‘Laughing at My Head’ – The ‘Immature’ Art of Neue Bieremiennost

I was commissioned to write a piece about the early years of artist Mirosław Bałka and his colleagues when they sailed under the flag of ‘Neue Bieremiennost’. The piece appears in a book written and edited by Kasia Redzisz and Karol Sienkiewicz with the title Świadomość Neue Bieriemiennost (Fundacja Open Art Projects, Warsaw, 2012).

In November 1987 I spent a day in Warsaw visiting exhibitions. I passed the morning in the company of hushed crowds viewing the Porczyński collection of Renaissance and Baroque paintings newly installed in the Archdiocese Museum, a small palace close to the Vistula River. A spectacular gift to the church from a Pole living abroad, the collection brought works credited to Rubens and Rembrandt to the People’s Republic of Poland. This was a major event. People queued to enter the modest gallery which had been created as an alternative space for art during the boycott of official cultural institutions that operated during the early 1980s. Only later did serious doubts emerge about the authenticity and the value of the collection.[1] In the light of these claims, Porczyński’s gift looked less generous than it had first seemed.

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Co Słychać?, Norblin Factory, Warsaw 1987

In the afternoon of the same day, I crossed the city to the Norblin factory, a crumbling industrial wreck. The space had been commandeered by another returnee, Andrzej Bonarski, to mount an exhibition of new Polish art called Co Słychać? (What’s Up?).[2]After working in the USA, Bonarski had recently returned to Poland to set himself up as an art dealer, impresario and collector. With the horizons narrowed by communist rule, art, it seems, provided fertile ground for making reputations. Brash, neo-expressionist canvases in the then fashionable manner of the Neue Wilden were double-hung from the gantries of the Norblin Factory. Primitive statues stood on the uneven floor, still bearing the imprint of the furnaces which had once warmed the air in this former metalworks. The art was accompanied by the scent of oil and rust, and pulsed by the ‘heavy’ sound of reggae. From what I can recall, I was not much taken with the neo-expressionist paintings in Co Słychać?(‘New’, I wrote in my diary, ‘seems old by now’). By contrast, some of the installations possessed a kind of exuberance and wit which demanded attention. Hanging in the middle of the factory-gallery, for instance, was a telephone handset. Its whorled cable stretched up to the ceiling where the phone was fixed to a small table accompanied by chair on a carpeted ‘floor’. If anyone had been making a call, a sudden shift in gravity had put it to an abrupt end. This upside-down world was Mirosław Filonik’s ‘Murder in the Red Room’ (Morderstwo w czerwonym pokoju). Droll and strange, Filonik’s artwork seemed to have something to say about the inverted laws which operated in the People’s Republic of Poland.

Św.Wojciech by Mirosław Bałka

I was not sure what exactly, though. His Neue Bieremiennost associate, Mirosław Bałka installed another image of suspension, ‘St Adalbert’ (Św.Wojciech, 1987). Fashioned from sacking, a decapitated and maimed figure of this historic martyr was hung, horizontally, off the scarred factory wall. Above it, the instrument of violence, an axe, was suggested by a neon sign: below, another set of green lights signaled life in the oats growing in soil tray on the ground. A second sculpture fashioned from sacking represented the Old Testament figure of ‘Cain’ (Kain, 1987). With his God-given mark on his back and charred skin, he stood, like a penitent or perhaps a worshipper, before a small, primitive forge. Here was the fiery source of his – and mankind’s – power to destroy. As Maria Morzuch noted later, Bałka’s sewn figures from this period seemed to come from an inaccessible zone, ‘a world of holy goodness or damned evil.’[3]

The neo-expressionist ‘moment’ in Polish art represented by Co Słychać? passed quickly in the 1990s as the country left Moscow’s embrace for democracy and the free-market economy. Recently it has come under the spotlight again, with historians and curators attempting to interpret the paintings, sculptures and installations produced under the flags of Gruppa, Koło Klipsa, Neue Bieremiennost and the other grupuscles of the age. Works which were lost or in states of decay have been remade or restored to be exhibited again.[4] This book is one part of this project in historical reconstruction. So how should works like Filonik’s sardonic ‘Murder in the Red Room’ or Bałka’s ‘St Adalbert’ be understood? As Poland’s contribution to the international wave of postmodernism, as was often claimed at the time? As juvenilia? As a reflex of the ersatz conditions of late socialism in Poland?

