29 April 2020

Phallus versus vibrator. Transformation Narratives

Piotr Policht
Kijewski/Kocur, 'Złoty strzał', 1996, from the collection of Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw; photo courtesy of Galeria Propaganda
Phallus versus vibrator. Transformation Narratives
Kijewski/Kocur, 'Złoty strzał', 1996, from the collection of Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw; photo courtesy of Galeria Propaganda

They say, “Which one?” I say, “Nah, I want all of ‘em”
Happiness is the same price as red-bottoms
Ariana Grande, 7 rings

It is 1995 at the Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw. The institution’s newly established Development Department enters into collaboration with the Lego company. A batch of bricks from the Dutch manufacturer arrives at the Castle amid endless renovations. They will serve to create Zbigniew Libera’s legendary work Lego. Concentration Camp. But not only. At the same time, Małgorzata Malinowska and Marek Kijewski begin to work as a duo. A year later, Kijewski shows his individual exhibition at the CCA. Together with Malinowska, they eagerly tap into the new sculptural material and embark on writing a history of Poland amid political and economic transformation.

Midas from the “Jarmark Europa” marketplace

They both trace their origins to Neo-Expressionism: Kijewski in sculpture, Malinowska in painting. Although disguised in new robes, the Neo-Expressionist genotype shows through in their works created together. Fundamental existential issues, hidden behind a veil of irony, yield place to social analysis. The questions of the body and sexuality emerge, which hold a key importance in the then dominant narrative of critical art, but which escape the critical art paradigm in their works. While Libera observes how little girls are “trained”, Kijewski and Malinowska focus their interest on the training of the middle class. A class – midwifed by politicians, publicists and representatives of the cultural sector – that was expected to pull itself by its own hair, akin to Baron Münchhausen, out of the post-Soviet mire.

Seen from today’s perspective, the work of the Kijewski/Kocur duo appears to span the final decade of the Polish People’s Republic and the early days of the Third Polish Republic. That is why it stands out against the background of other artists, who were either relegated to the margins as the “ill-born” old guard after the political breakthrough or else performed stylistic about-turns. But their practice also stands out against the background of critical art. While complementary, and not indifferent to it, Kijewski/Kocur simply embraced a much wider perspective. For they examined the underpinning of the transformation process that lay at the foundation of the problems addressed by art in the 1990s.

‘Kijewski/Kocur’, exhibition catalogue, Gdańska Galeria Miejska

The monolithic account of that decade, as seen through the prism of critical art, was disturbed at least to a certain degree by the exhibition 140 Beats per Minute, curated by Szymon Maliborski and Łukasz Ronduda, and preceded by Ronduda’s and Zofia Krawiec’s text on rave culture in Poland. Kijewski/Kocur also found their place in that narrative. Yet, although immersed in the rave world, even in that sphere they stood out as outsiders. They did not VJ nor threw themselves in at the deep technological end like the Technical Culture Central Office (CUKT). They simply transposed the elements of rave culture in a charmingly old-fashioned way to the medium of sculpture, both as a result of their roots in Neo-Expressionism and their place in a broader paradigm that derived its origins from Pop Art and its signature strategy of revaluating the means of production and consumption.

One of the duo’s earliest joint projects anticipates the direction adopted by Kijewski/Kocur in the following years. Not only is Queen Midas Looking for Bugs one of the sculptures that fully articulate their meaning only in the context of the Poland’s turn towards capitalism and democracy, but also little short of an illustration of that very transformation. It involves the duo’s signature contrasts between costly and mass-produced materials, between mythological and pop-cultural iconography, unusually imbued with anxiety. The eponymous Queen Midas rather seems to resemble Daffy Duck from the Looney Tunes universe, albeit pixelated and deformed. On the one hand, it brings to mind an “ugly Mickey” figurine described by Olga Drenda in her book Wyroby, while on the other hand – a figure seen on a “Christmas jumper resolution” TV screen, as the rapper Sokół would put it. Bugs, in turn, adopts a form that strongly echoes the style from the period of Kijewski’s work with the Neue Bieriemiennost group – a carrot-bunny-phallic totem. Its red surface becomes covered with gold leaves once it encounters the Queen’s stretched out hand/wing. The square patches on the red surface appear to exude a seductive glow, while resembling exanthemata at the same time. The queen touches the object that towers above her with uncertainty and apprehension, which bears a remarkable resemblance to the scene in in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey where people come across a mysterious obelisk.

