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//Bauman/Bałka// – Piotr Skłodkowski

Bauman/Bałka – Piotr Skłodkowski

Piotr Słodkowski (b. 1985) – art historian and critic, graduate of the University of Warsaw and the multidisciplinary academy Artes Liberales, PhD student at the Faculty of History, University of Warsaw, participant of the Programme of Individual PhD Studies AAL. He is interested in Polish modern and contemporary art and currently writes a dissertation on Polish-Jewish avant-garde painter Henryk Streng (actually Marek Włodarski). He published in top Polish academic journals devoted to the history of art, including ‘Artium Quaestiones’ and ‘Ikonotheka’; he co-operates with the American magazine ‘ARTMargins: Central & Eastern European Visual Culture’ and the ‘Szum’ magazine. He also works with the National Children’s Fund as a former beneficiary.

Bauman/Bałka

Interviews and extended interviews have a long tradition in the Polish history of art. Although there were some missed attempts, we also had many successful renditions, from Nie tylko o sztuce. Rozmowy z Profesorem Mieczysławem Porębskim (1992) by Krystyna Czerni, to the projects of the 40 000 Malarzy publishing house and, for instance, Strategia pająka (2011) – Adam Mazur’s interview with Andrzej Osęka. Undertakings which break the mould by giving the same, equal status to both of the interlocutors are now quite seldom; one of the very few examples of this form of interview is the record of four meetings between Mieczysław Porębski and Tadeusz Kantor. They took place at the turn of 1989 and 1990 and were included in the artist’s personal monograph, Deska.

This is, however, the quite unique, as we have seen, formula adopted in Bauman / Bałka, an account of a meeting that took place at the philosopher and sociologist’s house in Leeds in August 2011. The thing that binds the dialogue together and empowers both of the interlocutors does not, of course, lie in shared media of forming ideas or common generational experience. The space for mutual understanding, easily erected in spite of the differences, was created by – for lack of a less general expression – sensitivity and readiness to contemplate, critically, the traces of the past in contemporary times, especially when it comes to the war and the holocaust. On the other hand, there is no doubt that the value of this conversation stems from this non-erasable difference – from the fact that the meeting takes place outside the domain or modus of work adopted by both of the interlocutors, and in a space of (generational) mediation; in the case of Bałka, from the fact that he is late and, through no fault of his own, ignorant, as Katarzyna Bojarska, the editor, rightly points out.

The conversation concentrates around a photograph of Bałka’s studio wall, brought to Leeds, which constitutes a sort of a notebook, a collection of press clippings and ‘unnerving’ photographs that quite often become seedlings for future art projects. The rhythm is imposed by transferring the gaze from one fragment of the wall to another. The exchange is burdened with all the drawbacks and advantages of this idea, although the latter definitely prevail.

Although some of the ‘scribbles’ in Bałka’s notebook prove dead ends in the conversation with Bauman (for instance the banner ‘Mad-a-gas-car’ or the reproduction of a fragment of David Teniers’ work), but – first of all – focusing the attention on individual photographs and their underlying, specific problems protects the entire conversation from falling into the trap of (transcendental, formalist, historiosophical) generalisations, a tendency that often plagues other ‘conversations about art’ between Polish artists and philosophers. Of course, the very class of the interlocutors also helps them avoid such murky waters.

Secondly, the sheer nature of the photographs stuck to the wall, a document of unrestrained work in progress, favours repeated references to topics that allow us to take a peek into Bałka’s methods of creating. For instance: the photograph of rail tracks in Otwock, the artist’s hometown, from which eight thousand Jews had been deported in 1942, makes us reflect upon the roots of his artistic interest in the past. Seeing a picture of the standalone, closed gate of Birkenau, treated as a concept draft, the artist tells the story of his new idea for a sculpture installation. In the same vein, even if the artist and the philosopher discuss well-known, already finished projects such as Winterreise and How It Is, they do it in such a way that the focus – casually, but also thanks to Bauman’s discerning questions – falls on the coincidence that co-founded the Birkenau video or the first, ultimately aborted, project for the Turbine Hall, and, in a more general manner, on the logic of the creative process: a ‘net’ cast on reality, the importance of mistakes, the elimination of materials, the attitude to the art studio and artistic gesture. In other words, this strategy proves to be highly effective, helping as it does to look at Bałka’s works ‘from a tangent’, in a different manner than their more traditional interpretations.

Thirdly, if we were to look at Bauman rather than Bałka, we have to agree with Katarzyna Bojarska when she writes that this was a meeting that ‘had to happen’ – or that at least it would be a real pity if it had not, not only for art historians but also for students and enthusiasts of the sociologist’s thought. It is quite characteristic that, in the same way as he turns out to be an insightful interpreter of Bałka’s art, Bauman also finds a connection between the artist’s works and his own deliberations. It is fascinating to watch how, throughout the conversation, the philosopher confirms his intuitions regarding Bałka, and while watching the photographs, he finds new analogies to his own propositions. In the final chapters, he even says: ‘Like you, I would very much to find a visual expression of a problem that has been on my mind for a long time now’. No wonder that these chapters, in which Bauman becomes more and more autobiographical and refers to his category of fluidity to discuss it with Bałka, are among the most interesting parts of the book.

As a consequence, Bauman / Bałka is a record of a meeting held in an ‘in-between’ space, fascinating to anyone seeking interdisciplinary reflection on art and memory and its traces in culture.