The artistic practice of the Polish-born Ewa Partum can be divided chronologically into Polish (1965–1982), West Berlin (1982–89) and transnational / global (from 1989) periods. This essay focuses on the specificity of the conceptual art developed by Partum and her self-historicization as a conceptual artist. At the same time, it regards the local and global historicization of conceptual art as fragmentary and contradicting processes. The study examines local genealogy of Partum's conceptual strategies as part of a localized reflection on the geopolitics of knowledge; it considers a specific position of cultural production that is characteristic of Central and Eastern European neo-avant-gardes. It examines Partum's model of conceptual art in relation to Polish and Western practices. It is argued that Western conceptualism was only a point of reference for Partum's art. Works such as Presence / Absence or Luncheon on the Grass realized by Partum in years 1965–1972 formed a basis from which the artist responded to knowledge of the transnational conceptual movement that was disseminated through Mail Art and Fluxus networks. Analysis reveals Partum's model of conceptual art to be contrapuntal, as it is not subordinate to either its western inflection or local (Polish) cannons and protocols.
In the catalog Self-Identification, which Ewa Partum self-published in the fall of 1981, several months after the opening of an exhibition at the Galeria Mała in Warsaw (April–May 1980), the artist's practice is divided into a sequence of consecutive but overlapping stages:
Conceptual Art 1969–74
Visual Poetry 1969–75
Tautological Cinema 1973–78
From 1974 working with the feminist problem
1972–77 running Galeria Adres1
Self-Identification can be interpreted as a form of artistic autobiography, and as such, as part of the self-historicization of Conceptual art, and of Partum's self-identification as a Conceptual artist. Partum's practice can be chronologically divided into Polish (1965–82), West Berlin (1982–89), and transnational/global (from 1989) periods. Her work, which includes many genres—works on paper, performance, installation, photomontage, film, intervention, statement, and action—has been interpreted and historicized from many locations and positions. In recent years, researchers have frequently discussed the relationship between Conceptual and feminist perspectives in Partum's early work.2 The author of one of the first articles on Partum, Gislind Nabakowski, proposed that “although it is not clear when exactly Ewa Partum discovered for herself the meaning of feminism, we can now treat her whole oeuvre as feminist.”3
Ewa Partum. Self-Identification, 1980. Black-and-white photograph, photo collage, 60 × 40 cm. Museo Vostell, Malpartida de Cáceres; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid; Frac Lorraine, Metz; Kontakt Art Collection of Erste Group and Erste Foundation, Wien; and Muzeum Sztuki, Lódź. Image courtesy of the artist.
In the present essay, the problem of the relationship between the Conceptual and feminist perspectives in Partum's early practice will be suspended to examine another issue: if Conceptual art “does away with the importance of the art object in favor of emphasizing the artist's motivations,”4 then Partum's self-identification as a Conceptual artist, too, has to be considered an integral part of her artistic practice. The process of the historicization of Conceptual art is fragmentary and contradictory. As historical reconstructions, narratives on the genealogies of Conceptualism—such as narratives focused on the administrative drive of late capitalist society (Buchloh),5 publicity and distribution strategies (Alberro),6 the dematerialization of art (Lippard),7 the ideologization of art that reveals social realities (Ramirez),8 the heterogeneity of Eastern European Conceptualism and its political entanglements (Beke),9 feminist critique of Conceptual orthodoxy and its logocentrism (Deutsche),10 and recent material-semiotic investigations that describe the entanglements between matter and meaning (Berger)11—refer to particular sets of practices that serve as a basis for deriving the terms of their descriptions and classifications. Thus, using such narratives, it is not easy to extend understanding by incorporating other bodies of works in alternative locations, as they might be invisible in that register. Walter Mignolo's decolonial project on the geopolitics of knowledge and epistemological sovereignty, based on the assertion that “ontology is made of epistemology,”12 can be helpful in reflecting on the limits of historicizing narratives when they move from their place of origin. In Mignolo's framework, narratives on Conceptual art have to be perceived within their own terms, rights, and limitations, as merely local histories. In this sense, “Conceptualism” is replaced by several “conceptualisms” that are related hierarchically, as those “brewed … in the local histories of the metropolitan countries” establish global designs that are “implemented, exported, and enacted differently in particular places.”13
The recent discourse on “global conceptualism,” on the other hand, under the Conceptual label embraces a variety of practices that are related more or less directly to the notion of idea art, process, or action. This horizontal paradigm of decentering Conceptualism by reconstructing its multiple points of origin follows the consensus that plural modernisms have generated plural conceptualisms. Although this model of thinking in categories of multiple or alter-modernities has been criticized by radical decolonial thinkers for its “cult of progress, the dichotomy of modernity versus tradition … and Eurocentrism,”14 it has been useful for regional Central and Eastern European art history that “operates in a tension between the inadvertent postcolonial reduction of the region to ‘eurocentrism’ on the one hand and exposure to ‘Westernization of global art’ on the other.”15 Within this framework, the global Conceptual aesthetic is interpreted in the context of differentiated artistic biographies and local ideological and political contexts, considering factors such as local traditions of decentering modernism, as well as different possibilities for art production, reception, and consumption, including access to media such as cameras, photography, and printing.
