Natalia Kaliś: An Outsider by Choice (2010)

(The text was published in art magazine “Exit. New Art in Poland”, No.1 (181), 2010)


When Jerzy Bereś made his first performance, the very term had not yet existed. The climate of the 60th in Cracow encouraged spontaneous actions, nevertheless, these were referred to as happenings. All of them, regardless of the differences. These were organized by hippies and Tadeusz Kantor – the guru of the local artistic world, This was the time of transgression of painting to reveal the act of painting itself. More and more often the focus has been put on the creative process and direct action. Originally, a happening was close to theatre, or more exactly, to its reform oriented aspirations; thus eliminating the gap between audience and performers.

This type of happening was presented by Kantor. Jerzy Bereś delivered his first performance during one of such happenings, the famous Panoramic Marine Happening (Osieki 1967). The piece was a part of the show by Kantor, nevertheless it was completely independent, by the same token, one can consider it the first performance. The artist stuck a wooden stilt in the beach sand, tied himself to it by a string, and walked around. This will be a returning motive in his art.

The second performance by Bereś, Prophecy I, was showed at the prestigious Foksal Gallery in early January 1968. It was mentioned in mocking tones -mainly deriding the artist’s nudity – by Hamilton (Jan Słojewski), a leading columnist of the Kultura Warsaw weekly. Bereś, as he says himself,” took revenge” on the journalist during his Prophecy II in Krzysztofory in Cracow. He lit a bonfire with the issues of the very same Kultura. All these took place at a sensitive historic moment – shortly afterwards, the artist read somewhere that he had been arrested because he encouraged students to shout that “press is lying!” This never happened, nevertheless the anecdote illustrated well the hectic times when the artist presented his first performances; their myth generating power, subversive potential, specific impact and intensity of reception.

Manifestations by Bereś brought about audiences vivid feedback, and by the same token, put authorities on alert. An interesting action, entitled A Lap of Honor, interrupted by police, took place in November 1975 in Zamość Market Square. Its peak point was when participants had a chance to make their own souvenirs. They were handed sheets of paper to print contours of a face and the word FACE. The crowd was so large that militia, uncertain how to react when confronted with a weird event in the town centre, simply took the artist and Andrzej Mroczek, a curator. and drove them away, thus terminating the source of “commotion”.

Since Bereś would not call his actions happenings, all his public appearances were referred to as manifestations (the term happening was used in Poland as late as the second half of the 70’s). The latter were neither spontaneous, nor chaotic, as the most of happenings. On the contrary, their structure was well planned, and as the artist stresses, their main objective was to present his views. There were many reasons behind Bereś’s interest in “live art”. Besides the specific 60’s atmosphere, an evolution of his artistic approach was one of the main factors. He applied the word manifestation earlier to describe his sculptures. He wrote that in the 60’s their manifestation temperature went up. When at the turn of the decade he had no opportunities to make performances, he started to make the instruments to manifest.

The Great Phantom, going back to 1966, was an excellent example of the “manifesting” piece. Bereś was invited to take part in the artists symposium organized to celebrate the opening of the Nitrogen Plant in Puławy, unofficially propagating the union between industry and art. The young artist had a problem to make something “fitting”. During one of the walks around the local countryside, he noticed an uprooted, drying tree – a result of clearing works to prepare a factory construction site. He decided that it had to return to its original location. Thus, elevated to the rank of a piece of art, only slightly arranged, it was back in the industrial area. As a prick of conscience, a reminder. One should stress that the topic and approach were quite innovative at that time.

Jerzy Bereś studied at the Cracow Academy of Fine Arts Sculpture Department in the Stalinist era. The beginning of his studies in 1950 coincided with the wake of social realism. The artist managed to escape indoctrination. After two years, he joint the faculty run by Xawery Dunikowski, the then only refuge of free art. Later he remembered: the Professor, himself proudly wearing communist regime decorations, did not tolerate social realism in his students. Bereś was an outstanding student but he made truly original pieces after his graduation. His studies and acquaintance with Dunikowski – enjoying unquestionable respect as an artist, nevertheless making monuments ordered by the regime – made Bereś verify his artistic standpoint. Thus, I have questioned professional master skills as a top criterion. Thus, a new ethical criterion appeared. From now on, ethical values have become a priority for him and pushed out other, more “artistic” qualities in his own, private hierarchy.

First of all, Bereś strived for individual and authentic features. The first step in this direction was to give up skills he had acquired at the Academy. He turned to such materials as wood, linen, raw fieldstone. He used all these to make simple sculptures. He wanted them to look like tools of primeval people, with the stress put on the word “tools” – since the latter are usable, while the purpose of his art was to give a message. He has stressed a number of times: My way of thinking and my art have been based on the observation of reality, and not on the observation of what is going on in art. Numerous sculptures and manifestations by Bereś have provided a commentary on the surrounding reality. He has been focused on an individual context and location. This attitude pushed him towards journalism, so he had to be very careful not to limit his art to short-term issues. Thus, starting with an analysis of a given real situation, he has referred to more universal aspects; freedom, identity, truth, passing judgment, the role of art.

