2017-02-09 - 2017-06-04

Curated by: Magdalena Lewoc

Artists: Antoni Karwowski

The Secret Blackness of Milk exhibition is an attempt to outline the field of activity of Antoni Karwowski, an artist who has cultivated performance art since the genre broke free from other avant-garde trends to establish itself in the 1970s. The exhibition presents the early, anti-systemic performative actions undertaken by Karwowski in collaboration with Zbigniew Oleszyński (as Group A) in the Communist era (1970s-1980s), as well as selected projects and performance series carried out individually that followed in the 1990s and continue to the present day. It traces the shift in locus of his performances from intervention and social actions to self-knowledge through the creative working of memory and personal experiences. 



Performance art evolved from the avant-garde at the turn of the 1970’s and soon joined the mainstream of contemporary culture, or at least became generally known. Performance artists, drawing inspiration from the countercultural negation of traditional aesthetics, asked again about the sense of making art and its social function. The antiestablishment character of performance art was emphasized from the beginning by its two defining aspects: the presence of the performer’s body and the transience of the accomplished actions (their course largely depended on mutual exchange of energy made in statu nascendi between artists and audience). The body and the process were now in the spotlight, and the dynamic embodied experience replaced the experience based on the distance between the artist, the work and the viewer. The subversive power of performance art resulted from destabilization of the binary structure of traditional aesthetics: the subject of action became at the same time its subject, and the creating artist could not be separated from the matter used by him in the act of creation.

Focusing on the present and the presence, performance art paid attention to the phenomenal, corporeal being in the world, to the intensity of the here-and-now, to the materiality of the experienced events that dominated over their conventionality. The performers hazardously opened themselves to randomness and experimented with establishing relationships in the context of co-presence, and often also co-authorship of the spectators. Unpredictability, ex definitione inherent in the poetics of performance art transformed actions of performers into unique events, difficult to be replaced by any other form of expression.

These coordinates, primary for performance art, still define its character to a large extent, although analyzing the half-century history of the genre, one can observe changing dynamics and various areas of interest of artists who practice it. In the initial period they focused mainly on formal issues and non-discursive activities emphasizing bodily presence and physical motion; later they gradually moved their attention to social and political potential of performance art.

However, one of the most popular trends of this art has invariably been the identity performance (exposing autobiographical motifs, more or less processed), which, as a natural consequence of concentration on the person of the artist, has been developing intensively in two areas: research of individual identity and collective identity in the context of broader collective experience, when collisions and tensions appearing when a clash of cultures takes the floor.[1]

The dynamic and changing way of making performance art is also reflected in the 40-year artistic practice of Antoni Karwowski: his subversive, anti-system activities from the turn of the 1970’s and 1980’s, accomplished in the poetics and conventions close to the traditions of the Fluxus movement[2], were in the 1990’s replaced by individual performing practices of poetic and energetic creation based on personal experiences and memories. Karwowski’s performances over the past two decades have been dominated by self-knowledge and their character has gradually begun to resemble a ritual of processing and establishing reality, using memories of the first few years of life – spent in the town of Goniądz, located in the Bialystok region – as their raw material.

The Ritual

In the context of history of art, the sources of inspiration for performance art are sought mainly in the experimental artistic traditions of the last century – in the currents of the first avant-garde, happenings and event-related aesthetics of the Fluxus.[3] This narrow, purely aesthetic perspective has been questioned by many researchers, who point to other, more primitive phenomena inherent in performance art, such as religious and custom-related rites that maintain inseparable connections with universal human experience, the source of which is the body.

Performance art is close to the ritual structures in the sense that its crucial elements are: (1) the presence of the performer, who during the action becomes subject to physical and mental transformations (often associated with the violation of the integrity of the body and the breaking of the limits of psychophysical stamina) and (2) the immediacy of contact between the performer and the audience / participants. Despite their transient nature, the immediacy of such encounters evokes a uniquely intensity. This is mainly due to the somatic axis of the constructed relationship providing conditions for empathetic and unique acts of communication.[4]

Therefore, performance art establishes a specific reality in which the bodily coexistence of the participants is the basis of communication, thus enabling transformations that are at the heart of every ritual ceremony. Although the transformation in the context of aesthetic experience does not evoke as clear and irreversible effects of ritualistic ceremonies, permanently changing the social status of individuals. Still, they can make emotional, mental, or cognitive impacts that change the way the world is perceived.