Neue Bieremiennost rejected categorization (unsuccessfully, it should be admitted). After all, its members proclaimed a common ‘consciousness’ rather than a shared mission or message. Sailing under a common flag between 1986 and 1989, the three principal members of the group produced diverse and often erratic work. This inconsistency was not (or, perhaps, was not just) the result of their relative youth. Neue Bieremiennost operated in the ‘dimension ….of the heteroclite’.[5] Their art was fashioned from diverse fragments and ideas, often exploiting ephemeral and abject materials. Eschewing monumentality, Neue Bieremiennost’s associates often produced a kind of dysphasic art not unlike that produced by Thomas Hirschhorn and Isa Genzken. Yet, it was clearly a product of a particular time and place, late socialist Poland. The ‘Neue Bieremiennost for Women’ (Neue Bieriemiennost na rzecz kobiet) exhibition was, for instance, organised in Warsaw to coincide with International Women’s Day in March 1986. The artists approached this red-letter day in the socialist calendar with a capricious agglomeration of materials, objects and ideas. A performance by Bałka featured 44 unfinished plaster Santa Claus figures wrapped in newspapers or hidden inside dirty pyramids of snow gathered from the street outside the gallery. Unwrapping the small packages and melting the snow with his hands, he exposed the little Saint Nicks to the world. In the background, Julio Iglesias’s sugary ballads issued from a loudspeaker. By the end, Bałka had created a comic scene in which a small crowd of Santas stood as mute and cracked witnesses to the lynching of one of their number. Filonik’s performance for the same fête of socialist femininity, ‘Woman with Feathers’ (Kobieta z pierza), involved laying a carpet of feathers on a rubber mattress. The artist then blew the feathers with a jet of air from a vacuum cleaner, filling the room and the assembled audience in a cloud of down. Eschewing clear symbolism or the hermeneutic imperative of ‘a message’, these actions were absurd, teetering on incomprehensibility.

The appeal of indeterminacy has to be understood in the context of the alliances and boundaries which were drawn across Polish culture in the 1980s. The imposition of Martial Law by General Jaruzelski’s Military Council of National Salvation (Wojskowa Rada Ocalenia Narodowego) in December 1981 had been met by a boycott of official cultural institutions by anti-communist artists, actors and writers. After Martial Law was lifted in 1983, the tense relations between state and people remained. At that time, the Roman Catholic Church offered alternative public spaces where artists could exhibit their work or mount theatrical performances.[6] In Warsaw, the ruined church on Żytnia Street, for instance, provided a suitably melancholic setting for meetings of the anti-communist cultural elite as well as a number of exhibitions and theatrical performancesby banned avant-garde companies like Theatre of the Eighth Day (Teatr Ósmego Dnia) from Poznań and filmmaker Andrzej Wajda (who mounted an ‘Easter Vigil’ ‘The Cenacle’ (Wieczernik),a play by Ernest Bryll, there in 1985[7]). Group exhibitions exploring spiritual themes were also organised there: the ‘Sign of the Cross’ (Znak Krzyża) was, for instance, organized in 1983 to coincide with the visit of Pope John Paul II. To demonstrate the strength of the anti-communist alliance, it called on artists of all stripes, including proto-environmentalist artist Teresa Murak and Edward Krasiński, a figure whose work linked minimalism and conceptualism with a thin blue strip. The context meant that art which eschewed eschatological or political themes was, nevertheless, framed by deeply-rooted romantic and messianic myths of national solidarity in the face of injustice. In the historicizing imagination of the anti-communist opposition, present conditions could be connected to long chain of tragic events in the history of the nation (namely the violent repression of worker protests in 1976, 1970 and 1956; the Katyn massacre in 1940; the outbreak of war in 1939 and the crushing of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943 and the Warsaw Uprising one year later; failed revolutions in 1905, 1863 and 1831). Repression had, of course, thrown up prophets, martyrs and heroes. From the lofty vantage point of opposition, culture was best when it was laced with pathos or took the form of testament.

