Dangerous Liaisons

Dangerous liaisons, City Gallery “Arsenal” Poznan, April-May 2002, curator: Izabella Kowalczyk. Artists exhibited: Artur Zmijewski, Alicja Zebrowska, Dorota Nieznalska, Zbigniew Libera, Konrad Kuzyszyn, Zofia Kulik, Katarzyna Kozyra, Grzegorz Kowalski, Grzegorz Klaman, Anna Baumgart.

Izabela Kowalczyk, 'Dangerous liaisons between art and body', Poznan: City Gallery 'Arsenal', 2002.

In April 2002 an exhibition Dangerous liaisons was opened in City Gallery “Arsenal” in Poznan. It was thought to sum up so-called critical art – one of the most important trends in contemporary Polish art in the ’90s. Critical art is seen as having taken the lead on the Polish art scene in the ’90s and as having now given way to other tendencies (one could clearly observe this in the exhibition Scene 2000 held at the Centre for Contemporary Art at the Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw, as well as in discussions that accompanied it).

The first association that the title Dangerous liaisons brings to mind is the 18th century novel by Choderlos de Laclos. A history of love intrigues carried on by margravine de Merteuil and vice-count de Valmont, who tries to equal her in ruthlessness. It is a superbly written story depicting a world in which feelings and sentimentalism are unacceptable, and where sophisticated cruelty marks human relations. The book was recognized as “promiscuous and indecent” (and for this reason forbidden), but was also marked by what might be described as morbid charm.

With such association in mind, one expected that both the exhibition and a book Dangerous liaisons between art and body, which accompanied it, (both prepared by Izabella Kowalczyk) would be an equally fine record of multi-plot relations, a record intellectually sophisticated and full by that “morbid” charm. Yet, both the exhibition and the book, although at some points referring to its “prototype”, are different in character. They both focus upon different kinds of relations and, what is more important, these relations are described in a different way.

The relations crucial to the exhibition are characterized as dangerous liaisons with a body. What makes these liaisons so dangerous? First and foremost – as the curator often emphasizes – this kind of art that deals with a body challenges our habits and ways of being in the world in a critical way (these are revealed and questioned). It makes viewers face problems and issues they would prefer not to know or even remember… Thus, these liaisons may seem dangerous mainly for those who would rather keep up appearances, identify with stereotypes and – more generally speaking – maintain the social order.

In principle, these dangerous games with the body are played by artists in two areas. One of them embraces aspects of bodily existence which are hidden by contemporary culture, which are marginalized, passed over in silence or placed in a discourse of pathology. The other area is related to mechanisms of power, as well as the way that power manipulates the body (and thereby identity) and disciplines it.

Although these two aspects of Polish body art are discussed in the book, the exhibition focuses mainly on the second one. For example, this theme can be seen in such works as the film How little girls are trained by Zbigniew Libera. The film shows a little girl (about four years old) who is taught how to be a woman. This lesson aims at developing skills of making-up, decorating a body with jewelry, and displaying it to others. The girl at first seems not to understand the aim of these endeavours and is scared, but quickly starts exposing herself to them with delight.

All this training is undertaken in an everyday scenery (probably in a house in which she lives) and does not indicate any abuse. On the contrary, it shows something that seems perfectly normal. Libera’s film in a direct way turns our attention to the fact that this seemingly innocent play is a way of disciplining and inscribing into stereotypes (in this case telling what it means to be a woman).

This aspect is also well seen – from a different perspective – in a work by Zofia Kulik titled Archive of gestures. Kulik collects and sets together images of similar (often identical) poses and gestures from different geographical and historical contexts.

Sometimes these pictures are related to power as we commonly understand it (for example photos of political leaders), but sometimes they are taken in situations that seemingly have nothing to do with it (for example church ceremonies).

They are accompanied by photos showing the same poses assumed by a naked man (each time the same person) by which, deprived of “costume”, they become an element from repertoire, a repertoire of power to be used everywhere by everyone.

