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International Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Change Management 2006, no. 5(3), pp. 107-116.


Katarzyna Kosmala MacLullich

What it Feels Like to Be a Professional Artist in Central and Eastern Europe? Individualised Reality of the Other in Zofia Kulik's Arts.

‘I wrote once ‘order and self-subordinations account for a powerful inner urge that makes me behave and act in a given way; both in so-called life and in so-called art’. By visualising the ‘subordinations’ do I appreciate and praise it, or do I mock it and abolish it? Accepting the ‘subordination’ as my problem and theme, full of fear and hatred toward the situation in which ‘the urge of subordination’ occurs, I take an artist revenge with every weapon (symbolic and formal) that has been used against me’

(Zofia Kulik(1))


In everyday life we routinely engage in processes of self-shaping and self-cultivating, acting on the world and on others through our need to give a form and a content to our identity, to our reality, to our memory and to our sense of the self. The self is always in a process of ‘catching up’ with the deferred meanings of its experiences which at the point of actions remain in darkness(2). Nietzschean questioning of the possibility of knowing the self is echoed in Western contemporary thought of the alienated subject(3). The self and its masks are socially produced and controlled whereas ‘moral actions are always something other (Nietzsche, Daybreak, para 16). As there seem to be no essential, true self, identities are constituted and enacted through our positioning with the others through language and wider forms of cultural codes Hall (1996).

The self, however, although constructed in a socially and historically localised moment (Foucault, 1989), cannot be explored in an isolation from interpretations of the individual experiences and its specificity for a subject (a person) (Taylor, 1992); the interpretations of the self and of the others (Geertz, 1973). The aim of this paper is to explore the evolving artistic identity of a Polish female artist, Zofia Kulik. In particular, I intend to look at the ways through which she engages her life experiences in questioning of the identity construction. It seems that through her artistic practice Kulik writes ethnography at ‘home’(4). A complex layering and interpreting of conflicting elements of her own (private) identity formation, echoed in her practice, could be envisaged as deriving from both her inner history (as a private person) and from the external social environment (the art world, its institutions and its politics). Hastrup (1987) described such practice in the field of anthropology as a peculiar reality of self-ethnography: ‘it is not the unmediated world of the others but the world between ourselves and the others’. Kulik mediates between what is a person and the world. The key aspect,s of her critically informed art combine redefinition and an exploration of the self, the questions of ideology and subordination, and in particular ways of disciplining the mind and body.

Both, societal ambivalence and private desolation leads us to see that identity is fluid, thus, the self is in part a symbolic project that we actively and creatively recreate, refashion and re-fabricate, juxtapositioning what is private and public, personal and political, individual and historical (Elliot, 2001, p. 6). These processes of Kulik’s artistic identity formation constituted her involvement in the underground and sublime art, her critical performances with Przemyslaw Kwiek under communism, the era of the political and personal transformation in the 1980s, and finally, her most recent individual practice as a visual artist.

Identities are constituted in and through difference and subsequently are inherently dislocated (Du Guy et al, 2000), that is, dependent upon outside that both denies them and provides the conditions of their possibility (Rorty, 1988). Therefore, in a discussion of Kulik’s artworks, I acknowledge the historical and cultural contingency and plurality of her personae, as the artist, and subsequently, the necessity of not abstracting the properties of particular forms of personhood from the specific cultural milieus in which they have been formed and contested (here a local milieu of the Central and Eastern Europe, hereafter the CEE). Kulik explained her particular geo-political location and temporality as her ‘Polish hunch-back’ which evokes ‘a certain helplessness. It is not the lack of intelligence or talents, it is the lack of rational, efficient and proper functioning of everything and the lack of the normal attitude to everything, without cynicism, without all those ambiguities, without the ‘pissed-off’ approach. This, obviously, has an impact on art, and also our behaviour and feelings with others’ (Kulik in the interviews with Sitkowska, 1986-1995).

Inevitably, as from the perspective of the subject, there are tensions between the creative and destructive possibilities in the processes of the identity formation (Jeffcutt, 1993), it could be argued that what artists embedded in the other (here the CEE) context consider as their variety of historically informed traditions (the reality of underground opposition to the totalitarian system) and culturally constructed notions (the art establishment and the institutionalised market) are reproduced and re-created in the present. Kulik's art is multi-layered, its uniqueness combines problems of power and subordination. In Kulik’s works the idea of identities are constituted through the reiterative ‘power of discourse’ (Foucault, 1989) which also names and regulates how we relate to the self and to the others. It is impossible to interpret the political, private and artistic threads separately in her artworks.

