The Eugeniusz Geppert Academy of Art and Design in Wrocław
I have been asked to write a few words about my own work. This is a great honour for me, but let me instead make some general observations about art and faith. At the current time, it is essential to refer to the pandemic situation. We hear a lot about its negative economic or financial effects, but the crisis has also affected the sphere of culture and art, especially niche art, which lacks institutional support.
Unfortunately, this difficult time associated with the pandemic and its consequences is also marked by a crisis of faith, along with a crisis of sacred and religious art. Perceiving reality through the lens of the Gospel is today considered parochial and back- ward, and a way of life according to its principles is becoming outmoded. Religious inspirations or ref- erences to the Holy Scriptures are rare in contem- porary art. Of course, there are people or circles for whom these themes are still alive. Personally, I in- clude myself among them, but I must admit that it is a niche phenomenon. Artists, especially young ones, react almost allergically, not to say extremely negatively, to initiatives and events connected with the Church. Unfortunately, this attitude is something we have earned. The hope is that with time we will stop paying attention only to human errors and the weaknesses of the Church, and that we will notice something more, not only the flaws of this institution and the sins of priests, but above all the beauty and essence of Christ’s message.
The works of art or artistic events created today are discussed from various points of view. They are analysed from the perspective of current social problems, sociological processes or psychological and philosophical trends. Rarely are they presented from a spir- itual perspective, with reference to biblical sources or religious inspirations, as if this area of human life did not exist at all. I must admit that in the discourse on contemporary art I miss this point of reference very much. If there are any references to religious content, they are unfortunately often ironic or derisive. Some say that it is precisely these difficult times that will contribute to people looking at life through the spiritual lens, because supposedly where sin increases, grace abounds all the more. I cannot predict what role faith will play in the further development of contemporary culture, especially in Poland, but I know that in personal life, especially in difficult moments, it gives a different point of view, changes the perspective and allows one to see light in the greatest darkness. And art, in these difficult moments, or maybe especially then, can be a purifying force, often through its destructive form, breaking the accepted visual norms and conventions.
History confirms that faith and art complement each other. Yes, the latter can lead away from faith, but it can also lead to it, while faith opens the way to vari- ous forms of creative activity, inspires creative life and gives inspiration. I hope that in our times we will not eliminate faith and the piety associated with it from the sphere of culture. This would greatly impoverish either one or the other. Looking at the history of art, one must conclude that these two spheres of human life have always been intertwined. Unfortunately, today we can see a clear separation between the two, between faith itself and art itself, and the fault does not lie solely with one side. The religious sphere, devoid of the emotionality of art, is cold, while art often tends to replace faith, to fulfil the human need for spiritual experience.
As a sculptor, I sometimes wonder about the meaning of producing material art objects. I ask myself about the role and future of sculpture in art education as well as about its existence in post-Covid culture, its place in a church as an object of worship or in a gallery as a trace of religious experience. In an age when many spheres of life have migrated to cyberspace, the creation of sculptures may seem redundant. The tangible materiality of objects made by human hands in a traditional form turns out to be a somewhat archaic experience in the context of digital storage and transmission of information. Perhaps in the future our consciousness, and with it the emo- tional and psychological sphere, will be placed outside the body for storage in the cloud, and works of art will be designed by algorithms programmed for this purpose. So far, art has reached us through our senses, which are connected to the body, but per- haps soon it will reach the recipient as an extrasen- sory transmission of information because, suppos- edly, we are only a collection of biochemical data, and life is a network of electrical impulses. Although God forbid I should question the significance of the results of scientific research, I would like to respond to these doubts with a simple sculptural reflection that as long as the physical body, which experiences emotions, including disordered ones, remains an element of humanity, we will need art.
One of the characteristic features of contempo- rary art is the minimisation of its material impact and its stripping away of the visual form, which is the result of the individual shaping of the material. For many years now, it is no longer beauty in the sense of sensual aesthetic harmony, but reaching the consciousness of the viewer by means of a simple symbol, sign or associations, leaving out the sphere of visual formal values, that has become the domain of art. Reducing the importance of the external visual message in favour of mental impulses received through a network of associations is becoming dominant and widespread. In the era of an excess of stimuli and the flow of an enormous amount of information, we limit ourselves to a snapshot, a simple gesture and a synthetic shape intended to obtain the maximum intellectual resonance through formal minimalism. Often such activity does not end with the creation of a concrete object, but becomes an event that has the character of a process affecting social consciousness through the media. Drawing on the specificity of time and the nature of place, it becomes an integral part of everyday life breathing through social net- works. Leaning over our smartphones or tablets, we do not notice a historic façade, a painting on a vault or a monument. After all, why lift your head when you can hold everything in your hand? Despite the rapid development of technology and the predicted presence of artificial intelligence in every area of life, including art, I am convinced that nothing can replace direct contact between the viewer and the work made of a specific material in a specific dimension and in relation to the environment.
