Why Performance? (1997)

(manuscript, February 1997. The text was published in the exhibition catalog: Maria Pinińska-Bereś. Ephemeral Works. 1967-1966, Monopol Gallery, Warsaw 2017)



In my youth, I deemed nature and art as exclusively beautiful and in their naturalness good. I saw art as a refuge from the pitfalls of the world around me (communism). Here you could be yourself.

I pursued my adventure with art behind the closed door of the studio and I was rather reluctant to exhibit my work. The shows and previews were always highly emotional for me. Especially after I’d started to introduce personal, feminist themes.

My first encounter with performance or happening art was when I was invited by Kantor to take part in his piece, Line of Division, which took place at the Association of Art Historians space [in Kraków]. I was the person loudly proclaiming, “I sit.”

Then, in Osieki in 1967, Kantor asked my husband and myself to do anything in the context of his Sea Happening. It was at a time when, having moved away from academic sculpture, I was redefining my art. I was doing papier-mâché Corsets.

I viewed performances and happenings as something rather strange to my complex nature, which actually gave me a certain sense of guilt. Few anchor points as there were, I decided to participate in the happening anyway. My room in Osieki was almost empty, with a summer coat in the closet and two suitcases under the bed. There wasn’t much choice, and time was pressing. I hit upon the idea of confronting a beach situation (a hot summer day) with the situation of traveling. Dressed in the light coat, with a scarf on my head, and carrying the suitcases, I entered the sweltering beach, attracting much attention. I paced to and fro along the shore throughout the happening. People asked me if I was going to Sweden, if I was choosing freedom, and where my boat was waiting. It was a time, you know, when many young people, hippies, dreamed of fleeing the country. People tried to escape through the sea, and even in Osieki there had been a case where young runaways were apprehended. After the happening, Kantor was angered by reports about my performance’s purported meaning and reception. I didn’t challenge this kind of interpretation, which was distant from my – rather structural – intention. However, the spirit of the time imbues art. I think it was this context that caused Kantor to never publicly acknowledge my contribution. So he was rather cautious in matters that might jeopardize his career. Those two events opened me up to this art form. I began to consider performance as a challenge.

I made sketches for a performance piece I was planning. I was even thinking of inviting Maria Strangret to do it with me as a collaboration, but the whole thing never went beyond sketches and notes. Our relationship with Kantor had turned sour, and my activities at the Krzysztofory would no longer be possible.

I joined the Kraków Group only in 1979, on Jonasz Stern’s recommendation, which was weird because we were ideologically poles apart and not friends either. Ever since my clash with Polewka at the art-school entry exam, where he sneered at my father, a Polish Army cavalry captain murdered by the NKVD (in Starobielsk), I felt stigmatized and incriminating. So I was rather inhibited in dealing with communists. Stern reportedly took note of my work on the occasion of the successive Sculpture of the Year exhibitions. In fact, he was a man who was sensitive to art and in art unselfish.

I showed my first performance in spring 1976. It was Kite-Letter. What I needed were certain facts to build spatial situations in the gallery. Many [of my] performances were realized according to this principle, as elements of a larger work developed in natural or gallery space.

In 1980, I will win the main prize for a work of this kind, The Banner, at the Sculpture of the Year exhibition in Kraków. Meanwhile, in the late 1970s, I participated in retreats in Warcino and Świeszyno (Słupsk province), which were meeting points for artists interested in performance and action art. There I also realized some of my outdoor performances, e.g., Soap Bubbles (a symbol of ephemeral art), 1979,  or Landscape Annexation, 1980; the installation Observation Point for Changes in Art, 1978; or The Place. A Portable Monument, 1979.

An important piece was Laundry at the ON Gallery in Poznań in 1980, where I washed and hung out to dry sheets of canvas that formed the word “FEMINISM.” Each sheet featured one letter in pink. During that time, I would employ a kind of fence, similar to that used in museums, with a plaque bearing the work’s title, date of making, and my signature.

I planted a rose bush in front of the Kraków BWA, observing the proper gardening procedure. Then I took off my pink apron, turned it into a flag, and stuck it in the middle of the fenced-off “garden.” In conclusion, I asked in three languages (the audience was international) whether roses would bloom pink come spring.

Alas, reality was cruel, martial law was announced (on the exhibition’s closing day), and neither the rose nor art itself had the right to optimism and to so frivolous a colour. In the early 1980s it was the riot police that staged performances in the streets. Art went underground and I developed a certain distance to performance art. What made sense was studio work with the purpose of showing its effects later. Still, I was persuaded twice to participate in performance shows in Lublin, in 1984 and 1986. My first piece, Just a Broom, dealt with the issues of the day; the second one, Washing Hands, was also a way of saying goodbye to the medium.

But it turned out that even in the 1990s I was enticed to show a couple of pieces. They say there are moviemakers who think they are making their last film. Then they make another last one. Was I facing a similar problem? But performance was never as important for me as my sculptures and objects.

I’ve already mentioned Kantor and I’d like to return to him now. What did he really give us? He was an artist, like Picasso, who drew inspiration from wherever he could. Also from other artists. But it was to him that all the gazes were turned. He surrounded himself with young artists, but I don’t think it was for the purpose of conveying anything to them or teaching them anything. He watched and listened closely, drawing conclusions for his own benefit. Besides, each of us played a role in his social and prestige games (the court).

I believe that Kantor’s roots go back to the artistic personality of [Maria] Jaremianka. This is particularly true for his vision of theatre. In fact, there was a time when he cited her as his inspiration and authority figure. He stopped talking about her when his own career took off, but I think she remained an authority figure both for myself and for many others. Dealings with Kantor strengthened my resolve to go anti-traditional as well as my openness to performance art.

In 1975, I did an important work, My Charming Little Room. It was acquired by the National Museum in Kraków, and Andrzej Pawłowski put it on display in the main lobby. Some time later I happened upon Kantor’s manifesto concerning his Little Room of Imagination. I knew already that he’d seen My Charming Little Room and was impressed! Such a dialogue between artists?

Then Kantor became successful with his theatre, travelled a lot, and there weren’t many opportunities for meeting. In 1989, I did The Burning Giraffe and contributed it to a Kraków Group exhibition. Before the preview, already in the hall, I saw Kantor circling around it like a tiger around its prey. In my mind’s eye I could already see the piece as a prop in his theatre. In the following weeks he became very nice to me, and I was even invited to a stage rehearsal. My fears proved ungrounded, Kantor died suddenly.

But I can still feel his presence.

 February 1997

Translated by Marcin Wawrzyńczak

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