Keeping Both Feet on the Ground
Keeping Both Feet on the Ground within the project ‘Nature Reserve’
bwa Contemporary Art Gallery in Katowice 2015
Publisher bwa Contemporary Art Gallery Director: Marek Kuś al. W. Korfantego 6 • 40-004 Katowice (pl) phone +48 32 25 99 040 fax +48 32 25 99 324 www.bwa.katowice.pl firstname.lastname@example.org Editor Marta Lisok Translation Małgorzata Mieszkowska-Nebioglu English Proofreading Clare Fitzsimmons
All rights of publication, reproduction and adaptation reserved. © 2015 • bwa Contemporary Art Gallery First edition • Katowice 2015 Concept & design Jan Piechota Paper Munken Print Cream 18 115 g/m² Binding PopʼSet, Spring Green 240 g/m² Printing and binding Drukarnia Archidiecezjalna ul. Wita Stwosza 11 40-042 Katowice Printed in Poland The fonts used are Edita and Edita Small Text, designed by Pilar Cano (type-together)
Marta Lisok Keeping Both Feet on the Ground
Agnieszka Kwiecień Aspiring Towards Diffusion. Landscape as a Premonition of Disaster and Pursuit of Death
Anna Lebensztejn Discovering the Landscape. A Few Words on the History and Meaning of the Genre 34
Paweł Drabarczyk Landscape with Sublimity in the Background (or in the Foreground)
Weronika Kasprzyk Kopalniok River 60
Paweł Szeibel Pinus Sylvestris
Aneta Rostkowska Potential Landscape. Interview with Hortensja Kowalik 74
Bartosz Zaskórski The Village of Dinosaurs The Village of Dancing Buses The Village Where People Feel Peace 82
Ewa Łączyńska-Widz Would You Be So Kind and Check My Hair for Soil?
Michał Gayer The Swing and the Hot Chocolate, the Sparkling Cat and Mating Rituals of Owls 85
Keeping Both Feet on the Ground
I have driven through the Southwest many times, and even more often have flown over it – a great and mysterious wasteland, a sun-punished place. (…) It seems deserted, free of parasitic man, but this is not entirely so. Follow the double line of wheel tracks through sand and rock and you will find a habitation somewhere huddled in a protected place, with a few trees pointing their roots at under-earth water, a patch of starveling corn and squash, and strips of jerky hanging on a string. There is a breed of desert men, not hiding exactly but gone to sanctuary from the sins of confusion. At night in this waterless air the stars come down just out of reach of your fingers. In such a place lived the hermits of the early church piercing to infinity with unlittered minds. The great concepts of oneness and of majestic order seem always to be born in the desert. The quiet counting of the stars, and observation of their movements, came first from desert places. I have known desert men who chose their places with quiet and slow passion, rejecting the nervousness of a watered world. These men have not changed with the exploding times except to die and be replaced by others like them.1
1 John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley – In Search Of America (New York: Viking Press, 1962), [n. pag.]
In 1962, John Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The very same year, accompanied by his dog, he embarked
on a camper van journey around the United States and took notes for his Travels with Charley. He tells of the usa from the perspective of its wilds, preceding Jean Baudrillardʼs America by 36 years. El despoblado fires the imagination. In 1940 Georgia OʼKeeffe bought Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, where she could regularly escape from the noisy hustle of New York, to take pictures and paint the animal remains that were scattered all over the dry red soil. Walter De Maria, Donald Judd, Nancy Holt, Roni Horn and other displaced land artists perceived the desert as an experience that allowed them to reset their senses. Boundlessness devours anyone who dares to penetrate it. Desolate places say a great deal about what travellers have left behind. Being allowed to stay somewhere by oneself and merge with the surrounding empty landscape provides you with a new perspective. Michał Smandekʼs mind always has a plan for his next journey. His imagination does not follow the thinking pattern of a settled person; rather, it is like a map with densely spaced traces that mark his travels, routes and points earned. Smandek aims for the inaccessible – post-industrial, steppe, lifeless or wild locations, for which he devises his subtle interventions. There, he documents spontaneous nature-made sculptures, or tries to push the limits that are imposed by nature by arranging his frail installations. His work borders on performance, photography and reportage. He views nature as an environment that requires complementary elements. This is why he buries air-filled balloons underneath the ground, plants fish tanks in a muddy pond, or builds geometrically shaped causeways. In the photo entitled The Knife Work, he depicts a minimal cut on the scorching, breeze-ruffled surface of the Gobi Desert. Mikołaj Szpaczyński makes a cast of his own foot, using sand, rock dust, forest twigs and bark that stuck to his shoes during his walking trips. There is no need for grand words to explain this private ritual. After all, the essence of art is its ‘unnecessity’. Actually,
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we could skip the interpretation altogether, in accordance with the principle that entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity. As Willem de Kooning put it in one of his interviews, ‘Content (…) is a glimpse of something. (…) Itʼs very tiny, very tiny, content’. Susan Sontag referred to these words in her famous essay Against Interpretation. Her basic point was that art would never recover its innocence from the times preceding the formulation of big theories, when it did not need to explain itself, as it perfectly fitted into rites and rituals. According to Sontag, painstaking analysis and attempts at interpretation are stifling and destructive. For her, they are the intellectʼs revenge upon art. Excessive growth of theories happens at the cost of the ability to experience real feelings. Content is a glimpse that manifests itself only for a moment, partially, whimsically, and with embarrassment. When Mikołaj Szpaczyński shakes sand off his shoes, he does not provide this act with a theoretical framework. He only says ‘I guess this work is my most complete depiction of myself so far’.
Mikołaj Szpaczyński, A Cross-Country Foot, cast made from sand and dust stuck to boots, 2014.
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We are in the future. There is a dream about post-modern nature, which will be able to devour, surround and suck objects into itself, before it blurs into distance. Direct contact with nature is known only from hearsay. As for dark wild forests, crystal clear lakes and wilderness untouched by human feet – they seem to be only a remote echo of deformed, entangled and contradictory tales. Having been manipulated and transformed, nature has become absorbed by civilisation. It is being devised, created and controlled. First-hand experience of nature is an out of the ordinary situation and it can only occur under strictly specified conditions in nature reserves. The exhibition ‘Keeping Both Feet on the Ground’ requires that artists work on these circumstances, creating substitutes, artificial fill-ins, imitations of nature. Their task is to conjure up nature from scratch, so that its wildness and unpredictability could be colonised one more time. Nature becomes condensed, pressed and tamed like a river bank covered with concrete, which does not allow a rushing river to find its outlet, and changes it back into an enormous and dangerous power. Artists cast the death masks of nature, trying to immortalise it in their works, so as to recollect the circumstances that have already faded from memory, leaving behind only dim and worn out shreds that can be used as a base for attempts to imagine idyllic moments in the bosom of nature. Justyna Gruszczyk presented the exhibition with the description of her project Acapulco. Her idea was to produce a pile of coconut-scented and aspartame-sweetened snow, so that it would taste like coconut ice-cream. A small note that contains the recipe for this artwork has turned yellow, giving it the appearance of an ageold find – a prescription to be used in new times, the ones in which the experience of frolics in the snow has been long forgotten. Justyna Mędralaʼs installation is made of coal. Shiny layers of black flowers are piled into meticulous structures – stalactites covered with some outgrowths, which resemble fossils, pieces found
Justyna Gruszczyk, Acapulco, project of scented installation, 2015. Photo: Barbara Kubska.
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in an excavation. The alchemy of these lavish coal formations might be a remnant of the very first, original state of things, a fossilised remnant of the original softness. It is no longer possible to return to the soothing experience of blending into the thicket of a garden. All that is left is the sharp, cutting edges of the forms that have been built from coal slates; sombre, still moonscape. Kornel Janczy assumes the role of an astronomer. His work has the look of prints presenting God as a grand surveyor, who measures the world with a pair of huge compasses. The installation was made using cardboard elements, with an image taken with the Hubble Space Telescope printed on them. Bits of the Universe have been chopped into separate geometrical figures, creating a model, a sort of jigsaw puzzle with most elements missing. ‘Wildness’ and ‘naturalness’ have become anachronistic words. Memories of them are evoked during private rituals, such as the one performed by Magdalena Starska. The artist presents the gallery with snug landscapes that she knows from home. When exploring the grammar hidden in simple everyday gestures, she follows the principle: ‘It is fine to be a cleaner, not because you make the place clean, but because you can let some air in between bones, and allow them to break’. 2 Starska builds wobbly statues using food leftovers – cake and bread crumbs, and she examines the sun rays that enter her flat on winter afternoons, analysing the structure of cracks on the walls. She is fully alert, perfectly sensitive to the stimuli that allow her to reproduce great geological and natural processes in mundane objects and everyday homelife. There is a plaster statue of a volcano, which rests on an ordinary kitchen pot with water boiling in it. The steam goes up and out through the volcano, as if it was smoke that threatens an eruption. Next to the volcano there are statues resembling icebergs. Their shapes have been moulded by pouring plaster into standard plastic carrier bags.
2 E. Fofikow, ‘Odtwarzanie świata’ in Magdalena Starska, ed. J. Banasiak (Zielona Góra − Warszawa: [n. pub.], 2015), p.51.
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i. In the war of sun and dryness against living things, life has its secrets of survival. (…) The beaten earth appears defeated and dead, but it only appears so. A vast and inventive organization of living matter survives by seeming to have lost. The gray and dusty sage wears oily armour to protect its inward small moistness. Some plants engorge themselves with water in the rare rainfall and store it for future use. Animal life wears a hard, dry skin or an outer skeleton to defy the desiccation. And every living thing has developed techniques for finding or creating shade. Small reptiles and rodents burrow or slide below the surface or cling to the shaded side of an outcropping. Movement is slow to preserve energy, and it is a rare animal which can or will defy the sun for long. A rattlesnake will die in an hour of full sun. Some insects of bolder inventiveness have devised personal refrigeration systems. Those animals which must drink moisture get it at second hand – a rabbit from a leaf, a coyote from the blood of a rabbit. One may look in vain for living creatures in the daytime, but when the sun goes and the night gives consent, a world of creatures awakens and takes up its intricate pattern. Then the hunted come out, and the hunters, and the hunters of the hunters. The night awakes to buzzing and to cries and barks.3
3 Steinbeck, [n. pag.]
Michał Gayer likes to stroll in Silesia Park at night. This is when he can collect sounds – hoots, rustles and flutters heard in the bushes. He calls it ‘Night-time Outings’. On one of these jaunts his camera flash-light comes across a carcass. When wilderness disappears, it is easier to find places that conceal some remains, debris, fragments. Then they could be examined, described and catalogued, and possibly, hopefully – brought back to life sometime in the future. There are a few artists – contributors to this exhibition – who make an attempt to revive such remains,
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resuscitate them, rescue remnants of nature, believing that they are the only point of reference, the nub of things, the mainspring. Krzysztof Maniak likes his daily lonely walks in the area of Tuch贸w. He sets about to portray the melancholy landscape of the Polish hinterland, without concern for the simplicity of the theme. The lack of exoticism in the monotonous dry grass, pine woods, blackthorns and grey patches of melting snow does not seem to weary him. He bravely forces his way through thick bushes and scrub, letting thistles stick into his clothing. There is consistency in his attempts to feel at home. He differentiates various types of nesting habits, such as pressing down grass, stretching one始s body to measure distance between tree trunks or becoming part of the geometrical constellations created by twigs and piles of stones. In front of the camera, he puts on performances that are a kind of a simulated communication with the wilderness, which takes place under certain conditions and at a specific time. These regular training sessions in hard areas and scrambling-through-shrubs workshops are supposed to bring him into contact with the wildlife sanctuary. What Krzysztof Maniak does is reverse the process of colonisation. He is looking for nature that he could grapple with and mark on a map. He tries to blend in with the landscape, balancing on one leg in an awkward costume made from dry bush or hanging from a tree branch that is going to break soon. His figure leaves the frame, what remains is nature itself. Yet it is still the artist who allows this visual domination of nature to happen in the groomed form of landscape, which viewers are served with for contemplation. Maniak始s subsequent recordings reveal a change in his contact with nature. There is less and less bustle in his botanical procedure and we can hear the sensitivity akin to that of a legendary performer Bas Jan Ader, with his passion for melancholy, farewells and possible failure. The artist has become famous for his
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Magdalena Starska, The Inside of a Single-Use Plastic Bag, gypsum plaster, cement dye, 2012. Photo: Barbara Kubska.
documentation of his own failures, which include a free fall from a roof of his house, riding a bike deep into a river or setting up traps for himself. One of his works featured his clothes strewn all over the roof of his house, as if someone had left them and gone swimming. Finally, equipped in a camera and a tape recorder, he left Cape Cod in a small boat with the aim of crossing the Atlantic, and vanished into the blue. His body has never been found, which triggered many speculations regarding his fate. When looking at the thicket, Maniak succumbed to the temptation of escape. His most recent videos reveal preparations for his own vanishing. Instead of resorting to spectacular effects, he opts for humble Polish countryside. His fantasies revolve around sinking into rotten tree trunks, stepping into velvety conifers and dry,
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cracking twigs, or burying himself under dry leaf mould. Is there anything more picturesque than fabulous vanishing in a woods – this most primordial shelter and simplest hideaway? Recently, Bartosz Zaskórski has been coming up with his greatest ideas during walks. Rhythmical, steady pace straightened out a sea of thoughts. His observations led him to conjure possible extensions to the surrounding environment. This is how he came up with short stories about fictitious villages. All villages in the project have been arranged in numerical order. For instance, ‘Village Nr 8’ appeared in the area of a disused amusement park with statues of dinosaurs. Its inhabitants do not bother to build houses, as they have moved into interiors of dinosaur plaster casts – and keep living there surrounded by paws, tails and chests belonging to the imitations of these ancient animals. Zaskórski says that these villagers communicate by means of sounds that had allegedly been used by dinosaurs themselves – barking and shouting. Their small group consists of people who shared a childhood fascination with these reptiles. Their fascination was a protective shield against worries, just like now the plaster casts protect them from rain and wind. So we find Bartosz Zaskórski roaming these swampy villages and conducting his research on their endemic, fictional inhabitants. His made up villages lie on the very edges of the map or on its folds, where paint begins to come off – so they are placed on so called blank pages and this is why they might display various types of savagery or degeneration. This situation has its effect on land development planning. The fencing that surrounds the buildings is quite low, trees have been felled and the whole terrain has been flattened out. Their houses have huge windows that overlook other buildings and the main square. However, the local population do not appear to be very close-knit. Being in view of other people seems to be just enough to let them live peaceful lives. When they do engage in a conversation or meet one another,
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the range of topics is limited to the weather, the current season and the last festivities. Zaskórski describes his strategy as: fictitious research on fictitious venues, conducted with the use of fictitious and vaguely defined methodology. The word ‘village’ is only a loosely established starting point (and this is equally true of the associations attached to this word). This land, which is the focus of the artistʼs research, seems to be completely isolated from the outside world and its reality is defined through its inhabitants’ fixations. The whole takes on the shape of a nature documentary, with static frames displaying the natural world. The pictureʼs accompanying soundtrack features field recordings, misappropriated samples and various sounds generated by means of analogue equipment. The narratorʼs voice seems to belong to someone who has grown fed up with the job of being an invisible expounder, doing research on these villages, and then writing and reading his reports. There is one more walking enthusiast who wishes to lead our thoughts astray. It is Mateusz Sadowski, whose video entitled Call allows us to dive deep into thickets, realigning our perspective to that of a mobile phone user who browses through images of a forest on the screen. We can see fingers caressing the landscapes that become displayed. Now and again a rainbow-coloured skull comes into view. The vibrant greenery of bushes and trees can be touched, as it becomes tamed by the mobile phone screen. The film has a hypnotic, lazy rhythm, with fingers moving in an unhurried manner, to the accompaniment of an ominous soundtrack, which introduces a sense of doom. Finding oneʼs place in the landscape is made possible through playing with mediation. When humans tightly cling to technological prostheses, they move away from direct contact with the material world and their surroundings. Their world shrinks down to fit the size of the screen display. This screen, as Sadowskiʼs film suggests,
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is a window on the world which can be experienced only through mediation, and which renders everything neat, clean and aestheticized. The title of the work refers to a ringing phone, and at the same time to a cry, a voice of nature beseeching us for physical contact. It calls us to come and visit. Contact with reality occurs through a hygienic screen because direct experiencing has become castrated and blocked. A rainbow-coloured skull, which appears as the reflection of a person on the polished screen, looks ‘pretty’, it is like a precious object that everyone would like to own.