For some artists, Neue Bieremiennost amongst them, the alliance of the church and the anti-communist opposition imposed a new and unwelcome set of aesthetic, moral and political codes. Speaking in 1993, Anda Rottenberg, a critic and curator closely associated with the group (to the extent that she could use the pronoun ‘we’), characterised Neue Bieremiennost’s activities as ‘opposition to both the underground church movement and the official movement … It was an attitude towards politics; [that] politics cannot interfere in art’. For Rottenberg, Neue Bieremiennost’s ironic actions and artworks operated ‘like the mirror in the circus reflecting some official habits in the field of art’.[8] Organizing their actions according to the ritual calendars of the church (Easter) and the state (Mayday and Women’s Day) and alert to the ritualized forms of loyalty which both required, Neue Bieremiennost seemed to treat these realms as official zones.

Kijewski’s Meditations of King Sigismund III

Although resistant to the revival of ‘gallows Romanticism’, many of the artworks produced by Bałka, Filonik and Kijewski share a preoccupation with national mythology, albeit often in skeptical and sardonic terms, as well as a deep attentiveness of Christian iconography. In works like ‘The Meditations of King Sigismund III About a Woman Fallen in Spirit’ (Rozmyślania Zygmunta Trzeciego na temat kobiety upadłej na duchu) on display in Co Słychac? in 1987 and ‘With Arm and Sword’ (Żywią i bronią, 1987), Kijewski remade Warsaw’s bronze idols in cheap materials and reorganized their heroic forms: the syrenka (mermaid) and Sigismund’s Column – icons of the revival of the Polish capital after the Second World War – were refashioned as priapic figurines motivated by carnal desires rather than by holy principles. History was presented as a kind of masturbatory farce.

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Witold Gombrowicz

Such works belong to a vein of anti-heroism which runs through Polish culture. It is found in the plays, novels, and poems of Miron Białoszewski, Witold Gombrowicz and Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz and others. Preoccupied with debased matter and déclassé individuals as well as absurdity and irreverence, these writers and artists have written alternative scripts for national culture. Their ‘common’ purpose – if such a thing can be detected – was not necessarily the creation of another kind of national monument. Insisting on the necessity of actively determining (or at least struggling to determine) one’s own identity rather than being formed by culture or the interests of others, they rejected notions of fixed or ‘authentic’ Polishness.

Gombrowicz, the novelist and dramatist who left Poland in 1939 never to return, seems to have had particular resonance in the 1980s. (His ‘complete works’ – including his philosophical, opinionated and highly discursive Diaries – were published in 1986 after being largely unavailable and occasionally banned in the People’s Republic). The writer took a disdainful view of Polish romanticism. It had, he believed, created an illusion of community and what he liked to characterise as an over-mature culture, built on dreams of monumentality and grandeur drawn from Romantic history. Writing against the national grain, Gombrowicz celebrated immature, childish and clownish forms of expression. He filled the pages of his novels and diaries with slapstick humour, repetitions, slang and abrupt digressions. A skilled abductor of language and creator of neologisms, he would twist morphemes and words into new meanings. In Trans-Atlantyk (1953), for instance, ‘synczyzna’ (sonland) becomes an irreverent upstart and rival to ‘ojczyzna’ (fatherland), for instance.

The selection of the group’s German-Russian name – Neue Bieremiennost – seems to point to Gombrowicz. Looking back late in life, he reflected on the ill-fated location of the country:

It is a country between the East and the West, where Europe starts to draw to an end, a border country where the East and the West soften into each other. A country of weakened forms . . . None of the great movements of European culture has ever penetrated Poland, not the Renaissance, not the wars of religion, not the French revolution, not the industrial revolution . . . So these plains, open to every wind, had long been the scene of a great compromise between Form and its Degradation . . . This feeling of formlessness tortured the Poles, but at the same time it gave them a strange sense of liberty.[9]

Wrapped in sardonic humour and playfulness was a kind of philosophy: if Poland could accept its condition, that of an immature state overshadowed by the achievements of its neighbours, an open-minded culture could be conceived. Poland could, in other words, be a neue bieremiennost.

In celebrating formlessness, Gombrowicz was not arguing for what Georges Bataille called the ‘informe’, an inchoate state in which meaning briefly emerges before vanishing again. The Polish writer was preoccupied with the yet to be formed. Moreover, Gombrowicz’s mischievous literary style is, for instance, a kind of textual demonstration of his view that the preoccupations and roles associated of adulthood obscure a kind of primordial youthfulness in all of us.

