Not quite like the Annihilation Machine devised by Tadeusz Kantor, a contraption involving enormous stacks of folding chairs that, every now and then, burst into life, filling the room with rhythmical tapping and thumping. Kantor’s device is intentionally underwhelming, as are many other objects that appeared in his celebrated theatrical performances. Tadeusz Kantor Machine, the exhibition at Sesc Consolação, Sao Paulo, initiated by Sebastião Milaré and put together by Jarosław Suchan and Ricardo Muniz Fernandes, is not an overview of the curious gadgets and apparatuses that abound in the artist’s practice, but rather traces this shifting practice itself through a number of chapters – revolving around’s Kantor’s manifestos – using the machine as a metaphor. Painstakingly designed, reinvented time and again, carefully modified or jerry-rigged, this machine worked incessantly for over four decades yielding one of the most vivid, kaleidoscopic and self-contradictory bodies of work in Polish post-war art. Displayed here in a space designed by Hideki Matsuka that combines elements of theatre storage, front and backstage, the exhibition marks the most comprehensive presentation of Kantor’s works outside of Poland to date.
The Levels of Reality
The audience for Balladyna, Kantor’s first full-fledged effort at theatre-making, was scarce. It could hardly have been otherwise. The year was 1943 and the performance, put together by a handful of enthusiasts, mostly art students, was a clandestine undertaking staged in a private flat in Kraków’s Szewska Street, just off the Old Town Square heavily patrolled by Nazi troopers. Kantor, then in his late twenties, chose to transform the key figure of this major Polish romantic drama into an object. This geometric metal shape (Goplana, 1943/1981), the only element on stage, was presented as the centrepiece of this exhibition, testifying to Kantor’s approach to both tradition and reality of the day.
When The Return of Odysseus premiered in another private apartment in June the following year, war had claimed yet more victims. Warsaw, reeling from the horror of the uprising in the ghetto, was poised to open another dramatic chapter, a second uprising that would leave the city in ruins. In the second play Kantor abandoned the traditional artistically-designed set altogether. The plot unfolded against the backdrop of an austere unwelcoming room, furnished with a lamp, a cart wheel, a wooden plank and a cannon barrel (a complete reconstruction was featured in the exhibition). ‘The room was destroyed.’, Kantor wrote later, ‘There was war and there were thousands of such rooms. They all looked alike. (…) The bent figure of a helmeted soldier wearing a faded overcoat stood against the wall (…) the soldier turned his head to the audience and said this one sentence: “I am Odysseus, I have returned from Troy.”1 The war would come to an end almost a year later, unleashing legions of similar combatants who roamed Europe in search of the homes they left behind.
But for Kantor – like for many others – this was also a time of hope and expectation. In March 1945 he married Ewa Jurkiewicz, an arts student, took up post at Kraków’s Stary Theatre and devoted himself increasingly to painting. Along with the critic Mieczysław Porębski, he published a text that called for a new art of ‘intensified realism’ which denounced Postimpressionism and heralded a triumph of abstraction. In January 1947 Kantor left Poland for a scholarship to stay in Paris. There, abandoning his fascination with Cubism, he found a new source of inspiration – one epitomised in the celebrated Le surréalisme en 1947 put together by Marcel Duchamp and André Breton at Gallery Maeght. His earliest unreconstructed works in the Sao Paulo exhibition date from this period: in the watercolour Figure with a Hollow (1947) a human-like shape, with an opening in its chest, is surrounded by two surfaces that resemble wings, each covered with a network of geometric divisions bringing to mind a hastily put together flying device. While fascinated with Surrealist aesthetics, notably the work of Roberto Matta, Kantor saw his own works as an exploration of human existence that could be reflected, metaphorically, in the space of the painting. This space could be inhabited by soft, seemingly organic shapes as well as by sharp geometrical figures, in Abstraction (1948) it took the form of a cluster of polyhedrons that merged the foreground and background into one, whereas Metaphorical Painting II (1950) resembles an austere landscape littered with three-dimensional solids that look like humans turned to stone. By the time Kantor had painted the latter work he had already been dismissed from the teaching post he held at the High School of Arts. Socialist Realism was proclaimed as the official doctrine of artistic expression in People’s Poland, and Kantor’s practice was labelled ‘formalist’ – his standing changed from avant-garde to reactionary practically overnight.
The Shifting of Form
Refraining from showing his works to a wider public did not mean Kantor lost interest in painting altogether. As stage and costume designer for a Polish play staged at the International Drama Festival, he arrived in Paris again in 1955 and was immediately attracted to the work of the likes of Jean Fautrier, Hans Hartung, Jackson Pollock and Wols. This visit marked a new stage in his development. By embracing the new art of Informel, Kantor rejected representation – including the human figures – in the visual field. In Pacific VI (1957), on view in this section, the dark canvas bears traces of the artist’s gestures, with zigzags of black and white paint interspersed with splashes of red. The birth of such painting was captured on film twice by students of the Łódź Film School, Mieczysław Waśkowski and Adam Nurzyński. One of these (Somnambulists, 1958) was presented nearby, in a mesmerising sequence of slow-motion shots paint disperses in water, forming cobwebs of colour, explosions, or organic shapes.
