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//Through the Looking-Glass. On searching the trail and reading from fragments of the Smoczynski Archive// Anna Sulich-Liga

Through the Looking-Glass. On searching the trail and reading from fragments of the Smoczynski Archive Anna Sulich-Liga

There are no longer any events. There is no memory of them; we probably do not even have any recollection of something like memory. It would seem that there is nothing left; but that is when they do come back. Quite suddenly, finding, as an echo, the scarce fragments of their past presence, which may only impart some probability to something that has passed away and that cannot be disclosed. And in this form, as fragments, they last till this day. Independent from other related events that escaped, and defying our need to find a proof.

I am constantly repeating the same thing in a similar manner. Not to prove anything and not to discover anything. I repeat because I am awaiting the moment when this thing whose presence I can only sense, or rather which exists in my waiting, will be able to reveal itself[1]. Mikolaj Smoczynski


Fragments of past presence

An endless succession of boxes, crates and containers slowly cluttered the floor of the storage room. Some gave away their contents by their smell, shape, rattle or rustle. Blackened tubes of once silver cans protruded from the open bellies of grey boxes. Basins and buckets seemed to burst with heaps of fragmented lithographic limestone and shattered granite crosses. Other cartons, when opened, exploded with a cloud of dust, which revealed cake tins of shining steel arranged in perfect little columns, rolls of canvas, piles of containers, screws, light bulbs, only to surprise with a concealed mountain of dry lemons or light pieces of almost ancient bread, hard as pumice. Then we had packages and boxes filled with photographs and film rolls placed in albums that remembered the golden age of Polish commercial design. All this unpacking was like a first step taken in an area yet unknown, with the sole guide being a dry guidebook in a form of a list of items in the protocol. A thrill of excitement before entering a strange reality, full of shadows and undiscovered paths.

After three days of taking the preliminary inventory of the legacy separated into dozens of series-molecules, I felt as if I had just come back from a trip advertised as a long weekend on the moon following Neil Armstrong[2]. Intense, individual impressions. Too short and too chaotic to really get to know the art. It was only an outline of the whole, composed of thousands of pieces.


The potential

An archive provides a context, a background for the artistic output, a collection of priceless information pieces of various potentials. The Archive of Mikolaj Smoczynski, a painter, photographer and performer, is composed of texts, fragments of dismantled installations and potential ‘bulding blocks’ for new ones. It includes unfinished works or those still ‘in progress’, poster designs, proofs, negatives and slides, demonstrating the process of creating a work of art and experimentation with form. This unique collection also contains photographic documentations of works by other authors, which present successive exhibitions – places processed by the artist. It is also, in its entirety, an environment and infrastructure that surrounded the author on a daily basis.

The Smoczynski Archive is a collection of necessary objects selected without any sentimentality. No remains or personal souvenirs in the strict sense of the word. Nevertheless, all items, and especially texts, speak volumes about the artist; about his choices, fascinations, formal and ideological experiments. Smoczynski seems to be trying to explain his productions, providing detailed descriptions of their visual aspect. He offers a concise explanation of technical issues, assumptions and philosophical considerations. Without pomp, freely. Sometimes also jokingly. ‘All photographs used in The Secret Performance where taken in one place, in a building located in Lublin at 11 Zana Street. I just photographed a fragment of the floor across the entrance to the room. Opposite to the door, there was a wall with a number of big windows. I took pictures using only this natural light that seeped through the windows. The camera was always placed on a tripod stand. In 1993, the building in which I took the photographs for The Secret Performance was destroyed. And thus ended my work on this series. I still take photographs of a similar nature’[3]. Such descriptions are immensely important for his site-specific art, which existed mainly in a particular space at a given time and for the most part left achromatic archive pictures randomly representing the space and very subjective photographs taken by Smoczynski.


A snapshot and a photograph

Smoczynski treated photography as a separate branch of his artistic activity. In a way characteristic to him, it ‘monitored’ the transformations of forms that he had built or deconstructed. ‘The fragmentary information provided by photography, if we do not treated as documentation, enables us to create completely new, fictitious spaces of experience understood from a personal perspective. An item that from this moment became an object of observation no longer existed as a sculpture (because its role as a sculpture had ended). From then on, it constituted a performance category realised by the capabilities of the medium that imposed its own convention’[4]. In Smoczynski’s art, a ‘snapshot’ translates as a faithful depiction of reality, based on a technique different than photography. The series of his works under the same title consisted in stripping the top fragment off a selected surface, for instance the plaster off a gallery wall, by sticking on a canvas and then ripping it off. The artist then displayed the surface’s underneath, internal tissue together with the ‘proof’ that he had ripped off.

On the other hand, photographs neither document nor describe the art that was created in a given space. They are images composed of contrasts; almost abstract compositions of flashes and matt blacks; geometric figures sketched with light on photosensitive proofs; autonomous products which erase all architectonic connotations of the object, its form, material and scale, as well as such fleeting information like smell, impressions of the interior and of light, and the presence of a person inside, both the author and the viewer. All of this is cut off by the shutter. We are standing at the opposite side of the camera’s looking glass, looking at the image created by the photographer.


