Jerzy Hanusek: Jerzy Bereś – The Art as Challenge (1995)

(The text was published in exhibition catalogue: Jerzy Bereś. Zwidy, Wyrocznie, Ołtarze, Wyzwania [Jerzy Bereś. Phantoms, Oracles, Altars, Challenges] National Museum in Poznań, Poznań 1995)


 My proposal is to focus on several works which seem particularly important: they incorporate features that are constitutive of all Bereś’s art.




A cycle of sculptures called PHANTOMS was initiated in 1960 with the work titled PHANTOM I. However, the PHANTOMS were already anticipated by RZEPICHA, a sculpture made two years earlier.

The term “Phantom” refers to a relationship which was consciously designed by the author, and which reveals itself at the moment when the sculptures confront reality. The first characteristic of “phantomness” is its alienation, the incompatibility of the appearing object with what we usually see around and consider as “normal” products of nature, culture or, in the broadest sense, civilization. For, on the one hand, PHANTOMS certainly do not belong to the world of nature. Their construction and form are a result of conscious, creative, and toilsome activity. On the other, they do not have any features of products either, no matter whether artistic or not.

The other characteristic of “phantomness” is its ability to stimulate imagination. Imagination is stimulated thanks to clear signaling of the presence of the addressed message, articulated with more or less intense emphasis. It is not of the greatest importance if the message is understood by the viewer in a fully adequate way. It is important to incite the anxiety of imagination. The appeal of the PHANTOMS stems from the coexistence of these two features: imagination is seized with anxiety by some fact that does not fit into the prevailing standards and norms.

“Phantomness” understood in such a way may be referred to all the works of Bereś: both to his sculptures and manifestations. I believe that along with the progressing technologization and fabrication of our material and spiritual environment, along with the development of more and more perfect electronic means of communication and recording, this feature will be more and more distinct, more and more striking.

It is noteworthy that so defined characteristic of alienation with respect to the civilizational and natural environment is almost absent from contemporary art, and especially from its dominant and most prestigious currents. Contemporary works of art are semantically aggregated collections – sometimes structurally very complex – that consist of unprocessed products taken from natural or artificial environment. For it turned out that the environment is a warehouse of prefabricated elements of art: readymade objects, readymade images, pieces of nature. Artists zealously exploit current technical and technological inventions. It is an open question if in this run after “material contemporaneousness” there is a chance to grasp the contemporary sense of the spiritual?




In January 1968 Bereś made in Warsaw a manifestation called PROPHECY I, and three months later, in the Cracow Krzysztofory Gallery – another manifestation, PROPHECY II. In both events he defined and visualized by concrete action the concept of the act of creation understood in the broadest sense: artistic, civil, intellectual, and moral. The act of creation which took place just then had precisely such a complex character. The author took a stand for genuine and profound commitment of art to those spheres of reality which are most significant for the people. Creative acts – I am using the term used by the artist himself – are in Bereś’s opinion results of an independent attitude toward reality and they may refer to any of its fragments. An independent attitude toward reality means that we cannot share the responsibility for our deeds with anyone or anything else. This makes it necessary to set out principles which would regulate our choices. The artist postulates the necessity to develop a supra-normative ethics: in certain cases some of the current norms may be rejected. We must, however, also realize that the postulate of supra-normative ethics means also that the artist may impose on himself constraints which would normally do not hold and would be considered bizarre. The latter case may even be more significant than the former.

An important element of the first manifestations were the tightening of the white and red bow-string of a huge bow made from a roughhewn branch. Still, Bereś did not let the arrow go. The taut bowstring may be a metaphor of energy that is stored in all the works and manifestations of the artist. Bereś tightened the strings. His works wait in suspense. What do they wait for?

First, I will say what they do not wait for. Bereś’s works do not expect from the viewer either passive submission or compliments. They do not expect the viewer to relax, improve his or her self-esteem, and feel “groovy.” Neither do they expect the recipient to put it into his\her “spiritual bag” or “spiritual showcase.” What they do expect is, above all, an individual act of creation always related to risk, effort, and psychic discomfort. The starting point for such an act should be a throb of imagination.

