What’s ‘Left’?”

Not ‘Right’

- a concise overview of Performance Art in Poland

by Paulina Kempisty (in consultation with Waldemar Tatarczuk)

After World War II, the Communist Party seized power in Poland, which strongly affected art and its official distribution. Although socialist realism ceased to be the governing art trend already in 1956, even after that date the mainstream state galleries still were compelled to exhibit art that was “safe for the socialist society”. Until 1989, major state galleries (the so called Bureaus of Art Exhibitions, "BWA") had been managed by the Central Bureau of Art Exhibitions ("CBWA") in Warsaw. A CBWA’s task was to ensure that exhibitions in the branch galleries were compliant with the officially approved aesthetics. They usually presented traditional output of artists belonging to the mainstream and officially endorsed Association of Polish Artists ("ZPAP").

First performances in Poland were shown at the end of the 1960s, and their heyday fell to the 1970s and 1980s. The artists who used performance art as a significant if not major means of expression were: Zbigniew Warpechowski, Jerzy Bereś, Jan Świdziński, Krzysztof Zarębski, Przemysław Kwiek, Krzysztof Zarębski, Zygmunt Piotrowski, Janusz Bałdyga, Jerzy Onuch, Marek Konieczny, Krzysztof Jung, Andrzej Dudek-Durer, Natalia LL, Maria Pinińska-Bereś, Ewa Partum, Teresa Murak. Some of them called their performances: actions, demonstrations, shows, or works. The term "performance" as referred to art became to be recognized only in 1978 with the international event, Performance and Body, which took place in the Galeria Labirynt in Lublin. The festival gathered many artists Polish and foreign artists. Andrzej Mroczek, the then director of the Galeria Labirynt, recalled: "The day before the presentations, when all the artists had already arrived, I received an official communication from the Municipal Culture Department that the communist authorities withdrew their previously issued permit. What did we do? Anything that we could, that is, simply ignore the message. The programme was carried out in full. Drinking coffee during breaks at a nearby café...we felt "individuals on duty" in long leather coats breathing down our neck. A few days later, I was officially reprimanded."

One of the leading Polish researchers of contemporary art, Piotr Piotrowski, is of the opinion that art at that time rather avoided political dispute.1 Comparing the situation of Poland to that of other states under the communist rule, such as Czechoslovakia or Hungary where the regime was more repressive, Polish artists enjoyed greater freedom of expression. Still, many Polish artists inclined toward the autonomy of a non-involved work, although some alluded to the socio-political situation. From today's perspective, it is difficult and groundless to assess artists' attitudes, some of whom adopted a more critical, anti-establishment, conflicting or "repair" strategy, sometimes guided by the naive belief that the system might be improved.

The network of official galleries exhibited progressive projects, including performance. When studying the productions of the 1970s, there are almost no artists who directly referred to the political or social situation in the country. The most conspicuous artist was Jerzy Bereś; his actions were almost entirely focused on the criticism of the political system and Poland's position in the socialist world. The artist developed a unique artistic language, alluding to the Romantic myth, deeply ingrained in the collective Polish consciousness. His actions were exalted, purifying, and sometimes ritual. Bereś avoided direct criticism, yet the message as in "The Prophecy" (realized between 1968 and 1989) was transparent for the public. He often used the national colours, bread and wine. In almost all actions by Bereś, he performed naked (as the first artist in Poland), using his body as the most important medium. In 1988 in London, he realized an action, "The Image of Poland," in which he appealed to the Romantic myth of martyrdom and sacrifice of the Polish nation and the many years' deprivation of freedom, at the same time highlighting the topicality of this situation.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Przemysław Kwiek and Zofia Kulik formed an artistic duo, KwieKulik. Their actions responded to events that directly affected them and were associated with the everyday nuisance of socialist realism. One example of that was the three-part performance of "Activities with the Head" staged during the Performance and Body Festival in the Galeria Labirynt in Lublin. The activities addressed the problems of oppressed individual, persecution and influence exerted on society by the authorities, as well as the limitations to freedom of expression.

