Performer, painter, poet, author of numerous books about theories of contemporary art. The doyen of Polish performance art who calls himself 'an avant-guard traditionalist'.
He was born on October 10th, 1938, in Płoski in Wołyń (the USSR). Between 1956 and 1962, he studied architecture at Kraków University of Technology, and from 1964 until 1965 he was a student of the faculty of industrial forms at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków. Since 1985, he has been a member of Grupa Krakowska (the Kraków Group), and since 1986 – of the legendary Black Market, an international group of eight performers staging performances together twice a year on different continents.
Up until now (2015), Warpechowski has presented over 320 performances in many European, Asian, and North American countries. His paintings are in collections of the Museum of Art in Łódź, the National Museums in Warszawa and Wrocław, the Leon Wyczółkowski Museum in Bydgoszcz, and the Museum in Koszalin. He designed film sets for eight feature films, out of which four were directed by Grzegorz Królikiewicz. Since 1992, Warpechowski has been collaborating with Zderzak gallery in Kraków. He lives and works in Sandomierz.
In 1997, Warpechowski received the Minister of Arts and Culture Award in recognition of his 30-year-long activity in the realm of performance art. In 2003, he received Father Józef Sadzik’s Award for ‘non-conformity, unpretentiousness, and uniqueness, for opposition to the ephemeral, the superficial, the for-sale-only.’
Forerunner of Performance Art
Zbigniew Warpechowski was one of the first artists around the world to take up performance art. He is also a pioneer in this field in Poland. Performance art is a relatively new art form that came into being in the 1970s. It is characterised by processuality, singularity, and participation of the performer in the structure of the performance – the artist is not only its author, but he/she is its main artistic material as well. Usually, the performer carries out actions in the presence of an audience, and the aim of those actions is to create a form through his/her own bodily experience.
Warpechowski began his career as an artist with figurative painting, which he had already taken up as an architecture student. After dropping out of the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków, he was preoccupied with poetry writing, and it was poetry that sparked his interest in performance art. Warpechowski formulated his own philosophy underlying the art of performance and he scrupulously adheres to its rules.
In the beginning, I would refer to what I did as actions – says the artist. – The first time I heard the term performance was in 1975 in Marseilles.
The artist claims that performance art is closely related to poetry. He himself calls this part of his actions ‘poetic realities’. Another significant factor in Warpechowski’s performances is the truth.
[...] That fact, that moment that is true, that is real, that is one of the crucial motives of performance art in general – that something is truly happening and is not a symbol, a metaphor, something which does not pretend to be something else, as is the case with theatrical plays or some other prestidigitatorial games.
Zbigniew Warpechowski performing Dirty Water, Edge Festival, 1988
What adds credibility is the presence of an audience: Warpechowski invariably presents his actions live, making improvisation and risk part of the performance. In his opinion, the props he uses in performance acts are secondary elements. They are used primarily to occupy the artist. The essence of the performance lies in ‘the artist’s thoughts, body, and soul.’ In his theoretical deliberations, Warpechowski also stresses that
the ambition of performance art is to capture what is common to all forms of art, i.e. the moment of the artistic act that precedes artistic formalization.
To him, performance art serves as a means of practising philosophy; in order to create performance art, he must feel the need – either a spiritual or an intellectual one.
Warpechowski’s first performance was Kwadrans poetycki / The Poetic Quarter (with Tomasz Stańko) presented in SAiW, a club at Rynek Główny in Kraków. Soon after, he presented the Poetic Quarter with record player and piano accompaniment (both in 1967). The artist recalls that the props he used in his first performance were
a scout’s drum, the wedding shirt I had worn when getting married for the first time - a white one, obviously, unironed; there was also a piece of Bristol board attached to a board, with some felt-tip pen or a brush.