Exhibition view, 'Kijewski/Kocur', Gdańska Galeria Miejska, 2018, photo: Grzegorz Pachla
Kijewski/Kocur, 'Miliard jeden', 1990s; photo courtesy of Galeria Propaganda

Desire for pop

The work of Kijewski/Kocur quickly became identified with Pop Art. It comes as no surprise as the Pop Art complex had been a recurring presence in Polish art critique since the late 1960s. In the teleological, post-Greenbergian perspective on art history, preferred by some critics, Pop Art became something of an unnamed missing link. If the development of art resembled a snowball – to follow Jerzy Ludwiński’s metaphor – which devoured subsequent elements of reality beyond art, then in the Conceptual Art phase the artworld of the Polish People’s Republic noticed that on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain that snowball had rolled past something important.

Pop Art was initially discerned in the art of the founders of the Neo-Neo-Neo group: Jerzy “Jurry” Zieliński and Jan “Dobson” Dobkowski. Polish critics saw there a Pop Art form: flat paintings with screaming, saturated and uniform patches of colour – but the iconography did not entirely fit. Yet, in the first place, Pop Art was sought in the paintings themselves, and not in the transformations of the post-war world that they represented. This is hardly surprising given that in the realm of centrally-planned economy those transformations adopted an altogether different form.

Against this background, the art of Kijewski/Kocur appears revolutionary insofar as they were actually the first ones to consciously confront the commodity fetishism of late capitalism instead of mere images of popular culture from the West. Therefore, their Western conceptual kin would be Warhol, but also – to an even greater degree – the representatives of what Hal Foster labelled as “the art of cynical reason”[1] in the USA under Reagan: Haim Steinbach and Jeff Koons. The artists who problematised the relation between the desire for commodities and the auraticity of not so much the object, but rather of the brand, in ready-mades conceived through the prism of the late capitalist era, both revealing and propelling the political economy of the commodity-sign

Kijewski/Kocur, ‘Bodyguard twoich soków’, 1996; photo courtesy of Galeria Propaganda

Against the background of art in the 1990s, the work of Kijewski/Kocur demonstrates an exceptional wit in addressing the same mechanisms in the landscape of post-Soviet capitalism. Since the specificity of such capitalism differed significantly from that of American capitalism in the previous decade, its image also necessarily diverged from the fetishes of the sated West. No wonder then that Kijewski and Kocur did not put Air Jordans on shelves like Steinbach nor placed hoovers in showcases like Koons. Instead, they created fluffy and shiny totems. In Poland amid economic transformation, the commodity-sign was only acquiring its shape, emerging from a vast reservoir of images that the society was only learning to read. That phenomenon was brilliantly captured by Magda Szcześniak[2] in her analysis of changes in the perception of fake branded goods. The author evokes a scene from Spiderwomen (Pajęczarki), directed by Barbara Sass in 1993, in which original Puma footwear is replaced in different takes with obvious fakes, a fact that the film crew does not seem to care about. Kijewski and Kocur therefore depict a crash course in the economy of the commodity-sign, preparations to which had already begun in the Edward Gierek era.

In the works of Kijewski/Kocur fetishes often adopt an explicitly sexual character. Some of them literally become gently throbbing vibrators decorated with fancy plumes. While art abounds in phallic motifs cast in the role of symbols of patriarchal oppression, the totemic vibrators of Kijewski/Kocur strike a different chord. While critical artists compel viewers to confront the inevitability of the slow decay of the body, ageing, illness and death, the duo allows them to immerse themselves in sexual fantasies. Even when potential erotic gadgets are accompanied by kneelers set beside them to remind us of how the cultural code of Catholicism perceives bodily ecstasy. As Jakub Banasiak wrote, they remind us of “shame and bodily discipline training”,[3] but it seems they can also respond to the logic of corporeal bliss. 

We may even venture the opinion that they inscribe Christian ethics in the sadomasochistic logic of ecstasy, complementing the bodily element – which entered Poland with the advent of free market – with a spiritual aspect. Seen from such perspective, the cycle of sin and penance also becomes embedded in the logic of sexual experience. Kneelers and confessionals are tools of mortification and bliss at the same time, akin to erotic gadgets that serve to bind and inflict pain. As in the writings of medieval women mystics and tales of martyrdom, the ultimate spiritual-bodily ecstasy occurs at the moment of death, a fact reflected in Saint II, embedded in a throne/electric chair form.

