Conceptual art, which evolved from the beginning of 1960s, was by virtue a heterogenous phenomenon better described as a platform of polemics rather than defined as a style or artistic tendency.
Conceptual art, which evolved from the beginning of 1960s in America, Eastern and Western Europe, was by virtue a heterogenous phenomenon better described as a platform of polemics rather than defined as a style or artistic tendency. The notion of conceptualism encompasses both writings, actions using film, photography, the body and hybrid forms we would describe today as performance, happening or environment.
Conceptual artists perceived art as a space for human communication and as a field of acting forces, a space of tradition and hierarchy affecting everybody who enters. The artwork was seen as cultural product, an object entangled in the artistic system, the institutions and eventually also into the discourse of power. The artwork as a means of pressure, propaganda or simply as commodity was severely criticised.
The conceptual polemics concentrated around the issue of the relation between the world and representation, engaging the problem of illusion, language and visuality. The logic and mechanisms governing the artistic system were criticised, the homology between the field of art and power was revealed, questions were posed on the political dimension of the process of production of meaning and on the excluded from the area of culture and from institutions. Conceptual practices pulled together procedures and strategies showing contingency and the historicist vocabulary of modernist art.
A common denominator for artistic facts described as conceptual can be the assumption of their self-reflexivity, the belief of superiority of concept over its material expression and also a transformation of received notions of art, artist, artwork, institution or culture into a motif of constant asking. In this way, conceptualism reached not so much for the limits of art as to the stage preceding art, what hitherto was never a cause for uneasiness.
As Andrzej Turowski claims, art in Poland after 1945 was subject to the pressure of ideosis: an ideologically filled
space of ideas and systems [...] where individual choices appear against the context of dominating political strategies.1
Defined from the point of political power, ideosis restricted the free manifestation of ideas and appropriated individual decisions. The crucial questions are, as Turowski writes, to what extent power wants to subordinate culture, and we should also add, questions about strategies taken for escaping the ideologised space of thought. From the second half of the 1950's, writes Turowski, the state's cultural policy was all about stimulating or capturing the means of representation into the orbit of the current ideology. In the 1960s and 1970s, the establishment declared its openness to the develompents of contemporary art. In practice it tried to control the artistic practice by administrative means.
Avant garde or neo-avant garde art2, for which conceptualism was a core, was useful for power when it lost its sharpness of utterance and resorted to domesticated forms of expression. Among the conceptual art practices evolving in Poland from the mid-60s, various actions emerged that were questioning the received reality on the level of the creation of meanings and deconstruction of notions. Other artistic facts are found that seem to submit to conformitisation: taking the rhetoric of propaganda in a consumer type of society, and truly believing the illusion of 'accelerated development' and 'openness to the West'.
This draft will concentrate on the first of these two groups emerging from the traditions of happening and environments: the subjectification of image and the decease of the object. This text has no claim to writing a history of conceptualism, it is merely an attempt to draw a map of conceptual discourse articulated by the problems of the illusion of language, object, space, institution and archive.
Critique of Visuality
One possible way of seeing conceptual art is a process of taking away the significance of painting as the dominant tradition of Polish art. Attitudes opposed to traditional painting and those trying to demythologise the role of the object in the artistic process can also be viewed as pointing to the problem of the relation between illusion and reality, and also as the critique of visuality as the priviledged sphere in experiencing art.The problem of illusion as an immanent falseness of painterly display found a radical expression in Włodzimierz Borowski's Second Mirror Manifesto (1966):
The image makes the object unreal and the illusion - real
It replaces the object of art as a subject of sensation.
It eliminates 'noise' usually associated with image information. A traditional image contains only the 'noise' aspiring to the role of information.
The random selection of props is a reminder that it does not claim to be a so-called 'work of art' to which it remains in opposition.
An ideal 'reflection' would provide maximum information and require neither an image nor even an awareness-tuning instrument.
The text of the manifesto was an extension of the 'manilus' - rectangular stripes of mirror, building up in the artist's studio from 1966. Existing independently as assamblages or used by the artist in various environments (First Syncretic Show, 1966, BWA Lublin) the manilus contained the gesture of the discontinued production of objects at the same time reaching beyond the sheer problem of object. In its literal use (mirror reflection) illusion was perfectly revealed and representattion was ultimately criticised.
In the case of the manilus mirror space opened the space of utopia, a space without space, it brought to light the absence contained in the notion of representation. The visitors seeking for their reflection in the mirror stripes found him/herself where he/she was absent - in the mirror, and further, seeing his/her scattered reflection discovered the absence at the point of standing. Through the look from behind/the depth of the mirror, returned to his/herself as a broken reflection, constituting him/herself anew.
