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From Siberia to Cyberia, cat., National Museum, Poznan 1999.


Ewa Hornowska

To Individualize Reality. On an Aspect of Zofia Kulik’s Art

On a photograph of the performance called Fist=Fist (Pięść=Pięść) (National Museum in Wroclaw, 1987) by KwieKulik one can see an intriguing double figure: two stiff bodies sitting next to each other on stools, with buckets covering their heads and arms positioned to resemble Egyptian figures found in tomb crypts and temples - the „outer” arms with clenched fists raised to the face level, the parallel palms of the „inner” ones stretched horizontally in the air. Even though the figures do not touch each other, the whole gives an impression of unity, uniformity, and inseparableness. Drastic in expression, the double figure is a representation of Hermaphrodite in an almost pure form, embodying the joint performance activity of Przemysław Kwiek and Zofia Kulik which lasted for more than ten years. It should be clear that this representation is active, this image is “live”.

The most striking feature of the figure are the covered heads which, in the context of Jungian thought, means plunging in the unconscious. The bucket, with its smooth, shiny surface, seems to be an equivalent of water and the Moon as two main elements of the unconscious. Hence, a Hermaphrodite, which is usually considered a sign of fulfillment, the union of opposites, and the attainment of plenitude, here points to a not-yet-surpassed state of bisexuality, when all the opposites related to the male-female axis still continue in their instinctive, primordial order. On the processual plane, it reveals the end of one cycle and the beginning of another for which it signifies chaos, materia prima , the dark source, and the spirit Mercurius. (1)

The monstrosity of the Hermaphrodite, whose appearance provokes associations with achieving a purpose within a cycle which comes to its close, is a sign of imperfection and of inevitable decomposition, leading to subsequent works and syntheses. In 1987 the collaboration of Kwiek and Kulik was over, because the latter realized that „the work in tandem had already exhausted the reservoir of possible ‘comings into existence’ „ and understood that she „had a temper of the traditional artist, with a passion to build certain aesthetic wholes and a wish to conceal from the spectator’s view the torment of the process of creation.”(2) Thus, bher self-consciousness could speak in its own voice.

The search for „possible new ‘comings into being’” was expressed through the archivization and transposition of the manifestations of reality. As a student, Zofia Kulik collected the „visualia” [Pol. wizualia] - as she calls them - in order to use them to construct specific wholes which she most often calls „utterances”. Among those „visualia” one may distinguish a number of overlapping categories: animate and inanimate nature (animals, plants, minerals, shells); micro- and macrocosm (photographs of one-celled organisms and constellations of stars); human activity on an individual and global scale (parts of machinery, industrial waste, demonstrations, executions); people in social and prearranged situations; secular and religious symbols (a star, a cross, a sickle, a mandorla, a flag); symbolic gestures (manifestations of respect and oppression); cliches of high, popular, and folk culture (quotations from works of art, characters from Walt Disney’s cartoons, garments), objects of a universally symbolic and private value (a skull; old photographs, self-portraits, pieces of fabric); objects of worship (monuments, altars) and of everyday use (cutlery); ornaments (diadems, draperies), aesthetic and anti-aesthetic still lifes, instruments of torture and killing (a tank, a sword, pliers, a chain, missiles); and – above all - images of an overwhelming mass of things and phenomena, in particular TV and photographic images, including a special category of the latter, namely photographic replicas of TV images. All of them, suddenly deprived of their „natural” background, transferred from one sphere of reception (the real world) to another (the work of art), acquire an unusual significance, changing into the artist’s own catalogue of effusive „shapes” which „have their physical ‘bodies’.”(3) This conforms to the practice of the new art which does not look for its frames of reference in itself but outside - in reality. The substance of this new art is no longer the „substance of art” what the substance of art used to be; its network of reference is not „nature”, since both are constituted by everything that „exists around humans, all their environment, all the objects which fill the space, including also those of everyday use which had been already man-made, but which are now created again, as objects of a different kind.”(4) Let us add: this pertains also to the images of such objects, which is important because images carry meanings, unlike - sometimes - objects themselves. „This is because we live immediately only in the world of images” (5), which means that all that we know and that we will be able to discover in the world, as well as all that we can perceive, depends on our repertoire of conscious icons without which no understanding is possible. In contrast to the art of the past, in which meaning was attached to the work, now it has become its stuff proper.(6)