Janusz Bałdyga did his first performances in the early 1980s. His actions were a commentary on the political situation in the country and "manifested artist's attitude towards the current political problems in the country: 'General Centre', 'A Show of Strength', 'Property.' They had an unequivocal political dimension and tackled the broad problem of dictatorship, uniform and uniformity...In 1982 Bałdyga put on a performance, "The Polish Tatra Mountains: A Normalization Project," which he continued until the suspension of the martial law in 1983. The action referred to "the normalization of the situation in the country" and symbolically pointed to the impracticability of such a solution. In 1984 Bałdyga, accompanied by Zygmunt Piotrowski, put on a performance, "The Use of Force." It was staged inside a gallery in which three enlarged photos of the artist were suspended "unfit for an ID card" and painted red on the back. In each of the photos, Bałdyga covered a different part of his face. During the performance, he walked among them and read warning messages: "Force may be used", or "Warning! Force will be used"2.

In 1983 Zdzisław Kwiatkowski, in connection with the political situation in Poland, did (still as a student) a performance, "The Changing of the Balance of Power." All of his subsequent performances would clearly appeal to the Polish political reality. The title of another performance, "Between the Left and the Right" referred to the political division of the country and the person's engagement in the system, the sense of entrapment and decision-making. The performance, "Aggression," (1985) was a manifestation of artist's disagreement with a situation in which a person is forced to back a particular attitude: to be in opposition, to be servile, or to be indifferent.

A different strategy to the one outlined above was followed by Zdzisław Sosnowski who took a critical look at the slogans calling for the building of the "socialist consumer society." He was ironic in appealing to the nostalgia for the developed countries of the West and their prosperity, which, according to the bold declarations, was to be grafted onto the Polish reality. The artist impersonated the characters created by the media and demanded by the society, for example, a football player, a successful athlete (the "Goalkeeper" series of 1975). His work revealed the "mechanisms of the construction and promotion of the myth, aesthetisation and the 'enchanting' of information in mass culture...the political myth cultivated by the communist media, the undisputed narrative of socialism, constructed by the authorities by means of censorship and media control."3

Artistic interventions often seen in the streets of different Polish cities were made by Polish artists belonging to the Academy of Movement started by Wojciech Krukowski in Warsaw in 1973. Some of the group's big names were: Janusza Bałdyga, Jolanta Krukowska, Krzysztof Żwirblis, Andrzej Borkowski and others. One of the basic pursuits of the A.R. team was the exploration of the boundaries and mutual relationships of art and everyday life. The substance and the starting point for their action were events observed in the everyday life in socialist Poland, such as standing in a line, or asking people's ID in the street by the militia officers without any apparent reason. The casual audience were both spectators and also participants of their activities. Such was the case with "Newspapers" (1977), when the artists were coming up to the newsagent's one after another to buy a newspaper and, after skimming it, dump it in a trash bin; some other actions were "The Line Going out of the [Butcher's] Shop," or "A Happy Day" of 1976, during which the A.R. artists walked out to the "gloomy" streets in colourful outfit wielding baskets of fruit. Their actions criticized, though non aggressively, the political reality of contemporary Poland.

Another issue is the art done by women, who in the 1970s constituted a minority in the Polish art scene. The same was true in performance art. Polish artistic circles in the 1970s and 1980s were rather sealed for novices and strongly patriarchal. Four performance female artists were an exception: Natalia LL, Maria Pinińska-Bereś, Teresa Murak and Ewa Partum. How did they manage to surface as artists? Probably because their artistic program was very coherent, consistent and incontrovertible, and at the same time, they were very determined. They could not be overlooked. Their art, by addressing taboos such as eroticism, femininity and feminism, was a manifestation of struggle with the cultural policy of the totalitarian state.

Maria Pinińska-Beres could not accept the limitations ensuing from the strict gender divisions. She refused to accept the female role of a housewife and the treatment of the female body as a sexual object intended to satisfy male's needs. In her sculptures and performances, there are typically feminine paraphernalia: corsets, napkins, aprons, kitchen appliances, household devices and references to the shape of the female body. In 1980 she did a performance in which wearing a pink apron she was laundering her daughter's nappies in a wooden wash tub. In the end, she pegged out the "washing" on a string. Pink letters written on the nappies formed the word "feminism". She also created unambiguously political works. One of them, "Vivid Pink" was held in November 1981. In Kraków's Planty Park, right in front of the BWA Gallery, she planted a rose bush: then she was asking the gathered public, "Do roses bloom in pink when the spring comes?” A month later, the military authorities seized power in Poland, the martial law was declared.

Teresa Murak made her artistic début in 1972 while still a student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. Back then, she initiated a long-continued series of "Sowing". A memorable event was a two-hour walk of the artist clad in a cape covered with a thick layer of plants along the streets of Warsaw ("The Procession" of 1974). This was one of the first Polish actions in public. Again in 1975, this time in the Galeria Labirynt in Lublin, she spread seed all over her body covered with a long wet blouse and walked the streets of the city; the action was titled, "The Lady's Smock."