After informing the audience that he doesn’t play the piano, he started plonking away on one, and Stańko improvised on the trumpet. Then Warpechowski declaimed two texts – one elaborating on the saying ‘One is not a poet; one only sometimes happens to be a poet’, the other enlisting names of poets who committed suicide. In the meantime, the artist struck the drum, each beat getting progressively louder and louder. The unknown in this performance was at what pitch the leather drumhead would break. Striking it with drumsticks didn’t break it, and Warpechowski had to puncture it. With the use of the unironed shirt, the artist brought up the topic of war. He wrapped the shirt around a candlestick holding a lit candle, and when the shirt caught fire, he tried to smother it with his bare hands. It was his way of demonstrating how similar pieces of garment would burn if another war broke out. He drew on the Bristol board, but not anything specific; his desire was to show the mere process of drawing.
Performances with Fish
In 1971, in Andrzej Partum’s Biuro Poezji (The Poetry Office), Warpechowski presented the first of a series of performances with fish. This action was firmly ensconced in a poetic context. The artist distributed glasses of water to the audience, and he put a living fish on a board with an inscription ‘Water’ on it.
It is as if it's in the water – and not in the water. It starts to suffer. The audience got truly angry – the artist recalls.
Also in 1971, at Zjazd Marzycieli (The Gathering of Dreamers) in Elbląg, Warpechowski published his first theoretical manifesto Artysta jest / An Artist Is, in which he emphasized the significance of ‘the activity carried out by an independent artist on his/her own responsibility’ in the process of an avant-garde work of art coming into being.
Still in 1971, in The Krzysztofory Gallery in Kraków, Warpechowski presented a performance entitled Talerzowanie / Dishing Out. When a year later he presented it in Richard Demarco’s Atelier 72 in Edinburgh, British critics (The Guardian, The Financial Times) recognized his performance as an outstanding conceptual work of art. Twenty years later, Warpechowski resumed presenting it – in 1992 in The Grodzka Gallery in Lublin and Galeria Rzeźby (The Sculpture Gallery) in Warszawa. As the artist wrote himself:
Dishing Out is portioning, Dishing Out is portioning of the body’s hunger, Dishing Out is portioning of a physical, notional, and artistic reality.
When presenting Dishing Out for the first time, Warpechowski used the environment form: In the Krzysztofory Gallery, on the floor divided into 100 squares of equal size, he placed compositions made of white dishes with inscriptions on them and symbolic props, e.g. on a dish labelled ‘Home’, there were two slices of bread; on a dish labelled ‘Street’, one would find a cobblestone. Later on, this work of art took on a different form – namely, that of flat square wooden boxes divided into four sections. In each section, the artist placed either a dish or a composition made of pieces of dishes, and provided inscriptions, such as ‘Humility’, ‘(Made) To Order’, ‘Without Future’, ‘Appetite’, ‘The Dish of Knowledge’, ‘The Author’s Dish’.
In 1973, Warpechowski presented the famous performance Dialog z rybą / Dialogue with Fish, where he spoke to a fish he had taken out of the water and was then holding in his hand. As the death of the dumb fish approached, the words the artist uttered were becoming more and more affectionate. Another action featuring a fish was Autopsja / The Autopsy (1974). The artist plunged his head into a fish tank and kept it underwater until he could no longer hold his breath while a fish lay on a table next to him. Yet another important performance in Warpechowski’s career was Champion of Golgotha (1978), which he would repeatedly present until 1994. In it, he raised the issue of idolatry (adulation), asserting that the Stations of the Cross are rarely treated in terms of deepened faith.
That is why Christ’s attire was replaced with an outfit of a champion, some sports idiot.
Aside from raising the issue of a modern man of success, the performance also touched upon ‘the will of the people’.
It is the will of the people – Warpechowski explains – and one needs to take into account the context, the time when socialism was thriving – that often determines whether those best people in the world are crucified or hanged. (...) This series consists of fourteen stations. I have never presented all at once.
The props used by the artist served to paraphrase the history of the Stations of the Cross: He washed his hands with a deodorant called Brutal (Brute); a leather head guard served as the crown of thorns, and tiny red amaranth pads were used to imitate blood.
