Flickering Self-Portraits

This essay appeared in Mari Laanemets’ excellent Abstraction as an Open Experiment issued by Tallinn Art Hall / Estonian Academy of the Arts in 2019. It is a beautiful book. 

 

A drive towards impersonalisation shaped much modern art in the twentieth century. Grids, monochromes and permutational systems were employed to create what Yve-Alain Bois has called ‘non-compositional works of art’ which express ‘a programmatic insistence on the non-agency of the artist’.[1] Abstraction, chance operations, the bureaucratic aesthetics of conceptual art, as well as machine aesthetics, have all been employed in attempts to diminish the role of individual subjectivity in the origins of artworks. Bois has characterised this as the ‘The Difficult Task of Erasing Oneself’.[2] There has been, he observes, an element of inevitable failure in all such attempts to produce works of art: ‘How is it that, invariably, the non-compositional drive fades, that it never holds for very long, that “man always seems to return”?’[3] The ego always seems to triumph.

Even so, one might wonder whether the modernist project of self-effacement outlined by Bois has been inflected by gender (all of his examples of artworks are by men). After all, women have hardly been sufficiently present in the history of artmaking to be erased. Why would a woman wish to efface herself?—particularly one living in the USSR or one of Moscow’s satellite states where the history of human erasure reached terrifying proportions. Yet, a number of women artists active in Eastern Europe at the tail end of modernism produced self-portraits which seemed—in different ways and by various means—to suggest self-erasure. Abstraction, fragmentation and repetition provided the means for this seemingly paradoxical task of marking both presence and absence. They include three artists who featured in Abstraction as an Open Experiment at Tallinn City Art Gallery in 2018: Sirje Runge, Dóra Mauer and Zofia Kulik—artists with long careers and impressive bodies of work (though no significant interconnections). This essay reflects on their oblique and occasional interests in the vibrating effects of the self-portrait in the 1970s and 1980s.

Abstractions

In 1979 Sirje Runge, a young Estonian artist, created a self-portrait entitled Natüürmort peegliga. Autoportree Veenusena (‘Still Life With a Mirror (Self-portrait as Venus)’). Lying with her back to the viewer, this photolithograph reenacted Diego Velasquez’s painting Venus with a Mirror (also known as ‘The Rokeby Venus’, 1647-51) but instead of presenting the face of Venus in reflection, Runge inserted an image of spreading and intersecting ripples caused by drops of rain on open water. Concentric rings radiate across the surface interacting with each other to produce an image of beauty, albeit not the one which might be expected of a mirror. With a photograph in its place and recording ripples of energy, it seems as if the words ‘Still Life’ in the title refer to Runge herself.

This work has been interpreted as a commentary on the invisibility of female artists and the objectification of women in art, and there is no reason to doubt this reading.[4] Runge herself has often reflected critically on the place occupied by women in art history. In light of this, it seems only just to place this work from 1979 in the context of Runge’s practice as an artist. In the second half of the 1970s she had produced a number of paintings known as the Geomeetria (‘Geometries’) series (1976-77) – see here. Cool abstractions, these brightly-coloured works—totaling 17 paintings—featured the circle, triangle and the square, sometimes in repeating patterns and sometimes in combination. They formed the basis of a solo exhibition in Tallinn City Hall in August 1976. The world formed by these shapes is an orderly one (and for Runge they were experiments in conceiving future spaces). Sometimes Runge experimented with light effects across the surface of her regular forms, creating illusions of spatial depth or suggesting a capacity for movement. The canvases lend themselves to imaginative projection, the viewer being invited to consider the arrangement of pictorial space suggested. Perhaps one might read a calendar in of moon-like phases in the spherical forms which appear in sequence in Ruum II (‘Space II’, 1977) or a clock mechanism in Ruum III (‘Space III’, 1977). Nevertheless, the overall effect of these works is anti-mimetic and non-representational: here, shapes and forms belong to an autotelic environment of Runge’s own making. And it is an abstract world.