Bereś has made a conscious choice to be an outsider. He wished to stay independent from both; changing artistic trends, and political limitations. He dreamed of a full freedom in our gloomy communist reality. He was a close friend of hippies, since the latter manifested their protest against the surrounding world. His texts and art carry references to romanticism which – among others – was one of his main sources of inspiration. He has found there a strong hero – an individual in a sustained struggle for freedom (personal, collective). Bereś felt depressed in the communist Poland, but when Solidarity was founded in the 80’s, he did not join it. I cannot imagine myself voluntarily marching in any crowd […] I am simply allergic to the very thought of joining an organized movement.

In 1989, he made a list of his most important works. He mentioned there, among others, Romantic Manifestation held in the Old Town Market Square in Cracow on November 18th 1981, i.e., a month before martial law was imposed. The action attracted crowds of random passers-by. The artist, dressed in a warm coat and a fur hat, pushed a wooden cart that he had made himself, loaded with firewood.

The artist set bonfires in the Cracow Market Square, describing them with white paint: the bonfire of hope, the bonfire of freedom, the bonfire of dignity. The bonfire of love was located near the Monument to Mickiewicz. The last was the bonfire of truth. It was getting dark and onlookers started gathering around. Fire has been an element constantly returning in the actions by this artist, adding to their specific, mystery like and quasi ritualistic atmosphere.

In The Romantic Manifestation, the artist was wearing a coat; paradoxically it was quite untypical of him. From the very beginning his manifestations rather exposed his nakedness, though for a long time this gesture was misinterpreted. Press critics indiscriminately scoffed at him, shocked at the sight of penis. One of them jeered: He is painting his male attributes with special deliberation. Not much of painting in this, and nothing to boast about. Bereg incidentally broke a traditional taboo connected with a male body. His intention was to stress purity and truth (bare truth) of his statement. The reception of the artist’s nakedness has been changing with time. Today, the sculptor is 80 years old, and – in spite of the embarrassment caused by the aging body – he still appears nude. Nobody is shocked anymore, but he makes a strong impression, though for completely different reasons. It is hard to confront a wrinkled, senile body of an old man. This becomes a manifestation of passing and loss of power.

A considerable number of his sculptures and manifestations carry political overtones, referring to given events in Polish history – current and more distant. The piece is usually proceeded by what Bereś calls a report on the status of reality. It is a summary of how he has personally coped with a particular situation. The Clapper (1971) sculpture – an immediate reaction to the so called Gierek’s decade – has been an example of this method. Bereś did not believe in the promises of the new first secretary and he was skeptical about social applause that accompanied them. As a result, he made a wooden sculpture featuring an oblong table with huge palms on it and a lever to set them in motion. There were other sculptures – comments from the 70’s showing a similar sense of humour, for example A Lollypop and A Rag (both from 1971).

In the 80’s, Bereś joint the artists who were boycotting state galleries in their protest against martial law. As many others, he presented his works in the clandestine, so called “church circulation”. His manifestations have always contained something of religious ceremony, the artist himself being an agnostic, though strongly rooted in a Christian tradition. In his output one can find terms referring to Catholic rites, i.e., a mass, an altar (vide manifestations: A Political Mass 1980, A Reflective Mass 1975, An Erotic Altar 1975). The church circulated art trend – strongly criticized as early as the mid-eighties (with regard to poor artistic quality of works and their unbearable suffering and patriotic overtones) – was considered by the artist a wasted chance to strike a dialogue with general public. The latter being then very open, and ready to talk. Bereś has constantly stressed an importance of a viewer’s role. Nevertheless, his dialogue with a viewer looks like an argument. The dispute about values has been a constant motive in his output. According to him, a piece of art should adopt a role of the “judgment stimulator”. He writes: Confrontation of various, individual critical judgments of real facts amounts to an authentic artistic and cultural life. when one is constantly developing a hierarchy of true… values.

Sculptures and performances by Bereś have been closely connected. A sustained point of view of the artist is their common link. An outsider standing aside, observing and criticizing reality, frequently determined to pass strong judgments and opinions, always ready to defend what he believes in. He has often taken a part of a sage, a priest, a philosopher, as well as exposed his weaknesses through identification with a slave, a monument, an object. He has made an impression with his radical attitude and a lack of acceptance of the world, defense of constantly threatened subjectivity, individual rights, personal freedom (always understood in terms of independence, i.e., being independent). Following his convictions, Bereś made actions where he was walking for several kilometres, nearly naked – if not for a hip cover that lacerated his body – in a strong wind; pushing ahead a wooden wheelbarrow and carrying a banner (Monument to an Artist 1978).

Bereś has applied an original set of formal means, shaping his strongly distinctive style. His pieces cannot be possibly mistaken for someone else’s. His art – in spite of strongly dominant topics – has contained multiple motives, and it has been ever more open to new interpretations.

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