polski english

New Histories, The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston 1996, il. 5-9, pp. 119-136

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Ewa Lajer-Burcharth

Old Histories: Zofia Kulik’s Ironic Recollections


1. Zofia Kulik, From the series Columns (Sword), 1992. Multiple exposure black and white photographic collage.

Memory may take the form of a cultural montage shaped by the scissors of personal experience. First cut: Copenhagen, May 1, 1982. I am standing at a window looking down, through the fog of the Scandinavian spring, at a colorful and cheery, if rather small, batch of people crossing a bridge. Realizing that what I am seeing is my very first „Western” May Day Parade, I get wrapped up in my own somewhat foggy mixture of feelings and involuntary recollections. I am at once surprised, impressed by, and a bit envious of the people on the bridge; of the authenticity of their enthusiasm, its color and its confident gestures. Here they are, the people who have both their beliefs and a language in which to articulate them - their own culture. But, as I register also a certain sadness of this small crowd of May paraders barely noticed by the passers-by, their action - a mere colorful comma in the sentence of yet another gray and foggy day in Copenhagen - I feel my first surprising pang of an exile’s nostalgia. (I didn’t even realize that I had already become an exile.) Suddenly vivid in my mind stood what would have been going on at the very same time in Warsaw, had it not been for Martial Law: the colossal spectacles of officialdom that froze all forms of daily life in the city, stopping or rerouting the traffic to make place for the obligatory march of The People across town. I recalled the preceding day’s frantic searches for a friendly doctor who could provide a certificate attesting to one’s serious indisposition and thus a release from the injunction to march. And yet, what I also recalled was that, if one did not manage to get a doctors certificate and had to march anyway, it mostly was a kind of fun. Once, for example, I happened to march with a group of (male) poets and writers who had just formed a journal of a new literary generation called Nowy Wyraz (New Articulation). We were handed a generic red banner with a white inscription that said something like “Onward We March Towards Socialism!” (Socialism being a step towards the higher, Utopian order of Communism, not to be confused with the Western European notion of social democracy) and we decided that we wanted to, well, personalize it. Who knows, maybe the benevolent eye of power would notice us from the tribune - since we got stuck with marching, we might as well be recognized for fulfilling our civic duty. Because no one had any implements or paint, I offered my eyeshadow, an import from the “rotten West,” with which we proceeded to scribble the shaky letters Nowy Wyraz onto the banner. And we could not help but enjoy the double irony of this truly New Articulation: the pearl-green pigment from Max Factor on the red banner of Communism; and a woman’s make-up as the official face of the new (male) literature. So, refocusing on the Copenhagen parade, it occurred to me that, back in Poland, „we” (an elusive category established chiefly through opposition to the imaginary “they” of the nomenclatura system) also had “our own” culture - not exactly the signs and gestures of officialdom, but rather our ironic experience (or negotiation) of them.(1)

2. Zofia Kulik, From the series Columns (Garland), 1992. Multiple exposure black and white photographic collage.

Second cut: Bologna, early March 1990. By one of those strange accidents of fate, I find myself at the last Italian Communist Party Congress, a guest in the press gallery above the plateau of the delegates. After the debacle of the Eastern Bloc, and following the political changes within Italy, Partito Comunista Italiano was about to change its name to Partito Democratico della Sinistra (the Democratic Party of the Left) and to become a different party, swapping its red emblem of the hammer and sickle for a new, ecologically correct and politically accommodating symbol: a green oak tree. As happened years ago, at the very outset of my voluntary exile odyssey in Copenhagen, I was witnessing, if on a bigger and emotionally louder scale, an impressive spectacle of other people’s beliefs. There came a moment in which everyone in the convention hall rose to their feet and in unison burst into song, the majestic Internationale. And I, to my great surprise and embarrassment, burst into tears. And, what’s worse, I could not stop, both crying and laughing at myself, as the more-than-familar song that I used to sing by rote, a tune inseparable from the protracted boredom of endless high school academiae, as the celebrations of various official anniversaries were called (and for which we were plucked en masse from classes and herded into the gymnasium to look not unlike the party delegates crowding now below me), that tune was slowly wreaking havoc in my emotional universe. Some friends standing by, witty journalists from an oppositional leftist paper Il Manifesto (anti-Partito Comunista), teased me: „crying is the game of the guilty ones; come now, closet Communist!” It was not the inaccuracy of their diagnosis but my difficulty in offering my own, alternative explanation of my reaction, that bothered me most. (“Anti-communists from a paper called, of all things, Il Manifesto - they should be talking”, I am now musing disgruntlingly when, alas, it is too late for a repartee.) Was I Communist? No. But who was I, swept by a wave of sympathetic identification with the crowd singing the Internationale?(2)