She somewhat ‘dissolves’ the notion of the self through evoking mechanisms of human subordination. Her works from 1990s onwards, are comments on the fluidity of identities, both sophisticated and delicate, politically charged and discharged, have been received differently nationally and internationally, at times with astonishment, at time with a revolt and, at times, went unnoticed. Now Kulik, as an established artist continues to create in the context of global capitalism and media culture; in her works the self seems even more frail, fractured and fragmented. Locally, the audiences somewhat unreceptive to problems of deconstruction of identity and questioning of ‘our’ reality, do not easily assimilate her works. When we look into the mirror of the past we fear to see the reflections of this past projected into the future.

The remainder of this paper proceeds as follows. First, I will discuss the context in which Kulik emerged as an artist; I will briefly outline the locale of the Polish art world in the 1970s characterised by a distance from the centres of power, political and cultural capitals, situated in the fringe, in the spaces in-between, in zones of insignificance in the power structures of Europe. Second, the ‘performing life’ and living art of KwieKulik will be examined, and in particular, its implications for Kulik’s identity. Third, I will discuss a period of Kulik’s personal and artistic transformation. Fourth, the aesthetics and critical content of the individualised reality of the other in Kulik’s contemporary art practice will be discussed. Finally, Kulik’s reception will be placed in the context of the new generation of artists.

On the fringes of the European arts

The ways the idea of identity is being realised in today’s Europe challenges the reality of harmonious ‘United Europe’. The mythologised otherness of the Central and Eastern Europe is echoed in the visual arts. Residual socially constructed ‘problems’ such as traditionalisms, historisms, historical myths and nationalisms, traditional motives and models all appear significant in the reconstruction of arts’ own self-images (Cvijetic, 1999). We find ourselves, however, incapable of distinguishing between the so called historical reality and its warped representations (Zizek, 1989). Although internationally the contemporary arts deems itself free of ideologies, through its rebellion and apolitical attitude, yet it perpetuates the distance between us and them, ourselves and others. The (artistic) identity in the CEE region is in a flux of ‘negotiations’ with the past and belonging to Europe(5). A division between the active and creative self-shaping and the passive social determination has been translated in terms of cultural constrain, focusing on the status of social forces and institutional dynamics, as well as on personal agency, consciousness and desire (Elliot, 2001, p.2).

In the 1970s, a global phenomenon in which artists attempted to both challenge and transcend overly traditional means of art production and representation occurred worldwide. Art rhetoric located some artists in opposition to the mainstream and the power of art institutions; it was a stance perceived to contain a ‘romantic’ notion of rebellion. This was the ‘Western rebellion’. At that time, however, on the fringes of the European arts, in the CEE region, recognition and state funding of alternative arts was not forthcoming under the communist regime. The state ideology enveloped in a communist interpretation of socialism promised a ‘homogeneous’ society, where all differences in gender, race, ethnicity, class and culture were dispersed. There was a kind of a political censorship in arts, characterised by attempts of not financing or supporting those artists who engaged in any ‘substantial’ critique of the system (Truszkowski, 1999). The effect of this kind of censorship resulted in the silencing of critical and feminist art practices across the CEE region.

While the prevalence of modernist paradigms began its slow collapse in the West, a process to which alternative (critical) artists made a significant and early contribution in the 1970s by questioning the elitist attitude and monolithically formalist concepts of art and art practice. The critical arts in the CEE had been marginalised. The movements of the alternative artists were recognised only by the underrated CEE counter-culture (Andreas, 1999), and in particular by its sublime ‘particularity’(6). The ‘underground’ art movements questioned the ideology of oppression whereby the artists were searching for a means to fight against the communist regime, to the extent that this was possible, that is, without directly attracting repression (Polit, 2000).These artists also questioned construction of identity and difference. Identification with the state, through formal art practice and state commissioning, was mocked and considered to be an instance of the co-option of conscience.

