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Cricoteka and the Uncanny Return of the Avant-Garde Corpse

As the famous line from Citizen Kane goes, “Memory is one of the greatest curses inflicted on the human race.” And it goes without saying (or without watching the movie, for that matter) that it is the memory that makes us fully aware that the past cannot return nor can it be buried. This very curse is the order of the day for a museum. What a museum makes all the more evident is that, for better or for worse, we can only remember in our own ways, and that there can be no archive without distortion.

As for the subject matter, Cracovian Cricoteka — the Centre for the Documentation of the Art of Tadeusz Kantor — has an interesting story to tell. Set up in 1980 by Kantor himself, the institution was meant to be a multifunctional space: part museum, part center for research. Kantor, whose creative activity was preoccupied with a ghostly presence of the past, conceived of Cricoteka, perhaps in a somewhat utopian way, as the “living archives” that would be able to preserve his work as a “living material, not as a petrified fetish object.” After the death of its creator ten years later, the institution, increasingly resembling a place of undisputed worship, focused mainly on a pious conservation of the master’s legacy. As a result, it became a well-functioning archive, but not a particularly “living” one. Not until very recently.

In a few months Cricoteka is moving to a new location, and several new initiatives for the institution suggest that it is at a transition point. The yet-to-be-opened building, designed in the shape of a table with a missing leg, seems to form an architectural equivalent of Kantor’s idea of the “impossible monument” or “poor object” — a wrecked everyday object, deprived of its use value and by this very deprivation pointing towards the past and at what was irretrievably lost. The building itself — notable not only for its ambitious design but also for the vast exhibition space, library, archive, theater and music stage — carries the promise of a truly new beginning. Still more promising is the way in which Cricoteka has recently begun digging beneath its own foundation — redefining its goals and rethinking the basic premises of its functioning.

And such is the fortunate case withits most recent project called Radical Language — an intensive two-day program held in December 2012. Indeed, the project appears as the first step towards “connecting the institution to contemporary art practice” and, at the same time, as a decisive attempt to reread Kantor’s legacy. What is at stake, for both Cricoteka and Kantor’s heritage, is the possibility of actually living on, which necessarily means living on in new, different ways. The event, curated by Joanna Zielińska and Maaike Gouwenberg, consisted of a series of lectures, video screenings and various performative actions (in addition to the works mentioned below, the most noteworthy are two videos by Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys along with a performance by Michael Portnoy), and was accompanied by an exhibition in Kantor’s studio and a book publication. The latter, besides being an instructive guide through the entire project, contains “event scores” by Yoko Ono and one of Kantor’s manifestos.

Seemingly, the opening lecture by Yann Chateigné Tytelman sets the theoretical frame for the event. Tytelman pursues the links between Kantor’s creative output and what is going on in contemporary art today (including, but not exclusively, the works of the artists taking part in the event), placing his emphasis on some recurrent motifs, guiding ideas and formal practices. As the brochure reads, the project as a whole “seeks to find the points Kantor’s art has in common with the activities of contemporary artists.” To be sure, Tytelman makes a number of compelling points on the subject. Still, the same brochure makes clear that Radical Languages wants to be read as a manifesto of a sort, and like most good texts, it is not about what it claims to be. Rather than just a way to set Kantor’s work against the background of contemporary art, Radical Languages appears to be something much more ambitious, subtler and necessarily less conclusive. The narrative that emerged during the event touched upon issues that are vital — and not only for an the institution that is currently somewhere between no longer and not yet: How can we reread the past in a way that would enable us to address the future? How shall a museum share the claims of the past without allowing it to become merely a burden?

Thus the second “staged lecture” offers the most incisive description of the whole event: “a ventriloquist séance as an attempt to breathe a ghost into the dusty, avant-garde corpse — a new reading of esoteric trash in the spirit of an academic freak show.” In Sebastian Cichocki’s performance the dusty, avant-garde corpse is Robert Smithson, incarnated ina life-like replica — a dummy (made by Tomasz Kowalski). As he is interviewed by a soprano singer, his voice keeps coming from elsewhere (just like Kantor’s voice throughout the whole event) via a ventriloquist, which makes his presence somewhat more-than-human (and “less-than-human” at the same time). For the most part, this “Smithson” doesn’t really seem to be bothered by the questions and, in quite a nonchalant, arty-farty manner, he just goes on talking about physics, linguistics, geology, the universe and anything that takes his fancy. Significantly, he makes several statements on museums, some of which are worthy of quotation:

“Museums always carry a promise of something exciting and invigorating. This promise is there for the asking, suspended in the air. But the only things we actually find in them are traces of somebody else’s memories.” “Visiting a museum is a matter of going from void to void. Blind and senseless, one continuous wandering around the remains of Europe, only to end in that massive deception ‘the art history of the recent past.’” “I’m attracted by the idea of clearing out museums. It would be a positive commitment to their function as mausoleums.”