What my Bolognan episode made me realize amounts to this: Communist culture was not some context in which I happen to have lived my own separate life - ironic, as though it may be - for some twenty years, it was more of a text (or shall I say a song?) of my life. Whether I wanted it or not, I was part of this culture, and what’s more, this culture was, is, somehow - the question is how - part of me. I am a subject inscribed by the Communist signifier: my sense of self, my unconscious harbors a shadow - an ambiguous one, to be sure - of the system in which I grew up. And so it was with a deep pleasure of instant recognition that I greeted the sulking woman, a red flag stubbornly stuck in her head, at the center of one of Zofia Kulik’s photomontages from her Idioms of the Soc-Ages series (1989) (plate 7). There it was, an allegory of the post-Communist subject’s ambiguous predicament. What this image of the artist spinning a Muybridge-like wheel of her ironic fantasy of Communism as a male pose visualized for me was, both the deeply psychic level of my cultural inscription and its deeply ironic dimension. But if it reminded me of the irony in my past, it also suggested the productively unsettling potential of recollection.

3. May Day Parade. Warsaw, May 1966. Courtesy Associated Press/Wide World Photos.

As a figure of the artist, the woman with the red flag stuck in her head situates Zofia Kulik’s work in this imaginary cultural territory, so-called Eastern Europe, the provisional yet long-lasting creation of the Cold War (and thus haunted by the ghosts of the Second World War) which, to most people’s relief, is now gone. But with it, gone is also part of “ourselves”, the men and women born under the twinkling Red Star, leaving “us” with a strange kind of loss. For few would want the lost object to return; and yet its absence (and the psychic hole it has created) makes itself felt. Kulik’s art emerges from within this absent territory, missed only at its disappearance, to speak with a kind of nostalgic passion, as obsessional as it is ironic, of its past existence and its complex afterlife. Her photomontages are, in a sense, the imaginary museums erected on the ruins of the Communist or, to be more precise, the nomenclatura culture, documenting its paradoxes, its inconsistencies, its contradictions, and its all-pervading former-ness. Critical re-collections, they do not simply seek to preserve the past, but rather submit it to ironic revision, exposing its psycho-cultural mechanisms. And, as such, they are a woman’s deconstructive re-collections: visualizing lovingly only to ruthlessly undo the masculinist assumptions behind the cultural mask of the nomenclatura, and thus teasing out the logic of desire that had shaped it.

4. Zofia Kulik, From the series Idioms of the Soc-Ages, 1987-89. Multiple exposure black and white photographic collage

After the fall of the Communist regime in Poland in 1989 Kulik embarked on the production of a series of photomontages that have now become quite familiar to international art audiences.(3) In all of these works images of the male nude are arranged into complex patterns and structures that resemble mosaics, carpets, mandalas, Gothic windows and altars as well as other forms that foreground the idea of visual order. Part academic model, part object of some dark erotic fantasy, her mock-heroic male nudes are shown obediently rehearsing an array of poses that evoke, more or less directly, the rhetoric of Polish fetes, celebrations and monuments of the Communist era. Many of their accessories, including flags, banners, poles and pikes, commemorative wreaths and war medals, refer explicitly to May Day and military parades of the Communist past. Other attributes, such as loincloths, crosses and censers, evoke Catholic ritual. The male model is frequently superimposed on or intercut with images of Second World War memorials and the mythic buildings of the Communist political empire, such as the Palace of Culture, Stalin’s detested gift to the city of Warsaw, or Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, the sublimated architectural emblem of the Iron Curtain. At times, in works such as Favorite Balance (1991) (plate 9), instruments of death and torture, from ropes to bullets, as well as skulls, and other vanitative motifs appear.

5. Zofia Kulik, The Guardians of the Spire, 1990. Multiple exposure black and white photographic collage. Collection of Eric Franck, London.

Kulik’s male protagonists, the guardians of the spire, standard bearers, wreath holders and other kinds of compliant performers, represent the idea of the Communist subject as the function of a system - neither an anonymous state apparatus nor a mere ideological abstraction but rather a system of cultural signification defined as a repertory of specific signs and poses.(4) It is the masculinist rhetoric of this system as much as the maleness of the subject it assumes that Kulik’s work makes apparent. Not only are the motifs conspicuously phallic (not by chance is Warsaw’s spired Palace of Culture the artist’s favorite architectural motif) but also its formal structure insistently aligns the idea of composition with the symbolic order defined as the invisible but omnipresent Law governed by the phallic signifier. This alignment organizes the subject’s appearance but at the cost of his partial disarticulation (castration), which at times is quite comical. Note, for example, the negative images of the headless bodies that surround the prostrating male nude at the center of Gate (1989).The fork in the key of the arch, in the place of the eschutcheon, as well as the torture implements underneath it are the parodic emblems of this exacting Law that turns the man into a pliable flesh, a mere morsel of meat about to disappear in the mouth of the cannibal “system.” Similarly, the motif of sharp bullet cartridges in Moon-Skull and the Monstrance of the Columns series (1995) inscribes the male model with a literally phallic signifier, at once highlighting the virile prowess of his pose and rendering it ludicrous. But, what the Gate image also parodically suggests, through the little cupids placed on both sides of the fork, is the “amorous” (seductive) appeal of this Law, its power to interpellate - to call and coax - the subject into assuming the pose. Thus, Kulik envisions the “system” in psychosexual terms, wittingly foregrounding its capacity - its desire - to define the subject as a pose, that is, as a kind of phallic fiction based on the aggresive-heroic ethos of masculinity.(5)

