The exhibition entitled The Incarnated is another presentation of the collection of works of the Lower Silesian Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts. The key for the choice of these works was the body. Treated by artists as a medium and a metaphor, the body has become both the starting point for artistic transformations and a pretext for initiating a polemics focusing on aspects of its existence (in art as well as in the real world), perception and experience. The “incarnated” aspects include social issues, the individual’s identity issues, the human being’s / body’s place in contemporary reality.
It is not an “eternal” element, forever inscribed in nature; in fact, the body was controlled and formed by history, by societies, systems and ideologies, and consequently we are doomed to ask questions concerning what our own body is, our – i.e. contemporary men within the society.
What is our body: a biological being or a product of culture? Is it subject to definitions or is it a carrier of meanings? Is it subject to manipulation or, on the contrary, does it determine us? The significance of these questions for contemporary artists can be proved by the number of works in the collection of the Lower Silesian Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts which are an attempt to provide answers to them. The works selected for the exhibition refer to numerous aspects: the body’s place in the contemporary world, the methods of the body’s functioning in the consumer culture, manipulating with the body, taming corporeality, and even including the body in the discourse taking place in the context of aesthetics.
The body is undoubtedly one of the fundamental planes of defining a person’s identity. Based on its characteristics, categorizations are made in accordance with gender, race or sexual preferences. These evaluations have further social and cultural consequences such as attributing specific roles to “the body”. In her work entitled Samoidentyfikacja [Self-identification] of 1980, Ewa Partum deals with this problem. In a series of photomontages, the artist presented her own nude defined as “a woman”, with a group of passers-by, a crowd of people on a pavement, a queue of people waiting for the opening of a shop, a policewoman directing traffic on a road. Thus, the artist wanted to show that the “model imposed by tradition (…) ‒ the model of a woman ‒ a product of the patriarchal culture functioning in the form of social standards effectively impaired women, maintaining an appearance of respect for them”. Viola Kuś, focusing on the same aspects – the functioning of behaviour patterns and roles attributed to a woman in a particular historical time – decided to adopt a different strategy. Standing in front of a camera lens, she impersonated village women living in Poland at the turn of the 19th and 20th century. In a world staged in open-air ethnographic museums, she performed daily and festive duties attributed to women. Wearing clothes originally worn by such women and adopting their gestures and poses, she tried to test whether it was possible to get into their mentality and understand their way of thinking. And if it was possible – to experience to what degree she could maintain her own identity when “impersonating” them (Top-model Made in Poland, 2007).
The deliberations on the body as a cultural construct in which both artists are interested are also undertaken by Małgorzata ET BER Warlikowska. In her work Trofeum [Trophy] of 2013 presented in the exhibition, the artist limits the field of artistic exploration to the aspect of the body as a product of pop-culture. Reaching for its symbol of Marilyn Monroe in order to present a mechanism of appropriation of the body (aimed at its massification and commodization) typical for this culture, she makes a trophy of the actress’s bust, now being both the symbol of the performed sacrifice and its owner’s pride.
Appropriating the body as well as exercising control over the body and taming corporeality are the areas of interest of other artists whose works are presented in the exhibition. Marta Deskur analyses the body in the context of religion. Making a video entitled Fanshon Radio (2003), she directed her camera lens at Muslim women standing out from the crowd of Berlin citizens due to their characteristic dress imposed by their religion. In his “toy” set entitled Eroica of 1997 comprising figurines of naked women running with their hands above their heads, Zbigniew Libera makes a reference, as Izabela Kowalczyk notices, “to the cruellest codes of the masculine-war culture (…) of mass rapes of women”, and she points out that “violence towards women and the satisfaction found in it is a part of the war myth”.
The taming of the body can obviously take place also with its owner’s approval and even of their own will. One of the examples here is disciplining the body for the purpose of adjusting it to the patterns imposed by the media and advertisements. The cult of beauty common in the contemporary world obliges one to attempt to “manipulate” one’s appearance by means of more or less invasive methods. The former certainly include achieving the desired look as a result of various cosmetic procedures: these were used by Maciej Osika as an introduction to the achievement of a timeless ideal of feminine beauty. The artist presents it in a series of Autoportrety [Self-portraits] of 2002-2006, inspired by the black-and-white photographs of pre-war film stars. Alicja Żebrowska in her work from the cycle entitled Onone – świat po świecie [Onone – the World after the World] (1998) refers to even more drastic practices, placing her imaginary androgenic characters in hospital settings (even though the places are not associated with sterile chill as they are “warmed’ by such props as a canopy, curtains or frilled bed linens). Here, the androgenic ONONE is “subject to (undergoes) a transfusion process (…), which is more an intimate practice rather than a medical procedure”, as Krzysztof Dobrowolski observes. “It is pleasure rather than necessity. It is a world or a vision of reality (…) being a reference and fuel for the viewer’s imagination”. It is “the reality of the bisexual creature functioning according to different principles, beyond our ethics and morality. Therefore, there is no sickness, no fear, but rather a certain state of being inaccessible for the ordinary unisexual creatures”.