In his critique of representation, Borowski points that it is not determined by presence but the illusion of presence, that the image and even more a work of art is founded. The manilus - mirrors reflecting absence trapped the illusion understood as falseness. As far as Borowski's artistic procedures can be described as a process of freeing from the power of illusion, Krzysztof Wodiczko's interpretation treats illusion as an element structuring reality.
A meticulous artistic study of the problem of illusion is found in his Chair Drawings / Rysunki taboretu (1974, 75), where Wodiczko not so much represents but rather creates the representation of the object using an analytical drawing. His drawings do not attempt to faithfully represent the actual object, but as the author himself remarks, they are rather drawings of 'an illusion of a drawing' (Chair drawing, 1974) or drawings of 'an illusion of a drawing of an object's illusion' (Chair drawing, 1975).
By this manner the problem of illusion is abstracted and undergoes a critique treated as one of the fundamental laws of 'eye physiology', as described by Władysław Strzemiński in his treatise on vision. Strzemiński distinguished between two evolutions of vision: the development of the eye and the skill of using visual experiences. Thought and vision ought to develop in mutual relation, also being shaped 'on social ground, depending on the demands of the working process'. Visual conscience is formed between sight and thought reflecting the changes of the socio-historical context. A certain type of 'visual conscience' was supposed to affect the type of representation.
In Chair drawings from 1974, 1975 Wodiczko follows the paths of Strzemiński's deliberations. In the 1975 drawing (Foksal Gallery) the depiction of a chair in perspective foreshortening is confronted with the flatness of a wall but primarily with the eye of the lens, with the ability to see through the camera. The catalogue contains six different photo shots of the same drawing (representation of a chair standing in the corner of an exhibition space) that show the chair in various transformations, but what is most interesting is the drawing taken at different angles seems to depict diferent chairs.
The corner chair drawings (1974) deny the gallery space and their photographic representations are not projections but variations on the theme of the same subject. With the catalogue in hand the reader finds no clue which of the drawings is the one referring directly to the real object. Is there then only one specific angle of viewing objects? Doesn't seeing form a memory of objects already seen? Further, doesn't seeing accommodate itself to the laws established by representation?
This problem is further examined in the Chair drawing from 1975 (Galeria Akumulatory 2) where the artist reveals the perspective foreshortening primarily as an illusion, and Strzeminski's 'laws of the eye' appear as laws stimulating the development of illusion. Wodiczko rejects Strzemiński's construct of physiological vision, the moving eye, a concept establishing the the laws of representation on the consensus between history and the mind. He uncovers the ideological dimension and absence that always accompanies both illusion and any kind of representation.
Realism is based on the rule of using illusion to suggest presence in its faithful representation. The concept of representation (repraesentatio) integral to the problem of illusion is built on the verb 'to be' (praesens), or even 'to precede' (praesse) both in its spatial sense as that recalling power and control. Wodiczko's critique of representation points to the illusion of presence and not presence itself to be the prime condition of any representation, a rule always stimulated and governed by current historical ideologies. Representation then deals not with objects, but with the relations between individual elements of representation, and realism representing objects by faithful imitation always turns to be a deforming illusion.
The idea of viewing reality as representation is also present in Jerzy Rosołowicz's neutronicons created from 1965. Neutronicons usually taking a rectangular form built from a lens fixed on a glass base were a kind of 'handy tools' for the eye. Negating the aesthetic object itself, the neutronicons engaged vision concentrated not on the object but on the image of the object mediated by the work. Easily suspended and ready to produce 'images' in any space by whoever, the neutronicons limited reality being the frame of the act of seeing. An image seen through the neutronicon had no author, or had rather a multiple author, the artist himself only setting the frame of sight. Artistic creation was in this case understood as an ephemeral recording of reality than producing any.
The unistic paintings of Strzemiński all form along an inscribed and invisible vertical axis of a gaze towards the sun; they were visions created in the eye of a blind person looking straight into the sun. Rosołowicz's delusive optical instruments are horizontally situated; the eye sees the seeing and the horizontal image plane that reality becomes. Reality is created in the act of seeing, when it becomes an image, copy, representation. Revealing reality as a found image, the neutronicons cancel the distinction between the object and its representation, because the notion of representation is based on presence. Whereas for Rosołowicz the real takes the value of imitation. The effect of neutronicons is a gradual feeling of distancing from the world, strangeness and falling into a precipice. Neutronicons are related en abyme3 to the world - they are not its image but a rupture, 'visual onomatopoeia', analogon4.
Question on language
Language perceived as grounds for a radical critique of visuality became a paradigm for conceptual artists. This is not to limit the path to realisations in the form of written statements or definitions, viewing the word as a denial of the artistic object, a sign marking the limit of visuality; the whole reality, structured by language: culture and ideology, theory and practice, art and history, memory and tradition was at work. The problems of language did not find any decisive interpretations and formulas in the case of conceptual artists. Language was treated as a reality on the ground of which one can look for truth, or opposedly as a system of self-referential signifiers, voice of the unconscious, a move of the will, or the presentation of an idea itself being a presentation of object. The question on language can be treated as equal to the question of presence and absence, the place of the subject within the discourse and a fundamental negation of a single valid sense.
