Jerzy Hanusek: Like Soap Bubbles… (2017)

(This text was published in the exhibition catalogue: Maria Pinińska-Bereś. Ephemeral works 1967-1996, Monopol Gallery, Warsaw 2017)

Maria Pinińska-Bereś staged her first performance piece at the end of August 1967 during Tadeusz Kantor’s Panoramic Sea Happening. It wasn’t something that she felt an inner need to do but rather an effect of Kantor’s instigations, who had made vigorous and ultimately successful efforts to gear the Osieki plein-air meeting more towards happening art. I viewed performances and happenings as something rather strange to my complex nature, which actually gave me a certain sense of guilt,1Maria Pinińska-Bereś, Why Performance?…, in this volume, p. pp. 159-164. she wrote years later. That sense of guilt stemmed from a feeling of being distanced from an art discipline considered at the time as ground-breaking and worthy of unconditional admiration. Kantor’s happenings, with their ludic nature, often led, as intended, to spontaneous, uncontrolled, or destructive audience behaviour. If, according to a philosophical concept popular at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, we classify them as embodying the Dionysian principle in art, then Maria Pinińska’s temperament and sensibility situated her firmly within the Apollonian one; she valued poetry, subtlety, and sophistication. At Osieki, she produced Table I, a very important work in her oeuvre, representing an intermediate stage between the Corsets and Psycho Furniture series. It is a corset placed in a table display case2The piece has been in storage at the Museum in Koszalin for half a century now, has probably never been on display, and requires thorough conservation..

Pinińska’s action at the beach in Łazy3The plein-air meeting was in Osieki, but Kantor’s performance was set on the beach in the nearby Łazy. was ignored until recently, with none of the numerous reviews and studies of the Panoramic Sea Happening mentioning it. A catalogue published on the occasion duly lists – in text and images – the various strange events that Kantor had pre-programmed to accompany the happening, e.g., an unexpected biker parade or the appearance of a man on a horse. An image of Pinińska walking among the enthusiastic beachgoers wearing a coat and a head scarf, carrying an umbrella and a suitcase, and leading a dog on a leash, would fit in nicely here. Until recently it wasn’t clear whether such a picture exists at all and whether Kantor noticed the artist’s presence amid all the hoo-ha. It turns out that it does exist, and that Kantor couldn’t have missed her action. Presumably he didn’t like it because – despite her intentions – it invited political interpretations, bringing to mind instances, frequent at the time, of people trying to flee to Sweden across the Baltic4Cf. Jerzy Hanusek, O pewnych aspektach Panoramicznego Happeningu Morskiego Tadeusza Kantora, Estetyka i Krytyka, no. 35, April 2014, pp. 89-105..

Lonely in a crowd of beachgoers, Pinińska strikingly anticipated the alienation that she will experience over the next dozen or so years in the Kraków – and Polish – art world. Its main reason, as it seems, was the feminine nature of her works and their feminine message. Gender identity at the time was considered a private matter; the woman artist was supposed to be genderless, like an angel. The Kraków Group recognized Pinińska as its member only in December 1979. By that time, Kantor’s ties with the collective had become very loose and Cricot 2 Theatre had already moved out of Krzysztofory. There is no certainty whether  the artist’s late admission to the Group owed to Kantor’s – real or alleged – antipathy, possibly tied to the events at Osieki. Another reason may have been the conflict, dating back to 1970, between Kantor and Jerzy Bereś – but it certainly wasn’t Maria Pinińska’s weak artistic activity. Between 1967 and 1979 the artist regularly showed her recent works in the annual Sculpture of the Year exhibition, and some of those works were her finest. Offering an indication of how alienated she was in the Kraków art world is the fact that during this period she had only one solo exhibition in Kraków. It was a small show in 1970, staged at the “Piwnica pod Baranami”, which was a rather exotic place on the map of Kraków galleries. Pinińska’s first major exhibition was in 1980 at the Krzysztofory Gallery. Everything started looking good when suddenly martial law was introduced, causing the artist’s alienation for another half a decade. Official galleries were under boycott, and the informal circuit, developing briskly with the support of ecclesiastical institutions, was beyond Pinińska’s reach because no one was inviting her there. And she did works at the time that would have very much suited those exhibitions. She commented on the situation with the sarcastic Just a Broom (1984). Two years later, in the final gesture of Washing Hands, she crossed out the word “performance.” She was saying goodbye to the medium, in the belief that the discipline lacked proper judgment criteria. The farewell proved premature, she did four more performances.