We are ‘infantilized’ by all ‘higher’ forms. Man, tortured by his mask, fabricates secretly, for his own usage, a sort of ‘subculture’: a world made out of the refuse of a higher world of culture, a domain of trash, immature myths, inadmissible passions . . . a secondary domain of compensation. That is where a certain shameful poetry is born, a certain compromising beauty . . .[10]

Gombrowicz’s conception of trash aesthetics, outlined here in a passage from his introduction to the French edition of Pornografia (1966), might offer some insights into the ‘immature’ forms of Neue Bieremiennost’s art.

If a ruined church, destroyed during the Warsaw Uprising, seemed a ‘natural’ setting for the revival of Polish Romanticism by anti-communist artists and playwrights after Martial Law, the Norblin factory – a grimy ruin – was a ‘natural’ environment for the art shown in Co Słychac?in 1987. In fact, Poland seemed to be rotting in the late 1980s: a greasy tide of filth seeped into public spaces such as common hallways, streets, parks and beaches; one-time symbols of the communist future – socmodernist hotels and sports stadia – were broken, in a state of chronic disrepair; and, of course, the shops were empty. Chroniclers of everyday life in Poland in the 1980s, short-story writers Marek Nowakowski and Janusz Anderman were alert to the ubiquitous presence of ‘dreck’.[11] Trash crowded a world which was unable to meet the task of supplying its citizens with the new. Setting the scene for his short story, A sense of … , Anderman wrote:

Silence and mist covered the vast square: its houses lay in decay, unreal as a stage backcloth; jutting balconies stacked with discarded objects, broken chairs, faded children’s toys, scraps of refuse, dusty jars and bottles, saucepans with holes and cracked enamel, voiceless TV boxes, old-fashioned chandeliers, rotting picture frames, rusty bikes, strung-up bundles of old newspapers.’[12]

Anderman was nearly right. These things were not quite – or not yet – discarded. Shortage turned citizens into skilled fixers of broken things, adept at the everyday art of bricolage. Only when things were completely exhausted (itself never a certain state), could they be dumped.

Garbage was not just a resource for survival: it was also material for making sense. As Tomasz Kitliński has pointed out, the country has thrown up many ‘dreck heroes’:

A dreck-hero is the one who emerges clean from political and historical slime; who transcends human garbage status while wading through filth, cleaning up trash, or living in rubble; who keeps conscience alive amid degradation and grim realities. Where shit prevails, the dreck-hero prevails even more.[13]

Wajda’s Kanal

A ‘dreck hero’ can be a fictional character like the celebrated war-time insurgents who occupy the sewers in Andrzej Wajda’s film ‘Kanal’ (‘Kanał’)(1957). For Kitliński, it could also be an artist or writer who ‘rises above dreck even while immersed in it’. Polish art has produced a number of these champions of trash. Dramatist and artist Tadeusz Kantor might be counted amongst them. He coined the term ‘the Reality of the Lowest Rank’ (‘rzeczywistość najniższej rangi’) to describe the power of lowly objects to stimulate the imagination: ‘being, death, love … exist somewhere in a poor corner, a parcel, a stick, a bicycle wheel … bereft of pathos or illusion.’[14] ‘Refuse, cast-off ends and odds’ were conscripted throughout his career into productions, performances and happenings. Kantor’s purpose was to provide markers of human existence, much in the manner described by Hannah Arendt in her 1958 book, The Human Condition: ‘the things of the world have the function of stabilizing human life, and their objectivity lies in the fact that…men, their ever-changing nature notwithstanding, can retrieve their sameness, that is, their identity, by being related to the same chair and the same table.’[15]Trash was not something to be discarded: it was to be salvaged for the memories and marks of human existence that it might contain.