Jakub Czyszczoń, Untitled, cotton, varnish, oil paint, modified plant fragments, 2014. Photo: Barbara Kubska.
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4 Steinbeck, [n. pag.]
Death seems incredibly aesthetic and lovely – well, in the worst case it might be remote or someone elseʼs. Definitely not ours. Jakub Czyszczoń urges us to shed tears of sorrow over non-existing nature. The final form of the images – tombs, which he has subjected to multiple processing, seem to astonish even the author himself. They are sort of annoying, with their undefined status that has been copied from the reality of a dream, deprived of logic or predictability. They were conceived at the worst possible time, just before dawn, when usefulness and practicality become put to the sidelines. What Czyszczoń opens for us is museums of found objects, archives full of traces, creases on clothes, folds, wrinkles and remains. They are creations that roam the borders of nature and culture: makeshift beds, wonderfully geometrical shakedowns, and goods that could only come out of a suspicious-looking picnic basket or a nomadʼs rucksack. He adorns his canvasses with neatly arranged leaves. Then he covers them with a layer of varnish. This is how all movement and rustling become frozen under the surface. ii. (…) Unwanted places like the desert might be the harsh mother of repopulation. For the inhabitants of the desert are well trained and well armed against desolation. Even our own misguided species might re-emerge from the desert. The lone man and his sun-toughened wife who cling to the shade in an unfruitful and uncoveted place might, with their brothers in arms – the coyote, the jackrabbit, the horned toad, the rattlesnake, together with a host of armored insects – these trained and tested fragments of life might well be the last hope of life against non-life.4 Magdalena Lazar has made a documentation of Kraków-based hippy Hermes, who chose freedom and turned his back on life
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Magdalena Lazar, Real Objects, (fragment) photography installation, 2015.
in the city many years ago. The artist took photos of everyday objects that allow him to survive on the margins of civilisation, in the luxury of being a have-not. Hermes only acknowledges real objects â€“ some rainproof clothing, a knife, matches, a piece of rope, simple food in small amounts, a hammer, and ash in the place of cleaning detergents. As for present-day commodities, he uses them only occasionally and sparingly. At night, tethered on a lawn almost in the city centre are his two grey horses that he uses as a means of transportation and to support his living. Magda Lazar says that once, in the winter, Hermes converted the balcony on her ground floor flat into a feeding rack. This was when he was still living in Tyniec and my flat was on the way to the city centre. iii. Magda Franczak paints a bog on a small canvas, employing a sign that is traditionally used to mark boggy areas on maps. With lines and words left out of view, we face a struggle with
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waterlogged, swampy element. A glimpse at the word ‘bog’ makes us, in our imagination, to trespass ‘a real bog’. Dark gunk sticks to our legs, as we bring them back to the surface with difficulty, only to sink back into squelching puddles. Feeling unsteady on the potholes, we keep wading through. Measuring oneʼs existence in the world by means of a rhythmic pace sounds very soothing. Listening to oneʼs footsteps on a walk like this puts everything in the right proportions. In one of our first discussions on this exhibition, Michał Gayer asked me which combination of artworks would best reflect my experience of being inside a landscape – meaning it to be a curatorial experiment. I said that assuming this exhibition was being held in my imagination, I would go for The Swing by Fragonard, hung right next to Helen Chadwickʼs Cacao. Soft leaves that envelop the characters in the picture, the swing that swirls air into gusts, chopping the stuffiness of the summer garden, juxtaposed with thick, sticky fountain – lushness, overabundance and motion; an anthill, with its continuous shuddering and pulsation, which brings to mind the long-forgotten sensation of unbearable itching that follow insect bites.
Magdalena Franczak, Bog, acrylic on canvas, 2010.
Aspiring Towards Diffusion. Landscape as a Premonition of Disaster and Pursuit of Death
1 At least this is how Michel Houellebecq presents the potential land of the future in his Possibility of an Island.
The female protagonist has achieved immortality at least in a sense. Every time she dies, another clone of her appears, along with a clone of her life companion – the dog. It is as if she herself continued to endure, but my heroine feels that this ‘as if’ makes a dramatic difference. She-clone is the exact genetic copy of her previous clone. Her condition is the one of a certain kind of continuity. Is this how proper immortality is realised? Is it this very myth happening, or rather – a variation of this human dream, in which one does not need to give up death as an individual? Is it perfect, then? Desires to exist and to die are both fulfilled. Yet this utopia does not turn out to be a land of joyfulness. The heroine lives in isolation, totally deprived of physical contact with other human beings. Her world has survived a disaster, bearing resemblance to the one depicted in so many futurologist myths. Stricken by drought, with devastated greenery, dried up seas, and inhabited by degenerate people who fight for survival or become the chosen ones – like our heroine – ‘neo-people’ who feed themselves through photosynthesis.1 Alone but for her canine companion, she stays in a fortress house, fenced off from the unfriendly outer world. It is hard to say what she really wants or longs for. And it cannot be said that she suffers, because she does not seem to experience overwhelming or intense emotions. She is suspended in the state of melancholy. Seized by a sudden feeling of anxiety, our heroine decides to leave her hermitage in search of the Island,
which might or might not exist – looking for the Green Island, which would become a remedy for all longings and loneliness. By stepping into the world that is placed outside the gates of her current shelter, the heroine chooses mortality. Her body begins to experience discomforts of physicality – it itches, bleeds, becomes covered with blisters, and aches. It is a momentous time – she embarks upon a path that has been shaped by nature, leaving behind technological achievements that were supposed to be a guarantee of life that would be safe, stable, free of physical and mental suffering, organised, with a predictable formula from the beginning until death. She has chosen a journey towards the unknown, a change, she feels a sudden desire to encounter wilderness. Later, when we were traversing a lush meadow, Fox managed to catch a hare; the dog crushed its vertebrea with one strike, and brought the blood-soaked animal to my feet. I turned my gaze, when it started devouring the guts; this is how the world of nature is shaped – this is a ‘neo-humanʼs’ account of the journey, as described by Michel Houellebecq ?2 The mental picture of the Green Island includes a dream about a land of eternal happiness and abundance, where human beings live in harmony with nature. Can civilisation and progress become encompassed in a story like this? Mateusz Sadowskiʼs film Call begins with a sound of a telephone ringtone. The screen shows a manʼs face which keeps coming into and out of focus. There is a feeling of mediation, and of the pictureʼs ephemerality and impermanence. The manʼs head and face seem to be controlled by two fingers touching the screen. Suddenly, the head changes into a skull, and the narrator – who holds power over the display – starts the projection of a forest hike. The film author uses a mixture of conventions. An art-house film, which seriously ponders our existence and the role of technological gadgets in our understanding and perception of the world, is combined with language typical of commercials. We seem to be dealing with
2 Michel Houellebecq, Możliwość wyspy (Warszawa: wab, 2012), p.415.
the deliberations on the ways in which we can become familiar with the physicality of death, as we glimpse its reflections on the screens of our smartphones while recording images of foliage that appear in frames. We become delighted with imagery and capacity of technological tools, and we want to test their usefulness in the inventorying of reality. What we do not notice is the terror that is lurking underneath the smooth screen. It is very tempting to produce images, as it allows us to create beautiful representations and gives us an illusion of control over everything we see. Nature is death, which is present in the live tissue, and which humans turn away from in order to focus on technology – this is not always obvious when we look at scenery. But there are some man-made tools that can defer death or successfully navigate us towards the shores of the Green Island. There is an internal contradiction in nature, or rather, there are two natures. The first one has been subtly shaped, consisting of saturated greenery and filled with light; it consists of meadows, streams, sunsets over the calm sea and mountains with gentle slopes. The other nature is gloomy, built with dark colours; it is filled with black colour, steep rocks, foaming waters, and tree crowns shaking in wind. Sometimes, it is an array of digestive tracks.
Mateusz Sadowski, Call, 2015, hdv, cgi, stop-motion animation, 5'13". Courtesy of the artist and Galeria Stereo.
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One nature refers to Arcadia and our dream of peaceful existence, the other – to the experiencing of our endurance and to the mystery that we would like to unravel. Both of them have been depicted by painters for centuries. Both of them contain human melancholy. And they both deal with a luxuriance that inspires fear and awe, and which is overwhelming. Michał Gayer came across and photographed a dead cat, and pricked up his ears to listen to the ominous hooting of an owl, but he has written about two attitudes to landscape. Perhaps no rumours about nature and no depictions of it should be ignored. I perceive melancholy as a proper state that is typical of humans, because it has been conditioned by the nature of existence. There is a continuous longing for the lost, mythical, unattainable and eternal happiness. But it turns out – as it happened to our heroine – that immortality might be far from the one we would like to have, and that endurance without nature is not really what Existence wishes for. Because what Existence yearns for is to combine and dissolve each individual part in the whole, in itself. This is why landscape painting encompasses the mystery of existence and the symbol of separate fragments yearning to become immersed in the whole. And this is why each landscape painting depicts a melancholy that consumes the human soul. In 2003, during the Venice Biennale, the Luxembourg Pavilion featured a video work entitled Echo, authored by Su-Mei Tse. In the film, the small figure of the artist appears in front of a vast, monumental, mountainous landscape. She is playing the violin, but after she stops playing, we continue to hear the music. This is the answer of the echo. This mythological female figure has no voice of her own; she is only able to repeat words of the others. Nature, which has too often been seen as subjugated to humans and deprived of its own self-agency, appears to be capable of interaction, forging relationships and establishing communication.
3 Rosi Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects. Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), p.44. Google ebook.
When one is faced with longing and internal torments, when healthy lifestyle, diet and exercise no longer seem to help, the remedy for melancholic disposition can be found in music and travel. Michał Smandek is a regular traveller. He has become addicted. He feels a strong urge not to settle in one place. It is natureʼs voice calling him from the entrails of the world. This voice, which can be heard by individuals with communicative abilities, reaches the artistʼs internal organs, arousing anxiety and desire to set out for the unknown. Instead of going on sightseeing tours around cities, Michał Smandek traverses steppes and deserts, places with the faintest possible traces of our civilisation, where one can hear the volcanoes grumbling. Paraphrasing Rosi Braidotti, I would say that his actions are nomadic, they long for the desert: areas of silence, in between the official cacophonies, in a strong connection to radical non-belonging, asceticism of the desert and outsidedness .3 Yet this desert of Michał Smandek has its flaw (Knife Work). It sparks anxiety, like a deep wound that indicates the non-verbalised or the non-verbalisable. There is a crack that does not allow the landscape to remain a trivial, unimportant and ignored subject of an artistʼs work. Quite the opposite – nowadays, landscape has become a conveyor of the most fundamental meanings, the topmost metaphysical, existential and political ideas. Is this crack heralding a disaster to come? Just like Italian volcanic cones, which appear in his other work – entitled Prognostic – the artist tells us a dire tale about the future. He opens our eyes to danger and makes us think about possible ways to avoid the finality. When detected early, a disease is curable. Can we hope for the same with regard to a future disaster that keeps reappearing in myths and which is concealed in the archetypal fear? Justyna Gruszczyk is another keen traveller. Her stories are built on a research attitude to the past and following footprints left by ancient cultures. In 2015, in Ireland, on the beach in Bray near Dublin, she created a picture (Enclosure), which represented an
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MichaĹ‚ Smandek, Knife Work, Gobi, Mongolia, photographic documentation of the on the site installation, 2014.
outline of the foundation of a non-existent Roman rotunda in Gniezno. The form that was inscribed in the sand, a reflection of the production of the tenth century civilisation, did not last long, as the tide soon obliterated its traces. Remembering and making references to past forms needs to be continuously repeated. Each vanishing remnant of the past is a symbol of re-materialising disaster that is looming in the future. The land of happiness lies in the past â€“ bygone times, which are visualised as a lost paradise, to which we should find a way back; a simple moment in the timespace continuum, which was free of present-day anxieties, when a man still had something that he later lost, whatever it was. Maybe it was the ability to believe in afterlife, unburdened by modern knowledge? A mediaeval rotunda evolves into a vision of a belief into powers that can influence human fate; into the emanation of the longing, which manifests itself in a simple, geometrical building that was built with human hands and located in the centre of the cosmic structure. This symbol, which was summoned by the artist in this specific place where she was living at that time, and which vanished, has a special importance. Justyna Gruszczyk
wishes for the experience of becoming dispersed in the landscape until there is nothing left but nature, as the only material evidence of that which exists no more; so that she could long for it again, re-create it and proceed towards the yet unknown. This simple artistic gesture should not be read at a surface level, as presenting the victory of nature over culture. Nothing has been definitely concluded. The struggle is still going on, and the result is difficult to guess. Will the disaster be caused by peopleʼs actions or by planet Melancholy? It would be wrong and naïve to juxtapose nature and culture, presenting them located in the opposite categories. Formal relocations and building structures from scratch – this is Gizela Mickiewiczʼs domain. Her works, executed in the spirit of minimalist aesthetics and land art pursuits, are subtle interventions into existing shapes and creation of objects. Hybrid forms that the artist brings into existence often look like absurd arrays of disparate elements, whose rationale for co-existence is difficult to explain. A cross-breed of matter that has been combined by a constructor – what for? What from? From nature? From culture? Nothing is as it ought to be, despite the apparently prevailing rational analysis of existing phenomena and common-sense judgement; organisation, arrangement, subjection to the devised structure, wholehearted constructing. The created objects seem to be carefully thought out, the process of their creation left no space for coincidence or accidental gesture. Yet still, the objects arouse anxiety through their absurdity and some inherent utopian quality. They seem to be a result of someoneʼs fixation with technology, as if production of substitutes of nature could help them get rid of the disease of melancholy. This malady tends to be dangerous, urging one to open the door and run towards a forest, or sink into black earth and rub oneʼs body against rough boughs, until it bleeds and merges with the soil. In the narration that I have elaborated around the figure of the heroine, who gives up her immortality and takes the path
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Gizela Mickiewicz, Answers to Necessity, object, various materials, 2015. Photo: Barbara Kubska.
that leads towards all-devouring space, I do not mean to follow the manner of a straightforward culture versus nature opposition. My heroine can remember technological conveniences and she has moments of doubt. She is nostalgic about the times when the choice between civilisation and that which provides freedom seemed to be simple and easily achievable. Sometimes we think that Gauguin left Europe and travelled to the edge of the world, where he found authenticity and his Green Island.