The creative fact is never an answer to some current expectations, it is not a product that has been ordered, for which there will be “payment.” In specific cases, though, it may turn out that the creative fact matches “demand,” the demand of individuals who treat it as an answer to their own questions, but those individuals cannot be identified in a group of viewers. On the other hand, collective expectations, related to various social and other groups-religious, age-specific, cultural, artistic, etc. – consist above all in the need for immediate, unconditional acceptance. Creative facts do not satisfy this need – on the contrary, they would disrupt the state of “collective self-satisfaction.”

The creative facts produced by Jerzy Bereś much more often than once, and with the artist’s full awareness, disappointed the expectations of the officials, viewers, and critics, and even the expectations of those who organized specific artistic events, which were frequently articulated in the form of ideological programs. The examples in this respect include the symposiums “Puławy ’66” and “Wrocław ’70” as well as the performance festival “Edge ’88.” In the seventies, when the truth about the subjugated countries of Eastern Europe was sacrificed to the idea of political detente, the message conveyed by Bereś’s manifestations was undesirable not only to communist Polish authorities, but also to Germens who invited him to visit West Germany. The “demand,” never articulated in an apparent way, was at that quite different. As a result, some of the planned exhibitions were cancelled, and once even some sculptures got lost (Bereś’s individual exhibition presenting the documentation of the WOODEN ROAD, a manifestation executed in the Gruga Park in Essen in 1974, was cancelled, and after some time the author was informed that the exhibits had been destroyed).




Bereś has been accused in public that he had spoiled a chance to become a “guru” of young Cracow artists. Still, what the artist was interested in was a dialogue based on partnership. He preferred not to develop any asymmetrical relations such as those between the guru and believers, the idol and fans, etc. Both his attitude and temperament exclude the possibility to accept the role of Guru, Master, Teacher, or Guide. Especially that the “price” of such a position is almost always pedagogical leniency and coquetry toward the surrounding clientele.

When the works still await the creative act, it means that the process of creation has not been finished, even though the role of the artist is over. In this sense, works of art are open. The mode of openness is also provoked in a more concrete and formal way. In the case of many works by Bereś, the stage of passive contemplation allows the viewer only to forebode the idea actually conveyed by the message. Only proper moving of the objects or setting them in motion sheds some light on the vague foreboding. Also, the insistence upon opening discussions after each manifestation – no matter if the discussion really develops or not – makes the structure of these events genuinely open; the impression is, that they will be continued elsewhere and by someone else.




The WOODEN ROAD, an elaborate manifestation executed in the Gruga Park in Essen, may serve as a metaphor of Bereś’s creative development. The artist kept pushing a wooden ROMANTIC CART and marked the covered distance with the prints of his bare feet. Every now and then he would stop and, building sculptural objects, “draw the strings of the bows” (I am referring to my own metaphor) aiming at various aspects of reality: political, social, existential, and artistic. Artistic expression may pertain to anything, it is only that for some issues it may be hard to find an artistic dimension, Bereś seems to say. This is the sense of primacy of art over other aspects of reality.

Looking for equally strong, profound, and distinctly articulated artistic involvement in concrete reality, one probably ought to go back in time as far as to Russian constructivists and Italian futurists. Those commitments, however, were of an offensive kind, since they were founded on collective political and social ideologies expressed beyond the realm of art. Such commitments are also to be found nowadays, based on leftist, feminist, or ecological ideas. Bereś’s commitment is of a completely different character: it is the commitment of an individual feeling the pressure of the outside world and defending himself against absorption and reification.

A more contemporary example of art involved in reality may be the work of Joseph Beuys – I mean the very phenomenon of commitment. The art of Beuys differs from the art of Bereś in many respects, e.g., with respect to the plastic language. Moreover, both artists represent two different types of commitment. The commitment of Beuys consisted, to a considerable extent, in blurring the boundary between art and the rest of reality, in particular its social dimension. Bereś, on the contrary, carefully separates art from other aspects of reality. To Beuys everything was art, to Bereś there is not much of it. Beuys was not only involved in politics and society, but he was also politically and socially committed – he addressed his message to the community. Bereś declares strong resentment as far as non-artistic forms of commitment are concerned – his message is intended for an individual. In the midst of his art Beuys placed his own lite and personal experience, Bereś focuses his attention not on himself, but on the problem of the relationship between an individual and the world – he does not speak about himself, but about the condition of an individual human being. In his art, self-reflective and autobiographical motifs are marginal. If sometimes they are emphasized, it is only as an exemplification of the fate of those trapped in two totalitarian systems: hitlerism and stalinism. The artist makes a distinction between his individuality and personality.




