Andrzej Kostołowski: The Giggle of Time. Remarks on the Art of Jerzy Bereś (1995)
(The text was published in exhibition catalogue: Jerzy Bereś. Phantoms, Oracles, Altars, Challenges, National Museum in Poznań, Poznań 1995)
- “SOMETHING IS IN THE AIR”
Besides his activity of a sculptor and an actionist, Jerzy Bereś has been writing a diary in which he puts comments on his works and their reception.1Cf. e. g. the following texts by Jerzy Bereś: Nie jestem rzeźbiarzem [I am not a Sculptor], ed. A. Lisowski, Odra, 1978 no 11; Dokumenty i prace [Documents and Works], BWA, Piła 1980; M. Bieganowski (ed.) [untitled], Zakład nad Fosą, Wrocław 1980; Nowa treść [New Content], Galeria Krzysztofory, Cracow 1986; Zwidy, Wyrocznie, Ołtarze [Phantoms, Oracles, Altars], Stowarzyszenie Artystyczne Grupa Krakowska, Cracow 1991; Jerzy Bereś. Rzeźby… Prace ze zbiorów Muzeum Sztuki z Łodzi [Sculpture… Works from the Collection of Museum of Art in Łódź], BWA, Częstochowa 1993. The diary contains theoretical reflections on art as well as various remarks on moral and political issues that came out in Poland in the recent years. In Bereś’s art morality and politics often appear as concretized symbols, signifying a firm anti-totalitarian and patriotic attitude. Inscribed in proper contexts, those symbols may be “communicated” only by means of “animated sculpture.” To a certain extent then, they exemplify a popular saying, “something is in the air.” Bereś’s works “hang” in the air in a double sense: first, in some compositions he used levers, balances, or elements of statics, which is a distant and creative echo of Calder’s Mobiles; second, Bereś’s sculptures as well as his sacralising (but also scandalizing) actions symbolically draw the viewer’s attention to problems which, however not yet in the air, sooner or later become confirmed by social facts.
The artist has had such symbolic hits at the right spot since 1966, while the growing tensions of the first months of 1968, after Bereś PROPHECIES, culminated in a ruthless charge of well-fed and arrogant violence2R. Krynicki, I naprawdę nie wiedzieliśmy [And We Really Didn’t Know] (1978), quoted after: S. Barańczak (ed.), Poeta pamięta. Antologia poezji świadectwa i sprzeciwu [The Poet Remembers. An Anthology of Poetry as Testimony and Resistance], Puls, London 1984, p. 307. against the intelligentsia and students. Since in Polish art there were more predictions of those events, some of them may be remembered in this essay, especially that they do not seem to be remembered enough. It was no accident that those works were spectacles, as if corresponding with the key spectacle of the moment, Mickiewicz’s Forefathers. As actions, they were most likely to convey the atmosphere of the times. The dramatic suspense of the action was evidenced by their structure and spontaneous reception. Important in them were the actors, playing under the eyes of the audience.
On March 14, 1968, in the Wrocław Museum of Architecture there was opened a montage-spectacle which had been prepared for many months – Continuous Fall [Ciągłe spadanie], rooted in the work of the poet Tadeusz Różewicz. There everything was really “hanging” in the space of a huge hall: the labyrinths of round metal film tape cans, various ready-mades, and hundreds of pulsating lights. The dramatic effect of the synesthetic arrangement was amplified by loud music. The authors: Barbara Kozłowska, Zbigniew Makarewicz, Ernest Niemczyk, Wiesław Rembieliński, and Ryszard Zamorski, stirred up emotion, throwing around manifestoes printed on white sheets of paper, and ping-pong balls. After a few days everything “fell down”, i.e., was devastated by “unknown perpetrators.”
Another artistic anticipation of the events of March 1968 was one of a series of “syncretic shows” by Włodzimierz Borowski, Colour Allergy [Uczulenie na kolor], presented in the “od Nowa” Gallery in Poznań.3A. Matuszewski, VIII Pokaz Synkretyczny Włodzimierza Borowskiego [VII Syncretic Show by Włodzimierz Borowski], in: P. Piotrowski (ed.) Galeria od Nowa 1964-1969, katalog wystawy [od Nowa Gallery 1964-1969, exhibition catalogue], National Museum, Poznań 1993. The clatter of marches and newspapers blown up on the spectators were the climax of the action which consisted in the artist’s piercing holes in the eyes of his photo portraits. After piercing each eye, a stream of colour light would squirt from the hole. The show combined self-directed irony with deliberate disregard of the viewers. As it turned out, such arrogance proved to be only an amplification of the events which took place in reality.
