Often, in the works of Karska and Went, those objects gain in importance whose time, it seems, has passed. The artists prefer to move on the fringes of big urban conglomerations; their interest driven by that which in the city’s consciousness is pushed into oblivion. Old-fashioned architecture, dilapidated, falling-into-ruin buildings, abandoned places which are simultaneously the antithesis of anonymous non-places offering standardised experience. Places that we see in their photographs and films, appeal by way of the unique charm of irrevocably passing away — a wall left over from a shopping centre in a small, cobbled street in Gdańsk (Stągiewna 45, 2004); an old dis-used swimming pool registered on video (Circulation, 2006); a faulty neon light in an abandoned Art Nouveau tenement in a Slovakian town (Neon, 2006); a wooden waiting room on a train station platform turned honky-tonk (Honky-tonk, 2006); paraffin puddles in a narrow passage between the courtyards of shabby tenements in the historic Four Temples District in Wrocław (Rain, 2008); a house falling apart wrapped in wire netting registered in a series of photographs entitled From a Cycle (2008–2009); a devastated but no less charming underground passage at the train station in Lwówek Śląski registered in the film Delay (2010). All these places emanate the charm of the bygone, the aura of the places concealing the memory of the past, of what we could call genius loci. In a certain measure, it is precisely this nebulous category, this undefinable ‘spirit of place’ that seems to be the starting point for the artists — as long as we agree that genius loci is not inscribed in a place but rather in a way of perceiving it. The artists are far, however, from the psychologising manner of exploiting the expression or identity of these places. They do not propose nostalgic narrations celebrating the ‘authenticity’ of the bygone, or the ‘spirit of the past’. In their practice of constructing filmic or photographic images, the phenomenon of the place does not so much come alive in the experience vanishing in the unsaid, as it gains the opportunity to join the meaning currently in circulation, the interpretation pertaining not any more just to given places but, above all, to their images. The abandoned tenement in Žilina is infused with life thanks to the transparencies of its interior applied to the illuminated segments of an old neon sign; the photographs of the building falling into ruin in Leonsburg we appreciate in the form of pages of a non-existing book; the pictures of the welcome signs are published as postcards under the title Polish Towns. All of these images become parts of yet other narrations constructing memory or history. The authors practise a sort of cultural recycling where the bygone and the peripheral — even if it doesn’t go through a mainstream adventure — updates itself through the images entering into a relationship with other images. In the collection of photographs showing the shop windows of hairdressers’ salons in various towns of the world, the artists took on quite a niche sphere of urban visual element overwhelmed by the ubiquity of medially and technologically obscene advertisement. Published in the form of a book entitled Ladies and Gentlemen, the pictures of shop windows, already smacking of pop-culture conventions with a whole repertoire of faded styles and narrations, arrange themselves not only into a tale of designing the consumerist narcissism, but also of the meaning of the culturally peripheral making a come-back or being restored to favour against the obsessive hierarchies of fashionable aesthetics.
The bustling around with a video or stills camera in places passing away into oblivion is not a ritual of regaining the memory of the forgotten. The slow filmic narrations or photographic series, charming by visual beauty, seduce the viewer into an elaborate trap where the images take power over the memory. In the video entitled Memorabilia (2007), passing before the eyes views of lakes, piers, Summer cottages are all still photographs registered by the moving video camera. It has nothing to do with a record of any action, but rather the filming of immobile framings of pictures. Memories of holidays are not the returning to the places but to their images. We could even doubt whether these places still exist, whether the wooden piers haven’t fallen apart in the meantime. The places seen in the video are, perhaps, only alive in the images, which are not related to any real places anymore. Hans Belting talks about the visual experience of absent places in terms of an old anthropological experience. 2/ And even if these places were still in existence, once they have been turned into an image, they will always be viewed by us via that image.
The recording of a real place that in the filmic image takes on the traits of a non-place occurs in the video Delay (2010) where the whole screen is taken over by a still shot of the underground passage of a train station. In the dark interior with the light seeping through the chinks in the wooden slats, the only moving element is a lazily swinging lamp. The almost dream-like rhythm of the film, and especially the tension between motion and stillness referring to a different time, 3/ produces a phenomenon of displacement where the weight of importance falls not on the watched spectacle but on the space of the viewer watching it, ‘the archetype of non-place’. 4/
The procedure of opening the images onto other images we can observe in the video Hunting (2009) where the action is caught in a frame that opens onto another frame entangled in time. In a peculiar interior full of hunting trophies we watch a scene of ‘hunting’ for balloons drifting on the screen — itself a video projection. Imperceptibly, this background image comes to the foreground, like images emerging from memory triggered by the watched image.
The superimposing of images over places which then come back as images can be seen in a photographic series Viaducts, evoking this ambiguity of places that are nearly impossible to situate. The bridges covered in grass look in these sophisticated frames like picturesque ruins, places known from paintings that are not associated any more with any concrete location. Presented in the form of light boxes shining in the dark with images of pictorial landscapes, they refer to the viewer’s school memory in the museum of imagination, to the topos of ruins and odd practices of the 18th century dilletanti, who created for themselves places according to the paintings.
