What do American creator John Cage and a representative of Polish neo-avant-garde Andrzej Partum (1938-2002) have in common? The answer is simple: a tendency towards silence and muteness.
John Cage has manifested the values in his famous creation of ‘4’33’, which had its premiere in 1952. At that time, he discovered the value of silence in music and created a piece made only from rests.
Twenty two years later a Polish artist, Andrzej Partum, distributed black and white postcards presenting the view of Krakowskie Przedmieście Street (Warsaw), above which a huge banner with the slogan ‘Avant-Garde Silence’ (‘Milczenie awangardowe’).
Cage staged his piece in the United States in the ‘50s and Partum was silent in communist Poland in the ‘70s. These are obviously two different worlds and in very different circumstance, but both of the artists have focused on silence in an attempt to find something else beyond the commotion of words or the noise of reality. Despite appearances, Polish avant-garde art has ‘heard’ John Cage’s silence and has been aware of it, even from behind the iron curtain. Andrzej Partum has stated that silence was the best option for Polish avant-garde scene of the ‘70s. And, as John Cage has commented, Andrzej Partum used silence to converse with the oppressive reality that was surrounding him.
But through silence an art can evolve that is full of expression, and this has been shown in some works of Polish artists ever since the ‘70s. Maybe there isn’t much difference between the time of Andrzej Partum and the time of another Polish art scene represented by Honza Zamojski (born 1981) and Jakub Czyszczon (born 1983). The latter creates colourful silenced paintings, which have meditation and reflection potential.
And then there is Izabella Gustowska (born 1948) and her series of ‘The Relative Features of Similarity’ (‘Względne cechy podobieństwa’) where she concentrates on questions about the meaning of being twins. Is similarity indisputable? What consequences does it take for defining identity? How do two almost identical faces work when shown so close to each other?
In relation to the title of the display, it would be impossible not to ask about the similarity between John Cage’s and Andrzej Partum’s searches about silence. Although, the features of this similarity are only relative.
Izabella Gustowska is the only woman in these gentlemen’s company. Her piece of work from ’88, showing a woman’s naked body laid horizontally, brings the aspect of sensuality and corporeality. The artist’s technique, involving ‘stuffing’ the art piece with soft fabrics beneath the surface, makes the art figure of the lying woman appear as three-dimensional and it seduces the sense of touch. Her subtle and mute sensuality speaks as a part of Honza Zamojski’s display – he is a collector of Rembrandt’s famous black and white replicas – representing the acts of Saskia and Batszeba. The artist, with his distinctive collage method and sense of humour, assembles those replicas, torn out of the old museum catalogues, with the photographs of naked women’s bodies from magazines. He even goes as far as completely hiding Saskia’s figure with a picture of a confident undressed modern model. His works play with the tradition of showing women’s bodies in art pieces, which have been judged by men’s eyes for centuries. Time passes but not much is changing.
Then there is Jan Berdyszak (1934-2014), who expresses silence through emptiness. It’s all in the cuts made in his works – planes opened with small spaces. These planes of his works have been invaded, infringed and cut, so that the real space could be involved with the composition as one of the key elements. The artist used to say that his paintings were ‘traps of the space’, some kind of frames, which let us impress on its existence – usually so obvious that it’s permanently unnoticed. What’s more, works of the series ‘At the Stone’ (‘U kamienia’) – made with soil brought from Spain – are wildly and clearly silent. Heavy and murky rocks rest in silence, in which we can hear a story of primordiality of matter.
As a Polish poet, Zygmunt Herbert, used to write – a stone is a perfect being filled with a rocky sense. In another work from the ‘Balks’ series, we can see a massive wooden log. It was probably used as a ceiling beam – but nowadays it ‘looks at us’ in silence, simply showing its quiet but strong presence. That approach, both towards space and matter, is what links Jan Berdyszak and John Cage: they both have been inspired by Far East philosophy that focuses on emptiness, quietness, silence and meditation.
Meditation and concentrating on searching of the spirituality through art have been a huge part of Paweł Kwiek’s (born 1951) work for years. His documented black and white photographs and movie performances are usually not only a reason for analysing the medium or the potential of a painting but also, as the artist itself says, are a reason to make sacred avant-garde art. Its the reformed avant-garde artist who tries to move a bridge between reality and transcendence through his art.
The whole display, linking so many different artistic approaches under the name of avant-garde silence and the dialogue of John Cage’s piece ‘4’33’, poses the question about the role of spirituality in art and about searching for the right tools to express it. Because it can be manifested as a silent presence of matter, sensual corporeality or even as a view inspired by Far East philosophy. Avant-Garde Silence can also have a critical and political aspect, which was clearly shown by Andrzej Partum.
Professor Marta Smolińska