What is missing from this picture is a situated reflection that reconsiders the geopolitics of knowledge—that is, a specific position of culture production that was characteristic for Central and Eastern European neo-avant-gardes that operated “in the orbit” of Western culture. If the West has become a dead interlocutor for contemporary decolonial thinkers, it remains a relevant interlocutor for art historians who deal with art in the “former East.” Its presence is not only necessary to determine the specificities and differences of the local type of art production—in this case, of Conceptual art16—but beyond that, to reconstruct the unique historical episteme—a condition of the production of culture in socialist Europe that could be described as East looking at West not looking at East.
Given the lack of coordination between local and global perspectives on Conceptual art, the lack of essential features of the notion of “Conceptual,” and the specific local relationships to the “global design” of Western conceptualisms, how can we approach the relationship between a particular Conceptual artistic practice and Conceptualism? This question is particularly difficult if we consider a hybrid, unorthodox Conceptual artistic practice that not only was located in the semi-periphery of the art world, such as Cold War era Poland, but that effectively undermined the local, orthodox definition of Conceptual art as it was established in that country during the 1970s. This is precisely the issue that I want to address here, by reflecting on how Partum's artistic self-identification with Conceptual art determined the particular artistic choices available to her at the time.
LOCAL GENEALOGY OF PARTUM'S CONCEPTUAL ART: ART OF IMAGINATION
To understand the genealogy of Partum's Conceptual practice, it is important to look at the context of her artistic education, and especially at her diploma work, which constituted her first artistic manifesto. As one critic of Polish Conceptualism, Luiza Nader, emphasizes, the critical potential of Conceptualism manifested itself in its negative attitude toward academic authorities and institutions.17
After two years of studying in the textile department at the State Higher School of Visual Arts in Łódź,18 Partum relocated to the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts in 1965, becoming a student in the painting department. The school was dominated by Modernist painters who developed their didactic program based on ideas of the universalism and autonomy of art, prioritizing painting as the ultimate formula of the fine arts.
Partum's diploma assessment, which took place in May 1970, consisted of practical and theoretical parts. Partum wrote her short master's thesis under the supervision of the prominent art historian, critic, and theoretician Mieczysław Porębski, and she also attended Porębski's art history lectures. In his writing and lectures, Porębski introduced a multidisciplinary approach, combining linguistics, semiotics, and anthropological methodologies to define painting as a ritual of communication and identify art as a form of visual communication. He introduced vocabulary that resonates with Partum's later texts and manifestos, such as meta-critique, art as information, and the notion of contemporaneity.19
In her master's thesis, “New Sources of Intellectual Affections,” Partum commented explicitly on the process of the critique of painting that took place within experimental art practices in the 1960s and that was analyzed in Porębski's texts. The artist postulated a new kind of artistic practice that was indeed anticonventional but not restricted to formal exercises: she juxtaposed executed nonconventional art (still object-based) with the new format of ephemeral and documented actions.20
Partum stepped back from the materiality of art and developed a spatial-linguistic formula of artistic events or situations, in which she often appropriated other cultural texts, both literary and pictorial, creating in her words “a field of pure imagination.” Inspired by the avant-garde tradition, she argued that this kind of thought-provoking practice is not merely an exercise that focuses on the development of artistic language but, on the contrary, aims to influence its audiences, changing the viewers‘/participants’ perception by imposing a new sensitivity, allowing nonconventional ways of seeing—which, in the context of state socialism's rational normality, can be interpreted as a form of social engagement.
The notion of “imagination” in the centralized spectacle of the socialist state had a particular political and critical resonance that related not only to the possibility of transgression of the material conditions of everyday life. As Marsha Meskimmon emphasizes, imagining is always intrinsically entangled with knowing and is “deeply interwoven with political and ethical agency.” Imagining, Meskimmon argues, “is connected materially with the possibility to compel action and drive political transformation.”21 In the world of post-totalitarian control, art had become a technology of maintaining free imagination, as in the actions and happenings realized at Warsaw's Foksal Gallery by Tadeusz Kantor, who “hoped to carry out within reality what he called a new sphere of the imaginary.”22
Imagination became a keyword for neo-avant-garde art practices and theories around 1970. In a text written in 1970 and discussed at various art events in the 70s, the theorist of Conceptual art Jerzy Ludwiński writes about four historical stages of neo-avant-garde critique of art, related to objects, space, time, and, finally, imagination (later followed by a fifth stage—the zero-stage of post-art).23
Thus, Partum addressed a prevalent discourse on imagination with a strong statement formulated in her master's dissertation, in which she also considered the history of modernist poetry as a possible genealogy of “art of the imagination.” She mapped subsequent forms of visual-linguistic encounters, from the Dadaism's iconoclastic interventions, through linguistic and structural poetry, to concrete poetry, which replaced an experience of poetry with a precise graphic situation. It was in this context that the artist employed in her text a selection of images: visual poems by Kurt Schwitters, Louis Aragon, Stanislaw Młodożeniec, and Stanislaw Drożdż. A considerable part of Partum's thesis was devoted to theorizing the problem of the “distillation” of poetry from its conventional formats and media to build a more direct relationship with a reader who becomes a viewer. Partum writes that “arranging a space by the imagination is one of the ways to make the intellectual notation more present.”24
For the practical or artistic part of her diploma work, Partum appropriated two artistic objects from Tadeusz Kantor's action Multipart (Multiplication and Participation), realized in 1970 in the Foksal Gallery. Partum borrowed two of Kantor's emballages and repeated Kantor's characteristic gesture of wrapping objects. She hung the wrapped paintings on the wall and arranged four wrapped cubes in front of them. On the objects Partum placed fragments of her syntax poem, written in black-and-white letters. The artist presented the objects to the examination jury as paintings and answered a set of standard and completely irrelevant questions about the pictorial composition and formal aspects of her work. After receiving a positive assessment, she unwrapped the objects and revealed them to be simultaneously visual poems and the works of Tadeusz Kantor.
