Grzegorz Klaman

Political Things

Wyspa Institute of Art, Gdánsk

June September 2010

"After World War II, the Holocaust, and the atomic bomb, a change of consciousness occurred in the world at large," writes Paul Schimmel in his essay "Leap into the Void: Performance and the Object."1 The most important philosophical movement to emerge in the postwar period, Schimmel goes on to argue, was the existential movement, which positioned action, presence in-itself, and existence at the forefront of its conceptual manifesto.
The philosophical, political, and cultural heritage of the existential movement in particular, and the postwar period in general, generated a significant change within the art field as well. During that period, a growing number of artists addressed through their work the dialectic question regarding construction and deconstruction of the artistic process and its intrinsic aspect of temporality.

In the early 1960s artists in various disciplines started turning to performance art and taking part in open happenings, in an attempt to create what they dubbed "live art." The turn to such type of work was primarily underlain by an attempt to undermine the fixation and necessity of the quintessential exhibition frames—the gallery and the museum—and by the intention of rejecting and eliminating the perception of art as a productive power spawning objects in general, and marketable objects in particular. Several years later, inspired by the events of 1968 and the socio-political atmosphere at the time, which led to undermining of the accepted relationship between the citizen and the state (as well as any other type of establishment), the young generation of artists went to further extremes in the rejection of the art object and the use of traditional materials. Many artists began using their bodies as their primary medium, addressing it simultaneously as the subject, the substance, and the arena of the work. This turn to the body was part of an ongoing process of negation intended for re-definition of the relation between the body and the "self," as well as society and the artistic field.

One may say that the body was deemed a "last front" of the ideological struggle necessarily involving its use and representation, and that body art was perceived as a radical form of presence. As part of this activity where the physical body served as the arena of action and display, different acts of self-mutilation, cutting, scarring, burning, and shooting were performed, as well as diverse types of abuse, usually while using still photography and video to document and backup the progression of these very acts.

It is well known that over the years many artists have explicitly engaged in the presentation of the body in abstract, theoretical, principal, metaphorical or staged manners. What distinguishes artists such as Rudolf Schwarzkogler, Chris Burden, Stelarc, Gina Pane, Ana Mendieta, Eleanor Antin, Janine Antoni, Hannah Wilke, Marina Abramovi?, Orlan, and many others is not only the fact that they transferred the abstract, general, symbolic artistic discussion onto the physicality of their own body, but mostly the transgressive manner of operation they have chosen to execute.

Grzegorz Klaman, whose artistic career began in the mid 1980s, represents a different generation of artists and a different political and cultural climate.
His work is well informed by the aforementioned precedents, yet does not aim to continue addressing the very same issues. It does not investigate the implications of creating situations endangering his own corporality or personal safety as such, nor does it aim at extending the limits of his own ability to absorb self-inflicted injuries or pain. Rather, it aims to utilize the principle transgression of borders signified and enabled by these earlier precedents, in order to use the body, any body, in various manners and states of being, and to critically examine social, political, and cultural issues of the time.

Thus, already in early works such as Metal Vat (year?), as Aneta Szylak so poignantly describes in her essay "Klaman or the Body in the World of Hierarchy,"2 he uses various body parts of unknown origin, stimulating a situation that—through the use of meat and books—oscillates between nature and culture, body and soul, striving to touch upon metaphysical questions of origin, essence, and purpose in the context of contemporary society.

Later on, in works such as Emblems (1992), Katabasis (1993), or Fundament (1994), Klaman continued to investigate the use of body parts in his work, inclining more and more toward dealing with different structures and systems of communication (sound, touch, etc.).
The question remains open, whether his early works featuring hair, body parts, and gas tanks—containing either oxygen or other types of gas—bear direct relevance to World War II and its crude scars. For Klaman, these elements clearly carry the essence of life, of living energy. Nevertheless, these works not only challenge the question of material and essence, social structure, and cultural context, but also engage in an overt critical dialogue with one specific social structure—that of Christianity.
Emblems (1992), for example, features a steel chamber in which three glass containers with human preparations of brain, liver, and intestines are installed. The containers are shaped like various parts of a cross or a swastika cross, and are positioned in the chamber as if in an altar. The triangular altar-like container installation is further reinforced by the dim light in the chamber and the distinct sense of detachment evoked by all of these elements. The viewer is invited to observe the containers from up close, alone, and to contemplate the meaning of the whole work while being wrapped by the chamber's steel walls, and the physical as well as metaphysical atmosphere they inspire.