Bereś’s actions – and, as it will turn out, his sculptures – appeal to the viewers with several streams of communication interfering with one another.

The first of them is purely visual: we can see that a naked man carefully performs bizarre activities that violate the norms of everyday life: he meticulously paints stripes on his face or small crosses on his back; delivers speeches from an unstable pile of logs; walks naked with a piece of thick rope around his neck; having painted on his naked body some signs and inscriptions, stands on the trunk and claims that he is a sculpture or a picture, etc. In this respect – if we consider it in isolation from others – the actions are grotesque, surreal, and sometimes even comic.

The second stream is of a formal and aesthetic character. The concentration on the aesthetic value of events and the perception of purely pictorial or sculptural dimensions of the emerging situations reveals their rough and fresh beauty – of the naked, “tattooed” body, branches of a tree, unconventionally constructed objects, flames, etc. All that can be seen most distinctly on photographs taken at various moments of a manifestation, recording images as if “by accident,” with no posing or prearrangement. Devoid of meanings carried by inscriptions and titles, Bereś’s sculptures reveal a variety of radical formal innovations. The third stream of communication carries archetypal symbols, “standard” meanings, and impulsive interpretations. The naked figure, fire, ashes, a footprint, a banner, a vehicle, chopping wood – all that, even though designed by the artist, appeals to the consciousness and unconscious of the viewer in an autonomous way.

Finally, the fourth stream brings with changing intensity the meanings engendered by semantic manoeuvres of the artist himself. I will discuss the mechanisms of these manoeuvres in a moment. Someone might say that in each action of a performance type it is possible to distinguish similar levels of communication. The uniqueness of Bereś’s manifestations – next to other factors differentiating them from the art of performance – consists in the artist’s incredibly full control over all the levels. He has proved able to eliminate any unnecessary or “mute” elements, and, in addition, to construct and exploit semantic and emotional tensions which appear among particular planes. They appeal to the audience simultaneously – none of them is neglected or reduced with respect to others; all are equally significant. The viewer, whose expectations are oriented on some literary content or a theatrical game, may find it quite difficult to “see” Bereś’s manifestations, even though he may be an eyewitness. With respect to art, to look and to “see” is something altogether different. The breaking of habits related to looking is often a prerequisite of “seeing” an object of art. The habits of looking limit our imagination. An interesting example may be the experience of the writer, Jan Józef Szczepański, who was present in Krzysztofory during the manifestation PROPHECY II. Recollecting it not long ago (Jan Józef Szczepański, Historyjki, Czytelnik, Warsaw 1990), he wrote that the action had been humourless and full of pathos, and that everybody was desperately looking forward to the climax. Szczepański’s opinion might be accepted with no comments, if not for the fact that it stands in contradiction with his own, colourful account of the event included in a later part of the same text. This account certainly indicates that the purely visual level of the action contained a great deal of surreal grotesque and “weirdness” which indeed left a permanent trace in the writer’s memory. It seems that Szczepański was waiting for something that never came. At least one of the channels of communication mentioned above was blocked by continuous and – in that case – undue expectations. The viewer simply ignored and “prevented from speaking” the visual dimension of action as an autonomous component of the work in its own right. Consequently, in the process of response the work of art was substantially reduced: it was looked at, but it could not by fully “seen.” And finally, one more remark concerning a “theatrical” approach to Bereś’s manifestation: the artist did not “play out” the construction of the monument; he really built it under the eyes of the audience.