If Kulik’s arrangements expose the male subject’s entrapment by the system, they also foreground the equivocal nature of his predicament: the naked man is as much “caught” by the controlling network of poses as he is willingly “acting out” an internalized mode of behavior. His body conveys pain but also a degree of pleasure in submission. This is clear, for example, in the martyrological delight with which men present themselves to the viewer in Inter-National Gothic (1990) and in the quasi-ecstatic reverence of the two male figures flanking, like orants, the somber, fully clothed “madonna” in the very center of All things converge... (1992; a photographic self portrait of the artist with spears and bullet cartridges). The erotic tension between the submissive male and this “cold and cruel” dominatrix spells out the nature of their relation in terms of masochistic desire. Yet, the image also reveals that masochism is here less a matter of an interpersonal dynamic than the male subject’s relation to the signifier. The alignment of the dominatrix with the Palace of Culture that the male nude below her carries on his back makes it clear that the subject bends under the weight of the Communist sign, not an actual woman. (Just as in Gate he prostrates under a fork as a mocking emblem of the subsuming or, to be exact, consuming power of the system.) What the somber madonna represents is the Law that governs the Communist fiction of masculinity. And it is in the same role that she appears as the “key” image in the compositional architecture of Favorite Balance.

6. Zofia Kulik, From the series Columns (Moon-Skull), 1995. First version. Multiple exposure black and white photographic collage. Courtesy Lombard|Freid Fine Arts, New York.

7. Zofia Kulik, From the series Columns (Monstrance), 1995. First version. Multiple exposure black and white photographic collage. Courtesy Lombard|Freid Fine Arts, New York.

8. Zofia Kulik, The Inter-National Gothic, 1990. First version. Multiple exposure black and white photographic collage. Courtesy Lombard|Freid Fine Arts, New York.

This is to say that Kulik’s montages, notwithstanding their seemingly exclusive focus on the male figure, are also diagrams of a certain scheme of gender relations - of the “favorite balance,” as it were - which, however, has nothing to do with the empowerment of women. It addresses, rather, male psychosexual dependence on a certain cultural ideal of masculinity, the authority of which is what Woman is asked to embody in order to secure Man’s subjective coherence, to support his maleness. Assuming the mantle of a dominatrix, Kulik ironically identifies herself here as the guardian of a certain order of things: a certain masquerade of gender secured by a specific logic of desire at the core of the Communist subjective ideal. Conveying a sense of mutual dependence between victim and oppressor, she presents herself as the key term in the metaphonic relation between the Communist subject and the State which she thereby reveals to be essentially masochistic. (As Gilles Deleuze reminds us, in the masochistic fantasy the symbolic Law, traditionally identified with the Father, is transferred onto a maternal figure.(6) In addition to staging herself as dominatrix, Kulik introduces other devices that suggest the masochistic dimension of the Communist imaginary by figuring the idea of the symbolic frame or compositional order as feminine. Thus, in Favorite Balance, the man in a toga kneeling at the center with a spear in one hand and a funerary bouquet in the other - yet another figure of male abjection under the auspices of the system - is framed by an orthogonal made of a flowery „feminine” fabric. From each of the frame’s four corners a (female) hand is extended, pointing towards a book cover of Maxim Gorky’s Matka (Mother), the obligatory reading of every adolescent in pre-1989 Poland, and a thinly veiled literary metaphor for the Commmunist state. The supportive-metaphoric function of femininity as the frame of symbolic reference is also hammered home by the repeated, rhythmic sequence of feminine figures that runs like a frieze of triglyphs and metopes around the entire composition; each of these women, dressed in a spoof of the Communist Youth uniform (white blouse, flared skirt and heavy boots), holds a drapery swag in an alternating position (i.e., either raised above her head or obliterating it from view).

