Journey to the West I
Journey to the West
17th September – 14th October 2018
Signum Foundation Gallery
ul. Piotrkowska 85
‘The Poznań-based Rodriguez team presented a solo by Michał Martychowiec, a sophisticated post-conceptualist, who developed a perfectly crafted exhibition, intellectually impeccable, which perversely, because in a way on its own example, addresses the emptiness of post-Duchamp art. While the coldness of the show could not be to everyone’s liking, there was hardly anything one could criticize.’ 
This is how critic Stach Szabłowski commented – in his characteristic style – on Michal Martychowiec’s exhibition Everything about the contemporary is panda at the Rodriguez Gallery during the Warsaw Gallery Weekend in September 2018. And it is precisely the reflection on the subject of this ’emptiness’ and ‘coldness’ that I would like to make the subject of this text.
I first encountered Martychowiec’s art at the exhibition The Urge to Create Visions, which took place at the Centre of Polish Sculpture in Orońsko in 2017. In the exhibition catalogue, three of the artist’s works, the blue neon How far can you see, a film and large-format photographs of cloudless sky, were interpreted in the light of the psychoanalytic theory of art, the application of which was suggested by the context of the collective presentation. The series of four arrangements in a small gallery of the Signum Foundation in Łódź, which took place last year, significantly expanded my view of the artist’s work, because in fact, despite the scarcity of space, it was a multi-layered monograph of his art, comparing in new configurations the works of Martychowiec from several years and from many projects. The show consisted of carefully crafted and displayed objects, technically perfect photographs and films, drawings and typescripts. In the visual sense, each of the exhibitions was marked by cool elegance. The artist claims that he does not absolutize aesthetics, but at the same time he does not ignore it, because the visual aspect is an inevitable feature of a work of art – a work of art must always look “somehow”, and “history has taught us rejection of any aesthetics, like in the case of minimalism, leads only to creation of new aesthetics”. This and other comments of the artist show that Martychowiec not only has a good command of the material appearance of things, but also of the verbal commentary that constantly accompanies his work and is an integral element of the semantic field of the exhibition. The impression of “cool elegance” of his exhibitions is based on the effect of an unintended, phenomenological presentation of themes, which are often taken from banal, everyday reality. Before the viewer understands that s/he is not dealing with formalistic exercises in various media, but with works “to read”, s/he stands in the gallery troubled by the material visuality and at the same time by the ambiguity of the purpose, reason and message.
In the first part of the cycle titled Reading history in a single space there were simultaneously: a photograph of the ‘GO’ game board on the front wall, which looked like a minimalist work with a typical ‘grid’; four (two white and two black) stones used in that game (Naming history) framed and labeled with various historical events; next to it – a neon with the inscription Looking for meaning in history. In the middle of the interior there was an authentic goban (GO game board). In the corner to the left of the main wall, projected on a screen on the floor was a film showing the hands of the artist bending successive bananas trying to make them fit into a special plastic container – a breakfast banana box. Next, a narrow shelf with seven sheets of framed typescript against a wall, displaying seven individual letters: AAINSTV (Alphabetically). Author’s printed commentary told the viewer that the meaning of the presentation would be explained in the following editions of the exhibition. Thus, the reading of the ‘text’ of the exhibition was planned not only in a synchronous approach within one space, but also in a diachronic one, where the transition from one part of the exhibition to the other was to reveal the artist’s intentions.
