Agata Jakubowska: The Pink Flag (2017)
(The text was published in exhibition catalogue: Maria Pinińska-Bereś, Ephmeral Works 1967-1996, Monopol Gallery, Warsaw 2017)
The pink flag as a symbol of my art and feminist issues.
Maria Pinińska-Bereś was first and foremost a sculptor, which means that she attached great significance to the objects used in her performances and the post-performance installations arranged in gallery spaces. Playing a special role among the props appearing in those is a pink flag that has become a kind of emblem of her work.
The artist made her first flag in 1967 (it was initially exhibited as Corset V then as Standard-Corset). Made of papier-mâché, it is an irregularly shaped object with two round protuberances, attached to a pole. In one of her texts Pinińska likened it to a flattened imprint of a woman.1Maria Pinińska-Bereś, untitled, 1970, artist’s archive. It resembles the corsets she produced at the time, but transformed so that instead of serving to deform the female body it becomes a protest against its objectification. It can be called a “disobedient object”, as in the title of an exhibition2Disobedient Objects, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 26 July 2014 -1 February 2015. held at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in 2014, the purpose of which was to examine the powerful role of objects in movements for social change.3http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/ /disobedient-objects/ (access: 16 August 2017). The Standard-Corset appears to be precisely such an object, and its gallery exposition (e.g. in the artist’s solo show at the “Piwnica pod Baranami” in 1970 or currently in the exhibition of the collection of the Silesian Museum in Katowice) seems similar to that at the Victoria and Albert. But although Pinińska-Bereś alluded to artifacts used in street demonstrations and straightforwardly called her work a “standard”, she used it in a special way. It hadn’t been obtained from the street, from a march or parade, but made specially for an exhibition. It was only later, documents in the artist’s archive suggest, that she decided to use it. The archive includes a photograph (dated for 1972) documenting a private performance where the artist, holding the Standard-Corset, marches in front of her apartment block. She signed the picture, Parade with a Standard, corresponding with her gesture which brings to mind the official parades organized to celebrate public holidays such the National Day of the Rebirth of Poland on 22 July. On such occasions flags and banners are supposed to convey the key messages of the given organization; they are proudly displayed, an expression of faithfulness to ideas and a readiness to defend them. Here the flag can be perceived as a defiant demonstration of femininity, but it also has a critical aspect. In the particular socio-political situation of 1970s Poland, Pinińska-Bereś’s manifestation may have been an implicit reference to the policies of the communist state, which held sumptuous annual celebrations of Women’s Day but failed to address women’s real needs.
We can look in a similar way at two related works, the installation The Circle (1976) and the performance Praying for Rain, also known as The Circle II (1977). In both cases there is a fenced-off space that becomes a field of action for a woman. In Praying for Rain, performed in the open air, in a meadow, the artist first built a circle and then began inside it activities that could be described as magical. What matters here is that the circle was surrounded with small pink flags that clearly genderized the inner space as feminine. This can make us think of ecological ideas which were popular in the 1970s, particularly eco-feminism.4On ecological ideas in Eastern European (though not Polish) art, cf. Maja Fowkes, The Green Bloc: Neo-Avantgarde Art and Ecology under Socialism (New York—Budapest: CEU Press, 2015). The latter was based on a sense that women and nature shared a similar condition, being exploited by patriarchal political/economic systems bent on destructive modernization. The effects of intense industrialization in Edward Gierek-era Poland had already become clear by the mid-1970s. In this perspective, Pinińska-Bereś’s ritualistic performance comes across not so much as a critique of women’s policies as an accentuation of the traditional tie-up between femininity and nature, potentially representing an antidote to the severed connection with the latter.
The pink cloth attached to a shaft appears again as a flag in the artist’s performances in 1979. It has a simple form – a monochromatic, regular fragment of pink fabric. It is a piece of cloth, unhemmed, devoid of any embellishments. We might call it, after Kantor, a poor object. If, as the artist said, it was meant to be a banner of femininity, so despised until today,5Maria Pinińska-Bereś, Z listu do krytyka (1993), in Maria Pinińska-Bereś 1931-1999, ed. Barbara Gajewska, Jerzy Hanusek, exh. cat. (Kraków: Galeria Sztuki Współczesnej Bunkier Sztuki, 1999), p. 30. its form corresponds very much with the condition of being held in contempt.