The staged representations in the photographs from a series Cityproject are images of places that were never there but which refer to other images that offer their memory. The maquettes of envisioned cities changing into the maquettes of ruins, the remains of never completed projects which exist only in the images absorbing the memory of other images, places dreamed up for the credibility of which the whole repertoire of clichés from cultural imagination is working.
At the intersection of the mutual relations between places, their images and the memory, we can situate the photographs from a series Miniatures (2009). The photographs show the fragments of old-fashioned interiors of living spaces whose walls are decorated with other photographs of houses or places remaining after disappeared houses, also taken by the artists. As it turns out, these are the images of places that have no experience to keep their memory alive, as the interiors where they are placed happen to be those of dolls houses photographed in the Toy Museum of Prague. Their framed fragments don’t allow for the recognition of their miniature scale. However, the key manipulation isn’t about the scale but the memory. Seeing the photographs of these interiors, we allow ourselves to be deluded by their and our own memory. And yet, in Miniatures we deal with an even more complex situation; we look at the pictures of places photographed in a museum, a place that itself is an image of another place transformed into an image and remembered through it. 5/
In the project entitled Sandboxes (2005), the artists make reference to the practices of transforming the world into an image and storing it in the form of images collected on library and archive shelves. They collected and bound into small books hundreds of pictures of old neglected sandboxes. In each of them they depicted an episodic scene taking place within one of the seven sandboxes, like children running through or a dog roaming around. By rapid riffling through the photographic pages we set in motion the still frames as in stop-motion animation. However, the small format of the photographs taken from above and viewed from above sustains the impression of distance, the impossibility of a closer insight to enliven the scenes with memory. Moreover, all the little books remained where they were put — on the shelves of the University Library in Gdańsk. Their barely noticeable miniature spines disappear among legal volumes. The non-catalogued Sandboxes don’t exist from a point of view of archival practices either; they are that which in the dialectics of an archive gets erased. Yet, squeezed in the gaps of memory sanctioned by the archival authority, they stick in smuggled, unindexed presence/absence.
The archival paradox of lack and excess is the subject of one of the recent works by the artists completed in the form of a book entitled Sixty Thousand Unborrowed Books (2011). The meticulously edited publication (in five copies) contains sixty thousand catalogue numbers of books that were never borrowed from the library in Gdańsk. On certain pages, the catalogue numbers form patterns on which we recognise blurry rastorized pictures of the interiors of the library in question. Rows of books, rows of bookshelves, long alleys of shelves and their storeys; the ‘phantom’ library with its vast expanse of books is depicted by a precise pattern woven from that which — although it has been catalogued — vanishes in the abyss of library collections’ memory.
In the actions of Karska and Went, in their collecting and recording of images of an anachronistic and disappearing visual realm, cultural wastelands, second-rate and forgotten places, no doubt transpires an ‘archivist’s impulse’. However, from their films and photographs emerges a question about the images of places, but also about the places of images. We view them filmed, included in books, in a museum, in a library, in existing or non-existing places. In the background arise questions about the museum and the archive with their dialectics of commemorating and forgetting images. Yet, by persistently holding onto old clutter and peripheral spaces or raking through ruins, the artists write their own script of declassifying and rendering public the memory of images.
1/ See Susan Sontag, Regarding for Pain of Others, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003, p. 70.
2/ Hans Belting, Antropologia obrazu. Szkice do nauki o obrazie, trans. Mariusz Bryl, Kraków: Universitas, 2008. First published as Hans Belting, Bild- Anthropologie: Entwürfe für eine Bildwissenschaft, Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 2001. English edition: Hans Belting, An Anthropology of Images: Picture, Medium, Body, trans. Thomas Dunlap, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011.
3/See Laura Mulvey, Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image, London: Reaktion Books, 2006, p. 102.
4/ See Marc Augé, Non-Places, Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, trans. John Howe, London: Verso, 1995, p. 86.
5/ See Belting, p. 86.
How is it possible? In their photographs and video films they use simple collections and picture rows.
The artists work on what’s near, within reach, including any old thing ‘like nothing’, objects and spaces that are cleaned out, cobbled together, outdated, or withered. This includes run-down places which are first of all almost imperceptible at first glance, and reveal with all their might only in photographs, in the stopped frame, since in everyday use people only skim over them. For, what can be interesting or nice in ruins or old signboards?
