The FF Gallery - Gallery, Criticism, Exhibition
In our country the FF Gallery is a rare example of one institution from the beginning run by its founder, Krzysztof Cichosz, who has been the director of the Gallery for ten years now.
From the historical perspective ten years is not much. Ten years in artistic life of our century is considerable. The last ten years in Polish artistic life may be an age, perhaps even two different ages. Round anniversaries suggest historical reflections. The perspective of a decade is not deep, of course. But it is enough to look at and analyze the activity of the Gallery, to make certain general remarks.
The FF Gallery is undoubtedly the "author's" gallery, having a clear program which has been steadily put into practice. In our ever-changing reality this is a sign of valuable tradition and stabilization. It is all the more valuable because it concerns that sphere of art which has been looking for stabilization for years- and which is often considered a marginal phenomenon, uninteresting for artistic institutions. During the first ten years of its existence the Gallery which has accompanied artistic change has not been only a place of exhibition, but it has also helped to create it: let us, in fact, examine this aspect a little closer.
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Since its birth in 1983 the FF Gallery which called itself a photographic gallery - A Forum of Photography (Forum Fotografii) - has been interested in multimedia and intermedia art. Luckily it has not become a photographic "ghetto" living its own life away from external problems. It has been one of a few; permanent places of exhibition of multimedia and intermedia art - along with the Mała Gallery in Warsaw and, to a lesser extent at that time, the FOTO-MEDIUM-ART Gallery in Wrocław. And let us remember that all those galleries are "authors" galleries which have been run by the same people for years.
So to what degree has the Gallery been reflecting the situation in Polish photography in the past ten years?
There are three basic trends in Polish photography of the times: documentary photography, describing the world in journalistic forms; pure, traditional photography of aesthetics; photography as a means, as material for broadly defined visual, plastic, multimedia and intermedia works. And this last trend has determined the program of the Gallery, at least in its general shape.
The first of those trends was visible in its exhibitions only during the first half of the eighties as a result of the pressure of Polish reality under martial law, when things important for everyone happened, and all artists, not just documentary photographers, wanted to describe it in various ways: let us mention here "media" exhibitions by Zdzisław Pacholski or Krzysztof Cichosz along with "documentary" exhibitions by Anna Bohdziewicz or "Archives of Young Photography". Some of those exhibitions - like "A Photo-Journal" by Anna Bohdziewicz - were severely censored, as in the Polish People's Republic censorship kept watch on "art within the limits of political safety" (Anatolij Łunaczarski).
The second trend of pure, traditional photography conceived as an aesthetic image of the world was nearly absent, with the exceptions of exhibitions by Ewa Andrzejewska-Zięba, Teresa Gierzyńska or Wojciech Zawadzki. But these authors represented a very specific variation of this kind of photography, personal photography, using simple forms and showing an intimate world seen from "an arm's length" distance.
In the main sphere of the Gallerys interest, that is in multimedia and intermedia photography, one can distinguish between several tendencies. The first, having a rich and clear history represents postconceptual ideas (exhibitions by Stefan Wojnecki and Zygmunt Rytka). The second tendency- situated at the opposite pole in relation to the first one - is concerned with works that use photographs as flexible and multifunctional visual and plastic material. Photography is used here together with other materials and techniques to create a universal plastic message. This tendency is represented by exhibitions of the works of Zofia Kulik, Irena Nawrot, Grzegorz Przyborek, Sławomir Barcik, Wiesław Brzóska and Marek Poźniak.
The above mentioned authors, as well as some other artists who showed their works in the Gallery (for example Witold Węgrzyn, Jerzy Sadowski, Piotr Wołyński or Andrzej Olichwier from the LOOK group), were often committed to staging photography, which was characteristic for photography in the eighties. Staging is an expression of a desire to broaden, complete and manipulate the photographic image. Staging may be of an internal nature - the presented object is staged - as well as of an external one - the images are staged (negatives or/ and positives), they are manipulated, played with manually. Still a different tendency, rather absent in Poland until the eighties, is exemplified by exhibitions demonstrating poetical and philosophical approaches - Andrzej Różycki, Andrzej Brzeziński and Wiesław Barszczak. An interesting tendency among the exhibitions in the Gallery was an attempt of a game played by means of photography, a game centered around the common belief in the univocal character and truthfulness of a photographic image, sometimes constructing narratives from series of pictures: exhibitions by Mariusz Hermanowicz, Andrzej Jerzy Lech and Grzegorz Przyborek, Józef Robakowski.
A very specific place in the past decade was occupied by two extremely important exhibitions: a big, multidimensional exhibition by Zofia Rydet, one of the most interesting figures of contemporary Polish photography, and a group exhibition "The Changing of the Guards" (organized together by Krzysztof Cichosz and Krzysztof Jurecki). The exhibition "Constellation" will therefore be the third - and equally significant, I believe - big exhibition presented in the Gallery.
"The Changing of the Guards" deserves a separate commentary. It was an attempt to present works of a young generation of authors who mainly used the photographic image in various ways, but also employed transformed film or video images. The exhibition tried to turn our attention to generation and stylistic changes in modern Polish photography, where new phenomena appeared, originating basically in the works of young people, who often did not belong to photographic circles. It also became a specific "forecast" for the future. It played an informative role , fulfilled the function of stimulating and integrating the circles of young authors who normally worked in isolation. It showed the multiplicity of propositions and the strength of young photographers. Whether the exhibition really was "the changing of the guards" of generation we have yet to see.