The place of these paintings in art history is, in part, due to the boldness of their abstraction. In Soviet Estonia—as elsewhere in the Soviet Union—abstract art had been a highly controversial matter, placed under prohibition during the Stalin years and remaining suspect throughout the 1960s and 1970s, at least from the perspective of the institutions which displayed and managed art on behalf of the state. Runge’s interest in abstraction emerged from her early urban schemes for downtown Tallinn, Tallinna kesklinna miljöö kujundamise võimalusi (‘Proposals for designing the milieu of Tallinn city centre’, 1975), which she describes as an attempt to reenchant modernist urbanism by bringing fantasy, colour and playfulness to forgotten or unloved zones of the city.[5] Engaging all the senses, Runge’s proposals included chimneys which would perfume the city with fragrant, multicoloured smoke and an enormous portable construction which included spherical rooms in which one, two or three people could escape the immediate world. Produced as her diploma work while she was a student of industrial design at the State Art Institute, Runge’s schemes were fantastic urban proposals and, in the Soviet setting, lent abstraction the ‘alibi’ of usefulness. Nevertheless, they contained all the elements of her later paintings in which function—however fantastic or utopian—was eschewed in favour of contemplation.

In the mid 1970s, Runge’s art along with that of her close partners, artists Leonhard Lapin (her husband at the time) and Raul Meel, produced what they called ‘objective art’—namely, art which eschewed the lyrical, existential and romantic tendencies within Estonian modernism in favour of a cool, regular disposition. Mark making, and other autographic gestures of the self in painting, were eschewed: by contrast, Runge and Lapin self-consciously invoked the production aesthetics of the first Soviet avant-garde of the 1920s and the ‘cosmic’ sensibilities of Kazimir Malevich with his call for ‘pure feeling’ and ‘the spirit of nonobjective sensation’. (Both were still little known or understood in the Brezhnev era in the Soviet Union: Lapin translated Malevich’s 1927 treatise The Non-Objective World from a Polish pamphlet, and Runge and Lapin visited Pavel Kondratiev, Malevich’s pupil, and saw the Costakis Collection in Moscow in 1975). Viewed in this context, Runge’s ‘Geometries’ series belongs to a much longer tradition of non-objective art practices.

Evidently, Runge’s ‘Still Life With a Mirror (Self-portrait as Venus)’ was a self-portrait. But is there is something in the rippling surface of the water in the photograph that appears in ‘Still Life With a Mirror’ which might give pause for reflection on her ‘Geometries’ works? Where is Runge in these works? Might the geometries be her portrait? After all, she did not turn to a mathematical formula to determine composition, say in the manner of Max Bill for whom ‘reason could coordinate emotional values’ in art after the Second World War.[6] As Mari Laanemets notes of Runge’s ‘Geometries’, ‘They have not been “programmed”, but are the result of sensuous thought, and therein lies their human dimension’.[7] Abstraction and realism were not categorical concepts for Runge. In fact, when she exhibited the paintings in 1976 in the Tallinn City Gallery, they were presented alongside a suite of conventional portraits and drawings of her friends and family—her social world in which she and her paintings played their part.

Displacements

When, in 1979, Runge created her ‘Still Life With a Mirror’, Hungarian artist Dóra Maurer also engaged in an act of self-presentation. Hét elforgatás (Önarckép) (‘Seven Rotations (Self Portrait), 1979/2011), a series of images, begins with a photographic self-portrait. Maurer presents herself to the camera holding a white sheet of paper at 45 degrees. The sheet is a ‘white square’ and at this angle its corners meet the edges of the photographic frame. (Perhaps inadvertently, it appears to invoke Malevich’s White on White suprematist canvas of 1918). Only Maurer’s right eye and hands are visible: the rest of her face is obscured. In the second image in the series, Maurer holds a print of the first portrait in the same manner and so her right eye appears twice. And in the third image, the second image appears, itself containing the first which has now turned 90 degrees as an effect of Maurer’s system. Maurer’s Rotations produce the telescoping effects of a mise-en-abyme, in which the white square reduces in size but, logically, can never disappear entirely. Conversely, Maurer is a constant presence, her right eye filling the upper left section of each image in the series (including the 2011 addition she made for the Istanbul Biennial). Each image is still but, organised as sequence, suggests movement or perhaps a flicker.