Let us return to the year 1967. After the Osieki plein-air meeting, Pinińska was planning new actions. Perhaps she didn’t know at the time that her presentation would be ignored in the catalogue. In those years I designed a number of performances, making notes and drawings. But they were never realized. I think I was too shy a person and more vigorous efforts were needed.5Maria Pinińska-Bereś, My Performances, undated manuscript, probably written in 1997 or 1998, published in this volume, pp. 164-166. A sketch has been preserved suggesting that Pinińska was planning a joint performance with Maria Stangret. If that came through, the two artists would have become pioneers of women’s performance art not only in Poland.

Pinińska returned to action art in 1976, joining two much younger Polish artists: Ewa Partum, who had practiced performative visual poetry since the early 1970s, and Teresa Murak, who when still a student in 1974 walked around Warsaw in a dress overgrown with garden cress. Pinińska’s motivations were different than nine years earlier. Kite-Letter is a highly intimate enunciation, a complaint addressed at a specific person: “I’m sorry that I was, that I am…”. The artist often stressed in interviews that a northerly wind blew during the action, as if to emphasize the direction of the message she was sending. A more formal motivation had also come into play at the time: I needed certain facts to construct spatial situations at the gallery. In keeping with this principle, I realized multiple actions as elements of a work set in gallery or natural space.6Maria Pinińska-Bereś, Why Performance?…, op. cit. One can analyze the difference between a for-gallery Kite and one presented as a trace of an earlier performance. It seems that in the farmer case we would be dealing merely with a sentimental arrangement, and in the latter with the vestige of an absurd action, bearing the mark of tragedy and despair.

The most intense period in Maria Pinińska-Bereś’s ephemeral oeuvre were the years 1977-1981. All performances from that time were presented “under the pink flag.” The motif of the standard first appeared in Standard Corset (1967), whereas the color pink had been in use by the artist since in 1956, i.e., shortly after her graduation from the Kraków Academy of Fine Arts. By the 1970s she was using it extensively and it became a kind of her trademark. The flag used in Apollos’ Standard (1976) was also pink. The motif’s recurrence indicates that the artist felt in her practice like on a battlefront or at the head of a march. There was a reason for that. For many years the critics visiting her home at Siemaszki Street tried not to notice her works filling the room. In exhibitions, an unknown perpetrator – though she suspected who that might be – regularly ruined her works. It wasn’t just accidental damage. Leaving muddy shoeprints on white or pink surfaces or feces brought in a bag, the person likely wanted to communicate that he considered those works as shit. Remembering those years, the artist once remarked that she felt like a fallen woman.7Artist’s statement, Rzeczpospolita – Magazyn, no. 1/15, January 1994. As late as in 1980, in an exhibition at the Krzysztofory, someone tore photographs out of an album she had prepared and wrote insulting comments in it.

Pinińska called the pink flag her “author’s standard.” She marched carrying it on her shoulder, she raised it at the beginning or end of a performance like one raises a victorious flag in a conquered territory. Author’s Standard, a 1979 performance where she adored it in a multi-stage ritual, was an act of its consecration.

The waving pink flag meant that all of the artist’s performances from the period were ostentatious, challenging manifestations of female independence, even if they didn’t directly raise feminist issues. Pinińska was thinking about a work that would combine her standard with the feminist idea, but she never actually produced it; perhaps, like in the case of many other projects, she thought it would have been too point-blank.

Outright feminist tropes appeared in two performances. Both were presented as part of women’s art events and seem to have been a kind of ironic commentary on them, reflecting the artist’s ambivalent attitude to certain – particularly institutional – aspects of the feminist movement. In 1980 Pinińska did Laundry, with pink letters on linens hung out to dry arranging themselves into the word “feminism”, an action that could be interpreted also as a voice in the discussion on the relationship between feminism and the broader women’s movement.8Agata Jakubowska, Pranie Marii Pinińskiej-Bereś jako komentarz do wystaw sztuki kobiet, in Dama w lustrze. Strategie artystyczne kobiet w latach 70-tych XX (Poznań: Galeria Piekary, 2017). In 1995, as part of the Women about Women exhibition and symposium at the BWA Gallery in Bielsko-Biała, she whipped up a pink foam and decorated her hat with it, thus expressing her scepticism regarding discourses where “whipped up foam” serves merely to “decorate” their participants. Pinińska’s attitude to feminism was a complex one. She was very much a feminist in social matters, yet she avoided engaging her art in feminist ideology. She believed in the primacy of art over ideology, which meant that she didn’t suspend critical judgment of her “sisterly souls”, whose propositions weren’t always convincing to her in artistic terms.

