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Archives of Gestures, cat., Starmach Gallery, Kraków 2004.


Bożena Czubak

Archives of Gestures

Rows of black and white photographs, dozens, hundreds – all of the same size, all black and white. On almost all of them – the same figure, yet each time posed differently.

1. Zofia Kulik & Przemysław Kwiek, Activities with a Tube, 1975.

2. Zofia Kulik & Przemysław Kwiek, Hammer, Hand, Ice; Sickle, Hook, Shadow, 1985.

3. Zofia Kulik & Przemysław Kwiek, The Monument without a Passport, 1978.

4. Zofia Kulik, frame from the diploma projection, 1970-1971.

5. Zofia Kulik, frame from the diploma projection, 1970-1971.

6. Zofia Kulik & Przemysław Kwiek, The Figure with a Screen, 1971.

7. Zofia Kulik & Przemysław Kwiek, Bread,, the diploma projection, 1970-1971.

8. Photograph taken at the cemetery in Olsztyn, 1987

9. Photograph taken at the cemetery in Olsztyn, 1987

10. Zofia Kulik, from the series Archives of Gestures, 1987-1991.

11. Artur Grottger, Follow Me cross the Vale of Lament, from the series: War, 1866-1867.

12. Zofia Kulik, from the series Archives of Gestures, 1987-1991.

13. Zofia Kulik, from the series Archives of Gestures, 1987-1991.

The "Archives of Gestures" (Archiwum gestów), almost 700 photographs taken in the years 1987 – 1991, is a series which commences a new stage of Zofia Kulk's artistic practice. The first work in which the temperament of a traditional artist is realised.(1) The 17 years prior to this work were the time of ephemeral art: actions, performances, texts, lectures – the time of avant-garde rhetoric and actions in a duo called "KwieKulik". In 1987 she started working individually and, then, the first "Gestures" (Gesty) appeared. Two years after that she had her first solo exhibition. In 1990 she was making monumental compositions in which decorative arrangements with a naked, male figure appeared. These were studied, rehearsed, modelled poses photographed in the "Gestures". The Archives of several hundred gestures would become a reference for many of her later works; their author would often derive from the repertoire of gestures already realised (in a photographic version) and would often return to an even larger set of gestures kept in sketches. If one can talk about a long continuation of "Gestures" in the artist's oeuvre, we can also talk about their prefigurations reaching long back. Browsing through KwieKulik's documentation, one cannot miss a characteristic expression of the gestures of this performers' duo: bows, salutations in the "Activities with the Tuba" (Działania z tubą) (1975) [ill.1], gestures with pennants – "Polish Duo" (1984), and expression strengthened by parallelly adopted stationary poses – "Hammer, Hand, Ice; Sickle, Hook, Shadow" (Młot, Dłoń, Lód; Sierp, Hak, Cień) (1985) [ill.2]. Even if photographic stills enhance the dramaturgy of these performances, their entire neo-avant-garde rhetoric, with its sometimes arrogant despair, is only preserved in the rhetoric of gestures made absolutely seriously with almost stone expressions on their faces. Their figures, whether lying, sitting, standing or delivering addresses, speak with the persuasion of the gesture, e.g. Kulik holding a mock-up design for the Arnhem realisation, which the artists were not able to realise because they were refused passports – "The Monument without a Passport" (Pomnik bez paszportu) (1978) [ill.3].

Work with a female model, manipulations with the photographed and animated body, are the lines which she had already undertaken when working together with Paweł Kwiek. In her diploma work (1970 – 1971), which was a simultaneous projection of c. 500 slides (onto three screens), there were compositions "devised for a frame" with a female model. There is a series of photographs in which the same model is photographed in various animated poses against the background of abstract planes [ill.4], or is entangled in various spatial forms from paper or in the interior of her flat, on a divan, surrounded by various bibelots [ill.5]. There was photographing, recording the looks of reality and the compositions arranged especially for the camera lens and, first, a constant, visual notation and the registration on a photographic film, the caching of frames.