9. Zofia Kulik, All Things Converge in Time and Space, to Disperse, to Converge, to Disperse, to Converge, and so on, 1992. Second version. Multiple exposure black and white photographic collage. Courtesy Eric Franck, London

Masochistic, though, is not simply Kulik’s iconography but also the psycho-sexual logic behind the formal quality of her arrangements. Deleuze, who suggested that masochism is less an erotic or moral economy (of pleasure/pain or guilt/punishment) than a particular kind of formalism, emphasized such qualities of the masochistic fantasy as arrested movement, lack of narrative, and extreme stylization.(7) It is easy to see that these are precisely the aesthetic features of Kulik’s photomontages. Her static, repetitive (i.e., no narrative progress), highly formalized and oddly harmonious montages, (nothing like, say, Hannah Hoch’s deliberately incongruent visual amalgamations) function as an aesthetic support - a carpet of psychic comfort - for a masochistic male subject. What then does such an aesthetic of masochism amount to? Where exactly is the critical dimension of Kulik’s vision?

The answer lies in its irony. Deleuze argued that masochism as such constitutes an ironic subversion insofar as it reveals the absurdity of law. What is supposed to punish and prevent pleasure, does precisely the opposite - produces it. Insofar as, precisely through a formal process, the masochist identifies law with the figure of the mother, he threatens the law of the father and thus, again, may be seen as a challenger of the symbolic order.(8) In the Deleuzian perspective, it is then the masochist himself who is ironic, his obedience concealing a criticism and provocation of sexual and thus also societal norms.(9)

10. Zofia Kulik, Detail from the series Columns, 1992. Multiple exposure black and white photographic collage.

Zofia Kulik’s aesthetic play upon the idea of masochism asks, however, for a somewhat different reading. For irony in her work is not the property of the male subject, but rather of the feminine teller of the masochistic tale, the woman in charge of the formal process: the Mother and/as the artist. It is, in other words, her aesthetic irony that reveals masculinity to be a man’s comical effort, at once an aspiration and failure to assume the pose. And it is her own ironic distance from herself that allows her to assume the preposterous role of the dominatrix from the masochistic fantasy. This feminine (and feminist) perspective on Communist culture reveals masochism as the central psycho-cultural mechanism in the formation of an Eastern European subjectivity: the logic that shaped the dominant ideal of the subject as a man avowed to a system. And insofar as Kulik’s work may be seen as a critical insight into a specifically Polish inflection of this exemplary ideal, it suggests that its masochistic logic may have something to do with the Catholic underpinnings of Polish culture.(10) (What I have in mind here is, specifically, the martyrological image-repertory of Catholicism to which Kulik herself explicitly refers, for example, in the International Gothic.)

What Kulik’s aesthetic irony reveals is not the male masochist’s „criticism and provocation of law,” as Deleuze put it, but rather his frail body’s inadequate attempts at mimicry, at conformity with the Law. Throughout her work, Kulik exposes this ridiculous incommensurability of the male body with the ideal it tries to enact. Can you believe in the aggressive posture of the skinny naked man charging forward with a spear while his ribcage is showing and his sadly pendant penis is exposed in its full vulnerability? Kulik’s men are repeatedly staged as ironic signifiers of phallic mastery, marked as they are by the internal distance between their meager physical bodies and the exemplary masculine pose they take on.

The effect of this ironic disjunction may be grasped better by a comparison between the nude model from a detail of Kulik’s Facade of 500 Exposures and its iconographic source, G.D.Aleksiejev’s statue of Lenin as the Appealing Leader, one of the early masterworks of Russian Social Realism.(11) While the pose and gesture of Kulik’s model testify to the power of the Soc-Realist body as an identificatory model, his nakedness underscores the incompleteness of his identification. Note specifically the eloquence of the male genital organ in Kulik’s figure, and the distance its detumescence articulates from the symbolic Phallus embodied by Aleksiejev’s safely clothed and thus unimpaired, confidently gesturing leader. Expropriating the male anatomical part to challenge its symbolic equation with the Phallus, Kulik makes masculine frailty resurface here, as she does elsewhere, from under the cultural pretence of the Soc-Realist pose.(12)

11. Zofia Kulik, Detail of Facade of 500 Exposures, 1995. Multiple exposure black and white photographic collage. Courtesy Lombard|Freid Fine Arts, New York

12. G.D.Aieksiejev, The Appealing Leader, 1924. Reproduction from: R. J. Abolina, Lenin in Russian Visual Art, Moscow 1987

In doing so, Kulik’s photographic enterprise casts an ironic shadow on Social Realism as the specific (often disavowed), aesthetic legacy of Communism.(13) The Lenin-bound mimicry of her male protagonist addresses the broader issue of a cultural assimilation of the aesthetic paradigms generated by the former Soviet Union in the Eastern Bloc. In defining this mode of assimilation as exposure (literally, by her work’s title: Facade of 500 Exposures) the artist points to the critical, deconstructive dimension of her choice of photography as a technique for rewriting the old Eastern European story through, precisely, a formal process.(14) At the same time, taking on Social Realism, Kulik’s work also retells yet an older story, calling forth as it does a long artistic tradition of narrative painting of which the official aesthetic idiom of the Communist era was but one installment. As a matter of fact, the gestures of both Aleksiejev’s Lenin and her own male model send us down a memory lane to the very moment when this narrative tradition was first put in the service of the Revolution: to Jacques-Louis David’s The Oath of the Tennis Court.(15)