Partum's diploma defense was the first of her idiosyncratic performances based on the tactic of confrontation. The Latin verb confrontare means “to stand in front of.” This “standing in front” became a structural feature of Partum's artistic propositions and of works such as Tautological Cinema, Active Poetry, poems by ewa, and her feminist performances. Partum realized the concept at the exhibition Information-Imagination-Action: Anti-Biennale in Galeria Wspołczesna in Warsaw in June 1970, as an installation entitled A Field Arranged by Imagination (1970).
In A Field Arranged by Imagination, the artist introduced into a dimmed space three spatial elements made from fireboard—two cubes and an arch, inside of which she placed verses of her poem. The text was visible through the fissures in the objects, which were also illuminated from the inside. Her formula corresponded with the tradition of radical functionalism, where the space was conceptualized as a possibility of a direct action.
Partum elaborated further on the principle of the reification of language and the critique of the referential model of language that took place within the field of modern literature, extending it through the materialization of the letters. Her series Active Poetry, based on a repetition of self-reflexive Modernist texts by James Joyce or Marcel Proust, and later also on philosophical texts by Immanuel Kant, combined the strategies of transgression and deconstruction. In her first action (1971), Partum drew on Joyce's Ulysses, published for the first time in Poland in 1969. For Partum, self-reflexive literature provided a model that enabled her to abandon the paradigm of representation within visual art without simultaneously declaring herself on the side of pure presence. In poems by ewa, a gesture of notation was given its material source in the form of Partum's lips. In the Active Poetry series, Partum worked with the notion of the nontransitivity of language that resulted in the materialization of its individual particles. She inscribed fragments of literary works into “another dimension.”
Ewa Partum. A Field Arranged by Imagination, 1970. Mixed-media installation. Image courtesy of the author.
Partum's engagement with language must be seen in the broader perspective of the return of the Eastern European neo-avant-garde to the local avant-garde tradition of “framed texts and shaped writings.”25 The language and poetry functioned in an Eastern European context as the means to reconnect with an interrupted avant-garde history.
Within A Field Arranged by Imagination, Partum performed a return to the Polish Constructivist tradition of engaging the visual arts and poetry that was especially relevant in the practices of the “a.r.” group (“revolutionary artists”: Władysław Strzemiński, Katarzyna Kobro, Henryk Stażewski, Julian Przyboś, and Jan Brzękowski). The ideas articulated in the manifestos of this group (Komunikaty a.r.) correspond with the conceptualizations of the relationship between poetry and visual arts that Partum formulated in the manifesto that accompanied her work: “the word in the field of art assumes new value, it creates new imaging systems.”
In her diploma work and written essay, as well as in their subsequent realization in A Field Arranged by the Imagination, Partum proposed a turn into the field of avant-garde poetry not as the ultimate answer but as an option, one of many possibilities, that allows the artist to avoid the production of material objects. Although Partum's critique remained confined to art protocols and rituals, it also incorporated the idea of a social mission for art, not as a narrowly understood pragmatism imposed by political apparatchiks but as the bigger cultural project of a liberation from conventional ways of perception. Later, the idea of social engagement developed into the concept of feminist “artivism,” a shift marked by the performative work Change (1974).
CONCEPT ART/CONCEPTUALISM: TRANSNATIONAL CIRCULATIONS
Partum's linguistic actions were characteristic for the artistic formation that emerged within the Polish neo-avant-garde at the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s. The geography of these art practices was established by several open-air events, meetings, and artist-run galleries.26
Although Partum was not in direct contact with the network of Polish Conceptual art galleries such as Permafo in Wrocław or Akumulatory 2 in Poznań, she collaborated with two major theoreticians of the Conceptual art movement, Jan Świdziński and Andrzej Kostołowski, and participated in the most important collective events, which enabled her to exchange her ideas with other practitioners of Conceptual art. Subsequently, Partum expanded her Conceptual vocabulary through transnational communication with Fluxus, mail art, and international neo-avant-garde artists, contacts that intensified with her founding of Galeria Adres in 1972.
