Is He Acting?
Between Honey and Ashes (Pt.1) – Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz – Douglas Hyde Gallery 21st January - 23rd March 2011
Review by Colin Graham
Issue 66 Spring 2011
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"The world could use a good essay about Witkiewicz". So said Susan Sontag in an 1981 interview. Sontag was explaining that she never actually would write that essay because she could write three stories in the same time it would take her to complete the piece on Witkiewicz. Whether or not Sontag’s pragmatic equation was worth the short stories, Witkiewicz is still worth writing about, as the exhibition of his photographs at the Douglas Hyde affirms. The work on show here was chosen by Miroslaw Balka, given the title Between Honey and Ashes [Part 1], and was used to provide something of a context to Balka’s video piece Honey and Ashes [Part 2]. The connections which Balka sees between Witkiewicz and his own work are clear enough. Though in some ways Balka’s unsettling apple T., shot at night and with a video camera that, Adam and Eve-like, is desperately on the point of plucking an apple, reduce Witkiewicz to an artist on the point of madness. He is that, but these photographs reveal him as much more, and as confrontational and face-on in a way that Balka is not.
Witkiewicz (often known as ‘Witkacy’) is best known as a playwright, novelist, critic and occasionally as a painter. His literary work defies easy categorization but overlaps with surrealism and absurdism. Witkiewicz was obsessed by the extremities of a tortured existentialism which pushed experiences to the limit, often with the help of narcotics. Yet this was balanced against his ‘theory of Pure Form’, a protean notion which shifted and altered during his life, undergoing constant redefinition through his correspondence with other thinkers (notably the anthropologist Malinowski). Writing on the subject of religious belief relatively late in his life he described religion as a "construction of feelings arising from metaphysical anxiety". If religious structures derived from, and then covered up, these anxieties, Witkiewicz was intent, through his writing and his visual art, on stripping away the accumulations with which cultures scaffolded and hid the constant anxiety of being human.
In his photography Witkiewicz’s theory of pure form most often led to the logic of the self-portrait. Witkiewicz once wrote that the "mystery of existence, unless it appears in the horror of daily life, loses its true significance". And so his self-portraits take the form of an ordinary, if intimate, portraiture and insert into it this daily horror. Most often the ‘horror’ is registered in Witkiewicz’s own face, which contorts, gurns and challenges. The facial expressions recorded in these images range from shrinking fear to murderous aggression, and each one has an enigmatic trace of knowingness about it. What is truly disturbing is that, while it is clear enough that Witkiewicz (or his sitter) is acting, the viewer can never be certain that he knows he is acting.
Amongst the portraiture is a series of photographs of landscapes. The prints are tiny, the texture is dense and tends to the metaphorical, asking us to see the landscapes as revelations of some general psychic condition. The landscape series (deliberately) shows little development and much repetition, its main interest and form being held by the dreary juxtaposition of dark land and light sky. And then, suddenly, the landscape is repeated with a difference, since there in the foreground is a barrel with a manic face peering out of it. The landscapes, which have a kind of bleak picturesque quality up to that point, suddenly revise themselves as a stage set waiting for this darkly comic presence to appear. The landscape becomes a kind of Beckettian theatre, with a humour that is hollow and menacingly frank.
It is, however, the patterns of variation and the brutal honesty of the masks made by the faces in the portraits which stand out in Witkiewciz’s work. Each could be taken as a character study, as a playwright trying out stage roles to be taken by his characters. But he lives them too vividly and plays them too fully for them to be taken only as play. Witkiewicz’s portraits assault the camera. They are manic. His late photograph entitled Ghost shows a man with a shirt over his head, outside, being or thinking he is a ghost. His facial expression gives the impression of being half-aware of the camera. It is not the absurdity of the pose that is finally striking about this image; rather the stillness of the hands and the utter concentration in the mouth form an axis of intensity and seriousness. For all his playfulness and his adoption of masks, Witkiewicz approaches photography with the rigour of the autodidact.
Witkiewicz lived through (and participated in) the Russian Revolution. His work (both his photography and his writing – the story The Only Way Out, for example) is informed by a culture of drug-taking, which prefigures much artistic work in the late 50s and 60s. He committed suicide in 1939, on the eve of the war. Perhaps his work was always tending in that self-destructive direction. Part of the tension in these images is that they reveal a man who can dwell on the edges of his own ego and look through the camera lens and towards a precipice of his own being. It is a deeply unnerving experience, especially when the backdrop is, often enough, a modestly genteel kitchen or veranda. Witkiewicz, in his life and work, was a one-off. His photographic legacy deserves to be much better known, and his many faces need to be read. It’s a pity Sontag never wrote the essay, but easy to see why it would have taken her so long.
Other articles by Colin Graham: