Lech Majewski

Criticism

Blood of a Poet

- a unique cycle of interrelated video art features — opened last year’s retrospective of Lech Majewski films and videos at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The elaborate project, which originally began as a cycle of seven short films, continued to grow throughout the process of realization, eventually coming to comprise thirty-three films and a series of photographs that are all original and autonomous pieces.
Majewski’s latest work tells the story of a young poet at odds with himself and the world. The struggling, young mind is part of a motif that resurfaces from earlier Majewski films, such as “Basquiat” (he wrote the original story) and “Wojaczek”, visually representing and questioning the existence of creative consciousness and the psychological role-playing that occurs during the transition from “childhood” to “adulthood.”
Rejecting dialogue and chronology, “Blood of a Poet” marks an innovative approach to traditional narration; the collected short films overlap and communicate visually with one another, continually inviting the viewer to rely on his own creative capacities in order to find a way through the labyrinthine structure.
Majewski depicts human phobias, obsessions and fascinations in a quite masterly way. His iconography is a profoundly, personally experienced variation on the theme of the imagination. The countless allusions to images, literature, and film are plain to see (e.g. Cocteau’s “Blood of a Poet”), yet all of them function in a sense that is more painterly than cinematographic. Nor, in the final analysis, do their transcendental ideas and hermeneutic references seem any less important. For instance, the mystical inclinations here point towards the painterly heritage of Böcklin (and especially his “Isle of the Dead”).
Many artists today draw on the resources of the Library of Babel, as exemplified most clearly by the master of video art, Bill Viola; much of his recent work, notably “The Quintet of Remembrance,” is inspired by medieval and renaissance art, not to mention the whole range of aquatic and lunar motifs that figure in both artists’ work. Majewski, like Viola, is not a member of the generation of ironists who have sought to distance themselves from the meanings immanent within these topoi and to treat them instead as mere superficial emotions. He may indeed play with their negative afterimages, but does so while placing his trust in the archetypes and symbols as expressions of the transpersonal continuity of human consciousness.
On the linguistic level, Majewski’s visual poems are constructed from an intertextual game of anamnesis and prognosis. He reactivates a pre-existing domain of myth and image that summons up an aesthetic world which seems somehow familiar and yet, thanks to the perceiver, emerges in statu nascendi, as it were. Thus understood, his work constitutes a natural continuation of the work of the medieval illuminators.
Majewski deconstructs the myth of the Book, which arose and became fixed in the collective unconscious, and whose visual inscriptions may be incunabula. This is connected with the fact that no idea or ideology can usurp the right to expropriate language and establish the dictatorship of a single meaning. Therefore he turns, in his video work as in his photography, in the direction of universal, archetypical problems in which the fears, ghosts, passions, and torments written into every human biography play a part.
Today, Majewski is exorcising his childhood fears and youthful fascinations. These tropes, built into the game of archetypes and the dreamlike aura that radiates with particular intensity in the video art work “The Forest,” make an enormous impact on the viewer’s subconscious. Here, the quasi-erotic motifs and quasi-biographical procedures are nevertheless only a few of the many elements of replaying and recalling the discourse of memory. There are also other, metalinguistic operations.
The hyperrealistic diction that appears in “Blood of a Poet” engages in a dialogue with the culture of quotation and metaphor. The surrealistic topos acquires overriding importance here (just as, for instance, Eija-Liisa Ahtilla’s “The House” or Pipilotti Rist in “Sip My Ocean”), with the somnambulistic rhythm and “abducted” grammar of reference coming next. Here, Lech Majewski is as agile and uncompromising as Matthew Barney.
Attention to every detail of the frame is characteristic of Majewski’s style, from lighting, through the composition of the image, to the slow, hallucinogenic narrative and consummate audio accompaniment, which at certain times subjects sound to the rules of minimalism and ambience and at others creates a collage of operatic quotations.
There is also something about Majewski’s work that recalls the practices of Jeff Wall, who spends long months preparing the staging of a single photograph, which, in turn, frequently alludes to the classical discourse of painting. Majewski’s work, too, is characterized by the long, labor-intensive production of each “video clip,” involving a large crew and followed by a no less intensive phase in the post-production laboratory. In contrast to Wall, however, Majewski places more emphasis on the visualization of archetypal and quasi-biographical motifs.
“Blood of a Poet” demonstrates a belief in language that is rare today, as well as a non-linguistic tension enacted at the margins. Faith in images, symbols, and archetypes, even stripped of their innocence and transparency, is far from widespread at present. There is something in Majewski’s art that works by means of a peculiar alchemy. There is a trust in epiphanies that possess the power of transformation. At the antipodes are night and day, light and darkness, the sense of guilt and the aura of innocence. Emerging from these antimonies, Lech Majewski commands us to remain silent, becoming a mysterious island of bedazzlement.