Here we can state that what we don’t notice speaks about us as much as what we consciously take note of and accept. Imperceptible things create in a way the lining, a negative of what’s nice and interesting. What’s imperceptible create a deeply internalised area, a large piece of what’s none too, read in and pushed into subconscious. Generally speaking, such partial fending off or perceptive selectiveness has one dark source – the lack of matching the imperfect elements to a desired or at least tolerable or acceptable image of reality. We can assume that this lack of match, gaps, rifts, and cracks are just a space in which the work by Karska & Went duet begins. We should notice the significant linguistic trope: some titles also carry in them a crack, a friction, or an awkward mix of Polish and a ‘world’ language (‘Sandboxes’, ‘Cinema Dream’) or resemble a slovenly communist newspeak (‘Urban Planning’, ‘Fear Architecture’). The language of titles confirms the theory of crack and the lack of match as the original factor that initiates these works.
Exploration begins with tracing and finding these cracks, then gradually transformed into many years’ penetration, documentation and analysis of what’s difficult to withstand, but everyday, what’s embarrassing but open, and what’s still existing, but vanishing irrevocably.
We could try to make a trial typology of sequences presented in the form of photographs or video films. They are the sets that document three fundamental problems: social illusion, irreversibility and provincialism.
Social illusions are mirages of coexistence between art and public constructions (‘Polish Cities’, where the xo called ‘greeters’ – run-down, crushed up, and rusty objects of modernist origin are welcoming us proudly at the gates of equally run-down cities and small towns; ‘Urban Planning’, where pure whiteness, urban logics and arrangement are literally dissolving in a puddle of mud).
Quasi-documentary collections of the traces of disintegration (from the cycle ‘Fear Architecture’, ‘Viaducts’ and ‘Sandboxes’) represent irreversibility, loss and transience. Multi-element cycles of painting are cataloguing various forms and stages of decay in the shape of photographs – the plaster coming off the wall, supported only with wire netting, weather-beaten arcs, and fountains without water. In their video films we can find artificial (possible only in art) re-animation of what’s irreversible, restoring and revival of the old forms: a facade designated for demolition still deserves repainting (’45, Strągiewna Street’), a ruined hotel revives under the hand of chambermaids (‘Space Planning and Arrangement’), water flows in and out of a swimming pool, not leaving any trace, contrary to the laws of physics (‘Closed Circuit’). However, even these momentary resurrections and suspensions of time laws – enhance and emphasize the sensation of irrevocability of changes and atrophy.
Another thread of their works is parochialism, provincialism or a materialised inferiority complex, an embarrassing gap between what actually exists and to what one aspires unnecessarily and in vain. Each ‘Manhattan’, a small shop that we can find in every Polish town is just the avatar of this provincialism. In the works by K&W we can find whole collections of naive beings and objects, uglified with the evident poverty of means, shoddily optimistic, which aim at delighting and seducing the viewer / client (‘Ladies and Gentlemen’, ‘Windows’, ‘Sunday’, ‘Cinema Dream’, ‘Polish Cities’). Unfortunately, they cannot fulfil this tempting function because of their unconscious and not worked out mundane nature.
These several typologies and motives run through all the creation of the K&W duet, appearing above and again hiding under the apparently objective and distanced smooth surface of the ready cycles.
In the face of the multitude of threads and toposes, the skill in perceiving and selecting the most suitable fractions, individual fragments, and matching the elements of the puzzle is of no small importance. Attentiveness, discipline and obstinacy in sometimes many years’ finding and collecting are the artists’ work method.
This collecting is purposeful, determined and possessive, deprived of any girlish sentimentalism or nostalgia; at least I don’t see any trace of slobbering over the sad beauty of decay.
The found pictures are used to build an own language of extra-documentary and extra-verbal communication instead, as well as to construct sequences, rows, sentences, as well as linear, layer and loop forms. These forms, which are narrations without words, integrally co-created by Marcin Zieliński’s music, are glimmering with their own shine, that is with the internal order and almost palpable concentration over chaos cataloguing.
Creation of the flexible grammatical structure for arranging the ‘found’ pictures is probably the most difficult and artistically most significant achievement of the K&W duet.
Precision of works by Karska & Went duet, elaborate care of their choices, and formal perfection of individual frames, as well as always a bit different form of their ‘setting’ recall an image of a jeweller who, leaned over his desk, focuses with a lens in his eye on best stones. He selects them with a pair of tweezers in order to settle them in an empty necklace as a finite and well closed form.
The result and simultaneously a proof of existence of this internally coherent grammar is the fact that the apparently impersonal documentary photographs, documentary photographs arranged into a slideshow, video film, sequence, printed album, blog or any other form, create an emotionally different new value, where each new composition is right and not accidental.
So, what does this language communicate to us? It’s probably that something the authors don’t want to articulate directly, against what they defend themselves with their perfect skills and techniques of commanding the matter of image and music that contribute to their works.
Maybe they offer to us a visual reflection of the state of sensitisation for such signals of externality, which resonate with the state of internal anxiety and discord to this relentlessness, transience, and loss which happens before our very eyes? Maybe they signalise the need of render the incomplete or imperfect presence binding by means of mutual feeling, recording and drawing us as observers into the orbit of activity, in an attempt of recording what we don’t want or don’t know how to perceive.