If we cross the boundaries of the arts and find our direction in an apparently distant realm which is the thought of Jung, we will find out that the concept of meaning is quite real here as well. It could be defined as an axis of individual psychic experience, in fact as this kind of experience itself - not objective, but genuinely true. Only the human being can discover the significance of his or her experience and, even though such a discovery can never be verified by anyone, consciously take of it some advantage.(7) Among the metaphors of such psychic labor, Jung would pay most attention to the work of alchemy which makes the clearest image of individuation(8)- the process of becoming oneself: on the one hand, one may define it as a search for a method of transforming ordinary matter into precious one (e.g. lead into gold), on the other, as transmutation of matter into spirit. Culminating in a synthesis of consciousness and some elements of the unconscious, individuation determines also the position of an individual with respect to the self which is the „goal of life, since it is the fullest expression of chance combinations which we define as an individual.”(9) For the intensity of comparison it is also important that in alchemy experiment was inseparable from experience so that sometimes it stood for its goal and effect.

Collecting the visualia according to the principles adopted by Zofia Kulik is an endless process. The repertoire of signs, images, and meanings expands, but still they remain all along materia prima; the primal matter containing all the opposites, from which only due to the artist’s decision there arises a new world, new structure, and new order, i.e. a new universe. This universe is well constructed and harmonious - its opposite poles are balanced, while the ornament stabilizes the whole. Its is filled with a host of moving particles - photographic reflections of things, which serve to „define” artistic expression and to reach the ultimate form. Those reflections of things - iconographic equivalents of psychic experience - are also the spirit Mercurius, summoned above: both the primal matter, the mediator (Jungian transcendent function) and ultima materia - the philosophers’ stone which, by its very nature, remains ungraspable, yet leaves no doubt as regards its efficiency.

As a vehicle of meaning, form and image, and the principle of conjunction opposites, Mercurius is fully subject to the artist’s will. Zofia Kulik not only possesses it in her archive, not only keeps it under control at the initial moment when she separates it from the rest of the matter to locate it within the confines of her consciousness. She possesses it also in a metaphorical sense, since she can do with it whatever she pleases - in the first place, discovering its meaning for herself, using it in the process of auto-therapy which is the necessity of doing tedious work, the famous “activitation” [cf. Polish neologism „czynnosciowanie”]. This is exactly what she does. Moreover, she accompanies reality and sets for herself some non-artistic tasks which are related to it: „to be an observer, not to express oneself, to give testimony, to take the side of the Others, the unknown sufferers, not to scandalize.”(10) One might say that discovering meanings and fulfilling those tasks are her main activities as the maker of tables, but also the main „activities” of the character played by the artist-heroine of those tables. In such compositions as Symbolic Weapon, All Things Converge in Time and Space; To Disperse, To Converge, To Disperse, To Converge And So On or Self-portrait with the Palace she occupies the central and dominant position which gives her power over the surrounding objects and their functions, but in many others, such as, for instance, Favorite Balance, All the Missiles..., and Who Conquered the World? , she moves to the periphery, off the center, somewhere into the space of the border or frame. There she takes on the roles of witness to the incidents, co-participant, and an individual who sympathizes with other individuals. This, however, leads to no objectification, unlike in the case of an inconspicuous male figure which appears an infinite number of times in almost every composition, and which - even though it is reduced to a sign or, as Zofia Kulik puts it, „a splinter that I can split again and multiply at will”(11) (in fact, the figure has been analyzed in such terms often enough) - has still another aspect, provoking irresistible associations with the homunculus, the miniature man of alchemy, a creature which apprentices hoped to put under their control so that it might help them make the opus magnum. When the work is being done, the artist transforms into the Queen from The Splendor of Myself - the monarch, the ruler, the Sun as the creative principle.