It is not possible to present and describe all elements of the four presentations within this text. Some objects moved from exhibition to exhibition, others had their own individual pattern of appearance and disappearance. In order to understand the procedures of this plotless narrative, I will focus on several themes. The banana theme from Martychowiec’s film, surprising in the context of the GO game, reappeared in part III (Tears of Iblis) as a photograph of the fruit with an organic food sticker marked with the image of a panda. This version featured a box of matches with panda on a shelf and a film showing a stuffed animal at the Natural History Museum in Berlin with a soundtrack in which Marcel Duchamp’s voice can be heard during a lecture entitled The Creative Act, recorded at a conference in Philadelphia in the late 1950s. The Duchamp theme was also represented by a reproduction of The Large Glass on the cover of the catalogue raisonné pasted into a photo of the GO game board (Notes from the Board #4) and continued in part IV (Journey to the West), as a metal window frame with broken glass, set aside in the corner of the gallery. On the shelf, known to us from the first installment, a video with black and white fluffy Josephine rabbit sitting on an armchair next to the Duchamp’s catalogue raisonné was shown on a smartphone. The fourth edition was dominated by the rabbit, which twitched its nose and looked at the viewer, also from the TV screen placed on the floor. Josephine had previously appeared incognito in part II, since no one knew then that a small blue spot on a white sheet of paper came from the imprint of her paws (Shadows and other signs of life), as did the imprints of female bodies in Yves Klein’s Anthropometries. In the third edition of the exhibition Josephine was already present in corpore in an open rabbit cage as the protagonist of Martychowiec’s eight-hour film Empire, from which she ‘jumped’ onto the armchair in the finale. The cage theme itself continued in the fourth installment in the form of a plaque with the name of Art Cage street suspended from the ceiling. Josephine’s mysterious relationship with Duchamp and Klein went beyond her role at the exhibition. In the last installment, the GO game board photo had an inscription pasted into it: ‘I have picked the dead rabbit of Beuys and let it live./The rest is history./’ Basically, this text could have been the culmination of a series of four exhibitions and finally explained them, but the various themes were concluded here separately, many times and in different perspectives.
In the above phenomenological description of the exhibition, it is essential to mention themes related to the work of Kazimir Malevich, which were included in the second and third installments. First, enigmatic signals appeared – a photograph of a white cross against the background of a 17th-century still life and a film depicting the artist inflating a red beach ball with the inscription ‘Supreme’. In the next arrangement the space was dominated by a photograph from the series Notes from the Board with a red square pasted in. It was a label of ‘Dr. Sebagh/Supreme day cream’ and in the corner of the gallery under the ceiling a framed black stone placed in the same way as Malevich’s Suprematist black square at the last Futurist exhibition 0.10 in Petrograd in December 1915. The Malevich’s theme was always accompanied by works from the Vanito Vanitas series. This included the already mentioned Alphabetically, in which the order of letters AAINSTV from the first edition changed into readable VANITAS. With the exception of Beuys’s name, there was no literal indication of where to look for references at the exhibition. The artist’s extensive erudition therefore placed high demands on the viewer in terms of knowledge of art history and the ability to trace associations.
The fixed point of the four installments was the authentic goban – a kind of small, low, wooden table on curved legs with a game board on the top – which remained in the center of the gallery. The old Chinese game Go, also known in Japan and Korea, is more than two thousand years old. Usually the board consists of 19 vertical lines and 19 horizontal lines, which form 361 intersections. The game involves two players conquering the terrain by arranging smooth, rounded black and white stones at intersections. Each stone has one “breath”, i.e. it “seizes” the territory up to the nearest intersection of the line. Four editions of the exhibition showed the successive stages of the game (depicted by an increasingly complex system of white and black stones), played in 1846 in Japan by a renowned master with a seventeen-year-old young man, in which the youngster defeated the master.  This game became for the artist a symbolic image of the dying of tradition, defeated by the energy of the inevitable historical process. The physical presence of the goban, just like the photographed board of a grid of ‘minimalism’, provided a framework for Martychowiec’s historiosophical reflections. Their subject is the passing and death of successive historical civilizations, for which a special case is the formation of Western European modernism, confronted with the tradition of the premodern West and the postmodern East. The latter was addressed, among others, by Martychowiec’s forged Chinese identity document presented at the exhibition, resulting from his personal observations on how artists from the Middle Kingdom function on the global art world stage.
