Poles Apart: The Irreconcilable Conflict of Aging
In 1989, the same year that British artists were responding to Thatcherite Britain by organizing art shows in warehouses, their Polish counterparts were trying to come to terms with a newly emerging political and social order that influenced and reshaped the Polish art scene.
The year 1989 marked Poland’s great economic crisis and, subsequently, the dramatic political transformation that took place in its aftermath. This, however, had been eased by the success of the “solidarity” movement and eventually led to the first free parliamentary elections in Poland. The end of the Communist era and the formation of the first freely elected government after World War II, along with the introduction of a free-market economy and a system of liberal democracy, were fiercely celebrated. Elsewhere in the world, significant events took place as well: in Russia, Gorbachev introduced perestroika; in Germany, the Berlin Wall fell after more than forty-five years of dividing the nation; and in China, the tragic events befell the pro-democracy protesters at Tienanmen Square.
In Poland, the nineties were a decade of struggle for the reconstruction and reconstitution of a national and individual identity. That was particularly true for the arts: an emerging generation of women artists was transforming the Polish art scene and was quite successful at voicing their concerns internationally. (Take for example Katarzyna Kozyra, who represented Poland in the 1999 Venice Biennale, winning international acclaim and being awarded a prize for “exploring and controlling the authoritarian dominion of male territory” (David Elliot, Hole Truth, Art Forum, September 1999, pp.150).)
Despite the sometimes-obvious parallels and often striking resemblances between themes and aesthetic concerns of Polish art practices on the one hand and Western European artists on the other [take, for example, the work by Katarzyna Kozyra entitled Bathhouse (1997), Tacita Dean’s film Gellert (16 mm, 1998), Kozyra’s The Animal Pyramid (1993), or Maurizio Cattelan’s Love Saves Live (1995)], overall, Polish artists followed a dramatically different route than their foreign counterparts.
To fully understand the complexity of the contemporary women’s art scene in Poland, it is vital to reflect on the country’s most recent history, as well as on its current sociopolitical context, the latter being much more complex than any visible economic transformation could ever be.
The far-from-stable political and social situation of the country, with its financial restrictions and a virtually nonexistent state funding of the arts, put Polish artists in a very uncomfortable position. The utter lack of a commercial infrastructure also meant that Polish artists were facing additional problems of a sort that British or American artists could never even imagine. For many years, art in Poland had been under the strong influence of the Catholic Church, which had controlled the country’s social and cultural life through its spiritual power. In the communist era, the church had always been perceived as a platform for expressing social reactions against the political system. Now, the clerical strategy concentrates on stripping people, including artists, of their individual freedom through imposing moral, behavioral and cultural restrictions on the less culturally and intellectually aware. As it assimilated and manipulated a wide range of symbols, ideas and methods that normally belong to the political sphere, the church became an obstacle for the development of a modern Polish culture.
Poland presents itself as a homogeneous country that is untouched by the multicultural, multinational and multireligious influences normally present in an open, liberal and democratic society. This undoubtedly contributes to a general tendency for nationalism, xenophobia and intolerance. On the whole, the current sociopolitical situation in Poland could be described as a post-totalitarian quasi-democracy, where instead of a gradual evolution of the whole system, democratic elements have simply been introduced into the old system, thus constantly restituting it. Moral conservatism collides with the influence of Anglo-Saxon mass culture and the visual language of advertising and desire. (Leszkowicz, Art and Gender in the Magazyn Sztuki no 2 (2/ 99), pp.88.)
What, then, is the current climate of the Polish women’s art scene? It becomes immediately clear that questions of identity, gender, sexual difference and “otherness” are generally not addressed, although these are the issues with which the current feminist debate is concerned. Instead, both Polish politicians and the clergy promote a dominant model of female identity that is based on heterosexuality and a rigid division of gender roles, whereby femininity is portrayed as a fixed position in a male-dominated society.
These are the ready-made sociocultural costumes providing yet another stereotype for a superficially homogeneous society. Gender and identity, channeled through the various aspects of individual and social life, do not seem to be an issue. Consequently, there is virtually no space for debate. Self-identity is a product of individualism, but in Poland the absence of individualism comes from the totalitarian political system of the past and the current doctrines of the Catholic Church, as well as from the rapid commercialization of modern Polish society.
All this, however, produces a natural reaction, which in Poland manifests itself through the present women artists’ diverse perspectives and practices. Their reaction could be summed up as either a total rejection of the past with all its ballast of tradition and history–an approach that inevitably positions the artist on the defensive or passive side–or the increasing search for a more universal language capable of paving the way for a new internationalism.