Zdzisław Jurkiewicz refers in his realisations to the issue of the reduction of the artwork to a lingual statement but primarily to the issue of the nontransparency of language. In his quasi-tautological realisation Białe, czyste, cienkie płótno / White, clean, thin linen (1970, 8th Artists and Art Theorists Meeting, Osieki) the words describing the material were printed on an expressively crumpled canvas. The work was accompanied by photographs documenting a model wrapped in the linen. Both the crumpled linen as the the body found in the documenting photos can be referred to as gesture painting that Jurkiewicz long identified himself with. Jurkiewicz's realisation can then be interpreted as a self distancing itself from both his former creations as from the poetics of informal projecting through the gesture, the body in this case, onto the rectangular canvas of the artist's 'inner experience'. On the other hand, Jurkiewicz takes into question the transparency of language, the value of description and the transmission of ideas via the language medium. The idea and its immediate material representation (a crumpled linen with the words printed) stressing the vehicle of transmission, diverge. The crumpled linen indicates not just the objectiveness of the statement's base but above all the visual material qualities of language.
In this sense Jurkiewicz's work, although it may visually and formally resemble the early realisations of Joseph Kossuth, would rather lean towards Mel Bochner's reflection contained in his famous realisation (surely not known by Jurkiewicz) Language is not transparent from 1970, where the artist wrote on an expressively dripping black background wrote with white chalk the title words of which the handwriting style all too reminiscent of the wall inscriptions of Paris 1968.
Both Jurkiewicz's work and Bochner's realisation critically referred to the postulate of dematerialisation understood as the elimination of the object from artistic procedures, treating the opposition between the object, idea and its lingual representation as ostensible. Both Bochner and Jurkiewicz point to the meaning as it is constituted by the visual, tactile and perceptive qualities of the language medium. They claim that there is no statement without the material medium of its transmission, the visual means are intergrated with the text. Jurkiewicz clearly distancing himself from the myth of dematerialisation performs a collision of discourse and visuality and places language in the context of its material conditions and references.
Language in the form of script is confronted with sexuality and desire in 'poem by ewa', created from 1971 works of female artist Ewa Partum. Concise works marked with a lipstick sign formed as if speaking letters are the bridge between lingual representation non-transparency and the problems of body and identity. The imprint of Partum's lips on her works, the lips becoming a visual metonymy of artistic experience, contemplation, exaltation and exultation, seems like an ironic appropriation of the cultural cliché of not just a female artist but also a way of experiencing reality from a woman's point of view. The lips are a fragment serving in this instance as the whole, synecdoche of feminity.
Gislind Nabakowski justly points to the meaning of words spoken by the woman and represented in space: art, peace, love, which he describes as transitive ideas of particular cultural importance with which the artist recalls the then ruling opposition movements utopias of the late 1960s and 70s. These ideas are spoken, Nabakowski emphasises, enigmatically and with hesitation, with air between which has a relation to the romantic myth about 'femine compliance'5. This 'compliance' in Partum's poems comes through most clearly in their visuality and their silence. The imprint of lips pronouncing subsequent letters points to speech, but the written word although spoken, remains silent itself . If objectivity is constituted by entering the symbolic order, i.e. language, the femine identity, in this case, is shown as being constituted in speech which means being silent in the public space.
A search for the place of a feminine subject in the space of a masculine language is the subject of the works of Natalia LL. In her installation TAK / YES (Zielona Góra, 1971) the artist displayed a multiplication of photographic sequence of lips pronouncing the sounds of the word TAK against a visual representation of the word on the walls of a gallery space . Agata Jakubowska underlines in her book 'Na Marginesach Lustra' ('On the margins of a mirror'), the meaning of the lips speaking the word 'tak' do not belong to the speaking body, but comes from the arbitrary order of the alphabet. The woman's lips, although we can read the word being pronounced, as in Partum's case remains silent. With the action of multiplication, Jakubowska remarks, the artist enters the order of discourse seeking for a place for the speaking subject. The ubiquitous, multiplied Tak filling the gallery space totally, as Jakubowska writes, bursts the logic of language setting against the 'phallic economy of singularity'.