This shift had its parallel in Kantor’s theatrical practice. Working with Cricot 2, a group Kantor and the artists Maria Jarema and Kazimierz Mikulski had founded in 1955 (the same year he visited Paris), he staged In a Little Manor House (or Country House) by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz in 1961. Performed in the vaulted brick cellars of Kraków’s historic Krzysztofory palace, the play was an inventive take on a satirical drama that was itself originally meant to mock the classical conventions of realistic drama. Here, Kantor transformed it into a critique of the very matter constituting a performance: the actors would appear on stage hanging inside a massive wardrobe. Packed like sardines, devoid of individuality, and forced to share what little room was left with massive sacks, they would utter jumbled parts of text. The play was thus liberated from its formal structure and became the result of the gesture of an individual author, like the paint spilling on the surface in the hypnotic film recordings. The exhibition featured a reconstruction of the wardrobe as well as well as original drawings from the 1960s series People-Dummies, disturbing shapes in which people, outfits and clothes hangers come into one.
The next Cricot 2 production, which premiered in June 1963, was similarly based on a drama by S.I. Witkiewicz. The Madman and the Nun marked a new step in Kantor’s theatre practice, an attempt described in his manifesto The Zero Theatre which coincided with the play. In it he wrote of ‘leading towards emptiness and “zero zones”2 in order to touch reality. The means to achieve this included, but were not limited to, the use of ‘automatic action’, ‘terror’, and ‘elimination through noise’. The drama, set inside a mental asylum and revolving around madness as social critique was a curious performance – actors were forced to compete for space with the Annihilation Machine described earlier, whose noise would suppress all other action on stage. Later that year the machine stood again in Kraków’s Krzysztofory Gallery – this time, as an element of Kantor’s own solo display that came to be known as the Anti-Exhibition or Popular Exhibition. Photographs from that time show the space filled with dozens and dozens of things (937 individual items according to the artist’s count) that ranged from notes and drawings attached to strings with clothespins, to objects scattered across the room. In this self-organised survey, Kantor attempted to ‘bestow the status of a creative activity on all those things that have not yet become works of art’.3 But another section of the show, presented on the floor, proved that another shift was already in the air – the object was to return in an unexpected way.
Packing – Unpacking
Reportedly, one of the reasons Kantor chose the name emballage for the results of his explorations was the fact that he thought the French word had a serious ring in the context of ‘frottage’ and ‘collage’, which had already entered the artistic vocabulary of the time.4 It means ‘packaging’ and, for the artist, constituted a gesture capable of showcasing an object while at the same time obscuring it from view. This, he reasoned, would be a way to make something seen from an invisible side. Among the early works in this vein, on view in Sao Paulo were two examples of the Industrial Bags series, where mass-produced empty packets of industrial-class chemical compounds were affixed to a background (Saletr… 25... N.4 MGO, 1964) still bearing signs of their previous function. Concurrently there emerged canvases which combined painting with the motif of packaging or envelopes, such as The Printed Sun, 27.VII (1967) where a row of five envelopes is strung horizontally across the composition, accompanied by a set of coloured rings of different sizes, reminiscent of postmarks and wax seals. It was these paintings-emballages that earned Kantor the second prize at the 9th São Paulo Art Biennial in 1967. Among the most conspicuous works in this chapter was The Infanta, after Velasquez (1966-70), where the head of the historical figure was juxtaposed with a canvas bag in the bottom section.
At the opposite end of the spectrum was the act of laying bare: first conceived as a drawing (De-emballage, 1966) in which a male figure, likely a caricature of the Vitruvian Man, sheds clothes that slide down onto the ground. This idea was put in practice in the work The Anatomy Lesson after Rembrandt in which the artist, assisted by a group of onlookers, used scissors to carry out an autopsy of the outfit worn by a person laying on a table, exposing the insides of the patient’s pockets as organs of the human instinct of preserving and memorising. This event however, staged in 1968 for Kantor ist da, a 35mm film made by Dietrich Mahlow for Saarbrücken TV (and featured in the exhibition in fragments), already represented yet another genre.