A part of the work's critical stance is manifested through the fact that contrary to Christian relics,3 which may be found under the altar stones of Roman Catholic churches or on side roads in far off locations, and are exhibited due to their immanent organic relation to a deceased saint or martyr, the body parts in Klaman’s work are of unknown origin; from an unknown person. They are exhibited not due to their actual, physical connection to a specific individual, but for the principle notions they represent: human existence, scientific knowledge, artistic freedom.

Thus, the body parts in Klaman's work maintain a different type of affinity to the so-called "source" to which they relate. Not a tangible memorial, a reminiscent part of a missing whole, but a principle representation, a signifier that bears no immanent connection to the larger signified whole. This fundamental difference in the type of relationship between the fragment and the whole, signifier and signified, indicates a disillusioned eschewal of the notion of truth. In the absence of a direct link between signifier and signified, in the absence of an illusion of immanent belonging, the work occupies the field of representation and meaning, not the field of facts, if these exist at all in the world.

In effect, this work as well as others from the mid-1990s, not only criticizes the praxis of Christianity and its widespread relic industry, but also seeks to undermine the very pretension of absolute knowledge they represent, the notion of a singular truth which is ostensibly available to a chosen few, and to substitute it with the understanding that knowledge is a field of active examination, questioning and action, and not of passive repetition and citation.
It is easy to note that the human body appearing in Klaman's earlier works is dismantled, disassembled, preserved. Nevertheless, it is not disembodied. It is not negated. The isolated body parts used in the works still signify the body in general, its potential of action, and its responsibility of function in the cultural arena.

The human bodies emerging in Klaman's works in recent years appear to be whole. Nevertheless, and despite the fact that prima facie they may seem to be in tact, they are eventually understood to be either dead or in a state of complete detachment from their surroundings.

Fear and Trembling (2007) features three figures in large black capes, kneeling at the foot of a wall, hitting their heads against it. They move slowly, as if suspended either in a state of meditative elation or in a state of humility and imploration; their faces are invisible; only their legs and feet may be glimpsed. Their monotonous movement and the hermetic withdrawal implied by their pose allow for no exchange of gazes and words, and preclude any form of contact with the world. Any attempt to understand the nature of their action thus necessarily involves a transgression of their space and mental state. Both their postures and their movements allude to prayer, yet may also hint at self-inflicted injury or sacrifice. The intersection between these different fields of meaning directs the viewer back to the work's title, while expressing a critical stance towards the familiar paradigm that calls for self-inflicted or collective injury in the name of faith. It seems the work touches upon the fact that faith, any faith, not only envelops but also obscures; not only protects, but also detaches and separates. Thus, it seems to hold a critical stance toward the system of religion, toward the potential exploitation stemming from ill use of power.

The title of the work was borrowed from Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard's well-known book first published in 1843 under the pseudonym "John the Silent." In this book Kierkegaard sought to reach the root of the conflict between the systems of morality and faith, examining the "paradox of faith," a paradox that brings together obedience and profound understanding.
Klaman’s oeuvre, which throughout the years has repetitively striven to examine various social, political, and cultural power structures, illuminates in this instance, once again, the fact that none of these terms or fields of discourse are pre-given; that their meaning and significance may only be revealed and fulfilled through active thought and action. Perhaps, even, through their very undermining.