The deconstruction of the metaphysical notion of presence and the revealing of presuppositions implicit in the very structure of any representation is performed in one of the artistic books of Jarosław Kozłowski created from the beginning of the 1970s. In his book Propositions (Edited by International Artist's Co-operation, Central Office, Klaus Groh, Roter Steinweg 2a, 2901 Friedrichsfehn, 1973) whose parameters are determined by deceitful and mirror symmetry, Kozlowski focuses on the issue of metalinguistic statements and the reality referred to as the process of increasing and decreasing these statements. The point of departure is a black quadrangle, an equilateral figure named 'square': /This is a square/ As the form of writing seems to imply, it is not a set linguistic utterance, but instead, an idea, assumption, or even presumption. The next sentence is formulated in first degree language: The square is black, followed by an example of metalanguage: The proposition 'The square is black' is true.
Subsequent pages develop the number of meta levels up to a fourfold-metalinguistic option: 'The proposition //I ascertain: 'It is true that the proposition 'The square is black' is true'// is true'. In the case of metalinguistic utterances, especially in those of spectacular multiplication, language ceases to refer to an external reality, becoming a reality of its own, in which the categories of true and false have no references. At this point, it almost goes unnoticed just one page later that instead of further multiplying the alterations, Kozlowski introduces a slight correction: true is replaced by false: The proposition // I ascertain: 'It is true that the proposition 'The square is black' is true'// is false. The metalinguistic statement remains true because this 'slight' change of meaning, at that level, does not affect the rules of language.
A gradual process of reduction is then applied, with the word true being replaced by false in the following meta-statements, in accordance with the meaning of the sentence as stated previously. The last two sentences read: The proposition 'The square is black' is false (meta-language) and The square is not black (language) as the final statement. The paradox is revealed only in the last statement, which, as mentioned above, is not purely linguistic, but instead, a sphere of a priori presumptions; when /This is not a square/ is placed under the black rectangular figure it clearly defies basic language conventions and common sense. Significantly, the black square appears only with the extreme statements and is omitted when a sentence is marked as language or metalanguage.
If we presume that the black square represents reality, we could also say Kozłowski ascertains – as did Wittgenstein in his 'Philosophical Investigations, and Rorty', inspired by Wittgenstein's thought, in constructing his 'liberal utopia' – that truth, which is formulated in language, does not exist in an external reality. In other words, where the sentences do not exist, there is no truth, sentences are elements of human languages, and human languages are human creations. Truth, which like sentences, cannot function outside of the human mind, is thereby something that is not found, but constructed. Kozłowski seems to present a stance similar to Rorty: an external world exists, but it does not speak – even so abstract an entity as a geometrical figure is a construct of the human mind.
In keeping with Rorty, language is not 'a third thing intervening between self and reality'. We may then suppose that Kozłowski, like Austin, claims that true and false are not relations but estimations relating to the critique of an utterance. Mounting meta-statements refer to the black square, which is, however, not only an abstract geometrical figure but also a specific figure from art history – a symbol of suprematist utopia: the black square on white canvas by Malevich. Kozłowski does not strive to reach the truth or dissolve in the absolute. He is not interested in the doxa, but rather, in tracing paradoxes, antinomies, and ambivalences.
Demystification of the Object
The conceptualists' concept of subjectivity is far from cartesian transparency. Neither is the mind behind the conceptual texts an Enlightment type of Mind, but more an allegoric mind after Benjamin. The issue of allegoric rationality described in detail in Benjamin Buchloh's 'Allegorical procedures: Appropriation and montage in contemporary art' becomes especially meaningful in the context of the renowned phrase of dematerialisation. As Buchloh writes, the reified language and image were subject to allegorisation by the editing techniques of combination and fragmentation that hollowed out the signficant. The allegoric mind takes the side of the object protesting against not so much its objectivity as rather the devaluation of its meaning in a second draining out of meaning. Tearing apart the signifier and signified the allegorical subject places the sign in sequence of events/operations in a situation identical to that of the object on its reification path. It is precisely this repetition of the original act of draining out and attributing meaning anew that causes the object to be regained not lost in conceptual art.
Tadeusz Kantor's project Usytuowanie krzesła / Location of a chair from the Art Symposium Wroclaw '70 calls for building a giant concrete chair. The construction was supposed to stand in the busy city center of Wroclaw. Both the material and the size were purely absurd applied to a chair positioning it permanently in an urban context and ripping of its utilizable function:
[the chair] cannot be isolated, it must stand in the middle of life, motion, equal with the houses and kiosks, poles, cars, pavements, shops, people, with equal rights, only then it will find itself in a real live situation and will function properly.6
The gigantic chair invading the public space was meant to knock the receiver out of his perception habits but above all put him in a situation of uncertainty and surprise. It was supposed to put the everyday situation into the sphere of the 'impossible.' As Joanna Mytkowska observes
the impossible of the project wasn't in itself, in the material provocation, but what was happening around it, what its material presence would do to the irrefutable existence of the city square, road traffic, freeway.7
Kantor's project interestingly corresponds with Włodzimierz Borowski's concept Dialog / Dialogue presented at the same symposium. A comparison of the two concepts reveals the diversely approached problem of object in relation to the dematerialisation call, where the object is rather demystified and freed from the burden of tradition willing to see it as an object of art and then eliminated.