The presented structure of manifestation may be extended to pertain also to Bereś’s sculptural objects. The artist emphasizes that he always uses such elements that are necessary to express the message. In this sense, his sculptures are manifestations in which the physical presence of the author turned out expendable. And conversely, Bereś’s manifestations are often sculptures enhanced with the indispensable presence, or even reduced to his physical presence only. The possibility of including his physical presence in a sculpture was demonstrated by the artist most explicitly in PROPHECY II, when he attached himself to the constructed LIVING MONUMENT, thus becoming its integral part. It is also noteworthy that even purely sculptural works often contain an element of action. In such cases, the role of the author is taken over by the viewer who is led into action and starts manipulating the mobile parts of the sculpture. The first object of this kind was the CART, constructed in 1968. Other works were arranged by the artist in such a way that they conveyed a strong impression of movement. The first such work was the POLISH WHEELBARROW, made in 1966.

Bereś’s manifestations do not have a narrative character: their author neither tells a story, nor he creates the landscape of pure emotion. Under the eyes of the audience, the artist defines and saturates with particular meanings the concepts and relations among concepts, therefore making them accessible to imagination. Most often, these concepts and relations are fundamental for some specific walk of our life.




The imagination usually feeds on specific images, objects and events. General ideas are food for thought.  Bereś combines these two instances and “imposes” on general ideas some concrete, material shapes. Hence, constructing his poetic and intellectual messages, he may appeal to imagination, and not to intellect. This refers both to sculptures and manifestations. As such, it is not a common practice, since an intellectual message is usually addressed to intellect, while imagination receives messages of an emotional kind. However, that is not the case in the art of Bereś: his intellectual messages are addressed to imagination.

To find a physical equivalent of a general idea and to establish a persuasive relationship between them is by no means an easy task. The choice must be appropriate enough not to reduce the meaning of the idea in the process of its materialization. Yet, if an attempt is successful, it opens up a range of possibilities that are usually beyond the reach of intellect. Operating with concrete physical objects and processes, the artist may stimulate imagination and, consequently, create universal intellectual content which transgresses the power of words.

Such operations must be explicitly differentiated from the appeal based on the use of symbols. In the latter case, works of art contain symbolic elements which, by convention familiar to everyone or just to insiders, have a definite meaning. In order to read the message, the viewer must rely on his or her knowledge.  Bereś’s messages do not assume or require from the audience the knowledge of symbols. The elements which he uses do not symbolize but rather visualize the addressee of the message is not knowledge but imagination.

Stimulated by general ideas, most often imagination moves to its proper element, that is, to concrete images. Thus, its content loses its universal character. Stimulating imagination with “materialized ideas,” Bereś tries to keep that universal character intact. For instance: imagination stimulated with a general idea of “burning face” concretizes it as an image of some individual visage. Transforming his own face into a bundle of chips and then using these chips to light a fire, Bereś provides conditions for our imagination to be moved in a concrete, physical way by a vision of a “burning face”: the flame makes us warm, it may burn us, burn out, or else it may be put out. There is no need to call for an image of a concrete face – after all, the artist is standing nearby and his face is not burning.

Actions and works of Bereś stir imagination. His objective, however, is not just stirring, but doing it with a specific sense of direction. The artist does not evade responsibility also for what happens with the viewer’s imagination after he has “set it in motion.” He does not share the conception of “pure release,” according to which the role of the artist is reduced to stimulating reactions, while the effects of that stimulation are a private concern of the viewer.




The language of manifestations which Bereś has developed for himself is very laconic, still, it is also extremely expressive, allowing to convey even the most complex message.  Bereś spoke that language – in fact fully shaped from the very beginning – already during his first manifestations, and even earlier, during a collective – in part spontaneous and in part controlled – happening called THE RAFT OF MEDUSA in August 1967. It was part of Tadeusz Kantor’s Panoramic Sea Happening. Before starting the event proper, the half-naked artist rammed a post in the sand, passed a rope round his neck, and tied to the post, marched around it. The same gesture in different versions will be later repeated in many manifestations, always related to the state of captivity, reification, or entanglement. It seems that in 1967 Bereś would comment in such a way on the submission to the rules of happening as they were codified in the West.