Kijewski/Kocur, 'św. Sebastian', 1999, from the collection of Zamek Ujazdowski Center for Contemporary Art; exhibition view of, 'Kijewski/Kocur', Gdańska Galeria Miejska 2018, photo: Grzegorz Pachla
Kijewski/Kocur, 'Święty II', 1999; photo courtesy of Galeria Propaganda

Transgression in golden foil

“I remember Kijewski telling me in 1995 that it’s about time to put an end to the aesthetic of the raw wooden board in Polish art”[4] – wrote Dorota Monkiewicz. And even if the aesthetic of the raw wooden board indeed came to an end, the raw board paradigm, if you will, did not necessarily follow. With his works that incorporated organs immersed in formalin, Grzegorz Klaman did not renounce expressive sculptures cut with a saw and carved with an axe, but found a fresh, albeit not devoid of the same pathos, form to convey his physiological-metaphysical perspective on the body. In the circle of artists from Grzegorz Kowalski’s studio at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw (“Kowalnia”), the aesthetic of raw board was replaced, in turn, with the aesthetic of raw VHS.

From the beginning of their collaboration Kijewski and Kocur resist formal reductionism and the identification of the signifier with the signified. Their lively exploration of what exists on the surface comes as a choice that is artistic (in Kijewski’s case, it follows the sine wave of his practice spanning the expansion and minimisation of formal means) as much as conceptual.

In an interview with Artur Żmijewski, Grzegorz Kowalski declared: “The artist’s mission is to question the existing norms. … He must accept the risk that the society will reject and condemn him”.[5] Kowalski’s words still echo the tendency inspired by Stanisław Przybyszewski with his postulate of shocking the bourgeoisie, a good one hundred years older than critical art. The art of the 20th century fin de siècle adopted that strategy as readily as the art of Young Poland at the turn of the same century, declaring an interest in “ugliness, deviation, corporeality, evil”.[6] Izabela Kowalczyk described the transgressive inclinations of critical artists as a search for “the possibility, alternative to the official system of power-knowledge, to explore marginal territories, phenomena that exist on the border of representation”.[7]

Kijewski/Kocur, ‘Help Yourself – hedonistycznie’, 1996; photo courtesy of Galeria Propaganda

This is where the demarcation line runs between the practice of Kijewski/Kocur and the narrative of critical art. However, “ugliness, deviation, corporeality, evil” do not disappear from the artists’ field of vision, but become inscribed in an intricate dialectical spider web that reflects the contemporary processes of capitalist training. Processes founded on fascination and shame. Although Kijewski/Kocur showed their works at exhibitions that stirred up heated emotions, such as Irreligion in Brussels, their art as such never became an object of attacks such as those mounted on Katarzyna Kozyra’s Animal Pyramid and Dorota Nieznalska’s Passion. It was too deeply sewn into the fabric of transformation processes to be perceived as an assault on conservative values and, as a matter of fact, on the sense of stable identity enjoyed by the postcolonial subject bewildered by the transformation.

Kijewski/Kocur therefore disguise ugliness in a truly carnivalesque costume made of feathers, glittering baubles, gold leaves and candies. The body, in turn, becomes a source of suffering and bliss at the same time, torture devices seamlessly transform into sex shop gadgets, and evil becomes tamed with a nearly toy-like form. The art of Kijewski/Kocur as a critical analysis of social changes in the transformation era – practised from the position of engaged participants of those changes, and not seemingly distanced subjects – essentially converges with the work of one of the “Kowalnia” students, who – tellingly – is also currently enjoying a renaissance: Roman Stańczak. They are the two sides of the same coin. On the spectrum between social aspirations and fears, Stańczak’s works that involved tearing layers of varnish off a bed or a shelving unit clearly situated him on the latter end. Meanwhile, Kijewski and Kocur compulsively adorned surfaces with subsequent layers of decorations.

Narrowing the field of imagination 

Although accounts of the artistic practice of Kijewski/Kocur frequently evoke their method known as SSS – surfing, scanning, sampling, their ambivalent attitude to technology escapes the attention of researchers. The artists’ stance in this respect reveals a duality similar to their analysis of the economy of the commodity-sign, spanning both techno-enthusiasm and dystopian tendencies. As a natural epilogue, it therefore essentially complements the ambiguous narrative of the transformation.