Unfortunately, he did not, because its ‘wild’ natives turned out to have been already colonised. He kept running away, and until his diseased body died, he never stopped searching, yearning, loving and painting naked people. Melancholy is especially deep in the case of artists. It does not look as though technology is going to disappear from a picture that depicts landscape. We will stick to it as our only hope, which might show us how to achieve happiness and build a paradise. But when we do approach this time in the future, it could turn out that we do not want an island on which technology has been introduced, that we do not want happy pills, and that we do not care for nature in the form of its safe substitutes. The realised Utopia will be a looming disaster. With technology, it will always be life or death. It is the same with nature. Striving after Utopia – a paradise realised less or more successfully – a disaster that is going to happen because it is an inherent element of Existence, the circle of life and death. But there is a catch – this life or immortality game that people will play with the use of civilisational inventions will not be fair; the chosen ones will dub the others ‘wild’. Nature does not discriminate, it devours everything. From now on, a landscape will always be a landscape either before or after the disaster. Using opposite categories remains justified to a degree, when we consider the final goals that have been set by civilisation and nature – the former defines its goal as immortality (which does not mean there is no purpose for death), while the latter endures in the never ending dance of mortality. The figure of my heroine steps into a landscape, as if she were stepping into a kind of symbol of what existence is streaked with. She is a human being, standing on her fenced property, just in front of the closed gate, holding a key in her hand and looking at the landscape that stretches in the distance. She is pulled towards it by some mysterious power, which urges her to become lost in it, forever.
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It urges her to sink into moist grass, dig her fingernails into cold soil, touch the moss with her face and hurt her body on the protruding roots. I think this is the kind of a final journey that Krzysztof Maniak is experimenting with. Almost every day, the artist sets out for the forest, where he touches plants, hugs trees, searches for shelters, tries to blend in with the surroundings, to immerse himself in bushes and become indistinguishable from the background. I have seen Krzysztof Maniak in a seventeenth century landscape painting – I think it was an anonymous version of The Landscape with Good Samaritan. There was no one else in this picture, apart from the artist (the Samaritan was missing) – a lonely traveller under a tree, painted in the same manner as nature, as if he was missing too, yet his voice was audible. He asked, ‘What should I do to achieve eternal life?’ There was no one to answer. So far, the artist can still remember that he should come back and that abandoning oneself to nature might lead to finality. ‘Can the beautiful be sad?’ – was Julia Kristevaʼs question.4 In its scope, landscape encompasses a tale of eternal endurance and passing, finality and dream of immortality – it is sad. When building her landscapes, Justyna Mędrala seems to be guided by the vision of the starting point, the beginning of the universe, and rooted in archetypal structures. Her sceneries are jet black, shiny, and they are built from one matter. They are apocalyptic and beautiful, evoking nothingness, emptiness and darkness. Luxuriant, fleshy, swollen forms that bring to mind nature-created precisely carved crystals or moist, shining soil in the garden. They contain so little that potentially they could be everything. The artist can keep using the sculptural substance, which offers her a wide artistic choice, and which she had created or dug out of the deepest mines, and she can create anything and at the same time nothing, as it will all come down to the very same thing. It seems that she will say ‘Become!’, and a human being will be created. But she
4 Julia Kristeva, Black Sun. Depression and Melancholia, trans. by Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), p.97.
Justyna Mędrala, Before the Dawn, installation, hard bituminous coal, bee wax, 2015. Zdjęcia: Barbara Kubska.
might just as well remain quiet, and nothing will be created. And overwhelming darkness will cover the seas. And this will be the landscape that will absorb our eyes and us, viewers with their gaze fixed at the black scenery. It will absorb us into its perfect formula, which is black, with its interior where the human eye cannot discern anything, and into a circular black sun, which will tempt us with its mystery until we finally see its building material and become disgusted. Our desire to climb up a high mountain, feel
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the wind on our face, look around and see nothing but landscape, is actually the desire to find oneself in its interior, to become its constituent part. Because everything is just one structure. (…) All of being – ready and open – for death, joy or torment – unreservedly open and dying, painful and happy, is there already with its shadowed light (…).5 Melancholy evokes an impending disaster and it is a disaster itself. Melancholy allows to hear the muffled voices whispering about a mystery. It urges one to follow these voices towards darkness. To search for the answer, to find the concealed, to explain the inexplicable, and to continue yearning. It is not a disease, but a characteristic of Existence. Melancholy is a disaster – beautifully depicted by Lars von Trier, resembling an approaching planet that is going to destroy the Earth. Landscape is its emanation. Nature is a disaster that humans want to defend themselves against by means of the available knowledge, technology and civilisational achievements. Nature is the annihilation of a temporary, singular existence. Here, in this fenced off, domesticated area stands an individual person, and there, in the landscape, this person becomes diffused. Heroine has made a decision to go there.
5 Georges Bataille, Death And Sensuality: A Study of Eroticism and the Taboo (New York: Walker and Company, [n.d.]), p.271.
Discovering the Landscape. A Few Words on the History and Meaning of the Genre
1 Ernst Gombrich, ‘Renaissance Artistic Theory and the Development of Landscape Painting’, Gazette des BeauxArts, 6th ser., 41 (1953), 335–60 (repr. in Ernst Gombrich, Norm and Form: Studies in the Art of Renaissance (London: Phaidon Press, 1966), pp.107–121).
One classic text that marked the beginninʼg of research on the history and theory of landscape was Ernst Gombrichʼs article ‘Renaissance Artistic Theory and the Development of Landscape Painting’, which appeared in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts in 1953 and included an observation, supported by a quotation from the English seventeenth century painter and theoretician Edward Norgate, that landscape painting was perceived in Europe as an authentic discovery and a wonderful novelty, which had been introduced thanks to the efforts of contemporary artists and professors.1 For a few centuries, landscape remained the territory of a fascinating creative ferment, pursuit and exchange of experiences between Italian and Northern European artists. Paradoxically, it benefited from its low rank in the hierarchy of painting genres, in which it occupied the very last position, in the vicinity of genre painting and still lifes. Although these circumstances did not allow landscape art to receive any theoretical backing, they did provide artists with space for unrestrained experimentation, which contributed to its dynamic character. Of course, this characterisation does not encompass all artists working in landscape, as it is limited to a group of innovators who held sway over the whole mass of artists who earned their living from painting scenery. From the sixteenth century onwards, Europe witnessed the mass production of landscapes in various forms, which included fresco decorations, paintings and prints. Landscape painting
became the most democratic genre of art, as it found its way both into residencies that belonged to the elites, and into the lodgings of merchants or craftsmen. Also, it gained great popularity with foreign visitors, especially those who were spellbound by the Italian peninsula – a small landscape painting or a collection of landscape prints became, and still remains, a popular souvenir. Mass production steered innovative ideas towards repetition and triviality, yet as long as some artists continued to treat landscape as an outlet for artistic experiments, the genre had the potential for development. Discovering landscape in modern times was closely related to changes that occurred in human perception and awareness. Especially interesting is the relationship between two notions of landscape – the subject of a painting vs. real scenery admired by a viewer – and the ensuing confusion regarding terminology. In antiquity, the Greeks – followed by the Romans – had their own way of referring to the dual conception of the world and nature, differentiating between real (topia) and unreal (utopia) entities. For them, all natural phenomena, including landscape, presented topia, which they called topike techne, and which functioned in Latin as ars topiaria, for example in writings by Vitruvius .2 Another frequent practice among the theoreticians of the ancient world was to refer to landscape in a descriptive way or by means of enumerating its constituents, instead of using its specific definition. A similar manner of defining landscape could be observed in modern times, whereby landscape – both painted representation and real view – was long perceived not as a whole, but as a sum of its constituent elements – rocks, mountains, lakes, rivers and buildings. There was an interesting remark made by literary and cultural authority Piero Camporesi – that until the beginning of the eighteenth century landscape, especially that which could be observed in person, did not exist in its present day meaning, being closer to the geographical notion of a territory.3 For many
2 For the definition of ‘landscape’ and the etymology of the word, cf. Tadeusz J. Żuchowski, ‘Landscape – the Name and Etymology. From the Antiquity Till the Renaissance’, in Pejzaż. Narodziny gatunku 1400–1600. Materiały sesji naukowej 23–24 X 2003, ed. Sebastian Dudzik, Tadeusz Żuchowski (Toruń: umk, 2004), pp.43–64. 3 Cf. Piero Camporesi, Le belle contrade. Nascita del paesaggio italiano (Milan: Garzanti, 1992).
4 Cf., for example, Giusepe Manuzzi, Vocabolario della lingua italiana già compilato dagli Accademici della Crusca ed ora nuovamente accresciuto dallʼabate Giuseppe Manuzzi (Florence: Appresso D. Passigli e socj, 1838) vol. ii, 343; Niccolò Tommaseo, Bernardo Bellini, Dizionario della lingua italiana (Turin and Naples: Unione tipografico-editrice, 1871) vol. iii, 89. 5 Cf. Michael Jacob, Paesaggio e letteratura (Città di Castello: [n.pub.], 2005), p.11. 6 For more information about landscape in ancient art, cf. Eugenio La Rocca, Lo spazio negato. La pittura di paesaggio nella cultura artictica greca e romana (Milan: [n.pub.], 2008). 7 Cf. Witruwiusz, O architekturze ksiąg dziesięć, trans. by Kazimierz Kumaniecki (Warszawa: pwn, 1956), pp.120–121.
centuries landscape was considered within the perspective of painting, and this is how entries such as paese/paesaggio or paysage were defined in, respectively, Italian and French dictionaries until the beginning of the twentieth century.4 Real views rarely provided inspiration for pictorial depictions; actually, quite the opposite occurred – it was the painted scenery that shaped the perception of the real landscape, spurring people on to look out for picturesque places in the real world and to look at them as though they were framed pictures.5 Discovery of landscape in modern times is by no means unrelated to its past sources. Although sixteenth and seventeenth century artists had very limited access to antique representations of landscape (because major discoveries were not made until the eighteenth century, in the area of Pompeii)6, yet at the beginning of the fifteenth century they could become familiar with Vitruviusʼs Ten Books on Architecture – which included a suggestion that walking galleries could be nicely decorated with scenic views 7 – and Natural History by Pliny the Elder, who ascribed the beginning of landscape painting to a certain Ludius (or Studius), describing him as, ‘the first to introduce the fashion of covering the walls of our houses with most pleasing landscapes, representing villas, porticoes, ornamental gardening, woods, groves, hills, fish ponds, canals, rivers, seashores, and anything else one could desire’.8 People also read works that had a more literary character, such as The Silvae by Statius or The Epistulae by Pliny the Younger, who both commended the charms of countryside estates and the pleasures of admiring scenery. This type of texts could have provided inspiration for artists who were interested in introducing landscapes into their painting repertoire, and bolstered their position by offering a word of support from authorities of old. As for practical guidance regarding the creation of landscape paintings, their composition and the array of available motifs – these were all up to modern artists.
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Traditionally, Giotto was considered to be the first artist to purposefully include elements of landscape into his compositions, but it was not until 1338/39 that the first truly autonomous landscape was made – the fresco entitled The Allegory of Good and Bad Government, which was painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena. The picture reveals the secular face of Siena, as it is virtually devoid of church buildings, and instead it shows its inhabitants devoted to useful works, and the countryside, with artistic means employed to emphasise its varying character – the further from the protective radius of the Siena city walls, the darker the landscape becomes. It was the first time that landscape had played a major role in the picture, and what is more, the first time that it had been used to present a political stance; it allowed the author to create an idealised depiction, a witness to the triumph of state and secular values.9 In the following centuries, landscape pushed its way into painting with growing confidence, originally appearing mostly as background, which would occupy a smaller or greater part of the whole image. In the fifteenth century it frequently served as space for creative exploration – Flemish and Dutch artists became focused on the painstaking depiction of elements that made up a realistic ‘cosmic’ landscape, as exemplified by Jan van Eyck or Rogier van der Weyden, whereas Italians engaged themselves in a real experimental craze with portraying landscapes in painting. Landscape offered an area for those who pursued perspective (some pictures relied solely on linear perspective, whereas others made use of reversed proportions, shrinking the foreground in relation to the decoratively portrayed and extensive background, as can be seen in Fra Angelicoʼs Thebaid. It provided a wide scope for the analysis of colour and light effects ranging from the artificial light that emanates from the baby Jesus and illuminates trees, rocks and bushes in the famous Adoration of the Magi by Gentile da Fabriano, to the intensely contrasted lights in paintings executed
8 Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, trans. by John Bostock (London: Taylor and Francis, 1855 ), Book xxxv, Chapter 37, in Perseus Digital Library <http://data. perseus.org/citations/urn:cts:latinLit:phi0978.phi001. perseus-eng1:35.37> [accessed 1 August 2015] 9 Cf. Chiara Frugoni, ‘La rappresentazione del paesaggio nel medioevo’ in La pittura di paesaggio in Italia. Il Seicento, ed. by Ludovica Trezzani (Milan: Electa, 2004), pp.83–84.
