Kalicka is from Kraków, where she also went to art college. She later went on to study photography at Łódź Film School, where she met Grzegorz Przyborek, Józef Robakowski, and Krzysztof Pijarski – an artist who exerted a remarkable influence on the development of her art.
Fur, salt, and blood everywhere
Her first important cycle of photographs was Self-portrait (Autoportret Negatywny), created as her BA work under the academic supervision of Professor Grzegorz Przyborek in 2009 and 2010. Formally pared-down black-and-white photographs depict the artist wearing masks created out of the heads of animals – a cow, a ram, a wild boar, a pig, a horse. The heads, acquired from an abattoir, were prepared so as to be possible to be worn on a human head (the photographs haven’t been subjected to any sort of photo-manipulation). The pig head was the first, as it was the easiest one to get – it was enough to order it a day before in a meat processing plant. As the artist reminisces in a text accompanying the series of photographs:
I didn’t suspect it would come in two parts. Not to mention that I didn’t suspect it would be the halves of two different pigs – a smaller and a bigger one.
The head needs preparation: skilful removal of the skin from the skull, sewing the two halves together, remodeling the sewn whole so that it starts resembling a head again, and inventing a system of fastening. With the help of friends, Kalicka managed to prepare the prop. The artist recollected that after several hours her apartment had resembled a setting of some horror film like Saw. The next heads were even more proersions of the self-portrait with the pig head were taken). The photographs retain strict realism and directness, at the same time making reference to mythology (the figures of humans with animal heads), religious symbolism, and the symbol of masks as such. The photographs also serve as a clear commentary on the contemporary industry-based consumption of meat.
Eventually, six photographs were created (two versions of the self-portrait with the pig head were taken) The photographs retain strict realism and directness, at the same time making reference to mythology (the figures of humans with animal heads), religious symbolism and the symbol of the mask as such. The photographs also serve as a clear commentary to contemporary industry-based consumption of meat.
From a drunken vision to a(n) (un)conscious construction
This physically and logistically demanding task soon gave rise to a series that was an escape from Self-portrait. The photographs, collected in the cycle Phototheatre, were created largely as a spontaneous record of improvised, quasi-theatrical actions but nevertheless constituted a consequently constructed whole. Kalicka’s friend assumed many roles in her photographs: the Ladies of Avignon, horse-headed Eros, the Three Graces, a pig, witches, the god of fertility, a generous sower hidden behind a row mask… As Krzysztof Pijarski wrote about Phototheatre:
The tool used to create the cycle – a cheap 35-mm ‘premier’ camera– at the same time gives a private title to the performances, as the scenes are ‘premieres’, too. Because the spontaneous gesture of recording the situations was the source of these premieres – a gesture that at the same time served as an escape for the deeply ‘performative’ process of creating the Self-portrait series – the aesthetics (and incredible power) of these images grows, in a way, from the bottom up; from a drunken vision to a(n) (un)conscious construction.
The cycle caused some controversy at Łódź Film School, but also drew the attention of Józef Robakowski. The artist offered to give Kalicka one of his works in exchange for Phototheatre. Subsequently, he showed the series together with his collection at Brzuch Atlasa, an exhibition displayed in Atlas Sztuki in late 2010 / early 2011. Thanks to this, the well-known curator and head of the Profile Foundation, Bożena Czubak, got to know Kalicka’s work and they started co-operating.
The Horse You See Is The Horse You Get / New Athens
Her co-operation with the Profile Foundation resulted in the creation of the cycle Goosebumps (Gęsia skórka, 2014) and her most recent series A Dragon Is Hard to Overcome, Yet One Shall Try (Smoka Pokonać Trudno, Ale Starać się Trzeba, 2016), among others. The latter project was inspired by the work New Athens (Nowe Ateny) by a priest, Benedykt Chmielowski (1700-1763). This work, published for the first time in the years 1745-1746, is considered to be the first Polish-language encyclopedia. Even though the text was created on the verge of the Enlightenment, the author’s craft is very archaic – much more resemblant to late Medieval summae than to the works of French encyclopaedists contemporary to Chmielowski. As a matter of fact, New Athens were quickly considered to be an emanation of Polish obscurantism of the Saxon era.
Kalicka’s project was displayed publicly (in fragments) for the first time at Transfestiwal in Kraków in 2014 (however, it was displayed independently as it got crossed out from the festival’s programme). The exhibition caused a scandal before it had even started. As Kalicka commented:
It was an absurd situation that nobody expected. The hate started with the publication of one of the photographs on the internet and then moved on to the gallery where the exhibition was displayed.
The main accusation was that, allegedly, the photograph was in keeping with the tradition behind the practice of blackface. The image depicted two people painted black, with afro-wigs on their heads and leaves of banana-tree and fern around their hips. They posed against a photo-wallpaper representing African animals. As the artist emphasised:
My objective was not to represent or recreate the blackface pattern. Especially that the tradition of white people being made up to resemble the so-called ‘savages’ and depicting them in contexts indicating racial prejudices and stereotypes has a much older tradition in Europe.
