Why does a certain type of a forest receive state protection?
How does a certain physiognomic type become considered to be better or worse, or how does it get assigned to the master race or a slave race?
What determines the course of contemporary or future biopolitics, which aims at preservation or extermination?
Michał Zawada’s exhibition introduces a juxtaposition of photographs that originate in two seemingly different orders: images of Białowieża Forest and images of plaster casts of heads, which during the time of World War I, served as research on race and heredity. Yet, black and white raw photographs point to a common element – the esthetic form of life, entanglement of biomorphic structures, contours and lines, which can trigger both delight or hatred. A line, noticed and brought out from the background – regular or unsettled, arborescent or not – may become a measure of beauty and humanity, may point to a certain course of action and ethical border. Will it still be possible to behold the beauty of untouched nature? Will the form of human body, in the future, have impact on the social hierarchy? In the time of sudden political and social ruptures Zawada encourages us to rethink our ways of seeing, unveils the cultural sense of order, and provokes us to trace the course of line.
curator: Paweł Brożyński
Lack of ornamentation is a sign of spiritual strength.
If nothing were left of an extinct race but a single button, I would be able to infer, from the shape of that button, how these people dressed, built their houses, how they lived, what was their religion, their art, their mentality.
The (truly exact) work of art is a metaphor of the universe obtained with artistic means.
(Theo van Doesburg)
It is estimated, that the Pomeranian Culture (known also as Face Urn Culture), which covered almost whole terrain of contemporary Poland, appeared at the early Iron Age on the border of Halstatt C and Halstatt D (7-6th Century BC) and ended in 3rd Century BC. It’s almost four centuries. The most characteristic artifacts, which this agrarian culture left us, are phallic urns decorated with a schematic human face – most probably the physiognomy of the deceased. In 4th Century BC those simple images disapeared and the Pomeranian Culture started to fall into abstract formalism. We could call it ‘decadence’ or ‘swan song’. The Modernists liked to assume, that the purification of the form from everything unnecessary and pursuit of simplicity is a pursuit of excellence – modern divinity, universality or, simply, maturity. Without any contexts, connections to nature, drifting towards the purest of all possible forms. This absurdly naive linear, teleological concept is, we have to admit, in some ways, seducing. Did the people of the Face Urn Culture think in a similar way? Did they try to move their dead from the earthly diversity towards eternal unity? Maybe they could say something like this: ‘Making urns today is still almost exclusively dependent on natural forms taken from nature. The maker’s contemporary task consists of testing its power and means of ceramicity for the purpose of creation. From this inner tendency will arise, in the future, the truly monumental art, which today we can already foresee. Anyone, who absorbs the innermost hidden treasures of art, is an enviable partner in building the spiritual pyramid, which is meant to reach into heaven.’ It’s difficult to say.
Mensur is a specific type of manly entertainment. Practiced by the members of student fraternities it is a strongly ritualized and codified method of fencing – an initiation ritual, means of polishing personality and character. It is a method, accompanied by a sudden rush of adrenaline, of bringing back the suppressed patriarchal spiritual ideals. It is a place where what is seemingly idealistic meets the physiological.
The combatants stand opposite each other, and they cannot change their positions, they cannot move from the designated ground, they cannot dodge. It is exactly from this fixed spatial relation, indicated by the length of the arm, that Mensur borrowed its name. The students cover only their noses, eyes (with characteristic steel goggles, Mensurbrille) and their throats (with Krawatten) – all the rest is the battlefield. The main idea of this sort of fencing is to cut exactly those parts of the face which remain unprotected. One cannot shield himself, for Mensur is an exercise in stoic calmness, endurance and ability of sustaining pain.
The visual and physical sign of this stoicism, but also a kind of honorable reward is a Schmiss, an often nasty scar which marks the forehead, chicks or chin forever.
Though known since ages, Mensur flourished most spectacularly at the end of 19th and at the beginning of 20th Centuries. It coincided with the moment of prosperity of academic fraternities, saturated with the ideals of Kant and Fichte, but also with sprouting nationalistic visions. The country’s crème de la crème, assembled in these elite societies, was slowly elaborating an idea of unified, indivisible Germany, and after 1918 and the humiliation of Versailles, it became the avant-garde of thoughts about rebuilding the spiritual Germanic might, racial purity and the historic mission of German Reich. In the 20s and 30s, differently from their uncompromising peers (like, for instance, the descendants of the national writer Thomas Mann), they started to reinforce the ranks of NSDAP, and sometimes, from the very beginning, SS and SD. Those, who as adolescents hardened themselves in the fraternal ritual of fencing or devoted their bodies to the toil of academic alpine hiking, those lawyers, historians, philosophers were soon to avail themselves of the steadfastness of their national socialist beliefs, enriched with the visual symptoms of the scars gained in the duels, in the woods of Belarus or on the Ukrainian steppes, becoming leaders of the gruesome squads of Einsatzkommandos.
Young Germans and Austrians still gather in the Studentenverbindungen. In some of these, the Mensur is prohibited, but some of the fraternities continue to practice this type of rivalry saturated with the myth of masculinity. Some of them frequently establish relations with the radical political movements of the far right wing. Mensur could be understood as a forge of the national beliefs and chauvinistic pertinacity; a forge of the cult of the body and of ruthless character. Not only as a historically conditioned proving ground of beliefs, but, understood more broadly, as an emblem of the marriage between the intellect and frenzy, the ideas and their decay.
Michał Zawada, ‘Uncertainty’, 2014, video, 3’25”, loop.
Found-footage material taken from Krzysztof Zanussi’s film ‘The Structure of Crystals’ (1969). Prepared for the exhibition ‘Bare Walls are Beautiful’ in Browar Lubicz, Kraków, Poland (April 2014).