Frequent absence of people in their works can make us trying to look at a space as at an autonomic object, not only as at an empty form waiting to be filled. From this point of view the space is a factor which shapes us actively, and which have had and still has the great power of influence even though being at present on the decline.
We were brought up in this a bit imperfect reality, adopting it in our childhood as something obvious and right. We have visited an awful hairdresser a number of times, lived in a sleepy town, and played in an empty fountain or a sandpit overgrown with grass. We have grown out of this long ago; we have been in many places in the world yet, and now we know that our courtyard is a bit ridiculous and awful. Simultaneously, however, unclear but strong sensations of eradication and regret, embarrassment, irritation and compassion will appear.
I think that the works of the Karska & Went duet live somewhere amongst those emotional states. They have found there their own mental space, a kind of unclear mezzanine. Paradoxically, great collections of pictures in all their mass and complexity strike the right, but totally unexpected, emotional chord.
All the works, however, thought and constructed that precisely, are neither unambiguous nor helpful or suggesting interpretation. To understand or feel them properly, we should immerse ourselves in them for a longer while. Let’s do it before the ‘Cinema Dream’ transforms irrevocably into Cinema Dream, and before a motley and, how refined, billboard would greet us at the bounds of a town instead of a welcome pole.
Of the broad daylight of presence, outside the gallery, no perception is given us or assuredly promised us. The gallery is the labyrinth which includes in itself its own exits: we have never come upon it as upon a particular case of experience . . . . ‘the look’ cannot ‘abide’.1/ Jacques Derrida
To what extent an opposition relation might have prevailed — architecture being intentionally subservient to independent, freestanding sculpture — is difficult to say.” 2/ Robert Morris
Mise-en-scène is the arrangement of actors, props, and scenery on a stage in a theatrical production or film set; in the wider sense, it is the environment or setting in which something takes place. Applied to cultural artistic practice, the concept, derived from the theory and practice of theatre and film, touches upon the essence of the exhibition/exposition which fully reveals here its fundamental role as power. Between private dreams and public stage images happen, says Mieke Bal, and they circulate between the subject and the community (culture), generating an intellectual-affective product. 3/ Narrativity and visuality are not opposites here. Mise-en-scène, let us repeat after Mieke Bal, is at the same time a metaphor, a form, a medium, and a practice that calls an image into being, a materialisation of text (words and score) in a form accessible for public reception; it is a ‘mediation between a play and the multiple public’; an ‘artistic organisation of the space in which the play is set’ which ‘arranges a limited and delimited section of real time and space . . . so that a differently delimited section of fictional time and space can accommodate the fictional activities of the “actors” . . . performing their roles to build a plot’. 4/ The subject of this activity is the director/scenographer who creates a work of art using mise-en-scène, or, sometimes, mise-en-piece(s), which literally means ‘taking into pieces’ but also ‘arranging into a piece’. Rendition and representation meet in performativity which is played/represented before us. Thus the art work performs its work in the present. An ‘event’ takes place, to use one of Bal’s key concepts applied in cultural analysis; a concept derived, in fact, from Arnold Hauser’s well-known proposition that the work of art is a challenge, its reception having its source in our own mode of living and thinking, which means that every art is in fact contemporary.
‘Event’ defines thus a situation which happens every time when a work of art is viewed by a spectator and which makes that work an active author of the recipient’s subjectivity. This also applies to the presence of old and/or forgotten works in the present time as museum or antiquarian objects, or reproductions, and therefore the question of how the work of art ‘works’ here and now, generating an interpretation of the culture in which it is present. The work of art ‘thinks’ culture, says Mieke Bal, thus formulating a concept of a preposterous art history based on the observation that every interpretation of a work of art is always mediated by contemporary reflection. The notion of preposterousness — inspired by T. S. Eliot, close to the Benjaminian concept of ‘renewal’ referring to the reproduction of the work of art to which it gives a new life, related to Leibniz’s idea of hallucination reactualised by Gilles Deleuze — serves to demonstrate the preposterous nature of the interpretation of the work of art. Such, therefore, that paradoxically and anachronistically combines the earlier (‘pre-’) with the later (‘post-’).
I have evoked these important categories developed in the field of cultural analysis as convenient tools for the interpretation of Alicja Karska and Aleksandra Went’s most recent project. In their many joint projects, the two artists take up the issue of regaining for culture that which has been ignored, forgotten, excluded, reworking in the field of artistic practice Benjamin’s well-known proposition that every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as its own threatens to disappear forever. Karska & Went’s most recent project locates itself obviously in the area of the archival turn which, engaged for artistic practices, performs here its own work with memory, focused on the materiality and directness of traces and their visibility, guided by a desire to save the past lest it disappears: ‘we feel obliged assiduously to collect remains, testimonies, documents, images, speeches, any visible signs of what has been, as if this burgeoning dossier were to be called upon to furnish some proof to who knows what tribunal of history’, as Pierre Nora puts it. 5/
Karska & Went’s project is devoted to sculptor Franciszek Duszeńko (1925– 2008). The choice is by no means random; the two artists are graduates of the Gdańsk Academy of Fine Arts where Duszeńko worked all his life, including as president (1981–1987) and co-founder of the school’s Faculty of Sculpture. In the Gdańsk arts community Duszeńko is a well-known and respected figure, though associated primarily, if not exclusively, with monumental martyrological memorials such as those at Westerplatte, Treblinka or Toru¬, as well as in the context of his students and collaborators, distinct personalities on the Polish art scene. 6/ His non-monumental sculptural oeuvre had remained virtually unknown until after his death when his Gdańsk studio was opened to the public (2013) as part of a monographic exhibition at the Günter Grass Gallery where large-format photographs of the studio’s interior were shown.