Driven by the necessity to transform herself, as a „radical practitioner” Zofia Kulik uses the matter of images - Mercurius - to look for her way in multitude; a way which, she admits, often enough resembles a labyrinth. Her specific artistic method consists in drawing a map of this labyrinth where „various visual facts collide with one another” (12), in unfolding a non-linear, retrogressing narration that draws into itself not only the spectator, but also the artist. Zofia Kulik deems her method quite important, stressing its equivalence to the form and content of her art, as well as to „reality”. She knows that she must be obedient to it, because „it is thanks to the ‘method’ that the goal may at some point be achieved”, i.e. the individualization of things existing in their own right beside herself, their relations, and their profound influences on one another.(13) She is aware of the method’s significance; „My ‘method’ is a certain independent quality... Instead of a program, I have a method. And I have been following it.” Translated into artistic practice, (14) it resembles the key method of Jung, circuniambulatio , which he drew from the terminology of alchemy, defining it as concentration on the center or location where the creative transformation is taking place. It consists in a spiral concentric movement, in turning around the main motif, in focusing the vectors on the middle point which is visually represented or reflected in the form of a circle, a circle within a square, number four and its multiple, and the mandala. Circumambulatio corresponds to the process of individuation during which a person achieves plenitude, becoming an inseparable unity, an „individuum”, but which does not sever him or her from the world, bringing it, on the contrary, much closer. (15) The goal is reaching the center of personality, i.e. the self, each time indicated by the central figures: the circle and the mandala. They make the basis of most compositions of Zofia Kulik, and those which have an axial structure contain at least one „centripetal” element, focusing the spectator’s gaze. Sometimes there is more than one such element, and together they constitute a kind of mobile visual center. In prayer-like „Mandalas”, mandala-like „Petals” and similar „Medals”; in polyptychs (March, March, March; Guardians of the Spire) , triumphal arches (Gate) , carpets (All the Missiles Are One Missile, Favorite Balance, Who Conquered the World?, Libera - Christmas Tree) , gothic stained glass (May Day Mass) , and even in portraits (Splendor of Myself) , one can notice the predominance of circular forms. At times, as in Untitled (Center) , the middle point of the composition turns out to have a unique quality; it is the luminous emptiness which is plenitude , a representation of the self characteristic of both Eastern and Western mystics. The artist selects these traditional patterns and visual structures quite consciously, hoping to reach through them to the essence of reality and to establish a mystical contact with it. This hope is not quite futile, especially that her decorative patterns, just like those on old Oriental carpets, usually make a complex, multi-layer „text” about the world: they contain a cosmology and cosmogony, natural and religious knowledge, sometimes the secret knowledge of the priests, and even heresies. For Zofia Kulik, they have the power of a tool of magic which, when used properly, could reveal the secret of the universe”(16) and impose on it once and for all a perfect form. Until this happens, though, the artist must keep looking for new modes of their employment.

However, as it can be empirically demonstrated, the way to the goal is from time to time obstructed by dark, thwarting powers. Their psychic expression is the Jungian shadow, and their visual representation is the Trickster. The shadow is not simply a negative factor, but sometimes it embodies „everything that the subject does not recognize, but which continuously - in a direct or indirect manner - presses on it.” (17) It may appear unexpectedly or remain a permanent companion of an individual struggling for his or her unique form. To Zofia Kulik, it quickly became quite clear that her precise, altogether „diurnal” and intellectual method has a dark underside provided by the „unconscious being”, since she wrote that she had been trying to „fill” the closed, central, and symmetrical ornamental structures which fascinated her most „with her own madness.”(18) Still, the shadow is indefatigable. We can meet it all of a sudden at the key points of some of her works (the twice-repeated sneering face framing the central square of All the Missiles Are One Missile ) or in more peripheral motifs which, however, may persist almost like a headache (e.g., the thistle, the bullet, the spire). (19) Then the shadow takes on the role of Trickster – an incarnation of Mercurius in its double nature of half-divine and half-animal cheater and master of transformations who, being totally negative (and in the hierarchy of importance actually inferior to animals), allows for the possibility of change: crude and meaningless „natural objects” may transform into signifiers - idioms or symbols.

Still, somewhere in the realm of „gathering” where Zofia Kulik seems to belong - and she insists that „everything has been created” so that is enough to reveal it, to „discover reality”(20) - we can sense objective fear. It lurks in myriad obsessive images of human oppression and political repression, the instruments of death, piles of weapons, and various attributes of power leading to holocausts, mere death, and genocide – to private madness and social blood-thirstiness. It calls for voice. And the artist, recognizing it and admitting her fascination with the visual symbols of the individual’s involvement in the system of submission, endows it with a voice, simultaneously trying to neutralize it in all the available manners. She defends herself against it with irony,(21) introducing highly ordered ready-made constructions, filling them with the texture of meticulously selected matter. Like the mythical weaver, she combines weft and warp in order to harmonize the opposites and ultimately to cure herself of them. Her catalogue of forms includes mostly structures organized in a circular or centripetal fashion, or at least ordered around a few smaller, symmetrically located visual centers. Form is combined with different functions: prayerful, therapeutic or narrative. It is hard to resist associations with various past and present interpretations, but even harder to dismiss a hypothesis that Zofia Kulik’s art has been created to draw me within and thus make participate. It may even turn out that I have been taking part in her narratives for quite a while, perfectly unaware. Not to get lost, I must rely on the artist’s guidance and follow her trace by following the structure and ornament.