The main way in which the new form differs from the Standard-Corset is that it does not directly reference the shape of the female body, but rather femininity in general, as suggested by the use of the color pink. It was a color that she introduced to her work gradually until in the 1970s it became her trademark. At first, it was present in her sculptures when they showed, or indicated, the female body. With time – the mid-1970s being the crucial period here – pink began to acquire more symbolic significance and refer more broadly to femininity. Used in the flag, it became its emblem. The idea was of femininity in general, but in fact we are dealing with a specific type of it here. Girlish rather than mature. Delicate, gentle, and sensitive rather than warlike and aggressive. Intimate and carnal rather than wearing heavy makeup. Maria Hussakowska attributes the color’s use to recent fashion, informed by a fascination with swinging London and its saturated pinkish hues.6Maria Hussakowska, Thing Pink, in Maria Pinińska-Bereś 1931-1999, p. 13. While agreeing with references to this field of life, I would be inclined to look for the inspiration in another trend, one connected with hippie culture, closer to folklore rather than to modernity. Essential here are the costumes that the artist wore during her flag-featuring performances casually chic, with many folkloristic elements in both cut and fabric.7Anna Pelka, Z (politycznym) fasonem. Moda młodzieżowa w PRL i NRD (Gdańsk: słowo/obraz terytoria, 2013).
It was precisely in such a costume that Pinińska-Bereś performed an act of what she called the “consecration of the standard.” In a series of performances jointly titled Author’s Standard, presented in early spring 1979, she carried the flag to carefully chosen locations, stuck it in the ground, unfolded a specially prepared white blanket (another “author’s” object that appeared in many of her pieces), sat on it, and played a flute. The very act of the flag’s “consecration” indicates that she attached a lot of significance to this particular object and its presence in her art, whereas the particular form of this hallowing suggests that her practices were deeply rooted in alternative culture. The artist was associated with a milieu in which this culture thrived; for example, it was from Jacek Ostaszewski, co-founder of the cult band Osjan, that she bad learned how to make sounds with the flute for the purpose of the piece.8Jacek Ostaszewski at the exhibition Ruchome – nieruchome. Performensy Marii Pinińskiej-Bereś w dokumentacji, Galeria Sztuki Współczesnej Bunkier Sztuki Kraków, 2007.
Author’s Standard needs to be considered in the context of the roughly concurrent Passage Beyond the Quilt (presented as part of the 1978 Sculpture of the Year exhibition). As Maria Hussakowska wrote about the latter, paraphrasing historic events – very numerous and always clearly attesting to male heroism, martial skill, and strategic genius – the piece relates to a far subtler battle fought by the artist inside, a battle between her ideals d universal – neutrally white – art and the ever more strongly pressing pink of female carnality.9Hussakowska, Thing Pink, pp.14-15.
The artist successively threw away the fragments of sculptures she carried, completing her passage through the quilt holding nothing but a pink flag.
With such a flag – already labeled as the “author’s standard” – she appeared at the plein-air meeting in Świeszyno near Miastko, which were an opportunity to present one’s recent work to artists from all over the country. There she staged two performances using it: Soap Bubbles in autumn 1979 and Landscape Annexation a year later. Both involved an area delineated with a museum-style fence of poles and rope. Sticking a pink flag inside it marked it as feminine, appurtenant to women. The practice of demarcation, frequent for the artist, merits a separate discussion. Let us stress in the first place that it was meant to emphasize her separate position. The 1970s saw the crystallization of Pinińska-Bereś’s own style, which distinguished her from the rest of Polish art, including the rest of Polish women’s art. Her gestures and decisions – such as that to call a pink, femininity–denoting flag her “author’s standard” – indicate that she considered feminist issues her own. Achieving a position in the art world, occupying a specific place within it, a place marked as “women’s art”, was also connected to this. The emphasis on working in a distinct, “authorial” space on the one hand suggests that the artist has found her “intimate little world” in art (to paraphrase words from Little Garden, 1974), and on the other hand conveys a reflection on the trap of ghettoization, which has often been associated with women’s and feminist art. It concerns the dilemma involved in the idea of a separate space for women artists, which seemed necessary because there was no place for their “feminine” art in the theoretically gender-neutral mainstream culture, and if there was, it was in the sidelines.
The latter theme is also present in the next two performances in which Pinińska-Bereś used a pink flag: Laundry I (as part of Women’s Art Festival, ON Gallery, Poznań, 1980) and Laundry II (Osieki plein-air meeting, 1981). In both, staying within a small space, the artist washed several pieces of cloth which, when hung out to dry, formed the word “Feminism”. The apron she wore was then transformed into a flag, this time raised at the end rather than at the beginning of the performance. Again, the pink banner was tied here to household chores traditionally perceived as feminine, and thus directly related to the politics of household work being the subject of the actions of feminists, including feminist artists. With Laundry, Pinińska-Bereś was joining the feminist discourse in art, remaining loyal to the art of women (as symbolized by the pink flag), but distancing herself from its instrumentalization in feminist politics.10More on this in Agata Jakubowska, Pranie Marii Pinińskiej-Bereś jako komentarz do wystaw sztuki kobiet, in Dama w lustrze. Strategie artystyczne kobiet w latach 70-tych XX (Poznań: Galeria Piekary, 2017).