The Gdańsk exhibition was generally dedicated to the artistic profession. In such presentations, the decision to make the studio interior public always has its consequences; just like with the publication of a private archive or collection, it necessarily entails the space’s re- and de-contextualisation. The actual interior of Duszeńko’s studio as well as its photographic representations inscribe themselves in the cultural topos of the artist’s studio as a place where art is made and which materially constitutes its order on a par with the chaos generated by the art objects and stuff gathered there, their fragments and scraps, all the ‘dirt’ of artistic production. Therefore, revealing an artist’s studio to outsiders always has a psychoanalytic dimension as a Freudian exposition: something that was supposed to remain hidden has been brought to light. The demarcation line between the artist’s private space and the public space of the art institution, where the artistic waste is sifted and becomes invisible, is removed.
Inscribed in the studio’s performative dimension is also the ‘museum order’ with its ritual of forgetting and remembering: the artistic studio is a repository of objects waiting to be manifested, introduced to social space, and thus given a new life.
This is exactly the trope followed by the Karska & Went project: the artists extracted a dozen or so small sculptural forms from Franciszek Duszeńko’s studio and made them visible. The transfer took place on several levels. Firstly, in an axiologically meaningful manner, specific works were selected which clearly arrange themselves into a series, or a collection: small abstract forms made of sheet metal, outcome of the artist’s unidentified experiments with constructivist form, reworked in a neo-avantgarde fashion and attesting to the diversity of Duszeńko’s artistic investigations, significantly different from his more familiar monumental and figural productions. Virtually unnoticeable in the studio photographs, obscured by the throng of objects and sculptures, for Karska & Went they became what could be described as an archaeological find, which was then taken out of the ‘hiding place’ of the studio and transferred to a specially constructed space: maquettes imitating nondescript, white cube-like museum/ gallery interiors, closed, architectural, windowless containers.
In this way a mise-en-scène is staged: the model of a museum/exhibition situation in the course of which a fragment of the artist’s studio — as a non-place, located on the fringes of extant orders – is selected, institutionalised and engaged in the construction of a fictional museum/gallery.
Such a transfer is never innocent. The project’s title — Franciszek Duszeńko — Monuments — becomes clear. In the miniature spaces of the fictional museum rooms, designed according to the 15th-century painting principle of the ‘third wall’ (a theme I will return to later), Duszeńko’s sculptures occupy a central and exclusive position. Nothing competes with them; being placed centrally on the container’s axis and, as dictated by the Albertian principles of geometric perspective, on the axis of the viewer’s gaze, they are the sole tenants of a space (framework) that has been created specially for them and which means that they become the focus attention, thus gaining visibility which, according to the theory of evolution, ensures their survival. Central perspective has been used here as a method/convention of ordering reality and a symbolic form bound up with the scopic regime of the ‘awkward binocular body of the human subject’, 7/ as Jonathan Crary puts it.
Transfer means a change of context which entails an optical change of scale, something that has fundamental axiological consequences for the work both aesthetically and cognitively. In the box of the maquette, Duszeńko’s spatial forms, not larger than 20–30 centimetres, undergo a transformation and illusion that reveals their monumental, hieratic, and solemn potential. Before the viewer’s eyes unfolds a subtle interplay with an almost camera obscura-like illusion and with the tradition of the maquette as one of the key tools of sculptural, architectural or theatrical practice, against the excessive use of which Vitruvius warned: ‘not all things are practicable on identical principles . . . there are some which appear feasible in models, but when they have begun to increase in size are impracticable’. 8/ This dual nature of the model, both architectural and sculptural, and the tensions resulting from their clash, are exploited by the Karska & Went project.
