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Odra 1997, no 12, pp. 113-116.

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Adam Sobota

Beyond Soc-Ages


For many years the freedom of art in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe has been curtailed by the totalitarian system, which in the process of "building socialism" intervened into all forms of official life. Controversial matters could be discussed- if at all -only in the language of general allusions. In Poland the avant-garde circles could enjoy a certain amount of freedom, yet these groups were rather hermetic. The situation changed only at the times of crises, when artists showed their support for the emotions of the society by exhibiting documents and works, which functioned as statements of accusation and used exciting and easily understandable symbolism. Artists could also abreact their forced silence by making anarchistic gestures. This was the situation during the last crisis, when the changes sparked off by Solidarity resulted in the fall of the totalitarian system in this part of the world in 1989.

Among the works which dealt with the totalitarian heritage, the works of Zofia Kulik were found particularly interesting. They have been produced since 1987 and exhibited since 1989 under such collective titles as "Idioms of the Soc-Ages" or "The Inter-National Gothic". The technique used in the works was photographic montage, preceded by a drawing which served as a project. Necessary transfers-masks were also prepared and used later in precise copying onto the photographic paper of various motifs, which the artist had for a long time been collecting by taking photographs of events, objects, and people. The main element of these works was the figure of a naked man who assumed poses reminiscent of various models known from the history of culture. The man was equipped with such accessories as banners, sticks, ropes, or sashes. The image of the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw frequently appeared on these photographs - it was a building from the Stalinist period which had a symbolic meaning to Poles. Sometimes the photographs showed scenes of people marching with banners (during the First of May demonstration). Apart from these constantly recurring motifs one could find images of such objects as standards, medals, spearheads, draperies, cambrels, fragments of plants (eg. thistles), which appeared as contours and outlined shapes. Sometimes the artist introduced her own figure or just an image of her face. All these elements were copied from negatives onto the surface of the photographic paper. The work involved tiresome, repeated operations of covering and uncovering different parts of the surface, which produced an effect of rhythmic patterns. The elements of these works were placed according to the previously made projects - together with the black fragments of the background and with the light lines of unexposed parts they produced different configurations: circular patterns, called "mandalas", rectangular patterns, which remind one of carpets, and other designs composed as if within a frame of a Gothic window or a gate. It was very rarely that an element was coloured red. as a rule the whole composition represents the contrastive black and white esthetics of photography. The typical work is made of a number of sheets of paper of 60 x 50 cm. and may consist of 4. 1 2, 1 8 or more of such sheets.

It should not surprise us that these works by Zofia Kulik were interpreted as examples of the need felt by contemporary artists to confront and pass judgment on the ideology of socialism. They were even declared to belong to the most interesting examples of this tendency. To interpret these works only as political commentaries is to ignore much of their meaning, as well as to ignore the full significance of the problem to which they refer. It is the distance which the artist keeps towards Patrick elements of these photographs and their nearly abstract quality which make them more ambiguous - as a result they transcend the situational context of the last few years.

It is significant that the artist made use of photography. Photography makes it possible to maintain the desired balance between the analytical approach, which finds support in the objective "eye of a camera" and the emotional approach which stems from the critical attitude to a given social phenomenon. This is what distinguishes these works from numerous examples of over-expressive painting or spatial arrangements which proliferated in the last few years and which took up similar subjects. They are also very different from the so called "engaged" photographs and documents, which pass judgment on various matters from the point of view of political and social criteria, because Zofia Kulik alienates individual objects from their temporary, immediate context. What usually plays the function of a symbol for a set of ideological views is-in the works of Zofia Kulik - enclosed within the limits of its own form. In this way the mechanism of visual manipulation aiming at incapacitating the individual becomes much more evident to critical consciousness. The photographic reproduction of an object of manipulation demonstrates the nature of the process better than the object itself, which foregrounds its sensual and individual features.

Introductory activities of Zofia Kulik. which include taking photographs of selected objects, remind one in some respect of object studies and studies of human figures which photographers used to provide for painters. Complete albums with such photographs were produced including mainly studies of naked human figures in poses known from works of art. The most famous example of such works were thousands of photographs of people and animals in motion produced by E. Muybridge at the end of the 19th century. Their aim was to help artists to represent the phases of movement on the basis of scientific information. After some time these photographs gained a new meaning, when it was discovered that they exemplified their own specific esthetics and were clear examples of the growing conflict in art between the natural (represented by the living model) and the artificial and speculative (poses and convention in the completed work of art). The photographic studies of figures and objects, made by Zofia Kulik. are not. of course, preparatory works for paintings which would lead in effect to the identification of nature and convention in a work of art, but function as a necessary initial stage in building the final work. The work, however, tries to reveal the true mechanism of visual persuasion, not to camouflage it. The initial photographic study does not put on another costume, but is multiplied in its unrefined form. It attracts the eye with its serial repetitiveness, as in the case of propaganda posters seen in the streets. Since the artist does not want to convey any immediate message, viewers focus their attention on the esthetic quality produced in the work, especially so that the artist cares about harmonious and rhythmic arrangement of all elements with a clear symmetrical plan and mirror reflections of certain motifs. In bigger works the multiplicity of repeated motifs makes the surface look like a decorative ornament, which partly obliterates its initially clear political message. The artist however has not yet crossed the line beyond which objects become semantically unrecognizable. She even provided her works with a guide which explains the origin of all elements. The artist's attempt to arrange aggressive motifs in an esthetic way can be interpreted as an allusion to a hypnotic effect caused by some esthetic principles, often used by propaganda. Concentrical, symmetrical and multiple arrangements of forms are generally associated with hierarchy, utter submission and expansion of the repressive power. They are characterized also by stability and apparent lifelessness; higher density of details can produce the effect of glittering, when the eye is provoked to wander around endlessly.