Before the concept of Dialog Borowski presented a project of a gigantic chair at the 3rd Biennial of Spatial Forms in Elblag already in 1969. It was assumed that the construction of a regular metal chair of the type found in every self-service restaurant augmented to the greatest and technically viable dimensions. Although it was rather the question of inertia of infrastructure than the artist's conscious decision to freeze the project at the design stage, it stressed the conceptual layer the artist referred to a year later.
Borowski's project went on to erect another corresponding giant chair thus creating a situation of conceptual dialogue between the two objects. If both the chairs would have been built, the distance between them would disable a visual perception of the situation. In both cases of actual realisation and pure concept a situation of dialogue would only be possible in the mental sphere.
Borowski's project8 presented in Wrocław was comprised of a technical drawing with a description and a model: two chairs facing each other at a distance of three meters standing on a platform with the words 'Elbląg', 'Wrocław' and 'Dialog'. The project's visual indifference and the compact style of the situation's description underlined the importance of documentation in the whole concept. The aesthetically reduced presentation of Borowski's project opposed to Kantor's deriving from the avantgarde technique of photomontage on the visual side and a chracteristic expressive style of Kantor's writing, draw attention to the fundamental difference between the two concepts: the status of the object in in Dialog and Krzesło.
The object in Dialog although immense in size is annuled, absent, an ex-object whose idea is only reachable. Kantor's Krzesło plays and reacts with its history as object – the project was supplemented with a special 'documentation': a photograph of Wariat i zakonnica / The Madman and the Nun with the renowned aneanthesising machine (1963) built of chairs and a photograph of an amballeged chair from Vela Luca in Yugoslavia (1967).
Both artists disposessed the object of its utilizable function and let it levitate in a significative void. Borowski's object became a model, requisite, instrument. Kantor's object, on the other hand, 'has been retrieved' – as minor, inadequate and discredited. Neither of the projects found their realisation in Wroclaw. Before the chair found actual realisation, in an altered version, and in a different context near Oslo, Norway (1971) it was striking in Kantor's creative actions to see a deep need for any realisation of the project, be it in the form of a manifesto (Manifest '70). If Kantor's chair would ever be erected it would have been a conceptual realisation critically addressing the official ideology's concept of public space and an intervention trying to cancel the strict division between idea and object. Borowski's chair if ever realised would remain only a model of an object returning as its own remains, a trace.
City Space: Between Intervention and Appropriation
Art Symposium Wroclaw '70, where both Borowski's and Kantor's projects were presented, was not as commonly said, the 'last avant garde meeting' nor was it a paradigmatic manifestation of conceptual art. But it was precisely the conceptual projects of artists as Wanda Gołkowska, Jan Chwalczyk, Zbigniew Makarewicz, Jarosław Kozłowski, Jerzy Rosołowicz, and the motif of the evolving impossible art discussed at the symposium, which determined the direction and influenced the critical outcome of the symposium. Disbelief in a linear model of evolution, stressing the role of process in artistic creation present in conceptual projects reflected an artistic disposition basically different from that manifested at the artistic meetings of the 1960s. This attitude critical of the official, ideological assumptions of the symposium operating with figures of threat, seizure and impossibility in regard to the urban structure, embodied the situation of re-evaluation of categories and notions, a shift from an avant garde to a neo-avant garde position.
One among such propositions was that of Zbigniew Gostomski, Zaczyna sie we Wrocławiu / It begins in Wroclaw:
it begins in Wroclaw,
it could begin anywhere,
it begins at a given area,
it does not need to end there.
It is potentially infinite.
It remains unchanged in form
In the real situation it is ever changing.9
Gostomski's project presumed to dispose in the city space an expanding system of elements ●, produced 'by industrial means, always using the same material, of constant size'10. Any of the elements marked ●, /, ø on the map or city plan could serve as a starting point.
The map with the system of points and the description representing the artistic idea were used because of their visual indifference. The rules of painterly representation and the problem of composition were eliminated in favour of the system: a repetition of symbols of infinite range. Seriality and processuality (constent expansion) present in the project's visual layer and the imaginative alike, reveal the irony of Gostomski's proposition: as Peter Osborne observes, the most simple serial sequence become totally incomprehensible and meaningless when one tries to realise it in a three-dimensional space. In the system and seriality lay a kind of absurd adding of the taste of Samuel Beckett's sense of humour to these kind of concepts.11
This 'absolute environment' as Andrzej Turowski called Gostomski's realisation in the 1970s, was before anything else an ironic reply to the Symposium's official principles. The postulated realisation of elements that do not symbolise nor convey anything was a mocking of the official requirement of the works to be 'realised with the use of durable techniques'.12 The idea ●, / presupposing the interaction of elements not as separate self-contained units but an ever-expanding system superimposed on the map of Wroclaw, rejected any kind of expression, discrediting both the concept of sculpture – monument, as any spatial construction shaping the city area. Marked over the city plan the system of elements ●, / described Wroclaw as a space of Gostomski's intervention – the concept of uncontrollable, systematic multiplication of identical forms. It begins in Wroclaw... refers to the process of annexation, the appropriation of space, which may just as well or before any other be directed in the mental sphere. This process could be applied both to the ●, / forms as to the intelectual atmosphere of the Symposium – a process of negation of the realm of artistic intervention into public space.
