Finders Keepers: On Appropriation Art
#photography & visual arts
default, Finders Keepers: On Appropriation Art, 'Untitled Film Stills’ series by Aneta Grzeszykowska, 2006, 20x25cm, c-print, photo: Galeria Raster, center, Grzeszykowska_nr-06_2006_c-print_20x25cm.jpg
Hollywood images of women, pop-culture versions of the Nazis, and the forgotten story of a black soldier in the Warsaw Uprising. Here’s a selection of stories told through upcycling – and why they’re far more telling than 100 new images.
It is September 1977 in New York City. At the Artistes Space gallery, Douglas Crimp, an art critic, opens Pictures, an exhibition he curated. Showcasing five artists, hitherto mostly unheard of, it is unquestionably a generational manifesto. But the artists represent very different media and styles.
What brings them together is a shared approach to the picture, as suggested in the title. This is by no means about a return to the old realistic representation. That is now replaced, Crimp writes, by ‘the representation freed from the tyranny of the represented’. It’s the 1970s, and appropriation art has been born.
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Remakes of non-existent films
Soon, the five artists will be joined by others and collectively deemed the Pictures Generation. Among them is Cindy Sherman, with her Untitled Film Stills – a series of photographs, her best-known early work.
Black-and-white stills feature the artist herself recreating scenes from classical Hollywood films from the 1950s. The one catch is that the films she ‘restages’ here were never actually made to begin with. Sherman plays with convention, making viewers swear they’ve recognised scenes from Billy Wilder or Hitchcock classics. This is exactly what freeing ‘the representation from the tyranny of the represented’ means.
Several decades later, Aneta Grzeszykowska, a Polish multimedia artist, proposes a remake of the series. Her 2006 work, of the exact same title, meticulously re-enacts Sherman’s stills. Grzeszykowska does it in colour, however, which is the most noticeable difference between the projects. This, however, doesn’t enhance the realism of it. On the contrary, artificiality is greatly emphasised.
Aneta Grzeszykowska and Jan Smaga - Private Archive
Aneta Grzeszykowska o projekcie „UNTITLED FILM STILLS”
For Artificiality is the key word for Grzeszykowska. Through repetition, she’s trying to show how copying with only minimal interference into the work completely changes it. Her photographs directly follow Sherman’s pose and outfits, except there are several differences – like the presence of Ludwik, a Polish household washing-up liquid brand.
Artificiality is felt even in the pose that Grzeszykowska makes in imitation of Sherman. One can sense that recreating it takes effort, the postures unbearably theatrical.
Grzeszykowska also points out that an image, even if recreated ‘literally’, changes in meaning with time. Sherman’s series, alongside exploring the status of the image, was also about the cultural constructs of women. Grzeszykowska’s version loses that feminist aspect: today, the representation of women as featured in the stills look rather grotesque – which, by the way, only proves the success of second-wave feminism.
Slaying the Nazis with a sword
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It is November 2000 in Warsaw. The Zachęta National Gallery showcases The Nazis, an exhibition by Piotr Uklański. It sparks much controversy, fuelled by the media, always hungry for a scandal. It reaches its apogee when Daniel Olbrychski, a famous Polish actor, enters the gallery armed with a sword and a legion of TV cameras to destroy a few of the featured photographs – including the one depicting himself.
Uklański may have little do with feminist art of the 1970s, but he did inherit one fundamental aspect of the Pictures Generation: namely, its approach to the image. The Nazis is comprised of countless film stills which feature actors cast as Nazis. Amassed, they clearly depict a visual cliché of a Nazi soldier as the ultimate villain, as if from a comic book universe – typically played by a handsome Hollywood womaniser donning a perfectly cut uniform.
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‘The Nazis’ (2000) and ‘Dance Floor’ (1996), both by Piotr Uklański, Palazzo Grassi during the 53rd Venice Biennale, photo: Alessandro Zambianchi / Zachęta National Gallery of Art
uklanski prace nazis miniatura 23_6634960.jpg
The artist deliberately avoided using any quotation marks and didn’t identify the featured soldiers as film characters. Thus, he showed how fiction and pop cultural imagery intermingle with our memory and the representation of history. Uklański was proven right in this when Olbrychski stormed the gallery – the actor did so because he identified a bit too much with Kmicic, an honorary Polish superhero he happened to portray in the 1970s.
As Karol Sienkiewicz put it:
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The actor had difficulty differentiating between reality and characters he portrayed. He experienced similar problems with contemporary art. He imputed that Uklański promoted Nazism, afraid that the viewers would take it seriously and think he was a Nazi.
Nearly 20 years later, Uklański came back with an addition to The Nazis, which showed just the opposite.
The Real Nazis (2017), as the title suggests, is a compilation of portraits of real-life Nazi soldiers. This series is published in print, alluding to the photobook of The Nazis, and accompanied by texts and one particularly telling sentence:
There is no truth in representation.
Adam Mazur comments on both works:
Fiction and truth, spectacle and reality, film roles and life choices, ‘The Nazis’ and ‘The Real Nazis’ interweave in this peculiar feature, which is based on true events after all. [...] The books by Uklański prove, of course, that fiction seduces, falsifies and clouds reality. [...] But only when put together do they reveal the true problem with the fictionalisation of the crime experience that underpinned Nazism.
A forgotten hero & Picasso
Alongside Piotr Uklański, Karol Radziewszki is one of the champions of appropriation art in Poland. In his own practice, however, he doesn’t use ready-made images, but rather exploits conventions. Radziszewski’s series Ali, showcased in 2016 at Warsaw Gallery Weekend, was inspired by Pablo Picasso’s ‘African period’, when he leaned towards surrealism, as well as the French artist’s later works.
In Ali, Radziszewski focuses on the story of August Agbol O’Brown. A Nigerian, O’Brown arrived in Warsaw in 1922 and by his 20s, had become a recognised jazz drummer, playing in Warsaw’s top-tier venues. O’Brown was in Warsaw when World War II broke out. Under the pseudonym ‘Ali’, he participated in the Warsaw Uprising as the only known black insurgent. He survived. In 1950s, he resumed his music career in Poland, but soon left for the UK.
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The series Ali is not the first work by Radziszewski connected with the Uprising and shown from a revisited perspective. A few years earlier, the artist was commissioned by the Warsaw Rising Museum to design a mural. The plans to put it on a wall were eventually abandoned, as the museum decided that the insurgents depicted by the artist were too palpable and carnal for its taste.
With Ali, Radziszewski’s playing with conventional heroism is more sophisticated. He does open with Ali proudly sporting full fighting gear, but later, in the paintings inspired by Picasso, it’s the tragedy of war that resurfaces – as in one of the works where Ali becomes surprisingly flat, neither dead nor alive. With such simple iconography, Radziszewski manages to tell the story of his character concisely, in a stunning way.
Moreover, the series also touches the topic of collective remembrance, which usually reduces such stories to a mere footprint. This is possible for Radziszewski thanks to his reappropriation of the iconic style of Picasso. Implementing particular formal conventions brings about specific associations. This makes for an independent story about a vision of modernity, woven with pacifism on the one hand and a fascination with the exotic on the other.
Originally written in Polish 25 Sep 2018, translated by MS, July 2019