I do not stir.
The frost makes a flower,
The dew makes a star,
The dead bell,
The dead bell.
Somebody’s done for.
Death & Co.
I can’t rise,
I might be rising
and not-risen I am waiting
for morning to come.
I can’t move
I finally see myself from above.
The assumption of the exhibition Alina Szapocznikow. Sculpture Undone. 1955-1972 seems to be the following: forty years after the Polish artist’s death, her business is still unfinished although the canon seems to claim something rather opposite. The canon holds place for Alina Szapocznikow, not only locally (to view Szapocznikow’s archive at Museum of Modern Art go to: http://www.artmuseum.pl/archiwa.php?l=1&a=1&skrot=0). Why then? What is it that still bothers one in this oeuvre, what forces one to return to it and reverse existing forms of presentation, representation and reception, to search for other routes of access, other means of expression for this disturbing experience which is an encounter with death and life in their various manifestations processed by the artistic imagination?
The leitmotif of the exhibition is the unstoppable readiness and courage to undertake artistic risk, the risk of creating so inseparable from the risk of living, the oscillation not so much between Thanatos and Eros, as between the two Thanatos: the historical one (the spectre of the Holocaust) and the personal one (cancer). We look at and feel how Szapocznikow brings to life her individual language of forms (with the use of sculptures as well as drawings and photographs), saturated by the experience of deformation (of body and of reality) individual and collective. This visual language locates itself o uncertain grounds between Surrealism, Nouveau Realism and Pop Art, language inspired at first with the artistic idiom of Hans Arp, Henry Moore, and Alberto Giacometti. Szapocznikow’s work oscillates between the work of art and gadget, the dignity of classic materials and rubbish polyester, between that which is useful and that which is uselessly prominent, finally, between flirting with kitsch and the violence of dismemberment.
The exhibition leads from rather classical – even though already somehow uncanny – figurative sculptures with long legs and necks of the figures (Difficult Age from 1956 and First Love from 1954) – towards sculptures made as imprints, recollections of the body in the various states of its (un)consciousness: sexual body, erotic body, fragmented body, fetishised body, fragile, playful or political body, body wearing lipstick and body wearing camp-striped cloths. This is a path of experiment, leading from the abandonment of the vertical and seemingly peaceful silhouette towards its horizontal decomposition (as if on a dissecting or montage table), towards phobias and fantasies embraced by ugly and fluid matter, the mundane matter.
From the very beginning until the very end, the body provides almost a sole task for Szapocznikow. Would that be because the experience of World War II, the ghetto and concentration camps, and later that of fatal illness, was for her an experience most of all bodily? Or maybe because this war influenced the individual body (as well as it’s image and the notion of bodiliness) in a way something hitherto unknown, transforming it into an indistinct element of the mass of anonymous bodies, Figuren? It seems these questions cannot be answered once and for all. It is certain however, that the artist persisted in her efforts to embody the body and to explore bodiliness. She was not satisfied with creating its images in the form of figures, proceeding to explore the bodily inside, to examine member after member, reach for the joints, muscles, nerves – all that which is so real and yet so absurd.
The most intriguing point of the exhibition is Goldfinger (1965), where the elements of the human body had been combined with the elements of a car and the potential eroticism with the brutality of the machine, intimacy with heartless automatism. It was in the 1960’s that the artist began to include alien elements into her sculptural representations of the human form and subject them to gradual but consequent destruction and deconstruction. Szapocznikow’s operations lead to the separation of specific bodily – mouth, breasts, and stomachs become sculptural objects. With a tint of perversion one could say that it was a total sculpture of a disabled object, the object always already ambivalent, suspended between the life drive and the death drive, between durability and impermanence, beauty and ugliness. Or, beyond those binary oppositions. The drive of this story is not so much dismemberment as reproduction, but to be more precise, (mechanical) reproducibility as a super-modern quality or super-quality of modernity.
That which has been traditionally treated as Pop Art repetition or reproduction (understood as a parody or the critique of consumerism) here – like in Hal Foster’s notion of Warhol’s traumatic realism – becomes rather an expression of deeply experienced and thought through reality. This is especially visible in Szapocznikow’s use of photography her sculptural practice. A perfect example is provided by her Photo-Sculptures (1971): extraordinary, subtle imprints of the body in “chewed through” chewing gum, bodily negatives framed in uncanny forms. This typological photography series functions as a kind of catalogue, a quasi-atlas. Imprints and traces of the body recur in this show in numerous forms, always situating themselves between the nostalgic urge to leave one’s trace, to stop time and the compulsion to repeat and confirm one’s presence.