The female artists of the sublime and underground movements were in a particularly difficult position. A version of operational socialism and its welfare policies did cut back gender-based social and economic discriminations across the CEE. Instead, this happened at the cost of the state appropriating the so called ‘women's question’ and diminishing it, in large, to an economic issue. Women became objects of social and political manipulation and this also applied to art practice. For instance, despite ‘women's equality of rights’ rhetoric propagated by the communist Polish government, female position was disprivileged (Kowalczyk, 1999). The tendency of women to take an active role in the job market in the 1950s and 1960s occurred as the government's response to a deficit of employment, especially in the services and trade. In the 1970s, however, the government invoked the propaganda of woman’s primary role as a mother, a carer and a wife. This socially constructed (dis)placement and a partial picture of womanhood was echoed in arts. This is why the tenets of Western version of feminism of that time appeared somewhat irrelevant in the CEE (Kowalczyk, 2002). Some female artists both benefited from certain state policies and simultaneously became members of the opposition through their involvement in the alternative and underground art scene.

1989 was the year of great shift from communist ideology towards capitalism and an emergence of consumer culture, spreading gradually across the CEE. As for art itself, the fall of the Berlin Wall did not bring either a paradigm shift in visual arts or a real dialogue with the Western art discourse. In a way, the CEE region was further slipping into the category of the ‘other’. This process has been traceable through Western writing about the CEE arts, evoking ‘authoritarian patronisation combined with stereotyping as a substitute for getting to know the other’ (Andreas, 1999), and it could be argued that unfortunately in art history such mentality continues in that way.

After 1989, art became dependent on private and corporate sponsorship and any form of the ‘controversial’ or sublime art of the CEE has become once again disprivileged as ‘such images could contradict the sponsor’s political interests’. As a consequence, a kind of new limitation was created, affecting a particular form of expression and artistic freedom for those artists working within the critical and feminist genres. For instance in Poland, the power of the conservative political forces and an authority of the Catholic church, although in different ways, started to propagate a return to traditional value systems, traditional families, fostering the model of a passive woman as a mother and a carer. ‘Democracy in Poland is gendered as male. People who dare to say this out loud are courageous’ argues Maria Janion, a Polish feminist theorist (in Kowalczyk, 2002). Instances of sexism, and at times quite vulgar misogyny, used from positions of authority, appear to be discrediting of artists working with questions of the other, either through a notion of identity, critical themes or feminism-related issues. For instance, Katarzyna Kozyra, through her video works and installations, explores the exploitation of the reality of the body and the self within a visualisation of contemporary culture, raising simultaneously issues of voyeurism and narcissism. Her works are often criticised the media and she was persecuted by right-wing politicians. Alicja Zebrowska through her works explores issues of identity and sexuality. In her video works she explores how private is constructed as political. She comments upon how female sexuality becomes the object of legal manipulations and Catholic morality (Original Sin, 1994). Her works are often objects of aggressive attacks by those who considered it to be breaking down morality of heterosexual values and as ‘pure’ pornography (Kowalczyk, 2002). In short, it could be argued that the social responses to the critical and feminist art of the 1990s reveal hypocrisy of a society unable to talk about the self and trauma in relation to recent history. Locally, it reveals many double standards in society today and deconstructs the privileged place of some groups while highlighting the marginalisation of others(7).

In such a context, with great difficulty, critical and sublime artistic movements have been slowly evolving across the CEE, forming a more self-conscious programme of artistic identity. I would like to illustrate these processes though re-tracing aspects of artistic life and practice of Zofia Kulik.

KwieKulik: A fluid personae

In Poland, after 1956, a quasi-liberalisation of arts and a certain degree of state tolerance allowed for some ‘freedom of expression’. This was, however, minimal in comparison to the state support given to cultural paradigms which somewhat served propaganda system. The alternative art scene flourished but only among a small group of artists who circumvented official institutional routes by disseminating their works via ‘authors galleries’, their houses and other informal spaces.

Kulik’s artistic youth under the communist regime proceeded the performative years. Her art was anti-patriarchal from the beginning. Her first sculpture was a copy of a stone Aztec snake goddess, her diploma work consisted of five hundred slides, many of naked female with a red sash, ‘a sign of official celebrations’ (Wilson, 2001). Kulik’s works were informed by Hansen’s idea of the open form which facilitated a freedom of artistic expression and a focus on the context, which spoke in its own language. ‘This spirit - of documenting in a way that is adequate to the work, as well as the consciousness accompanying you during your working that whatever you do, you can have it documented, so you can more freely ‘transform’ your work - this spirit comes from Hansen’, Kulik explains ‘According to the definition Open Form is the art of creating the background for unique things. To present it suitably to Hansen's professional field, it would be an art of constructing architecture which makes a man using it conspicuous and contrasts with him, it gets into service-like, informative and functional interactions with him and, concurrently, it does not overwhelm with its form. The form can function politically, despite everything. It can simply be a tool of power, e.g. a typical closed form like the Place of Culture in Warsaw [soc-real architecture]’ (Kulik in the interview with Sitkowska, 1986-1995).