From the time perspective, some of these frames form a logical continuity. During her work on a group realisation of the film "Open Form" (Forma otwarta) (1970/1971) the picture "A Figure with a Screen" (Postać z ekranem) (1971) was made [ill.6]. An actress stands with her back to the viewer against the background of the front view of the façade of the Palace of Culture, holding a screen in her hands. Her dark silhouette with stretched arms makes a contrast to the white screen. During the registration of Grzegorz Kowalski and Przemysław Kwiek's work "Horizontal Position I" (Pozycja horyzontalna I) (1970) several shots of a male figure lying on loaves of bread were made in a shortened perspective [ill.7].(2)

Kulik has been taking photographs since she began studying, which she continued in the activities of the "Studio of Activities, Documentation and Propagation" (Pracownia Działań, Dokumentacji i Upowszechniania) (1971 – 1987); the task of the studio was to document the work of several dozen Polish and foreign artists. Practically all commentators of the artist's work mention this studio. She mentions how rich and how important the collection is in almost every interview.

I made Archives in 1970s because everything was elusive, it was ephemeral. It was at that time that this mania began: to document a thing and thus save it. However, today I have somewhat different goals (...) There are various categories of documented reality in my Archives (as black and white photos). There is a category of the already existing things: landscapes, architecture, ceremonies... Compositions make another category – I arranged them before the camera myself (...). Similar, or – maybe, working with models….(3)

Taking photographs, collecting, archiving, systematising, classifying according to categories, according to the criteria which emerged in attempts at controlling the growing collection. This archiving mania of the visual facets of reality has its immediate genesis in the "Archives of Gestures" too. In 1987, during her stay at the open-air workshop of the Association for Visual Education in Olsztyn, Kulik persuaded Przemysław Kwiek and Zbigniew Libera to accompany her and help her with taking pictures of a metal railing at a nearby cemetery. To catch the patterns of the open work better, the metal gratings were photographed against a white sheet. In some frames silhouettes of people with outstretched arms are visible behind the spread fabric [ill.8]. Similarly, the picture reminiscent of scenes from old paintings were made at that cemetery: Libera reclining on a monument and the silhouette of Zofia Kulik bending over him [ill.9]. Another frame was also shot at this workshop which she remembers very well: Libera sleeping in a bed so soundly that he looked dead. And that was the situation, almost like a visual cliché, which became a direct impulse to have the first session with Libera as a model: a sequence of shots with a naked figure in bed, now arranged in the artist's house [ill.10].

The photographed gestures comprise almost 700 photographs, yet gestures archived in the form of drawings and descriptions are much more numerous. Piles of sketchbooks, sketches, sheets with meticulously drawn poses and gestures. Hours, days and months devoted to figure studies and discoveries of subsequent threads: in Blake, Bosch, Grottger, Malczewski, Memling, ancient Greece and Rome, ancient Egypt, totalitarian art, like Muchina's kolkhoz female and Breker's supermen. In 1987, when the first photographs of "Gestures" were taken, their purpose had yet not become clear, their idea – unspecified. Actually, there would come no certainty about them even two years after when she would make a short note on one of her drawings sheets: Give no title in the beginning. Let the titles find themselves through years of functioning. (...) I cannot determine themes and problems beforehand.(4) Themes, problems, questions would emerge in the realisation of the first photographs and the associations they evoked. Then, this need for studying gestures and the arrangement of figures in old and newer art would appear, from ancient time to modernity and, further, towards the contemporary age. In the years 1988 – 1990, hundreds of sheets with drawings appeared, featuring thousands of figures: from illusionist, detailed studies to simplified, almost sign-like ones. However, in the drawings of figures according to various masters, one cannot see any trace of the proverbial will to confront the oeuvre of great forerunners, no temptation which had pushed Picasso to make thirty drawing variations of a single picture by Delacroix.