These images were made in 1987 (Kulik started her project in that year and continued it for some time) and the reason I refer to them is that they belong to a number of works that molded the way critical art has been understood in Poland in the ’90s, the same way that can be traced both in the Dangerous Liaisons exhibition and in the accompanying book.

In her openning essay, Izabela Kowalczyk proposes her understanding of critical aspects of contemporary art. She defines them first and foremost as aiming at critical description of reality and commentaries on the subject of contemporary world(Izabela Kowalczyk, Dangerous liaisons between art and body, Poznan: City Gallery “Arsenal”, 2002, 12.) and, more precisely, as revealing mechanisms of power in which one is embroiled. Kowalczyk also proposes short interpretations of works of art (the exhibited ones and others) referring to this definition.

The second part of the book confronts this characteristic of critical art and its interpretations with statements made by artists in interviews conducted by the exhibition’s curator. These interviews are intended to show what kind of reflection lie behind their [artists – AJ] realizations.(Ibid, 7.) This confrontation sometimes assumes an interesting form which reveals another layer of dangerous liaisons – between art and art historians.

This time the danger is related to the fact that in historical and critical texts one constructs theoretical structures that are then applied to works of art. This phenomenon is not problematic in itself but becomes such when those constructs are applied to works that do not square with them. This is observable in this particular publication but also, for example, in “Art Magazine” (“Magazyn Sztuki”), an art periodical published in Poland on and off from 1993.

The notion of critical art which I have quoted above is applied to a number of works which do not correspond with it. These works often relate to problems of body, identity, power, but in such a way as to be not limited by those issues, or to address them in a different manner than is suggested.

This is well seen in another film showed on the exhibition – KR WP by Artur Zmijewski. In this film one can see naked soldiers, members of the guard of honour – at first “dressed” in boots and caps, then only carrying rifles – practicing a drill. The combination of nakedness with the military representative actions makes people laugh and turns the serious presentation into a nearly comedic performance. This book characterises this work as a film first of all about army, revealing it as one of areas in which people (this time men, not little girls) are trained, and that this training can be disclosed by depriving soldiers of their uniforms.(Ibid, 23,24.)

It is hard to deny that this is an important facet of the film, but this work seems to me to be rather a statement not against power that manipulates a body, but in the name of men (being also bodies). This “in the name” does not mean that their bodily existence should be appreciated, or made lofty (called beautiful). This film is made not to appreciate it but to give them [men – AJ] back their intimacy, privacy, to give them back their helplessness.(Ibid, 36.)

These words by Zmijewski are taken from the interview inserted in the book. This is an example of how an artist can to some extent destroy a theoretical construction or at least come out against it. However, in this publication, it can be noticed that most of the artists are not interested in doing so. In some cases, it can be explained by the fact that the way of thinking about critical art proposed by the curator appeals to them.

This seems to be the case of Libera, but also, for example, of Grzegorz Klaman, as well. In his work in the exhibition, Klaman continues to explore the problem of the body (the body itself rather than bodily identity, as in the case of Libera) being trained through contemporary culture. This time he refers to physical exercises which emphasise its status of being corrective and also collective (the problem of coping certain behaviors).

Talking about his art (and generally contemporary art in Poland), he notices: Artists start to take risk as first ones and try to open this discourse[inspired by Foucault discourse on disciplining the body – AJ], but it should be followed by wider theoretical or philosophical discussion… our intellectuals do not see the need to explore this discourse.

These are rather some artists who try to light it up.(Ibid, 156, 157.) These comments help to understand why these artists do not oppose this in fact limiting notion of critical art. It is the notion according to which an artist becomes a special person. This is a person who sees better and understands more. Being aware that he/she is part of what he/she criticizes (it can be different after reading Foucault, very popular among those artists) somehow he/she sometimes seem to forget it.

