Behind the Iron Curtain, opportunities for subversive art were slim. But the Polish artist duo Zofia Kulik and Przemysław Kwie—known as Kwiekulik—found their own ways to draw a curtain between their work and the authorities.
If the Socialist way of being within the former Eastern Bloc regimes was to infuse every corner of life, Kwiekulik was able to subvert such a life via a private, artistic practice. In their home, behind closed doors, mostly using their own actions and those of their child as subject, they turned official propaganda on its head.
It was the custom in Poland in the time of Kwiekulik’s work, 1971-1987, to give artists hackwork making official commemorative plaques, banners and propaganda pieces. Manufacturing such items was often the only way for artists to officially earn money, or at least for those artists whose real practice consisted of avant-garde and conceptual forms that didn’t necessarily sit well with the Socialist-realist favoring propaganda apparatus. Kwiekulik would produce these items as they were required, but not without privately manipulating the context and situations through which these “art” objects passed before they reached their final resting place.
The Earning Money and Making Art series, presented in Art Features at Art Basel by Warsaw’s Raster gallery, encompasses such work. Kwiekulik has been recognized as an innovative pioneer, as it was one of the first to co-opt the language and images of the state in contrast to other types of subversive art occurring in the Eastern Bloc that would rather attempt to counter or oppose the apparatus.
In Activities with AK Kinga Plate (1974), for example, an assignment to create a commemorative plaque turned into an absurd performance. Documenting the “Material Spatial Activities” they were doing to carve the plaque—which involved mysterious “x’s”, fruits, onions, a plaster head and even their son Maksymilian Dobromierz—Kwiekulik was manipulating the meaning and intention of the work, even if it remained opaque to those who would see it later in its official context. The record of the plaque’s secret life only emerges now, over thirty-five years later.
Kwiekulik’s oeuvre has been more and more vigorously excavated and investigated of late; their works were presented in Documenta 12 in Kassel (2007) and Istanbul Bienniale (2009) and will be featured in a forthcoming monograph edited by Łukasz Ronduda and Georg Schöllhammer.
Why the interest now?
Perhaps in today’s context of behemoth art fairs and the many-tentacled apparatus of art trends and fashion, private subversion of a more obvious and identifiable oppressor—like Socialist censorship—evokes something akin to nostalgia.
- Mara Goldwyn
(Images: KwieKulik, Activities with Dobromierz; Activities with AK Kinga Plate, 1974; Courtesy of the artists.)