Modern reproducibility is also captured through sculptural renderings of disease. Disease paradoxically perceived as an excess of life, or liveliness. Cancer is visualized as the abnormal and uncontrolled proliferation of cells, recurrent experience of fear and pain constantly accompanied by the will to live and create. Szpaocznkow’s representations of the body can be treated from this perspective as the images of that which is self-reproducing, however not in a natural way (through pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood) but in the course of the disease. It proliferates against the will of the human being. The autonomous, suffering body undergoes repeated transformations, changes. In the Tumeurs personnelles (1971) enlarged prints of the face are immersed in the forms of tumours arranged on black gravel. Similarly the artist’s agony is visible in Alina’s Funeral (1970), a macabre-grotesque collection of photographs, wooden elements, scraps of cloth (stripped) and bandage glued together in the magma of fibre glass and polyester. This might be the most explicit evidence of her heretic, impious attitude towards sculpture.
This specific degeneration of the medium shall return with all force in Herbarium (1972-1973). Exhibited in the second to last room (with polyester fetishes, deserts, ashtrays in female head, and the son’s portrait – a levitating sculpture), the series consists of both beautiful and somber, compacted bodily imprints: of herself and of her son. Here the body is deprived of its inside, reduced to skin, not seen from the outside, but as if it were ripped off and turned inside out. In this series the body is finally exposed, becomes ultimately exhibitionistic, while the sculpture rather then realising itself in its most sophisticated possibility, dissolves without a bang, since as we know from T.S. Eliot, the world ends “not with a bang but a whimper.”
What more can we learn today about Alina Szapocznikow? What more can we see in her works? What more can we learn about ourselves as those who look at and experience this art? The answers to the above questions are doubtlessly complicated by the fact about how much more we know about the Other nowadays. We have watched him/her from various perspectives and examined in various ways: as a Jew, as a woman, as a Black, as disabled or ill, as an emigrant, etc. We see the ashes (even if in an ashtray) differently after having read Jacques Derrida and look at the folds of the belly in a new way owing to the perspective of Georges Didi-Huberman. A reflection on the aesthetics and experience of trauma allows us to conceptualise the relationship between the artist’s life and oeuvre in a new way. Today they become a subject of theoretical and critical thought, a departure point for the deconstruction of previous narratives and the analysis of certain cognitive assumptions.
Reaching into the very core of the construction of the artistic (and female) subject as well as the historical one (between the trauma of youth and war – the trauma of beginnings so to speak, and the trauma of the end: of the lost battle with cancer) becomes at the same time the expression of critical self-consciousness. As Joanna Mytkowska, one of the curators of the exhibition, reminds us that even though Szapocznikow did not directly address the issues of the Holocaust and her survival in interviews and even private conversations, she was engaged in public commemorative projects: she participated in the competition for both the monument of the ghetto fighters and the monument in Auschwitz. In a more intimate framework, the Holocaust and its image recur in a direct fashion in Grand Tumeur I (1969) and Souvenir I (1971). In the latter the artist covered two photographs in yellowish polyester: that of herself as a child sitting on her father’s shoulders and that of a victim of the Holocaust. The perversity of this souvenir lies in the fact that the polyester – gradually turning yellow – cannot be maintained. Thus there is no chance to preserve this and other works. Sooner or later it will self-destroy.
A shift of paradigm in framing Szapocznikow’s art can be seen most explicitly in the fact that she can be thought and written of as the artist who survived the horror of the Holocaust, the trauma which overshadow the rest of her life and re-emerged as a new catastrophe, documented in its slightest and most discreet premonitions and manifestations. Another sign of this shift is an urge to situate and read her oeuvre and biography through other artists. I am thinking here in particular of Hannah Wilke, Orlan, Louise Bourgeois, Louise Nevelson, Lynda Benglis, Paul Thek, but also Katarzyna Kozyra and Aneta Grzeszykowska.
Szapocznikow is a public artist and the artist who is publicised, described and worked on. How should we remember an artist who has never really been forgotten? Paradoxically, this task seems more challenging than that of bringing and artist and his/her oeuvre to light. The act of making work simply visible has to be substituted by curatorial and critical work on multiple levels and of many aspects. One also has to keep in mind former exhibitions, such as the two crucial retrospectives’ from 1975 and from 1998 and critical work through their conceptual frameworks, as well as critical and curatorial vocabularies. Finally it is about maintaining one’s historical (and political) self-consciousness and the ability (and courage) to name one’s stance in the context of local and global feminist critique; about locating oneself within the interest of international scholars whose interests, insights and conclusions vary, at times drastically. The exhibition curated by Joanna Mytkowska and Elena Filipovic, as well as accompanying conferences and publications (a book entitled Awkward Objects edited by Agata Jakubowska, and an impressive catalogue accompanying the show with essays by Cornelia Butler, Elena Filipovic and Allegra Pesenti among others), all come to our help.
After Wiels Centre d’Art Contemporain in Brussels the exhibition Alina Szapocznikow. Sculpture Undone 1955-1972 has just opened in the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (until April 2012), then it will be presented at the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio (May – August 2012), and finally in the Museum of Modern Art, New York (October 2012 – January 2013). Curators: Elena Filipovic [WIELS], Joanna Mytkowska [MSN].
Katarzyna Bojarska – works at the Institute of Literary Research at the Polish Academy of Sciences. writer and translator of texts exploring the relations between art, literature, psychoanalysis and history.