David’s sketch for this work, allows us a peek into the „kitchen” of this tradition, and specifically into the structure of its masculinist assumption in the making. Envisioning the founding moment of the French Revolution through an image of an exclusively male community, the sketch documents the construction of the male body as the privileged signifier of a subjective ideal, exemplary in both its moral and physical excellence - the Revolutionary subject as maleness par excellence. Not only are the Third Estate deputies transformed here into athletes of the Revolution, their gestures borrowed from the antique oratory tradition; but they are also shown „seized,” as it were, by the system of one-point perspective adopted by the artist to convey this „pregnant moment” of the Revolution. The unerased orthogonals seem to pull these contingent bodies into complete identification with an invisible ideal of unity (i.e., the fraternite as the backbone of the Jacobin ideology which shaped David’s commission), and it is precisely insofar as their bodies conform to this unifocal spatial structure, with their gestures echoing the direction of the lines, that these figures represent the Revolutionary subject. What we witness here, then, is a visual construction of the orthopsychic subject of the Revolution: a corporeal representation of the ideologically desirable, „correct” psyche.(16) At one with their pose, these men are sustained by, and therefore able to project forth, a certain normative fiction of masculinity.

13. Jacques-Louis David, Study for The Oath of the Tennis Court, c. 1790. Pen and ink on paper. Courtesy Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, MA. Bequest of Grenville L.Winthrop.

Now, if Kulik’s compositional structures evoke order, they are also images of disarray and dispersal, of uncontrolled, kaleidoscopic multiplication without beginning or end. By contrast to the unifocal composition of the David, Kulik’s work - whether it is her Favorite Balance or another work entitled All the Missiles Are One Missile (1993) - often confronts us with a rhythmic series of flat patterns that, despite the accentuated center, invite the eye to laterally scan the whole image without prescribed order, in a kind of scattered perusal.(17) In other words, while in some sense orderly, her unrelentingly repetitive spatial organization of the bodies at once evokes and erodes the narrative paradigm of history painting that focused on one noteworthy „pregnant moment.” Instead, Kulik situates the old stories of Communism in an ironic frame of disordering order.(18) (This is also true of her elaborate architectural compositions such as Facade of 500 Exposures (plate 8), where the overall structure remains essentially anti-narrative.) By locating her ever-posing men in this multifocal, rhythmic structure, she both illustrates and ridicules the idea of identification - envisioning a kind of continuous because unsuccessful mimicry, a process without beginning or end. Caught in the grip of the heroic posture that fails to embrace them yet never lets them go, the dominant subjects of Kulik’s stories are poignant testimony to the masculine pathos of the Communist era.

It is this pathetic male protagonist that links Kulik’s art to the more broadly understood new artistic production that has emerged from the former precincts of the Eastern Bloc. It seems that, after the fall of Communism, it is specifically women artists and writers who took on the creative responsibility of exposing the gender assumptions behind the dominant cultural fictions of the nomenclatura. Their concerted efforts gave shape to a phantom of the unbearable frailty of masculinity that hovers above the new horizons of European art and literature - a harbinger of the difficult process of shedding the past. We find it, for example, in the novels of Croatian writer Dubravka Ugrešić, who excels in laying bare and poking fun at the unsuspected fragility of Eastern European manhood. While under Ugrešić’s warmly ironic gaze, the pretensions and poses of both genders melt away; it is her gallery of the dubious male characters - the impotent sexual prowlers, the neurotic bureaucrats of the Communist apparatus, and the calculating careerists of the 1980s nomenclatura who turn into wimps at the slightest withdrawal of feminine support - that constitutes a distinctive mark of her writing.(19) In one of her most recent novels we witness a feminine parody of rape performed by three women writers on a misogynist literary critic. In this hilarious scene which takes place in a hotel room during an international literary conference in Zagreb, one Ivan Ljustina, the pet critic of Communist officialdom known for his sarcastic remarks on feminine creativity, succumbs to an outburst of parodic Bacchanalia staged by a team of enraged but inventively playful East- and West-European women of letters. We are introduced to him as he lies naked and spread-eagle on a bed with his arms and legs bound to the bedpost and his mouth gagged. Having covered his entire body with a sticky glue, the three women release feathers from a pillow all over him, turning him into a deplorable snowman. Then, attaching his penis by a string to a small balloon, the women enjoy the spectacle of the male organ’s slow emergence from under the feathers, first peeking through with a detumescent uncertainty and then bursting into an involuntary erection...(20)

14. Zofia Kulik, All the Missiles Are One Missile, 1993. Multiple exposure black and white photographic collage. Courtesy of the artist.