Galeria Adres functioned as the infrastructure for transnational reconnection and for the production of Conceptual works by ewa. The gallery was founded in an era of intensive gallery movement in Poland, when a plethora of artists' galleries began to emerge on the margins of official artistic life. The same period witnessed a re-evaluation of the idea of the art institution and reflections on the relations between new art forms and the ways to distribute and present them.27
In the early 70s, in Poland, many non-institutional and institutional actors distributed knowledge about American art and Western European Conceptualism. In Partum's close artistic circle, the first and foremost of these was the artist and theoretician Jan Świdziński. In May 1971 he delivered a lecture at Galeria Współczesna in Warsaw, explicitly titled Konceptualizm. Świdziński—who was researching semiology and cybernetics at the time—published a series of articles that reconfigured the debate on Conceptual art in Poland by referring to developments in the Western world. In his text “A Debate on the Existence of Art,” published in 1970,28 Świdziński refers to Pierre Gaudibert's distinction of four major tendencies in contemporary art: political art, cognitive art, anti-art, and Conceptual art. Following Gaudibert, he defines Conceptual art as “visual art that not only refuses to be art, but also refuses to be visual.”29
Świdziński participated in the first exhibition organized by Partum at Galeria Adres, An Exhibition of One Work by Three Artists (May 22–June 15), alongside Krzysztof Wodiczko and Włodzimerz Borowski. In Galeria Adres's accompanying publication, Wodiczko, Borowski, and Świdziński published statements describing their collaboration, referring to their work as the “automatic realization of a concept.”30
Andrzej Kostołowski, another significant voice who co-shaped the local discourse on Conceptual art, has worked closely with Partum since the early 1970s. In 1972, Partum published a seminal bilingual text by Kostołowski, Theses on Art No 1–17, which remains one of the most important historical texts on Conceptual art written in Polish.31
In terms of institutional actors, it was the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, with its international program of exhibitions and meetings, that played the central role in distributing knowledge about developments in Western European and American art. Many events that took place there “shifted the boundaries marked out in each (Communist) country between what was official and what was unofficial,”32 as they gave rise to unofficial contacts. Within Partum's self-historicizing narrative, she first encountered information about Western Conceptual art, and specifically about Joseph Kosuth, in 1972 during a conversation with the Parisian artist Gérard Titus-Carmel.33 In the same year, Partum employed the term “Conceptual” for the first time in the title of her photographic series Conceptual Exercises, which were subsequently reproduced in paper format as a book by ewa.
Ewa Partum. Conceptual Exercises, 1972. Black-and-white photograph, 50 × 50 cm. Muzeum Sztuki, Lódź. Image courtesy of the author.
Western Conceptualism constituted merely one point of reference for Partum's “historical feel” for the artistic field.34 The works realized by Partum in the years 1965–72, such as Presence/Absence or Luncheon on the Grass, after Manet, constituted a base from which the artist responded to knowledge about the transnational Conceptual movement that was distributed via the mail art and Fluxus networks.
REPETITIONS AND RAPTURES: PRESENCE/ABSENCE (1965) AND THE LUNCHEON ON THE GRASS, AFTER MANET (1971)
Partum's first documented work, Presence/Absence, consists of a series of small photographs (6 × 9 cm), which represent two separate actions. The first series follows a logical sequence: Presence depicts the artist rising from a canvas spread on the ground, creating a diagonal outline with her body that was later amplified by a black marker. Absence depicts a canvas stretched on the ground with the outline of the artist's body, her shoes, and her sunglasses left on the canvas as traces of her presence. The second series consists of three images that depict the artist posing in front of a composition made of the stretched canvases on the ground. In the first case, the artist is standing among canvases with various dimensions; her feet point directly into the geometrical center of the image. In the second photograph, Partum is shown from above, exposing the shadow that her hands cast on the canvas and again alluding to the authorial presence. In the third photograph, the artist holds the rectangular canvas, looking directly into the camera and composing her body in the frame of the canvas. Organized in this way, the photographs indicate three different measures of proximity between the artist and the canvases: being present amid canvases (1), performing indexical traces by marking (2), and touching the canvas (3). The images are in portrait format, alluding to the portrait function: this is indeed Partum's self-portrait as an artist who distances herself from (the discipline of) painting. The work represents the process of unlearning art conventions: the artist repurposes an empty canvas as a space for action, but not for painting. At the same time, she transfers her artistic focus from painting as an activity and discipline (that she would practice as a student at the art academy until 1970) toward the possibilities of photography as a means of rendering ephemeral action.
Ewa Partum. Presence/Absence, 1965. Black-and-white photographs, 6 ∞ 9 cm. Images courtesy of the author.
The work's structural logic is based on a repetition: the outline of Partum's body constitutes a trace of her presence, “the memory of an ever-receding origin that always remains elusively outside of what it produces in the present.”35 Thus Partum simultaneously thematizes the trace of the author and the spectral essence of photography that “always contains a trace of a thing that was once there.”36
Ewa Partum. The Luncheon on the Grass, after Manet, 1972. Color photograph, action documentation. Image courtesy of the author.