The work on the "Archives of Gestures" is by no means reminiscent of the juggler of quotations, despite the artist's deriving from so many and so different sources. The point here is not to remind us that deriving from tradition is not a post-modern discovery; nor even to set up a dialogue with tradition. What is the point here is, rather, a dialogue between traditions, the dialogue occurring in and drawn by gestures. Similarities found in poses and gestures of figures from different epochs and iconographic traditions, like the often quoted example of a human figure with a hand raised in an oratorical gesture of ancient rulers, personalities form the monuments in the socialist realist vein, fascist effigies or frames featuring images of contemporary VIPs. In such a juxtaposition, made in a more publicist-like vein by Roman Cieślewicz, a press photo of the French president François Mitterrand was placed among technical drawings of New York's Statue of Liberty and Lenin's monument.(5) In Kulik's Archives, we are rather dealing with the idea of gestures, derived from their expression and various contexts, which is reduced to its essence and embodied in a model's poses, the rhetoric of his gestures which again grow in meanings. Actually, one can see no superimposed regularity in this endless collection of gesture after gesture. One can follow different lines: Libera posed like Christ from Mediaeval passions by Cranach's "Crucifixions", El Greco's "Resurrections", in the grouping of figures in Breugel's "The Fall of the Rebel Angels"; the condemned pushed down into the Pit in Memling's "Last Judgement"; the Magi from Burne-Jones or figures from prophetic books by Blake.

Libera, reproducing the gestures of saints and the damned, the victors and the defeated, assuming the poses of soldiers and dancers, is subject to an either heroic or banal reading of his gestures. He is sitting, lying, kneeling and crouching, his body being rigidly vertical or arched. His body is limp or rigorously disciplined in geometrical forms. He takes the shapes of simplified visual signs in the whole series of frames. In Kulik's drawings and notes, this typology of gestures is even more developed: a leaning figure or figures reading, bowing, dropping something or shooting, etc.

The poses are first drawn, then "staged" with a living model and photographed. The scheme of the creation of "Gestures" offers us the reversal of the academic tradition in which a life model was auxiliary material, a departure point for a painter's or sculptor's figure studies. Having gone through the "aesthetic transformation", a model diminished, disappeared in a work of art...(6) It is the model in the "Archives of Gestures" who incarnates the aesthetic repertoire, who somehow emerges from the studies prior to himself. The "Gestures" emulating those from old art and staged with a model before a camera remind us of a rather peculiar phenomenon from the end of the 19th century: a popular fashion, developing on the peripheries of grand art, to make postcards showing representations of famous sculptural, especially ancient, works, arranged or – rather – staged by posing living models. The fashion for the images of artificial works of art, linked to the propagation of photography and the shaping of the mass-scale museum of imagination, camouflaged the erotic yearnings of the epoch. However, the "Gestures" belong to the epoch in which nakedness does not need to be an alibi of art.

By the end of the 1980s, the majority of the "Gestures" had been created and exhibited in the New York Marcuse Pfeifer Gallery in the photographic exhibition devoted to the male nude, where the works of c. 20 women-artists were shown. If, as the exhibition curator suggested, the choice of so many women was supposed to dismiss the accusation of favouring gay tastes, then the same choice exposed the organisers to the accusation of being discreditable to male dignity, as instigated by the latent feminist approach.(7) Nonetheless, the exhibition was to prove that the theme had increasingly become popular in wider public circulation but, also, that since the 1960s a shift of roles had been taking place, thanks to which the woman was now behind the lens of the camera while the man faced it as a photographed object.

Does Zofia Kulik realise the scenario written from a feminist perspective in her "Archives of Gestures"? Undoubtedly, it is she who is behind the lens of the camera, yet she does not allow us to forget – even for a while – that we are dealing with the reproduction of gestures, with poses. Moreover, she sometimes happens to stand before the camera so she is not so strict in observing the division of roles. One can quote the question asked in an absolutely non-rhetorical way by Craig Owens, who is searching for the answer on the grounds on the contemporary psychoanalysis and who compares the art models' occupation to Lacan's description of mimicry: Therefore, posing is mimicking (...) mimicking incorporates some split in the subject: the body becomes severed from itself and becomes an image, a likeness. At the same time, Owens compares the impact of a photographic camera to the Lacanian effect of being bewitched when the transfixed subject seems to come to a standstill, suspending his gestures.(8)