In comparison with the two works mentioned above, Bereś’s manifestation in the Warsaw “Foksal” Gallery on January 6, 1968, may be considered as an action with totally obsolete attributes. The artist performing archaic jobs of the Carpathian carpenter. However, the action took place on an avant-garde location, before lively responding audience. Referring to the diction of romanticism, at the same time Bereś demonstrated in the gallery great simplicity and efficiency of gestures. Meticulously sorting out a pile of wood from a big tree just felled by the wind in the Łazienki Park, he unwrapped himself from a white and red sheet which eventually was to become the bow-string of a bow made from chosen branches. The arrow to the bow was marked with an inscription PROPHECY I. One element of that construction was the artist himself, for a while standing frozen, and then signing it with his name and a green print of the hand. As he admitted later, at that moment he had an unusual sense of being a subject and an object simultaneously. Thanks to his naturalness, Bereś managed to […] avoid… a show of mastery – he did not make the impression of sharing with the audience his secrets or tricks of the craft,4W. Borowski, Akt twórczy Jerzego Beresia [The Creative Act of Jerzy Bereś], Współczesność 1968 no. 6, (February). but rather received the viewers’ emotions and secrets, as if becoming their sacrifice; materializing what the nearest future was about to bring. The prophetic gestures of the almost naked artist moving among the vats had a sound background of his manifesto, THE ACT OF CREATION I, read out loud all along. In the manner of Norwid, Bereś stressed in it three elements of the act of creation: liberation, independent work-action, and [its] lasting trace.5M. Bieganowski (ed.), [untitled], op. cit. Needless to add, “liberation” was the slogan of the day, and independent work was for many years to become – for Bereś, but not only for him – a program and the ground of endless skirmishes with censorship. Putting his first PROPHECY in the contexts of the Polish cause (white and red), the attitude towards nature (the tree), and himself as a part of the process and a commentary at the same time, he made a really important gesture with respect to the course of events set by the arrow. Bereś’s action was then derided by a feuilletonist in the weekly Kultura, and the artist responded with PROPHECY II, executed in the Krzysztofory Gallery in Cracow on March 1, 1968. The copies of Kultura were used to light more than ten fires at the gallery walls. The author himself, wearing only a white and red sheet, directed the unloading of a ladder cart of logs and chips. They were arranged in a stake on which Bereś constructed another bow, including in the construction his own body. At the same time, the audience was asked to paint the whole cart black. The action was definitely sublime and marvellous, but the artist got also involved in the tensions of the historical moment. For sure, the authorities noticed that, and since then they were blocking many of Bereś’s initiatives.
As events planned in the minutest details, the PROPHECIES were not happenings (with the usual admixture of accident) – Bereś would even use the term “anti-happening” as more appropriate to define his actions. It was already clear then, that the artist’s undertakings began to foreground a certain type of actions fitting into current events and projecting their continuation. The very title, PROPHECY, was an expression of that attitude, and its prefigurations could be discerned already in PHANTOMS and ORACLES sculpted by Bereś since 1960 – those may also be referred to as mysterious “phantoms-prophecies.” Counterculture and the breakdown of the faith in simple progress only contributed to the significance of that kind of poetics. No wonder then, that for some time Bereś became the mentor of Polish hippies.
Since his earliest works, such as, for instance, RZEPICHA from 1958, in the subsequent, relatively large sculpture compositions made in the sixties Bereś was indicating his separateness from the glib background of the Polish art of those times. Using “lowly”, that is, raw and poor materials processed with a knife, chisels, an axe or a saw, he consciously turned to the archaic, as though he had wished to retreat into the epoch of the Piasts or, for that matter, even into prehistory. It was not just a superficial “retro” gesture, since the artist immediately proved that he was able to master the archaic skills of a carpenter, a wheelwright or a folk carver of figures of saints. Making these crafts monumental, Bereś transformed them into important and mysterious activities. Simultaneously, preceding and paralleling the “raw” current in Minimal Art or the works of Marco di Suvero, he proved to be the master of primary forms and thus anticipated later achievements of Italian “arte povera.” The magical suspense and “bristle” quality of the PHANTOMS and ORACLES the result of using roughly cut poles and logs. Tied with bonds, ropes, or chains, they were wedged, covered with canvas, gouged, and connected to stones. Hang and leaning against one another, they look both like gigantic amulets and tools. Practical carpentry is suggested by the titles: PHANTOM CRANE, PHANTOM PLOUGH, PHANTOM CART, PHANTOM WINDMILL, PHANTOM BELL, and NOSZAK. These sculptures-instruments, demonstrating natural materials of which they had been made, provoked the following comments:
Tools are not made to be beautiful, but to serve for concrete functional purposes. Bereś has been studying the peasant sensitivity to space and constructing skills – his sculptural decisions are equally honest and direct, devoid of coquetry.6S. Papp, Rzeźby Jerzego Beresia [Sculpture by Jerzy Bereś], Współczesność 1965 (July).
Still, proving to be skillful, Bereś questioned the skills already at the moment when it turned out that the supposed instruments did not serve any “practical” purpose. Sometimes his works hardly seem to hold together despite all their hangings and tensions, although in fact they include precisely balanced weights that make them very static. With respect to their usefulness, however, they do not make any sense. Their nonsensical character is even emphasized by the artist! Elaborating on the remarks by Ptaszkowska, one may assume that Bereś realized that, making his functionally constructed objects completely useless, he might actually “save” them by giving them more productive meanings than those usually conveyed by wells or ploughs.
