Polish Conceptual Art

Pawel Polit, Piotr Wozniakiewicz (eds), Refleksja konceptualna w sztuce polskiej. Doswiadczenia dyskursu: 1965-1975/ Conceptual Reflection in Polish Art: Experiences of Discourse: 1965-1975. Essays by Alicja Kepinska, Andrzej Kostolowski, Pawel Polit; interviews with Andrzej Turowski and Jerzy Ludwinski. Centrum Sztuki Wspólczesnej Zamek Ujazdowski, Warszawa 2000/ Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw 2000. 280 pp., 162 black and white ills, bibliography; biographical entries; index of names. Text in Polish and English.

This bilingual publication, which in the words of its editor Pawel Polit, aims to “provide a synthetic overview of Polish conceptual art” twenty-five years after the period of its prominence in Polish culture, makes a pertinent contribution to the current process of realigning the field of conceptual art. Until the late 1990s conceptual art has been largely seen as an exclusive product of North America and Western Europe, as the art of the ‘West’.

The book, presenting a plethora of original texts and documents of conceptual art in Poland during the late 1960s and early 1970s, as well as their contemporary assessment, was produced in the wake of two exhibitions shown at the Centre for Contemporary Art at the Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw in 1999.

Both of the exhibitions were reviewed in ArtMargins, which also published one of the catalogue essays before it appeared in print.(Reviews by Ken Lum and Adam Szymczyk, ARTMargins 1999; Pawel Polit’s essay in ARTMargins 2000.)

The exhibitions and its subsequent publication could not have come at a better time, as the recent years have brought about a plethora of major events and publications both in Europe and the Americas, expanding geographical boundaries of conceptual art by including non-western artists and movements into its canon.

The year 1999 witnessed, among others, the groundbreaking exhibition Global conceptualism at the Queens Museum in New York, which among various regional divisions featured a separate section of ‘Eastern European’ art, curated by the Hungarian art historian Laszlo Beke.

Michael Newman and Jon Bird’s collection of new essays on conceptual art, both published in the same year, included an article by the western critic and art historian Desa Philippi on the ‘existential dimension’ of idea-based art behind the Iron Curtain; “in an environment, which systematically denied the importance of individual expression, experience and memory.”(Jane Ferver, Luis Camnitzer and Rachel Weiss, Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin 1950-1980s, exh. cat., Queen’s Museum of Art, New York 1999, with an essay on Eastern Europe by Laszlo Beke; Desa Philippi, ‘Matter of Words: Translations in East European Conceptualism’, in Michael Newman and Jon Bird (eds), Rewriting Conceptual Art, Reaktion Books, London, 1999, pp. 152-68.)

The Warsaw exhibition and its bilingual catalogue might then be seen, in Bourdieu’s terms, as an example of strategic position-taking within the field of mainstream historiography, as a ‘regional’ Polish voice, which actively contributes to the process of redressing the gaps in Anglophone archives of conceptualism.

While doing so, it also corrects the very process by representing the Polish movement from inside, rather than through the levelling of the ‘Eastern European’ grid with totalitarianism as its sole certified context.

In order to make its voice heard, the whole volume has been translated into English, providing the English-speaking reader with access to an invaluable documentation of the original texts by a number of Polish artists. The artists, male and female alike, struggled on their own terms with the redefinition of art in parallel with their colleagues in other parts of the world.

The volume did not aspire to reproduce a standardised format of an exhibition catalogue. Instead, it was published a few years after the staged events. Even though the volume bears the date of 2000, the book appears not to have been distributed before 2002, as if in accordance to some of the principles of conceptual art, prioritising idea and event over matter and documentation.

Its publication coincided this time with some further shifts in the constantly realigned map of conceptualism, namely with an insightful article on Polish conceptual art published by Martin Patrick in Third Text, as well as with the most recent monumental overview of global conceptualism, including Eastern European contributions edited by Peter Osborne.

Eastern European contributions merge the rigorousness of a philosophical approach with the Phaidon editorial strategy of an aestheticised layout and lavish illustrations.(Martin Patrick, ‘Polish Conceptualism of the 1960s and the 1970s: Images, Objects, Systems and Texts’, Third Text, Spring 2001, pp. 25-45; Peter Osborne, Conceptual Art, Phaidon, London 2002.)