The vocabulary of Bereś’s language of action – as well as sculpture – contains certain constant, repetitive elements. Similarly, the grammar of that language has certain stable rules. I have already mentioned the rope passed round the neck. An important fragment of manifestations are transfigurations. The artist alternately marks divisions on his naked body and performs some other activity: he cuts bread, splits a log into chips, pours in glasses wine or vodka. The relation of analogy which connects these activities (dividing/sharing) is transmitted upon their objects and in the subsequent stages of the manifestation it stimulates imagination. Another example of similarly structured action is alternate painting red wales on the back and making knots on a rope or painting some inscription on the naked torso.

A TRANSFIGURATION – the first one Bereś performed in Södertälje in 1972 – is sometimes concluded with treating the viewers with vodka or bread. Most often this is interpreted as a symbolic self-sacrifice. Although it is impossible to deny this aspect of the appeal to the audience, it seems to me that such an interpretation is too intellectual, too dependent on knowledge. A treat – in fact, the artist does not always allow for its consumption – becomes rather a visualization of the relationship between the artist and the audience. The gesture demonstrates the artist’s friendliness and servitude as well as the manner in which he would like to influence the viewers who refresh themselves and, having drunk a shot of vodka, feel warmth radiating all over their bodies. At that moment, the artist’s gesture, in the context of his earlier attempts to get in touch with the audience, reveals also its ironic dimension. The recipient’s imagination remains the permanent addressee of the message.

Bereś performs all naked, sometimes covered only with boards tied together on the hips or with a piece of canvas used during manifestations. The artist’s nakedness has its formal, pragmatic, and semantic functions.

Above all, it is the effort to “attune” one’s mode of presence to the mode of presence of wood which remains in its primordial, natural state.  Bereś uses his body just as he uses wooden blocks or fire. Dressed, he would not be able to do that. The artist’s nakedness is then indispensable because of the formal structure of manifestation.  Bereś does not turn it into an attraction – he does not perform a striptease show. To be precise, he did it just once and called that particular fragment of his action CONVENTIONAL RITUAL. Nakedness is also necessary to paint inscriptions on the body. Thanks to his challenging nakedness, the artist disturbs the audience’s sense of confidence and routine habits. This is its pragmatic function. A quarter of a century has passed since Bereś performed his first manifestations, but no matter what, his nakedness is still a challenge, and even to these viewers who have seen more than one of his actions. In contemporary culture the only motivation for exposing nakedness is eroticism or violence.  Bereś’s nakedness is neither erotic, not it is related to violence: it is a manifestation of openness, confidence, honesty, defencelessness, etc. This reveals the semantic function of nakedness: the condition of individual being is thus inscribed in the message of the manifestation. Physical stripping and the related ridding oneself of shame anticipates the “stripping” of spirit. The artist is aware that in his messages he refers to the values which in the present world of cynicism and pragmatism have become shameful, subject to derision, neglect, and mockery. In such a world, the references to fundamental values may easily be considered by the pragmatic intellect as idealistic musings. I remember an event that illustrates this danger clearly enough: asked in 1987 about the Soviet Union, Karl Raimund Popper, the author of The Open Society and its Enemies, answered that in order to regain credibility, the Kremlin should fulfil the promise given by Stalin in Yalta and allow for free elections in Poland. At that time, the simple reply of the aged philosopher to many sounded naive and idealistic. It seemed that the thinker completely ignored political reality. But was it really naive idealism, or rather realistic pragmatism, taking into account the necessity that, after all, could not be forgotten?

An artist who penetrates these particular realms of cognition where intellect turns out to be the enemy of wisdom, pays a high price for his audacity: the boundary between the status of a prophet and that of a pitiable sacrifice becomes very thin indeed. The artist not only makes a sacrifice, but also agrees to take its role. That is the price which cannot be avoided.

Bereś paints on his body signs and inscriptions. Quite often he paints question marks. The inscriptions read as follows: ART, SPIRIT, KITSCH, COMES TRUE, PARADOX, SHAME, FRONT, SACRIFICE, DIALOGUE, MYSTERY, BEREŚ, BOYCOTT, THEATER OF LIFE. By the same token, the artist inscribes himself in the work created under the eyes of the audience not just as a physically present object-demiurge, but also on the level of generated meanings. He admits that he himself also materializes the concepts about which he speaks – in all his involvement in art and in life. The artist seems to confess: this is a piece of evidence. Thus, the statement turns into something concrete and often acquires an ironic, paradoxical or confessional dimension.