The pink flag was far more for Pinińska than just a prop used in public appearances. It became a defining element of her identity and relations with the world. It seems that it was always present in her mind as a challenge and an obligation, not only for shaw. For some time in the 1980s, Pinińska had a studio on the 11th floor of an apartment block at Pachońskiego Street in Kraków, where the elevator didn’t even reach. Artist Dorota Krakowska had a similar studio in the neighboring block. One day she noticed someone waving a pink flag in Maria’s window. Certain it was a call for help perhaps Maria has had a stroke or broken her leg – she and her friend hurried down the stairs and then up again to her studio. They knock on the door, panting heavily, when Maria opens and explains to them calmly that she was waving the Rag because she wanted to invite them for coffee.9Interwiew with Dorota Krakowska, 22 September 2016. There were no phone lines in the studios, and mobile telephony wouldn’t come into service in Poland before the early 1990s. In this situation, waving a flag seemed a rational means of inter-studio communication. Perhaps it was that event that inspired Pinińska to take the photographs; alternatively, the photos may have inspired her action.

Besides the pink flag, another distinct characteristic of Pinińska’s performances in the 1970s was the practice of fencing off the performance site. A white rope stretched on white poles separated the space of the action from the surroundings. These “fences”, as she called them, were inspired by the barriers used at museums to protect valuable exhibits. In this way the artist seemed to be making an emphatic statement against blurring the difference between art and non-art, against the literal and in favour of the metaphorical. This was probably one of the reasons of her reluctance towards happening. She may have also been using the “fences” to clearly demarcate the boundaries of the work, for which – all her life being highly sensitive to the problem of form – she felt responsible for. Perhaps, consciously or not, she was also voicing her sense of alienation. It was something that she devoted several of her sculptures from the period to, e.g., My Charming Little Room; the Garden, enclosed with a fence on which the artist had painted a line from a recent pop hit, “And I’ve got / my intimate little world”; or, several years later, My Bed on an Island. But the fences were also autoironic: the artist was likening herself to a precious museum exhibit.

A spectacular theme in Maria Pinińska-Bereś’s ephemeral work is her fascination with nature. This connection seems very much in place. Nature is full of ephemeral phenomena and ephemeral beauty. The artist’s attitude to nature was a special one: I remember the strong emotion when, snatched from the city, I suddenly found myself, in early spring, in a freshly plowed field. I felt like throwing myself on the furrows, kissing them, smelling the aroma that I remember to this day. At another time, in the summer, I escaped from the “cage” of the garden, the paths and plants of which I knew by heart. I ran blindly into the magnificence of the glades and groves until I reached a ravine. There I had a revelation, feeling one with the moss, the undergrowth, the whole miracle surrounding me. I pressed myself into the moss, wallowing in it, moaning in ecstasy. I lay there for a long time in a state of utter bliss.10Maria Pinińska-Bereś, Nature and M., manuscript, 1994, published in this volume, p.157-159. Despite what the above quotation might suggest, Maria Pinińska wasn’t a gushy person. She viewed the world very soberly and practically, and was able to get what she wanted. One evidence of this is the note reflecting her efforts to save a community garden from devastation during the renovation of her apartment block. Maria Pinińska-Bereś’s undated note:

Settlement of expenses to protect the garden during the plastering
vodka for the scaffolding assemblers 58 zł
herring and buns 31 zł
vodka for the plasterers snacks 58 zł
vodka for the scaffolding dissasemblers snacks 29 zł
gift for the foreman 62 zł
cigarettes for the workers 10 zł 50 gr

She was as proud of her gardening achievements as of her artistic successes.

Nature-related practices were encouraged by the highly picturesque environs of Świeszyno and Warcino, where avant-garde plein-air meetings took place. None of the participating artists however was able to take advantage of that as spectacularly as Maria Pinińska-Bereś. Serving as an affirmation of nature was The Place. A Portable Monument, but also Landscape Annexation piece, a non-invasive identification with a patch of meadow, expressed in an act of alliance by stigmatizing stones lying on a hill slope with pink paint. In fact, many of Pinińska’s outdoor performances took place close to her home, which at the time was in the outskirts of Kraków, e.g., Author’s Standard, Praying for Rain, or The Banner. The nearby fields, meadows, and the river Białucha were fragments of nature attractive enough for the artist to use them as a setting for her works. Still, she didn’t openly raise ecological issues in her practice, believing them too obvious for art.