Although Presence/Absence is considered one of the first public artworks in Poland, it does not directly address the public. For this reason, it might better be described as an experimental activity that incorporated a natural setting. In another work, Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, after Manet (The Luncheon on the Grass, after Manet), realized in 1971 during the 4th Biennale of Spatial Forms: The Dreamers' Congress in Elbląg, the primary public consisted of the artists, critics, and art theorists who participated in the Biennale.
The Luncheon on the Grass, after Manet was designed as a temporary installation that aimed at spatially rewriting Manet's famous painting and activating the audience to read allusions and make connections. Partum used the reference to the real painting as a source of action, but she also referred to the local tradition of Kantor's happenings developed in dialogue with the history of European classical paintings, such as The Raft of the Medusa (1967) and The Anatomy Lesson after Rembrandt (1969). Her work was an analytical alternative to the quasi-theatrical events directed and co-performed by Kantor: a critique of their expanded choreography and spectacularity. The Luncheon on the Grass also marked the beginning of her practice of repeating and reordering the cultural texts of High Modernism, to which Partum added a component of physical space and chance operations.
In The Luncheon on the Grass, Partum translated pictorial language into a formula that combined linguistic signs and material objects. An empty, unstretched canvas appeared as a sign of a real painting and served as a surface for marking authorial presence. During the first stage of her action, Partum placed an empty white canvas on the grass, almost like a picnic blanket, proposing a performative translation of the painting's title and offering the possibility of the actual event: a picnic on the lawn. Second, the artist wrote the title of the work, her own name (at the top) and Manet's name on the canvas. Next to the canvas, Partum again transcribed the title of Manet's painting directly on the lawn. The canvas itself thus became a space for the revelation of the author and his/her creativity: “according to Manet” was overwritten with “by Ewa Partum,” creating a palimpsest. Partum then translated this spatial deconstruction of Manet's painting into a series of photographic images that reaffirmed her authorial presence: the documentation consists of a sequence of images that show the artist as part of the installation. Partum in this work played with the idea of literal repetition: The Luncheon on the Grass has been transcribed on the grass, while the canvas becomes the space for the artist's signature. This strategy of performing repetition was developed further in other works that employed photography. At the same time, the artist problematized the patterns of spectatorship: by producing connotative photographic images, such as Presence/Absence and The Luncheon on the Grass, Partum pointed to the fact that meanings are made as part of a social activity that also involves the viewer.
PREFORMING TAUTOLOGY: TAUTOLOGICAL CINEMA/IF YOU WANT TO SAY SOMETHING—SPEAK IN THE LANGUAGE OF THE LANGUAGE
Partum started experimenting with tautology as a strategy early in the 70s. Tautology was appropriated by Conceptual artists from the language of formal logic, where it indicates a statement that is true due to its form. Partum was not interested—unlike many other Conceptualists—in tautology as an issue related to the ontological status of art. Instead, she reterritorialized tautology from the field of language and explored it as the structural logic of not only language-based but also visually oriented and performative works.37 Tautology was not employed as a structural logic that produced an autotelic work. Instead, it was appropriated and revived as a feature of performative and documented actions. In the case of the film medium, it was a film speaking through its properties about its properties.
In the Tautological Cinema series (1973–74), a cycle of short 8 mm films, Partum thematized tautology as the structural logic of her films and also in the series title.38Tautological Cinema is a work about how to communicate within Conceptual aesthetics. On the one hand, it is worth positioning this series in the context of contemporary structuralist debates related to the problem of film language; on the other hand, it is also important to investigate the actual circumstances of the production and presentation of the Tautological Cinema series.
As elsewhere, artists working in Poland at the beginning of the 1970s were eager to incorporate technological media that opened up new possibilities for art production. Still, film as a medium was relatively inaccessible. At the time of Partum's studies in the Academy of Art in Warsaw, only one camera was available to students (in the drawing department, which was the most progressive). Partum's films were her first experiences of working with a film camera, although not necessarily with using a camera. Even when the artist was recording herself, she was still simultaneously located in front of the camera, performing for it, holding boards with credits and titles, and presenting her other works, such as poems by ewa. Certain films from the Tautological Cinema series were made for Partum by anonymous assistants. In a series of photographs from 1973, we see the artist posing with the camera while working on the film series. Although these images represent a quintessential motif of feminist art—a woman with a camera—they were at the time a means for Partum's self-representation as a Conceptual artist working with medialism.39
Ewa Partum. Tautological Cinema, 1973–74. Recording on 8 mm film strip transferred to digital recording. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, and Muzeum Sztuki, Lódź. Image courtesy of the author.
Films from the Tautological Cinema series, without any other obviously manifested presence of the artist, begin with the credit line film by ewa. Two of them deal with the problem of the notation of time within the materiality of celluloid tape. In 10 Meters of Film Tape, Partum transmits information about the quantity of tape that runs through the projector; in Concert, she visualizes the concept of eternity by referring to the symbolism of the landscape, showing the image of the sea, where the infinite repetition of waves is complemented by the word “etc.” In another film, the artist makes exaggerated gestures, covering her eyes, ears, and face, alluding to bodily means of communication and a convention of film representation. This sequence of frames bears resemblance to the series of photographs entitled Conceptual Exercises, realized in Galeria Adres in 1972, in which Partum poses alone and together with partners, performing exercises of not hearing, not speaking, not listening, and not being seen.
