Polish Conceptualism: Expanded, Politicized, Contested (Book Review)

Luiza Nader, Konceptualizm W Prl. Warsaw: Foksal Gallery Foundation, University of Warsaw Press, 2009. 429 PP.
?ukasz Ronduda, Polish Art of the 1970s. Jelenia Góra: Polski Western; Warsaw: Centre for Contemporary Art, Ujazdowski Castle, 2009. 379 PP.

The recent publication of Luiza Nader’s Konceptualizm w PRL and ?ukasz Ronduda’s Polish Art of the 1970s has served to reinvigorate a debate that has been ongoing in Poland since the 1970s. This debate centers around what it meant to be a radical artist in the 1960s and 70s. The cultural policy of the Polish authorities was among the most lenient in the Soviet “bloc”, allowing artists to pursue conceptualism and experimental action art. But there was a trade-off for this freedom: artists were to steer clear of politics. Thus the pursuit of artistic ‘autonomy’, if only as a traumatic response to the brief imposition of Socialist Realism, became highly politicized. What constituted radicalism in such circumstances remains far from clear cut, and the question of complicity continues to haunt critical engagement with Polish conceptualism.

The official status of a gallery like Galeria Foksal PSP in Warsaw might be read as a necessarily paradoxical tactical measure designed to secure autonomy from State intervention, thereby making it possible to engage in critical artistic activity. But was the relative autonomy of the institutions that came under the aegis of the Fine Arts Workshops (PSP) bought at too high a price? There is also the problematic status of other artists, not associated with state funded galleries, who relied on PSP commissions for their survival: artists such as the duo Kwiekulik. Far from aiming towards artistic autonomy, they hoped to implement reform by becoming Party members (without success), carrying out their unofficial artistic activities as an unremunerated parallel pursuit, alongside official commissions, and were continually frustrated that their radical ambitions could not be fulfilled through the types of official engraving work they had to take on.

The Gierek regime’s stated ambition to build a modernized, richer, more tolerant society (after 1970), even allowing for intellectual independence, has been called nothing but a charade: “intellectual freedom… was limited by highly developed censorship, and political freedom – by the policemen’s stick; in a word: economic and political quasi-liberalization were matched by cultural quasi-liberalization,”(Piotr Piotrowski, Dekada. O syndromie lat siedemdziesi?tych, kulturze artystycznej, krytyce, sztuce – wybiórczo i subiektywnie (The Decade: On the Syndrome of the Seventies, Artistic and Critical Culture, and Art –Selectively and Subjectively), (Pozna?: Obserwator, 1991), p. 10.)  How did this situation impact the values formulated by the Polish neo-avant-garde?

Wies?aw Borowski was vociferous in his opinion on the matter, publishing, in 1975, a controversial text in which he condemned a host of contemporary practices as “pseudo-avant-garde.” These practices, he maintained, represented “a fundamental misunderstanding in grasping the radicalism of artistic activity.”(Wies?aw Borowski, “W odpowiedzi odpowiedziom” (“A Response to the Responses”), Kultura no. 25 (627), June 22. 1975. p. 14.)  To the outrage of those involved, he named in person and attacked artists whose “pretentious practices” seemed to him to be without genuine value and “cloaked in pseudo scientific theoretical jargon.”(Wies?aw Borowski, “Pseudoawangarda” (“The Pseudo-avant-garde”), Kultura, no.12 (614), March 23, 1975. p. 12.)  In the early 1990s, the leading art historian Piotr Piotrowski still seemed inclined to agree, writing that “we had an avant-garde (…) but the values it formulated were often a sham,” likening the 1970s avant-garde to a Fiat car: “the point was that it existed at all, never mind whether or not it actually did what it was supposed to do.”(Piotrowski, Dekada, p.11.)

Today, however, the artists whom Borowski condemned in 1975 have been critically rehabilitated, and his arguments have been largely rejected, and Piotrowski has also retracted many of the views expressed in his book Dekada. But the historical debate about radical legacies, if conducted on a more nuanced level, remains very much alive. Nader and Ronduda’s publications reflect the continuation into the present of the antagonistic positions adopted by artists and critics in the 1970s. But both books also offer fresh insights into a wide spectrum of artistic practices and institutional contexts, enriching the methodological and theoretical framework for this debate.