The theme of nature was closely enmeshed for Pinińska with reflection on her own work, which in hindsight can be compared to a garden in which she grew beautiful exotic plants. It was with the same dedication and care that she cultivated real gardens. The theme of art was presented in such performances as Passage Beyond the Quilt; Author’s Standard; Living Pink; Landscape Annexation; or Observation Point for Changes in Art. The latter was an ironic commentary on the situation at the Warcino plein-air meeting in 1978. Placed high on a tree, the eponymous observation point was meant for the most ambitious and radical art critics willing to take the risk and climb up an uncertain pink rope ladder to look out for upcoming trends in art. Another piece, Soap Bubbles, offered reflection on the essence of ephemeral art that remains only in the fragments of memory, especially when documentation is limited to several photographs. Devoted to such fragments of memory was the exhibition Mobile – Immobile. The Performances of Maria Pinińska-Bereś in documentation, meticulously prepared by curators Monika Kozień-Świca and Beata Seweryn at the Bunkier Sztuki Gallery of Contemporary Art in 2007.

Maria Pinińska-Bereś’s ephemeral work is usually perceived – as it seems – through the prism of her outdoor actions, very beautiful, unique in Polish art at the time, using irony and metaphor to reflect on life, art, and nature. Analyzing those performances, we notice that they contain no redundant elements, that the gestures performed follow a clear logic, that the duration of the action tallies precisely with the task at band. The viewer is not asking himself questions like: what is she really doing? What for? What is it supposed to mean? Why so long? This attests to the soundness of the original concept, which was probably intuited, for there are no traces – unlike with the sculptures – of considering alternative scenarios, of searching for the best solution. We do not know for sure whether actions such as Landscape Annexation, Soap Bubbles, or The Place. A Portable Monument were conceived in Kraków or while in plein-air meeting, as a result of contact with nature. The latter seems more likely, for otherwise more concept drawings would have been preserved, since the artist almost obsessively put all her ideas on paper. Certain comments suggest that the artist came up with idea of the Observation Point for Changes in Art during the plein-air meeting.

Pinińska’s drawings for many performances have been preserved, which is unique among performance artists and reflects her concern with form. These drawings are undated, so it is hard to say for sure whether they were made ante or post factum, but there are a lot of indications to believe that the former was the case: they are highly sketchy, made with a ball pen or marker on random pieces of paper unsuited for drawing. Some of those are quite technical, tracing the course of the sledge in the finale of The Banner or the movement of the hand in Woman in a Window. During that time Pinińska didn’t show her drawings at all, nor did she draw them for the purpose of exhibition. Still, it is amazing how precisely they reflect the course of the performances. It cannot be ruled out however that some are post-fact visual records made to emotionally process the performance of a piece. Certainly the sketches for Actions for Kitchen Utensils were made ante fact: the drawings date from August 1996 and the performance was staged in September that. The artist was considering the possibility of using a table or the floor using different props (a knife, a mincer), as well as contemplating various ways of making the final signature and mulling over alternative titles, e.g., Kitchen Peregrinations or Kitchen Aberrations. She also contemplated other performances, sketches for which can be found next to those for Actions on Kitchen Utensils (see pp. 138-139). There also exist drawings for Woman with a Ladder, which were certainly made before the performance, but there are no sketches for Landscape Annexation, Laundry, Just a Broom, or Washing Hands.

Maria Pinińska-Bereś’s outdoor performances can be perceived as belonging to a subtle trend in land art based on temporal, non-invasive interventions in nature. Artists working in this vein included, for example, Ana Mendieta, who was highly active in the 1970s (though her work seems closer to the practices of Teresa Murak), or Richard Long, notably his A Line Made by Walking, realized in the summer of 1967, i.e., when Maria Pinińska-Bereś was walking on the beach in Łazy. But besides certain general similarities that are clear differences here. Pinińska neither exploited natural processes nor tried to surrogate them. Her performances were limited in time and fully controlled by her. It was them that mattered, not the physical results of her gestures. She staged them for the viewers rather than for a photographic or film camera. She didn’t use photography as an artistic medium, considering photos solely as documentation. Her practices – with the exception perhaps of The Banner – lack a conceptual element. They were always highly personal, virtually intimate, and the use of pink paint turned them into metaphorical statements on the artist’s own work. And thus on her life as well, since art in this case was her life.