In 1974 Ewa Partum realizes a performance "Change 1974", which is a voice in the feminist discourse, which aims to challenge the stereotype of looking at a woman solely through her body. During the performance, the make-up person "aged" half of her face. The next step was the performance, "The Change: My Problem Is A Female Problem", staged four years later. This time, the artist was lying naked among the audience and her make-up person "aged" one half of her body. Having finished her performance, Ewa Partum announced herself to be a work of art. A noteworthy occurrence was her intervention during the opening of the exhibition Polish Avant-Garde 1930-1990, held at the Staatliche Kunsthalle in Berlin in 1992. Ewa Partum expressed her opposition against the exhibition being dominated by men (the only showcased artist was Katarzyna Kobro). Partum handed out to the audience envelopes with a text inside: "Polish avant-garde female artists have their big chance only as a corpse."

The year 1989 saw radical changes in the political sphere - the first fully democratic elections to the Senate (the upper house of the Polish Parliament). What has changed? The reality - from communism to capitalism, and so came the era of consumerism. Censorship has been abolished. New galleries have started to mushroom. Owing to an open-minded approach of new directors, many state-funded galleries have begun to present contemporary art. New art magazines have appeared (though some have failed). New curators and new artists have started to work their way up and now can make the best of the new opportunities and freedom to act. The artistic movement have begun to gain momentum. Gradually, the art market has emerged and opened up especially to young artists. The fraternity of performance artists has grown to include the younger generation, which, sorry to say, has not enhanced the status of Polish performance art. Surprisingly enough, the political and economic shift has not cause any major breakthrough in the art of action. The so-called socially involved independent theatres were in a different position. Their opposition to the system has become pointless as they have "lost the enemy." Performance artists did not face this problem.

In the output of the younger generation of artists references were seen to the absurdities of everyday life; the activities of Oskar Dawicki or Cezary Bodzianowski are heavy with sarcasm and mockery, and offer an alternative to the mainstream art. Another fact is the departure of performance artists from placing the body at the heart of their art. The importance of physicality has changed. Perhaps it is ascribable to the ubiquity of goods, items, rapid media development and technology. The result is the appearance of a new language of art, yet at its early stage. Of course, they are still artists for whom the body plays a pivotal role in performance: Artur Grabowski, Pawel Kwaśniewski, or the Referees Group. However, they must be very cautious to steer clear from banality because, to put it straightforwardly, "the sight of blood" does not work any more like it used to - the language of the past is now worn out, and the heroic time of performance is now over.

The growth of the art market at large, albeit relatively slow, has an impact on performance. Art has become a commodity, and performance artists strive not to lose clout. They make films based on performance and sell them. Although new, there is a visible development of education in performance art, increasingly incorporated into various programmes run by Polish art galleries. There is a growing number of lectures, presentations and workshops of performance art. The art schools in Poznań, Kraków, Wrocław and Gdańsk offer courses focused on performance art. The University of Arts in Poznań has recently launched Poland's first Performance Art Studio supervised by Janusz Bałdyga. We are sure this a harbinger of major changes in performance art in Poland and the ensuing measurable results.

1 P. Piotrowski, Awangarda w cieniu Jałty. Sztuka w Europie Środkowo – Wschodniej w

latach 1945-1989. Poznań 2005.

2 E. Gorządek, http://www.culture.pl/baza-sztuki-pelna-tresc/-/eo_event_asset_publisher/eAN5/content/janusz-baldyga

3 Ronduda, Ł. Sztuka polska lat 70. Awangarda CSW ZU Warszawa 2009, p. 324.

Zbigniew Warpechowski, "Champion of Golgotha", Lublin, 1978, photo by A.Polakowski Jerzy Beres, "Sztuka a rzeczywistosc", BWA Lublin, 1983, photo by A.Polakowski Jerzy Beres, "Sztuka a rzeczywistosc", BWA Lublin, 1983, photo by A.Polakowski


KwieKulik, "Dzialania na glowe", during "Performance and Body" festival, BWA Lublin, 1978, photo by A.Polakowski Michal Baldyga, during Performance Platform Lublin festival, 2009, photo by A. Skrzypek Zygmunt Piotrowski, during Performance Platform Lublin festival, 2009, photo by A. Skrzypek


Marta Bosowska, during Performance Platform Lublin festival, 2009, photo by A. Skrzypek