They look very different. Nader’s is an elegant, monochromatic academic brick. Ronduda’s is a big, sexy, coffee table affair, illustrated by the artist Piotr Ukla?ski. Such visual differences are matched by disparities in written style. Nader begins politely, with a thorough survey of the literature in the field, going on to construct a nuanced and complex argument for Polish conceptualism as a critical ‘discursive formation’ whose key institutions she subjects to a serious scholarly revision. By contrast, Ronduda’s opening is dominated by with his own distinctive voice, offering his own definitions and proposing a new philosophical framework for categorizing 1970s practices. However, the chapters that follow are largely purged of theoretical framing, making way for primary source material and for artists’ statements about their work. This relative freedom from secondary sources and from the usual theoretical voices is in many respects very refreshing, making the text a pleasurable read.

The two publications propose very different approaches to the use of critical theory in art historical writing. Ronduda works from the premise that there is altogether too much stale theory within the field, and what are needed are new conceptual categories. He argues that the success of certain contemporary Polish artists on the globalized art scene has been a motor for rethinking the theoretical and artistic atmosphere of the 1970s – a process that he aptly terms “reverse pioneering.”  One of the ambitions of his book, then, is to show how the impact of the most original Polish art of the 1970s may yet prove sufficiently explosive to prompt an international categorical shift.

Nader, by contrast, deploys a wealth of international theory, past and present, re-reading the art of the past in relation to its contemporary texts. She scrutinises the discursive lives of works and texts to construct a fine web of inter-textual connections. This strategy illustrates how a more profound engagement with theory, deployed in tandem with close attention to concrete works, is one way to rescue Polish art from its provincial situation. Her frame of reference includes key work by Foucault, Barthes, Derrida, Rorty, Žižek, and Agamben. In relation to these thinkers, Nader demonstrates how Polish examples are more than adequate to the task of examining the relationship between conceptualism, structuralism, and post-structuralism.

An appraisal of two books together can easily serve to diminish their separate accomplishments, producing unproductive polarization and negative debates structured around what each one lacks. Perhaps surprisingly though, one can also identify certain shared aims. Above all, Nader and Ronduda both seek to insert what has, thus far, been essentially a Polish debate into the international arena. Ronduda plays his part by publishing the book in two editions, one Polish, one English, and securing its effective promotion on the international English language market, drawing attention in his text to emigration to the West of many of the artists he discusses. Nader pulls Polish art into the more mainstream fold through her consistent cross-referencing and comparisons of Polish artists to Western artists and theorists. When her book is translated into English, these links will prove invaluable in rendering often unfamiliar Polish practices accessible to a Western audience.

Nader analyzes the role of key institutions and state sponsored events in defining Polish conceptualism. Her engagement with the Galeria Mona Lisa, Galeria Akumulatory 2, Galeria Foksal, the 1970 Impossible Symposium in Wroc?aw, and the 8th meeting of artists and theorists at Osieki reveals an extraordinarily playful heterogeneity of artistic examples.  Neat distinctions between official and unofficial registers collapse under Nader’s analysis. She paints a portrait of conceptualism as a sophisticated philosophical enterprise, contaminated and confused, and wrestling with various traumas. Konceptualizmw PRL elucidates, with considerable sensitivity, the complex machinations of artists and institutions to pursue radically critical ends from within the PSP controlled system.

Ronduda is not interested in the potential radicalism of the institutions at the heart of Nader’s narrative, but seeks to redress the historical balance. He focuses on individuals whose work can lay claim to varying degrees of art historical neglect or marginalization: Marek Konieczny, Andrzej Lachowicz, Natalia LL, Jan ?widzi?ki, Kwiekulik, the Film Form workshop, Zdzis?aw Sosnowski and Akademia Ruchu, among others. “Pure conceptualism,” in this account, serves as a sort of straw man – rational, tautological, institutional. It provides a backdrop against which to display a set of practices that are more open to the ‘mystical’, the social, and the political. His ambition is to deconstruct the neo-avant-garde by re-organizing artists’ approaches according to new conceptual categories. In doing so, he seeks to trace the movement from what he calls post-essentialism (“trying to purge the conceptual essence of the work of art [as well as the existential essence of experience] of outside influences”), to what he calls “pragmatism” (the approach of those artists who “focused on an activist involvement in the nonartistic world”). The movement from essentialism to pragmatism corresponds to the movement from “art’s isolation” towards “art’s opening to reality,” and Ronduda seeks to articulate the variety of “postessentialist” practices located at the interstice. Both groups of artists worked, Ronduda writes “at the interface of art and life (…) combining artistic and existential issues”, but whereas the “postessentialists persisted in asking basic questions (Is there  pure essence of art? Looking for a girl for cyber sex, then you should visit the best free porn chat there are porn models and Amateur webcam girl homemade chat rooms, everything for you completely free without a credit card you will be able to register and chat with the girls from around the world. Are we capable of grasping the nature of being?), the pragmatists did not concern themselves with these matters”. They were more interested in purging “materiality” and in pursuing a “better life”.(?ukasz Ronduda, Polish Art of the 1970s, (Jelenia Gora: Polski Western; Warsaw: Centre for Contemporary Art – Ujazdowski Castle, 2009), pp. 8-9.)  Pragmatic thinking involved “a bitter sense that there was nothing except materiality (the physical finitude of our body, psyche, and reality itself)”. There is considerable slippage between such distinctions of course, and conceptual categories of this sort are rather difficult to police. But whether or not we agree with the new terms introduced into the field, Ronduda’s decision to restructure the fictional monolith of the so called neo-avant-garde is a provocative move that promises to reignite critical passion.