The exploration, annexation and a parallel disclosure of space became a leading motif of the realisations of Edward Krasiński enduringly using the blue scotch tape from 1969 onwards. As the artist himself claimed, the tape so long it only made any sense as long it existed unexposed, almost imperceptible. As Paweł Polit writes, the blue tape gained in Krasiński's works the quality of an index mark, imitating the nature of the space it measured. Creeping over gallery walls it intensified its sensual qualities, underlining the diversity of surrounding spaces.13
The line annexed both the real spaces, Polit writes, as the illusionary: from 1974 the so-called aksonometric images appear in Krasiński's installations – geometric representations of spatial forms creating the effect of protruding elements into the real surrounding space. Positioned at the height of the human heart, the blue tape traverses the spaces of the acsonometric structures, taking their logic of their bends, disappearances and subsequent emergences, establishing the relation between the real and ideal space, the timeless geometrical dimensions. Between 1974 and 1994 the acsonometric representations and the traversing blue line were exhibited by the artist both in public and private, marginal spaces, Polit goes on to point out: in the artist's apartment toilet, the hospital, the pigsty, butcher shop. The blue tape abolished divisions between high and low values, artistic and non-artistic, becoming a hollow space or a gap, a fracture binding objects, people and spaces.
Critique of the Museum-Gallery System: Place, Net, Page
The above described collection of conceptual actions was strongly defined by a critique of the museum-gallery system. This critique revealed the institutional context of the working artist, undermined the functions of art exhibiting and sought for alternative ways of circulation and the distribution of artistic facts.
Critics associated with the Foksal Gallery, Anka Ptaszkowska, Mariusz Tchorek, and Wiesław Borowski from the onset presented a weighty discussion on the issues of space, exposition and generally the gallery as an institution. 'Wprowadzenie do ogolnej Teorii Miejsca (Introduction to the General Theory of Place)' (1966) describes the gallery as a 'place, a sudden gap in the utilitarian way of world comprehension'. The gallery as an isolated Place contrasted the transparency and secondariness of an exhibition, phenomenologically understood space as being the subject of artistic actions.
A Place appointed on the basis of independent decision, an area exempt from the laws of the outside world, 'where everybody creates art', had to be protected from the universal appropriation drive of history and political context. In the text 'Co nam sie nie podoba w Galerii Foksal? (What do we dislike about Foksal Gallery?)' (1967) Ptaszkowska, Tchorek and Borowski open up the Place, heavily criticising the institutional rituals and conventions taken over by or developed by the Gallery, to reality. The Gallery imposing the limits of space and time of exhibitions and their reception, publicity, critical evaluations and individual choices, is put into question. It opens for 'artistic facts' created outside a specific place, immersed in a certain context,that eventually burst its structure.
One of the consequences of the text 'What do we dislike about Foksal Gallery?' was perhaps actions conducted by critic, 'Druga Grupa' ('Second Group') artists (Jacek M. Stokłosa, Lesław and Wacław Janicki) and Tadeusz Kantor's students (Mieczysław Dymny, Tomasz Wawak, Stanisław Szczepański) at the Golden Grape Symposium in Zielona Góra (1969).
A three day non-sleeping session exercised by Kantor's students in an exhibition space, copying works presented at the symposium on commission ('Druga Grupa'), a permanent jury (Anka Ptaszkowska, Wieslaw Borowski, Krzysztof Niemczyk) supervising the sleepless artists were all a front attack aimed at both the artistic establishment, jurors and exhibition organisers and avant garde artists alike that not merely accepted, but also partly created, the selection mechanisms and the hierarchies of the Polish art system. Anka Ptaszkowska's next project, 'Nowy Regulamin Galerii Foksal (New Regulations of Foksal Gallery)' (1969) was an attempt to transform the gallery into an information office, a total opening to artistic actions happening outside its own space:
We declare a break in the activity of Foksal Gallery PSP as an exhibition space and artistic manifestation of any type. The Gallery assumed it is a place where everything is possible. Everything is possible and allowed. We encourage every artist to act elsewhere as you would be acting here. [...] The gallery takes on the duty of documenting and informing everybody about your actions. The gallery space will be an open, accessible by the public permanent information show. [...].14
'New Rules' was rejected by Tadeusz Kantor who saw it as too radical and caused Anka Ptaszkowska along with Henryk Stażewski and Edward Krasiński to leave the Gallery. The influence of the idea of a gallery abandoning the authoritarian rule of an institution in favour of a space of permanent information will come to speak in the Gallery's most radical texts and projects of the 1970s.