In 1966 came the millennium of the Christianization of Poland. The celebration of the anniversary became a field of conflict and rivalry between the Catholic Church and the communist regime, both trying to determine the character of the jubilee. Anti-religious and anti-German, on that occasion the authorities wanted to stress the Slavic identity of the first monarch, Mieszko. The pseudo-Piast art was most welcome, and Bereś would have been an ideal artist, if not for his intellectual backwardness (the authorities preferred the Piasts made of concrete), and his all too strictly limited pre-industrial horizon. Unreliable in a double sense, as an avant-gardist and ironist at the same time, he could not make a proper partner for the bureaucrats. That soon became quite clear also during a 1966 symposium of artists and theorists organized in Puławy for the sake of alliance between industry and art. The participants were encouraged to work in the local Artificial Fertilizers Combine which was supposed to be a great and imaginatively stimulating industrial enterprise. Having come to Puławy, Bereś noticed that a part of a magnificent virgin forest around the factory was devastated, with some tress broken at their mid-height.7J. Bereś, Zwid wielki [Great Phantom], in: Jerzy Bereś, Rzeźby…, op. cit. Among whole trees torn out by the roots the artist saw a big oak that was still alive, and as such seemed a living pang of conscience put right next to a high voltage power transmission line. Bereś decided that his task was to bring the tree back to the premises of the factory from which it had been removed.8Ibidem. The “processed” oak with some stones added to it became a part of an exhibition as the GREAT PHANTOM, symbolically expressing the rebellion of nature against the assault of industry. No wonder, that the artist’s composition was not enthusiastically appreciated. And so it is: independence, virulent critical commentary, and respect for nature – these three have been contributing to Bereś’s art until today.
In the same year 1966 another of Bereś’s works became significant – THE POLISH WHEELBARROW. It was a combination of a thick trunk with two protruding wooden poles: one of them was a gigantic spoon, the other a sort of flag, i.e., a shaft with a dirty rag. In spite of the fact that the wheelbarrow had a pole which encouraged a potential user to move it, and besides a virtual circular route was painted on the floor, the vehicle was immobile, and its immobility turned out to be the real subject matter. In the late sixties the artist made more such vehicles, but those could actually move: COACH, SCOOTER, COUPE, MAGIC CART, and just CART. All of them seemed to have one and the same symbolic-critical meaning, but the common suggestion of motion expressed a higher temperature of manifestation.9J. Bereś, Dokumenty i prace, op. cit.
In the process of animating the amulets-instruments and orienting on the dialogue with the audience, in the late sixties Bereś’s sculptures-tools began to function as mocking moral games. Particularly allusive was the CLAPPER (1970) which might be used to produce hollow, wooden applause.10J. Ładnowska, Kolekcja rzeźb Jerzego Beresia w Muzeum Sztuki w Łodzi [The Collection of Sculpture by Jerzy Bereś in the Museum of Art in Łódź], in: Jerzy Bereś, Rzeźby…, op. cit. In the funny DIPLOMATIC PING-PONG (1970), hitting a bail attached to a wooden pole would move a stone that very noisily hits two skillets. The STAR (1970) with the rays of penises and the DESK (1970-1971) with parted woman’s legs stowed how sex relates to career and success. The TROTTER (1971) was a device which might dully participate in a parade, holding a banner, while the RAG (1971) had a rag attached to a shaft ending with a hand that might be shaken. The LOLLI-POP (1971) was a leather tongue attached to wooden buttocks. Apart from political allusions, all those funny objects, intended to be “operated” by the audience, expressed crucial moral meanings. The author introduced them in a quite drastic way, e.g., replicating genitals or buttocks. He did it as if by analogy to old sayings which could contain four-letter words. On the other hand, the objects themselves suggested the street and marketplace art of jugglers and mountebanks, even though their content alluded to the most important problems of a society depraved by communism. The combination of inscriptions and objects and their contextual animation turned works of art into mobile symbols. Faithful to his raw and direct poetics, in the objects gouged in wood and operated like archaic folk toys, Bereś manipulated several layers of meaning simultaneously. That brought him close to the poetry of Barańczak, Kornhauser, and Krynicki who would some time later try to juxtapose various methods of language manipulation in order to indicate the stifling mechanisms of totalitarianism. The “New Wave” poets would often employ drastic or even trivial effects, putting them on the same level with ideological pomp. Bereś’s toy-sculptures, bringing to mind the official folk art, seem to use the mystification of the folk culture to denounce ideological forgery, the danger of commercialization of art, various forms of corruption, and the lack of honour. Cracking jokes which were centuries old and using seemingly “safe” ethnographic models, the artist would supplement them with up-to-date commentaries. Such a blend of the ludic and the ironic, the trivial and the sublime, Bereś expressed also in his subsequent works. However, as a particular result of “animating” those funny, noisy, but always somewhat mysterious instruments-sculptures, the artist started expanding in time the very process of construction (including the “construction” of meanings). What had already been anticipated before, become more and more actual: the temptation to use the “symbols-moments” to project “possible” events.