Kantor embraced the idea of the happening in the mid-1960s, a trip to the United States with his second wife Maria Stangret (a Cricot 2 actress whom he married in 1961), gave him the opportunity to see work by Claes Oldenburg, George Segal and many others. Cricotage (1965), the first event he orchestrated after his return, took place in Warsaw and cast a group of artists as well as critics who performed everyday actions, such as eating, shaving or carrying things, caught in a loop. His other happenings made references to historical artworks or expanded on the artist’s own ideas. Happening also seeped into the work of Cricot 2. Their next play, The Water Hen by S.I. Witkiewicz (1967), was framed by Kantor as an example of Happening Theatre, or a Theatre of Events. Set in a makeshift café (or a soup kitchen) which – as the audience was served by waiters – would gradually fill up with actors, many of them wearing traveller’s outfits that enveloped their bodies as well as their bulky baggage. One of Kantor’s last happenings was Multipart launched in Warsaw’s Foksal Gallery in 1970. A fusion of ‘multiplication’ and ‘participation’, the work involved two stages. The first was the sale of 40 canvases – each with an umbrella affixed to the surface, covered in a white coat of paint – at a low cost which at the same time obliged the buyers to modify the works on their own. The second stage was the display of these works the following year, at which point it became evident that while some canvases were indeed modified by their new owners, others were seemingly left intact (Multipart III, 1970). The fate of one such work, carried in an official Mayday parade by students of architecture and then buried in the ground in the vicinity of Foksal Gallery could be seen in the exhibition on film. This phase, as Lech Stangret has pointed out, led Kantor to an important question – if the artist himself relinquishes the creative act to their audience, is the execution of a work in fact necessary?5 And this question marked his foray into the another realm.
The series Impossible Monuments epitomises this endeavour – the three black-and-white collages portray enormous objects against the backdrop of cityscapes. There is a massive lightbulb, half-buried in a cobblestoned city square, resembling an abandoned church bell; next to it – an oversized clothes hanger straddling the Vistula river in Kraków. Finally, there is a colossal chair, arguably the best-known of these three, which first emerged as a design submitted to the artists’ symposium Wrocław ‘70, one of the iconic events that reflected the shifting artistic life in the People’s Republic of Poland at the time.
At the same time Kantor, set out to work with Lovelies and Dowdies by S.I. Witkiewicz (also known as Dainty Shapes and Hairy Apes) which premiered in 1973. This deliberately opaque rendering was meant as an example of Impossible Theatre: the play was set in a cloakroom, from where actors would pop in to the middle of a proper performance taking place next door, but inaccessible to the audience. The actors’ behaviour, their obsessively repeated motions, was dictated by the props they were carrying which included a wooden board, a door, as well as an extra head or a pair of legs. The audience was not reduced to the role of onlookers, but was approached by two uncouth attendants who demand that they remove their overcoats or change seats. Kantor engineered a situation in which the reality of the here-and-now, the elements of the drama, and the conventional reality of the theatre came together to form a new quality. At the same time, the play marked the last performance of Cricot 2 based on a text by S.I. Witkiewicz. Kantor’s was one step away from re-inventing his practice yet again.
The Memory Machine
The curators’ decision to present Kantor’s celebrated output spanning the two following decades in this one section is as simple as it is impressive. Starting with The Dead Class that premiered in 1975, the actors of Cricot 2 became the witnesses and builders of Kantor’s unsettling and immersive world that was a patchwork of childhood memories, traumatic experiences, historical events, cultural references and quotations. Life in the village of Wielopole, the War, the return of his father, the Holocaust – Kantor’s biography was obsessively re-lived on stage through a brilliant tension between the real and its lack, exposing the inevitable truth about the impossibility of returning to the land of our past, and striking a strong chord in the hearts of audiences. Displayed here was the Desk with a boy in a pitch-black school uniform from The Dead Class (1975), and Recruit’s Skeleton, in a faded military uniform the colour of desert sand, from Wielopole, Wielopole (1980). There was a row of wooden pillories from Let the Artist Die (1985), and Odysseus’ Bow from I Shall Never Return (1988). Also Camera – an essential element of all these séances – which had the appearance of a machine gun. Its use on stage was accompanied by a piercing, rattling sound, marking a clear connection between the act of memorising that which slips away at this very instant and death. As Jarosław Suchan has phrased it ‘The Dead Class and all the productions that came after it were actually a record of a series of fiascos, which put an end to every one of Kantor’s attempts to restore the past.’
In the far corner of the display at Sesc Consolação, close to a flight of stairs leading the visitor down to the first floor, stood the small stooping figure of a man, his hair dishevelled, face pale-white with a characteristic grimace. This was the same man that could be seen in the film recordings of Cricot 2 performances – gesticulating, following actors with his impatient gaze – the figure now feels out of place, even helpless. The fact that the name of the performance for which it was made was I Shall Never Return sounded reassuringly, and not in the slightest ironic – as if an ultimate acknowledgement of our finite nature. But down by the entrance, the muted banging of the awkward stacks of folding chairs proved otherwise: the machine was set in motion.
Written by Krzysztof Kościuczuk
1 T. Kantor, ‘The Ithaca of 1944’, A Journey Through Other Spaces: Essays and Manifestos, 1944-1990, ed. And trans. M. Kobialka, Berkeley, 1993, p. 147-148.
2 T. Kantor, ‘The Zero Theatre’, ibidem, p. 60.
3 T. Kantor, ‘An Anti-Exhibit, ibidem, p. 24.
4 L. Stangret, Tadeusz Kantor. Malarski ambalaż totalnego dzieła, Kraków, 2006, p. 53.
5 L. Stangret, ibidem, p. 78.