Another interesting aspect of Pinińska-Bereś’s ephemeral work is its relationship with her sculpting practice. Connections seem bidirectional here, though it was certainly more the case of the former influencing the latter than the other way round. In 1967-1977, the main inspiration for her sculptures came from various house furnishings, especially furniture: cabinets, tables, trunks, beds, drawers, hammocks, or windows. One of the few exceptions was Little Garden (1974), but even here the fence is more like an indoor partition that an outdoor barrier. Dating from 1976 is an installation called The Circle, which was clearly a formal inspiration for the performance Praying for Rain, as suggested by the latter’s alternative name of The Circle II and by similar motifs: a circle delineated by stones (in the performance also by a low turf wall) and raised flags (in the installation in the center of the circle, in the performance around its circumference).

From 1976 Pinińska starts making works that she refers to as landscape sculptures. They seem to have been inspired by her outdoor performances and the resulting experiences. One should mention here in the first place works such as Well of Pink (1977), Returning Wave (1978), Stream (1979), Stone in Water (1981), or the installation Passage Beyond the Quilt (1979), following a gallery-space performance. There is an interesting temporal coincidence here: works of this kind basically disappear from her oeuvre after 1981 as her outdoor performance practices are brought to a halt by the introduction of martial law. This indicates how strongly her artistic imagination was influenced by the open-air experiences. Inspiration also came from her annual mountain treks. The Windows series began with the finding of an old little window while trekking in the Gorce Mountains, her beloved place from the 1980s until her death.

Another interesting issue is the relationship between the performances of Maria Pinińska-Bereś and those of Jerzy Bereś. Although they are so discrepant – one of the key differences is that Bereś bared himself to neutralize the current context while Pinińska dressed in specially tailored costumers to define the context clearly – certain small synchronicities can be noticed. For example, in Apollo’s Standard Pinińska painted her feet to make footprints, in The Banner she left the performance site pulling a sledge with a jingling bell. Bereś used imprints and jingling bells in many of his performances and sculptures. Above all however Pinińska seems to have adopted from him – though she never verbalized that – the conception of performance documentation as a material trace that possesses artistic value of its own. From Kite-Letter, through Apollos’ Standard, Passage Beyond the Quilt, Author’s Standard, and Soap Bubbles, to The Banner and Laundry, more or less complex installations remained after her performances, which according to her instructions were to be exhibited alongside photographic documentation. Pinińska also made sure to preserve the material traces of her ephemeral works: signs, paint cans, banners, fence poles, a tablecloth stained with foam, as well as the dresses and coats she wore. Only the things that she borrowed for the purpose or those too large to carry weren’t kept.

Maria Pinińska’s performances in the 1970s were watched by just a handful of people. In Kraków those were her closest friends; at plein-air meetings almost exclusively artists and critics. None of her performances was filmed.11Laundry II and Living Pink were probably filmed, but the footage has been lost. The only art critic who made references to them at the time was Andrzej Kostołowski. In recent years the artist’s daughter, Bettina Bereś, has been re-enacting and filming her mother’s performances to complement the traces left by the original actions. She has already restaged Living Pink and Woman in a Window, with Washing Hands being planned next.

translated by Marcin Wawrzyńczak

  • 1
    Maria Pinińska-Bereś, Why Performance?…, in this volume, p. pp. 159-164.
  • 2
    The piece has been in storage at the Museum in Koszalin for half a century now, has probably never been on display, and requires thorough conservation.
  • 3
    The plein-air meeting was in Osieki, but Kantor’s performance was set on the beach in the nearby Łazy.
  • 4
    Cf. Jerzy Hanusek, O pewnych aspektach Panoramicznego Happeningu Morskiego Tadeusza Kantora, Estetyka i Krytyka, no. 35, April 2014, pp. 89-105.
  • 5
    Maria Pinińska-Bereś, My Performances, undated manuscript, probably written in 1997 or 1998, published in this volume, pp. 164-166.
  • 6
    Maria Pinińska-Bereś, Why Performance?…, op. cit.
  • 7
    Artist’s statement, Rzeczpospolita – Magazyn, no. 1/15, January 1994.
  • 8
    Agata Jakubowska, Pranie Marii Pinińskiej-Bereś jako komentarz do wystaw sztuki kobiet, in Dama w lustrze. Strategie artystyczne kobiet w latach 70-tych XX (Poznań: Galeria Piekary, 2017).
  • 9
    Interwiew with Dorota Krakowska, 22 September 2016.
  • 10
    Maria Pinińska-Bereś, Nature and M., manuscript, 1994, published in this volume, p.157-159.
  • 11
    Laundry II and Living Pink were probably filmed, but the footage has been lost.
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