Filmoteka at Nottingham Contemporary (Nov 11, 2014)
Filmoteka was a moving image installation curated by Emma Moore, bringing together a group of post-war Polish films in The Space at Nottingham Contemporary to give a glimpse into the rich history of experimental Polish film. The selection took its cues from the themes explored by Agnieszka Polska’s exhibition in the main galleries. What follows are the rough notes made in preparation for a walk-through talk and discussion, designed to highlight the various ways in which fiction, appropriated documentary footage and artists’ distorted reflections on those who had influenced them, were all used in the featured works to subvert official and media versions of the truth.
The five films in this installation span both the Communist and Post-Communist periods in recent Polish history, three made under Communist rule, between 1971 and 1980, two under the Neo-liberal conditions prevailing between 2001 and 2009. This said, it’s the continuity between the films rather than any notable distinctions that seems most interesting. I’d suggest this might be because both periods are equally marked by the dominance of a particular ideology, and the artists – whether working under the constraints of a controlling state bureaucracy or within the constraints of a privatised market bureaucracy – use similar approaches to suggest possibilities, histories and potentials that have been suppressed or forgotten. The particular aspect I’d like to focus on is the tendency in all of these films to use the features of documentary as a medium for the reinvention of history in a wider sense. The artists on both sides of the 1989 divide seem acutely conscious that any society’s sense of what is possible, imaginatively and politically, is limited by what is omitted from official accounts or simply forgotten. Often, what is erased are precisely those stories and events from the recent past whose potential was not realised at the time but remains suggestive. Official narratives invariably claim that ‘there is no alternative’ to the prevailing order but the stories and artifacts at the centre of these five short films all, in their different ways, seem intent on undermining that claim.
Alina Szapocznikow, the artist whose works are the ‘actors’ in Helena Wlodarczyk’s ‘Slad’, was the most important sculptor of her generation in Poland. As the title suggests, the film explores the idea of what ‘traces’ remain when an artist disappears. Wlodarczyk had been a student of her film’s subject and her portrait was made on the occasion of a retrospective exhibition held in the city of Lodz a few years after Szapocznikow’s death from breast cancer in 1973. When Szapocznikow’s sculptures appear, her own absence is belied by the very literal presence of her body in the works themselves, which often incorporate her own mouth, legs and breasts as resin, plaster and polyester casts, making much of her work a kind of oblique self-portraiture. The body is a key symbol in Szapocznikow’s work: hers had miraculously survived internment in three concentration camps during the Second World War and tuberculosis in the early 1950s, and much of her later output deals with themes of physical fragility and resilience, often using pop aesthetics and materials in a way that retains some continuity with Surrealist ‘black humour’. In Wlodarczyk’s very personal vision of Szapocznikow and her work, the normally static sculptures escape the museum to occupy streets, animated by camera movement and set free to browse shopping arcades or rampage through the urban environment in sequences that are occasionally framed like shots from ‘Godzilla’ or ‘King Kong’. The extraordinary sound of the film, using electronic music by Jan Freda, adds to the overall effect of ‘Slad’ as a kind of science fiction in which alien presences have escaped the unconscious and manifested themselves in the real world.
The quality of a dream also pervades this 20 minute portrait of Austrian Olympic skier Franz Klammer, who at the time the film was made had already dominated the sport of downhill skiing for several years and won Olympic gold medals. Dziworski films Klammer in a manner that echoes Wlodarczyk’s treatment of Szapocznikow’s sculptures in ‘Slad’. The athlete’s body becomes sculptural. Odd cuts, in-camera effects and angles, all work to reshape the film’s initially familiar ‘sports documentary’ idiom into a non-linear sequence of set pieces that come to seem more influenced by the 1970s work of Ken Russell and Luis Bunuel than documentary. Often, ‘Ski Scenes with Franz Klammer’ seems to anticipate the kind of pop video and fast-cut commercials that MTV would make obligatory in the West during the following decade, with Klammer filmed practising his sport, but also as an archetypal 1970s ‘playboy’ living the high-life of success. Women, film crews, gilded opera houses and ornately decorated restaurants all feature here – but none of these things play out as they should. Klammer’s meal is continually dropped by a waiter who seems trapped in a slow motion time-loop; his skis tumble from the roof of his car and fall clattering down a sheer concrete wall; his world becomes a hybrid of slapstick comedy and unreal dream. That the figure at the centre of all this really is Franz Klammer himself merely adds to the strangeness, and his perpetually bemused expression never reveals whether he knew, at the time of shooting, what kind of film he’d agreed to participate in. Throughout the film, we see advertising’s fantasies of aspirational lifestyles and official propaganda’s veneration of sporting prowess slipping repeatedly and suggestively into realms of hallucination and unreality.