III. MYTHIC TIME, REAL TIME
The time spent on constructing works of art, celebrated during actions in public, was important already in the PROPHECIES from 1968. Bereś started arranging his shows as characteristic mysteries of creation, when the act of creation was executed as a symbolic sacrifice of the artist in the parts of the spectacle which might be both sublime and beautiful. Moreover, the actions might include many critical allusions and ironic touches like those to be found earlier in the tools-symbols. The commentary expressed by the whole sequence would interfere with the surrounding reality and become a prophecy. TRANSFIGURATIONS from the early seventies marked the beginning of a somewhat ceremonious approach which consisted not only in the artist’s modifying and transforming various, usually natural and very simple activities, but also in his attempts to translate into each other different spheres of reality as if they were languages. The expectations of the audience would be translated into actions, and the selection of elements (wood, wine) would receive equivalents in the form of symbolic, pictorial “quartering” of the artist’s body, thus somehow turning into an object of sacrifice. The celebration, extended in time, was translated into sequences of chips, table or glasses, the liquid would correspond with the raiment, and nakedness with fire. In 1973, during a manifestation called AUCTION in the Cracow “Pi” Gallery, after a three-day action the author’s personality metaphorically “transformed” into a bundle of wood. Having auctioned it off, the artist purchased the wood and burned it, stressing the irrelevance of the object itself. In 1974, a week-long, complicated manifestation THE WOODEN ROAD, executed in Gruga Park in Essen, included a series of stations-altars which were an aggregate of thematic objects to be operated by the audience. Among other things, they denounced the hypocrisy of art trade. In the same year, in the Warsaw Palace of Science and Culture Bereś made the ALTAR OF THE FACE, constructed in such a manner that after raising a table top, one might see a trace of the burned face, and simultaneously a sound of the gong was to be heard.11J. Bereś, Zwidy, Wyrocznie, Ołtarze, op. cit.
The problem of face became then quite acute, especially that the “loss of face” was a common thing in Gierek’s Poland. The artist not only objected to an avalanche of lies with respect to the “collective portrait of Poles”. But also referred to the idea of honour, so significant in our national heritage. In 1975, the FACE became the subject matter of a big manifestation arranged by Bereś in the Cracow Szadkowski factory, described by the author himself in the following words:
I transformed a symbolic wheelbarrow, that I had brought into the factory from the outside, into a table with various tools by means of which the audience – mostly workers – could replicate a leaflet with an inscription “face.” Then they could take it home as a souvenir. I changed the nutritional function of bread into the aesthetic one – the audience could see slices of bread painted blue and neatly arranged on the BEAUTIFUL ALTAR, and finally the viewers could drink my “transubstantiated” personality at the PURE ALTAR, which they – invited – did.12M. Bieganowski (ed.), [untitled], op. cit.
In a similar sense, the FACE became the main hero of Bereś’s action in Zamość, where in the finale of LAP OF HONOR in the Renaissance marketplace (November 1975) a wheelbarrow, turned upside down, became a tool to stamp souvenir prints with the “face.” This is how the event was reported:
The first few “souvenirs” were made by Bereś himself, and then the prints could be made by members of the audience. Bereś comes up to the ALTAR OF CREATION. He chops a log, lights the fire. Then he burns in the fire his wooden raiment. The action, which lasted about 20 minutes, is over. Bereś leaves the market. He enters the BWA office. The “production” of souvenirs continues.13A. Mroczek, [untitled], in: J. Bereś, Runda honorowa [Lap of Honor] (a report from the action in Zamość), BWA, Lublin, 1976.
Bereś was walking around the Zamość market all naked in the November chill, and under the crust suspense was growing in the country. Which was really absurd?
As a pilgrim mixing epochs and conventions the artist would more and more often perform naked. His nakedness was partly related to the full incorporation of the body as a formal element (object) of action, but it was also a symbolic field of sacrifice gestures (e.g., painting the body, its metaphorical “dissection”, etc.). Such direct demonstration of proceeding with the work in progress has its logical roots in the tools-symbols. It corresponds to the performance of such sculptors as Beuys. The use of the body and nakedness provokes associations with Klein, the Viennese Actionists or Brisley. However, Bereś (unlike Nitsch or Brisley) never practices “psycho-physical naturalism” or teases the public with his sexuality as Abramović, Wilkie or Ontani. What the Polish artist evidently develops in his works are the possibilities of the “ritual” inherent in the very idea of exposing one’s nakedness.14K. Coutts-Smith, Role Art and Social Context, in: A. A. Bronson and P. Gale, Performance by Artists, Toronto 1979, p. 230. In this respect, he is close to action artists from other countries. Besides, Bereś would often use red and white colours, in various ways marking the body with Polish national symbolism. He himself emphasized it that nakedness expressed his endeavor to make the activities performed during actions as pure as possible, honest, and truthful.15J. Bereś, I Am Not a Sculptor, op. cit. Some believe that in the present situation nakedness used in art may turn out a trap or result in tragic and grotesque effects (particularly on TV or on videotape).16K. Czerni, Wiara (w sztukę) czyni cuda [Faith (in Art) Works Wonders], Znak 1993, no 458 (7, July), p. 67. In my opinion though, Bereś’s nakedness has still another aspect. In a comprehensive and complex program including many works of art and frequent repetitions, the artist’s nakedness may be an attempt to avoid excessive formalism and aestheticism. One’s own body excludes temptations to use ornaments. It appears that human body, changing in time and turning less and less beautiful, but always inevitably natural, may and does have an important function in that type of “art of prophecy” as a link between mythic and real time. It is needless to add that Bereś’s nakedness was often derided by the communist media and that it was a convenient pretext to ban and censor his art. One might say though: Let’s not deride this nakedness, as the laughter of history may get us one of these days too.