Among the ubiquitous central forms we may, however, find two exceptions: the series „Columns” and the most recent work titled - From Siberia to Cyberia . In the former, the principle of composition is vertical - movement upwards, to the highest point, through the subsequent levels of matter and orbs of the world. It is not quite clear whether this world is spherical, but certainly it has the following features: its elements coexist on one and the same plane, but they belong to various, precisely grouped layers. A journey across this area through passes of meaning is supposed to end on the meadows of Paradise so that its goal is identical to that of the central compositions: reaching the self and becoming immortal.

From Siberia to Cyberia has a different order. Contrary to all the earlier compositions, its organizing principle is movement only - the flow of a gigantic stream of images which, unrecognizable at first sight, have been arranged by the artist in an open structure. The wave which this stream seems to form a gigantic zigzag - has no beginning and no end, flowing out of the past and from the depth of memory (both the artist’s and my own) - visual memory as well as the memory of the body (since the images had already been summoned once by someone else - they came into being on a TV screen; since the body remembers as well and, if allowed to, keeps dreaming its memory always anew) - towards the future which is never a simple continuation of the past; in fact quite the reverse, it is usually its opposite. „We are not the ones we used to be, we will not be the ones we are now.”(22) This simplified sinusoid is a representation of the enantiodromia which makes the grand cycle of life somewhat similar to any other cycle: nothing lasts forever, one tendency becomes another, some time (soon) everything will turn into its opposite; darkness will become light, wisdom will turn into stupidity and then back into wisdom again. In each and every situation there is a germ of the next one; in every hexagram of the ancient I Ching there is a seed which, once drawn, gives way to a new order of forces described by another hexagram. All Things Converge in Time and Space; To Disperse, To Converge, To Disperse, To Converge And So On.

And perhaps, since once it has already proved possible, the coniunctio oppositorum will happen again and at the end of the whole cycle there will be a revival? A path which begins somewhere in the thicket of KwieKulik’s actions, in the pre-history of images, leads me through the first eruptions of signs, first syllables of the artist’s „lexicon”: from the Archive of Gestures which marks the outset of a genuine synthesis, the true opus magnum, through the mystical recurrence of human ornaments whose titles have the power of magic, to the last, unavoidable game which is a unique ritual - the holy nuptials of the inner god and inner goddess, the bond of the Sun and Moon, the hierosgamos.

I am driven right to the middle of all that. The signs become denser and denser, clearer and clearer, making another full circle. They do not let me overlook the goal which first used to be its own cradle-home, a point of departure, something that escapes attention like the moment of birth and everyday life which provides an indispensable counterbalance and shelter against the pressure of the world and its opposing powers - contradictory requirements of life in a community and in harmony with oneself. Now it is the end of wandering, the epilogue of the search, a symbol-home, a meaning-for-itself: a sacred place, a holy circle, témenos - a composition developed specifically for this location and time and for a particular space of the museum, bearing a self-conscious title: Both Home and a Museum . The circle, which consists of elements coming (actually) from the artist’s home, is repeated on the frieze with the portraits of Hestia and in the circle of images inscribed in the architecture of the museum hall, which surround a form that seems all too significant: an obelisk. Hestia, the Greek goddess of the hearth, taking care of the community (town or commune), of the fireplace, is here a guardian of a phallic symbol without which, as a token of the male element, the family circle can neither fulfill its role, nor - obviously - transgress it. Hestia’s caring power, so persuasively referred to by the commercials of an insurance company bearing her name, leaves no one outside its domain: we guarantee you safety wherever and whoever you are. Thus the goddess appears as a guardian and guide, an eternal causative force and comforter in misfortune, while in her self-confidence two orders of creation come together: the biological and the spiritual. The opposition of the sexes, considered as a contrast of creative functions, is imperceptibly overcome. The female rejects all constraints and does not seek fulfillment in its feminine role - the subordinate role of the passive female principle - but assumes responsibility for the home-world and for fate. Both her own and her work’s. She is no longer looking for the philosopher’s stone, because she knows that she herself is the fulfillment, the stone, and the principle of divine wisdom - lapis Sophiae.