Warpechowski’s works also include performances where, in the name of authenticity of expression, the artist tormented his body, inflicted self-injury, and flagellated himself. In 1981, a performance called Porozumienie / The Agreement was presented. It addressed the political situation in Poland of the time, but also ‘the agreement between the artist and the world’.
Warpechowski could choose between three scenarios: flagellating himself, holding a 15-kilo rock on his back, or signing an agreement – a scenario he treated as a last resort.
First, I held the rock. When I could no longer hold it, I would take a whip and flagellate myself. When it was beginning to hurt, I would take the rock again, but this time I would hold it for shorter periods of time. Then I would put the rock down and flagellate myself again. If it hurt – rock again. Then, I would pass by a sheet of paper with the word ‘Agreement’ written on it, next to which there was a pen. The rhythm [of my actions] would change. I would exchange the rock for the whip more often now. The final alternative would present itself at the very last moment: I could swallow the sheet of paper. But I was unable to swallow it. I spat it out and smoothed it, and signed the agreement.
Also in 1981, Warpechowski presented a performance entitled Polonez / The Polonaise (a play on homophones: polonaise – music for a Polish processional dance; Polonez – name of a Polish car), in which he decided to ‘assemble’ a car from his own body. While singing Fryderyk Chopin’s Polonaise, he impaled his hands and feet on spikes protruding from two axles to which photos of car wheels had been attached. In 1984, during a performance in Stuttgart, he set his hair, which had been sprinkled with petrol, on fire.
In 1993, in Zderzak in Kraków, Warpechowski performed Krytyka czystego rozumu / The Critique of Pure Reason, a performance inspired by Immanuel Kant’s work. In the climax of the performance, the artist covered his head with a slab of meat from a butcher, and, after putting on glasses, he read out a passage from Kant’s work. Once finished, on all fours, he gave the meat to a dog. In the background, one could hear a song by Kazik (Polish singer, songwriter, leader of the band Kult), whose chorus went: ‘Coście, skurwysyny, uczynili z tą krainą’ (What have you done to this land, you motherfuckers).
For some time now, Warpechowski, who lately has been referring to himself as ‘an avant-garde traditionalist’, has been presenting performances that heavily criticize modern culture of consumerism, dominance of mass media, postmodernism, and sexual freedom. In his performance Róg pamięci / The Horn of Remembrance (1997), the artist, dressed as Moses, smashed stone tablets with the Ten Commandments on the floor, tore out some pages from the Bible, stuffed them into condoms which he then used to arrange the words ‘New Age’. In 2004, a performance entitled Wariant nadrzędny / The Superior Variant was presented. In it, Warpechowski impersonated early Christians and burnt dolls that resembled Nero’s torches, thus castigating the French ban on wearing symbols of religious affiliation in schools.
In 2006, Zbigniew Warpechowski’s Podręcznik bis / Textbook: Encore was published by Otwarta Pracownia in Kraków. In the book, the author goes back to Podręcznik / Textbook that had been published a dozen or so years earlier and which he supplements with new topics and thoughts. As Stefan Morawski wrote, Warpechowski’s books are
about art in general, and particularly about the creative process and mission of an artist; about ideological foundations of artistic activities, especially of those he carries out himself; about the concretisation of the previous two matters by means of performance - actions carried out by the author since 1967 after his original fashion, actions understood and interpreted truly individually; finally, they are about foreign and native artistic striving – including its critical and theoretical background – with which Warpechowski had to fight passionately; at the same time, the emphasis is given to the Polish context, to its sad or even pathetic afflictions.
