Grzegorz Kowalski – creator of installations, performer, exhibition curator and famous educator. Professor at the Faculty of Media Art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. Students of his studio include the most well-known and intriguing figures of Polish contemporary art, mostly members of the “critical art” movement of the 1990s.
Born to an intelligentsia family, he was raised by a single, widowed mother – an economist working in public administration. His father, an engineer, died in the Second World War, during forced labour in Germany. He spent his childhood in the ruins of Warsaw.
In 1959-1965, he studied at the Faculty of Sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. During his studies, he attended the sculpture studio of Jerzy Jarnuszkiewicz and the Solids and Planes Studio, led by Oskar Hansen, an architect, urban planner and a theoretician of visual arts. Working with them had a strong impact on his own artistic practice and didactics.
He graduated with honours and started teaching at the Academy of Fine Arts soon afterwards. In 1984, he took over the studio from Jarnuszkiewicz and continues to run it to this day, currently under the name of the “Studio of Audiovisual Space”.
Kowalski made his debut at the avantgarde Foksal Gallery – then a prestigious, leading Polish institution with contacts in Western Europe, concentrating pioneers of action art, happening and installations. There, he exhibited his “dynamic environments” and “audiovisual séances” – installations open to the participants' creative actions.
In 1968, he left for a sculpting symposium accompanying the Olympic Games in Mexico City, where he builds the monumental, geometric “Sundial”. Soon afterwards, he is awarded a scholarship and an internship at the University of Illinois in the United States. Kowalski stresses that the year 1968 is a turning point in his biography and self-understanding. He experiences the March '68 antisemitic campaign in Warsaw, the Tlatelolco massacre occurs during his stay in Mexico City and soon after that he follows the invasion in Czechoslovakia from across the ocean.
As he said in a biographical interview: 'While until '68 one would attempt to establish some sort of cooperation within the framework of this regime, simply in order to live and to do something positive... Some form of cooperation was accepted... After '68, there were no illusions anymore – this was a system that could not be reformed in any way, it had to be rejected'. 'I became a dissident' – he adds in reference to this moment.
During his travels through the United States, he also witnessed the explosion of the hippie movement in New York. This experience had a strong and lasting impact on him. He decided to abandon his ambitions of a career as a “symposium artist” and a sculptor of monumental forms, choosing to be active in a small community of people interested in art instead.
Kowalski got involved in a group of artists established by former students of Hansen and Jarnuszkiewicz, centered around a small gallery at the University of Warsaw and Warsaw's high street. Although the space was provided by the party-controlled Polish Students' Association, it had a decidedly “off” air and in time, actions in the gallery were increasingly political and critical toward the authorities. This culminated in participation in a student strike and an occupation of the university just before the imposition of martial law, which led to the closing of both the university and the gallery
However, for those involved in Repassage Gallery, the community itself and the deepening of relations in a small group of friends, a safe haven, were more important than reaching out to a wider audience and creating artifacts. They spoke of “the art of being together” and the primacy of experience before creation. Performative and processual actions co-created by participants dominated. The gallery did not declare a program and refrained from assuming aesthetic and ideological criteria in advance. This resulted in an opening to amateur and naive art, as well as in the rejection of the distinction between artists and non-artists. At the height of its activity, Repassage was led by Elżbieta and Emil Cieślar. Grzegorz Kowalski, who was involved with the gallery for all of its history, can be seen as an “éminence grise” of sorts.
In this environment, Kowalski starts to pose his “basic questions” which were to be answered by means of plastic arts or performances: “Could You and Would You Like to Become an Animal in Front of the Camera?” (1977-78), “Could You and Would You Like to Treat Me Like an Object?” (1979), and “Would You Like to Return to Your Mother's Womb?” (1981-87). Actions with people materialize as “photographic objects”, “tableaus” or “collections”.
In the words of art historian Łukasz Ronduda, Kowalski “attempted to saturate Hansen's quasi-scientific (objective and rationalist) discourse, as well as the paradigm of games and cooperations followed by the master and his students in a similar vein, with a human element: strongly existential, sensual, subjective, irrational, psychologizing, even spiritual”.
The didactic method at Kowalski's studio at the Academy of Fine Arts continues Jarnuszkiewicz's and Hansen's partnership-based approach, drawing from theoretical innovations and a set of exercises developed by the latter, from collective actions carried out by their students – such as Wiktor Gutt, Zofia Kulik, Przemysław Kwiek and the Cieślars – as well as from the countercultural spirit of the community around Repassage.
Kowalski emphasizes that he prefers “education” – developing autonomous artistic personalities – rather than “teaching” – imparting the rules of the craft and historical forms. At the same time, as Karol Sienkiewicz points out, Kowalski's didactic approach is characterized by a tension between the individual and the collective, it is a “search for balance between one's own problems, identity, personality, individual expression and interpersonal relations, events in collective memory and functioning in society”.
Warszawa, Warsaw, Poland
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- Warszawa, Warsaw, Poland
Author(s) of this page
- Szenajch, Piotr
Ronduda Łukasz, Sztuka polska lat 70. Awangarda, Warszawa 2009.
Sienkiewicz Karol, Dydaktyka partnerstwa Grzegorza Kowalskiego, „Obieg”, 14.10.2011, http://archiwum-obieg.u-jazdowski.pl/rozmowy/22653.
Kowalski Grzegorz (edit.), Kowalnia 1985-2015, Katowice 2015.
Narrative autobigraphical interview with Grzegorz Kowalski. Interviwer: Piotr Szenajch, unpublished material. Interview conducted 13-30.04.2014 r.