Based on the artist’s own comments, I conclude that Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square plays a special role in his historiosophical reflection, as a symbol of the new ‘materialistic’ metaphysics that Marcel Duchamp’s ‘ready-mades’ were supposed to embody in a different version. However, if the artistic gestures he referred to had their energy grounded in the historical context of the time, then ‘Later modern and postmodern art which has followed this new narrative consequently became repetition of a repertoire of the very same ideas, which being deprived of the actual socio-political context became, no wonder, empty.’. Commenting on his works from the third edition of the exhibition, Martychowiec writes about them that “in several instances represent the images of emptiness of the modernist tradition and the new (still empty and hidden) symbols, history and myths awaiting their foundation. These works do not (once again) destroy the current ‘icon’ as Malevich did, but rather look for new icons (the holy) in the images of what has been lost and destroyed.”. According to the artist, the potential role of the new, although still empty symbols may be played by the panda ‘bear’, condemned to extinction, as a depiction of the extinction of the species and the lively rabbit Josephine. These are, of course, paradoxical proposals that we are not yet prepared to adopt. They are a sign of the future that will come. It remains to be asked, however, whether Martychowiec’s attitude to the tradition of modernism is so unambiguously negative. What, in his opinion, can be the search ‘for new icons (the holy) in images of what is lost and destroyed’? And how does the artist do it?
The artist’s work on the format of the exhibition can be considered as a postmodern game of solving riddles. However, there are enough indications to treat it as a tool for creating a text that requires a hermeneutical reading, and I understand the term ‘hermeneutical’ in the strict, Gadamer’s sense of the term. In every installment Martychowiec showed the viewers a GO board. The ‘game’ is also one of the central terms of hermeneutical epistemology, describing the way in which a rational individual resides in the world and finds his or her identity in it. This is due to the understanding of one’s place in history as a result of the interpretation of cultural texts. Among them, art plays an important role as the work of the mind that self-defines itself in and through history. Gadamer understands the work of interpretation as a game whose subject is not the player (interpreter), but the game itself. As the philosopher claimed, the aim of the game is simply to play (i.e. life, existence in history). Martin Heidegger had a similar view of a work of art whose subject is not the artist but the art itself, and the artist is only the way in which a work of art exists. These ideas resound in Martychowiec’s statements when he says that ‘The work of creation is meant to be forgotten, so that the introduced symbols, free from original constraints can acquire broader cultural significance.’.
Therefore, what is crucial here is Gadamer’s understanding of the symbol. The hermeneutical method, similarly as in Martychowiec’s historiosophical reflections on modernism, serves to understand the alien sense of the retreating tradition and to include it within the scope of one’s own history. Referring to the truth obtained in the process of interpretation, Gadamer tries to show that it cannot have a source character, but is always co-constituted by the historical situation of the interpreter. In other words, the journey into the past does not transfer to another world because this other world can only be the interpreter’s own world, and the past (including historical works of art) exists only in interpretation and thanks to repeated acts of interpretation. This assertion brings Gadamer to the conclusion that the truth and meaning of history cannot be verified methodologically, but are encountered by way of unintentional certainty, because the work of art and the interpreter belong to each other as a result of the historical process of interpretation and care for the truth. Thus, the symbol also does not refer to another, original meaning, but directly to a thing that can be shown in this way.
From the perspective of what has been written above let us try to look again at the works featured at Michał Martychowiec’s exhibition as symbols of ‘what is lost and destroyed’.
One of the Notes from the Board contains a famous photograph that depicts the demolition of the Pruitt Igoe estate in St. Louis, USA. In the mid-1970s, this photo became a symbol of the collapse of the idea of the Athens Charter and the failure of the modernist concept of city management. The social housing estate designed by Minoru Yamasaki in the center of St. Louis consisted of 33 eleven-storey skyscrapers and over time it became a hotbed for criminals, where the police were afraid to intervene. Today, analyses show that it is not the form of architecture and urban solution that were behind the failure of social projects, but a combination of a number of unfavorable factors, ranging from the collapse of industry and unemployment, as well as spatial racial and class segregation and the processes of deurbanization of American cities.
On the other hand, the theme of a banana shown twice at the exhibition belongs to Andy Warhol and the community of his Factory in New York as part of the modernist tradition. Before the banana appeared on the cover of Lou Reed and Velvet Underground’s album, it was already the nickname of Mario Montez (‘Mario Banana’), a charming drag queen with a shock of blonde hair that appeared in Andy Warhol’s thirteen screen shots between 1964 and 1966. These images of carefree eroticism of Montez theatrically licking and eating a banana are a harbinger of the emancipatory movements of sexual minorities and the moral revolution of the late 1960s.
