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//Autotautologies// Jerzy Treliński talks to Monika Kozioł

Autotautologies Jerzy Treliński talks to Monika Kozioł

Monika Kozioł:
In 1971 you took a year-long break from your artistic activities. What kind of works did you make before that? What made you withdraw from art for a year?
Jerzy Treliński: A few years before 1971, which you have mentioned, I graduated from Łódź Higher School of Visual Arts. The school was still steeped in the atmosphere of interwar avant-garde due to the artistic and pedagogic activities of Władysław Strzemiński. He had a huge influence on creativity of Łódź academic circles, which I joined in 1967. Working there, I was obviously also affected by the cult of this charismatic artist, art theorist and teacher. At the beginning of my artistic career, I frequently came into contact with formalism. The experience of this precise, purist conception of form took root in my consciousness. My response to the dominance of form, fairly common in my closest circles, was to combine it with a clear message about the role of content in the work of art. I found it relatively easy to develop a set of individual means of expression, which I used freely. Many artists considered this to be the ultimate achievement and critics – the yardstick of success. I was winning awards, museums were buying my works, critics often complimented me and, what is most important, I was fulfilling my artistic goals very easily. All this became rather worrying, although the temptation to remain at this stage was huge. The general atmosphere was like that of a hothouse – all was beautiful but quite suffocating. I realized that I needed a breath of fresh air. I was falling into the trap of limited possibilities, I felt I could not explore my creative potential to the full. I therefore decided that I would not let my artistic temperament be tamed and then imprisoned within one style. Escaping from the so called style, I was able to formulate and record my thoughts in many different ways – I assumed that artistic means of expression are limitless as long as they are justified by the end to which they have been employed. I explored the full array of means, having decided that “writing style” is less important than “thinking style”.

However, my frustration was growing since I was unable to capture the relationship between reality and the means of expressing reality in art, where any interpretation is uncertain as it is never final, there is always a possibility of having another formulation. This is why I began to question the rationale behind any such formulations.

Between "it was" and "it will be"

Between memory and expectation

Suspended in the vacuum of anxiety

Turning longing into pain

"Now"– passing by

I struggled with such dilemmas at the beginning of the 1970s. Torn between different emotions and contradictions, I hit the wall.

Between soaring up and falling down

I summon my energy to remain

Not a bird, not a stone

MK: A year later you started the project entitled Autotautologies ­– on myself – nothing. What are its origins?
JT: The break, the painful break. How, in this “point of departure” situation, to express your active engagement with the world in art? How to remain? And, at the same time, to be invisible? This contradiction, in the context of traditional artistic decisions, gave birth to Autotautologies ­– on myself – nothing. The idea of “total presence” constitutes a response to the feeling of loss. Thanks to it, one’s personality, hidden behind a graphic sign (a collection of letters that make up the repeated surname) becomes inscribed into all potential aspects of reality (artistic, sociological, political etc.). From individual objects to its intentional collections. This is my own reflection on the extreme attitudes of artists to art.

MK: One of the first works you created for this project was a book filled with repetitions of your surname. How did it come about?
JK: The book which launched the Autotautologies ­– on myself – nothing project is supposed to, in a very spectacular way, replace all possible contents that could be included in it. Just after it was printed, it became implicated in the political context of the time – whilst still at the printer’s all 500 copies were destroyed by the censorship. The typesetter managed to save only two originals (currently in my possession). In 2010 the book was reprinted[1].

MK: In Autotautologies your surname turned into a graphic sign – it started appearing in various contexts and was placed on objects of daily use. Could you say something more about these realizations?
JT: The project was carried out, with varying intensity, since the 1990s. It reached its peak in 1970s and 1980s (sometimes I still make references to it today). Everyday objects and their uses implied new meanings. For example a TV set as an object and a TV imitating a short broadcast. A flag as an object and around 100 flags put up in Łagów, just like during national holidays. A stencil as an object and its countless impressions on pavements, streets and squares. A display cabinet with everyday objects such as a shirt, a pillow, a box, a tape shown against the background of a medieval altar in the National Museum in Warsaw. This juxtaposition invites speculations, bringing up the context of time and of the changing forms and functions of artworks. There were many more such objects, there still are, and all of them, placed intentionally, gain new senses and new meanings.

MK: Taking part in Labour Day parades was an important part of your artistic activity. You would carry a banner with your surname on it. What was the rationale behind it?
JT: A Labour Day parade was a propaganda spectacle directed by the Communist Party and its leaders to strengthen their totalitarian, self-proclaimed government. Communist elites and their minions would treacherously use anonymous crowds of exhausted people to their own ends. People, forced to march for many hours by party secretaries and brainwashed by them, were once a year were given “games” in exchange for their sovereignty and human dignity. During protests the authorities controlled workers with tanks and guns to prevent them from taking over power, which in theory belonged to the proletariat and the peasantry. For me May Day was an opportunity to draw attention to the importance of independent, individual action. What I did on May Day 1974 constituted an act of rebellion against the enslavement of our society. In 1977 in Łódź I just joined the forces of order wearing a characteristic armband and encouraged the participants to go home.

MK: How did the protesters react?
JT: The party activists from the city committee of the Polish United Workers' Party in Łódź, sitting in the grandstand, were perplexed by the whole situation. The onlookers standing along the route of the parade gave me a much harder time. Especially the members of the youth division of the party did not mince their words. I think they understood the importance of this event. Afterwards I learnt that on May 2 the then rector of my university, Roman Artymowski, received a phone call from the party’s city committee demanding that I be expelled. Later the rector told me that he was unable or unwilling to find a legal basis for my expulsion. He convinced the relevant authorities that removing me from university would only blow up the whole awkward issue so that all Polish universities would find out and the result would be counter-productive. I kept my job but I was under the observation of party officials.

MK: If you yourself became the contents of your activities, why the title on myself – nothing?
JK: The contents are: Autotautologies on myself –nothing. The form: the repeated texture of the surname.

MK: How did your circles and the public receive your project?
JK: As I mentioned, the project was carried out over an extended period of time. It received many important – at least from my point of view – reviews. Numerous influential art critics saw my project as belonging to the Polish neo avant-garde of the 1970s.

MK: When did you finish the project? What have you been working on since?
JT: The Autotautologies speak to my artistic conscience because they should be carried out diligently throughout the entire life. And in some way they will be because I left myself a certain open possibility but I want to keep it secret. Meanwhile, I am looking for and finding solace of my existential angst in geometric art. Its contemplative nature allows me to discover harmony and balance in spiritual transcendence. In the art world, there is still a dispute over what should have priority: form or content. Can it be solved at the level of an individual artist? It is doubtlessly a dilemma: adjust form to content? Or content to form? Years go by without a solution. Until the content says hello to form.

Translation: Dorota Malina

[1] The MOCAK Library owns one copy.