Across the CEE region, post-war existentialism and the mechanism of systemic subordination gave rise to the absurd and the ironic in visual culture. In the context of dematerialisation of the art object, performances provided a perfect arena for a critique of totalitarianism, focusing a discourse on the body (Sobota, 1996). Indeed, artistic protests focused on the body; it was violent, parodic and ephemeral, building a private base for artistic autonomy. In her final student years, Zofia Kulik and Przemyslaw Kwiek started to create collaboratively. In years 1970-1987, Kulik worked under a visible public persona ‘KwieKulik’ where shared K stressed the close collaboration and their mutual emotional dependence as a couple (Michalak, 1999).

Performance works of KwieKulik could be compared to Marina Abramovic and Uwe Laysiepen or Abramovic/Ulay duet as well as Mary Kelly’s works. For male-female artistic couples, the decision to be involved in body art challenged their identity, codes for masculinity and femininity, domination and subordination, weakness and strength. The identity aspects appeared at times concealed by various camouflage techniques, and other times were openly depicted, even with brutality. Such critical techniques seem comparable to the works of Gilbert and George, at least in aspects of questioning sexual identity (Michalak, 1999). These performances or comments like on abjection and subjugation involved a methodology of non-authorship and spontaneity, they were at times strangely disturbing. At the Body Performance Activity with the Head in 1978 in Lublin KwieKulik mocked state interrogations and torture techniques. This performance was also the critique of brutality of gender relations. Kwiek thrust Kulik’s head into a wash basin, poured water into the basin until Kulik could barely breath through her nose and then washed the upper parts of his body and legs threatening her with knife, exploring their fears by humiliating her. Both artists transcended their gendered identity as the action ended with the powerful image of their heads being suffocated in buckets of garbage (Wilson, 2001).

The KwieKulik duet criticised the political system and authority by using irony and ridicule, they expressed the idea of power as the invisible control of human action. In 1986 in their piece Arcady they used a chain as a metaphor of mental repression. Arcady, the land of eternal happiness, was ironically a place where invisible power (a paper hand) limited movement and speech. KwieKulik also used national insignia for their performances. For instance in 1985 in A Hammer, a Head, a Sickle, A Hook, A Shadow they played with Soviet symbolism and metaphors of shadow play or in the Semantic Monster in 1984 with the Polish flag (Wilson, 1999).

The Polish duet, similarly to Abramovic/Ulay, did not treat their private life as a safe enclave separated from arts. KwieKulik involved their son Dobromierz in their art projects from his birth (Activities with Dobromierz series of photographic works from 1972-1974) (Truszkowski, 1999).

KwieKulik critique of ideology was at times dangerous. They experienced imprisonment, had their passports withheld and were excluded from exhibiting both nationally and internationally for sometime(8). In the work Monument without Passports in 1978 they satirised their isolation within the alternative art scene and mocked they ways in which they and other artists supported their individual practice by producing state-friendly commissions for money. Kulik held up document of the Unrealised Projects whilst her feet were encased in solidifying plaster, as she was lifted around the space. She reflected upon the fixation of her own artistic position (Sobota, 1996), on her identity.

The anti-repressive ideological thrust of these performances seemed to be lived experiences for Kulik of drawing and suffocation. She was a young female involved in the heavily loaded critique of political system in their artistic production. There was deep emotional dependence and personal bonding for KwieKulik: ‘I was [then] so silent, I could not speak. I needed someone (Kwiek) to be between me and the world’ (Kulik retrospectively in Wilson, 2001). The identity of the artist was somewhat constructed of two persons, him and her, somewhat intense, somewhat indistinguishable, and therefore, safer for the inner and outer realities of ‘a surrounding fog which also you have in you’ (Kulik retrospectively in Wilson, 2001). There was no Kulik in those years; there was KwieKulik.

