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Issue 130

Konceptualizm w PRL / Polish Art of the 70s

Luiza Nader (University of Warsaw and Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw, 2009) / Lukasz Ronduda and Piotr Uklanski (Centre for Contemporary Art, Warsaw)

BY Monika Szewczyk in Critic's Guides | 01 APR 10

Lukasz Ronduda and Piotr Uklanski, 'Polish Art of the 70s', 2009. Centre for Contemporary Art, Warsaw. Courtesy: Polski Western, and the artist.

Two recently published volumes on the cultural foundations of contemporary art in Poland make it clear that opinion is starkly divided regarding the history of art and culture in the country. Luiza Nader’s Konceptualizm w PRL (Conceptualism in the People’s Republic of Poland) is the first comprehensive attempt to document and analyze the Conceptual art experiments of the 1960s and early ’70s. Published jointly by the University of Warsaw, where Nader lectures, and the Foksal Gallery Foundation, Konceptualizm w PRL is the culmination of extensive doctoral research. The book (published in Polish with a short summary chapter in English) is scholarly, thorough and inflected with the considered application of post-Structuralist theory – in particular, that of Michel Foucault – as well as the deft synthesis of artists’ writings, feminist aesthetic theory, the partisan criticism of the journal October and some of the giants of social art history in Poland. Nader stresses the discursive constitution of Conceptualism and how it is manipulated by the utterances of artists and critics. Rather than take these individuals as the main protagonists of her history, however, she examines the milieus of three pioneering contemporary art spaces in three different Polish cities: Galeria Pod Mona Lisa in Wrocław, Galeria Akumulatory 2 in Poznan´ and Galeria Foksal in Warsaw.

Comparing the black and white cover of Nader’s book to the lush, colourful, sexual image on the cover of Polish Art of the 70s, written by critic Łukasz Ronduda, with a visual concept by artist Piotr Uklan´ski, assists an understanding of the issues involved in the current historical debate. Nader’s cover uses a crop of an image documenting Jerzy Rosołowicz’s action Kineutronikon, undertaken at Galeria Akumulatory 2 in 1975. The work involved the destruction and sealing off of a film reel made on the instructions of the artist after its first and only projection, accompanied by the reading of a theoretical text about neutral action. Kineutronikon’s radical anti-visuality perfectly encapsulates Nader’s fundamental mistrust of the modern ‘I’ and ‘eye’ – the author and the image – within her historical project. In stark contrast, Polish Art of the 70s is both highly visual and more focused on the individual. For the cover, Uklanski has chosen a video still of the torso of a bare-breasted woman facing out towards the viewer, with a golden head, seen from the rear, apparently transfixed by her breasts. This is Marek Konieczny’s Santa Conversazione (Holy Conversation) – a silent film that explodes the notion of conversation with an unforgettable visual juxtaposition rather than an audible bang. Remarkably, the film was made in 1975: the very same year as the anti-retinal Kineutronikon. Konieczny’s image sets the wrong and strong visual tone of Ronduda and Uklanski’s entire book. Most of the images, which come from Ronduda’s personal archive, are arranged by Uklanski so as to enact the general argument of the essay, but they also reflect the artist’s personal influences and testify to the power of images alone. For regular readers of the innovative magazine Piktogram: Talking Pictures Magazine (edited by Michał Wolinski and with regular contributions from Ronduda), some of the images and several of the arguments – the idea of an image-based, wordless conversation, for example – will be familiar. Which is not to say that text is completely marginalized. Ronduda has based his chapters on key individuals (Konieczny, Paweł Freisler, Natalia L.L., Ewa Partum, Jan Swidzin´ski, Zbigniew Warperchowski, Krzysztof Zarebski and others) as well as certain key movements (Soc-art, Consumption art), and his approach aims at theoretical innovation, complete with a diagram at the outset – in the vein of Alfred H. Barr’s ‘flowchart’ that mapped the course of modern art – which categorizes avant-garde art in Poland as either ‘post-essentialism’ or ‘pragmatism’ (with respective subsets). These are rather fresh terms for art history, and the yardstick here remains the artist’s ability to intervene in social reality.

I get a thrill reading and observing these contrasting books – they testify to the vitality of historical construction underway in Poland, where the very vocabulary employed remains contentious. But one curious act of disappearance deserves a mention – namely, the erasure of the subtitle Awangarda (Avant-Garde), which appears on the Polish version of Polish Art of the 70s, but is omitted from the English edition. This may simply be the discarding of a cliché or of obsolete terminology in favour of a more deadpan title, or (following Nader and Jacques Lacan) we might consider that which has disappeared to be the real issue.