Far from this being their first project based on playing with scale,9/ it is an issue the duo constantly explore, usually in combination with their passion for gathering and collecting. Playing with scale and collecting is the theme of the installation Greenhouses (2005), comprising about sixty miniature models of actual greenhouses placed over blades of grass and weeds growing in cracks between pavement stones. The Miniatures photographic series (2009) shows the interiors of dollhouses kept at the Toy Museum in Prague, where into the unreal spaces have been montaged miniature images of places where actual houses once stood. The ‘subject’ of the video installation Windows (2008–2009) is a collection of photographs of shop windows from various European cities, which are then projected onto the facade of a 15-metre-long artificial miniature ‘street’ built into a Bremen gallery. Last but not least, Curtain (2007), a large-scale public-space emballage realised at Europalia Festival in Brussels, used the classic, romantic motif of the red velvet theatre curtain, with all its semantics: as element of theatre ritual and a spectacle in itself, the curtain had until the 20th century what Alfred Simon calls a ‘secret appeal that great artists extolled. It promises . . . what it almost never gives’ and Baudelaire even saw it as a symbol of death.10/ Done away with ultimately in 1970s avant-garde theatre by Jean Vilar, the red curtain remains present in culture as a symbolic form. That is why Karska & Went’s gesture of transferring it from inside the grandiose Brussels Opera building onto its façade is deeply meaningful: it distorts the structure’s sense of scale, turning it into something ludic, almost like the box of a street puppet theatre, annulling the border between its interior and exterior in a critical ideological discourse between the street as an open public space and the enclosed building of the theatre as an elite Institution.
In Monuments, Karska & Went shun the curtain: here the minimalist ascetic stage of fictional galleries presents itself to the viewer as open and physically exposed, as in contemporary theatre, which fulfils Vilar’s idea of the naked stage and poor theatre by ‘playing without the curtain like an acrobat without the safety net’.11/
All these projects by Karska & Went have mise-en-abyme characteristics: they are spatial collages using third-party works for their own purposes and designs. The performativity of these illusionist stagings based on playing with scale and the fiction-reality interplay per se enlarges on Walter Benjamin’s well-known notions of the dialectical image and constructive montage. Karska & Went thus call into being a ‘theoretical object’, that is, such a material object/event where the art work, as a representation and presentation, makes evident its own entanglement in all kinds of webs of relationships of interpretatively fluid structure.
Above all — and this actually seems to be the main theme of Monuments — the fictional museum of Franciszek Dusze¬ko’s actual sculptures inscribes itself in the critique of the Museum and Art History, the two most important art narrative-building Institutions, both making use of the mechanism of exclusion, as exemplified by Duszeńko’s very sculptures, excluded as they had been until now from contemporary art history. One cannot but ask, however, whether the project’s significance stems from the power pulsating in Duszeńko’s pieces as objects of art, now ‘discovered’ and included in the art-historical discourse, or from the artists’ critique of institutions: their gaps, omissions, negligences, and exclusions.
At the centre of Karska & Went’s project’s is playing with scale, which quite fundamentally determines the reception of form when the physical, sensual, relationship between the work and the viewer changes. The status of the original is also challenged. Sculptural models have thus been used here in keeping with a centuries-long artistic and architectural tradition, which tests forms with three-dimensional maquettes and scale models, the most spectacular mode of ‘describing’ a work, programming and controlling it. It is by no accident that the procedure’s metaphor is found in the myth of Daedalus, a constructor who was unable to control his invention and could find no other way out of a labyrinth he himself had built than by flying away on wings.12/
In the context of Karska & Went’s project one can also mention Robert Morris’s phenomenological reflection-inspired ruminations on the experience of sculpture and its scale and the experience of architecture, within the work-space- viewer triad (1966), analysing the e_ect of sculpture in architecture and with architecture, and in particular the significance of object scale inside the gallery: ‘A larger object includes more of the space around itself than does a smaller one. It is necessary literally to keep one’s distance from large objects in order to take the whole of any one view into one’s field of vision. The smaller the object the closer one approaches it and, therefore, it has correspondingly less of a spatial field in which to exist for the viewer. It is this necessary greater distance of the object in space from our bodies, in order that it be seen at all, that structures the non-personal or public mode. However, it is just this distance between the object and subject that creates a more extended situation, for physical participation becomes necessary’.13/ The monumentalisation of sculptural form, which for Morris is a strategic method of engaging the viewer, implying kinaesthetic participation, requires thus a proper approach inside the gallery where an environment is established: ‘For the space of the room itself is a structuring factor both in its cubic shape and in terms of the kinds of compression different sized and proportioned rooms can effect upon the object-subject terms’.14/ Gone too far, Morris warns, the monumentalisation of sculpture can cause the object to dominate the spatial field of perception that is the neutral gallery room.
Morris’s remarks are the height of modernist reflection on sculpture and its contemporary field of functioning. More than forty years later, in the Karska & Went project, some of his observations are specifically updated, becoming an inspiration, conscious or not, for the duo’s work; those, namely, that relate to scale and to the modernist white cube — the ‘rectangular block’ — as the place of sculpture’s distribution, defined by Morris, together with the ‘right angle grid’, as a ‘a kind of “morpheme” and “syntax” which are central to the cultural premise of forming’,15/ but which for him was already an obsolete notion.