A political and personal transformation

In the mid-1980s Kulik started to question her identity under the personae of KwieKulik. She said: ‘I reject one thing that I discovered in one of my parents - the helplessness of a person who has good intentions but is not able to do things well. Is not able to, yet, persists in doing things which are beyond this person. And sometimes this person spoils everything. I reject this now, both in art and in our life’ (Kulik in the interview with Sitkowska, 1986-1995). She experienced feeling of a rebellion against both her personal and artistic dependence and the process-like quality of produced (performed) artworks. It was as her self-consciousness could speak again in its own voice. She said: ‘Finally, the dialogue in a duo becomes a thing in itself. A realisation of work, communicating to others your own ideas, lost importance. I felt bad. I felt a need for a silent consideration more and more strongly, indeed self-surprises with my non-verbal decisions, an immediate dialogue with a work that the work gave me a hint what to do next by its own response’ (Kulik retrospectively, in Szymczak and Przywara, 1998).

In 1987, she broke her connection with her life partner and artist, Przemyslaw Kwiek(9). Their moment of a separation coincided with a collapse of communism in Poland, hence, a process of regaining a socio-political freedom also involved a process of regaining her personal freedom of an artist (Truszkowiski, 1999).

Kulik explained: ‘For about 17 years I have been working in a duo. I have participated in the realisation of common objectives. After many attempts I stopped believing in their sense and conflict-free group realisation. And simply have started to deal with myself. Now I am looking for something else, not a partnership in common initiatives. I am interested in those in whom I feel a big accumulation of psychological tensions, some cracks in their personality, in those who try to take certain ‘shortcuts’ to express themselves. I am also searching for wider cultural plots. I do not want to limit myself to my own, individual context and conditioning’ (Kulik in the interviews with Sitkowska, 1986-1995).

The search for the possible new ways of coming into her being was expressed through her archivization processes, a kind of ‘auto-therapy’ of the manifestations of reality, through collected visualia which then could had been transformed into specific utterances (Hornowska, 1999) through her individual projects. Kulik said ‘whenever I recall how they tried to ‘bring me up’, at home, at school, in institutions, for a positive, polite and joyful citizen, I feel deeply distressed. I was never hungry, never cold, I did not suffer any physical discomforts. So when I feel distressed it occurs to me that it is my own mental weakness, my own fault in a way. Why am I not a joyful citizen? I have been hammered, we all have been hammered. Hammering implies a repetitive driving of a nail into something’ (Kulik retrospectively, in Szymczak and Przywara, 1998).

Kulik as a sole practitioner became an observer, taking the side of the other, the unknown, the subordinated, the repressed. Driven by the necessity to transform herself from an unassertive individual to a radical artist, Kulik used the matter of images to look for her way in multitude, in patterns, in maps of labyrinths where one visual image could be juxtaposed with another (Hornowska, 1999). This is how she continued to question the concept of identity, both as a subject of her artistic individual work and its interpretations.

In Kulik’s artworks created after 1987, the psychological and social discourses converged into the narratives of aesthetic-ideological order; that is, in her compositions a symmetry-frame coexisted with a domination-centre. For instance, in Large Vanitas Still Life, symmetrical arrangement with a recurrent motif of human scull is combined with folk ornaments from the shawls of mourning Yugoslavian women. The artist explained that ‘all my works consists of endless gathering and archivisation of the images of this world. Its complexity derives from the abundance of the archive which I posses… My archives contains various categories of documented reality’ (Kulik in Turowski, 1999). In Kulik’s art, the poignant emptiness of images is accompanied by specific figural patterns, some mnemosyne, deeply rooted in the artist’s psyche and in the historical experience of her generation.

Kulik declared: ‘In 1984 I started to speak’ (Kulik in Wilson, 2001). These words summarise a radical decision in the identity formation process. It is younger woman becoming the older women, autonomous of the petrifying past, gradually liberating herself from its memories. It is the artist, moving away from the controlled language and patterns where violent and parodic protests, focused on the body only, were still only ephemeral, to a mature and powerful period of a self-realisation.