The Warsaw book is, in contrast, demonstratively modest, kept demonstratively within the 1970s mode of an ascetic black and white design, and makes no attempt to attract the uninitiated reader.

Responding to the textual premises of the ‘linguistic turn’, the book is devised as a juxtaposition of word and image. Its even pages (left-hand side) are thus taken by words, including essays and interviews with participant observers and the leading critics and curators of experimental galleries who were actively involved with the movement in the 1960s and the 1970s. The commentaries reflect on the historical significance of Polish conceptualism.

The section ends with Pawel Polit’s examination of the critical discourse of the conceptual movement in Poland from the position of the young curator who, not having himself experienced the events of the period, wants to reconstruct the movement by examining its theoretical content and accompanying discourse.

What follows on the left are original texts, written both by artists and their critics, arranged in chronological sequence from Jerzy Rosolowicz’s On neutral action, 1967, to Andrzej Dluzniewski’s Outsidedness, 1975.

Conversely, the odd pages on the right, are reserved for artists only, and display reproductions of conceptual statements as well as photographic documentation of conceptual interventions by individual artists and groups. All of the entries are in alphabetical order.

The very weight of the material assembled in this carefully researched anthology of texts and visual documents makes the book an indispensable position in any rapidly growing library of global conceptualism.

The opening essay of the book, written by the critic and art historian Alicja Kepinska, attempts to locate conceptual art in relation to philosophical inquiry in the ontology of art. However, her position advocates the belief that conceptual art supersedes all other arts.

She absolutises the conceptual questioning of the object and aesthetic-related art as the “arts response to its genetic outfit resulting in identification of its DNA structure.” She also assesses the movement in purely modernist terms as a “heroic effort of will to face the unknown” … “Art no longer argues about freedom, art is freedom. The gift we received has surpassed all expectations.”

If the reader is tempted to ask who actually constitutes the implied ‘we’ of this rhetorical pronouncement, she or he will be asserted that the gift of freedom is still accessible exclusively to a selective constituency of those already belonging to the field: artists, their critics, and some art historians.

The following essays and interviews with the theorists of the movement do not change such an assumption. They provide the reader with only slightly differing narratives of the development of conceptual art from the rejection of the object (Wlodzimierz Borowski) to an inquiry of linguistic premises of representation. These articles merge the field of art with that of philosophy and concrete poetry (Jaroslaw Kozlowski, Stanislaw Drózdz and Andrzej Dluzniewski).

The essays and interviews do not appear very helpful however in trying to answer some fundamental questions, which are usually posed in a historical framing of the regional variation of the wider artistic movement. The reader is left to his or her own conclusions.

What actually is Polish conceptualism? Are there any specific features of ‘Conceptual reflection in Polish art’?

Is it possible to analyse the relationship between various manifestations of Polish conceptualism with a philosophy that, following Peter Osborne’s inquiry, would distinguish between the wider ‘inclusive/weak’ conceptualism and the narrower ‘exclusive/strong’ conceptualism, which pastes itself on the field of philosophical inquiry in relation to art?(Peter Osborne, ‘Conceptual Art and/as Philosophy’, in Newman and Bird 1999, pp. 47-65.)

How strong or direct are its links with American and British art and artists, who were exhibited in Foksal Gallery, including Art & Language, Daniel Buren, Victor Burgin, On Kawara, Joseph Kosuth and Sol LeWitt?

Finally, and rather fundamentally, to what extent was the socio-political context of conceptual art in Poland, acknowledged en passant by most of the essays; its defining factor?

How can we theorise the interventionist actions in public space by Jaroslaw Kozlowski, Jerzy Fedorowicz and Ludmila Popiel which managed to both obey and transgress the conceptual premises of an art reflecting upon itself?

Andrzej Turowski observed at the end of the interview that conceptual art “became the Eastern European special” and that “in post-communist countries conceptual art enjoyed special popularity.”

“In some instances it allowed the artists to smuggle in contesting and irony, the ridicule and the caricature of political bureaucracy. In other situations it created alternative circuits (mail art, gallery in the form of a sheet of paper, photocopied materials), allowing artists to operate outside the monopoly of state institutions and exhibitions.”

Turowski’s remarks might be taken as an idea for another kind of critical assessment of conceptual art in this part of Europe; this time bringing directly into the fore its political strategies, as well as the hitherto ignored or obscured issue of its resonance in societies where conceptual art was produced.