The title of the series, Tautological Cinema, refers simultaneously to the institution of cinematography (Cinema) and to the discourse of Conceptual art (Tautological). Partum's films can therefore be described as performative research into the possibilities of 8 mm film, structured by the concept of tautology. Her relationship to the discourse of structural film is confirmed explicitly in texts published on the occasion of the film festival organized at Galeria Adres in 1977. In the invitation to the Film as Idea, Film as Film, Film as Art festival, Partum writes: “The main purpose of the festival is to treat film as film. … We wish to propagate authentic values of film art originating in the premise of ‘art as art’ in contrast to professional endeavours.”40
During the Fifth Biennale of Spatial Forms, co-organized by the members of Workshop of the Film Form (June 15–20, 1973) under the title Kino-Laboratorium, Partum presented part of her Tautological Cinema series as part of a survey of Polish and international structural films.41 The Biennale was focused on the problem of film's language and its materiality. Partum showed her short 8 mm films but also arranged a delegated performance entitled If You Want to Say Something—Speak in the Language of the Language, which was conceived as an enacted tautology. The artist asked people in the audience to repeat the sentence that constituted the title of her performance. The film's and the performance's structural logics were parallel, both being conceptual tautologies realized in a medium-specific formula: film or speech. In 1974, Partum created the book by ewa, which consisted of a multilingual text repetition of the sentence If you want to say something—speak in the language of the language. This book instantiation also reveals a relational geography of Partum's connections and her international aspirations. In addition to Polish, Partum included German, as an international language adopted by many Eastern European artists to communicate with each other, and French, which was replaced by English in Partum's texts around 1972/73, because of her intensified mail art contacts. She also used Danish and Hungarian, the languages of artists who collaborated with Galeria Adres.
In the works analyzed above, Partum grounded her “tautological structures” within specific materials; in that sense, they were situated and medium-specific, and not merely linguistic. Tautology, as the logic that eliminates redundancy, worked here to stabilize the meaning of Partum's works, to protect the sign from any form of ideological appropriation.
SPEAKING IN THE LANGUAGE OF AUTHORITY: IT IS FORBIDDEN TO FORBID
Although Partum did not use tautology to mock the tautological nature of the socialist regime, she appropriated it as a tool that enabled her to arrange a subversive real-life game with the authorities, as exemplified in her work The Legality of Space, in which the action of placing signs and boards in a public space generated a field of confrontation with nondispersed, centralized power. The Legality of Space addressed and problematized the hegemonic public sphere, indicating the possibilities of free artistic action in a system marked by ideology.
The Legality of Space was realized by Partum in the central square of the city of Łódź, Liberty Square, in the spring of 1971 (April 21–23). In a vacant part of the square, Partum placed a collection of traffic signs and information boards, accompanied by an artist statement and her active presence. To realize the work, Partum had to obtain permission from the municipal authorities and the support of the Bureau of Artistic Exhibitions, which was a part of the official gallery network monopolized by the state. Therefore, her artistic action was legal and legalized at the local and central levels.
In this provocative and confrontational work, Partum used a strategy of appropriation of the means of communication used by the authorities. Partum employed real signs, such as “No Smoking,” but also included absurd slogans of her own invention, such as “It is prohibited to prohibit.” Since all the traffic signs were borrowed from the city's Department of Traffic and Communication, the work was guarded by members of the militia for the duration of the event, thus making them unwilling actors in the event. Unlike in Kantor's happenings—such as Happening Letter (1967)—which also often took place in the public space and were escorted by the police, Partum did not play with a carnivalesque overturning of public order. On the contrary, she thematized the notion of order within both the structure of the work and its rigid aesthetics, as well as emphasizing it in the title of the work.
To conclude, I address two points related to the heterogeneous genealogy of Polish Conceptualism understood as a historical movement. If, for a whole generation of Polish art historians, Conceptualism functioned as a “phantasm of a coherent past,”42 for Partum and her peers, autotelic and tautological Conceptual art operated as a phantasm that organized their artistic imagination and practice. The Polish literary scholar Maria Janion, who approached the notion of phantasm from an anthropological perspective, defined it as a concept located between myth and stereotype, and therefore as something that combines the features of both: the transgressive potential of the myth and the conformist aspect of the stereotype.43 In the same way, the Conceptual phantasm encompassed the transgressive oppositionality associated with the criticism of representation and the conformist component of non-commitment that was consistent with the cultural policy of the socialist state. The Polish history of Conceptual art is intertwined with the global aspirations of Western Conceptualism. In this context, it is important to emphasize that Partum's relationship with both Polish and Western Conceptual art—indeed, her self-identification with Conceptualism in general—was subordinate neither to its Western inflection nor to local (Polish) canons and protocols. Rather, the artist practiced Conceptual art contrapuntally, in the sense proposed by Simon Critchley in his essay on de-traditionalization. She “incorporated and crucially—contested” Conceptualism, and effectively was “forced to acknowledge the limits of its jurisdiction and the failure of its demand for exclusivity.”44
Ewa Partum, Samoidentyfikacja (Łódź, Poland: self-pub., Libra odd. 3, order no. 1045, 500 copies, 1981), n.p.