Zofia Kulik makes use of poses and attributes which accompanied socialist ideology, but she equally often refers to symbolic figures from the history of art, eg. Medieval art. This procedure reminds one of the fact that political ideologies did not only invent their own symbolism, but also adapted existing models, usually preserved in the works of art. It is not a question of deciding whether it was art or ideology which first created certain forms; Kulik's work is an attempt to point to the fact that human consciousness centres around formal structures which express submission and dependence. The use of such structures in politics, which saturates them with appropriate symbols, can be interpreted as a vulgarization of their original cosmological and metaphysical meaning. The artist seems to be aware of it, when in the titles and the form of her works she refers to the basic concepts of Gothic art or mandala. If she compromises the structures which she presents, she does it so because they have been appropriated by political meanings, which proved destructive. She does not try to fill these structures with other positive symbols-as some artists did. who in recent years turned towards traditional religious symbolism in an attempt to retrieve for art the lost category of sacrum. She does not try to break away from the order of these structures. As she once admitted these visual symbols of submission fascinate and terrify her. In the light of psychology such a reaction can be understood. At the same time this situation can give birth to the fear of becoming incapacitated by some overwhelming power, although one is also likely to become attracted to this power by the fear of freedom, freedom which appears as emptiness without any plan, where there is nobody whom we could serve, and nothing which could let us define our identity.

If one's identity is clearly defined, it certainly improves one's situation in relation to any structure by making it possible to evaluate existing relationships and potentials. The artist who observes how external stimuli attack human consciousness and who analyzes his own reactions may not be capable of getting free from the network of dependences but is able to neutralize their negative aspects. Trying to become independent and to define himself, the artist must rely on some external support and make choices basing on his own intuition. One can ask here how the present state of art determines the artist's attempt to define his own identity. In the times when centralistic system clearly dominated (in politics, philosophy) the artist was able to define himself by negating this system or by means of a critical commentary. That is how avant-garde functioned, as opposed to that kind of art which supported the dominating system by articulating its hierarchy of values in a symbolic way. The world of avant-garde did much to secure an independent position for the artist and for the domain where "pure" ideas of art could function. Postmodernism, however, has recently questioned such a situation in culture. Today the belief in the end of the ethos of art. expressed by many critics and artists, has become widely popular. Within this frame of thinking independent status of art (meaning: avant-garde art) is identified with the state of things as it was defined by the philosophy of the Enlightenment, whose assumptions provided the ground for the development of non-religious totalitarian systems. The end of totalitarianism, according to postmodernist views, was to mean also the end of artistic individualism. This individualism, however, as it appeared in avant-garde art. aimed at breaking inherited artistic rules and at blurring the distinctions between art and other spheres of life (critics even formulated the thesis of the self-elimination of art). At present moment the independence of art means not so much the autonomy of a certain institution as the absence of a priori assumptions which could limit any activity. If there is any possibility of defining and defending one's identity, it can only be articulated in art understood as an individual exploration.

Zofia Kulik started her work as an artist when she was still a student of the Sculpture Department of The Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, where she received the diploma in 1971. She joined the experimental conceptualist movement in which she focused her attention on the very process of artistic activity. Since 1973 together with Przemyslaw Kwiek she ran The Workshop of Activities. Documentation and Promotion in Warsaw. Their cooperation lasted till recent years, taking the form of performance, actions with other artists, or informational shows - they even signed their works with a common name: KwieKulik. The two artists were mainly interested in relations between individuals and their environment, they tried to show the resulting dependencies and mutual incapacitations (e. g. in various performances, the basic element of which was an imprisoned head, the object of various manipulations). Their activities from that period were registered almost exclusively on slides and films, since they did not want to create traditional works of art and questioned the principle of individual authorship. Zofia Kulik's individual show in 1989. after many years of joint work with Przemyslaw Kwiek, was in itself a sign of a new stage in her career. Furthermore, the artist made use of a traditional form of the work of art. which was another sign of the change in her strategy. As regards her new works, one can say of course that there is a continuity in the use of the method of photographing various situations and displaying the materials. Zofia Kulik's work which she produced for her diploma at the Academy of Fine Arts was a carefully arranged show of about 500 slides projected simultaneously onto three screens. The artist all the time experimented with the perception of objects introduced into various visual structures. Anti-totalitarian symbolism of her new work is without any doubt a reflection of the experience of the artist working for many years in the political reality which suppressed any independent activity. One can not yet say how the new political situation of the coming years will change the reception of Zofia Kulik's work. The enthusiasm stemming from the collapse of the regimes and from clear-cut distinctions, already disappears in this part of the world, together with the hope that social problems can be easily solved by the mere fact of turning towards democracy. It becomes clearer now that various dangers have many intertwined roots and may appear in elementary human reactions.

translation: Jerzy Jarniewicz



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