What peeks from underneath the plucked feathers of the official masculinity is, also, the sad corpus of the Eastern European myth of the dissident artist as a man. While the deconstructive efforts of artists such as Zofia Kulik and Dubravka Ugrešić’s who expose the invisible gender assumptions in the cultural past are of crucial importance, the crumbling of the mythic oppositional artist has to be seen as part of a broader process of the waning of cherished Eastern European ideologies of cultural subversion, a waning due to such factors as the pressure of the market, which has emerged as a relatively new aspect of artistic life, and a broader transformation of artistic discourse and institutions after the fall of Communism.(21)

What is, then, the place of a subversive woman artist in the new artistic landscape of the nascent democratic as well as consumerist societies of the former Eastern Europe?(22) Kulik’s practice may be seen as a response to this query, formulated from the perspective of a „veteran” member of the Polish oppositional avant-garde, that is, the generation of artists who came of age in the 1970s and whose critical practice defined the paradigm of cultural subversion. Her current deconstructive activity may thus be seen not only as a critical reexamination of the cultural history of the Polish nomenclatura but also, in a sense, a self-ironic revision directed at her own artistic history. Between 1970 and 1987 the artist was engaged in post-conceptual performance work in collaboration with Przemysław Kwiek, with whom she created a public persona functioning under the symbiotic name Kwiekulik(23) As the artist put it in a recent interview, theirs was a kind of „strange personal-artistic collage”, important and in many ways rewarding but also, in a long run, stifling of her own proper artistic voice.(24) In this context, Kulik’s current photomontages may be seen as an ironic reconfiguration of her earlier work with Kwiek. The binary, gendered structure of her photographic arrangements featuring a submissive male and a dominating female registers the ambivalent process of separation from her own artistic past, both restaging and exorcizing her former symbiotic relation with her artistic partner. The submissive male actor, however, should not be viewed literally, as an image of a person (i.e., Kwiek) but rather as a figure of the unspoken assumption that underlied the kind of subversive practice in which they were both involved: i.e., the conception of the dissident artist as a victim of the system, and the unacknowledged masochistic desire that had shaped it. Including images of herself in her work, Kulik is thus not exempting herself from the legacy of the past but ironically reconfiguring its masochistic premise, seeking distance from the male self-immolating desire with which she used to identify as an artist.

15. Zofia Kulik and Przemyslaw Kwiek, The Monument without Passports in the Fine Arts Salon, 1978. Photograph from performance, Sopot, Poland.

The implication of Kulik’s practice, namely, that the alternative cultural ideal of the oppositional avant-garde may not have been as far removed from the exemplary subject of the nomenclatura as one would have suspected, is provocative. (25) Reaching beyond the signs and accessories to the logic that shapes one’s relation to them, Kulik’s deconstructive work exposes the psycho-sexual mechanism that operated across different levels of cultural practice in pre-1989 Poland and, at least to some extent, in the former Eastern Europe as a whole. It is exactly because it is a psychically-based cultural mechanism that its shedding is a complex and difficult process. If the critical dimension of Kulik’s photomontages extends beyond the parameters of the Communist era to the present, it is then precisely insofar as they acknowledge and examine the afterlife of the Soc-Ages idioms in the post-Communist psyche. Rather than simply offering new signs and trappings, this work suggests another kind of relation to signs based on a critical rethinking, rather than a forgetting, of the past. Its irony is thus a mode of formulating a cultural memory of the expired system that may help provide new imaginary bases for the self, including that of the artist, emerging from its ruins.

Kulik’s most recent work casts, however, a shadow of doubt on the possibilities of any fast-and-easy renewal - be it aesthetic or subjective. Titled Still-life (1995), her new series of Cibachrome photographic collages combines, with a kind of brutal elegance, images of human skulls, blood sausage (the Polish kiszka designating both a common culinary treat and human entrails), animal bones and teeth, chunks of raw meat, root vegetables, an occasional lemon, and, in one case, heavy chains in a form suggesting a human brain (Plates 5 & 6). While departing from Kulik’s earlier poetics of black-and-white, these colorful and bold combinations offer us a glimpse of what resurfaces from behind the symbolic facade of subordination when it crumbles: a disembodied post-Communist subject, at a loss of self-image and identity. At once beautiful and difficult to look at, Kulik’s mise-en-scènes of death hark back to Théodore Géricault’s notorious images of severed heads and amputated limbs, these tableaux of post-Napoleonic melancholia. But hers is a melancholia with a bite, an aggressive and humorous rearticulation of loss. Both gruesome and comic, her arrangements of disparate motifs eat away at the vanitative decorum of the still life tradition. For one, her motifs bite at one another - skulls nibbling at kiszka or, cannibalistically, at each other. Staging the idea of death in a mode that is at once disturbingly literal and exceedingly stylized, they are macabre spoofs on the time-honored visual metaphors of vanitas. Furthermore, if we see the still life tradition, as art historian Norman Bryson has urged us to do, as an appropriatory vision of the feminine space, Kulik’s work is a striking reappropriation: flaunting the foodstuff signs of domesticity, her Still-life is a feminine vision with vengeance - death and life after Communism served with a black culinary humor.(26) Under the symbolic auspices of the Polish kiszka, these pictograms of consumption gnaw, moreover, at the consumerist promises of fulfillment spun by the new visual culture of advertisement that has flourished in the former Eastern-European countries. Horns of plenty à rebours, they rub against the grain of the new dominant fantasies of 1990s Poland where Mercedes Benz showrooms have mushroomed next to shops offering the paraphernalia of the Soc-Ages on sale. And as ironic advertisements, they are a kind of symbolic weapon of a woman artist winking from behind the Iron Curtain, after its fall.(27)