See, for instance, the following essays in the collection Ewa Partum, ed. Aneta Szyłak, Berenika Partum, and Ewa Tatar (Gdańsk, Poland: Instytut Sztuki Wyspa, 2012–13): Luiza Nader, “Conceptual Art and Ewa Partum,” pp. 24–37; Andrzej Turowski, “The Greatness of Desire: On the Feminist Conceptualism of Ewa Partum,” pp. 40–57; and Grzegorz, Dziamski, “Speaking as a Woman: Why Have There Been So Few Female Artists in Conceptual Art?,” pp. 94–103.
Gislind Nabakowski, “Apprehension and Masquerade: ‘Letter Millionaire‘—Ewa Partum's Path to Conceptual Poetry and Feminist Gender Theory,” in Gedanken ist ein Kunstakt. Ewa Partum: 1965–2000, ed. Angelika Stepken (Karlsruhe, Germany: Badischer Kunstverein, February 17–April 16, 2001), exhibition catalog, 129–139, 131.
Nena Dimitrević, “Gorgona: Art as a Way of Existence,” in Primary Documents: A Source book for Eastern and Central European Art since the 1950s, ed. Tomáš Pospiszyl and Laura Hoptman (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 124–140, 128.
Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Conceptual Art 1962–1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions,” October 55 (Winter 1990): 105–43.
Alexander Alberro, Conceptual Art and the Politics of Publicity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003).
Lucy R. Lippard, Six Years: Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966–72 (New York: Praeger, 1973).
Mari Carmen Ramirez, “Blue Print Circuits: Conceptual Art and Politics in Latin America,” in Latin American Artists of the Twentieth Century, ed. Aldo Rasmussem (New York: Museum of Modern Art, June 6–September 6, 1993), exhibition catalog, 156–66.
László Beke, “The Present Time of Conceptual Art: The Political Implications of Eastern European Art” (lecture, Barcelona Workshop: Radical Conceptual Art Revisited, May 2007), http://www.vividradicalmemory.org/htm/workshop/bcn_Essays/Present_Beke_eng.pdf.
Rosalyn Deutsche, “Inadequacy …,” in Silvia Kolbowski: Inadequate … Like … Power, ed. Frank Rilke (Wien: Secession, September 17–November 11, 2004), exhibition catalog, 67–70.
Christian Berger, ed., Conceptualism and Materiality. Matters of Art and Politics (London: Brill, 2019).
Walter D. Mignolo, “The Conceptual Triad: Modernity/Coloniality/Decoloniality,” in On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis, by Walter D. Mignolo and Catharine E. Walsh (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), 135, qtd. in Tom Holert, Knowledge Besides Itself: Contemporary Art's Epistemic Politics (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2020), 11.
Walter D. Mignolo, Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 65.
Madina V. Tlostanova and Walter D. Mignolo, “On Pluritopic Hermeneutics, Transmodern Thinking and Decolonial Philosophy,” Encounters 1 (Fall 2009): 11–27, 20.
Maja Fowkes, The Green Bloc: Neo-Avant-Garde Art and Ecology under Socialism (Budapest: Central European University, 2015), 245.
Such a debate on the regional specificity of Central and Eastern European conceptualism versus Western Conceptualism was initiated in 2007 by Moderna Galerija in Ljubljana. The opposites discussed during the conversation included collectivism/individualism and critical reception/lack of reception—in Boris Groys's words: “There was the market, connoisseurship, and concentration on pure form in the West, while in the East there was a very rigid ideological context with a very rigid system of interpretation.” See Zdenka Badovinac et. al., “Conceptual Art and Eastern Europe. Part I,” e-flux Journal 40 (December 2012), https://www.e-flux.com/journal/40/60277/conceptual-art-and-eastern-europe-part-i/.
Luiza Nader, Konceptualizm w PRL (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego, 2009), 396.
Partum studied in Łódź from 1963 to 1965.
During his academic career, Porębski frequently received international scholarships. A scholarship from the French Government to the École du Louvre (1949) and a scholarship to the École pratique des Hautes études in Paris (1960–61) resulted in two important publications: Granica współczesności [The Border of Contemporaneity] (editions: 1965, 1989) and the monograph Kubizm (editions: 1966, 1968, 1980, 1986).
Ewa Frejdlich Partum, “New Sources of Intellectual Affections” (master's thesis, Painting Department, Academy of Fine Arts Warsaw, 1970), typescript.
Marsha Meskimmon, Transnational Feminisms, Traversal Politics and Art: Entanglements and Intersections (London: Routledge, 2020), 2.
Klara Kemp-Welch, Antipolitics in Central European Art: Reticence as Dissidence under Post-Totalitarian Rule, 1956–1989 (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 50.
