2004-06-04 - 2004-09-19

Curated by: Magdalena Lewoc

Artists: Agata Zbylut, Bogna Burska, Hanna Nowicka, Marta Deskur, Monika Maria Matraszek, Monika Wiechowska

Anne Marie Madeleine presented the photo based works of six Polish artists. The main body of the exhibition was formed by the artists who entered the art scene in the second half of the 90s. The exhibition offered a visual tale about a women and her position /image within the sphere of culture, based on creative dialogue with the surrounding environment in its socio-cultural, political and spiritual dimension 

Over the 90s. an the turn of the 20th century Poland had been undergoing a period of dramatic transformation. In that time, fierce public debate has arisen about the most basic principles of its statehood, its political and legal foundations and its public institutions. This wide-ranging public discussion has centered on the renegotiation of the issues of identity, tolerance and equality. Artists have claimed their part in the community’s life and their right to a freedom of expression on important, difficult and controversial topics.

Women artists have played a leading role in those processes. They were supported by  the increasingly widespread reception of feminist ideas and poignant public reflection on the social and cultural understanding of gender issues.

Anne Marie Madeleine exhibition derived its tension from the diverse, polyphonic dialogue among the works of the invited artists. Some spoke from clearly feminist positions, while others debated body and identity among the archetypal and symbolic patterns of culture.

The art works presented within Anne Marie Madeleine consciously retain art’s aesthetic aura by skillfully using the strengths that lay in the qualitative sophistication of form. The precision and visual attractiveness of works which contrasts with their ambivalent content is the decisive factor that determines their seminal and subversive potential.

The body, as the fundamental basis of identity, is becoming here the natural reference point for the formulation of artistic messages, and serves as one of Monika Wiechowska’s central themes. The artist skillfully goes beyond the bi-polar understanding of female corporality so typical in Western culture. As a result of this cultural antinomy, the body functions either in the sphere of eroticism that sometimes borders on pornography, or in the sphere of sacrum where it is both dematerialized and purified of all its impulses. While presenting the shameless vitality of the body in her nudes, Wiechowska (I, photograph, 2001) allows the body to go beyond right and wrong and standards of propriety.

The author acts here as both artist and model. She evades the gaze of her audience. She irritates through her independence, through being directed towards her own thoughts, through dissolving into a fit of laughter unintelligible to anyone but herself. She is unattainable; unaffected by the roving eye sliding over her naked body. She turns towards herself in joyful, affirmative enlightment. Through shamelessly displaying her body, Wiechowska ushers the viewer into the realm of timeless paradise. The impression is reinforced by the bucolic gardens that often constitute the immediate background of her nudes (Garden in Skoki, photograph, 2001). In this archetypal environment – not singled out from the divine realm but at the same time acutely aware of herself and her body – the artist plays a subtle game with the conventional understanding of what a nude is, with the relationship between the observer and the person being observed, and with the disciplinary aspect of a gaze.

The biblical context – one not entirely free from a slight trait of perversion – is one possible interpretations of Marta Deskur’s Virgins cycle (Alexandria, from the Virgin series, lightbox, 2004). The artist presents full-sized portraits of “pregnant” virgins, thus confronting the viewer with a phenomenon that cannot be rationally resolved and which inevitably creates a quandary in the search for interpretation. Bearing in mind that virgins are depicted, this is, perhaps, a kind of futuristic embodiment of parthenogenesis. Or, rather, perhaps a reference to the theological dogma of Immaculate Conception? Or, perhaps, a pagan idea of virginity, which, contrary to Christian thinking, allows a marriage of sexuality and sainthood?

What is more, having scrutinized the works an alert viewer will recognize that all the women’s faces have been replaced with the artist’s face. Marta Deskur’s virgins radiate inner harmony and solemn innocence. They cannot be defined by the ready phrases of cultural stereotypes. They break the notions that identify the loss of virginity outside the sphere of male control with a loss of innocence and irreversible defilement.

The strength of the cycle can be found in its attribution to a variety of contexts.  Firstly, in the mystical/religious context, with its complex dogmas about Virgin Mary and the Christian understanding of the relationship between soul and body. Secondly, the social/cultural context, which can well be a springboard for a critical reckoning with the “institution” of virginity as an instrument of control over female sexuality and emotional dependence on the male. And finally, it evokes the philosophical context, with its fundamental questions about the nature of being and the nature of identity. It is here where, thanks to the language of art, viewers can enter territories enabling unlimited manipulations of images and the hybridization of the presented world.

The issues of individual and cultural identity are also a leading motif in Monika Maria Matraszek’s art. Matraszek consistently analyses the structure of language and the way linguistic concepts become the basis for categorizing the world. Because of their very specificity, the artist’s conceptually and formally restrained works depend on cooperation with people representing various cultures and speaking different languages. Above all, art understood in this way is a medium of communication and a tool for self-analysis, which is possible only in so far as it is carried out in constant confrontation with the Other.

The face is the underlying carrier of individual identity in the project De Visu (from the De Visu cycles, photograph, 1997) which was launched in 1997. Close-ups of faces fill entire frames: Arabs, Asians, Europeans – a gallery of human types staring at the viewer; a collection of expressionless faces. The portraits are devoid of accessories or attributes that make more detailed contextualization possible. Matraszek deprives her viewers of the ability to “read” a portrait traditionally, as a source of information about the social and psychological background of the person depicted. What’s more, her manipulations lead to drastic violations of the identities of those portrayed. She replaces eyes with her own, saying in effect that any attempt to penetrate the world represented by a separate and different individual is paradoxically an attempt at facing one’s own identity. Matraszek’s anthropological interests allow her to use the energy that is created at the meeting point of cultures. This energy lets her discover new impulses in the process of self-knowledge.