Notes:

1 For an excellent discussion of the imaginary communities designated by the „we” as opposed to the „they” of officialdom as typical creations of Eastern Europe, see Svetlana Boym, Commonplaces. Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994). back

2 It is the difficulty of negotiating one’s position as an emergent post-Communist and/or exile subject that I am trying to foreground here. For I did not feel the label anti-Communist would define me either. To begin with, the very term Communism is misleading. One could argue that Eastern European countries were never really Communist but rather nomenclatura regimes, that is: countries ruled by the excessive (and inevitably corrupt) state bureaucracy based on Communist party membership rather than Communist ideals. This is what may be said at least of pre-1989 Poland. back

3 While Kulik lives and works in Poland, her work has also been shown in international exhibitions, such as Wanderlieder organized by the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (1991-92) and Beyond Belief at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago (1995). She had a retrospective show at the Zone Gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne, in England, in 1995. Her photomontages have also entered museum collections in Poland as well as abroad. back

4 For an important discussion of the theories of nation as cultural system, and of the subject as a product of such system, see Homi Bhabha’s introduction to his anthology Nation and Narration, (NewYork: Routledge, 1990), 1-8. back

5 In other words, it is not a matter of visualizing ideology, but of representing psychic impact of the ideology on the subject, or the way in which the subject is interpellated by ideology through specific devices, such as the repertory of signs that constituted the dominant fiction of the post-Second World War Communist self. Important for the development of my argument here was Kaja Silverman’s theoretical elaboration of the complex relation between phallicity and the dominant fictions of masculinity, see her Male Subjectivity at the Margins, (New York: Routledge, 1992). back

6 „The masochist experiences the symbolic order as an intermaternal order in which mother represents the law under certain prescribed conditions; she generates the symbolism through which the masochist expresses himself” Gilles Deleuze, Coldness and Cruelty, trans. by Jean McNeal (New York: Zone Hooks, 1991), 63. back

7 „Masochism is above all formal and dramatic; this means that its peculiar pleasure-pain complex is determined by a particular kind of formalism, (and its experience of guilt by a specific story)” explains Deleuze in ibid., 105. back

8 Identified as the latter is with the figure of the Father. See: ibid., chaps. VII and VIII, and especially, 88-91. back

9 Deleuze, ibid., 88. Thus, it may be argued that Deleuze’s provocative analysis serves only to return the lost glory of the fallen Father to that of his gloriously transgressive masochistic son - a subversive gesture that remains inscribed within a masculinist ideal of subversion. back

10 The cultural amalgamation for which the Italians, commenting on the paradoxes of their own political culture, have an apt term: Cato-comunismo (used, affectionately, by the Italian Communists themselves). back

11 After a sculpture by G.D.Aleksiejev, The Appealing Leader, 1924. back

12 The distancing, ironic-masochistic logic of the pose is comically illustrated by the male nude in one section of The Inter-National Gothic, standing with an arm extended in a military salute while holding a hanging rope, with its noose around his neck. (The title of this work is an ironic reinscription of the internationalist rhetoric of the Soviet-generated socialist discourse as a kind of gothic tale.) Similarly, in the middle of another work from the Columns series (1995), the man is shown rehearsing heroic postures but the fiction of his pose comes apart. He is shown trying on a wreath, or striking a celebratory posture with a banner, his face thrown into a profile for posterity, but his distinctly unheroic nudity, with his penis as prominent as it is unimpressively pendant, defines masculinity as vulnerable and frail rather than triumphant and controlling. Finally, on the border of Favorite Balance, under the frieze of female figures with drapery pendants, there runs a series of images of two „real” Polish men, as opposed to academic models, sitting in a restaurant, their bodies slumped in what seems either deep meditation or, more likely, a drunken stupor, quite eloquently articulating their incompatibility with, or their refusal of, the heroic ideal of masculinity paraded elsewhere in this work. back

