Caroline Wilkinson: Jerzy Bereś (1988)

(The text was published in “Art Monthly, November 1988)


I had not previously seen any work by Jerzy Bereś, an artist who lives and works in Poland. Without knowing his precise intentions in this piece, I think it dealt acutely and unassumingly with a crucial aspect of the relation between performer and audience.

A basic wooden table was positioned against the white wall of the space. The table hid artisanal, rustic connotations; it was unpainted, weathered, solid. Standing to its right was a naked man holding a paint brush, who made an immediate impression of physical contradiction, of age and youth. .His face was extremely furrowed, puckered apprehensively, and combined with his hair, cut straight below his ears and with a fringe, suggested the look of someone mediaeval. In marked contrast, his body was extraordinarily youthful and spare, its skin taut and smooth, and yet it had a very curved spine, as though the age registered so forcefully on his face had seeped downwards only there. Stooped, he shifted his weight, fingering the paint brush, waiting to begin. The room was packed, most people sitting on the floor in a crescent round him, looking up. I was several rows back but still felt uncomfortably close, as though we were impinging on his exposed vulnerability, hemming him in.

Dipping the brush into the first of two small plastic containers on the table, Bereś squinted down at his body and with a shaky hand made a white daub a couple of inches long high on his chest. It was the simplest kind of mark, a very ancient gesture; just repeated short strokes which he could almost have done with his fingers. Then taking the brush from the other container, he turned away from us, his face to the wall, and with his arm bent round he drew the brush rapidly across his back, leaving a trail of vivid red paint like a bloody gash. This was disturbing not simply because of the image of pain that resulted,. but because condensed into one swift yet clumsy action were two simultaneous and conflicting identifications: his own, unseeing mimicry of self-mutilation; and the sense that the audience, through being positioned behind him and seeing what he could not, was complicit in acting out this `violence’ on his body, was almost responsible for directing it.

Bereś then proceeded by alternating between the white and the red paint, inching round into a semi-circle with the white, progressively adding to the ‘wounds’ across his back and buttocks with the red. The white curve, however, became serpentine, a large reversed S on his torso. The finishing touch was first a white paint mark down his penis — turning the white sign into a Polish, as distinct from an English, question-mark – and secondly a red one beside the white.

At this point, Bereś addressed the audience in English stating that he thought he had painted a good picture, and a true one, of Poland. He would vote for it, and he wanted to know if we would vote for or against, based on whether it was good or bad, true or false. This provoked silent bewilderment, then a scene of frustration and consternation, entailing combative debate about terminology: how was it a picture of Poland, what did he mean by good, true? (No one could commit themselves to a simple yes or no, the precise basis of the decision must be examined formally first, there had to be understanding.) This process was exacerbated in the most appallingly simple yet astoundingly Baroque marine by the sheer fact of translation; Bereś had to be assisted by five separate women and men, all Poles who spoke more English than he, who grappled successively with interpreting a collective anxiety concerning the nature of “truth”.

This was a strange obsession, for in a literal sense, the very one being worried over and gnawed at, Bereś’s statements were patently absurd and tongue-in-cheek. I don’t think he was concerned in the least with any final notion of truth. He repeated many times that he wanted the audience to vote, ‘to take that risk’, even at the expense of being wrong. There was some scoffing —”What risk?” — but obviously since no-one dared lose face, there must have been a risk involved. Was the cautious focus on language and its definition a way of covering unease about the obvious symbolism of the painted imagery? Did it embody too simple a polarity and one not happily, or unsentimentally, assimilated into any British attempt at understanding a reference to, for example, the current Polish political situation?

Did it matter a damn whether or not it was a good or a true picture? The artist assured us he thought it was and he asked for a vote of confidence in his action, which was not, as far as I could see, about painting a good (accurate, skilful, commendable, valid, correct) picture of Poland. His refusal to elucidate, to qualify his terms, was not an outright denial but a device to draw all attention back to the primary issue of what takes place between performer and audience. What is the spectator prepared to give in this exchange? It’s not simply a matter of consumption, of literal translation leading to clarity of interpretation. The whole performance for me hinged on the persistent request from Bereś as performer for each spectator to state her or his commitment unconditionally, to be willing to be as exposed in doing so as he actually was. It was too simple and too threatening. Lacking humour or humility, the responses that I can recall used the clumsiest instrument on offer in the situation— the language of logic and philosophical debate.

I raised my arm and voted in favour, adding that I thought it was a good picture —of language. Meaning, in this context, its frantic use in a quest across two cultures for an elusive moral certainty, its central role in the desire to assuage anxiety by naming and fixing.: The language used was all that could be “seen”. This myopia blinded the audience — to the relations set up by Bereś, to its own inability to scrutinise itself rather than him, to the opportunity to take a certain amount of responsibility for the outcome rather than to expect an incontrovertible answer.

In another respect, Bereś’s action was also disturbingly ‘true’. He had depicted —predicted — on his own body, in a very eloquent manner, the dual response of the audience to the dilemma he would present it with. Confronted by doubt, and uncertainty, represented by the white question-mark, the reaction was denial and aggression, represented by the red brush marks. Are we made so suspicious by the political climate and times, that we daren’t risk making a foolish or passionate mistake through solidarity with another artist?


Jerzy Bereś performed at the Slaughter-house Gallery, London as part of “Edge 88”, a series of events, performances and installations in and around Clerkenwell organised by Rob La Frenais, Sept 13-25.


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