Andrzej Kostołowski: Time and Statics (1990)

(The text was published in exhibition catalogue: Jerzy Bereś. Phantoms, Oracles, Altars, BWA Lublin Gallery, Lublin 1990)


If we assume that the works of some twentieth century artists can be labelled as surrealistic then by analogy the works of Jerzy Bereś of the last thirty years can be called super practice. It would be like that despite the fact that from an institutional point of view this Cracovian sculptor works within the sphere of pure art. What does the intensified utility of Bereś’s works consist in?

In the first place it is an area within which certain traditions of the crafts are employed or even monumentalized to attribute to sculptures the features of pseudo ancient and mysterious instruments. Starting with his earliest works of the end of the fifties the practical sense of the folk carving of holy images, carpentering or quasi joiner’s tinkering acquired the sublime character of the most significant and as if supernatural activities. The works of that period (Wyrocznie/Oracles, Zwidy/Phantoms ) possessed the sacral features of wayside crucifixes and the magical archaic characteristics of hardly hewn poles or logs, bound with an inner bark or rope, wedged up, covered with fabrics, hollowed out and fastened with stones, tightened or leaning on one another and interdependent, constituting as if some kind of gigantic amulets and at the same time tools. Tools are not made to be beautiful but for practical purposes… to be functional. Bereś explores the sense of space and skills of constructing typical to peasants. His decisions of a sculptor are genuine and straightforward – devoid of coquetry.1S. Papp, Rzeźby Jerzego Beresia [Sculptures of Jerzy Bereś], Współczesność, June 211965. These sculptures explicitly exposing wood in log and other raw materials stood out against the fancy and decorative background of the art of the fifties and sixties evidently. Displaying the practical skills of a Carpathian carpenter he started to negate them when it turned out that these would-be instruments did not serve any concrete purpose. These works that appear to keep hardly together and face the catastrophe of falling into pieces (although as a matter of fact they operated on extremely well balanced elements and usually were static) had not got any sense from the point of view of the instrumental utility. The artist used to emphasize this lack or sense(!). Expatiating on Ptaszkowska’s considerations we can assume that Bereś knew that by making his usefully constructed objects completely useless he „could save them” because he was able to give them more creative meaning than the one ordinary wells or ploughs are attributed to.

And here we arrive at the second point of the accumulated utility of Bereś’s art. More analytic look at his sculptures (especially in the retrospective view of nearly thirty years) allows to make a remark that they initiated Jerzy Bereś’s artistic road – a line of the gradual as if enlivening of amulets-instruments and sculptures – tools followed by the real setting them in motion on the turn of the sixties and seventies (Wózek/Cart, Klaskacz/Clapper, Ping-pong dyplomatyczny/Diplomatic Ping-Pong, Stół okrągły/Round Table). Some of them as sculptures-vehicles performed their miraculous laps. Some others marked positively with inscriptions were frequently noisy objects revealing their magical and mocking deception but at the same time they were situational comments on some situations (Wahadło/Pendulum, Dźwignia/Lever, Kołowrót/ Turnpike, Dreptak/Trotterer, Gwiazda/Star, Szmata/Rag, Normalizator/ Normalizer). From the rays of Gwiazda/Star that represent penises to the literal Szmata/Rag attached to a flag-staff ended with a hand to shake or Dreptak /Trotterer – a device for a dull participation in a parade with the flag. The clash of inscriptions, objects and setting them in motion in certain situations were of bitingly denouncing character with no doubt. Without losing anything from his coarse and direct poetics Bereś as if simultaneously manipulated on several levels of meaning with these objects that were carved in wood and set in motion just like old folk toys. It brought him close to poetic experiments of Stanisław Barańczak, Ryszard Krynicki and Julian Kornhauser who juxtaposed various kind of the manipulation on language to demonstrate the choking mechanism of false ideologies some years later. These poets did not avoid any drastic trivialities and eagerly compared them with the ideological buffoonery. It is just like in the case of Bereś’s Gwiazda/Star – only a certain number of turned upright penises guarantees its high position in the sky.