13 It is well known that Social Realism, coined in the Soviet Union, functioned as the aesthetic idiom of the Eastern European Communist countries in the 1940s and 50s. Yet, its character, development and cultural importance were not exactly the same as in Russia. In Poland, for example, it was only a brief episode, though, it may be argued, of crucial importance for constructing a (hole-ridden) shared cultural memory. For a provocative assessment of Polish Social Realism, see Ryszard Ziarkiewicz, Raj Utracony (exh. cat.) Muzeum Narodowe, Warsaw, 1990. For an extensive discussion of the Social Realist aesthetics in cultural context, see Wojciech Włodarczyk, Socrealizm. Sztuka Polska w latach 1950-1954 (Krakow: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1982). An insightful analysis of its complex after-effects on Polish artistic culture of the later 1950s is offered in Waldemar Baraniewski,”Okolice odwilży,” in Wokół RzeĽby Współczesnej, in: Zeszyt Naukowy Akademii Sztuk Pięknych w Warszawie, 1/19/87, (Warszawa, 1987), 52-65. back

14 As a technique it is quite interesting: it is not exactly a photomontage but rather a photographic tapestry created by manually assembled, individually exposed photographs. When asked why she does not use a computer to generate her imagery, Kulik answered that it offers too much control for the artist. back

15 A standard work of the art historical canon but also especially familiar to Poles through a copy of it drawn by Norblin de La Gourdaine, an artist who was active in Poland since 1774. One version of this drawing is now in the collection of the National Museum in Warsaw, others are at the Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, MA. back

16 For an important discussion of the Lacanian notion of the orthopsychic subject (a term which Lacan borrowed from Bachelard) see Joan Copjec,”The Orthopsychic Subject: Film Theory and the Reception of Lacan,” chap. 2 in her Read My Desire (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994). I have discussed David’s canvas in these terms in my Necklines: J.-L. David after the Terror, forthcoming from Yale University Press. back

17 An ironic paraphrase of T.S. Eliot’s „all the women are one Woman.” back

18 &In accordance with the Greek etymology of the word (eironicos meaning both dis-simulating and dis-assembling). back

19 See, for example, a literal gallery of such imperfect men encountered by the female protagonists in Dubravka Ugrešić’s In the Jaws of Life, trans. by Celia Hawkesworth and Michael Henry Heim (London: Virago Press, 1992). back

20 Ugrešić, Fording the Stream of Consciousness, trans. by Michael Henry Heim (London: Virago Press, 1991), 132-5. back

21 For the discussion of the transformation of the art world in the post-nomenclatura Poland see my „Warsaw Diary,” Art in America, Vol. 82, no. 2 (February 1994). back

22 This complex problem cannot be solved by ready-made discursive or aesthetic imports from the West, for the post-Second World War gender arrangements in Eastern Europe were radically different (that is, differently asymmetrical) from those of the West, i.e., most women in postwar Eastern Europe worked and the efforts of both men and women were being measured against the ethos of an exemplary, more or less genderless, constructor of the new order. Yet the communist discourse of gender equality was driven by hidden tensions and inconsistencies in the ways men and women were being situated in relation to this dominant subjective ideal and especially in the ways in which the bourgeois notion of the exemplary nuclear couple lingered on uneasily alongside the fiction of a more or less genderless community. back

23 Their work, and the larger critical-artistic practice to which it belonged, was supported by an alternative gallery system that had flourished in Poland from the 1970s and until Martial Law (1982) under semi-tutelage or semi-tolerance by the office of Art Exhibition (Biuro Wystaw Artystycznych). Their performances targeted the obstacles and constraints imposed on critical cultural activity in Poland and on their authors. The Monument Without Passport in the Salons of Fine Arts presented in 1978 in one of the alternative spaces in Sopot offered a satirical commentary on Kwiekulik’s position as artists impeded by the state bureaucracy - as punishment for their critical activity they were denied passports in the period between 1975-79. back

24 In Magazyn Sztuki, no. 1, 1993: 15. back

25 For a provocative critical re-reading of the Polish alternative avant-garde of the 1970s, which accuses the oppositional artists of perpetuating the very ideological models they opposed, see Piotr Piotrowski, Dekada (Poznań: Wyd. Obserwator, 1992). I have briefly discussed its merits and limitations in my already mentioned „Warsaw Diary.” The difference between Piotrowski’s in a sense disciplinary-Foucauldian diagnosis and Kulik’s ironic perspective on the oppositional artistic past is precisely its psychosexual rather than institutional or discursive dimension and a much greater emphasis on the ambiguity of these artists and thus her own predicament. back

26 Cf. Norman Bryson, „Still Life and ‘Feminine’ Space,” Looking at the Overlooked. Four Essays on Still Life Painting (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 136-178. back

27 The term „symbolic weapon” has often been used by the artist herself in relation to her earlier, Soc-Ages-related work. back




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