1 C.G. Jung, „Duch Merkuriusz” [The Spirit Mercurius], in: Rebis, czyli kamień filozofów, (Selected Works], trans. into Polish Jerzy Prokopiuk, Warszawa; PWN, 1989), pp. 289-351, as well as other works of Jung. back

2 R. Ziarkiewicz, „Bądź tylko posłusznym psychofizycznym instrumentem...” [Be Nothing but an Obedient Psychophysical Instrument...], „Magazyn Sztuki” 1993 (No. 1), pp. 12-21. back

3 Unpublished interview with E. Dzikowska, „Posłuszna metodzie (Metoda, czyli gorset na emocje)” [Obedient to Method (Method or, Braces on Emotions)], courtesy of Z. Kulik. back

4 J. Brach-Czaina, Etos nowej sztuki [Ethos of the New Art] (Warszawa: PWN, 1990), p. 25. back

5 C.G. Jung, „Duch i życie” [The Spirit and Life], in: Rebis, czyli kamień filozofów, op. cit., p. 229. back

6 Brach-Czaina, p. 14. back

7 Por. C.G. Jung, O psychologii i patologii tzw. zjawisk tajemnych [On the Psychology and Pathology of the So-Called Occult Phenomena], trans. into Polish Robert Reszke (Warszawa: Sen, 1991), as well as Krytyczny słownik analizy Jungowskiej [A Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis] (Warszawa: Oficyna Wydawnicza Unus, 1994) and C. G. Jung, Wspomnienia, sny, myśli [Memories, Dreams, Thoughts], trans. into Polish R. Reszke (Warszawa: Wrota, KR, 1993). back

8 Cf. C.G. Jung, Mandala. Symbolika człowieka doskonałego [A Study in the Process of Individuation, Concerning Mandala Symbolism], trans. into Polish Magnus Starski (Poznan: Brama, 1993). back

9 Quoted from C. G. Jung, Wspomnienia, sny, myśli, 491. Cf. also C.G. Jung, „Jaźń” [The Self], in: Archetypy i symbole [Selected Works], trans. into Polish Jerzy Prokopiuk (Warszawa: Czytelnik, 1981), pp. 107-124. back

10 Posłuszna metodzie, On the same occasion Zofia Kulik speaks about her art as giving testimony of „herself, reality, and herself in reality.” For Jung, assuming an ethical attitude (requiring the reference to reflection as a manifestation of personal freedom) was a condition sine qua non of the development of consciousness as one of the elements of individuation. back

11 Zofia Kulik, ed. B. Fink, „Camera Austria International” (Graz) 1994, No. 47/48, pp. 36-44. back

12 Niech archeolog nie odkłada łopaty [May the Archaeologist Keep the Shovel at Hand], an interview of A. Szymczyk and A. Przywara, „Materiał” 1998, No. 1, pp. 4-7. back

13 Posłuszna metodzie back

14 My gathering of images goes through subsequent stages: watching, an element of chance, comparing, ordering, dividing into categories, distinguishing specific topics, gemmation of problems.” Posłuszna metodzie. back

15 In the process of individuation transformation may be a result of both natural turns in human life, and some special techniques. back

16 „When I look at certain patterns and structures, I try to reduce them mentally and interpret their logic in order to be able to say that I ‘understand’. But this moment never comes so that I just keep looking...” Ziarkiewicz, Bądź tylko posłusznym.... back

17 Quoted from C. G. Jung, Wspomnienia..., p. 487. back

18 „Zofia Kulik”, ed. B. Fink. back

19 Specific monumental „ghosts” of fears from the past are three-dimensional constructions from the series „Kurhany sławy i niesławy” [Mounds of Fame and Infamy] - as paralyzing as a disease of imagination. back

20 „The very discovering is creation.” (Posłuszna metodzie. back

21 On irony in Zofia Kulik’s art, cf. E. Lajer-Burcharth, „Old Histories: Zofia Kulik’s Ironic Recollections,” in: New Histories, The Institute of Contemporary Art, October 23, 1996 - January 5, 1997, Boston, 1996, pp. 120-136. back

22 Ch. Boltanski in the commentary on his exhibition Dernières Années at Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (1998). back

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