The artist came to doubt her “pink” art shortly afterwards, with the introduction of martial law in December 1981.11I don’t discuss here a performance presented shortly before the introduction of martial law, Living Pink (Spotkania Krakowskie, Kraków, 1981), in which the artist also used a pink flag. As she wrote years later, I suddenly thought of my pink, erotic art as unacceptable. In 1984, the documentation of several of her performances, including, among others, Soap Bubbles and Landscape Annexation, was featured in the exhibition The Intellectual Trend in Post-WWII Polish Art (BWA Lublin), but this time the artist replaced the pink flag with a broom-as-flag – a broom with a long broomstick at the end of which was fastened a piece of gray cloth (of the same style as the earlier pink ones) with the words just a broom. In juxtaposition with the documentation of earlier, “pink” performances, this change of color can be interpreted as referring to the artistic revaluation that had occurred as a result of the political events of 1981-1983. At the same time, as Jerzy Hanusek argues in an essay featured in this volume, it is a commentary on the artist’s position in the art world, and more specifically on the fact that she was consistently ignored by the curators of independent art exhibitions, which at the time, due to the boycott of official institutions, mook place mainly at churches. During an intense, if short-lived, boom for women’s art, Pinińska-Bereś’s distinct style – much appreciated by many at the turn of the 1970s and 1980s – proved a trap. The artist reacted to the situation ironically, setting about doing the only thing left to her – cleaning (Just a broom).
The pink flag returned over a decade later in a performance that was partly a reenactment of the Lublin one, i.e., Woman Not Only with a Broom (Fractale Gallery, Poznań, 1995). Here too the artist entered among the viewers with a broom-as-flag and swept the Floor, but the flag was again pink. This is fully explained by the context – the performance was taking place as part of the Poznań Feminist Seminar, an event curated by two young art history graduates, Izabela Pikosz (today Kowalczyk) and this author, both of whom considered Pinińska-Bereś a doyen of the movement, though the artist herself had some doubts about it. The Seminar reflected growing academic interest in women’s art of the previous decades, a trend that caused artists to reconsider their positions. Pinińska-Bereś used the occasion to write down her comments on feminism, among other things, directly mentioning the pink flag as a symbol of my art and feminist issues. That was the last time she used it in her work. We do not know what role, if any, she would envisage for it in the retrospective exhibition at the Bunkier Sztuki in Kraków, opened in 1999, which she intensely prepared for but didn’t live to see.
translated by Marcin Wawrzyńczak
- 1Maria Pinińska-Bereś, untitled, 1970, artist’s archive.
- 2Disobedient Objects, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 26 July 2014 -1 February 2015.
- 3http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/ /disobedient-objects/ (access: 16 August 2017).
- 4On ecological ideas in Eastern European (though not Polish) art, cf. Maja Fowkes, The Green Bloc: Neo-Avantgarde Art and Ecology under Socialism (New York—Budapest: CEU Press, 2015).
- 5Maria Pinińska-Bereś, Z listu do krytyka (1993), in Maria Pinińska-Bereś 1931-1999, ed. Barbara Gajewska, Jerzy Hanusek, exh. cat. (Kraków: Galeria Sztuki Współczesnej Bunkier Sztuki, 1999), p. 30.
- 6Maria Hussakowska, Thing Pink, in Maria Pinińska-Bereś 1931-1999, p. 13.
- 7Anna Pelka, Z (politycznym) fasonem. Moda młodzieżowa w PRL i NRD (Gdańsk: słowo/obraz terytoria, 2013).
- 8Jacek Ostaszewski at the exhibition Ruchome – nieruchome. Performensy Marii Pinińskiej-Bereś w dokumentacji, Galeria Sztuki Współczesnej Bunkier Sztuki Kraków, 2007.
- 9Hussakowska, Thing Pink, pp.14-15.
- 10More on this in Agata Jakubowska, Pranie Marii Pinińskiej-Bereś jako komentarz do wystaw sztuki kobiet, in Dama w lustrze. Strategie artystyczne kobiet w latach 70-tych XX (Poznań: Galeria Piekary, 2017).
- 11I don’t discuss here a performance presented shortly before the introduction of martial law, Living Pink (Spotkania Krakowskie, Kraków, 1981), in which the artist also used a pink flag.