As Smithson suggests, it is a museum that makes clear that, after all, it is not so much the past as it is the ruins of the past that memory retains. Still, these ruins turn out to be enough to make us feel overwhelmed with the majesty of tradition (even if it is never fully read), and what we get, instead of excitement and invigoration, is a sense of weariness with the past and its demands. The question remains: Can we get rid of all these traces of someone else’s memories? Can we just clear them out? The protagonist’s compulsive interest in the institution of museum brings to mind some sort of a Freudian negation and suggests that the solution to the “museum problem” may not be that simple. What’s intriguing in this context is that Sebastian Cichocki used some of Smithson’s writings as the basis of the monologues, but at the same time made the speeches much more ambiguous and exciting than Smithson’s texts actually are.

As for the ventriloquist, Ian Saville, he also had his own performance during Radical Languages. Saville is the inventor of “red magic” (to use the term coined by the magician himself) and so far the only representative of the genre. He took up red magic to combine the largely abandoned social project called Marxism with conjuring tricks in order to “make international capitalism and exploitation disappear.”“In a true socialist manner, I’ll not only show you the trick but also how it’s done,” declares Saville at the beginning of his Cabaret Act. But his demonstration leaves open the question of what a truly socialist manner actually is.More importantly (especially for Cricoteka), he found an utterly original way of bringing the masters from the past back to life. During his Brecht on Magic show he not only, almost literally, carried on a conversation with Bertolt Brecht and Karl Marx (to be more specific, with a ventriloquist’s dummy of Brecht and a “talking” portrait of Marx), but he also played out their theories. In fact — and in all seriousness — the entire show can be seen as a complex demonstration of the Brechtian concept of the distancing effect.

Surprisingly (or not), the weakest part of Radical Languages is the one that most directly refers to Kantor — Calling Kantor for a Pattern by Voin de Voin and Ancelle Beauchamp. During the performance there were some drawing games, a bit of playing with puzzles and even an attempt to make everyone dance, but the whole thing hardly came together. “The act of interpretation is done by the collective spirit and supported by Kantor’s ghost, which we are going to call in a séance,” announced the artists, but you’d never know it from the performance itself. Somehow everything got just too fancy to work out.

This cannot be said of Elmgreen and Dragset’s video (originally a theater play) Drama Queens. Itlooks likea camp version of Toy Story, but in the video it’s not the toys that turn out to lead secret lives, but the “seven 20th-century superstar sculptures.” The superstars — from Jean Arp’s Cloud Shepherd to Jeff Koons’s Rabbit — are trapped on a theater stage and do not really know what to do with themselves (“Fellas, now that we’ve got an audience, I propose we each make a series of numbered statements about art,” suggests Sol LeWitt’s Four Cubes, while Rabbit is trying to get a party started). Since they are all well accustomed to museal practice, for a moment they are trying to make some sense of the very fact of being gathered in one place (“Is there a pattern of some kind?” “Are we distant relatives?”). But most of the time, feeling somewhat degraded by each other’s presence, the iconic sculptures — much like the various aesthetics they stand for — keep on looking down on each other and cannot really find any common language. Still, they are as one when it comes to museums, even though they all feel out of place there (Giacometti’s Walking Man complains: “It’s not a normal life. Not a normal life at all.”), and there is nothing they fear more than being put into oblivion, namely, into storage (“Yes. Even the word sends a shiver,” says Walking Man). At the end, Rabbit delivers a speech that provides a straightforward, dark insight into the cruel nature of time and/or the audience: “They tell you you’re great. That you’re truly, truly now, the moment. The fucking Zeitgeist. Studio 54 or whatever. But in the end it goes. They just wanna see something that they never saw before.”

Enclosed in the book that accompanies Radical Languages is Kantor’s Zero Theater Manifesto, which sheds unexpected light on the entire event. Consider how Kantor imagined the way in which an actor should deal with a text s/he is given: “On the one hand, there is the reality of the text, on the other hand, the actor and his behavior. The actor’s behavior should paralyze the reality of the text. [The actors] treat the text as an alien entity, try to fathom its meaning (…), but finally when they realize the futility of their action, they discard it and suddenly forget it. This process means dismembering of logical plot structures, building up scenes not by textual reference but by reference to associations triggered by them, juggling with chance.”

While dealing with Kantor’s legacy (that is to say, with Kantor’s “text”), Radical Languages turns out to have followed his instructions, though in quite a subversive manner. Yet, through this very manner, Kantor seems to have made his uncanny return to Cricoteka. As Harold Bloom used to say, “The dead may or may not return, but their voice comes alive, paradoxically never by mere imitation, but in the agonistic misreading performed upon powerful forerunners by only the most gifted of their successors.” And Radical Languages proves that, hopefully, Cricoteka is becoming one of the most gifted of Kantor’s successors.

by Justyna Wąsik