Using systems like grids and repeated actions in her films, paintings and photo series, Maurer has explored the mind’s ability to detect difference. Sometimes the resulting works feature images of people and situations, others are entirely abstract. Her ‘5-from-4’ works in the late 1970s, for instance, are painted boards that combine a series of four squares and five rectangles as well as empty spaces between the reliefs. Organized as a horizontal band, the squares are displaced onto the next relief in these works. Maurer has written about the uncertainty that these combinations produce: ‘the interference of the two series trouble the viewer in concentrating on one single form’.[8] Shifts in the placement of regular forms create associations with spatial depth and movement, even in static, flat works. She called these effects ‘Displacements’, the title of her solo exhibition at the Neue Galerie in Graz in 1975.

Much of Maurer’s work from the 1970s is an experiment, albeit not with materials or processes but on the viewer. Her three-part film Relatív lengések(‘Relative Swingings’, 1973) for instance, is like a test of perception. The ostensible subjects of the film are a cone-shaped lamp and a simple cylinder (the elements of Runge’s ‘Geometries’). Suspended from the ceiling, they are swung in horizontal and circular movements, as is the 35mm camera that films them. In a systematic fashion, Maurer explored the full range of combinations of swinging camera and swaying subject. Sometimes the image of motion is produced by moving the lamp and sometimes by moving the camera. Later in the film, all three elements are in motion, the light from the moving lamp producing different effects on the moving cylinder. To demonstrate the techniques involved in conducting this set of experiments in perception, this film is accompanied by another, showing how Maurer and cameraman János Gulyás achieved their subtly different perceptual effects.

Maurer’s photographic works have a similar quality of experimentation. Her series Reverzibilis és felcserélhető mozgásfázisok (‘Reversible and Changeable Phases of Movement’, 1972), for instance, examines mundane activities such as throwing and catching a ball, the demeanour of a face, or common hand signs. The first work in the series concentrates on the interactions between a hand and stone. Here the reproducibility of the photographic image allowed a small number of images—in this case, just three—to be arranged in many permutations. Like the syntax of words in a sentence, when read left to right some of these image combinations seem meaningful (a hand puts a stone in the corner); others do not (corner, corner, corner). When the order of the sequence is reversed, the meaning of the gesture changes (puts down becomes picks up). Highly systematic and accompanied by terse instructions or diagrams, these works resemble a scholarly investigation by a semiotician into the logical relations of words.

Ostensibly, Maurer’s serial photographic works and structural films from the 1970s are systematic, objective and rational. And in many ways they are. But images are not words and bodies are not abstract symbols. The stuttering repetition of images and the viewer’s capacity to compare one sequence with another in the grid seem, perhaps inevitably, to point to human associations and limitations. Maurer also interrupts her own systems: the second work in the ‘Reversible and Changeable Phases of Movement’ (1972) series, for instance, combines three photographs of a male figure in a field in three different phases of the act of sitting. Again, the piece explores all the permutations of these phases. A pattern logic seems to organize the composition until, in the final frame, a rogue image appears—a photograph of a chair. When the viewer becomes aware of this interruption, Maurer’s study suddenly seems to acquire existential associations—this is not just a chair but an empty chair. This ineffable quality is also evident in her attempts to measure natural materials in works like Schautafel 3, (1973), which Maurer called ‘quantity boards’. Laying a cord grid of neat squares over straw and sand gathered from a river bank, the piece is an invitation to count what is innumerable.

Later, in 1976, Maurer made a simple experiment with a piece of paper which was as long as she is tall. Folding the sheet four times, she created a proportional system for measuring her own body. Unfolding her new yardstick on the ground, Maurer then attempted to assess the span of her outstretched arms, the roll of her shoulders and other dimensions of her active body using her proportional system. An improvised version of Le Corbusier’s ‘Modular Man’ or ‘Vitruvian Man’, the video documenting this action entitled ‘Proportions’ records both a bodily ideal and the failure of this system.