The video work Blow Up #1 (2007) was filmed in constant motion, from a low point of view, in a site resembling a silent, empty university campus. Every so often, a figure – possibly a corpse – is seen lying on the ground in a distorted pose, in a state of unconsciousness, sleep, or death. While it is obvious that something has occurred, one cannot pinpoint the cause of the situation. The strong resemblance between the work's visual appearance and the plethora of images we have become habituated to viewing on international news reports – poisonous gas attacks, mass murder, or random shooting – produces a familiar sense of horror. Although the background of the work is pervaded by a strong intimation of a sexual crime, the camera's indifferent, at times hurried, gaze makes it difficult to decipher the structure or goal of the action that has taken place.

The work's title has a double meaning that vacillates between photographic enlargement and an explosion, relating to the general sense of disintegration communicated by the work as well as to its cinematic context. In Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 film Blowup, a renowned female fashion photographer discovers strange details in random photographs she took in the park. While blowing up the photographs in the lab, she discovers signs pertaining to a crime scene.
At first glance, it seems that Klaman's work, which was filmed in broad daylight, conceals nothing. Upon closer observation, however, the organized and structured campus is revealed to be disturbed not only by the violent invasion that has taken place, but also by the very presence of the camera. Since the work's viewer cannot decipher the connection between the wandering gaze searching and lingering behind the camera and the gaze that initially led to the depicted calamity, he is left to conclude that perhaps the evidence hides behind the camera. Unable to break beyond the limits of the gaze offered by the work, all the viewer can do is slowly draw back and detach himself from the fallen figures, while observing the subtle link woven between the movement of the camera and the invisible movement of the guitar strings on the soundtrack.4 Hence, the monotonous rhythm and repetitive structure of the work eventually lead the viewer to a state of indifference, even numbness, with regard to the possibility of the prone bodies potentially being corpses, a state which replicates the general condition of ignoring and alienating the other, regrettably characterizing day-to-day current human existence.
In the video work Blow Up #2 (2009), Klaman takes the hinted question of responsibility of the gaze introduced in the previous work even further. In what seems to be a vast abandoned building, a frantic gaze wanders through empty halls, in search of something unknown. From one room to the next, the gaze behind the camera searches, looks, turns, over and over, again and again. The continuous movement from hall to hall brings to mind yet another cinematic reference—the 1961 film Last Year in Marienbad;5 while in Resnais's film, however, a voiceover contemplates the current and past encounters which might have occurred in the Château, in Klaman’s work only the sound of movement in space, of hastened steps, is clear, creating a repetitive rhythm, as if in a military or ritual march.

Then a body appears, lying in a strange position on the floor. And then another one, and another. As in Blow Up #1, the bodies keep appearing with no reason or explanation; the gaze keeps wandering with no clear destination. The bodies are mostly lying apart from each other, without any indication of a clear type of social activity in which they may have been engaged prior to the seizing movement. Thus, without any testimony of interaction, a strong sense of detachment, fragmentation, and lack of meaning arises.

Then, after quite a while, the viewer recognizes some movement other than the camera's gaze. A figure seems to be running away. And then another one, and another. One by one, the bodies seem to be standing up and running for their lives. Who from? Where to? None of these questions is answered through the work, and what is more mind boggling is the fact that the gaze behind the camera seems to be indifferent to this significant turn of events. It keeps wandering frantically from hall to hall, without evident purpose, without apparent satisfaction, and along with the frantic movement of the running figures, creates a strong sense of disorientation.
Many of Klaman’s works feature isolated, detached, controlled environments in which the logic of occurrence is unclear. They also share a certain type of continuous movement, of endless repetition, of constant change. But does change really occur in them? "Repetition changes nothing in the object repeated, but does change something in the mind which contemplates it," writes Gilles Deleuze at the opening of chapter II of Difference & Repetition.6 Thus, the repetitive movement in Klaman’s works may not result in any sort of apparent catharsis, may not reveal any additional information regarding its intrinsic source or motivation, yet does create a unique, specific impact on the viewer. Through the temporal relationship between time, space and the gaze, established n the works, it is the viewer who goes through some sort of metamorphosis; the viewer that is called to rethink and redefine his personal values and criteria. If any type of change occurs in these works, it is in the viewer’s mind; in his way of reception; in his mental, moral, theoretical, and political spectrum of analysis of the works.