Sublimity and triviality, ceremoniousness and peasants’ style, ritual and irony – all these are incorporated in other works of Bereś. However, a special consequence of setting in motion these humorous but at the same time pervaded with some kind of mysteriousness instruments-sculptures was that the artist started to expand the process of constructing them stretching it in time. Time devoted to the construction of works was celebrated during public actions and became as important as static objects or even more important. Bereś started to assign this time to carrying out the mysteries of creation within the sphere of which a creative act itself became idealized as the opposite to approaching art as a commodity. This contestation of art as a set of products brought Bereś close to “happening” (but only in this respect) that started to develop at that time having Tadeusz Kantor as its outstanding representative. But considering the full purposefulness and even semi rituality of Bereś’s precisely arranged actions (that distinctly differs them from the desacralizing “conjurations of the spirit of catastrophe”) we can notice without any doubts that they are independent of current slogans.

And finally, to the third point: sculptures themselves and everything that relates to setting them in motion reveal their sphere of practical sense that is deeper than the craft: prophetic character. I shall make bold to say that in the area of art prophecy and forecast (anticipation) do not concern the literal presentation of future events but it is rather the evocation of some kind of the atmosphere that surrounds both an artist and audience when they participate in a mystery revealing the real (as the opposite to superficial) transformation of a given period of time. Artists are able to condense their look at such transformations of time in artworks.2A. Kostołowski, O znaczeniu Grupy Krakowskiej [About the Significance of the Cracow Group], in: Grupa Krakowska [Cracow Group], ed. By J. Chrobak, Nowy Sącz 1988.

Zwidy/Phantoms as the ruffled visions provoked the audience to ask the question „what is it?” and then due to the fact that the puzzle was composed of purely functionable elements and could not be solved they allowed the people to answer the question themselves.3J. Bereś, (…), in: M. Bieganowski, ed. by Jerzy Bereś, Zakład nad Fosą, Wrocław 1981. On the other hand Zwidy/Phantoms as well as Wyrocznie/Oracles were specters-forecasts that is signals or auguries. Through the peasants’ elements and apparent situating himself out of time (or simply moving back that is staying behind the times on purpose) Bereś succeeded in keeping away from presumptuous up-to-dateness although he accurately employed the trivial attributes characteristic to modern time and he situated the idea of his sculpture not forgetting about the reducible potentialities of modern art (that gets rid of mimesis and pompousness of historicism). In the sixties the counterculture and the collapse of belief in dull progress confirmed the perspicacious character of Bereś’s poetics. No wonder that the hippies assumed him to be their mentor.

From the very beginning the artist recognized the essential role of an audience in the whole thing and therefore he went on revealing more and more evidently not only the principles of the creation of his works but also leaving to an audience setting them in motion. What would be oracles and forecasts if they were not directed to anybody? Due to the fact that gradually the life in our country was becoming more and more absurd, the atmosphere was becoming more and more (stuffy) oppressive and the hard shell we were to walk started to crack a new enormous area of potentiates opened for such a sculptor-prophet like Bereś. Everything started to turn upside down proving that he was right with his creative mysteries and his giggling from before the centuries began to be normal and practical. On the other hand, his audience played its innumerable roles in the theatre of the absurdities of our everyday life (it concerned Bereś, too). All that resulted in the following situation: the more he was withdrawing from the reality and going back to the pre-industrial epoch the more up-to-date he was becoming or as if foreseeing the events visually because he was able to receive the real signals, not only the superficiality of appearances or manners. It was not at all by accident that his art acquired more sincerity and simplicity. To emphasize it expressively he started to perform naked. The nakedness of the artist is as if intensified purity and detachment from caricature masks of the so-called reality around. Looking at Bereś’s decisions from the perspective of today we begin to notice that they are too much greater extent situated in real time, not the one measured by formal dialectics. Przepowiednia I/Prophecy I presented in Foksal Gallery in January 1968 was such an Orwellian vivisection that is “manipulation on real time”. The artist was unwrapping himself from the white and red fabric (the colours of the Polish flag) while laboriously selecting a pile of wood, the tree was just brought from Łazienki Park. The fabric turned out to be a string of an enormous bow formed with the selected branches. Eventually Bereś himself became a part of the bow. For a moment he was motionless and then started to leave his marks on it. (Bereś) escaped (here) the display of his efficiency, he did not brought about the impression that he shared out his secrets or presented technical tricks4W. Borowski, „Akt twórczy” Jerzego Beresia [“Creative act” by Jerzy Bereś], Współczesność, February 1968., but he received the secrets from the audience and was becoming its victim (sacrifice). By involving in this action the Polish problem (white and red colours), his attitude towards nature (tree, wood) and himself (as a part of the process as well as the sacrifice) he made a really giant gesture so that everything that happened soon afterwards was only as if atrocious obviousness compared with it.