The 1976 experiment with paper can hardly be called a self-portrait, but other works of the period can. Maurer’s film Triolák—18 variáció 3 objektívre és énekhangra (‘Triolák—18 variations, 3 objectives and a singer’), was made in and around her studio during 1980-81. The film is divided into three horizontal bands, each of which features a one-second camera pan in opposite directions. Each pan has been shot with a different lens (standard, wide angle and telephoto) adding to the sense of multi-perspectival space. The movement of the camera begins relatively gently and the displacement of the image is small. Thereafter, the range of the pan extends and the swing of the camera becomes faster. Some of the variations combine elements featuring different viewpoints—looking into and out of the studio, or at Maurer’s face and that of her cameraman. The effect is one of growing perceptual disorientation as the viewer struggles, and fails, to reconcile the three moving images. Each pan of the camera is accompanied by improvised vocal glissandos by the singer Eszter Póka. Rising and falling, as if produced by the movement of the camera (or, as if the camera had a voice), these shifting pitches create unexpected and sometimes jarring harmonic effects. It is a remarkable experiment with audio and visual perception.

Occasionally, Maurer’s own face is caught as the camera reaches the end of its swing. Instinctively, the viewer wants to reunite her head and body, but Maurer’s technique denies this: two horizontal bands might simultaneously feature her head or show her body both standing and sitting. One of the variations is a close up of her face, her hair, eyes and mouth occupying three different bands, each shot with a different lens, so that Maurer’s face on screen is like a poorly combined police photo-fit. Later, this arrangement recurs and, with wry humour, a man’s mouth with a substantial moustache has appeared below her eyes—a striking displacement. Always fragmented and in movement, she refuses the viewer’s gaze. It would probably be wrong to claim Triolák as a feminist gesture. (Elsewhere in Europe, psychoanalytical tools such as the concept of the ‘male gaze’ in studies of cinema or the ‘fetish’ in commercial advertising were being deployed by feminist writers to do this work). Nevertheless, it seems to be a refusal of the hollow humanism of so many representations of the self in art in Eastern Europe under communist rule, whether in the sentimental social realism of images of the worker or the heroes and martyrs represented in public monuments.

Poses

For Polish artist Zofia Kulik, the end of communist rule came after the dissolution of her personal and professional relationship with Przemysław Kwiek. For most of the 1970s and a large part of the 1980s, the couple had worked together as Kwiekulik, producing a body of works which often combined photography, performance and sculpture. Often ephemeral, their art-making—whether in public or in private—was scrupulously recorded, usually by Kulik’s camera. Eschewing the ‘work’ of art in favour of what they called ‘działania’ (activities), their work often engaged with the aesthetics of Polish socialism (see below).

After her split with Kwiek in 1987, Kulik began producing extensive black and white panels featuring photographs of a naked male figure (usually the young artist Zbigniew Libera) in carefully orchestrated poses. Shot against a deep, black background, his body appears almost like a silhouette in reverse. Early works using these studies, known as the ‘Gesty’ (Gestures) series, presented the poses in long rows. Viewed at a distance, the symmetries and regularity of the stances look like glyphs in some kind of archaic language. Forming an extensive archive, these images were later combined with photographs of the Palace of Culture in Warsaw, mortar and bullet shells, flags and other symbols of power in large photographic works. Given the form of windows, carpets and columns, they took on a monumental character and, as ‘closed forms’, eschewed the openness and often improvised qualities of Kwiekulik’s art in the 1970s. Received with critical acclaim, Kulik’s photomontages were widely exhibited throughout the 1990s, providing a resonant commentary on political aesthetics in the aftermath of the collapse of communist rule in Eastern Europe.