See Magdalena Ziółkowska, ed., Notes from the Future of Art: Selected Writings by Jerzy Ludwiński (Eindhoven: Van Abbemuseum; Rotterdam: Veenman, 2007).
Partum, “New Sources of Intellectual Affections.”
Krzysztof Sokół, “You Kissed Livid Yellow Oysters: Poezja konkretna and Fluxus,” in Narracje, Estetyki, Geografie: Fluxus w trzech aktach, ed. Katarzyna Tośko (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Krytyka Polityczna, 2014), 41–69, 43.
One of the most important collective events that stimulated the development of Conceptual art in Poland was the First Symposium of Artists and Scientists, Puławy 66, initiated and organized by Jerzy Ludwiński in the Puławy Chemical Factory. Important for the development of Partum's conceptual vocabulary, strategies, and new artistic contacts were the fourth and fifth editions of the Biennale of Spatial Forms (1971 and 1973), organized by Gerard Kwiatkowski at Galeria EL in Elblag.
On Galeria Adres, see Karolina Majewska-Güde, “Ewa Partum as a Cultural Producer,” post MoMA (blog), March 6, 2019, https://post.at.moma.org/content_items/1249-ewa-partum-as-a-cultural-producer.
Jan Świdziński, “Spór o istnienie sztuki,” Życie i Myśl, no. 5 (1970): 98–105.
Świdziński not only recalls artistic practices and exhibitions, but also refers to the impact of the writings of Roman Jakobson, Carl Jung, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, and Michel Foucault as factors that shaped and influenced the then-current debate on idea-based art. He refers to relevant events in the contemporary art world, such as the exhibitions When Attitudes Become Forms (1969), at the Kunsthalle Bern (recalling the motto of the previous exhibition Live in Your Head), and Konzeption: Dokumentation einer heutigen Kunstrichtung (1969), at the Städtisches Museum Leverkusen.
An Exhibition of One Work by Three Artists: Włodzimierz Borowski, Jan Świdziński, Krzysztof Wodiczko (Łódź: Galeria Adres, May 22–June 15, 1972), exhibition catalog, n.p.
Dorota Monkiewicz, “On the International Artistic Exchange Network in Poland as Illustrated by the Example of Łódź's Adres Gallery,” in Nothing Stops the Idea of Art, ed. Maria Morzuch (Łódź: Muzeum Sztuki, November 24, 2014–February 15, 2015), exhibition catalog, 56–67, 61.
Jerome Bazin and Pascal Dubourg Glatigny, “Introduction,” in Art beyond Borders: Artistic Exchange in Communist Europe (1945–1989), ed. Jerome Bazin, Pascal Dubourg Glatigny, and Piotr Piotrowski (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2016), 25.
Gérard Titus-Carmel was invited by Ryszard Stanisławski to the Muzeum Sztuki for an exhibition that took place May 23–June 25, 1972. Interview with Ewa Partum, September 14, 2015 (Berlin).
Pierre Bourdieu, “The Intellectual Field: A World Apart” (1990), in Theory in Contemporary Art since 1985, ed. Zoya Kocur and Simon Leung (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2004), 17.
Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 506. Jay continues that, according to Derrida, “representations can never be replaced by the pure presence of what they represent. But neither can their difference from the ‘things’ they represent be completely effaced in the name of a realm of pure simulacra entirely without a trace of reference.”
Jay, Downcast Eyes, 506.
It has to be emphasized that this strategy was not unique to Partum's practice and was also explored by other Central and Eastern European artists and by artists in other nonmetropolitan locations. The relevant question of regional specificity in this case remains open and requires further research.
Ewa Partum, Tautological Cinema (1973, 4 min 20 s, no sound, 8 mm).
Medialism is a term used in Polish art historiography to describe an artistic trend that existed in Poland in the 1960s, 70s, and early 80s, which connected artists who worked with media such as film, photography, and video; who primarily sought to develop the specific language of a given medium in their artistic work; and who adopted broadly understood experimentation and research on the medium as a means of communication for their work.
Invitation to the international festival Film as Idea, Film as Film, Film as Art (Galeria Adres, Łódź, 1977), typescript.
The participants in the Kino-Laboratorium included Workshop of the Film Form, Studio Eksperymentalne Polskiego Radia i Telewizji from Warsaw, Studio Kompozycji Emocjonalnej from Wrocław, Grupa w Składzie from Warsaw, ART–Laboratorium from Poznań, Grupa “Remont” from Warsaw, Gdańska Scena Eksperymentalna, Wielobranżowa Spółdzielnia Poetycka from Poznań, Studio Béla Balázs from Budapest, and 30 individual artists from Poland, Argentina, Holland, Spain, Canada, France, Hungary, and Scotland.
Nader, Konceptualizm w PRL, 9.
Maria Janion, Niesamowita Słowia szczyzna: Fantazmaty literatury (Krakow: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2007).
Simon Critchley, “Black Socrates, Questioning the Philosophical Tradition,” Radical Philosophy 69 (January/February 1995): 17–26, 24.