This suspended condition, the coming to a standstill before the lens, which for Barthes was being in-between – when one is neither a subject nor an object,(9) would correspond to the third, intermediate stage which was expressed by Freud in a reflexive, neither active nor passive, undertone. According to later scholars, this reference to the intermediate condition itself can ensure the avoidance of the categorisation into and positioning of the subject and the object according to their sex differences.(10) Let us add, that it is not only the traditional categorisation of a woman as an object and a man as the gazing subject, but it is a by no means less categorical reversal as well, done on the wave of feminist criticism which bestows the woman with the disposing power of gaze, while a man remains an object for scrutiny and manipulation. Maria Poprzędzka indicates a naked male model within the scheme of looking for he third option, a sphere "between", something which can be ascribed to neither of these mutually exclusive categories.This "third" element, which squeezes itself into that dichotomy, thus assuming an ambiguous, obscure and intermediary position which blurs the clarity of vision is a naked male model..(11) An aid of a workshop, en element of the atelier furnishing, a mundane utensil, a naked male model is treated in a purely instrumental way; being, as a-sexual as anatomic preparations, he has not stirred emotions which became a part of feminist discourses in relation to the use of naked females as models. The tradition of using a naked model was, till the 19th century, the tradition of working with a man. To this tradition reach the origins of photographed male nudes, finding their legitimisation in the practice of using photographs by painters and sculptors as more easily accessible, because cheaper, as life models. This practice was quickly adapted by photographers who produced entire series of nude models in classical, quasi-heroic poses. The issue of sex was, according to the quoted scholar(12), of secondary importance in these images of naked models with their suspension between reality and art and in their bodies already deprived of "natural" character but not yet "transformed into art".

Zofia Kulik, repeating after Gadamer that a model is like the accomplisher of gestures like a puppet,(13), speaks about Him as if he were a She; moreover, she often makes Him the performer of her own gestures. In one of her first photographs she repeated the scene from Grottger's drawing from the series "War" (Wojna) [ill.11]. What makes this photograph unique is the fact that the artist herself appears in it; yet it is the male model who assumes the pose and gestures of the woman in the Grottgerian "Follow Me across the Vale of Lament" (Pójdź za mną przez padół płaczu). Kulik, wrapped in a piece of cloth, incarnates a sitting male figure, engrossed in thought [ill.12].

Female prototypes in the "Gestures" are much more numerous. They make up not even dozens but hundreds of figures from the art of various epochs and painters. Mary under the cross from the Isenheim altar, Mary from El Greco's "Assumption", Grünewald's St Dorothy or Blessed Salome from Wyspiański's stained-glass window, along with El Greco's "Pietà", the Graces from "Primavera" by Botticelli, dancing and soulful figures from Blake's paintings and drawings, or Thanatos and Muses by Malczewski. Sex seems of no importance or any key role in the search for and study of gestures, figure arrangements and, sometimes, draperies. Let us note that several of her early photographs show a pair: a female and a male model. Their bodies in various configurations, facing each other with woven hands or bowing towards each other, their arms joined, are entangled in the game with abstract forms, among which is a white cube [ill.13]. Speaking about them, Zofia Kulik emphasises that a white cube is an example of a neutral form. We may add that this proverbial white cube is almost a symbol of the neutrality of art, the synonym of its universalistic claims and post-modern eradication from a context. The neutralisation of the universalist space of the white cube also pertains to the difference between sexes. Let us also note that the pair of models in several of the pictures mentioned listlessly yields to the direction which poses their bodies in quite a passive formation. No tension, despite their nakedness and closeness, sneaks into the relation of these naked bodies touching each other. The models seem to be sexually neutral. Their bodies seem to be fashioned according to purely formal criteria, outside any dialectics of a sexual relationship. Indeed, even in her actions within the performer's duo, which Zofia Kulik had formed, the symmetry of behaviour and gestures did not seem to be entangled in any dichotomy of sexes.