Microcosms of the ‘other’ reality in the works of Zofia Kulik

The fall of totalitarian regime in the CEE region resulted in a pluralisation of the subject and its particularity (Piotrowski, 1999), bringing new questions to the visual arts. What it means to relate to people in the world which appear to be different from yourself? How can we approach our history, as Marx put it, without distorted believes and abstractions of any ideology(10)? We are constituted as subjects by being addressed by ideology which encompasses us (Althusser, 1984) and affects us(11). It seems that after the fall of communism, specifically female artists in the CEE region took on the creative responsibility of exposing gender identities against the dominant cultural fictions of nomenclatura and beyond. Their efforts juxtaposed the assumptions on what is masculine and what is feminine. Kulik explained that her family ‘participated in the creation of the foundations of that system. Very conscientiously and honestly. Although now I do not consider it my duty to have similar views to my mother, I know that what she did was clean, honest and full of commitment. As the years were passing, I started to realise a certain naiveté, some scout-like character of her behaviour’ (Kulik in the interviews with Sitkowska 1986-1995). The artists' relationships to the self, relationships with others and with reality itself, demanding the awareness of different senses is reflected in her individual practice from the late 1980s onwards.

Kulik exposes the invisible gender assumptions and deconstructs Eastern (and also later Western) European ideologies of cultural subversion in the context of the emergent new artistic landscapes, that is, a transformation of the art market, art institutions and artistic discourse. Kulik’s deconstructive activities may thus be seen not only as a critical re-examination of the cultural history of the former system but also as a self-reflexive process directed at an exploration of her own artistic identity, through her evolving private relationship with Kwiek, her relationship with her country, its politics and culture.

Indeed, appropriation and deconstruction are artistic tools which imply a break with the artistic past. Kulik's works after 1987, more ambivalent than reactionary reflect the artist’s spontaneous response to the disintegration of the communist regime and its imaginary (Sobota, 1996). E. g. Medals (1987-89), The Inter-National Gothic (1990), Square of Palace (1990), March, March, March (1990), Guards of the Spire (1990), Favourite Balance (1991), All Things Converge in Time and Space; to Disperse, to Converge, to Disperse, and so on (1992), Columns (1992), Petals (1995) are different size tabloids composed into mosaics, mandalas, Gothic windows and altars, columns and Persian carpets, all trapped within collective and personal memory (see Exhibit 1). Her compositions turn into emptiness which becomes plenitude, a way of representing the self which derives from the tradition of Eastern mysticism. The artist selects these patterns, hoping to reach through them the essence of reality and to establish a ‘mystical’ contact with these patterns in the viewers (Hornowska, 1999). Through these visual matrixes, her feminine (and feminist) symbolic framing and compositional aesthetics, Kulik focuses our attention to the understanding the world as an ordered structure and a system of power.

Some of Kulik’s works from the early 1990s, are not so much the photomontages of the emptiness of socialist patterns, but acts of critical dismantling of the reality of ‘real’ socialism, in particular the substance of its imagery. Kulik introduced the decomposed real discourses into the ornamental structures, making them appearing as a grotesque of the political iconosphere of the social realism. In that way, this socialist realist iconosphere appears as a masquerade of the image oscillating between plenitude of codified symbols and emptiness of emerging meanings (Turowski, 1999). In All the Missiles are One Missiles (1993) the flat patterns, despite the accentuated centre, invite the viewer to lateral scan of the whole image without the prescribed order (see Exhibit 2). In a sense, Kulik situates the old stories of communism in an ironic frame of a ‘disordering’ order.

In her latter works, from the late 1990s, Kulik has universalised her critique of subordination, domination and dependence; that was a crucial shift in an emphasis of her practice. Turowski (1999) explains that these two perspectives are difficult to distinguish since psychological and socio-manipulations oppress simultaneously mind and body.

Her later works focus more on the form of internalised power through the static, repetitive and oddly harmonious montages. With this aesthetic support, a kaleidoscope of psychic comfort, Kulik reveals an artificial and vulnerable character in a social order based on constructed hierarchies of power, adopting physical forces and ‘ideals’ for self-legitimisation. As power operates through sexuality and attempts to master the body, to control desires (Foucault), in Kulik’s artworks naked man is treated as the transmitter of meanings of any domination systems and orders.