The latter is the case for the young generation of women artists who are particularly concerned with opening up an international debate on the position of Polish art. Only now women are willing to speak with their own voice rather than speaking with the vox populi as most artists of previous generations have done. Destroying the myth of a homogeneous culture, they set out to explore in a more uncompromising manner a whole range of issues concerning feminist discourse, including issues of identity, the body, female physicality and biology, the contemporary concept of beauty, relationships, and the Other.
This particular interest, central to the current universal debate in art, is channeled mainly through the body. Artists frequently look at the suffering and occasionally distorted body (Katarzyna Kozyra), the body in relation to other bodies (Alicja Zebrowska) and, finally, the cyborgian visions of the body in search of the universal: the non-gendered body (Barbara Konopka) or the all-in-one-gender-body (Alicja Zebrowska). All of these approaches can be regarded as the regaining and renegotiating of a personal freedom that has been repressed by the political system of the past and by the Catholic doctrine of the present.
Katarzyna Kozyra, Barbara Konopka and Alicja Zebrowska represent the young generation of women artists who revolutionized the Polish art scene in the nineties by breaking out of its set concern with locality/ethnicity and engaging in a universal context.
Kozyra made her entrance in the Polish art scene with her graduation work Animal Pyramid which immediately aroused much attention in the early nineties. Drawing on one of Grimm’s fairy tales, Kozyra used the taxidermic specimens of a horse, a dog, a cat and a rooster to tell the very dramatic story of her own life, which had been marked by the disquieting experience of living on the verge of death. Most disturbing to the audience was the fact that Kozyra crossed the border between the real and the artificial in such a way that the artificial seemed more real than reality itself. By breaking social and cultural conventions, she provoked a wide debate on issues that had until that time been a cultural taboo.
In 1996, Kozyra presented yet another work that permanently secured her position in the international art world. Her work Olympia–a triptych of two photographic works, one of which is a reference to Manet’s masterpiece, while the other shows an old woman sitting on a bed naked, a velvet choker around her terribly thin and aged neck, and a video of Kozyra herself being medically treated–takes on a female form as the starting point for an artistic exploration of the body’s imperfections.
It shows a body that is suffering, a body that has been distorted by a fatal disease, and finally, a body that undergoes the natural yet somehow unaccepted process of aging. Again, through this body of work, more universal concerns are expressed, such as the contemporary concept of beauty and femininity, social and cultural stereotypes, and social tolerance for those who do not quite fit into the modern canon of perfection. In other words, Kozyra’s work tests the limits of social tolerance; it is about the notion of the Other within us, about “difference” in a broader context of art history.
Kozyra’s most recent video project, Bathhouse (1997), was inspired by the rituals of a communal bathhouse in Budapest and makes reference to Ingress’s Turkish Bath and Rembrandt’s Susannah in the Bath. It was shown at the Venice Biennale 1999 (Bathhouse for Men) and deals with issues of voyeurism, the public and the private, beauty and aesthetic aging.
The embarrassment that we feel as we watch this work comes from our own fake image of the body, which, confronted with the naked reality, reveals itself as a false cultural canon that is imposed on all of us, but especially on women. In all of the above assertions, Kozyra (For more works by Katarzyna Kozyra see: http://www.zacheta-gallery.waw.pl/biennale.html.) is in line with such artists as Orlan, Helen Chadwick or Hannah Wilke.
Barbara Konopka (See: http://www.csw.art.pl/new/99/7_kondl.html.) is especially interested in the possibilities that the latest technologies offer in relation to the human body. As she explores the possibilities of the digitally transformed body, Konopka creates the representation of a non-gendered human cyborg.
In Konopka’s work, issues of identity and gender are expressed through the images of an asexual body that exists in a sphere beyond gender division. But not only the physical aspect of humanity is important to the artist. Her work is, above all, an attempt to propose a new model for the human condition, one that is free from physical constraints and at the same time a subversion of Platonic dualism.
Disturbing as they are, Konopka’s digital visions of the future form of humanity should be read as a direct reference to sci-fi aesthetics (See: Sci-fi Aesthetics, Art and Design, Profile no 56 guest-edited by Dr. Rachel Armstrong, 1997.), and as such they contribute to the general debate on the relation between a rapidly developing technology on the one hand and humanity on the other.