At the Pod Moną Lisą (Mona Lisa) gallery run by Jerzy Ludwiński between 1967 and 1971 exhibitions were conceived not as a display of objects but served to reveal the process the works are immersed in. The purpose was achieved by artistic actions and a dialogue of corresponding texts by the artist and the critic published in 'Odra' monthly. Published before the actual exhibition, the comments were not simple descriptions, critiques or self-commentaries, the texts themselves became a space for actions, the exhibitions being only an extension. In 1970, the catalogue 'Sztuka pojęciowa' ('Concept art') was the primary place for artistic facts, the exhibition itself being only secondary. The catalogue contained texts and project descriptions annexing the publication space.
The exhibition of artistic projects in a manner aesthetically indifferent only underlined their working character, and referred to the outlined project description. The catalogue itself – without introduction, explanations and descriptions, containing only 'raw artistic material' – was an attempt at presenting artistic ideas in the most direct way. Both the publication and the exposition serving documentation purposes embodied the idea of a concept gallery unrestricted by any specific space and happening in the circulating catalogue.
The creation of an unrestricted dialogue space, uncontrolled, anarchic growth, risk-taking and confidence in place of institutional rituals were the principles of Andrzej Kostołowski and Jarosław Kozłowski's project Sieć / Net. In 1972, over three hundred artists, art critics in Poland, Eastern and Western Europe received a letter with the Net manifesto encouraging cooperation and the unrestricted exchange of artistic facts. Expanding with the use of mail, anti-institutional, or maybe rather anti-institutional, Net could be formed and developed in a uncontrolled manner – grow like a plant, unpredictable and random, eluding any outside control.
The text of the manifesto, like an office document, was not signed but rather undersigned by its authors, who sending it worldwide relinquished any copyright as to their project. The negation of authorship came along with the rejection of any center: Net was to function as a perfectly homogenic system, where every element is equally important, autonomous, bearing the same potential. Everybody joining the project could become a co-creator, and the artistic propositions existing within the Net could be presented anywhere in the world. The Net in its total rejection of any hierarchy enabled a direct and disintrested artistic contact, a dialogue, a confrontation of attitudes, the free flow of ideas.
The Net, as Piotr Piotrowski observes, became ground for opening the ainstitutional Akumulatory 2 gallery in 197315. Akumulatory 2 gallery, a platform of polemics between artists associated with conceptualism, confronted the works of Central and Western European artists functioning against the Iron Curtain, 'in defiance of the artistic institution and market system, almost on the exclusive basis of private contacts.'16
Memory and Archive
Aimed at the 'impossible', conceptual 'facts' often took the form of the photographic indexing of reality or a critical reflexion on the status of the document and the activity of archiving. The Foksal Gallery critics Andrzej Turowski and Wieslaw Borowski produced the texts 'Dokumentacja' ('Documentation') and 'Zywe archiwum' ('The living archive') (1971) which radically opposed the idea of an archive eliminating memory giving place to the objectivising voice of history.
Both texts were created in response to an uncontrolled spread of documentation both within conceptual art as in the Foksal Gallery's own history. In the first article, Borowski and Turowski stress the crack between the ephemeric experience and by nature fragmented and easily manipulated documentation. They witness the phenomena of the absorption, subjectification and commodification of artistic documentation by collections and museums, and they point to the logic of the document itself demanding for the processing into the order set by an institutionalised collection and the bureaucratic archive:
A DOCUMENTATION is much harder to destroy than to burn museums and collections. [...] it cannot be destroyed, it needs to be denied!
As Jacques Derrida claims, the force behind an archive is the death drive, which not only annihilates memory (understood as remembering, memorising and recollecting), but also leads to the blotting out of what cannot be reduced to pure memory. The idea of the living archive was a contradiction of the death archive, Derrida wrote about. Its function was not to deliver a fact but to isolate a surviving fact from the documentation:
a new works lives only as long as the process of its isolation lasts. Its proper existence is the hook up between sending and receiving
The living archive was supposed to protect the artistic facts from appropriation and manipulation. It was a sort of mailbox protecting the letter (work) both from the sender (the pressure of artist's intents), and the addressee (violence of interpretation). The living archive was not busy collecting and systematising materials but provided a 'frame for creative activity'. Turowski and Borowski viewed the archive in a similar manner as Michel Foucault; not as a repository of facts, but as a more general system of forming and transforming utterances. The living archive was a metonym of experience, contrasting the always particular, scattered memory narration with the linear, objectifying and moralising narration of the past.
