Zbigniew Warpechowski. It
The artist talks to Dominik Kuryłek
In the second issue of our magazine, we focus on performance. And we start with a conversation between Dominik Kuryłek and Zbigniew Warpechowski – the godfather of performance art in Poland.
Where did the title It come from?
I find poetic titles that have nothing to do with the exhibition irritating and ludicrous. In my particular case, any attempt to generally define what I do simply does not make any sense. It would even be misleading to seek a poetic metaphor. It — is what I have. Here you are, this is what I have done. The title, therefore, contains the core of conceptual thinking and, at the same time, it is a short and concise statement. But most of all, the title stems from the fact that I do not wish to be closed in any kind of a formula whenever I am occupied with art, or even when I am occupied with philosophy.
What do you find alluring in philosophy?
I am particularly interested in books from the intersection of philosophy and religion. Plotinus or Epictetus — philosophy but yet without religion. In the back of it, however, there is something there that we call God, only it has not yet been defined. And so I try to grapple with this ‘colossus’, the magnitude of whom we are not aware. When one reads St Hieronymus, St Augustin, or even Descartes, one can see in these writing the striving to come closer to this ‘something’. Jaspers claimed that philosophy without God is void. I agree with that.
So, in light of that, what is art to you?
Art is about seeking God. It can be mastered, one can be a master in a particular area. At the same time, however, it is something that makes me. Hence art is a constant search. One’s entire creative career is a work of art, a work, which is never complete. It is this option that I find alluring. I absolutely do not condemn masters who have perfected certain things and are now showing off before the public. For me, however, it is the attempt, which is more interesting. I am not interesting in self-education but rather the constant search for what is grander and better than me. Art is a wonderful way of learning humbleness. Whenever I start at something, being writing a poem or creating a performance, I always have a specific goal, which I never fully reach. I always fail. I don’t like seeing video footage of my performances because I always wish I could change something.
In the 1970’s you focused on ‘Nothing’. Was the search for ‘Nothing’ also a search for God?
That chapter in my life started incidentally, in Edinburgh in 1972. This ‘Nothing’ got hold of me and began to lure me in many different ways — how to capture it? How to show it? I became interested in literature on the subject which, eventually, led me to Hindu philosophy, Taoism, writings by St John of the Cross, Kant, Hölderlin, Heidegger. Many have tried to get through that wall. And, of course, the wall has remained intact. Our efforts are rather miserable. Because the ‘Nothing’ remains exactly that: ‘Nothing’. In his sermons, Meister Eckhart wrote that if what is there we term as all, than God is ‘nothing’. In other words, He is the absolute opposition of the reality which we see, recognise, or are able to experience. We can arrange it in such a way that this ‘Nothing’ is God. God has no equivalent in reality. One can contemplate His perfection even in the ordinary weeds that are now in bloom. I am often accused of making too many references to God, but, what can you do . . .
Looking at your performances from the perspective of your philosophical reflection one could say that the radical nature of your artistic actions stems from your search for the metaphysical limits of cognising the inscrutable. Your performance draws on poetic experience. What made you, at one point, go beyond the sheet of paper?
I have never found writing poetry sufficient. Perhaps as I am ignorant of the mysteries of the poetic trade, I believe that poetry is something more than just a simple poem. It is why I now make performances titled Petty Poetry, so as to show poetry closer than what is just written on a piece of paper. Poets usually refer to the imagination of the viewer who, when reading, should open up the poesy he or she’d been conveyed by the poem. I, however, wish to put my finger on the poesy. It is impossible to physically denote its location, but it is possible to indicate whether this poesy is what there isn’t. Though it is not there, it continues to be alluring; it is beauty and perfection. The closer we come to it, the more distant it is. It is a sequence of meanings to which we have no cognitive tools. When I decided on my first poetic improvisation in 1967, it stemmed from my irritation with the form of public poetry readings. That was not poetry to me. One has to give something of oneself in poetry, take a risk. And so I wanted to show something that cannot be shown.
The installation Dishing was also a result of making poetry real, of pointing one’s finger at it, seeking to change the playing field between the artist and the viewer. You have prepared its reconstruction for the exhibition at Zachęta. Was your intention to recreate the project from 1971?
I have not reconstructed my work exactly. I have rethought the dish and the portioning of reality. In the catalogue to the exhibition held at Krzysztofory Gallery, I wrote that ‘dishing is the portioning of material, notional, and artistic reality’. Both then and now I wanted to have something concrete associated with the dishes. I am curious about the public’s reaction. Back in 1971, in Krakow, it caused a shock. Krzysztofory had only presented sculpture and painting, I had no idea that the reaction would be so strong. Dishing was not appreciated. A hostile article by Olgierd Terlecki appeared in the press and almost caused the closing of the exhibition. It was Tadeusz Kantor who saved the presentation. He said; ‘No! This has got to stay!’ And so, it did. By now people have got accustomed to such displays. We’ll see how it’s interpreted today.
Your artistic practice is very vast. You are a poet, a performer, you make installations, you are interested in philosophy. There are few people, however, who know that you paint. Why do you do it?
I have painted since the 1960’s. I had not thought of myself as a painter for a very long time, and I found it quite surprising that my works were met with appreciation by Tadeusz Kantor and Ryszard Stanisławski. In 1970, I moved in the direction of conceptual art. It was the freedom that attracted me. I could never have experienced anything like that had I stayed with painting. Now I paint out of spite. Because I am quite spiteful. I have often painted for the humour, and some of my paintings can be treated as painterly jokes. The last series, however, is about something else. I suddenly realised the banality of contemporary painting. I thought that I should go back to the Middle Ages, refrain from using models and paint like Giotto or Massacio. I paint as I can and as I want to. I do not paint reality, I do, however, want to show something contemporary in my works. I believe that the subject matter I choose is very current. For example, I see that the men today are wimps and it is the women who are more dynamic. They are the ones who grapple with life. In any case, women in communist times were also more inventive and active. Their husbands were absolutely feckless, made close to nothing, spent their time in watering holes cheering themselves up. Like in the painting Judith with the Head of Holofernes.
In your latest book, Konserwatyzm awangardowy [Avant-garde Conservatism] you write that philosophers have lost their ability to tell people what it means to be human. Do you wish to convey certain significant issues to people by means of your painting?
When I paint I do not think of people at all. I test my skills — what I can do and what I am incapable of. I am aware of my shortcomings. But at least nobody can accuse me of cheating or trying to copy somebody. I do not paint exclusively for myself, however. I check my painting via myself. I do not conceive strategies. I do not deliberate on how people will react. I see it my duty to do what I can do best. I don’t pretend, I don’t clown about, I don’t swindle. I don’t suck up, I don’t tease, I treat people seriously. I do not make anything easier. I give it all I have. Somebody will assess it, sooner or later. My art will be seen by the wise and the stupid, by the initiated and the uninitiated. I think it’s a fair attitude . . . I have always followed it, be it in poetry, performance art, or painting.