Peeling Potatoes – Julita Wójcik
Julia Wójcik, "Peeling potatoes", 2001, Zachęta National Gallery of Art, photo: Jacek Niegoda
Julita Wójcik is an artist who often refers to the stereotype of so-called women's work - gardening, knitting, peeling potatoes...
With the exception of military service, peeling potatoes is regarded to as a typically female activity - particularly in Poland, where the starchy, tuberous veggie is staple of the national diet and where the rules of the 'toilet' segregation (boys to the left, girls to the right) translates into gender roles. 'Boys' work on their own little manly projects or lay on the couch and watch TV, while 'girls' do the laundry, iron shirts, sew on buttons, sweep the floors of a playhouse, wash the windows, scrub the sinks, tubs, toilets and stoves, vacuum the rugs, do the groceries, feed their family, pay the bills, take care of their children's health, their clothes, education, nutrition, behavior, discipline, morale and finally - they peel potatoes.
This image is not only a major component of the national culture, but also a tangible memories, remembered from childhood, where a mother would always bustle around between the kitchen and her favorite TV show. In Poland, where after the war the role of the so-called fairer sex was never limited just to a typical 'Hausfrau', women had two jobs - at work and at home.
"Despite the poor situation on the labor market, Polish women have had a historical experience of activity. In Poland, where a middle class never came about, there was a obvious division on a economic-gender basis; women never felt trapped in the sphere of their home as they did in the West or in USA" - wrote Magdalena Środa.
Yet they also never actually disengaged from this domestic sphere. And since all traditional polish meals, like pork chops (schabowy), ground pork (mielony), eggs, meat stew (bigos), ribs and cutlets (bitki) must be served with a side of potatoes, the veggies and the peeling process became permanently rooted in the image of the Polish home. Not to mention the potato pancakes, potato loaf or potato sausage.
In her art, Julita Wójcik often frolics with so-called women's work stereotypes by: tending the garden, crocheting (including a model of the longest apartment building in Poland - Gdańsk's "Waver"), knitting (an irreverent sweater with geometric patterns, taken from the Neoplastic Room designed by Władysław Strzemiński in the Museum of Art in Łódź) or 'painting watercolors'. While in her other works or performances the artist would replicate, sustain or use these 'feminine' activities to create not so feminine objects (architecture, abstract art), one time (and just this one time) she brought her art to the public in a 1:1 form. She brought the act of peeling potatoes from the kitchen to the gallery - not just any random gallery, but Warsaw's prestigious Zachęta National Gallery.
At the beginning of year 2001, Wójcik organised a simple action - performance to accompany the exhibition. She herself called it an "happening". She sat on a stool, dressed in apron and peeled a pile of potatoes. Precisely 50 kilograms. There was the audience, and also journalists and a television crew. And that was it - it was as if the media suddenly became interested in a typical Polish woman and her daily duties. However they would not come in to just any kitchen, the gallery provided the setting that would spur their interest. The setting of the "happening" took place in Zachęta's Small Salon with its somewhat boudoir-palace aesthetics.
"I bring awareness to the fact that today's art is not a sphere separated from reality within museum walls."
The audience would spontaneously help the artist cope with the huge pile of potatoes. Even Zachęta's director Anda Rottenberg joined in, as if emphasising a certain common feature of women's fate, regardless of their status. At the time, Rottenberg was under a constant attack of the media and right wing politicians. It was a time of renowned scandals associated with ruining the works of Piotr Uklański ("Nazis") and Maurizio Cattellan ("La Nona Ora"). Anda Rottenberg experienced an anti-Semitic bashing. At this point, even Julita Wójcik's innocent potato peeling was perceived as controversial; the prevailing argument was that it's a waste of the taxpayers' money. Even though that was the ambience of the time, Wójcik's performance became famous and brought attention to a sensitive issue.
"Such everyday activities as cooking, housekeeping, childcare are traditional elements of female identity, and yet in a capitalist-driven society, they are overlooked, marginalised, even ridiculed. Wójcik calls attention back to these seemingly insignificant acts, celebrating the ordinary. She does this in a sensitive, subtle way, never allowing form to overtake the message. Rather than declare war on modern-day injustices, she plays upon innate human emotions, tugging on nostalgic associations of childhood, holidays and the unspoiled countryside - relics in a world of virtual living. She makes use of the symbolism of objects - dolls, stuffed toys, potatoes to make a statement on assigned gender roles and experiences - dress codes, management, computation, analysis vs. cooking, cleaning, knitting, creating.
In the process she uncovers a new, yet altogether familiar, aesthetic and the significance these symbols hold. By marrying stereotypes to real-life issues, she provides an opportunity for society to recognise that there are many modes and alternatives for personal and collective identity."
Despite appearances, the problem did not concern the issue of what is and what is not art worthy of exhibiting at a national gallery and whether peeling potatoes can hold its own. Defenders of the 'status quo' protested that potatoes belong at home, in the kitchen, by the sink, over a bucket of parings. When brought to the gallery, which is regarded to as a temple, a place endowed with a unique power of sanctifying, it endows the objects the rank of a 'piece of art' rank (relics), the activity became taboo. Potatoes and art (sacred, national) do not go hand in hand. Children in kindergarten can at most make stamps out of a potato.
Feminist art historian Izabela Kowalczyk, ironically wrote: "can peeling potatoes be included in the category of national heritage?". In Wójcik’s work she found a feminist gesture,
"indeed it can be linked with the issue of the female-artist’s transgression, which for a woman to become an artist in the nineteenth century, she had to contradict the definition of 'femininity', as creating belonged to men, they were the creators of great art. Women primarily focused on taking care of the house, food and embellishing reality."
Furthermore, "Peeling Potatoes" became Wójcik's only work in which - perhaps not entirely intended - she created an atmosphere of a certain pathos. While knitting or cooking she proved that art can be fun, however when taking reality of the so-called women's bustle
to the gallery, she showed that this reality does not become any more bearable in this sphere. Peeling a potato is just that. As if the artists accepted the role of a victim, Cinderella for the last time. But whose victim was she - of the system, patriarchy or the stereotype?
Artur Żmijewski took up a similar subject in one of his recent projects. In each cycle of his short videos "Selected Works" (2007), he created portraits of people performing simple, often unappreciated jobs, among which is a factory worker, a supermarket cashier, a cleaner and a hot-dog seller. They come from Germany, Poland, Mexico and Italy. The films were accused of being boring, showing a normal day of these ordinary characters. Nothing more.
"What they do at home is uninteresting, what they do at work is uninteresting, what they do in their whole life is uninteresting. (...) In this sense, there is absolutely no reason to be interested in them, and certainly there is no reason to make a film about them." - Żmijewski was saying.
But the artist has his reason - he seeks for the "real" life, or rather defuses its myth.
"Peeling Potatoes" was no different. As Anda Rottenberg wrote:
"For a long time Julita Wójcik's activity was not perceived as art - for does it behoove to raise ordinary, everyday tasks performed by millions of women around the world, to the rank of art?"
Author: Karol Sienkiewicz, March 2011. Edited and translated by Sylwia Wojda, July 2011
performance at the Zachęta National Galery of Art