10 For information about landscape painting in the sixteenth century, cf. Edoardo Villata, ‘Il paesaggio nella pittura italiana del Quattrocento. Prolgomeni a una introduzione’, in La pittura di paesaggio in Italia. Il Seicento, ed. by Ludovica Trezzani (Milan: Electa, 2004), pp.89–116. 11 For information about Da Vinci as a landscape painter, cf. Adriano Mariuz, ‘Il paesaggio veneto del Cinquecento’, in La pittura di paesaggio in Italia. Il Seicento, ed. by Ludovica Trezzani (Milan: Electa, 2004), pp.145–153. 12 For information about Giovanni Bellini, cf. Mariuz, op.cit.
by the Lombardy-based artist Vincenzao Foppa. It presented an opportunity to dive into the different ‘moods’ of painted artworks, ranging from the decorative, joyful landscapes of The Procession of the Magi by Benozzo Gozzoli, displayed in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence, to the harsh, rocky landscapes in pictures by Andrea Mantegna. It also served as a testing ground for painters’ illusionist efforts, such as the reflections of clouds and trees on the surface of water in The Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca. Finally, it also proved to be a useful aid to the introduction of new motifs, such as ruins or local scenery,as was done by Umbrian artists Perugino and Pinturicchio.10 The end of the century saw two particularly important innovators come into view. One of them was incredibly active in Florence and Milan – Leonardo da Vinci, who introduced a type of landscape that was neither of real nor fantastic character, but constituted a representation of natura naturans, nature that undergoes continuous revival and disintegration, which goes through endless transformation between solid, liquid and air.11 Another of these artists was based in Venice – Giovanni Bellini, a master at indistinguishably blending his characters with the landscape, loaded with religious overtones, and the painter of idyllic depictions of Venetian terra ferma, which he liked to present bathed in the golden rays of the morning sun, thus creating a model to be emulated by sixteenth century artists.12 At the same time, more and more prints and paintings were being imported from Flanders, which gave rise to an intense artistic exchange in the field of landscape at the international level, in which the artists from the North were soon to engage themselves directly, as they began setting out for Italy with the aim of improving their artistic skills. The first decades of the sixteenth century marked a crucial turning point in the approach towards landscape painting; scenic views no longer functioned solely as background, and landscape became increasingly autonomous. The most fundamental change,
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which allowed it to evolve into a genre on its own, took place when human characters became reduced to staffage or they were omitted altogether. These revolutionary changes occurred concurrently in different places – Flanders, the Danube region in Germany and in Venice and Rome. In Flanders, Joachim Patinir brought mythological and biblical characters to small-sized figures that were virtually immersed in landscape, which – seen from a point high above – seems to stretch like a ‘cosmic’ panorama, and which owes its depth of field to elements that eyes like to follow, such as meandering paths and rivers.13 At the same time, representative of the Danube School, Albrecht Altdorfer created enigmatic landscapes that were conspicuously empty of people, who were replaced by monumental anthropomorphically-shaped trees.14 Also at the same time, Venice witnessed the emerging talent of the extraordinary landscape painter Giorgione da Castelfranco, who painted one of the most mysterious and still undeciphered landscapes, namely The Tempest, and who pioneered a style of providing landscape with smoothness, which he achieved by juxtaposing light and dark areas, emphasising atmospheric conditions and blurring contours. Titian, who cooperated with Giorgione on The Sleeping Venus and The Pastoral Concert, continued to cultivate the spatial solutions that his teacher had introduced, as much as he acknowledged the potential of landscape to convey emotions, to empathise with the feelings of the main characters of the picture (natura sentiens), and to reflect and enhance the emotional tone of the scene. These very features were to be especially cherished by Tintoretto, whose tempestuous landscapes tend to be strewn with up-turned tree trunks and tormented by all sorts of violent storms that trigger very unusual light effects.15 Finally, there was also sixteenth century Rome – the destination for many artists from Northern European countries, a melting pot abounding in novel ideas. There was a natural source of inspiration lying in the ruins that were scattered all over the city, and in the surviving parts of
13 For information about Joachim Patinirʼs landscapes, cf. Malcolm Andrews, Landscape and Western Art (Oxford: oup, 1999), pp.44–51. 14 Andrews, pp.41–43. 15 For information about Venetian landscape paintings, cf. Mariuz, loc. cit.
16 For more information, cf. Nicole Dacos, Roma quanta fuit. Tre pittori fiamminghi nella Domus Aurea (Rome: Donzelli, 1995). 17 Cf. Lanfranco Ravelli, Polidoro a San Silvestro al Quirinale (Bergamo: [n.pub.], 1987). 18 Cf. Patrizia Cavazzini, ‘Verso il paesaggio puro’, in Caravaggio. Il genio di Roma. 1592–1623 (Rome and Milan: [n.pub.], 2001), pp.208–247.
ancient landscapes, which could be found in grotesques – such as the ones in the ruins of Neroʼs Domus Aurea), giving rise to performances allʼantica – which followed ancient examples with regard to form, or evoked ancient motifs, and which were to become and remain extremely popular both with Italians and the Flemish in the decades to come.16 Northern newcomers found much-desired employment in workshops run by Roman masters, for example in Raphaelʼs bottega, when he was commissioned to decorate rooms in the Vatican, and this led to a long-term process of experience exchange. As a result, the ‘Eternal City’ accommodated landscape painting that embraced inspirations allʼantica, combining it with the Flemish commitment to detail and manner of structuring space. Notable examples include the landscape depictions featuring St Mary Magdalene and St Catherine of Siena, which were painted by Polidoro da Caravaggio in 1525–1527.17 At the same time, sixteenth century Rome evolved into a real, bustling metropolis, causing its wealthy inhabitants to find escape in the newly-built villas located in the outskirts. This exodus, combined with the familiarity with antique writings by Cicero, Ovid, Virgil and Theocritus – who were all great enthusiasts of living in the countryside and highly commended its pleasures – contributed to the manifestation of the new way of experiencing nature and landscape among art collectors and patrons. Just like in the ancient era, nature and its phenomena become synonymous with otium – peace, as defined by Horace, which was contrasted with negotium – urban occupations.18 Pursuing tranquility in the bosom of nature led to the growing popularity of new ideas for interior decoration of villas and palaces – illusionist sceneries, which represented realist or fantastic landscapes. One such early depiction appeared around 1519 in the residence of Siena banker Agostino Chigi, which is currently known as the Villa Farnesina, and which houses a dining room – Salone delle Prospettive – ornamented with perspective realistic views of contemporary Rome
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(which actually corresponded to the panorama that stretched in front of the windows!), inserted between illusionist depictions of columns.19 In 1527, Rome was looted by the Landsknechts (Sacco di Roma), and its flourishing artistic community became dispersed. In the middle of the sixteenth century, the Eternal City did however begin to resume its position as a main centre of European landscape painting and was the obligatory destination point of artistic voyages – especially for artists from Flanders and the Netherlands, who were deeply fascinated with antique ruins, such as Martin van Heemskerck, Michiel Gast and Jan Soens.20 Some of them visited Rome for a few months or years, others – such as the famous brothers Matthijs and Paul Bril 21 – settled there for good, becoming the most important figures in landscape painting in the second half of the sixteenth century, and who received commissions from the most eminent patrons, such as Pope Gregory xiiI or Sixtus V. The time of their rules witnessed yet another revolution in the history of landscape – popes and cardinals had realised its potential as a tool for spreading counter-reformation messages. Portrayals of landscape benefited contemplation and reinforced new form of piousness; depictions of lush, paradisal nature were meant to evoke the concepts of Eden on Earth and the revival of the Church in accordance with the spirit of the first centuries of Christianity, whereas the vistas of Rome, which accompanied processions and festivities, were supposed to present the cityʼs new, pious face.22 Apart from the Bril brothers, who were responsible for executing an illusionist decoration for the Tower of Winds in the Vatican, Romeʼs favourite counter-reformation artists also included the Carracci family, who were arrivals from Bologne, and in particular Annibale Carracci, who took commissions from the powerful Aldobrandini and Farnese families, and who introduced a style of perfect landscape, which exuded the soothing spirit of antiquity, and
19 For more information about landscape ornaments in the Villa Farnesina, cf. A. Richard Turner, The Vision of Landscape in Renaissance Italy, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966), p.198 and cont. 20 For more information about Northern artists’ excursions to Rome, cf. Nicole Dacos, Les peintres belges à Rome au xvi siècle, (Brussels and Rome: lʼInstitut Historique Belge de Rome, 1964), vol. i. 21 For more information about the Bril brothers’ work, cf. Francesca Cappelletti, Paul Bril e la pittura di paesaggio a Roma 1580–1600 (Rome: Ugo Bozzi, 2006). 22 For more information about the relationship between landscape painting and Counter-Reformation ideas, cf., for example, Nicola Courtright, The Papacy and the Art of Reform in Sixteenth Century Rome. Gregory xiiiʼs Tower of the Winds in the Vatican, (Cambridge: cup, 2003); and Pamela M. Jones, ‘Federico Borromeo as a Patron of Landscapes and Still Lifes: Christian Optimism in Italy ca. 1600’, Art Bulletin, 70 (1988).
23 For more information about ‘perfect’ landscapes, cf. Silvia Ginzburg ‘Il paesaggio ideale’, in La pittura di paesaggio in Italia. Il Seicento, ed. Ludovica Trezzani (Milan: Electa, 2004), pp.183–197. 24 For more information about Italianate landscape painting, cf. Giovanna Capitelli, ‘Il paesaggio italianizzante’, in La pittura di paesaggio in Italia. Il Seicento, ed. Ludovica Trezzani (Milan: Electa, 2004), pp.213–231. 25 For more information about Claude Lorraineʼs works, cf. Kenneth Clark, Landscape into Art (London: [n. pub.], 1953) pp.60–65; and Helen Langdon, ‘Claude Lorrain and the French Vision of Italy’, in Archivi dello sguardo. Origini e momenti della pittura di paesaggio in Italia, ed. Francesca Cappelletti (Florence: La Lettere, 2006), pp.323–348.
presented a well-balanced, harmonious composition, wherein every element of nature occupied a strictly specified place and nature was shown at its best.23 This idealised version of landscape found its devotees among the Flemish and Dutch artists that came to Rome in the first half of the seventeenth century. They used it as a starting point to create Italianate landscape paintings, in which various elements – geo-morphological (mountains, valleys, hills and water surface), ruins, aqueducts, bridges and, for people, figures of nymphs and satyrs, or shepherds, who provided scenery with an arcadian feel – merged into a unity bathed in gentle light. This type of landscape became a speciality of the Bentveughels society, founded in 1620, whose aim was to forge close relationships and build a network of contacts among the landscape painters arriving from the North (who were commonly referred to as bamboccianti); Cornelis van Poelenburgh, Bartholomeus Breenbergh, Herman van Swanevelt or the later arrivals – Jan Both and Jan Asselijn.24 When their Italianate landscapes became the most popular souvenirs for travellers and thus flooded into the whole of Europe, another revolution was on its way, and it was carried out in the sixteenth century by two Frenchmen – Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin. Claude, who was to become a favourite with English collectors, dipped into the examination of light and atmospheric conditions in landscape; he was keen on dawn and dusk, reflexes of light shimmering on water surface, and sunrays, whose bright light enveloped monumental buildings inspired by the ancient world, and sea ports.25 His contemporary compatriot Nicolas focused on providing his landscapes with geometrical perspective and reducing the depicted architectural solids to cones and cylinders, thus heralding Cezanneʼs manner; he turned to Raphael and Roman antiquity, creating a classicising model of landscape that empathised with the dramatic scenes presented in it. Soon after his death in 1665,
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the artist was proclaimed by the French Academy to be an unattainable ideal that should be studied and emulated by future generations of art students.26 Meanwhile, north of the Alps, a number of artists – including Jan van Goyen, Albert Cuyp, Salomon and Jacob van Ruisdael, and Meindert Hobbema – discovered Dutch landscape, very different to the Italian one, and presented it in a realistic, yet still quite melancholic manner. Their cities smoothly connect with vast polders and floodwaters, multi-layered clouds billowing above water and wind mills, and monumental avenues of trees leading to countryside households.27 Concurrently, Peter Paul Rubens portrayed the landscape that stretched around his family mansion in Brabant – bathed in golden sunlight, featuring shepherds, carts full of hay, and cattle – which would soon become the model for a popular type of sentimental landscape.28 The following century simply took advantage of whatever had been achieved in the previous epochs, and provided only occasional contributions to the field of landscape painting. Sentimental countryside sceneries and Italianate landscapes shared popularity with topographical, highly detailed landscapes, whose production required the use of special optical tools, such as a camera obscura. Its skilled devotees included Antonio Canal and Bernardo Bellotto, who used this manner to portray Venice, Dresden, Vienna and Warsaw. It was not before the nineteenth century and Romanticism that landscape could be endowed with a new quality – on the one hand, Caspar David Friedrich saturated his landscapes with mysterious, symbolic content, which tended to feature a figure of an observer gazing away at the boundless, gloomy scenery, as exemplified by his Wanderer above the Sea of Fog or The Monk by the Sea. On the other hand, William Turner liked to picture violent encounters of various natural powers, forcing reality to melt into vibrating lights and mists.29 His preoccupation with atmospheric conditions heralded the last big era
26 For more information about Nicolas Poussinʼs works, cf. Silvia Ginzburg, ‘La nascita del paesaggio „classicista” di Nicolas Poussin’, in Archivi dello sguardo. Origini e momenti della pittura di paesaggio in Italia, ed. by Francesca Cappelletti (Florence: La Lettere, 2006), pp.285–322. 27 For more information about landscape painting in the Netherlands, cf. Andrews, pp.83–94. 28 Ibid., pp.103–105. 29 Ibid., pp.177–179.
30 Ibid., pp.191–199.
of landscape painting, which came with the Impressionists and Cézanne, who perceived landscape and nature as a process of endless changes, an uninterrupted biological cycle, with its non-capturable vitality and viewerʼs experiencing process, which artists attempted to grasp.30 Discovering the potential of painting not as a realistic representation of a given view, but as the power and mechanisms of nature that are concealed within this depiction, indicated the approaching end of this genre – avant-garde view of art moved away from landscape for over a hundred years, and the previously established formulas that had taken decades to evolve, were now falling prey to banalisation, often being transformed into their own caricature such as kitschy paintings of deer stags on the mating ground at dawn). Landscape no longer referred to something beyond itself, and was brought back to its original function – decoration for home interiors. The genre experienced one more energy boost in the middle of the 1960s, when a group of artists used landscape directly as material for their artistic interventions and actions. Land art artists dipped into the area of landscape on multiple levels – from minimalist intrusions into single landscape-constituting elements. An example of this is the series of actions Alpi Marittime, by Giuseppe Penone which took place in the forest adjacent to his home, where the artist intruded in the process of tree growth, for example by combining tree trunks – work entitled Ho intrecciato tre alberi – or hindering the growth of a trunk at a specific point by means of enveloping it in a grip of a steel cast of his own hand – work entitled Continuerà a crescere tranne che in quel punto – or he created a cement bath, which he marked with his own measurements and prints of his own hands, feet and head, and placed it right in a flowing stream – work entitled La mia altezza, la lunghezza delle mie braccia, il mio spessore in un ruscello). Another example was Richard Logʼs engagement with blazing trails in landscape, through to larger-scale realisations that required some elements
of landscape to be actually ‘transported’, as in Michael Heizerʼs Displaced/Replaced Mass in the Nevada desert. Then there were the monumental interventions that transformed the landscape, such as the famous Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson on the Great Salt Lake in Utah, or Surrounded Islands by Christo and Jeanne-Claude Biscayne Bay in Miami.31 Looking back at the history of landscape painting, and considering the dynamics of its development, it does not seem to be very different from art or history. The truly interesting thing might however be its vitality, a variety of creative transformations that have endowed it with new elements, and the genreʼs continuous – though more and more infrequent – revivals and new guises. What about today? After centuries of being a subject of research and decades of being used as material in artistic actions – does it still conceal any dormant creative potential?