At that time Bereś started to act just like a Polish romantic artist. While in other European countries romantic artists persisted in creating independent art the great national poets of Poland (Adam Mickiewicz, Zygmunt Krasiński, Juliusz Słowacki and Cyprian Kamil Norwid) were concerned with continuous attempts at including patriotic contexts in their artistic passions. They loaded their works with some kind of didacticism and it resulted in the absolutely original artistic interpretation which without “national” elements would be incomplete. I should not hesitate to draw a comparison between these great national poets of Poland and Jerzy Bereś (under the stipulation that Stanisław Wyspiański, the modernist, would be included in this group, too). This explicit action that took place in Foksal Gallery initiates the course of ventures called masses, rituals, rounds and manifestations. Three motives can be distinguished there: 1) a work is constructed in such a way as to evoke the recurring question concerning the boundaries of art 2) material elements (wood, bread, wine, fire, the body of the artist), despite the fact that they appear repeatedly, are used in such a way that processes characteristic to the time of a given action are condensed in these mysteries 3) a dialogue with the audience (it does not have to be conscious for the audience) is carried in such a way that the most sensitive people and the artist himself gather what is most valuable from it. Some ventures or their effects are strange, annoying and funny on purpose. But it is never certain that we are not more trivial, funny and strange. Do not ignore the giggling of time – Bereś seems to go on telling this. And I should say he is right.

Transfiguracje /Transfigurations of the beginning of the seventies assumed a shape of a certain ceremoniousness within the frames of which the artist not only divided, transposed and transformed various pretty natural and very simple objects and acts each time but he also attempted at translating different spheres of reality into one another (as if they were languages). Expectations of the audience translated into actions, selections of elements (wood, wine) were satisfied with the equivalents in the form of symbolic pictorial quartering of the artist’s body that constituted a metaphoric sacrifice. The long-lasting solemn performance was translated into static sequences of chips, tables and glasses; liquid was translated by clothes, nakedness by fire. Against the background of the situation at that time Bereś’s manifestations turn out to be more and more practical as well as real. Such vivifying level-headedness is demonstrated in the case of “Twarz”/Face that became a great subject of the action that took place in 1975. Bereś described his manifestation in the Szadkowski Factory in Cracow in the following way: I transformed symbolic wheel-barrows which I had pushed into the factory into the table that provided tools enabling the audience (composed of workers mainly) to produce leaflets with an inscription „face” to be taken home for a keepsake. I transformed the consumable function of bread into the aesthetic one; the audience could see the slices of bread painted blue and arranged carefully on the “Ołtarz Piękny”/Beautiful Altar. Finally, the people could drink my “transubstantiated” personality at “Ołtarz Czysty”/Pure Alter. I invited them to drink it and they accepted it.5J. Bereś, op. cit. “Face” became the protagonist element of Bereś’s action called Runda Honorowa/Lap of Honour. It took place in the renaissance Market square in Zamość in November 1975. At the end of this action the wheel-barrow was turned upside down to become an instrument to make „face” stamps for a keepsake. As it was vividly described: First Bereś makes some keepsakes himself and then everybody can make stamps personally. Bereś approaches “Otłarz Kreacji”/Altar of Creation. He chops wood and sets fire to it. He burns his „wooden clothes”. The action that lasted twenty minutes is over. Bereś leaves the Market square. He enters the building of BWA Gallery. „The production” of keepsakes goes on.6A. Mroczek, (-), in. Jerzy Bereś – „Runda honorowa” [Jerzy Bereś – “Lap of Honor”] (the report on the action in Zamość), Lublin 1976. Bereś was walking naked around the Market square on the cold November day. Created tension was rising under the hard shell covering Poland. What was absurd then?