Since 1975 Bereś has been violating another taboo, calling his actions masses (cf. REFLECTIVE MASS at the Szadkowski factory in 1975, and then ARTISTIC MASS at the Jaszczury club in Cracow in 1977.) The term “mass”, like “nakedness” before, provoked serious controversies, and even attacks of the Catholic Church. Thus far reserved for Catholic and Orthodox liturgy, the word definitely has its history of blasphemy and desacralization which, however, has nothing to do with Bereś’s activities. He was frequently accused of abusing religion, for, indeed, he would use some attributes of the mass (e.g., the gesture of drinking wine and breaking bread at the altar). Defending himself against the charge of blasphemy, he wrote that he had not meant to enter a dispute with the Church and that he treated the whole problem very seriously, referring to Christ who had shown that sacrifice is continuous, it has been consummated again and again.17Ibidem., p. 66. A unique achievement seems to have been the ROMANTIC MASS from the Krzysztofory Gallery (1978), presented ten years after the first PROPHECY. Bereś took off one by one twenty-one the canvas documents of previous manifestations and signed each of them. The twenty first document was his own body which he signed as well. Having put on a sheet with an inscription SACRIFICE, he chopped wood and lit a fire on an especially prepared ALTAR OF FULFILLMENT. The dramatically rising flame slowly began to burn through the transverse board of the Altar’s construction. After a long while […] of waiting in silence, the board burned through and at the same moment two large, crooked logs simultaneously hit like hammers a metal gong placed under the top of the ALTAR OF FULFILLMENT.18J. Bereś, Msza Romantyczna [Romantic Mass] (a report from the action), Krzysztofory, Cracow 1980.
And even though the next stage was pouring wine and painting flowers on a white robe which was incorporated into the structure of the ALTAR OF FULFILLMENT left as a sculpture, the most essential element was the dramatic sound of the gong – the climax of the composition. It was a proof of a perfectly utilitarian prediction of an effect.
A series of important manifestations, referred to as MYSTERIES I – VIII, was presented by Bereś during his pilgrim’s wandering all over Great Britain in 1979. Using a universal word “opus” to define a combination of space and time in the actions, the artist focused his activities on a subject of the necessity of passing judgment – a problem which then became essential in art because of the rising wave of “anything goes.” At the turn of the ninth decade, apart from the manifestations, Bereś exhibited autonomous sculptures called “altars”, e.g., the ALTAR OF CHANGES and the ALTAR OF FULFILLMENT.
After various kinds of harassment, the year 1981 opened for the artist new possibilities of presenting his actions in public. In November 1981 Bereś had the opportunity to execute one of his most important manifestations, pushing his ROMANTIC CART around the Main Market in Cracow and subsequently lighting the Fires of Hope, Freedom, Dignity, and Truth. Lighting each fire, he would hang on the cart a small bell. The cart itself (made already in 1975) was not in good shape and thus – according to Bereś’s intention – proved very difficult to move. But thanks to the bells, it became a bizarre vehicle that conveyed something about darkness which was also communicated by the fires. The impression made by Bereś’s fires on accidentally gathered audience must have returned in the icy half-reality of martial law that was imposed soon after the action.
In the years 1982-1984, Bereś, as he put it himself, did not gain much success in boycott, although he was showing his works almost exclusively at closed events or at the exhibitions organized under the auspices of the Catholic Church. At that time he would produce “workshop” pieces, relatively static and replete with many symbols. This is how he wrote about a new wave of workshop concentration:
The possibility of conjuring subjective meanings in pieces wood so that they would acquire material durability became – as never before – a matter of utmost importance. Right outside of the studio was the rule of pure objectivity consisting in total objectification.19J. Bereś, Zwidy, Wyrocznie, Ołtarze, op. cit.
The works made in that period were distinctly ancillary to ideas: STIGMA (1982), BOYCOTT (1986) or PRAYER (1986). The POLITICAL ALTAR from 1982 consisted of two opening canvas wings drawn to the ground by a stone. TRANCE from 1983 has hussar’s wings, but they do not fly up either. The FOLK ALTAR (1984) is a sort of anthology of intertwined signs of the times: (“S”, “V”, an anchor, a cross) with some white and red ribbons. One of the more interesting objects from 1988 is a board as a kneeling torso with the inscription Stand Up. If properly supported with a stick-on top of which there is a banner with an outline of the face, the sculpture magically “stands up,” which seems to be an allusion to the appeal from Zbigniew Herbert’s poem: Walk upright among these who are on their knees20S. Barańczak (ed.) op. cit., p. 211. that became so relevant in the last stage of the struggle for freedom. In comparison to the anti-consumerist subjects of the seventies, after 1980 Bereś introduced more and more references to Polish struggle against totalitarianism.