When at the turn of the 2000s, the duo develops the system of “ethical bits”, they reduce sculpture to elementary forms. Such returns to fundamental principles have occurred with regularity since the era of the first avant-garde, but they carry different connotations depending on the geopolitical conditions. Blazing the trail for “ethical bits”, a series of untitled works from the end of the 1990s – flat compositions made with Lego bricks and foam board – combines a netting, originating from Minimalism, with primary colours and gold. The afterimages of works by Agnes Martin and late Mondrian come together with compositions that echo Byzantine mosaics and digital pixel art. Transferred into the three dimensions, they resemble tiles in an anthroposophic-Suprematist game of Tetris.

In a conversation with Piotr Rypson, Kijewski shared his forecasts concerning technological progress, which sounded somewhat akin to fantasies from the early days of Silicon Valley, still emanating the spirit of the 1968 revolution and probably also that of rave culture: “If we live to see the year 2005 or 2010, the popularisation of art will consists in making models of exhibitions. Such exhibitions will take place in a three-dimensional cyber-space – and they will be sold to people who are interested in art, collect it, etc., but cannot afford to buy objects”.[8]

Exhibition view, 'Kijewski/Kocur', Gdańska Galeria Miejska, 2018, photo: Grzegorz Pachla
Exhibition view, 'Kijewski/Kocur', Gdańska Galeria Miejska, 2018, photo: Grzegorz Pachla

Yet, the hope for a radical democratisation of the system of art distribution was toned down by fears: “I cannot stand using such technology, I’m afraid of subordination to computers, delving into technology… I don’t feel strong enough to freely manipulate this device, I’m not a cybernetician. … The images that appear on the screen essentially mark the death of imagination, mental laziness. I think that the computer world will not be enriched by people who believe that some sort of ethereality and oneirism is needed – but it will simply narrow the field of imagination, leading to utter idiocy”.[9]

Nearly two decades after its making, the series of “ethical bits” appears prophetic as it enquires about ethics from a completely different position than works by other artists from the early 2000s. Kijewski/Kocur perceive computer technology as a potential tool of yet another remodelling of the relation of power, perhaps the most radical in modern history. Today, the paths that may lead to such revolution are plain to see. “It’s easier to spot a nipple using artificial intelligence than it is to tackle hate speech” – Mark Zuckerberg once said, who spares no effort to develop an algorithm that will flawlessly detect and stigmatise undesirable conduct among Facebook users. At the same time, the Chinese government is testing a citizen social assessment system as if taken straight out of Black Mirror. For many years, the work of Kijewski/Kocur remained reduced almost to a mere footnote in the art history of the 1990s and 2000s. And, as it usually happens, it is brought back from obscurity at a time when the artists, however ill-fitting the grands récits of that era, turn out the most far-sighted.


[1Cf. Hal Foster, “The Art of Cynical Reason,” in idem The Return of the Real. The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century (Cambridge, MA; London: The MIT Press, 1996), 99–126.

[2Magda Szcześniak, Normy widzialności. Tożsamość w czasach transformacji (Warszawa: Fundacja Bęc Zmiana / Instytut Kultury Polskiej UW, 2016), 70–82.

[3Jakub Banasiak, “Kijewski/Kocur, Złoty Strzał,” Szum, 2015, no. 11, 174.

[4Dorota Monkiewicz, “Marek Kijewski. Duffy Duck and the Aegean Myth,” in Points of Reference. Collection of the Foundation for Contemporary Art of the National Museum in Warsaw, catalogue concept and layout by Dorota Monkiewicz (Warszawa: Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie, 2008), 44.

[5“There Is Equality, But There Are No Equals. Grzegorz Kowalski in conversation with Artur Żmijewski,” in Artur Żmijewski, Trembling Bodies. Conversations with Artists (Bytom: CSW Kronika, Berlin: DAAD, 2010), 164.

[6Ibid.

[7Izabela Kowalczyk, “Twórczość Grzegorza Klamana – egzystencja na powrót ucieleśniona,” Format, 1991, no. 31–32, 25.

[8“Język, pop i disco polo. Rozmawiają: Marek Kijewski, Zbigniew Libera, Piotr Rypson,” in Marek Kijewski. (Sensitive), exh. cat. (Białystok: Galeria Arsenał BWA, 1996), no pagination.

[9Ibid.

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See also