Individual identity also forms the conceptual axis of Agata Zbylut’s work. She shifts the essence of the problem from investigations on the structural characteristics of culture over to the sphere of culturally conditioned relationships between the sexes. Agata Zbylut’s artistic practice reveals a distinct inspiration of feminism with all its typical critical accessories. The artist uses body images in order to present herself – a woman – in situations that reveal the conditions shaping her identity. To show a woman as one who realizes the mechanisms that make her accept and adopt as her own the values imposed by masculine conventions. To present herself as a woman who experiences her incomplete and indirect subjectivity.

Zbylut shows a female body reduced to the functions that ideally reflect the projections of male fantasies. In her earlier work, the artist focused on physiological aspects. Thus showing her fascination with the issues of excluded, base and shameful femininity. In later works, she has shifted the center of gravity over to the psychological involvement of a woman in seduction strategies and less explicit forms of disciplining and taming of one’s own body. In her series of Posters (We’re cute from the Posters series, photograph, 2001), Zbylut actively faces the reificatory male gaze while showing up in many of her works in poses promising maximum erotic satisfaction.

Hanna Nowicka’s work expresses a focused, private record of an intimate involvement in sexuality. Nowicka’s lens almost invariably is pointed at herself and her partner. Although she excessively exposes her own images, the artist never constructs an uncomplicated, spontaneous and autobiographical narration. Her extremely private art and the expressiveness of her poetic and yet visually bold photographs (which are anything but prudish) allows her work to rise over the subjective while referring the viewer to their most private experiences, obsessions, desires and anxieties. As seen by Nowicka, the woman neither accepts the role of sufferer, nor feels vindictive. Being aware of herself, her body and the cultural clichés imposed on them, she analyzes her own relationship with her partner, with its changing vectors of tension, directions of domination and mutual manipulations, which all shape its fragile stability. In May I Use Your Lipstic? May I Use You?, photographs, 2000, Nowicka reveals the mechanisms that take place in a relationship, the ambivalence of stances and desires, and the mutual erotic fascination of the partners.

This incredible potential of emotions and eroticism is captured in a work entitled Haptics, photograph, 2000. In it, a woman dressed in red sits alone in the middle of an empty, snow-covered courtyard and holding an icy ball in her hands. The accumulated inner passion dramatically confronts the orderly and cold environment, petrified in its inertness.

 Bogna Burska’s works show the body from a different perspective than those that dominate the Anne Marie Madeleine exhibition. The body is not clad in costume, nor is it required to pose. It ceases being the object of desire, instead becoming the object of disgust. Burska presents some typical life experiences, which are nevertheless carefully pushed out of the sphere of visual representation. She juxtaposes disabled bodies in all their colorful richness with the scenes showing the blooming tones of nature (Algorithm, photogram, 2001). The traumatic aspects of reality meet pastoral imagery. Negative emotions presented in the context of commonly accepted images make it possible to introduce bloody bodily encroachments into the realms of art and beauty. By placing acts of suffering in an extraordinary context, so much different from commonplace images, Burska reveals their aesthetic dimension. The world perceived as ugly and bad is equally aesthetic as the scenes embodying the ideals of bucolic beauty. Bogna Burska’s work seriously challenges for the viewer’s sensitivity. However, by setting them out of the sphere of medical discourse, the artist allows her audiences to symbolically gain control over aspects of corporality that are instinctively repressed from consciousness.

Burska declares that she wants to create art showing the areas of reality we do not want to see. She adopts an analytical/critical position towards the cultural regulations of suffering, mutilation and dying – one that is drastically cut off from the domain of life by these very same regulations. At the same time, she examines the territory of complicated decisions about the meaning of art and its ethical dimension. By rehabilitating and restoring the dignity to things causing disgust and fear, Burska introduced a new element in discussions about the body. Changing their unambiguously negative emotional potential, she removes the stigma attached to progressive disintegration and degeneration.

While revealing various aspects of corporal entanglement of an individual identity, the Anne Marie Madeleine suggested that it is impossible to talk about the soul without careful observation of the body. The strength of the works presented lies in their ability to cross over the horizons of old platonic paradoxes that shoot through our perception and prevent the ideal and real from meeting – the mind with the body, sexuality with sainthood, the male with the female and life with death.

Translated from Polish into English by Marek Stelmaszczyk.

Proof read by Rick Butler.

Text originally published in Contemporary Identities. Current artistic Creation in Poland, Szczecin, 2004, ed. by Magdalena Lewoc, published by the National Museum in Szczecin in cooperation with apollonia European art exchanges in Strasbourg.

Curator: Magdalena Lewoc

Collaboration: Marlena Chybowska, Hélène Cominéas

Organisation: apollonia european art exchanges, Strasbourg, Museum of Contemporary Art, dept. of the National Museum in Szczecin

Venue & dates: espace apollonia, Strasbourg, 7.06-19.09.2004

Project realized within the program NOVA POLSKA 2004 (Polish Season in France) in collaboration with Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Warsaw.