In the two recent decades some of the artist’s manifestations attract attention by playing with the issues of art theory. Bereś would consider and visually demonstrate concepts such as “work”, “subject and object in art”, “the act of creation”, and “art as merchandise.” In fact, since the 1968 PROPHECY he kept asking the questions about the work of art, creation, and the limits of art. Now, however, the artist would concentrate on such topics much more openly. In 1981 in Lublin he demonstrated I DIALOGUE WITH MARCEL DUCHAMP, reversing a well-known motif of the master playing chess with a naked (nude) woman. Bereś reversed the situation: nude (that is, naked) himself, he played chess with a dressed girl – the reversal was to make the audience aware of the changing roles of subject and object in art, a phenomenon characteristic of his works in general. In 1988 in London, during II DIALOGUE WITH MARCEL DUCHAMP, naked Bereś played chess with himself, taking turns on both sides of the chessboard and painting his body white and red.21This is a reference to the role of the artist’s body as it was understood by W. Sharp (Body Works, Avalanche, Fall 1970, p. 6). In that way he expressed what he had also felt before in 1968. It was an act confirming the marvellous sense of being a subject and an object simultaneously. The colours of the Polish flag were supplemented will an appeal to Margaret Thatcher to annul the infamous division of Europe sanctioned in Yalta. In 1991 in the Cracow Krzysztofory Gallery Bereś presented a DIALOGUE WITH KANTOR. An essential element of the action was painting on his naked torso an inscription THEATER OF LIFE. During the ceremony, holding a “Gordian” knot, the artist insisted that the most genuine of Kantor’s achievements was “what he had created in living people.”
Also more recently, Bereś has not given up his role of an “annoying” mocker. Once he explicitly supported the “war at the top” initiated by Lech Wałęsa and symbolized by a small axe (a tool quite familiar to a sculptor). On another occasion he provoked a discussion on the fundamentals of the work (or judgment), attacking the purchase of a failed painting by Andrzej Wróblewski by the National Museum in Cracow.22Pocztylion Muz [Postman of the Muses], Gazeta w Krakowie, March 15. 1994. In April 1994, in the Warsaw Zachęta Gallery he presented a work called RZECZ NIEPOSPOLITA, preceded by a manifestation with a garland made of copies of the daily “Rzeczpospolita” – the idea was to foreground the “unique” in Polish culture, that which constitutes our specific identity. [This untranslatable pun is based on a double meaning of the Polish word “rzeczpospolita” which means “republic”, or, literally, “common thing.” Bereś manifested for the “uncommon”, i.e., “unique” element in the culture of Poland – officially called the Polish Republic. – trans.] In October 1994 in Lublin he rolled into a gallery THE ROLLER OF JUDGMENT, writing on his naked body the words “either or” signifying the situation of a dilemma. In that particular action the artist claimed an urgent necessity of “judgment” supplemented with an ocular demonstration of the difference between works and trash. In a sense, calling to save the world from the avalanche of garbage, Bereś plays the role of Cassandra.
- ACTIVE NATURE
Acting in a manner characteristic of someone who knows the natural (read: real) cycles of life, Bereś has been ceaselessly indicating in his works that the natural rhythm, that is, time, is an oracle as well as a fundamental argument for the necessity of passing judgment.23Words of the artist recorded in 1992. That is why all his art, which is a kind of ongoing prophesy, has been continuously directing the acts of judgment. The target has been all the false dialectics of art and social life promulgated by those who are misled by appearances and surfaces.
Adopting a prehistoric or a-historic, i.e., a zero-attitude, which is perhaps just an attitude concordant with nature. Bereś does not deny the theses of “endism.” His exploration of various realms of cultural stratification; prehistory or the problems of Poland, sometimes seem to be incoherent. But do we really know what it means to be lost in history or – conversely – to abandon it? “Just watch the imp of timer – that’s the advice which the artist seems to offer us.
He knows that when the philosopher says that at the moment when the transcendental becomes the concrete one should stop thinking, for the [artist]… this is the proper time to become active.24Ibidem. The artist molds his works from concrete, available materials. For Bereś, the most important is the crude stuff as well as his own body. Still, the most essential substance of his art have been natural processes: trees, and not wood; hardness and weight, and not stones; burning, and not fire, etc. Participating in a sequence of events, he only “takes out” some element of the already concretized transcendences. Building his chair, a brother from the sect of Shakers repeats a perfect shape which has been created years ago, so he acts as though “outside of history.” To him, the more useful the work is, the more beautiful it is too. Bereś has been creating his simple works according to a principle that value depends on the degree of fidelity to the truth of time – both the bygone and that which is to come.
To enter an effective dialogue with a unique piece of nature, or the unique quality of a given moment in time and the place of action, one needs an equally unique stage of the creative condition which, moreover, burns out as the work comes into being.25J. Bereś, Dokumenty i prace, op. cit.
Thus, in his actions the artist definitely is a medium or a sacrifice. He is never conceited enough to govern the elements or processes – he just brings them in the open. His attitude does not flourish on the fatalism of events, as it consists in “recording” only. Quite on the contrary: exposing various sources of danger allows one to direct reactions so that the worst may be avoided, as we have known for centuries from the Chinese Book of Changes.
Bereś’s program includes also “coping with nature.” I do not want nature to turn into material submitted to the creative intention, he wrote.26Ibidem. In this struggle, nature as “natura naturans” (active nature) has a chance. Although Bereś is right to avoid cheap ecological rhetoric, throughout all his artistic career he has been collecting processual transformations which take place in nature (also in the nature of people and of art). Paraphrasing Emerson, one might say that in felled trees, ashes, piles, and traces the artist has been noticing enormous possibilities of prophesying, since what is ciphered in them are processes, i.e., certain and useful results.27R. W. Emerson, Nature and Thought, Tauchnitz, Leipzig 1915, p. 33.
