SELF-IDENTIFICATION - the exhibition at Fort Institute of Photography in Warsaw

01.09.2017 - 24.09.2017

The core of Joanna and Krzysztof Madelski’s Collection is the Polish photography of the second half of the 20th century. Its character is determined by newly added video works, the particular influence of young generation and a solid, spanned over the years relationship with artists who constitute pillars of the collection. The exhibition at Fort Institute of Photography reflects these characteristics starting with classic works from the cycle Self-Identification by Ewa Partum, showing videos of Katarzyna Kozyra, Agnieszka Polska and Alicja Żebrowska as well as a presentation of newly acquired pieces of Mia Dudek and Anna Grzelewska.

The common themes of both photo and video works are issues related to politics and body, identity and sexuality. The collection has been exhibited for several years in public institutions such as the National Museum in Gdansk, the City Museum of Lodz but also in private ones (Art Stations Foundation in Poznan). The exhibition in Warsaw is an invitation to artists, encouraging them to speak freely and take part in a discussion on women’s and LGBT rights. A fundamental discussion which seemed long closed and almost historic, is still so topical like the performances of Ewa Partum.

Published catalogues (so far three) accompanying the exhibitions, contextualise the collection from a historical, artistic, photographic and also feminist point of view. The transfer from general to particular is inevitable, which allows to understand intentions and work process of the artists better, as well as to indicate the possible interpretations of particular works. Undoubtedly, the Madelski Collection includes works of high museum value. Fundamental emblems of the collection are, certainly, the works of Natalia LL and Ewa Partum, from which the title of the exhibition at Fort Institute of Photography derives. 

Chronologically first, not only by date of creation but also by joining the Madelski Collection, is Natalia Lach-Lachowicz. ‘Art happens in each moment of reality, every fact, every second is particular and unique for a human being. That is why I record common and trivial activities, like eating, sleeping, intercourse, resting, expressing etc. What is more, every human activity as part of its reality is absolutely equivalent to trigger a mental reaction in the viewer’s notation,’ declares Natalia LL in her work, Transformational attitude (1972). Black and white as well colour photographs and videos comprised in the cycle Consumer Art, picture usually one or two young women during the consumption of produce considered scarce during the era of the socialist economy. The artist engaged with the PERMAFO group, active in Wrocław in the 70s, is not only about criticising the ineffective political system rationing even basic goods. The phallic shape of bananas and sausages, placed in the hands and mouths of sexually attractive women expresses erotic pleasure, which, as noticed by Gislind Nabakowski, is related to the emancipatory delight. Even though Natalia LL defines herself as a conceptual artist, it is not hard to notice the ironical perspective and ambivalent bliss, so typical for the pop art movement, through her Consumer Art works. Executing permanent photography program, the artist often pictures models, which makes her a pioneer of the delegated performance art. Her notations from the first half of the 70s draw attention through the use of colour photography, which with passing time, nears towards precious monochrome, balanced somewhere between gold and magenta. Each and every of the six portraits, picturing the same woman, arranged in two columns and three rows, has a format of close to a square lying rectangle. Each close up depicts a centrally aligned face of a young blonde female against a white background. Her oval, or even round shaped face, is accentuated by strong makeup – coloured lips, eyes, depilated and pencil-drawn eyebrows – neatly cut fringe right just above them and curled strands of hair flowing down both cheek sides. The frame is so tight, that only part of the neck is visible, but the tip of the head with hair, most likely pinned up in a bun, is already not to be seen. Also a half peeled banana, held by her hand at her mouth is only half pictured. A very strong and even lighting eliminates shadows, rendering her face slightly flat. In each of the six portraits, the woman has a somewhat different face expression, she has her lips open or closed, her tongue exposed, she smiles or looks directly in to the camera, raises her eyes or closes them completely. Contrary to other photos of the cycle Consumer Art, also in defiance of the title, this particular notation does not picture consumption (in this case a citrus fruit). The model is posing and playing with a banana, which by many art critics, is directly associated with oral sex. A very simple link to pornography, however transgressive in the context of communist and catholic bigotry in the sexual sphere, draws attention away from the visual message itself. Similarly, the notations capturing sexual intercourse graphically, as well as works focused on wording of Natalia Lach-Lachowicz can be understood as a critical analysis of basic, not to say stereotypical, visual codes. As far as the answer to whether an attractive blonde female eating a banana always has to be associated to fellatio seems relatively obvious, the meaning of the very same picture in a feminist discourse still remains a disputable issue.

The second of the iconic works from the Joanna and Krzysztof Madelski’s Collection is a series of photomontage works by Ewa Partum (in the collection there are six pieces from the cycle). If not the most known, then certainly the most current picture from the cycle captures a scene on Krakowskie Przedmiescie street in Warsaw. A young woman, wearing only high heels, in front of the monument of Prince Jozef Poniatowski standing at the Presidential Palace, seems literally and figuratively small. Her bright skin and dark her are pictured profile-wise against the background of the grey pedestal of the monument. The surreal dimension of the composition, even though the light is very sharp and the sky clear, pinpoints the lack of shadow, as if a phantom appeared on the deserted street of Krakowskie Przedmiescie. The artist does not retouch the remaining 10 photomontage works of the Self-Identification series, thus emphasising the genuinely true situation. In this way, Ewa Partum embodies the tradition of avant-garde photomontage, dated back to the 1920s, in which the construction of the art piece was as visible as the political message. ‘These photographs indicate the existence of a special relationship between the actual state of affairs and what is captured in them,’ declares Partum in a publication to the exhibition at Mała Galeria ZPAF, opened in 1980 in Warsaw, in which the series premiered. The goal of the artist, recognised in Communist Poland, as well as in the Eastern Bloc, as one of the first fighting feminists, is to address the problem of the social role of women. According to Partum, a personal pattern – a product of the patriarchal culture – impairs the woman at the same time maintaining the appearances of respect for her. The scene in front of the Presidential Palace stands out of the remaining black and white photomontages of the series, depicting a naked artist in a densely populated, anonymous public space. Although the performer does not gesture, but calmly, with her arms lowered along her body, passes the monument and palace which is separated from the street by massive chains and stone pillars, nevertheless enters symbolic relations with them. Both the neo-classical palace and the monument sculpted by Bertel Thorvaldsen represent state power and national history. In other words, patriarchy. Because of the fact that the photo of the facade of the palace was taken at a certain angle, the gesture of the prince holding a sword in his outstretched hand can be interpreted as dominant or even threatening to the woman. In this context, it seems that the Self-Identification scene of Ewa Partum taking place on Krakowskie Przedmieście is not about identifying herself as a victim of the oppressive (political) system, which the artist was accused of, or exposing sexually attractive body in an exhibitionist way, but it is a deliberate both artistic and private transgression of the female role in the society designated by the patriarchy. At the opening of the photomontage exhibition, organised in April 1980 at Mała Galeria ZPAF, Ewa Partum, makes a naked appearance, only to read out a manifesto and wander out into the public space. In the confrontation with the artist, random spectators and the gallery audience do not know how to behave. Momentary consternation and ordinary curiosity mingle with ironic comments and superficial indifference. No one, however, calls on the militia, nor reacts aggressively. The Patriarchate retreats discreetly watching the naked woman in high-heels, the one who recognises the problem and transposes the object into subject.

Although 45 and 37 years have passed, respectively, since Lach-Lachowicz’s and Partum’s works pioneered, the problems faced by the artists still remain valid in the context of government policy towards women as well as on the level of art identity of the subjects, evidenced by the works of successive artists, gathered in the Madelski Collection.

Anna Hekmat and Adam Mazur, curators of the exhibition