Laszlo Beke writing on East European conceptualism claims that conceptualism in this specufic context played an extremely important historic role as a strategy of escaping the sanctioned norms and values.17 Beke argues that conceptual texts, works on paper, ephemeric actions etc. caused the norms of artistic modes of distribution to change together with the type of communication between artists and their audiences that became more direct and harder to censor. For a conceptual fact to manifest often a gallery space was no longer indispensable, it was enough to use a mail envelope, announcement, book, catalogue page, board or a lecture.
Conceptual practices in Poland hardly ever made clear reference to socio-political reality. It was caused by a lack of critical processing in the artistic space of the 1960s and 1970s period; the traumatic experience of social realism, discouraging artists from involving art into political discourse. However, demystifying the object and putting the visual side of artistic actions under critique, conceptual practices did not fit into the traditional notion of art and shattered the uniform view of avant garde from within .
Irony, questioning the demand for the 'production of works' both in the context of plain air events, and the whole area of visual arts, discrediting the meaning of the author, the creation of extra-institutional forms of artistic circulation reaching for the public space or revealing its phallogocentric character, and finally finding language as a system founded on the category of absence, all realised values outside the ideologically accepted scenario. In this critical attitude towards artistic institutions and academic authorities, and the stiff rules of the game, did the resistance against the total conformisation of life, both artistic and political, find its expression.
Author: Luiza Nader, Department of Art History, Warsaw University, December 2006.
A. Turowski, 'Polska ideoza', in: 'Sztuka polska po 1945 r. Materiały sesji Stowarzyszenia Historyków Sztuki', Warszawa listopad 1984, Warszawa 1987, p. 31.
The historical avant garde is usually seen as the precursor of modernism placing the artistic practice around the issues linked with the artistic medium and aesthetic discourse. The neo-avant garde realised, in a sense, the avant garde ethos and deconstructed the avant garde myths of 'novelty', 'modernity', revolt, originality and revolutionism as well. Avant garde optimism was replaced in the neo-avant garde artists' practice be ironic, the faith in linear evolution was rejected; instead of the laboratory analysis of visual forms, a critique of the artwork as being a product of social relations appeared.
The notion of en abyme
is used in semiotics to refer to a work contained inside another work and treats the other work; ex. A novel inside a novel, picture inside a picture etc.
4. en abyme
taken after Craig Owens who used it in his masterly interpretation of works of Robert Smithson. See Craig Owens, 'Photography en abyme', in. Beyond Recognition, University of California Press, Berkley and Los Angeles - London, p. 16-30.
Gislind Nabakowski, 'Apprehension and masquerade. Ewa Partum's path to conceptual poetry and feminist gender theory', in: 'Ewa Partum 1965-2001', Badischer Kunstverein Karlsruhe, 2001, p. 18.
Tadeusz Kantor, 'Usytuowanie krzesła', in: 'Sympozjum Plastyczne Wrocław '70', ed. Z. Makarewicz, D, Dziedzic, Wroclaw 1983, p. 99.
Joanna Mytkowska, 'Przedmiot odzyskany przypadkiem', in: 'Kantor. Niemożliwe', red. J. Suchan, Kraków 2000.
Włodzimierz Borowski, 'Dialog', in: 'Sympozjum...', op.cit., p. 65-67.
Zbigniew Gostomski, 'Zaczyna się we Wrocławiu', in: 'Sympozjum Wrocław '70', op.cit., p. 85.
Ibid., p. 85.
Peter Osborne, 'Survey', in: 'Conceptual art', London 2002, p. 26.
Zbigniew Gostomski, 'Zaczyna sie we Wrocławiu', op. cit., p. 85 and 'Założenia ogólne sympozjum', op.cit., p. 176.
Paweł Polit, 'Unbearable porosity of being', in: 'Edward Krasinski. Les Mises en Scène', Generali Foundation, Vienna 2006, p. 74.
Citation after Anka Ptaszkowska, 'Wspólny czas i wspólne miejsce. My i on. My i oni. My i ja. ja i on. (próby rozwarstwienia)', in: 'Tadeusz Kantor. Z archiwum Galerii Foksal', eds. M. Jurkiewicz, J. Mytkowska, A. Przywara, Warszawa 1998, p. 451.
Piotr Piotrowski, 'Awangarda w cieniu Jałty. Sztuka Europy Środkowo-Wschodniej w latach 1945-1989', Poznan 2005, p. 324.
Ibid., p. 325.
Laszlo Beke, 'Conceptual tendencies in Eastern European Art', in: 'The global conceptualism: points of origin, 1950s - 1980s' (exhibition catalogue), ed. P. Mariani, Queens Museum of Art, New York 1999, s. 41-52.
Translated by Mikołaj Pałosz