31 For more information about land art, cf., for example, Gilles A. Tiberghien, Land Art (London: Art Data, 1995); Udo Weilacher, Land Art and Landscape (Basel: [n.pub.], 1996); Rosalind Kraus, ‘Sculpture in the Expanded Field’, Oktober, 8 (1979), 31–44; John Beardsley, ‘Earthworks: The Landscape after Modernism’, in Denaturated Visions: Landscape and Culture in the Twentieth Century, ed. Stuart Wrede and William H. Adams (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1991), pp.110–117.
Alex Urso, Impossible Nature, assemblage, 2014.
Landscape with Sublimity in the Background (or in the Foreground)
1 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, trans. by J.H. Bernard (London: Macmillan, 1914) <http://lf-oll. s3.amazonaws.com/ titles/1217/Kant_0318_ ebk_v6.0.pdf> [accessed 11 August 2015], p.100.
‘We call that sublime which is absolutely great’ 1, wrote Kant in his Critique of the Power of Judgment. Soaring crags, waterfalls, tempestuous storm clouds, tornadoes and volcanoes – although they are associated with chaos and destruction rather than with the harmony that befits beauty – all of them, in the opinion of this Königsberg-based philosopher, could trigger the experience of sublimity. Powerful, overwhelming nature, with its awe-inspiring visage, pulsating with vitality, was perfectly suitable to make us – empirical beings – realise the evanescence of our earthly concerns, and to promote our evolution into free, moral subjects. It is quite conspicuous that Kant makes no reference to sublimity in art. As for man-made works, he mentions only a few – he makes a comment on the basilica of St Peter in Rome and the pyramids. So he seems to suggest that our place is in the mountains – which in this case are built with human hands. With Romanticism approaching, Kantʼs self-restraint in this matter did not have the power to stop the flood of highly sublime, in his understanding, motifs in painting. Wild or majestic nature manifested itself in the shape of the lava-spitting Vesuvius in the depictions of Joseph Wright (1776–1780), an avalanche threatening Alpine travellers (Philip James de Loutherbourg, 1803) or a snowstorm wreaking havoc on a small steamship (William Turner, 1842). However, when we talk about sublimity, we might think about Caspar David Friedrich, who made maximum use of
the motifs that appeared in writings by Edmund Burke and Kant. His Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818) serves as a superb example. The man is standing on a mountain top and his disinterested – yet only in the aesthetic sense – gaze transforms this fragment of nature into a landscape; surely, to use Simmelʼs expression, scenery is nature divided up by human eyes. Thus, the mountain top becomes a safe, distant viewpoint, which allows for the contemplation of natureʼs terrifying show among sharp-edged rocks and amorphous mists. This is why the Wanderer could be considered to be the most prominent illustration of the sublime experience. It is precisely an illustration of sublimity, because – although in the last decades we savoured this notion extensively to the point on choking on it, and sublimity became a buzzword, which could suddenly be preceded with a variety of prefixes (digital-, gothic-, racial-, to mention just a few) – connecting art with the direct experience of sublimity continues to pose a problem. The sceptically-minded emphasise that artistic creations usually lack the proper volume, with the convention-imposed limitations making it impossible to accommodate boundlessness and amorphousness, and that they do not allow for natural wilderness and disorder. Still, they do fill the viewers with a sense of dread sometimes, and contact with them is made possible through distance, which classical theories consider to be the condition for experiencing the sublime. Yet even sceptics admit that there are such works, for instance, Mirosław Bałkaʼs monumental container How It Is, which was placed in Londonʼs Turbine Hall in 2009, and whose dark interior instantly triggers models of aesthetic experience as mentioned in the writings of Burke or Kant. If we were to localise the epicentre of sublime artistic realisation of the twenty first century, then we would probably point to this Turbine Hall, whose exhibition pieces included – apart from Bałkaʼs work – a huge sun from The Weather Project by Olafur Eliasson and Marsyas by Anish Kapoor. These realisations might encourage Kant himself to revise his short list.
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Anyway, issues presented by representation have by no means discouraged various artists from reaching to the category of sublimity, playing on its individual elements, transforming hackneyed frames or arguing against it. Although seven years have passed since Barnett Newman published his article, notably entitled The Sublime is Now, it appears that sublimity in art is happening here and now, and because of the inclusion of associations with nature in classical, eighteenth century theories, sublimity must not be considered without making due references to landscape. After all, elements of scenic sublimity have not been entirely misappropriated by producers of disaster movies or commercials of cars and deodorants, which feature canyons, mountain passes and volcanoes in the background. On the other hand, the disinterested traveller-cum-aesthete might have left his mountain top for good, and as for the sky, Arnold Berleant rightly noticed that it has lost its clarity to light pollution. So, how far is landscape from Landscape? There is a painting by Gerhard Richter, which looks like a blurred photograph (Waldhaus, 2004), and in which – as Simon Morley put it – a new dimension of sublimity is born out of the unattainable surplus that appears in the gap between painting and photography – two media that are dissimilar, and yet related to each other. It seems that sublimity built on distance towards nature has become terribly overworked and now such scenes need to be placed in inverted commas. In order to find the sublime that has not been abused by pop culture, one should look elsewhere. For example, in minimalism, one word is sometimes enough to encompass sublimity, as Pseudo-Longinus noticed in his antique commentary, and minimalism has been intertwined with sublimity from the very beginning. It can be seen in Hiroshi Sugimotoʼs photographs from the cycle Seascapes, which reduce their monochromatic world to ancient elements of water and air. Incidentally one of them ended up on the cover of the U2 album No Line on the Horizon, which leads us to pop cultural mainstream. 48
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Reductionism, which sometimes comes to the fore, should not come as a surprise, because the peculiar popularity of the sublime was sparked by Lyotard, whose writings supported avantgarde abstractionists and their mild iconoclasm. At the same time, the pope of post-modernism claimed that avant-gardism is present in an embryonic stage in the Kantian aesthetic of the sublime 2, and his considerations tended to revolve around the motif of the inability to express the boundless. Less is more? Right. And less is sublime. This does not deter contemporary artists from approaching the sublime classic repertoire, if on their terms. This play with convention could be exemplified by Angelika Markulʼs double-channelled projection Pejzaż/Landscape, which places us right in front of a landscape with a cloud-enveloped mountain forest. It has the appearance of a kitschy painting rooted in Romanticism, suspended somewhere between Friedrich and National Geographic type frames of our miracle planet. Suddenly, clouds begin to pulsate to the rhythm of fast breathing and sensual groaning of love-making. Here is the world caught in flagrante. This slightly surrealist pan-erotic and pan-natural vision violates the traditional distinction between a human aesthetic subject and non-human nature, with the latter only meant for contemplation. The personification or even anthropomorphisation of nature (the planet) in the most vital, sexual aspect have tipped the scale not in favour of our disinterested distance, but in favour of engaged aesthetics, which are related to the environmental aesthetics that characterise many of Markulʼs realisations. Berleant claimed that, when it comes to nature, we are unable to remain uninvolved. At the same time, Markulʼs work has a wayward charge to it. After all, when we want to make it up to nature for perceiving it in a stereotypical way, we end up trying to convince ourselves that we belong in it, as one of many elements, without the right to enjoy any special treatment. But in this case, this reduction to the lowest sexual denominator is not free from anthropocentric projections. 49
2 Jean-François Lyotard, Poróżnienie, (Kraków: wuj, 2010), p.135.
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3 Beata Frydryczak, Krajobraz. Od estetyki the picturesque do doświadczenia topograficznego (Poznań: wptp, 2013) p.31 and cont.
Thereʼs this recurring question I hear – why wonʼt I show a human being? And you know what? The more I think about it, the clearer it becomes to me that nature, as I show it, is simply me, this is my inner self – she once said in an interview with Iwo Zmyślony. So even with plenty of goodwill, do we really need to humanise nature? We are more and more aware that the biblical command to subdue the earth, understood as the principle that should govern our relationship with nature (or at least our instrumental interpretation of this command) is a disgrace. Emily Brady, the author of The Sublime in Modern Philosophy: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Nature, asserted that this paradigm and anthropocentrism might be tempered by sublime aesthetic experiences that encompass the element of ‘the impenetrable’, thus curing us of our feeling of superiority over nature. Can artists convert the sublime that is conveyed in works of art into a critical tool? This would certainly require them to expand their focus, so that it includes not only strictly natural (can it still be found?), but also an environment changed by man– in the negative sense of the word. To put it bluntly – also a devastated environment. The elements of the classically understood aesthetic experiencing of nature include – apart from assuming the posture of a disinterested viewer – encompassing it with a distance-giving ‘panoramic glance.’ 3 Let us continue to explore the works of the Polish-French artist of the generation that had a chance to get the taste of Lugolʼs iodine. Her simultaneous projection Welcome to Fukushima (2013), with ultra-anthropogenic landscape on the left, an endless Japanese conurbation filmed from a train window (whose remoteness is enhanced by the glass pane and in-train announcements), becomes juxtaposed with images documenting a tsunami wasteland, which are shown at a stroboscopic pace on the right, and which include panoramic views on destruction and close-ups of heaps of civilisational remains. Making use of the near-far opposition, and laying the consequences of the disaster
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Angelika Markul, Welcome to Fukushima/Witamy w Fukushimie, 2013, installation, photographies, 126,5 × 164 cm, video 06'32". Courtesy of the artist and leto.
right under the nose of the audience, the work debates with the ‘sublimity’ model on a few levels; the natural blends with the anthropogenic (which seems to be washed away, brushed off from the surface with a powerful element), a panoramic – and enhanced by the presence of the glass pane – view of the ‘civilisational order’ becomes contrasted with the participant observation recorded in close-ups that penetrate not the sublime landscape, but rather the ruins of the prism of post-apocalyptic rubbish. As much as the left side view presents, in Berleantʼs expression, ‘being outside nature’, the right side refers us to the formula of ‘being in nature’. For Adorno, cultural landscape ‘resembles a ruin even when the houses still stand.’4 In this view, the left hand side presentation might be a good example of ‘the world devastated by technology’, whereas on the right there is a memento that has been planted right in front of our eyes. For artists that perceive contemporariness in the perspective of a looming or already happening disaster – be it ecological, or
4 Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), p.89. Google ebook.
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related to terrorism, epidemics, globalisation or development of high technology – the category of sublimity is the obvious point of reference. It comes up whenever we deal with the present-day elements, not only the meteorological conditions, but also the ones that we have created in our laboratories or reactors, and carelessly let off the leash. These new elements are synthetic, and – even worse and more dangerous – hybridised, as a result of merging the natural with the human. Markulʼs works confront us with the toxic beauty of surfaces that bear the misalliance of water and fuel, petroleum or heavy metals (Untitled, 2013). Then, there are depictions of the human and the inhuman – objects made by human hands and animals smitten with human hands (for example, The Hunt, 2012) – enveloped in wax, which might have embalming, but also,although it is organic itself, mineralising properties, and accompanies them in their way to the world of fundamental elements (the French noun élément also refers to atmospheric conditions) of inanimate nature. Stunning terror is born somewhere in between the two orders. Bambi in Chernobyl (2012) is a ten minute long recording from the Chernobyl zone, made up of short episodes split up by frames showing a white, dazzling, strobe flash or smoothly appearing cards, each part revealing the increasingly conspicuous absence of people. One of these episodes takes us on a ride through a village which is wildly overgrown with a stand of young trees. Here, the disaster has reset the situation, allowing the displaced nature to return with redoubled energy. The wild (if we agree that the word has not been totally compromised yet) vitalism of nature is even more fascinating when we suspect its toxic genesis, and the expression ‘radiation mutation’ just needs to be spelled out. There is one more nuclear motif – the catastrophic landscape of Fukushima was a meeting point of two elements, tsunami and atom. As progress is always a step behind our understanding of its consequences, the most appropriate attitude seems to be – rooted in
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sublimity – contemplation of the mysterious, both at the microand macroscopic scale. In Terre de départ (Markul, 2014), the fast-forward projection depicting the sky over the Atacama desert has a complementary ambient-cosmic soundtrack, with dominating spatial sounds, which evoke associations with music of the spheres. Needless to say, lifting oneʼs eyes towards the starry sky is the classical recipe for sublimity. Brady said that we might be approaching the formlessness (or, as a matter of fact, boundlessness) when looking at the night sky. Although it is strewn with some discernible forms, such as planets, stars, the Milky Way, and constellations that our mind puts them in – the sense of the space, which abounds in all these galaxies and stretches beyond our reach, is quite overwhelming, and even further enhanced by our general knowledge about how vast the universe is.5 We could however just as well fix our eyes on negative infinity, to contemplate the poetry of elementary particles – or perhaps our inner selves, too. James Turrellʼs work is on the one hand a Kantian-spirited concretum of a volcano, and on the other – the minimalist elusiveness of light. For over four decades, this Quaker with his grey, patriarchal beard has been transforming his very own volcano – 400 000 years old, extinct Roden Crater – into a huge observatory of atmospheric conditions. The monumentally sublime experience of the volcanic landscape and minimalist light art realisations – which are more akin to Lyotardian inability to represent the infinite, and attempts to present the unpresentable – are both related to light. ‘The man who walks in colour’, as Turrell was described by Georges Didi-Huberman, leads us from landscape to anti-landscape, where we become enveloped in the aura of light, which instantly deprives us of any tangible object of perception on which to fix our eyes. This experience of visual deprivation refers to a ganzfeld experiment, which is crucial not only for this series, but for Turrellʼs art in general. The experiment, which originated from the experiences of Arctic explorers, demonstrates that a
5 Emily Brady, The Sublime in Modern Philosophy: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Nature, Cambridge 2013, s. 124.
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uniform field, which has been emptied of all visual information, puts the brain into a dream-like state, in which, after some time, we begin to have hallucinations that resemble dreams. The experiment is usually achieved using halves of a ping-pong ball. The artistʼs employment of this experience – whose internet forums prove to be popular with aficionados of hallucinogenic substances that are legal and have no side effects – demonstrates that Turrellʼs art, although rooted in traditional landscape, sublimates into a strictly inner landscape – our personal, involuntary projection that is activated as we become immersed in the colour. Once more, distance proves to be illusive. Just as Friedriechʼs traveller projected his own visions, spiritual exultations and fears onto nature, also here the mechanism of sublimity is exposed; in the ganzfeld experiment (the word ‘ganzfeld’ is not capitalised, as it refers to the ‘entire field’, not to the surname of the alleged discoverer of this phenomenon) the object of our aesthetic contemplation is our own reverie, as it comes into being on the screen, showing colour-filled emptiness. It does not always happen to be colour-filled. A travellerʼs journey towards dawn might as well become a journey towards the boundaries of the night. The possible extreme of sublime anti-landscape is pitch darkness. This is the case with the previously mentioned How It Is by Bałka. It turns out that, contrary to the prevalent mechanical interpretations on the Holocaust theme, this emptiness – to use Dariusz Czajaʼs expression – could be considered in a positive way. Quite unexpectedly and contrary to common associations, such were the remarks of the visitors to the thirteen metre high, ten metre wide and thirty metre long container, where they encountered absolute darkness, occasionally disturbed by illuminations from mobile screens. The descriptions of the viewers’ experiences, both amateur and highly expert art receivers, could be considered a model study of the experience of sublimity. Here is a small selection.