Analyzing the three-phase structure of the ritual defined at the beginning of the 20th century by Arnold van Gennep[5], Victor Turner noticed that its most creative and groundbreaking element was the so-called threshold phase (Latin: limen) that included the disorienting perturbation of reality, which made the transformation possible. In this stage, the participant of the ritual enters the space and time marked by ambivalence, and thus suspending the social order. Turner called this threshold phase “the state of liminality,” qualifying its character and pointing to its inherent lability, opening the field to experiment and with new combinations of symbols.

In the context of performance, participants enter the liminal state primarily through questioning the opposition between art and reality, and, further, that of all other oppositions derived from it.[6] In Karwowski’s practice, there is another important element disrupting the experience of reality: the radical distortion of the time structure. Karwowski creatively combines processed images of the past (the time which was experienced) with time being experienced (here-and-now), merging both in the performance space. Time – relative, personified, freed from the chronology, as the artist defines it – thus is liberated “from the chain of linearity.”


Karwowski’s artistic activity has been dominated for years by such elements as working with memory, activating the memory of the body, and the use of memory as a performative act to produce a narrative about oneself. The creative motifs of processed memories – both those in which meaning cannot be fully discerned, and those so disquieting that even what is apparent in them cannot be conclusively worked out to a point of closure – return with peculiar regularity. Most of props used by Karwowski – a mechanical toy-horse, metal bowls, white fabric, archival photographs – are derived from the past and represented in the performance. The latter, thanks to an indexal connection with real objects which Roland Barthes called “the umbilical cord made of rays of light,” play a special role in the dialogue with a world that is half-remembered, half-imagined, and governed by its specific logic and mores.

For more than two decades, Karwowski has been interested in somatic memory. This preoccupation can be placed in the context of a broader, anthropological reflection on the value of cognitive memory. This so-called mnemonic turn in the humanities rehabilitates memory, previously regarded as unscientific and extra-logical, as a special source of knowledge about past reality. At the same time, it re-evaluates non-discursive memory channels, such as memory stored in the body, as well as the possibility of its physical transmission. Rebecca Schneider writes: “The past, performed and manifested as a living performance can function as a kind of physical transmission, the conventional archivists are so afraid of, as a counter-memory, almost in the sense of echo […].[7]


In 2001, a mythologized world built on images remembered form childhood was taken into much darker areas. Karwowski encountered a comprehensive study undertaken of the Jewish community in Goniądz before the Second World War, when Jews made up around 40% of the town’s population. The study, available on the Internet, was a book consisting of historical texts and private reminiscences that ran to several hundred pages. It revealed the grim events which took place during the period of German occupation and questioned, as Karwowski says, the innocence of his hometown. The book helped him to merge together the stories he had heard as a child, his mother’s words, and scraps of his own memories[8]. It radically changed the perspective of his perception.

A map of Goniądz, sketched by Tuvia (Ivri) Yevreysky and published in the book, triggered Karwowski’s memory and imagination; he recognized the shape of an eye in the map and almost immediately transferred it into performance, using the motif of a circle outlined in black ink dripped from his mouth. The town began to resemble a palimpsest, unexpectedly revealing a subtext previously invisible, almost obliterated, though still present. Reaching the contents of this layer redirected the work of memory on some other tracks – into the area of reflection and experience, which Marianne Hirsch called “the experience of post-memory,”[9] and thus defining a mediated, second-generation memory that was vulnerable to the impact of narratives about highly traumatic episodes of which he had no first-hand experience.