Roman Lewandowski

Blood of a poet

by Marika Vicari

Internationally established Polish poet, painter, writer, film director and video artist Lech Majevski was born in 1953 in Katowice, Poland. When he finished his studies at Lodz Film School he moved in United States in 1981. His video installations has been exposed in Jue de Pomme in Paris, at the Art Gallery White Chapel in London, at the Art Museum of Seattle and Atlanta, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Buenos Aires and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.Lech Majewski is presented at the Venice Biennale with an exhibition called Blood of a poet. It is a unique cycle of 33 correlative videos and few photos that narrate images of a young poet’s childhood in conflict with himself and the rest of the world. By crossing a process of memory, as Majewski suggests, the cycle of a video Blood of a poet breaks any formal structure of dialogue. It gives life to a strong chronologic narration, capable of asking a contribution of a spectator by crossing a personal creative method of interpretation and narration of a labyrinth structure of work.A retrospective exhibition of Lech Majewski in MoMA in New York was afterwards transferred to National Gallery in Washington and Art Institute in Chicago. In the last months, never tired and polyhedral artist has exposed in National Gallery in Gdansk, Schindler’s Factory in Krakow, Portland Art Museum (retrospective), Berkley Art Museum (retrospective) and Seattle Art Museum.

The Forgotten Language

The language of art—like the language of dreams—may, regardless of aesthetics and the sphere of feelings and emotions associated with it, once again become an instrument of communication for contemporary man and, in turn, an instrument for interpreting the world as well. It could play the role once filled by the lingua franca. This universal code of understanding transcends the barriers of territories and political systems. It cuts across divisions of gender and race.
While it may draw its potency from tensions situated on the periphery, or even beyond the bounds of language, the magic of art has a conventional syntax and grammar. This utilitarian alphabet is made up of such things as the drama of symbols, which are cultural universals. It is significant that we place insufficient emphasis on dreams and art in everyday life. Yet could we really live without them?
One of the most important instruments for creating the work of art is anamnesia—an old strategy used to tear the text’s symbolic nature as a source from the current and historically accumulated context of dreams, works of art, and all other accretions of linguistic matter. The artist—if he wants to tell his own “true” story—must manipulate and maneuver symbolism and its ornaments as adroitly as a surgeon. The scalpel becomes a matrix that whittles the narrative down to a model that remembers all its copies. This suggests that each work “already” contains all the fables that have been recited and, at the same time, contains within itself the leavening for all potential confabulations.
Lech Majewski’s “Anamnesis” is an artistic project that refers to just such an understanding of art on the part of the artist. Majewski’s video art of the last two years is, in the opinion of curator Laurence Kardish of the MoMA in New York, a body of work comparable to the phenomenon of Matthew Barney’s work in that it “acts upon fallow areas of the mind of contemporary man that have been neglected by other media.” In an unusually masterful way, Majewski visualizes human phobias, obsessions, and fascinations in his works. Artist and percipient alike share these fragments of the human way of experiencing reality. And while the existential quandaries and dilemmas of the characters that the artist creates could be attributed—in terms of topographical contexts—to a specific latitude and longitude, they are nevertheless, undoubtedly, the travails and adventures of a character who could equally well be born and live in New York, Venice, or Katowice. Lech Majewski’s biography proves this expressis verbis.
On the linguistic level, Majewski’s poems are constructed from an intertextual game of anamnesis and prognosis. He reactivates a pre-existing domain of myth and image that summons up an aesthetic world which seems somehow familiar, and yet, thanks to the percipient, emerges in statu nascendi, as it were. Majewski’s iconographical library is a profoundly, personally experienced variation on the theme of imagination. The countless allusions to images, literature, and film are plain. Yet the interesting thing is that, from the point of view of the medium itself, all of them are more functional and productive of meaning in the sense of painting, rather than that of film. Nor, in the final analysis, do their decidedly external aspects seem any less important—transcendental ideas and hermeneutic references. For instance, the mystical inclination directs us towards the painterly heritage of Böcklin (and especially his “Isle of the Dead”). Many artists today, in any case, draw on the resources of the Library of Babel, as exemplified most clearly by the master of video art, Bill Viola. Much of his recent work, and especially “The Quintet of Remembrance,” is inspired, after all, by medieval and renaissance art, not to mention the whole range of aquatic and lunar motifs that figure in both artists’ work.