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There is lurking darkness inside, tempting and commanding respect. Once you get in, you cannot move back – an invisible power drags you in. And you have no idea if there is any return. Step by step, you enter the night, and you defeat your fear with the curiosity of the unknown – this experience was recounted by Karol Sienkiewicz in dwutygodnik.com6. At first, just as I entered it and walked a few metres, I felt terribly anxious, then, when I was getting near its end, and when I touched it, it was quite a pleasant feeling. Anxiety was gone, giving place to relief 7 – wrote an anonymous commentator on the blog artbox.pl, possibly unaware that they were quoting Burke. What we encounter here are no doubt negative aesthetics, whose fundamental icon is Malevichʼs Black Square, which has frequently been considered in the context of sublimity, and which has recently and unexpectedly kept recurring in brushworks executed by artists with Polish connections. Examples include Kuba Woynarowski, Angelika Markul (a square whose side measures two metres, produced from metal, wax and wood, Untitled, 2013) and Bartek Buczek, whose Krakelura. Czarny kwadrat/Craquelure. Black Square is no means an enigmatic door leading to transcendence, but a mere relict of artistic revolution enveloped in retrofuturistic aura; the rightfully earned face of a century old avant-garde. Time has redirected the course of the sublime, and brings the quadratum nigrum back down to earth. Actually, this is not the first time that Buczek has referred to this famous work in his art, neither it is his only study of the sublime. Buczek also created the picture Captain Leaving. Here, the square is properly uniform, but the surrounding background – which in the case of the original painting tends to be described as ‘white’ – has been filled with cone-shaped hills. Depending on our imagination, we could interpret these either as sandhills or icebergs, which is completely irrelevant, because what matters is that Buczekʼs starting point was the piece that is universally regarded to be the first non-representational work, after which he went back to a landscape with
6 Karol Sienkiewicz, ‘Mirosław Bałka w Tate Modern’, Dwutygodnik, October 2009, in Dwutygodnik <http://www. dwutygodnik.com/ artykul/562-miroslaw-balka-wtate-modern.html> [accessed 11 August 2015] 7 Dorota Jarecka, ‘Trojański kontener Bałki’, Gazeta Wyborcza, 16 March 2015, in Wyborcza <http://wyborcza. pl/1,75475,7141515, Trojanski_kontener_ Balki.html> [accessed 16 March 2015]
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8 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, trans. by J.H. Bernard (London: Macmillan, 1914) <http://lf-oll. s3.amazonaws.com/ titles/1217/Kant_0318_ ebk_v6.0.pdf> [accessed 11 August 2015], p.112.
a black square reduced to a depiction of water surface. In this way, his painting demonstrates the desublimating mechanism of our imagination, which like children guessing the shapes they see in clouds strongly demands that we reduce the non-representational to the role of a representation of a familiar object. Struggle with the traditional motives of the sublime landscape can involve the use of irony, which is pretty much against sublimity. For Kant, the experience of sublimity can be realised through contact with powerful nature and its observation from a safe viewpoint. He wrote, ‘We readily call these objects sublime, because they raise the energies of the soul above their accustomed height, and discover in us a faculty of resistance of a quite different kind, which gives us courage to measure ourselves against the apparent almightiness of nature.’ 8 Michał Smandekʼs volcano (Prognostic, 2013) pours out uncontrollable clouds of… sponge and cotton wool. Is this mockery of pathos and grandeur, on which art thrived for so long, and which is instantly recognisable in the landscapes by Romantic painters and legions of their legitimate and illegitimate offspring? It certainly is. But there is more to it; the author demonstrates our dormant desire to experience dreadful elements, and taste for ‘such beautiful disasters’. If we did not have the apocalypse, we would have to invent it. Sublimity on demand, with synthetic smoke and fake lava, is located at the opposite extreme in relation to the land art total realisation by James Turrell. Communication with motifs that originate from sublime Romantic landscape, with conscious employment of synthetic ersatz substitutes, also occurs in gallery ‘laboratories’. Romantic lofty shapelessness is also present in amorphous clouds, smoke and foam. Such effects make up the tissue of Angelika Markulʼs work Iceberg (2008), which was realised for the opening of the Centre of Contemporary Art ‘Znaki Czasu’ in Toruń. The eponymous iceberg, which in its natural conditions constitutes ‘a mortally
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dangerous and yet stunningly beautiful’ 9 phenomenon, is a sculpture made of foam, resting in a pool inlaid with black marble. It is an ephemeral piece, with elusiveness being an integral part of its nature. Markulʼs interest in the phenomenon of icebergs could easily be linked to the fascination with the Arctic grandeur that was felt by nineteenth century authors of accounts from their polar expeditions, such as anonymous Letters Written during the Late Voyage of Discovery in the Western Arctic Sea published by Richard Phillips. As Cian Duffy observed, authors of these texts, of a variety of genres, all tended to renegotiate the sublimity of the polar landscape, by supplying its emptiness with cultural connotations, which basically came down to comparing icebergs with churches, castles and ships travelling under full sail.10 Contemporary imagination, when confronted with amorphous objects, is by no means free of cultural clichés. The foam iceberg, which shrinks with every passing moment, directs viewers to the subject of ecology and the real problem of melting ice caps. It was a long time ago that Simmel noticed that Romantic landscape, or more precisely, contemporary sensitivity to landscape, did not really testify to our wish to return to nature. Quite the opposite, it was related to the ‘departure from nature’, which was taking place at the time, on the eve of the Industrial Revolution. It was only when the strong connections of human beings with nature were severed – which happened after millennia of their predominance in the Mediterranean cultures – that people began to discern landscape in nature. (…) Therefore, the appearance of ‘landscape’ marks a fracture, the separation of the primordial unity, with landscape painting becoming its symbolic validation11 – this is Dariusz Czajaʼs interpretation of Simmelʼs views. Being aware of this fracture, many contemporary artists work it into their art. They realise that the consequences of our mental divorce from nature are very real, and they do not remain indifferent. There is no longer such a thing as an innocent look from the
9 http://www.csw. torun.pl/wystawy/ baza-wystaw/ iceberg-1 [accessed 2 June 2015] 10 Cian Duffy, The Landscapes of the Sublime 1700–1830: Classic Ground (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p.132. 11 Dariusz Czaja, Znaki szczególne. Antropologia jako ćwiczenie duchowe (Kraków: wuj, 2013), p.56.
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distance at a rough sea or snow-capped mountain tops. Oil spills can easily be seen floating on the sea waves, and mountain slopes are banked up with the prisms of civilisationʼs rubbish. The eye itself no longer believes in its own innocence. If the experience of sublimity is to tell us something new, it might need to equip itself with the potential for criticism. Artists such as Margul cheer nature on as it keeps returning, despite being continuously expelled from our consciousness. Its new incarnations and forms are an entirely different matter. It is impossible not to notice that sometimes nature knocks on our door looking like a zombie, not fully alive, not completely dead, yet bent on seeking revenge. Certainly, there are many faces of sublimity presented in landscape painting and various realisations that refer to it. The longevity of certain motifs provokes their re-interpretation, which is more and more often done using the aesthetics of engagement, leaving aside classical models. Some artists try to grasp distance – the integral part of Burkean-Kantian sublimity; others play with the avant-garde sublimity, whose late prophet was Lyotard. Both sublimities, and others that have been omitted here, are sometimes softened with irony. The height of the fashion for sublimity is over – le sublime est a la mode, wrote Jean Luc Nancy in 1981 – and so is the wave of criticism towards the ‘ideology of the sublime’. But it seems that in this language the last word has not yet been said.
Alicja Boncel, The Persistence of Memory (fragment), glass, light, wood, organic elements, leather, metal, 2015.
Kopalniok River The lake known as Kopalniok (also called Dębina or Żebracz) lies in the vicinity of the Silesian coal mine and is surrounded by one hundred and fifteen fishing sheds. The reservoir water, although seemingly clean and clear, is actually heavily contaminated. Its environmental condition is most probably affected by sewage from the nearby housing development. The water is teeming with micro-organisms, which results in a relatively huge number of fish, especially the bream, suffering from various diseases. Despite all this, the lake is inhabited by mussels, gudgeons, perches and pikes. Its bottom is strewn with rubbish – all sorts of objects, including cans, bottles, tyres, cooking pots and even old canoes. In the second half of the nineteenth century, a site that belonged to two, separate at the time, districts – Czechowice and Dziedzice – was selected to be drilled in search of salt, on orders from the Prussian government issued to the mining administration unit. The borehole revealed the presence of brine that contained bromine and iodine, big deposits of limestone soil, and – to everyoneʼs surprise – deposits of hard bituminous coal. In 1901, the infrastructure of the Silesia coal mine began to appear, and with time, the mine became the largest employer in the town and neighbouring area, providing the community with financial stability. It also became ill-famed for the highest risk of gas explosions. After a few infamous hecatombs, expert evaluations were conducted in 2010, followed by a new stage in the life of the Silesia mine. Time of instability was over when, after many unsuccessful attempts of selling the mine, it was finally taken over by the Czech Energetický a Premyslový Holding and employers-initiated Przedsiębiorstwo Górnicze Silesia. The Kopalniok lake was developed after the First World War. In 1935, a canoeing race was organised there on the Day of the Sea.
The club was reactivated after the Second World War, and a multi-section sports-club was officially formed (and financially supported by the mine, where many sportsmen also found employment). This was where Olympic medal winners – such as Grzegorz Kotowicz, Marek Witkowski and Marek Dopierała – trained and grew up. Since 1933, the Silesia mine branch of the Maritime and Colonial League organised the annual Day of the Sea. The Echo Beskidzkie paper from 23 July 1937 reported: Sea festivities on the Dębina lake in Czechowice-Żebraczy. Right next to the coal mine, there will be canoe and swimming races, with prizes for the winners, traditional throwing of the garlands of flowers into the Vistula river, performances lit by fireworks and spotlights and a big folk party. Playing along will be the Orchestra of the Silesia Coal Mine. The net profit will be donated to the Maritime Defence Fund. Every year the event gathered a few thousand participants, and was supported by the coal mine manager, engineer Ferdynand Iwanek. In the middle of the 1930s a lighthouse was built on the Dębina (Kopalniok) lake. The Maritime and Colonial League propagated maritime ideas and maritime, both moral and physical, education of teenagers (through water sports and tourism). Also in the 1930s, the Anglers’ Association was established, and whoever wanted to join in and fish in the pond, had to obtain the permission from the coal mine manager. At the beginning of the 1990s, the sports club was replaced with the ‘Gwarek’ Association for Recreation and Water Sport in Czechowice. In its heyday, there were swings, a merry-go-round, a bowling-alley, a pier, a sand beach, shower facilities under open sky, water bikes, a springboard, a tower, food and beverage facilities, a slide, and a candyfloss seller. After the privatisation, the venue lost its sport and leisure function, and changed into a devastated, abandoned and squalid area. George Simmel wrote that each individual, in a sense, emanates a smaller or bigger aura of meaning, in which every person
1 Roch Sulima, Antropologia codzienności (Kraków: wuj, 2000), p.13.
who comes in contact with them becomes immersed.1 The Kopalniok reservoir is not just an oasis isolated from the cityʼs hustle and bustle. This is a micro-world that brings together three generations of anglers. Each rickety shack that has been built on its shore is a product of an individual creative initiative, made with no professional help whatsoever from any engineers. Their constructions tend to resemble a structure of a house, and they play multiple functions of being a shed, a bedroom and a dining room. The materials used include plywood, metal sheeting, wooden panelling, wood, netting, fragments of billboard advertisements and wallpapers. A house, which has been scaled down to the size of a small hut, is a totally subjugated territory, easy for the owner to control and modify. Its private area extends to the frontage, which resembles a verandah and sometimes features a bench and a small table, and an obligatory jetty. This tradition of neighbouring/bordering fosters certain rivalry. Most of the sheds belong to retired coal miners and their families, and the very activity of forming and decorating them seems to be an outlet for their creative potential. There are some characteristic elements, a kind of symbols of prestige: a horseshoe, a plate with a name or a nickname (for example, Agent Mietek), and flower beds. When one stays for a while between the pond and the mine, they need to activate their sense of hearing. A sort of dissonance appears. The vicinity of the sheds requires visitors to show good manners and engage in small talk. Then, there are the sounds coming from the mine, and peculiar music from small television sets, tape recorders or radios (sports broadcasts). Oneʼs most private area is demarcated by the jetty, like a drawbridge leading up to a castle-shed on one end, and to the point where the line can be cast on the other. Ever since the beginning, I have been enthralled by the Kopalniokʼs fishing sheds, which look a bit like Asian houses on stilts, hoovering above water. But here, in the background, there is this accompaniment of the noisy Silesia coal mine. A mismatch.
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Surreal and unanticipated. The anglers’ very own paradise in a toxic relationship with a mine of bituminous coal. I wanted to show the sheds from an uncommon, normally inaccessible point of view, one that they have not been viewed from yet – from the middle of the lake, where one could see the complete typology of 115 fishing sheds, a very unusual panorama of the Kopalniokʼs shoreline. Instead of making yet another circle around the lake, I forced myself to assume a state of a standstill, comparable with the one of an anglerʼs patient observation of the float. The reservoirʼs anomalies began to appear close to the water surface. The lake, although it is a unique ecological bomb, remains a recreational spot for the local people. This is surprising because even fish that suffer from labyrinthitis do attempt to find an escape – they keep circling just below the water surface or try to jump out to the shore. Incessant noise made by the gloomy mine seems to have no effect on the resigned residents. The local inhabitants were overwhelmed with longing when they recalled their memories of the truly beautiful landscape from the Kopalniokʼs days of glory. The lighthouse, the Day of the Sea festivities, the Midsummer Night… Now, this absurd-sounding, nonsensical and ambiguous vocabulary seems very exotic. The starting point for a series of videos and photographs was my first glimpse of a fish that was swimming in circles just below the surface. It made, actually almost drew circles on the smooth surface. After some observation, the toxic issue of this place began to dawn on me. The cast of my silent performances included drowsy ducks. Jaded and sluggish, they went about their lazy existence or cut through the motionless horizon. Coldness and apathy were very consistent with the desolate, forgotten, autumn lake. The last life infusion in the Kopalniok, apart from the anglers, are the canoeists. Among them are youngsters from the nearby sports club, who get ready for competitions (also the international
ones!) and the old troupers, for whom ice is very little challenge. All of them go round the gloomy reservoir in vicious circles, indifferent, the old ones – resigned with the current state of affairs, and the young ones – who have fitted in, perhaps unwittingly. The canoeists, with their paddling, unintentionally stimulate life in the reservoir, they make its water move, and fill it with oxygen. The smooth surface of the water, which is sometimes disrupted by the canoeists, reflects the rhythm of the nearby mine. The audible whirr of wheels is a sign of the approaching… freight cars with coal. Weronika Kasprzyk
Shed Ă la Mondrian from the cycle Kopalniok River, photograph, 2013.
