The work of Adam Rzepecki in the 1980`s as a male and other art
In the mentioned interview with Rzepecki another point was made in relation to Sztuka męska i inna, that can put the artist’s relationship to feminist art in a different angle. Rzepecki said that being ironic towards feminist art’s sense of distinguishment was only a first thought that I had in mind, it’s only later that somehow other problems in relation to it started to surface from somewhere deep inside of me, such as the problem of the body, the contact with the body, or various parasexual behaviours… 5
We can, I believe, take the risk here and assume that the feminist art of such artists as Pinińska-Bereś or Partum served as an inspiration to Rzepecki in the development of his art, as well as the art of many other young artists of the time. Furthermore, even though these artists reacted negatively to the idea of dividing art in terms of gender and thereby ironically criticizing feminist art’s implementations, it nonetheless opened doors for them in terms of issues pertaining to the sexualisation of the embodied subject. Rzepecki wasn’t the first young artist at the time to take up the theme of masculinity in his work. A few years earlier appeared a group of artists that referred themselves to the pseudo-consumerism of Gierkowski and the masculine vision it promoted. We can speak here of Zdzisław Sosnowski’s work Goalkeeper (1975-1977) or Zygmunt Rytka’s Fiat 126p (1976)6. It is also worth to mention here – in following Łukasz Ronduda – the words of Jan Stanisław Wojciechowski from the ’70s where he said: I feel close to the following declaration: “the value of a work of art is proportional to the number of beautiful girls that are interested in the it”7. These words reflect quite well the essence behind the mechanism of creating attractive masculinity (which often manifests itself in the propaganda of success) as well as the maintaining of this attractiveness. Although as ridiculing as these words may be, they also seem to imply a certain desire of embodying the very thing that is criticised.
Rzepecki’s Sztuka męska i inna, and Ogonek, came about from two completely different economical and political situations. The deepening political crisis during the second half of the ’70s wasn’t leaving any remnants of illusions when it came to the PRL’s consumerism nature. This not only brought to attention the country’s failure in the process of modernisation, but also a new kind of masculinity that was making its presence felt in the political sphere. It was the worker now that had become the political hero and thus the reference point for artists8. In an outdoor event that took place in Miastko in the spring of 1980, Rzepecki presented a performance in which he held a brick for eight hours. Instead of a young cigar smoking, urban dressed goalkeeper, the viewer was confronted with a modestly dressed construction worker holding onto a brick by means of rope. Although not related per se to the current topic at hand, it is worth to mention here that this work would represent one of the main themes in Rzepecki’s oeuvre of the ’80s.
Even though Rzepecki criticised the division between male and female art, it is via the latter (as though infected by it) that he became interested in sexual identity. It seems to me that among other things it’s this inspiration derived from feminist art that has instigated Rzepecki to point his camera lens towards the self, instead of wanting to mythologise a new hero. Consequently, as noted by Dorota Monkiewicz, in this critical social observation as conducted by Kultura Zrzuty [Pitch-in Culture] (mainly Adam Rzepecki – ed. AJ), an accidental understanding was implied by men (!) on issues pertaining to patriarchal power, however there is no language yet with which this can be expressed9.
Although I would agree in general with Monkiewicz’s opinion, I would like to add that Rzepecki’s earlier statements concerning gendered subjects are not so much a result of „critical social observation” as rather a question of self-reflection. It is worth to focus our attention towards Rzepecki’s Autoportret [Self-portrait] from 1979, which is comprised of five unrelated separated parts that form a fragmented subject. Rzepecki who grew out of a photomontage culture, and was interested during that time he claims in the objectification of the medium being used, would often point the lens of the camera many times upon the same object, while changing the distance and focus10. He would also point the lens towards himself thereby transferring the point of focus from the medium being photographed, towards the subject photographing. With Male and Other Art, being comprised of a series of similarly framed shots, it is already obvious that it is not the photograph here that has become the object of interest, but rather the photographed artist.
What strikes me the most in Male and Other Art (I’m still referring here to the first work using that title from 1980) is the self-inflicted aggression taken by the artist upon himself. Sometimes it has a mocking character, like in the pictures with the fur (as in the aforementioned tail he’s used in a previous performance) in which masculinity is the subject of a joke.
Other pictures depict much more self-destructive actions of a more corporeal (not as an effigy, as it could said of his other pictures) character. Rzepecki for example wraps his face with tape, pulling it so tight that it would entrench into the skin. Or he also squeezes his head with three clamps, or presses a pair of black boots upon his face, or even puckers his breasts. These images recall the practices of the Vienna actionists especially Günther Brus and Rudolf Schwarzkogler, who almost twenty years earlier in Austria had made similar such self-destructive gestures. Their actions have already been fairly analysed from a gender perspective, as researchers have often read within them a portrayal of weakness, vulnerability, as a susceptibility to injure the male body in protest against expectations from the conservative Austrian society in regards to men11.
The situation in Poland in the ’80s was certainly different, however a similar question can still be posited: how does the treating of oneself as a corporeally gendered subject relate to Rzepecki 's other works when invoking the art and politics of the time. As it’s been already often written, Łódź Kaliska in the beginning of the ’80s chose a “third road”, in avoiding this way to cooperate with either the communist authorities, or the Catholic mainstream opposition. One of the elements that comprised this “third road” was the exposing of sexuality as something completely ignored or suppressed by both of these two ideological camps. As Paweł Leszkowicz wrote: within a national context, Łódź Kaliska performed some “dirty tricks”, since it recognised in this causing embarrassment to others a liberation from the lofty obligations of Polish art and history12. It’s worth to delve deeper into this claim. The sexuality of the artists from the ’80s was in its own way impersonal, as it was built upon sexual characters unrelated to any specific sexual representations.