Ukla?ski’s close ups of photographed body-parts interrupt the textual field so as to form a counter-narrative, giving the publication its creative clout, and drawing attention to the central role of the visual in the construction of subjectivity. Nader approaches the question of subjectivity primarily through textual analysis, referring to the performativity of language, deconstructing modes of agency as designed to ask: what is freedom? In her discussion of Jerzy Ludwi?ski’s writings, she defines the conceptualist subject as “a subject who doubts, who searches, and in the end acts.”(Luiza Nader, Konceptualizm w PRL, (Warsaw: Foksal Gallery Foundation; University of Warsaw Press, 2009), p. 111.)  Both authors declare their investment in privileging subjectivity, acknowledging the many respects in which the desiring subject has been historically repressed in conceptualist discourse. These differences of focus produce verydifferent accounts of the same material, as becomes clear in their readings of the work of Krzysztof Wodziczko or Jaros?aw Kozlowski, which offer points of friction.

Nader’s account of the author’s failure to die is particularly instructive. She writes: “Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault never claimed that the author completely disappears. (…) Foucault concentrates on analyzing the function of the author as a function of discourse: on the modes of existence, circulation and the functioning of utterances. Conceptual art also appears not so much as the scene of a crime as of the return of the author.”(Nader, Konceptualizm. p. 136.)

Some of the most fascinating parts of the book are those where Nader offers close readings of particular artistic propositions, for example W?odzimierz Borowski’s extraordinary Gift of the Oven at the Art in a Changing World Symposium of Artists and Scientists at the Pu?awy Nitrate Works in 1966, during which the artist scandalously sang ‘urea’ to the tune of the National Anthem, making a mockery of the State’s promotion of a harmonious unity between artistic and industrial aims.

One of the highlights of Ronduda’s text is the lively chapter based on original archival research from the Institute of National Memory (IPN), which provides insight into the culture of spying and the paranoid conspiracy theories revolving around the Secret Police and artistic activities. Reports show that conceptualism was read as ‘pro-Western’, and therefore threatening, in the light of which investigations sometimes acquired an absurdist dimension. Ronduda recounts, for example, how a postcard ending ‘see you in New York’ sent to an address in Katowice by Janusz Haka became the pretext for an investigation (albeit a short-lived one) into possible links between the artist and a planned terrorist attack on a plane to New York.

Reading these two books, I missed a sense of engagement with the ways in which local dissident theory and Marxist revisionism provided alternative definitions of what was meant by radicalism in 1960s and 70s East-Central Europe. However, both publications offer a strong sense of the degree to which art historical tropes such as ‘style’ and ‘movement’ are woefully ill-equipped to deal with what Dick Higgins once called the ‘great ground swell of intermedia’ and its political dimensions. From each of these books, the voice of its author emerges with its own agenda. And yet, however antagonistic the critical positions they adopt, these can and should be viewed as complementary publications – not simply because they make the case for the radicalism of different artists and institutions, but also because both author’s affirm, in their own way, the creative role of art historians and curators in reactivating the art of the past through discourse. As both authors prove, there remains considerable mileage in the “radicalism” debate.

Klara Kemp-Welch. Image courtesy of the author.Klara Kemp-Welch is Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at The Courtauld Institute of Art in London, where she is researching artistic sociability and the exchange of ideas between the countries of the Soviet “bloc” and former Yugoslavia. She has published articles, catalogue essays and reviews, and is completing a book titled Figures of Reticence. The Antipolitics of Happenings.