When talking about Klaman’s work which had been prepared for this particular exhibition one can ask about criteria of choice of artists and their realizations. It is hard to discuss which artists Izabela Kowalczyk finds key and representative for critical art in Poland. However, there are two aspects of her choice that surprise me. The first is directly related to Klaman’s work.

It is interesting that the curator decided to include this in the exhibition in order to sum up this current that is almost a closed chapter(Ibid, 7.) of new works (also by Dorota Nieznalska and Anna Baumgart) . As I understand, they are included to show that although this kind of art is not dominant on the Polish art scene anymore, there are still artists that make realizations of this type, and also that there are art historians who accompany them.

What is more worrisome is the fact that the curator concentrated on artists who deal with a problem of body. They appeared (mainly in the book) as those that determine an area of critical art in Poland, not to say define it. Issues of body and bodily identity certainly belong to the most important and interesting problems which are faced by so called critical art, and if one wants to sum it up, then one should devote much attention to them. This is not, however, the only area of interest of contemporary critical art and to define it by this kind of work is to narrow it down.

What is more, in the case of some works – for example two works prepared specially for this exhibition: Stigmas by Dorota Nieznalska and Mothers and Daughters by Anna Baumgart – this bodily perspective does not seem to be the most important theme. They do not relate to the issue of the body itself, its training, or the revelation of its “secrets”.

Nieznalska and Baumgart touch upon relations between family members and they both refer to their own personal experiences, which they disclose in the interviews. In her work, Baumgart collected photographs of “happy” mothers and daughters from magazines, took similar ones of her daughter and herself, and put Christian emblems of suffering upon them. In the interview she talks about her relation with her daughter as a very difficult one, full of love and hate. One has a feeling that what interests Baumgart is art seen as a form of autotherapy, not as a way of dealing with power.

And one more layer of dangerous liaisons which I would like – following the curator – to mention: Kowalczyk notices that dealing with a body in a critical way can be dangerous for art itself. By that, she means that it is increasingly difficult for this kind of art to function in Polish cultural institutions because of institutional difficulties that people who promote this art meet (one could say that this exhibition is a counter-example). Thus what is dangerous in critical art in Poland seems to be its critical character itself.

What I find interesting here is the complicated relation with controversies these works of art cause. From one side this kind of art wants to violate social conventions, fixed borders, as well as our own habits, and thereby runs the risk of being attacked by those against whom it strikes out. There is a remark in the curator’s essay that the very term “critical art” is applied to those artists who provoked the largest number of comments and evoked the hottest response. She suggests that it is precisely the response that somehow testifies to critical character- it is just media response to this art, stink raised about it, continuous attacks on it, that reveal critical power of this phenomenon.(Ibid, 11.)

Simultaneously, though, she condemns this negative response and seems to call for an understanding in a sense of full acceptation and real appreciation. In fact, some reactions against critical art (those the most medial and spectacular) are at least controversial, not because of skepticism toward those works of art themselves but the form they assume – the form that disables any dialogue or discussion. One could observe several “actions” of this kind in Poland during the last few years such as, just to give two examples: the triggering of a scandal instead of describing it in a case of Katarzyna Kozyra’s Bonds of blood, or the destruction of Piotr Uklanski’s Nazis exhibited in Zacheta Gallery by famous Polish actor.

However, from the other side, it is hard to imagine critical art that would be generally accepted (it would probably mean that there is nothing to criticize). This kind of danger – rejection – is somehow written into it, and in the context of this exhibition doesn’t seem to be the worst. Media haven’t managed to trigger off a scandal this time (I relate to a note put in a local edition of Gazeta Wyborcza that appeared just before an opening and exhorted the gallery to put a notice “Only for adults” in front of the entrance as is done in some peep-shows). What is more, most of the viewers shrug their shoulders when hearing about seeming controversies, showing surprise: is there still someone indignant with that?

The critical art showed in this exhibition does not appall, but neither does it attract. This is not because of what it says, but how. Maybe the notion of “morbid” charm that I mentioned above as characteristic for the novel Dangerous liaisons would be useful here.