One can trace elements of this sensibility in Bałka’s work produced during his Neue Bieremiennost period: the 44 plaster boomerangs he created for a performance entitled ‘Boomerangs for Peace’ (Bumerangi pokoju) presented as part ofCC Neue Bieriemiennost for Peace (KC Neue Bieriemiennost na rzecz pokoju) in the Dziekanka Workshop (Pracownia Dziekanka) in Warsaw in May 1986, were filled with ash, hay, coal dust and sand. When thrown against projected images of the rural landscape on the walls of Dziekanka, they shattered. These low materials of everyday existence formed a dusty cloud before settling on the floor. His sewn figures – ‘St Adalbert’ and ‘Cain’ – were fashioned from old sacks which had once contained fuel and food, resources for life. Despite the resolute pointless of throwing a boomerang against a wall or the artificial illumination of neon lighting, one can still trace in these early works what would later become Bałka’s all-encompassing preoccupation with human presence and absence.

By contrast, his Neue Bieremiennost colleagues drew other – more kitsch – kinds of associations from the detritus of everyday life. Filonik, for instance, sometimes deployed the cheap consumer goods of late socialism. The failing command economy produced shoddy goods which were broken or redundant before they even left the factory. This was another order of trash. Filonik’s contribution to ‘For All Saints’ (Na rzecz Wszystkich Świętych) exhibition in Poznań in December 1986, an installation entitled ‘Mr. Francis’s Sacred Birds’ (Święte Ptaki Pana Franciszka), was fashioned from a shop mannequin and half a dozen inflatable swimming rings in the shape of swans. Mixing cheap artificial effects with the figure of a saint associated with a love of nature, this was an exercise in visual catachresis. Nearby, Filonik arranged another set of mannequin heads sharing tongues entitled ‘The Beuys’ and a pair of legs combined with birch branches bearing the name ‘Hooker Positioned on Her Head’ (Dziwka postawiona na głowie). In the same exhibition Kijewski fashioned a nursing sow from rags, his mother’s bed linen and a steel frame. Her piglets could be made to fly at the tug of a lever made from twine. His mother-in-law provided a china elephant ornament which was exhibited on ridiculous metal stilts. No redemption was to be drawn from these shabby resources.

Neue Bieriemiennost for Jean Bédel Bokassa I’

Self-consciously artless and immediate, Filonik’s art drew it effects from its brash humour. Similarly, a massive sculpture known as ‘the Palace Eater’, created by all three associates of the group for show entitled ‘Neue Bieriemiennost for Jean Bédel Bokassa I’, shared this character. A headless statute of the African dictator fashioned from steel mesh and painted fabric, it featured a massive phallus which seemed to have deposited some kind of ejeculate in the corner of the Warsaw gallery when it was installed in January 1987. It was a kind of enormous and vulgar joke.

Such works also testify to a ‘hunger for strangeness’ first identified during the Stalin years but at its peak in the 1980s.[16] This craving was not only a product of the barren conditions and social anomie which marked life in Poland: the romantic and patriotic foundations of dissent also had the effect of narrowing and elevating the horizons of culture. Neue Bieriemiennost belonged to a generation who expressed an acute and sometimes incongruous appetite for difference. The booming reggae soundtrack which accompanied the Co Słychać? exhibition was one such sign. In 2009 ‘Neue Bieriemiennost for Jean Bédel Bokassa I’ was recreated for exhibition in Rotterdam, Warsaw and Wrocław which was entitled ‘I Could Live in Africa’, a title adopted from a 1983 documentary about the Polish band Izrael[17]. For these nonconformists, Poland was ‘Babylon’ and Africa was a mythic paradise without rules, material possessions or, for that matter, politicians, trade unions or priests. Punk, new wave and reggae music was the soundtrack for a loose ‘alternative culture’ which operated in the 1980s. Song lyrics, ‘trzeciobieg’ (third circulation) fanzines and occasional ‘happenings’ often expressed a darkly ironic view of official and opposition shibboleths and invented unlikely heroes. Neue Bieriemiennost’s actions – organised on symbolic days in the socialist calendar and delighting in absurdity – coincided with the loosely-scripted street theatre performed by Orange Alternative in Wrocław or the actions of lesser-known groups like the Mathias Rust Komando in Poznań. Named after a teenage German pilot who, evading Soviet air defences, landed his light plane in Red Square in Moscow in May 1987, the male and female ‘commandos’ marked International Women’s Day a few months later by dressing as women and carrying banners announcing ‘Polish women support the government policies’ and ‘I’ll take any work’.[18] Punk also brought a latter-day version of auto-destructive art to Poland. After forming in 1981, Dezerter, a prominent punk band, refused success (within the limited horizons set by the ‘music industry’ in the People’s Republic) by testing their audiences with incoherence. Their performance at a music festival in 1986 took the form of ‘inaudible playback from tapes of three of their old hits’ and an ‘improvised performance, the high point of which was an unprepared “speech” by the band’s manager dressed as a Hussar.’[19]