Deliberations on beauty and the creation of an ideal body may also lead to the area of old art. It is here that Joanna Nowek found inspiration for the cycle of works entitled Sleeping Beauty. The artists used the classical motif of a lying nude woman, known for example from the works of Giorgioni, Nicolas Poussin, Francisco Goya, Edouard Manet, or the modern artist Lucian Freud. In her photographs, women are accompanied by still life: ripe fruit and vegetables, flowers in full bloom, birds’ feathers or furs of animals killed in hunting. Yet, they cannot be treated as complementation to the composition of the “paintings” only. According to Joanna Stembalska, “despite apparent closeness and co-existence of the motifs [nudes and still lifes], the aesthetic contemplation of the work is disturbed (…). The corpse-like frozen body, bruised and blood-stained, becomes an emblem of Joanna Nowek’s discussion with the imposed and reproduced stereotype of a model feminine beauty”.
Of course, the appropriation of the body by art does not always imply its objectification. In the works of Radek Ślany and Grzegorz Sztwiertnia presented in the exhibition, the body is the starting point for a series of permutations which have eventually led to the making of abstract forms. In the works of the former, the drawn contour of a human being still distinct in his works made in the late 1990s, now liberated from the yoke of “imaging”, has transformed into a purely abstract play of lines. Sztwiertnia’s Tarczyce [Thyroid Glands] of 2016 are some distant echo of an image of the human organs. An entanglement in the context of corporeality and its consequences (which include also illnesses) is an indirect source for Marek Kulig’s work of 2011 entitled Zapis ‒ Liber Manu Scriptus ‒ Praeceptum Medici, which comprises wads of prescriptions and other medical records collected in some sort of archive.
It is worth coming back to the previously mentioned taming of the body. Anorexis by Viola Tycz is the reason for that. It is a cycle of prints inspired by a toy for girls consisting of paperboard silhouettes of women and clothes which can be put on these silhouettes by bending paper folds. In Tycz’s work, the meaning of the play has been changed by transferring attention from the act of dressing to revealing what is hidden beneath the clothes, i.e. an emaciated anorectic body. Its pallidness expressed not only in the appearance but also in inertia (with which one can get anorexia pursuing the pop-culture ideal of a body in size “0”) is in shocking contrast to the sensuous voice of Amanda Lear, which can be heard in the background.
The rejection of an imperfect body has almost as disquieting consequences as the rejection of the body as such, which we experience in the virtual space. This is shown suggestively in Laura Pawela’s work of 2004. The artist reproduced on canvas an image of a computer display with the Windows window visible in the upper right corner, minimized to a small rectangle. A face made of pixels peeps out of it, but can be only partially seen. We can potentially show the remaining part, or even a larger fragment of the figure by stretching the image, using the cursor arrow next to it. But we can equally easily destroy it.
Paweł Kaczmarczyk’s work is also connected with virtual space (it could simultaneously be considered a sociological experiment). It comprises a cycle of drawings made from 2014 to 2017, under the title Ja i obrazy mojej jaźni [Me and Images of My Self]. The artist started working on the cycle with his self-portrait truly rendering his actual appearance. The subsequent drawings were fantasies based on the self-portrait or attempts to reconstruct the author’s mental states. In this form, the artist, or rather his image distorted by formal experiments or an evocation of emotions or feelings, became known on one of the social media. Kaczmarczyk created a profile there within the scope of the campaign Action: Add me to your friends and then observed not only the reactions of other portal users to his incarnations (and thus also the changing meanings related thereto), but also the virtual life of the character created by him and partly identical to him. He also tried to understand his relation to the character.
The works by Viola Tycz and two other artists concern the problem of disavowing the body occurring both in the virtual and real world. Such disavowal is frequently the result of a defect of the body. The defect can, of course, be a divergence from the commonly accepted canons of beauty. Significantly more “inconvenient” problems connected with the biological existence of the body, which in mass culture are often taboo issues, are in the area of interest of Halina Trela, Łukasz Gierlak and Paweł Baśnik.
Halina Trela decided to present in her drawings faces of old people “deformed” by the passing time. They can be considered to be the incarnations of our fears connected with the processes of ageing. They are also, however, an attempt to explore the aesthetics of an image and to enrich it with the intellectual content connected with the existence of a work of art. According to Andrzej Saj, “One might say that identical processes take part in the drawings and in life: they are transient, they fall off, and they can be easily destroyed. Trela makes use of this in his works, deliberately presenting the fragility and sensitivity of the drawing matter to transience”. It is worth noticing that the artist was looking for the “faces” for her works on the Internet. “Aestheticized” by the creative act, they come back to the Internet, where they can be watched. And where they become timeless as works of art.
Łukasz Gierlak in his work of 2013 entitled Agnozja twarzy [Face Agnosia] allows us to personally deal with the deficiency affecting people who suffer from agnosia, which distorts their ability to recognize known elements of the surroundings . Paweł Baśnik does not let us have any doubts concerning what we can see. The image he paints in front of our eyes is very suggestive. Using examples of 19th century portrait paintings and photography, the artist made a series of post mortem images of faces (Post Mortem is also the title of the cycle of 2017). Each face is marked by different changes: some of them are blurred, others deconstructed as a result of progressing decay. The painting matter is also subject to decay; it seems to undergo gradual destruction as a result of light, moisture, temperature and chemical reactions taking place in the pigments and varnishes used in the paintings. It seems that all this is to make us realize the inevitability of processes that we are subject to due to our biological existence. It also proves that regardless of our attempts to control the body, we ultimately become subordinated to its domination.