Also, in his latest publication, Warpechowski examines correlations between the arts, philosophy, and artistic work, and evaluates the modern practice of art critically: In his opinion, it is not capable of addressing important issues generated by the present time; it is becoming more and more neutral and, consequently, less and less meaningful. Warpechowski, who has always believed that performance art – although recognized as the art of reality – is closely related to poetry and musical improvisation, inaugurated Sympozjum Realności Poetyckich (Symposium on Poetic Realities) in Słupsk in 2006, which was devoted to ‘poetic sources of the art of action’. Apart from Warpechowski, the symposium was also attended by Ewa Zarzycka, Oskar Dawicki, and Adina Bar-on from Israel.
A series of performances by Zbigniew Warpechowski, Edge Festival, 1988
In 2007, at a small gathering in Podkowa Leśna, the artist presented a performance called Wykonanie utworu / Performance of a Song. It concerned the issues of creating and coming into existence of something new, something that the artist showed in a very literal visual form: while lying on a gynaecological chair, he performed a symbolic act of creation to Beethoven's Ode to Joy playing in the background.
On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the artist’s birth and the 45th anniversary of his artistic career, BWA in Lublin, together with Ośrodek Sztuki Performance Centrum Kultury (Performance Art Cultural Centre), organized an exhibition entitled ‘Zbigniew Warpechowski. W służbie sztuki. Przegląd twórczości z lat 1963-2008’ (Serving the Arts. A Review of Works between 1963 and 2008). This retrospective anniversary exhibition – the first such extensive and comprehensive display of Warpechowski’s works – encapsulated his achievements since the 1960s, i.e. over 250 performances. The gallery also showed his paintings devoted to neo-figurative art and inspired by religion, sculptures, documentation of actions, and films. Warpechowski’s most recent paintings (2007) are a pictorial comment on acts committed by Old Testament characters juxtaposed with references to the present day.
In 2008, Warpechowski symbolically repeated his performance from 1967 - Improwizacja muzyczno-poetycka / Musical and Poetic Improvisation with music by Tomasz Stańko. The performance of both artists was filmed – the recording is kept by the Fine Arts Association in Lublin 'Zachęta.
Master and His Disciples
In the beginning of 2011, the exhibition Wlazł kotek na płotek (A Kitten Climbed a Fence; editor’s note: the title is a reference to a popular Polish children’s song) took place in Art NEW Media gallery in Warsaw. The artist presented his marble and sandstone sculptures and black-and-white photographs documenting his selected performances. As the exhibition’s organisers wrote:
In his performances Warpechowski criticizes life deprived of value and dedicated to consumption. Similar views can be found in the sculptures present on the exhibition (Norwid na widłach / Norwid on pitchfork, Autorytet / Role model). Another important aspect of Warpechowski’s work is also present and emphasized in the exhibition: his relationship with cinema, which may come as a surprise to enthusiasts of his work.
In the same year, Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź organised the exhibition Bodzianowski / Konieczny / Uklański / Warpechowski, which focused on a theme that was not paid much attention in the Polish history of art: direct references and links between 70s artists, such as Marek Konieczny and Zbigniew Warpechowski, and the representatives of the younger generation who started their artistic careers in the 1990s — such as Piotr Uklański and Cezary Bodzianowski. The curator, Łukasz Ronduda, further explained:
The exhibition shows how Bodzianowski and Uklański creatively transform the basic determinants of their teachers’ strategy, making them fit to the prerequisites of the contemporary context. Taking into account all differences, a common quality of their work is the interest in the empty space left after the conceptual reflection on the ontology of art, which was characteristic of Konieczny’s and Warpechowski’s work in late 60s and early 70s. Bodzianowski and Uklański work with that empty space in various ways. For each of them, the path chosen became a chance to show resistance against the dominant forms of defining art in contemporary institutional and discursive praxis. We could call Warpechowski and Konieczny, to use their own words, deserters from conceptualism; in analogy, Bodzianowski and Uklański could be dubbed deserters from critical art.
This image of relations between the past and the present in Polish art has been complemented by another exhibition being shown at the same time, titled Warpechowski / Dawicki. This joint exposition of the master and his disciple was an attempt to problematize the domineering ways of historization and institutionalization of Polish avant-garde art.