Concerned with genetic modification, the desire for a transcendent Platonic dualism and the limiting aspects of the gendered body, Konopka offers her deeply personal vision of a non-oppositional binary structure, which places her in the theoretical tradition of Mark Derry or Donna Haraway (Konopka’s works can be read as a reference to the theoretical debate of such writers as Mark Dery, Escape Velocity (Hodder & Stoughton, 1996); Donna Haraway Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reincarnation of Nature (New York, Routlege, 1991); “Future Natural” edited by George Robertson and Melinda Mash (Routlege, New York & London, 1991); and The Cyborg Handbook edited by Gray Ch. (Routlege, New York & London, 1995).), and puts her side by side with contemporary artists such as Jake and Dinos Chapman, Mariko Mori or VNS Matrix.
Alicja Zebrowska (See: http//www.csw.art.pl/zebr/index.html.) looks at issues of female identity in a similar way, as she, too, creates visions of the perfect non-gendered body. Her most recent work Onone–World After World most explicitly represents her feminist interests and is in response to a sexually frustrated and disorientated humanity.
Zebrowska shocked the Polish art world in the early nineties with her radical perspective and her explicit comments, arousing confusion and consternation in the ever-conservative establishment.
In Onone, that which is lost in reality is represented and repossessed in a fantasy world. Objects, relations and experiences resist the flow of time, thus reaching a wider sense of existence. Under the influence of hypnosis, the artist explores otherwise hidden emotions, her deepest fears and desires. It is only through emotions that a new gender is born out of another dimension–Onone.
Onone is an autoerotic and androgynous structure; physically neither male nor female, it relates to the Platonic concept of “entity” or “oneness,” where both male and female elements are integrated and represented as one. The seductively visual and futuristic concept of Onone is a response to the desires and longings of humanity at the end of the twentieth century. In this phantasmagoric vision of the perfect human body, both sexual and emotional concerns are expressed.
The above-mentioned artists attempt to broaden the cultural dialogue and bring forth their unique perspective on art by using a plethora of symbols, iconography and media. The significant shift they represent in terms of themes and approaches can be traced back to the selection of women artists that represented Poland in the last three consecutive editions of the Venice Biennale.
From Alina Szapocznikow and Magdalena Abakanowicz (See: http://www.csw.art.pl/old/abakang.html.) in 1995, to Zofia Kulik (See: http://fototapeta.art.pl/fti-inv10zkl.html.) in 1997 and, finally, Katarzyna Kozyra in 1999, they all contributed works that made a bold statement about the Polish art scene of the time and the position of its women artists within.
In an attempt to describe the main changes (One of the most recent attempts to review the current situation in the Polish contemporary art practice was the exhibition At The Time of Writing at The Warsaw Center of Contemporary Art in the summer of 1998. It set out to map the most interesting contemporary ideas in art in a current cultural and social context. It included Katarzyna Kozyra, Anna Baumgart and Ewa Lowzyl, among others. (Catalogue courtesy of Grzegorz Borkowski, CSW, Warsaw).) that have occurred over the last decade, one cannot disregard practical problems. There is, on the one hand, a slowly emerging art market with a growing number of commercial galleries, collectors, dealers, auctions, private sponsorships and media attention, on the way to becoming a driving force behind a thriving art production.
However, the former intellectual elite that supported the arts in the past is now financially incapable of continuing its sponsorship, and the newly emerging bourgeoisie is neither aware of contemporary art’s potential, nor able to appreciate it fully. Yet this bourgeoisie is formulating a new critical language in order to comprehend the current developments of art, and translate them into a broader sociocultural context.
Apart from these practical considerations, it is the young generation of women artists who are on the front line of the international scene. They engage in universal issues that are addressed to a global audience, and they use diverse media, including the latest digital technologies.
This is what marks the distinction between the young and the old, the latter of which still focus on Polish locality and ethnic symbolism, still plagued by an inability to look beyond the Polish history of messianism and totalitarian power that has paralyzed the country for decades.
This is not to disregard or refuse the artistic or moral value of works by previous generations of women; however, for an artwork to become an important part of the current cultural debate and secure its place in art history, it is essential to engage with and represent the most recent social and cultural concerns, inasmuch as they are a part of the collective consciousness. It is vital that the work carries more than just a local or ethnic identity, that it is of a universal aesthetic.
Thus there is a distinction between those women artists who still represent a male-dominated discourse in Polish contemporary art and those who “feminize” the discourse in a fresh and powerful way.
A different version of this essay was published in Make 86 (1999).