As noted by Jarosław Lubiak, Łódź Kaliska loved to frolic around with sexuality, mainly as result of the bans that encumbered the prudish in that respect nature of PRL. A number of actions would allude to youthful games utilising everything phallic in shape or that could be used as an equivalent of a penis. It’s not a question here of fulfilment – as these works did not relate or refer themselves to any sexual acts per se – but rather by utilising toys (whether these being evocative of a penis, or a breast or what have you) towards forbidden games. I agree with Lubiak’s diagnosis, however with the exception that I believe to a lesser extent it relates to Adam Rzepecki’s work. In his case the focus of attention is rather upon the artist himself, with the relationship being towards a specific sexual subject, at least in its initial stages.
Over the course of some time this would change however, as we will see further down. Piotr Piotrowski on the other hand described this 'third road’ as a 'chromatics of the third place’, in explaining how two separate currents of thought ultimately would mirror themselves out, cancel each other out, like black and white towards becoming colourless, while a 'third’ current of thought would come in and bring colour14.
It seems to me that in the first works as these can most easily be read as subsequent attempts in ridiculing feminist postulates. One can also interpret it, as did Jolanta Ciesielska or Paweł Leszkowicz for example, as a commentary on the cult of Matka Polka [Mother Poland], which in turn is based in large part on the cult of the Virgin Mary. I would like to turn our attention towards yet another possible means of interpretation – and this from my own experience. The man in the image is the artist probably holding his own child. He holds onto the child ‘professionally’ but also with a sense of parental care. He looks at the child, while the child in turn actually tries to suck onto his nipple. Presented as such, this scene seems to portray an intimate relation between a father and a child. Rzepecki often created works in relation to the role he gave himself in society – that of being an artists. This particular work however refers to him simply as being a father.
A few years later in 1986, Rzepecki created the Projekt Pomnika Matki Polki [Project of Polish Mother Monument], a collage consisting of an image of a woman taken from a Playboy magazine, to which he added a series of images of cut out breasts taken from other similar images.
I interpret this work as a feminist reading of the myth of Mother Poland. Often in feminist texts attention is drawn upon the suggested asexuality that mothers should convey in society, and Rzepecki’s work is a poignant commentary of that19. Both monument projects created by the artist are interesting views on the role of gender in our society, not only from the point of view of femininity and masculinity, Nonetheless between both there is a fundamental difference, and this is witness to a change in Rzepecki’s artistic practice roughly in the mid ’80s. In as much as in the The Project of the Polish Father’s Monument we are confronted with an auto-portrait, with The Design of the Polish Mother’s Monument, the artists confronts us with some anonymous images taken from a colourful magazine. In this same sense his statement about motherhood is devoid of any personal dimension. In this context it’s not so much about an objectifying of the female body, towards which women can be very critical, but rather a critique of society’s lack of interest in real women and their life experiences.
There’s another work of Rzepecki that functions in a similar way – a film entitled My Family from 1990. The first scene of the film, in which we see parents sleeping in a bed along with both their kids, has instigate some to interpret the work as a commentary on the contemporary social life at the time20. It is important here to reflect again on the role of the father, as the artist’s registered activities were no longer created with likeminded fellow artists, but rather with his wife and daughters. Rzepecki decided to invest himself there in an extremely
18 See. Jolanta Ciesielska, Trzy dekady Łodzi Kaliskiej. Zagadnienie erotyki w działaniach tej grupy
[Three Decades of Łódź Kaliska: The Issue of Eroticism in the Activities of the Group] in the volume:
Biała Aura… [White Aura…] cit., p. 68. Paweł Leszkowicz, Nagi mężczyzna, [The Male Nude…] cit.,
p. 436. Leszkowicz also believes this work is a parody of the culture of family values.
19 See for inst. Bożena Chołuj, Matka Polka i zmysły [Mother Poland and the Senses],
“Res Publica Nova” 1992, nr 3.
20 See. http://www.artmuseum.pl/pl/filmoteka/praca/rzepecki-adam-my-family.
rare occurrence in the Polish art scene, in other words the treating of his
own family as a kind of artistic community21.
Despite his negative attitude towards the elitism expressed by female art,
Adam Rzepecki paradoxically created an artistic oeuvre strongly marked
by his own gender. And this applies as much to the members of Łódź
Kaliska, although however in Rzepecki’s case, as many researches have
already pointed it out, we are presented with a rather clear stance towards male identity. What I find most interesting in Rzepecki’s practice
however is firstly the self-reflective nature of the works, as they are not
only concerned with issues pertaining to men per se, but also the artist’s own individual experience of being a man. And secondly, the way in
which the artist’s works have manifested themselves out of humour and
the absurd (often by humorous and absurd means), out of ambivalence,
out of various (at times difficult) emotions, towards not only exposing the
viewer, but also himself (especially himself), to embarrassing situation.
His work Male and Other Art from the beginning of the ’80s, as it’s been
already mentioned, made fun of gender divisions in the world of art. Unintentionally this position manifested itself into a very important feature
of Rzepecki’s oeuvre. In as much as Łódź Kaliska’s output en bloc is often
referred to as an expression of male heterosexual desire to which we can
attribute the expression „Male Art”, in Rzepecki’s case, on the other hand,
the attribution of „male art and the other” fits perfectly with the artist’s
work in its challenges of apparent truisms pertaining to such issues.
21 It’s worth noting the difference in relation to the work Działań z Dobromierzem
[Actions with Dobromiesz] by the KwieKulik duo, where the child was used as
a subject matter as opposed to an active participant.