A shared work of the artists, Stone and Feather, is the crucial point of the exhibition. Oskar Dawicki has for many years been talking about Warpechowski’s performance (also titled Stone and Feather) as of an event that shaped him artistically. In an interview with Dorota Jarecka he said:
I’ve met Zbyszek Warpechowski, he came to one of the galleries in Toruń. It was a real performance, the first one I’ve seen in my life, and the first real artist I’ve trusted. … Later on we began talking, he showed us some performances recorded on video. For instance the one in which he first, with the utmost difficulty, lifts a huge rock, then throws it as far as he can, and then repeats the action so many times that the rock is replaced by a tiny feather. The rock and the feather offer equal resistance and cover a similarly short distance. We were amazed, absolutely seduced.
During the next meeting of the master and the disciple in 2010 it turned out that such a performance never took place. Warpechowski vehemently opposed doing anything like that. Dawicki must have created this performance in his imagination, constructing it unconsciously from many elements characteristic of Warpechowski’s work — those he heard about, read about, or made up himself. That way, he created his master on his own. It turned out, paradoxically, that the disciple is earlier than the master.
In 2004 Warpechowski’s art was collated with the works of another Polish avant-garde artist, Jerzy Bereś, in an exhibition which took place in Państwowa Galeria Sztuki in Sopot. As Dorota Grubba-Thiede, the curator, said in a interview for PAP:
This exhibition is a sort of a conversation, a dialogue. Both artists admired each other as separate, distinct figures. They used a difficult, yet appealing artistic language. Even non-experts have a chance to experience katharsis and clear their vision of the world by contact with these works.
The Ablucje exhibition in Sopot included, among others, 50s, 60s and 70s sculptures by Bereś — Strach (Fear), Sumienie (Conscience), Stół ofiarny z wygładzaczem (Sacrificial table with a smoother) and Waprechowski’s works: Tatuaż (Tattoo, 1963, 1985), Talerzowanie (Dishing Out, since 1972), Cisza (Silence, 1987), and the performance Citizenship for a Pure Sensation of Kazimir Malevich (1985), during which Natalia LL gives him a whipping, leaving a red square on his back.
Poematki / Petty poetry
The biggest comprehensive exhibition of Warpechowski’s work, Zbigniew Waprechowski. It took place in Zachęta — National Gallery of Art in 2014. It showed his art in the context of his relationships with the international action art movement, Kraków countercultural circles, Polish neo-avant-garde, and creators such as Jerzy Bereś, Tadeusz Kantor, Ewa Partum and Andrzej Partum. The curators of the exhibition, Joanna Kordjak-Piotrowska and Dominik Kuryłek, wrote:
This exhibition will show the diversity and multi-dimensionality of Warpechowski’s art: from visual poetry and conceptual works, pieces inspired by Eastern philosophy and revolving around the concept of Nothing, to actions and performances using the expression of a body put under extreme tests, aggression or self-aggression, and engaged politically. The exposition will contain the photo and video documentation of several dozens actions realised by the artist in the past 50 years.
Warpechowski’s texts, drafts, props, and costumes important for his work, as well as paintings, sculptures and poetical texts crucial to him, were included in the exhibition. Warpechowski also prepared a special performance, a reference to his 1984 action Mandala. He wrote:
I am making a mandala. The floor and the walls are covered with white paper. I am making circles from outside to within — making stamps of my palm on paper using woodcut paint. Circles, circles, several thousand hands, maybe more. I was doing it a day, a night, and a day. My contemplation, my meditation.
The exhibition was accompanied by Warpechowski. The Way of the Performer, an audiovisual publication by Jan Lubicz Przyłuski. It contains video and photographic documentation of the most important actions and statements made by Warpechowski and critics and creators associated with him.