In his work on meaningful shapes Bereś has been referring to such aesthetic categories as beauty or the sublime (to hold to the traditional distinction considered by Burke28Cf. E. Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Oxford University Press, Oxford-New York 1990 [1st ed. 1757]. and then extended by Lyotard29Cf. articles and books by this author, e. g. J.-F. Lyotard, Presenting the Unpresentable: the Sublime, Artforum, vol. 20, 1982 no. 8, (April), pp. 64-69. to pertain to contemporary art as well). The sculptures made by the artist have their charm and prove an amazing degree of control over his craft. If they contain an element of “inefficiency”, it may just as well be deliberate, as, for instance, in the case of the ROMANTIC CART from 1975. In some of them Bereś might use “precision” and “beauty” (BEAUTIFUL ALTAR). More monumental compositions reveal a much larger scale of tensions and prehistoric mysteriousness. Such are also Bereś’s actions: during a “Mass” or a “Manifestation” one may see picturesque fire, the body or wood are covered with pretty colours, and simultaneously – alluding to the idea of catharsis – the artist may introduce some dramatic suspense. What is most original in Bereś’s art, drawing both from Polish romanticism and from the achievements of contemporary sculpture, is a specific and unique idea of prophesy.
In the case of Bereś, this phantom-prophesying seems to be a type of activity, or even a semi-automatic repertoire of instruments, a way of responding to the world (with all that “annoying”, manifestoes, declarations “out of the blue”, etc.). In itself, such an attitude is nothing new, since we know many kinds of prophesying, from Jakob Böhme through the romantics to Witkacy. But Bereś executes his operations by giving them shapes: he stretches them in space, combines in temporal sequences. Lyotard realized that the sublime as the aim of the avant-garde increases the temperature of works of art. And whereas the romantics would say “the sublime is now”, the avant-garde would choose a more megalomanic slogan, this is the sublime.30J.-F. Lyotard, quoted after: A. Kostołowski, Rozbita klepsydra [A Broken Sandglass], Format 1992, no. 1-2 [6-7]. In both cases we deal with what so much fascinated Malraux: representing the unrepresentable, communicating the incommunicable. Impossibility reaches the peak and becomes possible so abruptly, that then one may only expect a descent and the reduction of suspense. However, Bereś does not choose as his principal objective either artificial boosting of the atmosphere of creation or declarations such as: “Look at my work – it is sublime!” Thus, he reaches beyond the sublimity of the moment itself. His actions, even these which are intended to “wake up” the audience (cf. the ALARM-CLOCK from 1977, and all the skillets, bells, and gongs) each time become only anticipations. They prefigure something much more important and truthful than creation, pertaining to real life.
At this point one should stress the fact that prophesying in art is not literal representing of future events, but only generating a certain aura in which the artist and the recipient take part in a mystery showing real, and not just external metamorphoses of the times. Artists are able, as it were, to condense the view of these metamorphoses31Cf. A. Kostołowski, O znaczeniu Grupy Krakowskiej [On the Significance of the Cracow Group], in: J. Chrobak (ed.), Grupa Krakowska [Cracow Group] (exhibition catalogue), Nowy Sącz 1988., and Bereś does it in a masterful way. His prophetism may then be regarded as a unique achievement, and one may perhaps venture a radical claim that he is one of the most important figures in the 20th century art.
To sum up – at least tentatively – the above remarks, one may say that, first, Bereś’s prophecies are evidently rooted in the 19th century Polish culture. Germans and the French were satisfied with the sublime, but Polish romantics needed also pilgrimage, prophesy, and the prefiguration of national revival. Without a stretch of free soil, with the nation subjugated by the neighbouring states, Michałowski, Mickiewicz, Słowacki, Krasiński as well as Norwid combined their creative ecstasy with patriotic didacticism and the attempts to struggle for hope (or the hope for struggle). Almost the same refers to Bereś: painting on his body a white and red pattern, he does not stain or ridicule Poland – quite on the contrary: he does only a part of what has been dictated to him by the course of events.
Second, in the artists predictions the elements of his great mastery consist above all in the materialization in his art of what is just about to begin. His actions are like riding a cart which can no longer be stopped, and which for sure will bring us right to the historic moments – as in the years 1968, 1975, 1981, and 1989. That is why, seen from this point of view. Bereś’s works resemble pointed ends or those elements of the dramatic phenomena which run ahead of them – in a sense, the artist practices a “pars pro toto” magic.
Third, in all his programmatic backwardness, using the vestiges of the long gone past (and even the past perfect tense), often standing naked in the position of a debutante, Bereś proves that in such a way he is more likely to attain the horizon beyond which important processes are to be seen. Withdrawing far back in time, or even trying to reach “above time”, the artist knows that what he does is more poignant and clearer. If he had limited himself to the current repertoire of props, he would have achieved a result opposite to the desired one. Fourth, emphasizing a dialogue or a dispute with the audience, Bereś receives from the viewers a lot, and as a medium he materializes some thoughts of the surrounding people.