Elements of oracles presented by means of simple rituals recur in many manifestations carried by the artists in various galleries and public places. There he took the role of a pilgrim mixing up epochs and conventions. His attempts to establish a dialogue with the public resulted in different reactions. Some sensitive people were left with a sort of judgement, others with lucid intervals, semi hallucinations. The worst effect was when people got completely lost with their superstitions and complexes. And this happened to a journalist who was amazed at the fact that during the artist’s striptease in Koszalin in 1976 nothing did really happen: So the Master was standing there absolutely liberated and… And nothing! There was neither a single hiss nor a single spasm. Not a single applause even.7Z.M., Wyzwolenie mężczyzny [Liberation of a man], Czas, Nr 7, 1976, p. 26.

Msza Romantyczna /Romantic Mass presented in Krzysztofory Gallery in Cracow for the 10th anniversary of the first Przepowiednia I/ Prophecy I in 1978 was a sort of the supreme performance. Bereś was taking off twenty successive linen documents of previous manifestations and signing them. His body was the twenty first document and he signed it, too. He put on the linen with an inscription “Sacrifice”. Then he chopped the wood, made a fire on the specially prepared Ołtarz Spełnienia/Altar of Satisfaction. Dramatically growing fire started to burn the horizontal slat of the altar slowly. After a long while… of waiting in silence the slat burnt down and then two big, warped logs, like hammers, hit simultaneously the metal gong hung under the table-top of Altar of Satisfaction.8J. Bereś, Msza Romantyczna [Romantic Mass], (report on the action), Kraków 1980. And although it was followed by the pouring out wine combined with painting flowers on a white cloth later included into the arrangement of Ołtarz Spełnienia/Altar of Satisfaction left as a sculpture to be set in motion by people the most essential thing in this work seemed this dramatic hitting the gong. It was the culminating point of the composition and the proof of the perfectly utilitarian far-seeing the effect. In 1979 during his pilgrimage to Holland and England Bereś presented the whole series of significant manifestations. They were concentrated on the problem of the compulsion to judge. This subject matter was really a vital one in the reference to the very popular idea „anything goes” that meant everything that an artist creates is art. Bereś’s works of 1980 and 1981 were filled with the seemingly unjustified bitterness. From 1982 his presentations were concentrated on attacking the suspension of judgement. The series of larger compositions (Trans/Trance, Oko/Eye, Krzyż/Cross , Ołtarz ludowy/Folk Altar) comprised a set of notions connecting the state of Bereś’s artistic explorations with his hope for changes resulting from the cracking of the hard shell of false ideology strangling the life of Poland.

Acting in the way characteristic to a person who knows the natural (that is true) alternations of life the artist shows that the natural rhythm, that is time, is an oracle and therefore a fundamental argument in favour of postulating the inevitability of judgement.9J. Bereś, (leaflet), Kraków 1984. And that is why Bereś’s prophesizing with his art is a continuous directing the judgements. Doing that he attacks various false dialectics of art and social life advocated by those who submit to appearances and superficial images adhering to “time measured by an hour-glass”. Adopting „the prehistorical” (that is anti-historical) or zero attitude or just the one consistent with nature Bereś does not act out of accord with what is more and more commonly experienced by people. (Adherents of endism f.ex. Fukuyama emphasize it). Because only outside history an oracle may emerge while the ones embedded in historicism turn out to be a great mistake when they are „carried into effect”.

Jean F. Lyotard wrote that within the sphere of art (for example American art after the Second World War) there were created works the existence of which itself was rising the temperature of a given moment of time when they were came into being – satisfying the need of arising some sort of tension among the people who receive art. Barnett Newman is a special example of it. Such works, if we consider the state of certain anxiety (or even shock), evoked the idea of sublimity in a similar way as it was understood by Burke and romantics. The difference consists in the fact that while Caspar David Friedrich or Adam Mickiewicz seem to tell „sublimity is now”, Jackson Pollock or Barnett Newman state something like that „sublime is this” pointing to their own works that come into being in this very moment.10J.F. Lyotard, quoted in: A. Kostołowski, Rozbita klepsydra [Shattered hourglass], 1988, manuscript. The former type of sublimity is rather mediatory the latter one is persuasive. Bereś seems to reconcile these two types: a work sublimates the moment that is really significant by means of the prophetic temperature. For an artist knows perfectly well that if a philosopher says that in the moment when transcendental becomes concrete one should stop thinking. It is a proper moment for an artist to create.11J. Bereś, (leaflet), op. cit. An artist uses concrete material that is available to him. If he (she) has not got anything to make his (her) works of then he (she) cannot be an artist. For Bereś very strange alternations of nature are his art materials. Don’t be misled that the basic materials he employs include for example branches wine or his own body The real substance of his art consists of natural processes, trees (not wood), hardness, weight and movement (not stones), burning (not fire) etc. Therefore, this artist participates in the course of events to much greater extent than other numerous painters and sculptors. He only takes out the elements of transcendencies that have already been made concrete. Just like Shakers who constructed a chair which the more beautiful the more useful it was; Bereś’s works are the more valuable the more they serve the truth of time.