Warpechowski doesn’t use the term ‘performance’ to describe his current works — he calls them Poematki / Petty poetry. An action titled identically was presented in lokal_30 in Warsaw in 2014. As the artist wrote, emphasizing the crucial relation between performance and poetry which he calls ‘poetic realness’:
What can be said about a poem that has not been written yet? The same as about my action in lokal_30. Words, objects, props that I gather for this occasion, will reveal their meaning only in the density of situations, under coercion of the event that I want to become a piece of art.
Zbigniew Warpechowski was one of the main characters in the film The Performer (2015) by Maciej Sobieszczański and Łukasz Ronduda. This story about Oskar Dawicki, one of the most extraordinary contemporary artists, depicts the young artistic in a critical moment in his life — his master (Zbigniew Warpechowski) is dying. The Performer, starring also Andrzej Chyra and Agata Buzek, was awarded the THINK: FILM AWARD special prize on Berlinale in 2015.
- 1967 – Kwadrans poetycki / Poetical quarter, Kwadrans poetycki z towarzyszeniem fortepianu / Poetical quarter accompanied by a piano (with Tomasz Stańko), Klub SAiW, Kraków
- 1974 – Piłka nożna / Football, BWA Gallery, Wrocław
- 1975 – Dialog z rybą / Dialogue with Fish, Marseilles, Kazimierz nad Wisłą, Sopot, Lublin
- 1976 – Dialog z rybą / Dialogue with Fish, Amsterdam
- 1979 – Men’s Only Champion, Glasgow, Agreement, Leeds, Liverpool
- 1987 – Documenta 8, Kassel
- 1988 – Artystę, który się starzeje, należy dobić / An artist getting old should be put down, Centre for Contemporary Art at Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw
- 1990 – Performance Art Festival, Chicago
- 1990 – Studio of Performance Art, Centre for Contemporary Art at Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw
- 1991 – Performance Art Festival, Nowy Jork
- 1994 – Performance Art Festival, Quebec
- 1995 – Performance Art Festival, Cleveland
- 1999 – Wobec Apokalipsy / On Apocalypse, Bielska BWA Gallery, Bielsko-Biała
- 2000 – ARTKONTAKT Performance Art Festival, Lublin
- 2003 – BROŃORBlin, czyli od WARhola to WARpechowskiego / BROŃORBlin, from WARhol to WARpechowski, former Fabryka Norlina, Warsaw
- 2004 – Towards the Present, Towards the Future, EPAF, Centrum Kultury, Lublin
- 2006 – European Performance Art Festival, EPAF, Centre for Contemporary Art at Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw
- 2004 – Wariant nadrzędny / Superordinate variant, Galeria XX1, Warsaw
- 2004 – Palec Nerona / Neron's Finger, Galeria Grodzka BWA, Lublin
- 2008 – Performance Intermedia Festival, Szczecin
- 2008 – W służbie sztuki. Przegląd twórczości z lat 1963-2008 / In the service of art. Selected works 1963-2008, BWA Gallery, Lublin, Performance Art Centre, The Centre for Culture in Lublin.
- 2008 – lokal_30, Warsaw
- 2009 – Polish Contemporary Plays Festival R@Port, Ucho, Gdynia
- 2011 – Poematki / Petty Poetry, Labirynt Gallery, Lublin
- 2013 – Performance Platform Festival, Lublin
- 2013 – Contexts 2013 - The 3rd International Sokolovsko Festival of Ephemeral Art w Sokołowsku
- 2014 – Poematki / Petty Poetry, lokal_30, Warsaw
- 2014 – Poematki / Petty Poetry, the opening of the exhibition Polish radical performers 1967-1989, Bielska BWA Gallery, Bielsko-Biała
- 2014 – performance referring to the action Mandala during the exhibition Zbigniew Warpechowski. It, Zachęta – National Gallery of Art, Warsaw
- 2015 – performance Poeja Poeza, Galeria Monopol, Warsaw
Written by Ewa Gorządek, Centrum Sztuki Współczesnej Zamek Ujazdowski, November 2006; update: November 2009.
Translated by Małgorzata Pachoł, December 2013, translation updated by NS July 2016.