The second part of the exhibition also featured a large, colorful photograph depicting a forearm streching out of a dark background, displaying transparent crystals on the palm. This hand pointing to various elements of reality was the trademark of Giovanni Anselmo, the artist of Arte Povera. He used this gesture to address the continuum of nature and the cosmos – matter and gravity, visible and invisible, whole and partial, finite and infinite. Through the appearance of crystals, in Martychowiec’s photographic shot Anselmo’s ‘metaphysics’ of nature was confronted with Joseph Beuys’ theory of social sculpture:
‘(…) both in the macroorganism (society) and the microorganism (human), a being is defined by the forces of form, emotion and will. The forces of will themselves are purely chaotic, acting without direction, because the pole of the form has not been developed. However, the pole of the form itself has a completely abstract structure of crystal, which has lost its reference to the process of heat, that is to the process of further development. The heat is missing’ – and earlier in the quoted statement: ‘This one-sided pole of the form falls out of the process and is left as an isolated dead crystal. But if this crystal contains absolute purity in its formal aspect, it can mean death’.
Deciphering of symbols created by Martychowiec triggers a hermeneutical process, which does not refer to the dead images recorded in the history of art: collapsing modernist blocks, a banana, a hand or a dead hare in Beuys’ arms, but to the ‘thing itself’, to the ‘hot’ events that were behind those images. Through the work of an interpreter, their ideas, senses and values can come to life anew and be included in the circle of our vague modernity. Martychowiec’s personal attitude to modernism is neither cold nor critical. On his website we read that ‘despite modernity’s many attempts to change the world, contemporary art ends up over and over being repetition of a repertoire of the same ideas which eventually have become empty’, which, as I understand it, refers to superficial imitation of the avant-garde strategies. It is significant that the second part of the exhibition, in which symbolic references to Duchamp, Warhol, Anselmo, Malevich and Beuys appeared, was affirmatively entitled ‘What remains the poets provides’. Hermeneutics has always emerged during the cultural crisis. It was, among other things, the dominant philosophical method for postmodernism of the 1980s. It seems that the crisis of the present day, three decades later, is much more serious, because it concerns not only the symbolic sphere, i.e. culture, but also the foundations of Western liberal democracy, capitalist economy, climate crisis and the prospects for survival of our species on this planet. Perhaps the rabbit and the panda are a proper artistic expression of this new and paradoxical situation, and Martychowiec’s historiosophical reflections have a profoundly encoded political message in their essence.
Micha’ Martychowiec’s exhibition concludes (as one of the many endings) with a neon sign ‘Do you believe in art?’ After all that has been written here, it does not seem to me to be a rhetorical or cynical question. It may be answered in the affirmative or negative. I reply ‘Yes, I do’.
text by Dorota Monkiewicz
 Stach Szabłowski, WGW VIII: Urealnienie, 5th October 2018, https://magazynszum.pl/wgw-viii-urealnienie/?fbclid=IwAR1Qe6EaR36yG4I80_cwyMQKWrhvwl4x26aDG8lrn2RT_b7EEVYG1feFEr0 (access 9th January 2019)
 Dorota Monkiewicz, Klucze do wizualności [in:], O potrzebie tworzenia widzeń, red. Grzegorz Musiał, Centrum Rzeźby Polskiej w Orońsku i Fundacja Signum, Orońsko 2017
 Michal Martychowiec, 1st Reading History, Signum Foundation Gallery, 15.05-30.05.2018, exhibition material
 Michal Martychowiec, 1st Reading History, op.cit.
 Por. Micha’ Martychowiec, introdcution to the cycle, commentary to the III exhibition „Tears of Iblis”
 Micha’ Martychowiec, introdcution to the cycle, commentary to the III exhibition „Tears of Iblis”
 Michal Martychowiec, introdcution to the cycle, commentary to the III exhibition „Tears of Iblis”
 Joseph Beuys in conversation with Fritz Bless [in:] Joseph Beuys. Teksty, komentarze, wywiady, red. Jaromir Jedliński, Akademia Ruchu. Centrum Sztuki Współczesnej, Warszawa 1990, pp.93-94
 Michal Martychowiec, text to the exhibition Everything about contemporary is panda, Rodriguez Gallery, Warsaw Gallery Weekend, 2018