As if to mark her new-found independence, Kulik’s own portrait often features in the photomontages that she made at the end of the 1980s and in the 1990s.[9] In Autoportret z flagą (‘Self Portrait with a Flag’, 1989), for instance, her face appears as the centre of a series of concentric rings containing repeated images of Libera, the model, holding a banner staff or a long metallic pole, arranged like the figures on a circular frieze. Dominating the male figures and positioned at the centre of the dial, Kulik’s own portrait has a red flag at her left temple. Here, a change in her life as well as of the political system under which she had made her career was being announced. Nevertheless, the photomontages were connected to her practice with Kwiekulik and the People’s Republic of Poland in various, often very concrete ways. At its heart, the ‘Self Portrait with a Flag’ features a portrait, a passport photo, that had first been turned into an artwork in 1978 when the duo had been invited to participate in the ‘Behaviour Workshop’—an event organised under the framework of the International Festival of the Arts in Arnhem, the Netherlands. Blacklisted for making works that had ‘profaned national symbols’ (the ‘Eagle Scandal’[10]), the two artists were denied passports and so unable to leave Poland. Instead, Kwiekulik issued a set of instructions for the artists gathered in Arnhem (who included Joseph Beuys) to engage in a conversation about the absent artists and to write postcards to be sent back to Poland. The duo included their own passport photographs on the cards, pasted face down and so only visible if held up to a bright light. Eight years later, in late 1986, the same passport portraits featured in a performance entitled Banan i granat (which they translated as ‘Banana and Pome-granade’ in English[11]) at the Pracownia Dziekanka (Dziekanka Studio/Workshop) in Warsaw. The two artists sat motionless with buckets on their heads behind a white curtain decorated with stars and crescents, which was opened and closed by the couple’s young son, Maksymilian Dobromierz. Each unveiling revealed different objects—flags, utensils, domestic possessions—on the buckets and in their hands. Twelve scenes featured in total, which, despite their absurdity, encouraged the viewers to forge meanings in the relations of things. Some arrangements appeared to suggest gender inequalities (in one moment, Kulik sits empty-handed with a small bottle on the bucket on her head while Kwiek has a larger bottle and kitchen scales in his hands). Politics was inferred by the combination of flags and cuts of meat, a rare commodity in the Polish People’s Republic (‘PRL’) in the 1980s. In another moment, the couple wear the passport photographs that had been sent as their substitutes to Arnhem on their bucket heads and balance domestic mirrors between their hands. The mirrors reveal empty hands, an affecting, even poignant gesture that offsets the casual inhumanity of the bucket.

Gestures and poses were in fact longstanding themes in Kwiekulik’s activities. Sometimes, this took the form of an investigation of the public codes of the PRL mediated through art or in print. They investigated the repetitious rituals of the First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party, as recorded in Polish newspapers—Droga Edwarda Gierka (‘The Path of Edward Gierek’, 1971), and in slide presentations that sometimes combined with Odmiany czerwieni (‘Variants of Red’, 1971), a collection of images which usually pointed to the banal uses given to this symbolic colour; they arranged their young son in elaborate and memorable poses with unlikely props for the camera in their home, Działania z Dobromierzem (‘Activities with Dobromierz’, 1972-74); and they reenacted the breezy images of the good life that appeared in a glossy quarterly distributed in Poland by the United States Information Agency known as ‘Ameryka’ (1972 onwards).

Other works—particularly from the late 1970s when the Polish state had failed to live up to the idealism and optimism that the couple had once felt for socialism—adopted the repertoire of gestures found in public art. When they were denied travel to Arnhem, Kwiekulik presented a response in the form of Pomnik bez paszportu (‘The Monument without a Passport’) at the All-Polish Biennale of Young Art, in Sopot, October 1978. Kulik stood with one arm raised, impersonating the pose of young party activists presented in Socialist Realist paintings of the 1950s (for example, Włodzimierz Siewierski’s canvas, Ślubowanie (‘Oath’, 1952)). In her hand, she carried a file with the words ‘Ideas for Arnhem’ marked on the cover. Kwiek turned the gesture into an event by unveiling a scroll on the wall with the legend ‘THE MONUMENT WITHOUT A PASSPORT IN THE SALONS OF VISUAL ARTS’. He then set Kulik’s feet in plaster to create a plinth and, of course, lend pathos to her immobility. Another work—made in 1984 during one of the couple’s regular occupations of the Dziekanka Studio in Warsaw in the mid 1980s—was entitled Polski Duet (2)—element dekoracji (‘Polish Duo 2—Element of Decoration’). It involved large, hanging black and red curtains sewn from scraps of fabric, and sheets of wrapping paper organized like an improvised theatre set. After several minutes, the black curtain was slowly drawn aside to reveal Kweik standing and holding the feet of Kulik, who was standing on her head and facing in the same direction. Both wore Polish flags on their heads and were dressed in worker’s clothes. Then it was the turn of the red curtain overhead to be dropped down, falling in front of the couple, its lining forming a white screen obscuring them from sight. All the while, the artists remained fixed in their incongruous, balanced pose. Made in 1984—in the aftermath of Martial Law, which had been imposed by the communist authorities in order to extinguish the Solidarity Trade Union—the piece was rich in symbolic allusions to the breakdown of the nation and the collapse of the progressive project of building socialism.