To construct an effective dialogue with a unique fragment of nature or the uniqueness of the concrete time and place of an action we also require an unique stage of a creative form that burns out when a work comes into being.12J. Bereś, Dokumenty i prace [Documents and works], Piła 1980. Therefore, Bereś is in his work much more a medium or a victim (sacrifice) than a shaman. For he is not so conceited as to lead the element or processes. He only reveals them. His attitude is not fed on fatalism of events completely since it is just “a recording”. It is supplemented by a struggle against nature („I do not want nature to become a material in the hands of artistic intentions”) Hence this nature as “natura naturans” (fit and working nature) stands some chances to win in this struggle. Although Bereś is absolutely right in avoiding the cheap involvement in ecology he presents himself as a collector of process transformations in nature (it also refers to the human nature and nature of art) in his all works. Paraphrasing Emerson we may state that an artist notices every possibility of predicting in hewn down trees, ashes, piles and traces because just there the processes i.e. „certain and useful results” are coded.13R. W. Emerson, Nature and Thought, Leipzig 1915, p. 33.

When Bereś combines in his phantoms, oracles, altars, masses, rituals and rounds this slightly pathetic Polish prophesizing with the puritanism of Swedenborg, Thoreau, Shakers, he knows that nature is the discipline of understanding intellectual truth14Ibidem, p. 31. and that the messages he participates in the creation of result from the practical knowledge about transformations. And the artist does not mean a cheap enthusiasm for streams or mountains but according to the simple economy of nature each sacrifice permits a definite transubstantiation. It is possible to distinguish about twenty great sculptors of the last century. These were: Giacometti, Moore, Calder, Hesse, Smithson. And probably they are also: Tinguely, Andre, Long, Mitsuzawa, Bereś. The art of the last one, although it is not widely known in the world, deserves a special attention undoubtfully.

  • 1
    S. Papp, Rzeźby Jerzego Beresia [Sculptures of Jerzy Bereś], Współczesność, June 211965.
  • 2
    A. Kostołowski, O znaczeniu Grupy Krakowskiej [About the Significance of the Cracow Group], in: Grupa Krakowska [Cracow Group], ed. By J. Chrobak, Nowy Sącz 1988.
  • 3
    J. Bereś, (…), in: M. Bieganowski, ed. by Jerzy Bereś, Zakład nad Fosą, Wrocław 1981.
  • 4
    W. Borowski, „Akt twórczy” Jerzego Beresia [“Creative act” by Jerzy Bereś], Współczesność, February 1968.
  • 5
    J. Bereś, op. cit.
  • 6
    A. Mroczek, (-), in. Jerzy Bereś – „Runda honorowa” [Jerzy Bereś – “Lap of Honor”] (the report on the action in Zamość), Lublin 1976.
  • 7
    Z.M., Wyzwolenie mężczyzny [Liberation of a man], Czas, Nr 7, 1976, p. 26.
  • 8
    J. Bereś, Msza Romantyczna [Romantic Mass], (report on the action), Kraków 1980.
  • 9
    J. Bereś, (leaflet), Kraków 1984.
  • 10
    J.F. Lyotard, quoted in: A. Kostołowski, Rozbita klepsydra [Shattered hourglass], 1988, manuscript.
  • 11
    J. Bereś, (leaflet), op. cit.
  • 12
    J. Bereś, Dokumenty i prace [Documents and works], Piła 1980.
  • 13
    R. W. Emerson, Nature and Thought, Leipzig 1915, p. 33.
  • 14
    Ibidem, p. 31.
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