‘They exist differently’

Smoczynski’s art is determined by categories such as duality, antinomy, but also an interest in the positive – negative relationship. He laboriously constructed complicated architectonic forms, experimented with building materials and substances to find the best expression of his thought; he endlessly repeated exposures and patiently waited for matter to change, carefully monitoring the transformation to capture the borderline between two states. The archive is a record, frame by frame, word by word, of those changes. It enables a more comprehensive reception of particular, sometimes infinitely similar pieces of his work, enriched with contexts and details of his experiments. The author himself hints at some interpretations options. ‘In the case of my images which all follow the same form and one resembles another, what counts are the slight differences due to the conditions in which a given item was created. From the formal point of view then, we get the same thing each time, but the images are different anyway. ... We only have a matrix (and it is not yet a work of art) and proofs that look different. ... They are different (in my opinion) because they exist differently. Just like plants that may grow together, but one of them will receive more light or water, or will just develop differently for some other reason’[5]. In his texts, Smoczynski also leaves some hints in the form of quotations from, among others: Theodor W. Adorno, Roland Barthes, Joseph Beuys, Jorge Luis Borges, Umberto Eco, Micea Eliade, Michel Foucault, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Carl Gustav Jung, Martin Luther, Jean Paul Sartre, Gertrude Stein, and Poles: Wieslaw Borowski, Roman Ingarden, Alicja Kepinska, Mieczyslaw Porebski, Maria Anna Potocka, Wladyslaw Strzeminski, Wladyslaw Tatarkiewicz. The inventory-taking and its effects, despite all its learning potential, will not be able to replace the opportunity to see and experience the artist’s unique spatial realisations. His last exhibition, Mile Poles. Project for a Tanker, was organised in the Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw in 2006. The Archive will also not replace the ability to follow, in real time, the evolution of the artistic language of one of the biggest outsiders in Polish art of the 1990s. His work developed far from its geographical, ideological or formal centre. I really envy the observers and participants of this part of his art.

Mikolaj Smoczynski passed away in Lublin on 2nd January 2009. In 2011, his heirs donated an archive of 36 original exhibition posters, 4080 negatives, 2064 diapositives, 961 original photographic prints and 37 paintings and sketches to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow. We are currently taking detailed inventory of the artist’s legacy. MOCAK is planning to post the digitised part of the archive on the Museum’s website and publish the author’s commentaries to works created between 1980 and 1999.


Mikolaj Smoczynski (1955 – 2009) – lived and worked in Lublin since entering the Marie Curie-Sklodowska University in Lublin, where he studied between 1975 and 1979. Created site-specific installations and monochromatic photographs, which quite often register his gallery actions. When discussing his art, one can hardly separate sculpture from experimental photography. His works were presented at several dozen solo exhibitions in, among others, San Diego (San Diego State University Art Gallery), Lyon (E.L.A.C.), New York (Art in General Gallery, International Studio Program), Berlin (IFA Galerie). Smoczynski received many awards such as the European Photgraphy Award (1992) in Berlin and art scholarships, for instance the Quint Kirchman Projects (Sand Diego, 1991), Fondation d’Art de la Napoule, Memorial Henry Clews (La Napoule, 1993) and International Program Studio (New York, 2001). Currently, Mikolaj Smoczynski’s work can be found in the most important cultural institutions and Poland and various international collections.


[1] M. Smoczynski, Piwna 20/26 Emilii i Andrzeja Dluzniewskich 1980–1993, M. Sitkowska (ed.), Wydawnictwo ASP w Warszawie, Warsaw 1994, p. 267.

[2] The archive encompasses seventy-one series, including, among others: Annexations, Image, True Image, Pictures Created in the Studio, Contemplative Image, Double Object, The Secret Performance, Transfer, The Mediterranean Sea, Parallel Action, The Hoisting, Temporary Con Temporary, Parallel Action, Trailing Note, Elevation, Library, Expression, Snapshots, La Napoule, Passage, Directly, Direct Action, In-Directly, Nework, New Snapshots, Draught, Change in Local Jurisdiction, Map, Single Image, Divided Image, Multiple Image, Mile Poles, Project for a Tanker, Stigmatic Drawing, Central Image, Repeated Form.

[3] M. Smoczynski, Czas przeszly. Komentarze do prac zrealizowanych w latach 1980-1999 [typescript], Lublin 1999, p. 11.

[4] Ibid., p. 10.

[5] Ibid., p. 141.

Anna Sulich-Liga (born 1980) – curator, graduate of art criticism and promotion, art pedagogy and photography at the Fine Arts Academy in Poznan as well as post-graduate museological curatorial course at the Jagiellonian University. Manager of MOCAK Collection Department.