into emblems and totems of political power, is the beginning of the totalitarian era. Bolesław Miciński thought that nihilism paved the way for totalitarianism.
Miciński saw the patrons of totalitarianism in French conservatives who treated an individual as fiction, and collectivity was the only reality; who praise headsman – the only saviour from immanent evil of human nature; who proclaim instinct in favour of intellect; who believe that “human being is evil and therefore should be governed by an iron fist”. This was one source of totalitarianism. The other was Jacobinic trend of Enlightenment with its optimistic illusion in evaluating an individual. “Human being good by nature and able to decide about himself, dazzled by his role of lawmaker, did not concentrate on himself but rather on the conscience of his fellow humans and with a childish joy started to pull the string of the guillotine”. In his book “Polish Questions” written in the cell of the Mokotów prison in 1983, Adam Michnik reminded us these words of Miciński: “Meanness is contagious like for example typhoid. One needs to be careful, exercise >prophylaxis<, strengthen one ‘s immune system, and this leads to changes. If I hate some people, a society or a political system, it is first of all because they deform the souls of those who want to oppose them. The hatred of evil is – probably – the >right< and justified feeling, but can one release within himself even the right hatred without being punished? Condemned, justified feelings, wrong, muffled, pushed aside feelings, appear >beside< right hatred which obtained >a visa front conscience<. I hate those who taught me to hate” (1940).
The soothing power of ornament, the power of art which cleanses one from hatred, hides itself away within photographic “carpets” of Zofia Kulik; within beautiful, artistically sensitive, symbolic compositions, within votive arrangements carrying the stigma of obsessive mimicry of convention. It is accompanied by – as I feel it – the desire for symmetry and searching for pre-symbolic sense or art and return to order and ideal geometry which were abused by a human being, before he even managed to understand them. This abuse is peculiarly articulated by the idiomatic expressions of body and soul taming which are analysed clear-sightedly, and frequently re-called in multifold by the artist. Ornament reveals the vision of Zofia Kulik in its deepest, anthropomorphic foundation. This seems to be the source of most poetic and touching photographic “phrases” about a human being who hid away in… a snow-flake and imprinted himself into one of numerous, possible forms – a hexagonal form. The traces of this intuition of the artist lead us to think about our human existence which is melting within the existence of universe. Is this thought identical with hope and consolation? If we treat art seriously, I think, the answer is yes.