Would You Be So Kind and Check My Hair for Soil? This text was written to the accompaniment of John Cageʼs Imaginary Landscape No. 1, which is also recommended while you are reading it.
The classification of typical soils is based on certain intrinsic properties, such as their main genetic make-up, their chemical, physical and biological similarities, identical weathering processes, including the movement and deposition of their products, and similar humus and trophic levels. The soil type is the basic classification unit, and its differentiation is based on a wide range of levels, including the most distinctive characteristics of the whole soil. The definition of a soil type depends on a few distinctive features that distinguish a given unit, yet there are some basic traits that should also be looked at. The division into sub-types takes into account great similarities in genetic levels, including their arrangement and the formation stage, as well as the make-up of exchangeable cations, the level of acidity of its sorption constituents, presence of calcium and their redoximorphic features. [Based on Wikipedia] The current classification of Polish soils, which was proposed by the Polish Society of Soil Science in 2011, differentiates eleven orders and 41 types of soil: Order 1. Initial soils (i) Type 1.1. Initial rocky soils (is) Type 1.2. Initial debris soils (io)
Type 1.3. Initial eroded soils (iy) Type 1.4. Initial accumulated soils (ij) Order 2. Weakly developed soils (s) Type 2.1. Rankers (sq) Type 2.2. Proper rendzinas (sr) Type 2.3. Pararendzinas (sx) Type 2.4. Arenosols (sl) Type 2.5. Proper alluvial soil (sf) Type 2.6. Weakly developed eroded soils (sy) Order 3. Brown forest soils (b) Type 3.2. Dystrophic brown soils (bd) Type 3.3. Brown alluvial soils (bf) Type 3.4. Brown rendzinas (br) Order 4. Rustizemic soils (r) Type 4.1. Rusty soils (rw) Type 4.2. Ochre soils (rh) Order 5. Brown forest podzolic soils (p) Type 5.1. Soils lessivés (pw) Type 5.2. Glossic soils lessivés (pa) Type 5.3. Gley soils lessivés (pg) Order 6. Podzol soils (l) Type 6.1. Podzolic soils (lw) Type 6.2. Podzols (b) Order 7. Chernozemic soils (c) Type 7.1. Chernozems (cw) Type 7.2. Black earths (cz) Type 7.3. Chernozemic rendzinas (cr) Type 7.4. Chernozemic alluvial soils (cf) Type 7.5. Chernozemic deluvial soils (cy) Type 7.6. Muckous soils (cu) Order 8. Gley soils (g) Type 8.1. Gley soils (gw) Order 9. Vertisols (v)
e wa ł ą c z y ń s k a - w i d z The English translation of the soil types terminology was done in collaboration with Przemysław Charzyński, PhD, and Marcin Świtoniak, PhD, from the Department of Soil Science and Landscape Management at the Faculty of Earth Sciences of the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, Poland.
Type 9.1. Dystrophic vertisols (vd) Type 9.2. Eutrophic vertisols (ve) Type 9.3. Humus vertisols (vp) Order 10. Organic soils (o) Type 10.1. Fibric peat soils (oti) Type 10.2. Hemic peat soils (ote) Type 10.3. Sapric peat soils (ota) Type 10.4. Folisols (os) Type 10.5. Limnic organic soils (ol) Type 10.6. Mursh soils (om) Order 11. Anthropogenic soils (a) Type 11.1. Anthrosols (ak) Type 11.2. Industrisols (ai) Type 11.3. Urbisols (av) Type 11.4. Salt affected soils (an) In 1993, Hussein Chalayan, the Cyprus-born British fashion designer, presented ‘The Tangent Flowers’, his graduate collection from Londonʼs Central Saint Martins School of Art. He made the clothes from partly decomposed textiles that he had earlier buried in his garden. The collection was his debut and he immediately became dubbed a ‘fashion philosopher’. A year previously Alexander McQueen had graduated from the same school. For his diploma collection, he made clothes with curls of his own hair sewn into them. He meant this gesture to be a reminder of death. His other materials included leather, feathers, stag horns and fresh flowers, with which he liked to decorate his models. In 2010, he committed a suicide in his flat, leaving behind a short note saying: ‘Look after my dogs. Sorry. I love you. Lee.’ The old, folk tradition of burial involved wrapping the body of the deceased with a cloth, which was a kind of dress. The enveloped body would be placed in a wooden coffin or straight into the soil. The Czech photography duo Lukas Jasanský and Martin Polák work in series. They take about 100 photographs on a given subject. 68
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Usually, they go for real situations, which they like to record. One of their pictures, Kvalitní Kampa/Quality Kampa (1992) presents a fragment of a cemetery with a pile of soil between stone tombs. It might be a grave. Graves like this are rarely seen nowadays. We tend to prevent bodies from contact with soil. Perhaps it is the tide of biological retaliation that allows us to see a great return of organic art, with its emphasis on biological cycles, and willingness to reveal bodies and place them close to nature. This explosion is obvious in artworks made by young artists, the ones born since the 1980s. In his spectacularly quiet videos, Krzysztof Maniak registers his daily forest walks. He lives in a small town of Tuchów near Tarnów. These short film forms document peculiar performances, with no audience present – he jumps over a stream, hangs from a branch, scrambles through prickly bushes. The artist admits that a forest is his closest and best domesticated territory. What is striking about his works is their short form, which functions equally well in a single frame and a longer entanglement. The audience has no choice but to share his concentration. In Home Rituals, Przemysław Branas takes his camera to a thick cherry orchard. In the East Gallery in Łódź, he presents an exhibition entitled m.o.r.o., which was inspired by the Moro reflex, also called the embrace reflex, which is observed when newborn babies respond to a sudden change. In 2014/15, another young artist, Michalina Bigaj realised her project 30 dni dla natury/30 Days for Nature. She spent each of the eponymous 30 days looking for a natural space where she could lie down naked curled in the embryonic position. Her action referred to the earth-body-sculpture, as practised by Ana Mendieta in the 1980s. She registered her action using a video camera, and made a series of 30 photographs presenting fragments of the imprints that her body had left in nature – grass, leaves and soil. Bigajʼs artistic pursues led her also to discover curious artworks by Czech performer Petr Štembera, who was active in the 1970s. One of his 69
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best known works consisted of grafting a plant onto his own arm. Karolina Bregułaʼs film The Offence (2013) begins with the main character revealing a clover that grows on his calf. It turns out that the local community considers this plant to be deeply offensive and unworthy of the main characters, who appear in modernist interiors in Hungary. Bigajʼs series includes a curious piece made up of 185 porcelain twigs. While searching for a relationship between body and nature, her interest focused on a forest. The twigs that she found in the undergrowth made her think of bones. This thought led her to realise their porcelain casts. Seo Min Jeong – a Berlin-based Korean artist – made a work entitled Remains (2009). It includes 36 casts of birds and other small animals. Casts were made by covering the animals’ dead bodies with porcelain. Organic matter decomposed in the process of firing in a ceramic kiln. As a result, the fragile and delicate form is a kind of an empty coffin, bearing the shape of the body that no longer exists. In 2009, Aneta Grzeszykowska and Jan Smaga realised a photography series Private Archive. The pictures register the artist and her naked bodyʼs encounters with nature, her bold exercising sessions in a forest, which were witnessed by her artistic and life partner. As Susan Sontag noticed – photography is able both to immortalise and annihilate. Cage composed his Imaginary Landscape No. 1 in the spring of 1939. He claimed his music did not describe any physical landscape. He dedicated it to future technologies, the ones that would allow us to lose touch with the Earth and set out to explore other worlds. Not quite half a year passed after the première of his music, when the Second World War broke out, and soon the song is going to be 100 years old. A lot has happened in the meantime, yet the surrounding landscape has not really changed. In the film entitled Future Days, Agnieszka Polska designs heaven for artists (2013).
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Magnificent landscape becomes the background for a meeting point of artists who live in different times. Despite the dreamlike vision, the landscape remains real. Even the boldest science-fiction literature finds it hard to take off the Earth. Indeed, its gravity is powerful. The title of the text is a fragment of Justyna Bargielskaʼs poem ‘Rio Negra’ from the collection Nudelman. Feeling like lying down on the soil? Why not.
Krzysztof Maniak, Untitled (Trudny teren/Rough Terrain), digital photography, 2015.
Pinus Sylvestris My passion for experimenting and searching for new experiences in the contact with nature evolved into the main topic of my work. Mechanical gathering of pine needles took on a form of a documentation of the time I spent in the forest. The needles were manually collected, arranged in parallel, and bound into sheaves. Each forest hike left me with one such bundle. Depending on the time spent in the forest, I created bunches of different sizes, adding them to my growing collection. The gathering process constituted an observation of a smallscale landscape, characterised by monotony that benefited concentration and examination of the relations occurring in the ecosystem. After some time, the gatherer-collector comes to be a part of a forest, one of the constituting elements of its structure, and becomes fully accepted by the surroundings. Their non-threatening presence makes it possible to forge a non-invasive relationship with the forestʼs inhabitants. Being close to fauna and flora does not bring any material advantages, so esteemed in todayʼs world, but it does provide the collector with much more than that – an opportunity to become calm, to isolate oneself from everyday hustle and bustle, and to concentrate on what one considers important. It stimulates creative thinking. Paweł Szeibel
PaweĹ‚ Szeibel, Pinus Sylvestris, installation, 2015. Photo: Barbara Kubska.
Potential Landscape Interview with Hortensja Kowalik Originally published in Rocznik BWA w Katowicach (2/2067).
edmund równy: To start with, I would like to offer my hearty congratulations, Ms Kowalik. It is today that you are celebrating 40 years as a researcher and curator. You have enjoyed many successes and received many awards. How are you today? hortensja kowalik: Iʼm not sure. On one hand, I feel happy and perhaps even proud of myself, on the other – I can also remember my failures. And I guess these failures have shaped my life more than my successes [laughing]. e: So a thought has just occurred to me – why not talk about these failures for a change? Our readers may find it very interesting to look at your career from that perspective – things that did not work. What do you think? h: They are quite personal matters, but itʼs fine with me, I can share them. Who knows, maybe it will help me solve the mystery of work number 749. e: Is this its inventory number? h: Yes, and this number keeps recurring in my dreams [laughing], or to be more precise: 749 chairs, 749 tables, 749 umbrellas, 749 pencils, 749 cupboards – I do count them in my dream, although I am certain there are 749 of each. I count them anyway. I feel a kind of urge to do it. e: It sounds like a nightmare! h: Right, they are far from pleasant dreams. But I donʼt think they will end.
e: Could you reveal to us more information about this mysterious object that you have been working on for so many years? h: 749 refers to a huge metal box filled with dozens of cardboard objects. Each cardboard piece has a famous photograph printed on it – the so called Hubble Ultra-Deep Field taken in 2004, which presents around 10 000 galaxies. For many years, the box remained stowed away in the depository of the bwa Gallery in Katowice, which is the institution where I started my career as a curator years ago, and it just stayed there until an official order came from the management, asking me – still a young worker – to catalogue, identify and, following thorough research, write a description of this object. No one remembered even who made it or how it ever ended up in the gallery. Frankly speaking, I was terribly surprised that 749 (this is how I nicknamed this ‘thing’) had stayed completely untouched in this depository for so long. i e: Well, knowing the way in which many art institutions are run, I would guess such cases are not so infrequent. Looking on the bright side, we might sometimes feel like characters in a detective series [laughing]. h: Quite right. Just imagine, this series of mine has been running for over ten seasons and the end is not yet in sight [laughing]. It all started ages ago. I was young and ambitious then, and determined to work and discover. I took management orders very seriously. I guess no one even suspected how seriously. I got down to work straight away: taking photos of everything I could find in that box, writing down the measurements, reading extensively about the famous Hubble Space Telescope – that is, as much as I could understand. And still no clue… e: What do you mean – no clue? h: I couldnʼt find answers to the most fundamental questions.