Furthermore, it can be said that Klaman’s most significant critical and political stance seems to stem from the continuous, almost endless, cyclical movement typifying his works; from the vacant center this movement effectuates. The axis around which the works are created, around which their disorientating experience is produced time and again, also reveals the quiet place of contemplation; the pivot point from which observation is enabled and criticality is structured; the point from which questioning contemporary culture’s moral values as well as the means to define or alter them may be examined.
The space in which we live is heterogeneous. The spaces created in Klaman's works are heterotopic. Defined units of time and space which exist in relation to the general space or other spaces, yet sustain an intrinsic, unique logic of progression which is at the same time that which constitutes them.

In defining the term 'heterotopia,' Michel Foucault mentions six basic principles. He concludes by stating that "the last trait of heterotopias is that they have a function in relation to all the space that remains. This function unfolds between two extreme poles. Either their role is to create a space of illusion that exposes every real space, all the sites inside of which human life is partitioned, as still more illusory (perhaps that is the role that was played by those famous brothels of which we are now deprived). Or else, on the contrary, their role is to create a space that is other, another real space, as perfect, as meticulous, as well arranged as ours is messy, ill constructed, and jumbled."7

In this context, Klaman's works may be regarded as heterotopias striving to signify a demarcated space, whereby to indicate certain political-cultural features, thus criticizing the cultural sphere as a whole. The general feeling arising from a concentrated observation of his works is one of detachment, depletion, destruction; a sense of a situation that has gone out of conscious control and has continued to operate perpetually, unconsciously, and inertly.
Bringing together the manifestations of all the aforementioned works, one begins to realize that the presence of the human body in Klaman's works is elusive. The more corporal, material, and physically present the body, the more it is actually already gone. As a matter of fact, it seems that the process of disembodiment persists in his work in two complementary manners. In the sculptural works, where the figuration is tangible, corporal, real, the process of disembodiment is either mental or spiritual, as in Fear and Trembling, or conceptual, as in the various works from the mid 1990s, for instance. The body in these works is present as a tool, a means for some type of transformative action. In the video works, where the human body is either missing or dead, the process of disembodiment becomes significant on a much broader scale. It is no longer the individual body or even the principle signifier of the human body in general which is disembodied. In these later works the accumulation of individual bodies becomes a signifier of the social body in general, and it is this social body which is disembodied, which is ultimately revealed as void.


[1] Paul Schimmel, Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949-1979 (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1998) p. 17.

[2]  Aneta Szylak, "Klaman or the Body in the World of Hierarchy," in Klaman: Works 1993-1998 (Gda?sk: CSW ?a?nia, Fundacja Wyspa Progress, 1998), p. 145.

[3] The word relic derives from the Latin reliquiae, meaning "remains."

[4] This soundtrack triggers yet another cinematic association, since it was originally written for Wim Wenders’s exceptional film Paris, Texas (1984) – a film that constitutes a total expression of searching and longing.

[5] L'Année dernière à Marienbad is a 1961 French film directed by Alain Resnais; screenplay by Alain Robbe-Grillet .

[6] Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (New York: Columbia UP, 1986), p. 70. Deleuze begins the chapter taking after Hume, subsequently going on to articulate the notion of Repetition for itself.

[7] Michel Foucault, Of Other Spaces (1967), Heterotopias, trans. Jay Miskowiec.
Entitled "Des Espace Autres" and published by the French journal Architecture/Mouvement/Continuité in October 1984, this text was the basis for a lecture given by Michel Foucault in March 1967. Although not reviewed for publication by the author and thus not part of the official corpus of his work, the manuscript was released to the public domain for an exhibition in Berlin shortly before Foucault's death.

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Grzegorz Klaman

Political Things

Wyspa Institute of Art, Gdánsk

English Text