The aforementioned developments in art are not only negative in nature – one cannot, after all, resent the character of the times because we live in them – but it is precisely the universality of art and its ubiquity that bothers me a little. The dangerous approach to the sphere of pop culture blurs the boundaries between what is sublime and subtle and what is superficial and crude. Mixing the everyday with the sacred does not necessarily bear good fruit in the cultural sphere.
Art retains its uniqueness in the church, in a dedicated place, where it becomes part of the mystery; it is physically present, and at the same time its form, subordinated to the liturgical function, is part of the celebration. In the church, art is in its proper place, acting as an intermediary between temporality and transcendence; in the church, it serves, without becoming sacred itself.
The miracles performed by Jesus Christ and recorded in the Gospels, such as healing lepers, the blind and the deaf, feeding the crowd with a few loaves of bread, calming the storm on the lake or walking on water, can be compared to artistic activities of a performative nature. Simplifying their message and detaching them from their theological meaning, they can be regarded as artistic actions with a social impact. I am aware of the inadequacy of this comparison, but I would like to draw attention to the tendency in both cases to go beyond human and natural laws. In both cases, we become aware, or even intuit, that there is another dimension than the one within which we function, that there is something more going on than the state of affairs we experience every day. In the case of the miracles described in the Gospels, this is tangible and explicit. Passing through the locked door, curing blindness with spit mixed with earth, resurrecting Lazarus, who had been dead for several days, or the resurrection of Christ itself, all transcend the hitherto-known rules of logic and physics, touching directly what is beneath the surface of everyday life, or rather what permeates everyday life. It uncovers the mystery, although from the viewpoint of faith the mystery is not hidden at all. Transgressing the accepted norms is not only a characteristic of miracles, but also the domain of art. In the case of miracles it is a clear transgression of the limits of temporal reality, while through art we constantly seek means of expression to achieve a similar effect, to touch this spiritual dimension, to taste it or even to become aware of it.
And what is most beautiful, both in miracles and in art, is to experience something more, something that happens here and now, through this reality, through spit mixed with earth or a trace of paint on a board forming an icon.
In 2014, in Legnica’s Zakaczawie slum district, ironically known locally as the “miracle district”, something resembling a Eucharistic miracle happened at St. Hyacinth’s Church. Because it happened in the church of my childhood, where I was an altar boy and lived through my first artistic and religious experiences, it is an even more important story for me. Transubstantiation – this is the name given to the phenomenon of the penetration of one matter into another. Transubstantiation at the cellular level, not in the form of fusion or absorption. In this case, a few independent medical laboratories found that a particle of the human body, or more precisely heart muscle, which was in constant agony, appeared on a white disc of wheat bread. I write about this in the context of the role of matter in artistic creation – matter often rejected in favour of the celebration of the process itself and ephemeral activities with a conceptual character. In Christianity we believe that the eternal Word – the Logos – became flesh, that God became man; moreover, having conquered death, He left Himself in a fragment of matter, not in the form of an idea or abstract concept, nor in the form of a spiritual being, but in an organic particle, grown out of the earth and processed by human hands. Bread and wine, wheat grain and the fruit of the wine grape, ground and squeezed, fermented, baked in the fire, which we absorb into our own bodies. I swallow God, who becomes part of my body. Total abstraction! A more refined artistic experience is hard to find. Physics meets metaphysics and the body becomes a vessel of the spirit. This event has continually taken place on every altar during the central moment of the Mass for centuries. From the viewpoint of faith, every corporeality, including that in art, has its reference to the corporeality of this white disc of wheat bread. We look but do not see, we eat but do not feel the change of taste, it happens somewhere inside beyond the senses. This piece of bread is a very difficult proposal for living, especially today. It crosses the boundaries of what I understand, but this inner understanding is made possible precisely by art, which, breaking through the boundaries of materiality, enters life as he entered the Cenacle through the locked door.
Today, I think we need a little irrationality, a certain kind of madness, getting drunk on the evangelical new wine. The history of the Eastern Church gives many examples of saintly madmen, the so-called Yurodivys, whose actions broke established social rules, going beyond conventions and norms accepted in the Church. Their attitude transcended the intellectual and spiritual barriers imposed on life and reality. Such a biblical example of good madness is King David, who, carrying the Ark of the Covenant, joy- fully danced undressed before his people. And David danced before the Lord with all his might; and David was girded with a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the horn. (2 Sm 6:14– 15). This is not about breaking barriers and crossing the boundaries of common sense in themselves, but simply the joy of the resurrection morning – the joy of His presence. Then the disciples heard: “go and preach”, preach in different languages… including the language of the visual arts. We need this kind of divine frenzy, including in art.
I believe in art, I believe that even today it can be a form of prayer, it can be David’s dance.