A hunger for difference, iconoclasm and sardonic humour formed lines of connection across a fragmented ‘alternative culture’ at the end of the 1980s. In setting Neue Bieriemiennost in this company, it would be easy to characterise their activities as ‘mere’ juvenilia. Yet, there was, as Gombrowicz claimed, value to be found in immaturity. Immaturity was a mode of resistance. In his novel Ferdydurke (1937), the central character, a thirty-year old man, Joey Kowalski, is thrust into a teenage world, his peers indifferent or unaware of his age or appearance. This violent abduction by a force of order and civilization –a school teacher – is, at first, disturbing. Yet Kowalski finds refuge in his childishness. In her introduction to a new translation of the book, Susan Sontag wrote ‘Gombrowicz affirming the “human” need for imperfection, incompleteness, inferiority … youth, proclaims himself a specialist in inferiority. Swinish adolescence may seem a drastic antidote to smug maturity, but this is exactly what Gombrowicz has in mind’.[20]

As antidotes to the historicism and monumentalism, the works produced by the Neue Bieremiennost artists in the late 1980s frequently addressed youth. It was the theme in a number of Bałka’s figurative works of the period including ‘Remembrance of the First Holy Communion’ (Pamiątka Pierwszej Komunii Świętej, 1985) and ‘When You Wet the Bed’ (1987), a installation inspired by lines in the first chapter of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as Young Man (1914-1915). Viewed as a sculptural object in its present location (Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź), the white and dusty adolescent figure of ‘Remembrance of the First Holy Communion’, accompanied by conventional memory triggers like photographs and clothing, seems to be a form of materialised nostalgia. When considered in its first incarnation in June 1985 as the centerpiece of a performance in an abandoned house in Żuków in the countryside not far from Warsaw, the piece takes on less sentimental dimensions. It was installed in a ruin, described by Rottenberg as being ‘full of cobwebs and deprived of any movement, as if under a curse of inviolability or perhaps saved by a superstition that had presented the remnants of the property from the neighbour’s greed. There lingered an atmosphere of sickness and death that lurked in the stale feather beds, in bottle of medicines in dirty, cracked cups and in the furniture placed at random, delimiting an area between the busy order of life and the absurd peace of death … too much burdened with the past.’[21] Young boys – the same age as Bałka’s communicant – were conscripted to play parts in this eccentric pastoral drama. They guided the audience to the artist, an imposing figure in an ill-fitting suit, riding a child’s bike with a whitened face and white gloves like a clown (in striking contrast to what Bałka called the ‘official oppression’ of religious ritual[22]). Like Ferdydurke, here was a work which projected its chief subject, Bałka himself, back to adolescence. And, like the novel, the overall effect was as absurd as it was melancholic.

Youthful bodies were also the subject of Filonik’s punning work, The Beuys (1986). Connected by tongues emerging from their ears, two mannequins seemed to be engaged in some kind of strange, erotic act. These organs seemed to be independent of these expressionless doppelgangers to which they were attached. Perhaps inadvertently, The Beuys echoed the dizzying description of the last moment before waking when one has not yet donned a habitual mask, in Ferdydurke: ‘I felt that my body was not homogeneous . . . that my head was laughing at my leg and ridiculing it, that my leg was laughing at my head . . . my nose was thumbing itself at my eye, my eye chuckling and bellowing at my nose — and all my parts were wildly raping each other in an all-encompassing and piercing state of pan-mockery.’ However unsettling description seems, for Gombrowicz it represents the unruly potential of formlessness.