If we refer to textual theory, maquettes-fictions are always a projection of our potential of ‘being-in-the-world’ which, as a privileged method of writing and re- writing reality anew using the Aristotelian ‘plot’, creates a new kind of distance towards that reality. Thus Karska & Went’s virtual playing with sculptural scale is not but a technical gesture. It has its objectives and consequences, resulting, among other things, in a clash/opposition of the categories of antiquity and modernity. Virtually nothing is known about these expressive metal forms by Duszeńko: neither when they were made (supposedly during the domination of the ‘welding trend’, somewhere around the 1st Biennale of Spatial Forms in Elbląg in 1965), or for what purpose (were they an aftermath of working on a large form-in-space project?). Whatever the case, these are historical objects and their absence from art history lends them a status approximating that of archaeological finds. Bringing them to light several decades after they were made and placing them in a new context suspends the time/distance between yesterday and today, raising issues of past vs. present vs. future, here vs. there, and original vs. copy. As we know, such a suspension of temporal distance occurs when a project is realised many years after having been conceived or when re-enacted. So what is the function of Duszeńko’s sculptures in Karska & Went’s project? As cultural objects they are present only now, in our day, which means they are defined as mise-en-scène. Both versions — the model/sculpture and the present-day virtual variant of the ‘museum’ monument — want to be considered as original. Things get even more complicated when we realise that at the source of this project is the notion of mimesis as the copying/imitation of something that ‘truly’ existed in order to approach perfection. In this context, which of the versions of exhibiting Duszeńko’s sculptures gets closer to achieving this Platonic ideal? The primary one, keeping the model locked away in the studio, inaccessible for the viewer? Or – remembering Proust’s observation that the work of art, including its exhibition, is a form of quotation 16/— should we say that the ‘true’ one is the fictional museum frame where sculptural form has been used as a pre- text/quotation in a new work-assemblage? Or is ‘true’ that which has not yet happened: the assemblage-staged dream of a spectacular monument? Each of those possibilities has arguments in its favour.
Karska & Went’s project is, therefore, multilayered and intertextual, demonstrating how theories and concepts migrate to artistic practice, how they (co)create the framework that makes possible the realisation of an art work, and how the work’s relationship with the viewer is constructed. Here agency is fully on the side of strategy: it is the maquettes that organise the space of the fictional museum, utilising the ‘third wall’ rule, thanks to which the viewer enjoys a complete view of the exhibition space and the sculptural spectacle unfolding therein, as if on a theatre stage, the theoretical rules of which (still generally applicable today) were formulated by Sebastiano Serlio in the mid-16th century.17/ The theatricality of the gesture reflects Karska & Went’s fascination with theatre, which was also present in Curtain. Unlike in the Brussels emballage, however — emballage being an art of wrapping, covering and shrouding objects — this time Karska & Went create a mise-en-abyme assemblage: a three-dimensional collage that appropriates a third-party work. In addition, they have made use of a Western theatrical tradition as long and rich as that of the curtain: the maquette, long known as an aid in painting composition. Using it, however, has its traps. In composing a painting, the painter inevitably encountered an ontological dilemma: is the objective to create an image of a ‘woman playing a piano’ or of an ‘interior with a woman playing a piano’?18/ It is by no means easy to say which is the case in Karska & Went’s Monuments. Although ‘a sculpture in an interior’ is something semantically different from ‘an interior with a sculpture’ — the emphasis in the latter being on the integrity of the elements — both are in fact about a frame, framework, a parergon to the main work.
The assemblage now constructed by Karska & Went, which uses one work to create another, could be recognised as a special case of a parergon in the Kantian sense: the maquette boxes are an outer ‘cover’ of the works placed inside them, and one by no means accidental but such that, using Kant’s language, is meant to ‘augment the delight of taste’19/ in them. In Karska & Went’s project this delight takes into consideration both aspects of the fictional exhibition which, while maintaining the status of a work of art, is also — as a model of a museum situation — immersed in a philosophy of exhibition-making construed in terms of a framework/framing. It is, in other words, a passe-partout action, as Oskar Hansen called it.20/ Or: the mise-en-scène principle.
Whatever the name, at the centre of the problem/space is always the art work which here pre-sents (Husserl’s Vorstellung) and re-represents itself to us in a dual — though not ambivalent! — form, in both cases being a frame of the same act of vision embedded in the Albertian tradition of central perspective. It needs to be noted, however, that in Karska & Went’s project the primary causative moment is the two artists’ gesture: it is them who decide which of Franciszek Duszeńko’s studio sculptures will be shown and how; this arbitrary decision changes Duszeńko’s role as their ‘father’ and turns Karska & Went into the ‘mothers’ of what is on view.