In adopting the poses of power, Kwiekulik’s works have been interpreted as exercises in impersonalisation.[12] Monuments, press images and passport photographs were approved representations of the self and as such provided the means to test and critique the conservativism that shaped public culture in the Polish People’s Republic. For Kulik, the practice of self-reification was accompanied by what she later described as a kind of muteness on her part, particularly in relation to her voluble partner Kwiek.[13] In the years which followed the dissolution of the partnership, she became a frank and brilliantly articulate commentator on matters of gender, both in her art and in interviews. What caused this well of feeling to break open is best left to other, better-qualified commentators or Kulik herself. What is clear however, is that the kind of impersonalisation which Kweikulik engaged in was less oriented to the wholesale erasure of the self than in attempts simultaneously to show both human subjectivity and its effacement; to reveal presence and absence; to point to the body and its erasure. This was less a matter of one aesthetic overwriting or replacing another (or as Yve-Alain Bois put it, one which ‘fades’ and another which ‘returns’) and something far closer to the practice of putting words sous rature (under erasure), Heidegger’s term for striking a line through a word rather than rubbing it out, so that both the word and its negation are visible to the reader. Here, the capacity to see both, was an invitation to the viewer to reflect on the ways in which the body was organised by politics, conservative social conventions and other external forces. Similarly, Runge’s ‘Still Life With a Mirror’ pointed to both presence and absence, and Maurer achieved something comparable in her displacements. Serial compositions, grids, abstract forms and geometries provided the signs of order against which these artists could choose to flicker.

Notes

[1] Yve-Alain Bois in October, Vol. 143, in a theme issue on Abstraction (Winter 2013), pp. 8-9.

[2] This is the title of a lecture that Bois gave at the Institute For Advanced Study at Princeton University in 2007. It was revised for publication in October (see footnote 1).

[3] Ibid.

[4] See Bojana Pejić , ed., Gender Check: Femininity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe, exh. cat. Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien (2009) p. 116.

[5] See Mari Laanemets, ‘In search of a humane environment: Environment, identity, and design in the 1960s–70s’ in Rethinking Marxism 29 (1) (2017), pp. 65-95.

[6] See Andres Kurg, ‘Introduction to Leonhard Lapin’s “Objective Art”’ in ARTMargins 2:2 (2013) pp. 163-171

[7] Mari Laanemets in the guide to Abstraction as an Open Experiment at Tallinn City Art Gallery (2018).

[8] Dóra Maurer, ‘Über die ‘5 aus 4’ – Arbeiten (QUAD 1, Maarssen, 1980) cited in Dieter Ronte and Lászlo Beke, Dóra Maurer Arbeiten Munkák Works 1970-1993 (Budapest, 1994) p. 116.

[9] See Zofia Kulik – Self-Portraits and the Garden, cat., Le Guern Gallery (Warsaw, 2004).

[10] See Łukasz Ronduda and Georg Schöllhammer, eds., Kwiekulik (Warsaw / Wrocław / Vienna 2012), pp. 219-220.

[11] In Polish, ‘granat’ means both ‘hand grenade’ and ‘pomegranate’ – hence the neologism in the English title.

[12] See Bożena Czubak’s essay on Kulik’s work in Archives of Gestures, cat., Starmach Gallery (Kraków 2004) available at http://kulikzofia.pl

[13] Sarah Wilson, ‘Discovering the psyche: Zofia Kulik’ in n. paradoxa, vol 4, (1999) pp. 55-64 available at http://kulikzofia.pl

 

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