A very different but equally unstable kind of documentary portrait – this time of the conceptual artist Pawel Freisler, who cuts up images of himself to make puppets, which he then takes out to ‘perform’ in the streets – makes up this student film by Piotr Andrejew, made in Lodz during 1971. It begins with Freisler playing music on his recorder, cutting out legs, arms and torsos from photographs (much as Alina Szapocznikow cast from her own body to make the sculptures in ‘Slad’) then shows these small puppets evolving into objects that are used to publicise the artist’s existence to passers-by in the city outside his studio. At the film’s conclusion, Freisler explains how the construction of stories and objects creates reality: “For many people in Poland a man named Pawel Freisler does not exist. I must therefore inform them”, he says. “Not only in Poland, but in other places around the world”. The film makes us aware that Freisler (and his puppets) existed and layers Freisler’s performance of himself for the camera with the director’s view – a view that Freisler’s handwritten introductory note to the film both accepts and disowns simultaneously. For ourselves, we have only the evidence of the film to go on, and while the visual style assures us that we are not watching a fiction, within this, Freisler’s interest in the oral transmission of ideas might also suggest that Andrejew’s film is merely one more rumour or anecdote to set beside those we might imagine circulate among the people we see him performing his puppets for in the streets. The score, with excerpts played from songs by Pink Floyd and The Beatles, perhaps also hints at a countercultural ethos for Freisler’s actions, corresponding to much found in the West at the same moment.
Bruce Checefsky: Pharmacy 
Bruce Checefsky’s ‘Pharmacy’ is, on the surface, a straightforward reconstruction of ‘APETKA’, the first of several important experimental films made by the lifelong collaborative partnership of Stefan and Franciszka Themerson. Checefsky’s research into the archives and his remaking of the Themersons’ lost film is, by his own admission, both meticulous and unreliable: “Before a single frame of film is exposed issues arise: do I remake the film as one might imagine or reconstruct the original from found film stills? The limits on available artefacts in a film remake, especially for a lost film, can undermine its past, resulting in a radical shift in meaning for the new film…” All prints and negatives of the Themersons’ original 1930s film disappeared during the Nazi occupation of Poland in World War Two, after the couple themselves had left its avant-garde circles behind to move first to Paris, then – after a period of separation – London, where they worked on illustrated books, designs for opera and theatre (including a celebrated staging of Alfred Jarry’s ‘Ubu Roi’), and further films, among them ‘The Eye and The Ear’, a 1945 Polish Film Unit production exploring the visualisation of sound set to compositions by the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski. Checefsky is himself displaced, living and working in the US, where he has remade many other lost films, including Maya Deren’s ‘Witch’s Cradle’ (which exists, but in an unfinished version) and unrealised scripts like ‘Bela’ (by Hungarian Dadaist Georgy Gero) and ‘A Woman And Circles’ (by Polish avant-garde poet Jan Brzekowski), reinventing history as a fiction by restoring to it things that either vanished or were only partially completed in their own historical moment.
The final film in this installation, by Agnieszka Polska, shares with ‘Pharmacy’ an impulse to document something lost, in this case a performance and exhibition by the artist Wlodzimierz Borowski (1930 – 2008). Polska’s short film-essay shows us seemingly authentic documentation of an exhibition in which works made from hair, string, bed-springs, flickering light tubes, an ashtray and other everyday materials are present. Borowski’s works appear to be meticulously documented, but Polska’s footage is almost entirely reconstructed, as are the works themselves and their gathering in the exhibition the film describes. Polska leaves open the question of whether she is restoring the artist to a history from which he had begun to vanish, or fabricating his contribution to that history. A central motif is a photograph of Borowski with its eyes drilled out, a relic of one of his own performances, turning the artist himself into an inscrutable presence for whom the visual had become of decreasing importance. Perhaps there is an allusion to Walter Benjamin, with Borowski cast as a sort of ‘Angel of History’ looking inward for evidence, rather than out, much as Benjamin’s Angel walked backwards rather than forwards into the future. In his later years, Borowski’s work became increasingly concerned with language and the spiritual and he made many installations in churches and other symbolic and sacred sites – a point that suggests the objects documented by Polska’s film have taken on the aura of relics animated by some non-specific, perhaps materialist, version of magical or religious potential.