Born several years after those tragic events and raised in Goniądz, Karwowski is – to use Hirsch’s conceptual instrumentation – a representative of the post-generation. Though he did not participate directly in the stigmatizing experiences, he inherited the memory of them, along with those of the place of their (and his) origin. Representatives of this generation remember certain events through the stories, images and behaviors heard and observed as they grew up. Haunted by the narratives of post-memory, they reach for creative ways to work out and articulate extremely complex and often sub-conscious content. Karwowski called this experience “a life tethered to the metaphysical umbilical cord in an eternal sense of the known and the unknown.”

Natural aspects of post-memory are its ethical consequences and an attempt to answer questions about what connects the post-generation with the mediated events, their impact on identity and whether post-memory imposes some sort of obligation? These questions have a broader dimension and they are addressed not only to those who are confronted by their family histories. In her analysis of post-memory, Hirsch points out two aspects: the first is linear, with memory built on remembrances transmitted to the next generation within the family; the second is affiliative, based on a horizontal transfer among people who for various reasons seek connections with past events. These events are beginning to be recognized and then analyzed not only according to the individual, but also in the context of the community struggle with the post-memory as “a load of a moving trauma.” [10]

A laboratory of multi-directional memory

Karwowski’s practice is individual and personalized. However, it gains a super-individual dimension in the context of community Working out the complicated history of the Jewish experience in Poland is certainly one of the most sensitive, community- and identity-related tasks with which we – as a community – are not fully able to cope. Much has been said and written about this turbulent and unhappy cohabitation, and the intensity of points disputed on both sides remains high. The issues of complicity and responsibility recur and find no solution within the mutually exclusive Polish and Jewish narratives of martyrdom. In the context of the development of Polish identity, a permanent incompatibility and drastic split of Polish and Jewish memory finds parallels in Michael Rothberg’s model of multidirectional memory, which and unlike the exclusive memory that is associated with ethnic-nationalist understanding of collective identity, is the liquid memory created in during the continuous negotiation of remembered events and historical phenomena.[11]

Evoking Turner’s definition of liminal experience as an area enabling unconventional re-workings of symbols and social order within the performative activities examining narratives of post-memory, one can see in Karwowski’s pratice the kind of mental laboratory in which multi-dimentional memory can more fully explore its transformative potential

Magdalena Lewoc

[1] Marvin Carlson, Performance: A Critical Introduction, Routledge 2003 [Polish edition: Performans, Warsaw 2007, translated by E. Kubikowska, p. 257.]

[2] For more on Karwowski’s early performances, see the text by Krzysztof Gutfrański, on pp. 99–106.

[3] This is how the history of the performance art is analysed by RoseLee Goldberg in her pioneering book Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present (the first edition in 1979; then republished several times).

[4] Erika Fischer-Lichte, Ästhetik des Performativen, Suhrkamp Verlag 2004 [Polish edition: Estetyka performatywności, Kraków 2008, translated by M. Borowski, M. Sugiera, p. 88.]

[5] Victor Turner, From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play, PAJ Publications 2001 [Polish edition: Od rytuału do teatru, Warsaw, 2010, translated by M. and J. Dziekan, p. 36, 81.]

[6] E. Fischer-Lichte, op. cit. p. 282.

[7] R. Schneider, Performans pozostaje, in: Re//Mix. Performans i dokumentacja, Warsaw 2014, p. 34.

[8] Our Hometown Goniondz, http://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/goniadz/Goniadz.html [dostęp 15.09.2016].

[9] M. Hirsch, Pokolenie postpamięci, translated by M. Borowski, M. Sugiera, „Didaskalia. Gazeta Teatralna” v. 18, nr 105 (2011), pp. 28–37.


[10] J. Tokarska-Bakir, Nędza polityki historycznej, in: Pamięć jako przedmiot władzy, ed. P. Kosiewski, Warsaw 2008, p. 27.

[11] For more on Rothberg’s model of multidirectional memory, see Dorota Głowacka, Ojczyzna, tożsamość, „mój malutki los,” in: J. Tokarska-Bakir (ed.) PL: Tożsamość wyobrażona, Warsaw 2013, pp. 214–215.