If the artist's persistent photographing of the naked male model were to be a kind of exorcism in her revenge for the years of tinkering with a hammer,(14) it would not be done on the simple basis of reversed roles. She has performed the role of the gazing one who manages the vision of the lens much longer; she has not parted with the camera since the beginning of her studies. When she started her "Gestures" she had been taking pictures for almost twenty years. When the concept of the "Gestures" had crystallised, any interior scenery disappeared from her photos.

Her model is situated against a black, neutral background. Several hundred successive photographs are only the analysis of gestures themselves. The model does not incarnate any character; despite attributes, draperies or banners, which sometimes appear, he remains a posing model, he reproduces gestures. The so-called "rhetoric of pose" is a purely rhetorical device here. The reversal of the classical topos of a painter and his female model does not exhaust the meanings of these works by the turning of the "phallic gaze" of the camera eye on a male object. It would be nonsensical to deny the importance of sexual issues of the subject's identification but it would also be a far-fetched oversimplification to localise the entire tension in only the reversal of relations. This is especially so because we cannot neglect a constantly recurring theme in the "Gestures", orchestrated to several hundred variations. The rhythm of repeating black-and-white frames introduces the tension of repetition which is usually connected with the things impossible to translate directly into the order of representation. Following a psychoanalytical disposition and making references to a traumatic repetition might be the undertaking of too self-imposing lines (or – rather – imposed), something like yielding to easy metaphors. However, it might be quite apt to repeat the question: Who is actually posing? Kulik, who has 17 years of a performer's practice behind her, earlier admitted that: had decided that there was no use torturing myself and appearing "naked", without the "clothing" of a form prepared beforehand without any public interference..(15) She has postponed the presentation of her "Archives of Gestures" for as long as nine years.(16)


Translated by © Marzena Beata Guzowska

Proof-read by Tadeusz Z. Wolański


1 Cf. Being Nothing but an Obedient, Psycho-physical Instrument... Ryszard Ziarkiewicz interviews Zofia Kulik, „Magazyn Sztuki / Art Magazine” 1993 no. 1 [Engl. trans. M.B. Guzowska] back

2 Frames registered on the occasion of taking photos for Grzegorz Kowalski and Paweł Kwiek's catalogue were used in her diploma projection entitled "Bread" (Chleb). back

3 Niech archeolog nie odkłada łopaty. Zofia Kulik talks to Adam Szymczyk and Andzej Przywara, „Materiał” 1998, no 1. back

4 Zofia Kulik's Archives. back

5Cf. Roman Cieślewicz, Pas de Nouvelles – Bonnes Nouvelles, Paris 1987. back

6 Cf. Maria Poprzęcka, Między aktem a dziełem, [in:] Sztuka dzisiaj. Materiały Sesji Stowarzyszenia Historyków Sztuki. ed. Maria Poprzęcka, Warszawa 2002. back

7 Cf. David Leddick, The Male Nude, Cologne 1998 back

8 Cf. Craig Owens, Posing, [in:] Beyond Recognition. Representation, Power, and Culture. Craig Owens, ed. S. Bryson, B. Kruger, L. Tillman, J. Weistock, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford, 1992. back

9 Cf. Roland Barthes, Światło obrazu, Warszawa 1998. back

10 Cf. Craig Owens, op.cit. back

11Cf. Maria Poprzęcka, op.cit. back

12 ibid. back

13 Cf. Niech archeolog nie odkłada łopaty, op.cit. back

14 Cf. Zofia Kulik, Autokomentarz, „Magazyn Sztuki/Art Magazine”, 1997, nr 15/16. back

15 Cf. Being Nothing but an Obedient, Psycho-physical Instrument..., op.cit. back

16 A part of the "Archive of Gestures" (“Archiwum gestów” ) was shown in Muzeum Narodowe in Poznań in 1999 as a part of her solo exhibition. back

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