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First of all – what was the intended shape of this artwork, which consisted of 89 elements of various shapes? Not to mention the others – what was its meaning and who was the author? I had no idea what this work was actually supposed to look like, and how to put all of these pieces together. e: Was it then that you came up with the idea of holding The First Invisible Biennial of Modern Art [A word of explanation to our younger audience: the said biennial relied solely on the receivers’ imagination, as no material objects were presented]. h: Not yet, however it wasnʼt long until it came to me. But it did cross my mind, just as a hypothesis, that the box contents might not be a work of art at all. A friend of mine, who is a physicist, pointed out that 749 looks a bit like research tools, mock-ups that kids make at school, or perhaps spatial representations of some physical theories. He showed me some drawings made by scientists – diagrams and suchlike. I found it fascinating and it struck me as an important creative activity in the field of science, especially the captions for these drawings, which were a complete ignotum per ignotum for a layperson, but still – this was pure poetry. This was just great. It sometimes happens that the informative function of these objects gives way to the aesthetic or artistic one – we no longer think about the theory that they visualise, and begin to focus on the play on form instead. Maybe this is what 749 really is – a scientific model that has sneaked out of control and began to function in a different manner. Have you heard of Lorenz Stöerʼs treatise on perspective from the sixteenth century? He presents seemingly innocent geometrical solids in a perspective that makes them look like fantastic, bizarre, baroque landscapes. The authorʼs rational concept evolves into something bordering on madness. I have spent hours researching similar scientific writings on the internet, hoping they would guide me to my 749, but unfortunately I couldnʼt find anything. At the same
time, I wrote a couple of poems – Luminous Cones, Entangled Circumstances, and other titles along these lines. Gradually, I realised that my imagination was being ‘entangled’, too [laughing], which means it does have some limits. ii e: Has it ever crossed your mind that this is exactly what this artwork is about? It might be about our deficient imagination, both in terms of the theories on reality that we build and with regard to research on artworks from the distant past? After all, this photograph taken with a telescope is a kind of enticement and challenge for our imagination – all these remote corners of the universe are incredibly inspiring. It makes us wonder if there is some intelligent life existing over there. And if yes, what does it look like? Would it be possible to communicate with these creatures? h: And to think that this picture presents the universe as it appeared thirteen milliard years ago – looking at it, we actually see the past. We can see the galaxies that vanished a long time ago. The distance between them and us is so huge that there is no way we could see them in their present shape. Anyway, in this situation the notion of time is a bit quirky. There might be nothing to rely on but imagination. e: Sooner or later, we do realise that everything that enters our mind is heavily formatted by the conditions that we happen to live in – such as this famous telescope and its technical capabilities. There is a great book by Edwin A. Abbott, Flatland. A Romance of Many Dimensions, published in 1884. It is about a two-dimensional world, whose ‘flat’ inhabitants – lines and polygons – cannot envisage a three-dimensional world. iii h: Are you suggesting that the author of this work had this pre-conceived assumption that it was going to be a puzzle for
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art researchers and a challenge for their minds? Is this why this multi-piece creation was chucked into the box with no instruction manual? That would have been unspeakably cruel [laughing]. I guess you should join my team. e: Nice to hear that. Before I accept the offer, may I ask you some more questions? For example, can you expound on the idea of extending imagination in art? h: It was supposed to be achieved through curatorial practices that make use of artworks that for various reasons cannot be seen but they can be imagined. The obvious forerunner was Raimundas Malašauskas with his Hypnotic Show, which was an exhibition that was generated solely in an immaterial manner in the receivers’ imagination, in cooperation with a professional hypnotist. At that time, I was interested in the subject of formatting our imagination and the impossibility to imagine a different world than the currently existing one. I wanted to create projects that would offer a remedy for this problem – projects aimed at training and extending our imagination, which would take us away from the details of overstimulating mechanical reality. These are projects that would allow us to play a more active role as receivers. e: Iʼve heard that 749 made you take up gardening a few years ago? h: It did, but considering my name, that should have happened much earlier [laughing]. Gardening was a response to a crisis I went through, I might say I was on the verge of depression. 749 became part of my daily life. Certainly, I worked on other things at the same time, but 749 was always at the back of my mind and I cherished this hope that another project would eventually let me understand this work. I have no idea if you have ever experienced something similar. We are not talking about a situation when you look at an exhibition piece for five or ten minutes; itʼs not even one in which you keep thinking about a particular work of art for a few weeks and then write
an article about it. We are talking about an artwork that leaves a permanent mark on your life, settling in for good, so eventually more and more things depend on it. This kind of work requires a different reception than others. It has nothing in common with an instant, point-delimited reception of art that has become so popular nowadays. e: I think I am still looking for an artwork like this. h: Well, then please keep in mind that finding it can bring about disastrous results! 749 has taken up loads of my energy. Day in, day out, I came home, spread out all the pieces, and wondered how these separate pieces could be related one to another. It evolved into a kind of meditation. After a few months I needed to have its copy made because the original pieces began to crumble after continually being taken out of the box and then stacked back into it. Perhaps it was a sort of an obsession. Anyway, after some time I thought that these pieces, spread out in front of me, constituted a kind of an unusual landscape or a garden. Because I had stayed quite away from nature, I decided to make amendments. I swapped the practice of playing with the elements of this installation with the practice of designing a garden and growing plants. I was hoping again that perhaps this would let me understand the mechanics of 749. Because when you spread this work out, what you get is a unique ‘potential landscape’, with its individual elements presenting an abstract painting. The rest becomes created in our imagination. I guess gardening has saved me. I bet youʼve heard that contact with nature helps fight depression [laughing]. iv e: So what about the artwork itself? Are you not working on it anymore? h: Itʼs always on my mind. Have you heard about my last project – a biennial of land-art in the world of computer games?
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e: Of course I have. Itʼs become quite famous, with lots of well known names involved. h: This is also a direct result of my gardening activities, also virtual ones (because I play online gardening games, too), and at the same time – an indirect result of 749. Artists create land-art works in the world of computer games. I believe that nowadays Minecraft has as much impact on our mass imagination, including the way we perceive nature, as Hubble Ultra-Deep Field. e: Maybe this is what 749 is about – it is supposed to function in a manner that is far from our expectations. Should we not end our conversation at this point? Thank you so much for your time. h: Thank you, too. I hope you have also found something surprising in this interview. Postscript: Soon after the publication of this interview, our editorial team received a message from a person who claims that the work that Hortensja Kowalik is researching has been created by her relative, artist Kornel Janczy. We are doing our best to verify this information. The interview was transcribed and edited by Aneta Rostkowska.
Kornel Janczy, Map of the Sky, acrylic paint on cardboard, installation, 2015.
The Village of Dinosaurs Village Nr 8 developed in the area of the former amusement park with dinosaurs. Its inhabitants have never built houses or streets, there is no sewage system or pavements, and rubbish is never collected. People live inside the plaster casts of dinosaurs, among the paws, tails, heads and trunks that belong to the imitations of these ancient animals. The villagers communicate by means of sounds that were allegedly used by the dinosaurs themselves – such as barking and shouting. Their small group consists of people who shared a childhood fascination with these reptiles. Their fascination was a protective shield against worries, just as now the plaster casts protect them from rain and wind. Concept, realisation – Bartosz Zaskórski Voice – Konrad Materek Music – Bartosz Zaskórski
The Village of Dancing Buses In the Village of Dancing Buses, the youngest inhabitants, iboth boys and girls, are raised to become bus drivers. On reaching their twenty fourth birthday, they become qualified as drivers, which makes them eligible for discounts from all national transportation companies, but they very rarely take advantage of it: they are not very keen to leave their village. The main reason is that most of their time is taken up by preparations for an annual festivity whose major attraction is a dance performed by buses. The dance takes place on a huge, concrete-covered square in the middle of the village. This is where a group of drivers meet and climb aboard their buses. Then, couple after couple, they drive onto the square. They keep encircling one another, and getting into each otherʼs way, at the same time trying not to bump into other vehicles.
The contest is observed by the locals, who are responsible for making the final decision. These qualifying rounds last until there is only one driver left on the square. The winner is instantly employed with a local transportation company, but he or she can also choose to leave the village and move to the city. Concept, realisation – Bartosz Zaskórski Voice – Konrad Materek Music – Bartosz Zaskórski/Konrad Materek
Bartosz Zaskórski, Village Where People Feel Peace, video/audio recording, 03'14", 2015.
The Village Where People Feel Peace Village nr 10. People from Village nr 10 are reconciled to their fate. They feel perfect inner peace. Most probably, this is possible because they turn everything into a joke. This capacity of theirs developed at the time when almost the whole population of the village was employed in the nearby steelworks. They produced glass bunnies and cast-iron pipes. Injuries were a common occurrence, one person lost their arm, another – their leg, and so on. People were terrified at first, but then they learned to laugh at their missing limbs, and this is how they achieved peace. They laughed at everything, and this is why the steelworks was closed down, allowing the community to return to their simple jobs. They continue to play tricks and practical jokes, but no one minds any more. They laugh a lot and they eat simple food, for example steamed green beans. In the winter, they lapse into lethargy, some of them go to the forest and, continuously giggling, immerse themselves in water reservoirs before the water freezes, and this is where they spend the whole winter. Come the spring, they wake up and return to their jobs. The cycle repeats. Concept, realisation – Bartosz Zaskórski Voice – Konrad Materek Music – Bartosz Zaskórski
The Swing and the Hot Chocolate, the Sparkling Cat and Mating Rituals of Owls I used to have a habit of leaving my flat in the late evening. I would put my camera into an old bag and head for the Silesia Park. The camera formed a bulge in the worn out laptop case. Normally, the bag was flat, but with this camera inside, it looked buckled and felt awkward, leaning against my hip, so I kept moving it onto my back. The camera was a borrowed one, and I had not used it much before. I walked around the park at night, taking pictures of places that caught my attention. It was cold, and I often had to go back soon, because of losing the feeling in the finger that was releasing the shutter. Then I went to a tram stop and waited. Sometimes nothing came, so I had to walk back. I walked along Chorzowska Street, passed the DÄ…b district on my way, and turned towards the DÄ™bowe Tarasy housing estate and the Silesia mall. One night, I ran into a body of a dead cat arranged on a flower bed next to the pavement. Someone had driven over the cat and moved its carcass from the street to a flower bed, putting it on the cold tree bark. I waited for a while and took a few pictures, casually. Whenever I returned home, I usually got down straight to uploading the images on the computer. This is actually the only reason I took them. It was dark, so sometimes I could not see exactly what I was photographing; I noticed things later, while browsing through photos on the computer screen. Once, there were snails crawling out of something that could be an entrance to a bunker. A round uncovered whole, based on a brick walling, strewn with litter, located on a hill in a park. Snails were getting out of there by climbing the damp, red bricks. I had not seen them before. I looked at the cat. A poor thing. Its muzzle was crushed. Gingery brown fur. A broken spine, I guess. It looked as if it had positioned itself to lie on its side. But if it had, it would have curled its body. Obviously, something had disrupted its run. The fur must have been wet before because
it had stiffened in the form of icicles. The soil and the cat were frozen. The frost reflected the flashlight. A few days later I was taking pictures near the park amphitheatre. The stage was enveloped in a huge, black, round-shaped tarpaulin. It was covered with sand and snow was falling. I often passed the zoo on my way. I heard the animals. They howled or roared. Weird. When I came close to the tarpaulin, I heard a cry, and I thought it was coming from the zoo. But the zoo was far away. Kind of giggling. Coming from the bushes higher up. I walked over there. I thought someone was acting out an animal. Then I heard two noises. One was giggling, and the other was short, just two syllables. I entered the concrete bower and looked up. The two-syllable sound was made by an owl or an eagle owl. I scared it, so it flew down from the cornice above the columns, and up towards the trees. My searching eyes found it sitting on a thick branch and making the same sound. It must have been mating. This bird is called a tawny owl and people in villages often believe that it brings death. Those who believe in it do not like to listen to its sound. Well, this was a bit disgusting. Everything was melting, yet still a bit frozen, and death-bringing birds called each other… At night, a city is dead, a bit like a desert. Whatever there is, it looks like ruins left by some civilisation. Poles, pylons, railings. Cracked paths. Fountains that do not work. Concrete bowers, columns, sculptures. Animal and human cries. When I asked Marta which duo would best represent her feelinsg for a landscape, she said she would hang Fragonardʼs Swing next to Cocoa by Helen Chadwick. The soft foliage enveloping the three characters juxtaposed with hot chocolate – this is the representation of the blissful happiness and sensual luxuriance of nature. The other extreme. Michał Gayer
MichaĹ‚ Gayer, Sparkling Cat, picture projected onto the wall (a slide), pieces of broken mirror, 2015.
Agnieszka Kwiecień – an art critic and historian, graduate in the history of art from the Jagiellonian Univerity in Kraków, Poland, feminist, editor of the culture magazine Fragile, curator of exhibitions of the most cutting-edge art and educational-artistic events for children and adults, and president of the association Fragile. Her focus is on modern art. In her research, she likes to make use of feminist and anthropological methodologies, as well as theories of imagery. She is interested in the problems regarding the role of culture in education and life of modern man. She is actively engaged in projects that aim at the popularisation of art theory and which stimulate people to experience art in person. Ewa Łączyńska-Widz – studied the history of art at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland. She is a curator, author of texts on art and the director of the bwa art gallery in Tarnów, Poland. It was in Tarnów, from 2009 to 2011, that she curated the project ‘Polish Alphabet’, presenting the most interesting phenomena of young Polish art. She is co-editor of Tarnów. 1000 Years of Modernity (with Dawid Radziszewski). In collaboration with Jadwiga Sawicka, she curated the exhibitions ‘Dreams Are a Second Life’ (bwa gallery in Tarnów, 2012), ‘6th Views’ (Zachęta, 2013), and ‘A Rose Is a Rose’ (bwa gallery in Tarnów, 2013). She was also a member of the jury in the ‘Views’ competition (2011) and Polish Radio Three competition for emerging artists (2014, 2015). She is a member of the board for the Polish division of aica. Her interests include projects on modern art that are realised away from big art centres and combine art with history and local contexts. She lives in Tarnów. Paweł Drabarczyk – obtained a diploma in law from the University of Warsaw, Poland and in the history of art from the Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University
in Warsaw. He is currently writing a PhD dissertation on the subject of sublimity in Polish art at the Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Sciences. From 2011 to 2013 he was secretary, and from 2013 to 2014 associate editor for the monthly magazine Art & Business. Since 2014 he has been president of the foundation Strona Obrazu. He is the author of texts on art, art journalist, organiser of exhibitions and academic conferences, for example a national Polish conference of PhD students and graduates on the subject of distorting reality in art, literature and language entitled Jaki piękny fałsz. Anna Lebensztejn – graduated from the history of art and Italian philology within the Inter-faculty Individual Studies program in the Humanities Department of the Jagiellonian University, Kraków, Poland, and from the Faculty of Law at the same university; she also studied at the Sapienza University of Rome, Italy. She is currently a PhD student at the Institute of Art History at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. She is a curator and educator at the Bunkier Sztuki Gallery of Contemporary Art in Kraków, and since 2012 she has been curator of its ‘Collections’. She has co-operated with the quarterly magazine Niepełnosprawność i rehabilitacja, the magazine Modus, the University of the Third Age at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, the association Fragile and the Wawel Royal Castle. Aneta Rostkowska – is a curator. She has studied the history of art, economy and philosophy in Poznań, Kraków (Poland), and in Heidelberg and Frankfurt am Main (Germany). She completed curatorial studies at de Appel arts centre in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. She has co-created initiatives devoted to contemporary social-economic situation and the town of Kraków (Po kapitalizmie/ After Capitalism, Sól/Salt, Projekt Miejski/Urban Project). She has written over fifty texts on the subject of contemporary art and art theory. She curated and co-curated many exhibitions and urban space projects. Since 2005 she has been teaching philosophy, theory and history of art in various academic institutions in Kraków. She was awarded the ‘Young Poland’ scholarship from the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage of Poland. She is currently working on her doctoral dissertation at the Jagiellonian University and she works at the Bunkier Sztuki Gallery of Contemporary Art in Kraków.
bwa Contemporary Art Gallery in Katowice (Poland) is one of the biggest and most important institutions in Poland, which deals with the newest art and related branches. It is artistically independent, and financed with the municipal funds of the city of Katowice. The gallery is open to all the phenomena in visual arts. In its exhibition halls it presents both recognised artists and young debuting originators. It shows Polish and foreign art in wide cultural contexts. An important part of the galleryʼs activity includes meetings with artists, film shows, performances, discussions, sessions, lectures, plastic arts workshops and other educational activity. The bwa Contemporary Art Gallery plays also the role of a publisher. As a result of this activity the audience receives albums and catalogues of exhibitions, as well as important works by outstanding art critics, art historians and art theoreticians, which are necessary to all interested in the latest culture.
The exhibition: Keeping Both Feet on the Ground bwa Contemporary Art Gallery in Katowice 31.07–06.09.2015
bwa Tarnów 24.09–11.10.2015 Curator: Marta Lisok
c Photo: Anka Sielska
Mass media patronage
Co-financed by The Ministry of Culture and National Heritage
Published on Jul 10, 2015
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