Kulik breaks with the tradition of individualised portraits and instead depicts personality of the male model. The photographic representations of her male nudes implicitly invoke an ‘academic stylisation’ of the systemic cultural signification defined through repertoire of specific signs and poses, in a sense, under domination (Wilson, 1999). Male nude adapts himself to the particular situation and falls into a set of subordinations. E.g. in May Day Mass (1990), Moon Skull (1995), the Monstrance (1995) and the Columns (1995), the male nude is inscribed with a literally signifier or phallic fiction, based on the ‘aggressive ethos of masculinity’ (Lajer-Burchart, 1996). Mechanisms of power control both our behaviour and our appearance. A man, a human being and his body is participating in both constructions of power and its constraints, creating the idea of the visual order of things (see Exhibit 3). In this way, Kulik exposes the patriarchal culture, and in particular, the system of subordination that it creates and subsequently functions in our consciousness. She comments on our place in these different forms of the power systems, on our entanglement in power mechanisms and in ‘values’ they create. In Kulik's works, a man is objectified as 'man', he is shown through the same lens a woman has been represented as ‘woman’ in art history over the last six centuries (Wilson, 1999). The representations of passive and anti-individualised female nudes turned images of women into men's objects of visual consumption through control of the language of the image. Hence, Kulik’s works also reveal that male representations, as constructed examples of strength and perfection, contrast with everlasting femininity represented through powers of art history discourse, of a woman as a muse, as nature and as a mother.

Kulik becomes the feminine teller of the masochistic tale, the woman in charge of the formal visual process. In a way, her aesthetic irony reveals our vulnerable and questionable sexual identity. She comments upon male psycho-sexual dependence on a certain culturally constructed ideal of masculinity, conveying a sense of interrelation between a victim and an oppressor. This feminine perspective on cultural subordination reveals in part masochism as the central psycho-cultural mechanism in the formation of the CEE (and Western) subjectivity (Lajer-Burchart, 1996).

Memory takes the form of a cultural montage in Kulik’s artworks. In her recent work From Siberia to Cyberia, contrary to all her earlier compositions, its organising principle is a movement, the gigantic flow of media images. The wave which this stream of images seems to form, a monstrous zigzag, flows out of the past and from the depth of memory, visual memory and the memory of the body, into the future which is never a simple continuation of the past but quite opposite since ‘we are not the ones we used to be, we will not be the ones we are now’ (Boltanski, 1998). In that way, Kulik’s compositions comment upon cycles of life, where nothing seems to last forever, where one tendency becomes another and sometime (soon) everything will turn into its opposite; darkness into light, wisdom into stupidity and then back into wisdom again (Hornowska, 1999). The artist points out at the power of media culture; power which we consume and internalise (see Exhibit 4). This work, as all her works, evokes a need for a freedom from subordination (Piotrowski, 1999), although in a different context of power, here reflected through aggressive consumerism and voyeurism. The artist appears to warn against systems in which there is no privacy (private sphere) and constraints placed upon us through such a lack. All dominant systems seek to possess us, both our body and our consciousness.

In short, Zofia Kulik's art appears as a comment and an accusation against a world that functions on the base of hierarchy and domination. She questions the limits of our identity, our female and male subordination. Can the individual be free in the world systems? Are we incapable to act autonomously? Kulik’s art is an attack against the universality of cultures through her skilful deconstruction of invisible mechanisms of power. Passing a censure on dominant systems, Kulik creates her own system and order in which we can find references to mechanisms through which the semi-system of being operates, the (pat)(mat)riarchal system, as depicted in her Land-escape (2001) (see Exhibit 5).

Into the Future?

In this paper, I have discussed the process of identity formation and transformation of one of the key critical female artist of the 1970s generation in the CEE, Zofia Kulik. As the female she has rejected, where possible, the constraints of constructed identity and have not sought fulfilment solely in her (feminine) role. Kulik as an individual and as an artist, situated in a particular socio-history of the CEE region, has rejected the subordinated role of the passive citizen and passive female and assumed responsibility for both herself and her works.

Kulik’s art emerges from an absent territory of the other, as she speaks with a nostalgic passion, at times somewhat obsessive and at times somewhat ironic of its (and her) past experiences and its complex afterlife. The subject of her works has been not to represent (national) identity but instead a questioning of the identity construct and its interpretations.