Fifth, at last – in his art Bereś has been exploiting “what is in the air”, i.e., the elements of what is just about to happen. And perhaps because he interferes with the processes of an active nature, he knows that his sacrifice is necessary: an artist-subject transformed in a ceremonial object.32J. Bereś, Zwidy, Wyrocznie, Ołtarze, op. cit. Demonstrating humility, he has been arranging his manifestations or masses with the hope to communicate and not for the sake of pure pleasure of action. Since he is uncompromising, the significance of what he does may occasionally irritate or embarrass some recipients. Bereś’s actions are often “lost” in time, deliberately strange or ridiculous. But it is never quite certain that we ourselves are not even stranger, more amusing or more trivial. We’d better not slight the giggle of time!
translated by Marek Wilczyński
- 1Cf. e. g. the following texts by Jerzy Bereś: Nie jestem rzeźbiarzem [I am not a Sculptor], ed. A. Lisowski, Odra, 1978 no 11; Dokumenty i prace [Documents and Works], BWA, Piła 1980; M. Bieganowski (ed.) [untitled], Zakład nad Fosą, Wrocław 1980; Nowa treść [New Content], Galeria Krzysztofory, Cracow 1986; Zwidy, Wyrocznie, Ołtarze [Phantoms, Oracles, Altars], Stowarzyszenie Artystyczne Grupa Krakowska, Cracow 1991; Jerzy Bereś. Rzeźby… Prace ze zbiorów Muzeum Sztuki z Łodzi [Sculpture… Works from the Collection of Museum of Art in Łódź], BWA, Częstochowa 1993.
- 2R. Krynicki, I naprawdę nie wiedzieliśmy [And We Really Didn’t Know] (1978), quoted after: S. Barańczak (ed.), Poeta pamięta. Antologia poezji świadectwa i sprzeciwu [The Poet Remembers. An Anthology of Poetry as Testimony and Resistance], Puls, London 1984, p. 307.
- 3A. Matuszewski, VIII Pokaz Synkretyczny Włodzimierza Borowskiego [VII Syncretic Show by Włodzimierz Borowski], in: P. Piotrowski (ed.) Galeria od Nowa 1964-1969, katalog wystawy [od Nowa Gallery 1964-1969, exhibition catalogue], National Museum, Poznań 1993.
- 4W. Borowski, Akt twórczy Jerzego Beresia [The Creative Act of Jerzy Bereś], Współczesność 1968 no. 6, (February).
- 5M. Bieganowski (ed.), [untitled], op. cit.
- 6S. Papp, Rzeźby Jerzego Beresia [Sculpture by Jerzy Bereś], Współczesność 1965 (July).
- 7J. Bereś, Zwid wielki [Great Phantom], in: Jerzy Bereś, Rzeźby…, op. cit.
- 9J. Bereś, Dokumenty i prace, op. cit.
- 10J. Ładnowska, Kolekcja rzeźb Jerzego Beresia w Muzeum Sztuki w Łodzi [The Collection of Sculpture by Jerzy Bereś in the Museum of Art in Łódź], in: Jerzy Bereś, Rzeźby…, op. cit.
- 11J. Bereś, Zwidy, Wyrocznie, Ołtarze, op. cit.
- 12M. Bieganowski (ed.), [untitled], op. cit.
- 13A. Mroczek, [untitled], in: J. Bereś, Runda honorowa [Lap of Honor] (a report from the action in Zamość), BWA, Lublin, 1976.
- 14K. Coutts-Smith, Role Art and Social Context, in: A. A. Bronson and P. Gale, Performance by Artists, Toronto 1979, p. 230.
- 15J. Bereś, I Am Not a Sculptor, op. cit.
- 16K. Czerni, Wiara (w sztukę) czyni cuda [Faith (in Art) Works Wonders], Znak 1993, no 458 (7, July), p. 67.
- 17Ibidem., p. 66.
- 18J. Bereś, Msza Romantyczna [Romantic Mass] (a report from the action), Krzysztofory, Cracow 1980.
- 19J. Bereś, Zwidy, Wyrocznie, Ołtarze, op. cit.
- 20S. Barańczak (ed.) op. cit., p. 211.
- 21This is a reference to the role of the artist’s body as it was understood by W. Sharp (Body Works, Avalanche, Fall 1970, p. 6).
- 22Pocztylion Muz [Postman of the Muses], Gazeta w Krakowie, March 15. 1994.
- 23Words of the artist recorded in 1992.
- 25J. Bereś, Dokumenty i prace, op. cit.
- 27R. W. Emerson, Nature and Thought, Tauchnitz, Leipzig 1915, p. 33.
- 28Cf. E. Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Oxford University Press, Oxford-New York 1990 [1st ed. 1757].
- 29Cf. articles and books by this author, e. g. J.-F. Lyotard, Presenting the Unpresentable: the Sublime, Artforum, vol. 20, 1982 no. 8, (April), pp. 64-69.
- 30J.-F. Lyotard, quoted after: A. Kostołowski, Rozbita klepsydra [A Broken Sandglass], Format 1992, no. 1-2 [6-7].
- 31Cf. A. Kostołowski, O znaczeniu Grupy Krakowskiej [On the Significance of the Cracow Group], in: J. Chrobak (ed.), Grupa Krakowska [Cracow Group] (exhibition catalogue), Nowy Sącz 1988.
- 32J. Bereś, Zwidy, Wyrocznie, Ołtarze, op. cit.