A recurrent element in the actions is leaving the prints of bare or shod feet, palms or knees. One may read a lot in these prints. Depending on the context of the manifestation, they may be quite different: sometimes many-colored, sometimes monochromatic – green or blue. Usually the prints change along with the changing context of the manifestation.

Bereś associated the element of fire with the most profound nature of the pure act of creation – shining, spontaneous, and elemental; burning the artist. Lighting a fire is opposed to signing (time and again the signatures are in many colours) as an extremely different form of artistic activity. A characteristic feature of Bereś’s semantic manoeuvres is that giving new meanings to things and phenomena – in this case to a burning fire – he never cancels their primordial sense. The burning chips are simultaneously just a mere, familiar fire. Another prop used in the manifestation is a newspaper, the titles such as “Sztuka” [Art], “Kultura” [Culture], “Polityka” [Politics], “Rzeczywistość” [Reality], “Tu i Teraz” [Here and Now]. Next to their obvious function of a firelighter, the newspapers are used by the artist as s representation of a reduced idea: the idea that has been institutionalized, falsified, appropriated, and ravished.




Bereś’s involvement in reality does not consist in the identification of his own efforts with the efforts of some community. The essence of his commitment are continuous attempts to reach to the universal sense of various aspects of reality, including politics. Therefore, his messages are not – at least in my opinion – restricted to the present passing moment; even these which refer to concrete social context and bear the traces of a specific period of time – at times during manifestations Bereś takes even the liberty to mention the names of specific politicians or other public figures! However, the artist watches politics from the viewpoint of an individual observer who is not interested in strategy and tactics, but in the essence of political phenomena and processes. The involvement in politics and society does not equal practical political and social commitment – Bereś perceives reality in terms of creation. To him, even the State is an opus – one of the greatest. Some nations, even some great ones, have not succeeded in creating and defending such a work. To Bereś, even “Solidarity” was an opus.

One may find an analogy between Bereś’s commentary on politics and the political reflection of Aristotle, de Tocqueville and Norwid. We have been reading the books by these authors and we will not because we still find the problems of ancient Greek cities, 19th century America and partitioned Poland relevant, but because they convey messages that are permanently significant.

Paradoxically, only after the fall of communism which had been their immediate context, Bereś’s sculptures, involved in social reality, have revealed their universal meaning. The white and red bowstring is still taut, even though our country has regained its independence. Poland as a prophecy is and will still be ahead of us. The windmill sweeping away the occupants of the POLITICAL CHAIR (1971) began to rotate with double energy, and it will keep rotating forever, since this is the essence of the reality of politics. It turned out that such sculptures as LOLLYPOP (1971) or RAG (1971) convey a pungent and relevant message regardless of the dominating political system. The fists are still banging against the ROUND TABLE (1971), and a little pig that is the object of the controversy still eludes the grasp. This sculpture, although made almost a quarter of century ago, seems to respond to the events of today. The observer who paid more attention to the context in which Bereś’s works were created than to their meaning might suppose that after a systemic revolution, which we have just experienced, they would lose much of their relevance. In my opinion, the reverse is the case. Intensifying certain processes and slowing down others, the communist system let the artist have insights into the nature of social and political phenomena which in the democratic system are disguised and alleviated or seem as natural as air and hence do not provoke reflection.

The art of Jerzy Bereś is consolidated – as if by fibers – by a network of intersecting motifs and problems. Every attempt at their classification inevitably leads to reduction. The works of the artist carry complex and ambiguous meanings, and in some of them different issues overlap. Still, the very possibility of such a systematization is significant. It proves that the universal character of artistic meanings is essentially related to specific problems rooted both in various aspects of collective reality (civilizational, national, social, artistic) and in the individual human condition – that of a member of the nation, a citizen, and an artist. A comprehensive look at Bereś’s art allows one to see its uniqueness much more distinctly. In contemporary art I have not found anything comparable, anything of a similar range, form, and intensity of expression.

translated by Marek Wilczyński


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