How is Kulik received then? Locally, the views of art adopted after 1989 in the art institutions glorified old views formed by the underground of the 1970s, such as Kulik’s works. This glorification was, however, short-lived. Kulik’s more radical messages are juxtaposed with the current moral cultural climax in Poland. Some critics, connected with the more traditional or Catholic academic related journals accuse the new art of being ‘evil and transgressing all moral norms’ of the patriarchal culture constructed there for centuries. They are also nostalgic for the traditional art, like painting, and avoid most of the contemporary critical arts, even denying that it should have been given the status of art. Their discourse evokes instead a ‘universal order of things’ (Kowalczyk, 1999), the very orders Kulik questions in her tales on deconstruction of identities.

For instance, in 1999, at one of Zofia Kulik's solo exhibition in the National Museum in Poznan, aspects of her installation was denied for showing. The work she made especially for this exhibition and for the museum was censored and the effect of this was emptying of the main space of the museum hall. The work designed for the main entrance hall was entitled Both Home and a Museum. In the central place of the hall Kulik planned to be locate the obelisk and on the walls the photos of a close-up of male genitals from classical sculptures of The Hermitage in St Petersburg. These photos proved to be ‘extremely controversial’ for the museum's director so much that he ordered the guards to remove them without the artist's knowledge or consent. The director explained that ‘this work could had been shocking for visitors’. (Kowalczyk, 1999). Consequently, the artist was forced to dismantle the rest of the works. The installation Both Home and a Museum supposed to be critical of the institution of the museum in showing it as an institution of ‘phallocentric’ power, (Crimp’s On the Museum Ruins), where the private was excluded form its notion of public. Kulik depicted how the museum system excludes the other and denies or discounts gender, class, culture differences in its own vision of history. Ironically, the museum system excluded her work.

Internationally, her more conscious political-related messages, her critical attitude, her analytical approach, deviations from the formalist creed, deconstruction or demolishing of the identity and narrative works have been received as a mixed message of just ‘re-facing’ the past or perpetuating label of the ‘soc-real’ tradition (Kowalczyk, 2002), ‘inherited’ in visual arts across the CEE region through the ‘stiff’ Western art history categorisation.

In short, Kulik works continue to challenge and evoke different reactions in viewers, locally and internationally. Echoes of false ideas of equality and depravation of individuality, inculcated during communist regime, demand re-surfacing in the processes of identity deconstruction. Now, new generation of artists has appeared on the scene. This more tolerant generation, socialised in and after the political transition, a period ‘without walls’, working within the parameters of the ‘global’ art spirit, appears to have a somewhat different approach to questioning identity, perhaps lighter, free of political criticism, or purposefully apolitical, often expressed through the means of banal and play. In this context, Kulik’s works and their resonance of reality of the other are necessary in balancing of what identity constitutes locally, as she knows that she herself is a fulfilment of the individualised memory, a particular memory that lives in us.


1 Zofia Kulik retrospectively in Darc Decor Independent Curators Incorporated ICI, USA back

2 The notion of identity, of the self have been a subject of philosophical inquiry as from the 17th c with Decartes’ Cogito Ergo Sum. Empiricists’ (e.g. Hume) and Idealists’ (e.g. Kant, Hegel) response resulted in different accounts in questioning the self as proclaimed by Decartes. back

3 Critical reflections on the subject influenced by Nietzsche are also embedded among others in Freudian analysis of unconscious and Lancan’s Mirror Phase. Also performative theories of identity (e.g. Butler) echo Nietzsche’s stance. back

4 A term ‘home’ is perceived symbolically (a local context) and physically as Kulik produces her works in her house. (The author’s information obtained from the artist, Warsaw, 2003). back

5 Despite then (in the 1970s) the images of the Iron Curtain and the Eastern Block which pervaded in the West, there was no homogenous common cultural identity of the CEE region. back

6 See also Andreas and Andrasi (1996) Vizproba : Water Ordeal Exhibition catalogue, Obudi Tarsaskor: Budapest. back

7 Kowalczyk (2002) also explores other incidences of blocking freedom of expression in critical and feminist art in Poland. back

8 In years 1975-1979 the artists were formally denied to show their works both in Poland and abroad and their passports were blocked. Paradoxically, their performance arts was getting more acclaim internationally. For more see Truszkowski (1999). back

9 Kulik and Kwiek still remain as close friends (material obtained from Kulik in Warsaw 2003). back

10 The roots of the idea of socially constituted consciousness derive also from Nietzsche: ‘consciousness is actually only network for connecting individuals to one another’ (The Gay Science, para 354). back

11 Althusser (1984) emphasised that the existence of ideology and hailing of individuals as subjects are the same. back


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