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The exhibition in question is also connected with an interesting aspect of the activity of the Gallery, referring generally to the function and role of galleries as institutions of our artistic life. The most obvious function seems to be the function of presenting - a gallery as a place of contact between the public and the works. We mentioned the function of stimulating, an internal function with regard to creation and to creative circles, while discussing "The Changing of the Guards". One more, somewhat less obvious function is left, interesting though hidden behind the others: a gallery as one of many institutions of artistic criticism. If evaluation is a characteristic factor of criticism, then every choice an eminent gallery makes is a form of evaluation; whether desired or not. Thus the decisions of the directors of the galleries, especially the "authors"' galleries, belong to the sphere of criticism. A gallery does not pass judgments directly, in the manner of discourse, but it actively complements them, sometimes much more effectively than artistic criticism. And so the choice itself becomes a judgment, and the higher the position of the gallery, the higher the evaluation. As an artistic institution a gallery is a part of the critical apparatus applied to contemporary art, necessary for its normal functioning. I believe that during the past few decades in Poland galleries have become an extremely important element of such an apparatus. It is the result of the weakness of Polish art criticism as an active factor of artistic life, which should not be only describing or commenting on artistic phenomena like a remote spectator. Judgments passed by the galleries were frequently practically more meaningful than criticism in written form. The marks which the galleries gave artistic works were often of greater importance - also of practical importance - than written criticism. If one's artistic biography had contained an appropriate list of gallery exhibitions - especially in renowned galleries - it not only determined the artist's position, but also made it easier for him to receive financial support of the state patron. To this day we can see in various catalogues unending lists of exhibitions and galleries of little importance. This also brought about some threats. When a given work began to function in a gallery, within the potential "social reception", it could create in some cases the illusion of its authentic and significant existence, especially in a well-known, eminent gallery. Let us remember that it all took place in the bureaucratic, fixed system of artistic life in a communist state. Therefore a gallery as a manipulated tool of criticism could have been more dangerous as far as the results are concerned than the effects of incompetent written criticism. One might remark here that there existed one other form of criticism in its "unwritten" form, namely very effective social opinion, once correctly described as "social centralism". The critical decisions of the galleries may have been influenced by extra-substantial and extra-artistic factors: they may have been internal, social, or external, like the pressure of state sponsors, solitary patrons of art in the public sphere in the communist era of Polish history. The authorities- if subtle, social pressure had failed - could always effectively manipulate the galleries owned solely by the state and supported with the state's money. The state could withdraw or limit its financial help, although it rarely did. Generally speaking it was enough to control social opinions, and the potential threat to use more extreme means usually made the galleries comply with the wishes of the authorities. It was easier to apply pressure on those galleries which were a part of bureaucratic structures, for example, nomen omen, Bureau of Artistic Exhibitions (but not all of them: there were some exceptions), than on the "authors"' galleries, possessing a strong social position and their own clear programs.
Such a situation could have caused certain negative results - like a high evaluation of a phenomenon which did not deserve it, but was praised just because of an exhibition in a gallery. It was possible because of the aforementioned weakness of Polish art criticism which was unable to oppose such facts as it was often too compromising towards the state patron and did not form an effective instrument of opposition. Luckily the FF Gallery has avoided these dangers and as an instrument of criticism it has remained honest, truthful and rather free in its actions. This is all the more important because the situation of criticism concerned with multimedia or intermedia art has been and is even worse than that of art criticism in general. Having reached a significant position, the Gallery has avoided the promotion of unsuccessful works. This does not mean that among a few dozen exhibitions there have not been any failures. It cannot be avoided when one makes choices between various phenomena of contemporary art; especially when they are concerned with the works of young artists. The trust - to a lesser or larger degree always necessary - lying at the foundations of a decision to present young or unknown artists in most cases has not been undermined by those invited to exhibit in the Gallery. Let us just mention the further development of the art of such authors as Andrzej Jerzy Lech, Marek Poźniak, Wojciech Zawadzki or Wiesław Barszczak.
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We should now turn to a short commentary on the "Constellation" exhibition. One could look at it as at a test of the competence and soundness of the Gallery's old critical choices. But we do not have to do here with an anniversary celebration and a contingent selection of names and works. I believe that this exhibition is an attempt to evaluate old choices and decisions. The exhibition does not present the works shown at previous individual exhibitions, which belong to the past. It is undoubtedly a very interesting enterprise, but involving certain risks. A group exhibition of new works by artists who have been presented in the Gallery is also a kind of a balance, a settlement of accounts of "artistic investments" made in the last decade. It is thus an act of putting trust in the works of the invited authors and an act of responsibility for old choices. Assuming responsibility for one's "historical" decisions - belonging to two artistic ages - is a rare and respectful example of liability in our artistic life.
"Constellation" is also an attempt at a synthetic description of a considerable part of Polish intermedia and multimedia art. It is an attempt directed rather towards the future than the past. Its results will be determined by the exhibition itself and by the opinions of the Public. I trust that the judgments will turn out to be positive, and I sincerely hope so, for the sake of Krzysztof Cichosz and his Gallery.
October 1993, Lech Lechowicz
translated by Maciej Świerkocki
Tekst from cotalogue: Constellation - exhibition of Polish photography. Galeria FF ŁDK, december 1993.
The exhibition was organized on the 10th anniversary of the FF Gallery.
Photography from exhibitions:
Copyright ©1997 Galeria FF ŁDK, Lech Lechowicz