Referring to the absence of Duszeńko’s sculptures from art history, Karska & Went’s project uses them to create a new work/assemblage: a maquette housing sculptures-as-relics-of-the-past (its traces) appears as a new sculptural work, considered in abyme” 21/ terms and potentially possible in ‘natural’ size, though the very term ‘natural size’ is as liquid and ambivalent here as the notion of originality which the project so fundamentally undermines. At the heart of the artistic strategy applied here is preposterousness: Duszeńko’s neo-avantgarde sculptures — traces, documents and relics of a specific moment in the artist’s work and contemporary art history — are seen from today’s perspective and then quoted, thus becoming a contemporary product, causative for the creation of another work of art. Georges Didi-Huberman’s theory of anachronism meets Mieke Bal’s notion of the preposterous here. It is only from this perspective that the reasons for making Franciszek Duszeńko’s sculptures present and using/quoting them in contemporary artistic practice can be justified: as an attempt to find out how and why past works of art are always perceived as a re-vision, mediated by the horizon of the present.
The use of quotation strategy in putting together this assemblage is related to translation, and thus to conceptualisation, so its character is fundamentally preposterous. And this is precisely the point of arrival of Karska & Went’s project: building a transhistorical artistic (cultural) situation that takes a break with the radicalism of divisions and splits in art history. Various strategies — anachronism, preposterousness, mise-en-scène, abyme, montage, collage, quotation — have been used in this project in order to a establish a new relationship between art history and its present-day experience.
1/ Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena, and Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973, p. 104.
2/ Robert Morris, Continuous Project Altered Daily: The Writings of Robert Morris, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994, p. 183.
3/ Mieke Bal, Travelling Concepts in the Humanities: A Rough Guide, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002, p. 130.
4/ Ibid., pp. 131–132.
5/ Pierre Nora, ‘Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire’, Representations, no. 26, pp. 13–14.
6/ Among those who taught at Duszeńko’s studio or were associated with it were Zdzisław Pidek, Eugeniusz Szczudło, and Marek Targoński; among Duszeńko’s students were Grzegorz Klaman, Julita Wójcik, Anna Baumgart, Robert Kaja, Jacek Niegoda, and Dorota Nieznalska.
7/ Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press 1992, p. 53.
8/ Vitruvius, The Ten Books on Architecture, trans. Morris Hicky Morgan, Book X, Chapter XVI, 5.
9/ The issue of playing with scale in Karska & Went’s practice has also been noticed by Gabriela Świtek, cf. ‘Outlines of Places and Rhythms of Architecture’, in Alicja Karska & Aleksandra Went. Memory of Images, exh. cat., BWA Galeria Sztuki, Olsztyn; Fundacja Profile, Warsaw; Galeria Labirynt, Lublin; Galeria Miejska Arsenał, Poznań, 2011, pp. 16–25; idem, Gra sztuki z architekturą. Nowoczesne powinowactwa i współczesne integracje, Toruń: Monografie Fundacji Nauki Polskiej, 2013, pp. 39–42.
10/ Alfred Simon, Dictionnaire du théâtre français contemporain, Paris : Librairie Larousse, 1970.
12/ Karska & Went metaphorise it differently still in The Cityproject (2008–2009): a maquette, created with sugar cubes, of a (socialist) modernist city, the slow disappearance (melting) of which serves as an emotional reflection on the paradox of the Vitruvian notion of firmitas and the collapse of modernist utopias.
13/ Morris, ‘Notes on Art, Part II’, in Continuous Project . . . , p. 231.
14/ Ibid., p. 233.
15/ Morris, ‘Notes on Sculpture, Part III’, in Art in Theory 1900–2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas (2nd revised edition), ed. Charles Harrison, Paul J. Wood, p. 834.
16/ Bal, Travelling Concepts . . ., p. 140.
17/ Serlio formulated a hierarchical typology of the theatre stage, where the solemn classicism of o_cial (power)architecture corresponds semantically with Tragedy, the ‘non-classical’ architecture of private homes with the lower stage, Comedy, and the natural landscape with wooden/primitive architecture with the lowest one, Satire.
18/ Wojciech Ba$us, ‘O ograniczeniach „faktologii”’, in idem, Efekt widzialności. O swoistości widzenia obrazów, granicach ich odczytywania i antropologicznych aspektach sztuki, Kraków: Universitas, 2013, p. 57.
19/ ‘Even what is called ornamentation (parerga), i.e., what is only an adjunct and not an intrinsic constituent in the complete representation of the object, in augmenting the delight of taste does so only by means of its form. Thus it is with the frames of pictures or the drapery on statues, or the colonnades of palaces’, Kant, Critique of Judgment, I, § 14. Cf. M. Le¬niakowska, ‘Biopolityczne ciało w environmentach Stanisława Zamecznika’, in Wizje nowoczesności. Lata 50 i 60. — wzornictwo, estetyka, styl życia. Materiały z sesji „Lata 50. i 60. w Polsce i na świecie: estetyka, wizje nowoczesności i styl życia”, Warsaw: Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie, 2012, pp. 36–50.
20/ Oskar Hansen, ‘Forma otwarta’, Przegląd Kulturalny, no. 5, 1959, p. 5.
21/ On en abyme as an art work within an art work, cf. Craig Owens, ‘Photography en abyme’ (1978), in Beyond Recognition, Berkeley Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1994, pp. 16–30.