Majewski, however, is not a member of the generation of ironists who distance themselves from the significances that are immanent in these topoi and rather treat them as a form of superficial emotion. He may indeed play with their negative afterimages and plasterwork, but nevertheless does so while trusting the archetypes and symbols as expressions of the transpersonal continuity of human consciousness. Thus understood, his work constitutes a natural continuation of the work of masses of anonymous illuminators. Majewski deconstructs the myth of the Book, which arose and has become fixed in the collective unconsciousness, and whose visual inscriptions may be incunabula. This is connected with the fact that no idea or ideology can usurp the right to expropriate language and establish a dictatorship of a single meaning. This is why, he turns, in his video work as in his photography, in the direction of universal, archetypical problems in which the fears, ghosts, passions, and torments written into every human biography play a part.
Today, Majewski is exorcising his childhood fears and youthful fascinations. These tropes, built into the game of archetypes and the dreamlike aura that radiates with particular intensity in the video art work “The Forest,” make an enormous impact on the viewer’s subconscious. Here, the quasi-erotic motifs and quasi-biographical procedures are nevertheless only a few of the many elements of replaying and recalling the discourse of memory. There are also other, metalinguistic operations.
The hyperrealistic diction that appears in Majewski’s work holds a dialogue with the culture of quotations and metaphor. The surrealistic topos acquires overriding importance here (just as, for instance, Eija-Liisa Ahtilla’s “The House” or Pipilotti Rist in “Sip My Ocean”), with the somnambulistic rhythm and “abducted” grammar of reference coming next. Here, Majewski is as agile and uncompromising as Matthew Barney. Therefore, while Majewski is compared in the USA with precisely this artist of the post-modernist baroque, such a comparison seems rather improbable in Poland. Nevertheless, video art has come a long way since the time of Fluxus, although not everyone wants to recognize this fact and bear it in mind.
Attention to every detail of the frame is characteristic of Majewski’s style, from lighting, through the composition of the image, to the slow, hallucinogenic narrative and consummate audio accompaniment, which subjects sound to the rules of minimalism and ambience at times, and creates at other times a collage of operatic quotations that seem plucked from the poetics of the boudoir.
There is also something about Majewski’s work that recalls the practices of Jeff Wall, who spends long months preparing the staging of a single photograph—which, in turn, frequently alludes to the classical discourse of painting. Majewski’s work, too, is characterized by the long, labor-intensive production of each “video clip,” involving a large crew and followed by a no less intensive phase in the post-production laboratory. In contrast to Wall, however, the Polish artist places more emphasis on the visualization of archetypal and quasi-biographical motifs.
Lech Majewski’s work demonstrates a belief in language that is rare today, as well as a non-linguistic tension enacted at the margins. Faith in images, symbols, and archetypes, even stripped of their innocence and transparency, are far from common at present. There is a trust in epiphanies that possess the power of transformation. At the antipodes are night and day, light and darkness. The Freudian sense of guilt and the spirit of the aura of innocence, as in Rousseau, derive from these antimonies. This conflict either creates art or commands us to remain silent, becoming a mysterious islet of bedazzlement. While Majewski’s art has neither saving nor destructive force, there is something in it that works through the ingredients of a kind of peculiar alchemy. I do not know if language is up to the task, but I am convinced that poetry is—for, as Rilke wrote, “figures mark out our dimensions. And the clocks tick in tiny steps alongside our real day.”

Roman Lewandowski