The photographs from the cycle A Dragon Is Hard to Overcome, Yet One Shall Try are a reference namely to the stereotypes and prejudices that were expressed in Chmielowski’s work. The exhibition’s aim was to provoke a discussion, whereas some guests of the festival showed absolute lack of openness to any conversation. According to the artist, that conversation could have been a crucial one, as:
… many of the shocking terms and prejudices found in Chmielowski’s work (that could perhaps be simply laughable in a different sociopolitcal context) can be found in contemporary Polish discourse. This is especially true for the thinking about otherness and about the other. Watching these superstitions and prejudices see daylight and becoming publicly acceptable is frightening. The statements of some politicians, not to mention texts and comments on the internet and social media, sound almost like quotations from the ignorant text of New Athens. And this is the consequence of not discussing certain matters publicly and trying to sweep the issue of tolerance and otherness under the carpet.
A Dragon Is Hard to Overcome, Yet One Shall Try wasn’t the first project inspired by a scientific work – it was also the case with the 2014 cycle What Happened Will Not Unhappen. Paul Radin’s book devoted to the mythology of Native Americans was a starting point for a series of photographs. Kalicka was fascinated especially by the mythological figure of the trickster. As Krzysztof Pijarski wrote:
The characters depicted in What Happened Will Not Unhappen are weird. Their faces are covered with heavy make-up distorting their facial features and emphasising some of them. They look extraordinary, or even distressing. Many of the photographs were created with the use of a flashlight against a dark background, which gives the scenes a gloomy air and provokes disturbing gut feelings. Or even more than that, as the darkness surrounding the characters creates an effect of a ‘black box’: it seems that they are coming out of nowhere (our darkest dreams?) and attack each viewer and his or her sense of order and appropriateness.
Kalicka begins with a scientific text, but the visual tracks lead the viewer in the direction of pop-culture motifs – primarly cinema (Kubrick, Nolan, Lynch). According to Pijarski, the message of the project is ambiguous:
The first photograph included in the series depicts a clown putting a mushroom in his mouth. This augury of altering the state of consciousness gives the whole a structure of a ritual. As the clothing of at least some of the depicted characters is stained with paint, it can be suspected that Kalicka intended the cycle to be a clever allegory of an artist as a trickster – somebody who is trying to influence reality and change the way we perceive it. But this attempt ends in an acute failure. If we agree that in modern times art took the role previously assigned to religion, the vision of the artist as a priest is nothing else but a fancy projection, or even a smoke screen preventing us from seeing the truth. And the truth is that within this structure an artist is much more resemblant to a trickster, whose practices are efficient from time to time, but mostly unmask him or her as a fraudster selling us placebo or simply an ordinary decoration.
Irena Kalicka’s projects are separate wholes, but she frequently makes references to previous undertakings, quotes herself, and uses recurrent motifs – masks, gender ambiguity, allusions to religious symbolism and mythology. The artist likes to mix registers, often working with the aesthetics of intended error and kitsch. Her photographs are full of cultural references.
- 2016 – A Dragon Is Hard to Overcome, Yet One Shall Try / Smoka pokonać trudno, ale starać się trzeba, Fundacja Profile, Warsaw (as part of Warsaw Gallery Weekend), Poland
- 2015 – The Horse You See Is The Horse You Get / Koń jaki jest każdy widzi, F.A.I.T, Kraków, Poland
- 2014 – Goosebumps / Gęsia skóra, Fundacja Profile, Warsaw, Poland; I did not have sexual relations with that woman, SKI, Kraków (part of Kraków Photomonth), Poland
- 2012 – Negative Self-portrait / Autoportret Negatywny, Pauza Gallery, Kraków, Poland; Totalizator, AS Gallery, Kraków, Poland
Selected group exhibitions:
Artists from Krakow: The Generation 1980–1990
, MOCAK, Kraków, Poland
The Increased Difficulty of Concentration
, City Surfer Office, Prague, the Czech Republic
Exquisite Corpse of Polish Photography
, BWA Gallery, Wrocław (part of TIFF), Poland
, Wrocław Contemporary Museum (part of TIFF), Poland
, National Museum in Wrocław, Poland
[editor's translation: Identification marks
], WRO Art Center, Wrocław, Poland
Future Condition – from reality to algorithm
, Photokina Academy, Köln, Germany
2M2 OF FASHION
, Lookout Gallery, Warsaw, Poland
Estrus and Promiscuity, Pekao Project Room
, Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art, Warsaw, Poland
There Will Be A(rt)ction! The 2013 collection
, Bunkier Sztuki Gallery, Kraków, Poland
Art of Exchange. Józef Robakowski's Collection Latent Capital 4
, Profile Foundation, Warsaw, Poland
Mum I Just Really Need to Focus on My Art Right Now
, Arsenał Gallery, Poznań, Poland
Lokal_30, Warsaw, Poland
In the Matter of In/visible Things
, Photokina Academy, Köln, Germany
Fairy Tale Element
, Wrocław Contemporary Museum (part of TIFF), Poland
In the Matter of Things
, Západná terasa Bratislavského hradu, Bratislava, Slovakia
, BWA Gallery, Bydgoszcz, Poland
A n i m a l i a
, Gabriele Senn Galerie, Vienna, Austria
The Belly of Atlas, Atlas Sztuki Gallery, Łódź
Originally written by Krzysztof Miękus in Polish, April 2017, translated by NS, June 2017.