Incarnated in these sculptural figures and embraced in the mischievousness of their performances, youthfulness was itself, perhaps, a kind of Gombrowiczian principle for Neue Bieremiennost. Their juvenilia was often, it seems, juvenile. When a form or an event seemed likely to crystallize into a coherent whole, the artists reeled off into play or absurdity: boomerangs clattered into walls; audiences were doused in feathers. In this way, meaning was not to be produced but deferred. Formlessness of this kind is, however, difficult to sustain. Careers, markets and museums all require the coherence of form. The very process of making or of writing generates its own limits. As Gombrowicz observed in Ferdydurke, ‘Whatever you put on paper dictates whatever comes next, because the work is not born of you – you want to write one thing, yet something else entirely comes out. Parts tend to wholeness, every part surreptitiously makes its way toward the whole, strives for roundness, and seeks fulfillment. It implores the rest to be created in its own image and likeness’.[23]Unity coheres in retrospect, when actors reflect on their activities. It comes with the retelling of events and the description of ephemeral things. The interviews with those sharing the Neue Bieremiennost consciousnessin this book are full of those moments in which things are fixed. And, of course, this short essay is another attempt at cohesion, even if it takes as its guide the champion of formlessness, Witold Gombrowicz.

– David Crowley, 31 August 2011


[1] Janusz Miliszkiewicz, Mieczysław Morka, Kolekcja Porczyńskich – genialne oszustwo? (Warszawa 1993).

[2] Co słychać? Sztuka najnowsza, edited by Maryla Sitkowska (Warsaw 1989).

[3] Maria Morzuch ‘Alchemy of the Body or the Inexorable Hour-Glass’ in Miroslaw Balka, exhibition catalogue Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven/ Muzeum Sztuki, Łódź, 1994, p. 28.

[4] See  Marek Goździewski, First Reconstructions, in Marek Kijewski. I’m All A-tremble When I Can Shower You With Gold, Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw 2008, pp.44-88.

[5] Michel Foucault celebrates ‘the disorder in which fragments of a large number of possible orders glitter separately in the dimension, without law or geometry, of the heteroclite … in such a state, things are “laid”, “placed”, “arranged” in sites so very different from one another that it is impossible to find a place of residence for them, to define a common locus beneath them all’ in The Order of Things. An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York, 1973) p.xvii.

[7] Kazimierz Braun, Teatr polski, 1939-1989: obszary wolności–obszary zniewolenia (Warsaw, 1994) p.210.

[8] Interview with Miroslaw Balka and Anda Rottenberg by William Furlong in Art and Design, 35 (1994) p.73.

[9] Witold Gombrowicz, A Kind of Testament, translated by Alistair Hamilton (London, 1973) pp.53-54.

[10] Witold Gombrowicz, Pornografia, tr. Alastair Hamilton (New York, 1994) p.8.

[11] See, for instance, Marek Nowakowski, Raport o stanie wojennym (1982-1984), (Białystok, 1990).

[12] Janusz Anderman, ‘A sense of’ in The Edge of the World (London, 1988) p.72

[13] Tomasz Kitliński, ‘Polish Garbage and Dreck Heroes’ in Bad Subjects (on-line journal), 55 (May 2001) – http://blogs.eserver.org/issues/2001/55/kitlinski-lockard.html – accessed July 2011.

[14] Tadeusz Kantor, ‘Reality of the Lowest Rank’ in A Journey Through Other Spaces. Essays and Manifestos, 1944–1990, ed. Michal Kobialka (Berkeley, CA., 1993) p.30.

[15] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago, 1958) p.137.

[16] Czesław Miłosz, The Captive Mind (1953) (Harmondsworth, 1980) p.67.

[17] Jacques de Koning, I could live in Africa, 1983.

[18] Padraig Kenney, A Carnival of Revolution: Central Europe 1989 (Princeton, 2002), p.177.

[19] Mirosław Pęczak, ‘Youth Culture’ in Donald Pirie, Jekaterina Young and Christopher Carrell, eds., Polish Realities. The Arts in Poland, 1980-1989 (Glasgow, 1990), pp.110-111.

[20] Susan Sontag introduction to Witold Gombrowicz, Ferdydurke (New Haven, 2000) p.x.

[21] Anda Rottenberg, ‘Miroslaw Balka – Arranged Events’ (A First Draft) in Miroslaw Balka, exhibition catalogue Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven/ Muzeum Sztuki, Łódź, 1994, p.14.

[22] ‘Każdy chłopiec boi się inaczej’ Mirosław Bałka in conversation with Bożena Czubak in Magazyn Sztuki 19 (1998) p.16.

[23] Witold Gombrowicz, Ferdydurke, trans. Danuta Borchardt (Boston, MA, 2000) p.94.

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