Conversations about Art (VIII)
Jaromir Jedliński is talking to Stanisław Dróżdż
Jaromir Jedliński: The first question which is worth discussing results from the way of titling your works and exhibitions, namely you refer to them with the term concept-shapes and you have been creating them since mid-1960s…
Stanisław Dróżdż: Yes, exactly since the year 1967 and I have been presenting them since the year 1968. Since that time I’ve had approximately 300 individual and collective exhibitions in various venues all over the world ranging from the Republic of South Africa to London, from Los Angeles to Warsaw. My works are now in the museums as well as in private collections. Their name originates from the shapes of concepts and I want to communicate them through these notations. They obviously fit to the range of concrete poetry because they strictly meet all the requirements of concrete poetics. Poetry is only one whereas there are a lot of types of poetics. I try to construct all my texts in the way they meet the requirements of concrete poetics.
J.J.: In terms of poetry, we are used to reading it, whereas you introduce your viewer into the space of gallery or museum where you provide your poetry with a three-dimensional shape. The concept-shapes create a specifically semantic surroundings and environment. You create entire textual-spatial systems from letters, digits, words, concepts and sensations registered ideographically as well as from the very position of the viewer-reader among these notations.
S.D.: Certainly, and that is one of the reasons why I was not accepted to the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers but to the Association of Polish Visual Artists. I didn’t meet the condition mentioned by you, which means that what I create are not the poems. That is why, not without a reason, I talked a minute ago about concrete poetics because I believe that these notations provide conditions for developing poetic reflections. For instance, in case of my work in-between realized in the year 1977 in the Gallery ‘Foksal’, its viewers had an impression that they were being read by the text. That is very important to me. Tadeusz Sławek was the first one to define this impression as reading a human being by the text because it was how he was feeling himself in the contact with this work.
J.J.: Perhaps, it’s about overwhelming the readers by the space of text which surrounds them but not about the text which has gained a spatial aspect…
S.D.: Yes, exactly. That all refers to the fact that the text itself rules the manner of its interpretation by the way it has been registered. It is important to distinguish two possibilities and two approaches to this question. I create my texts on two-dimensional surface and in three-dimensional space as well. In-between is the phenomenon which combines both the ways of arranging the text. Sometimes, my text transforms from the surface to the three-dimensional space, for instance by means of a suitable configuration of two-dimensional works. I believe that many times I have managed to achieve it. There is a question why it is poetry if it is not noted in a traditional way. What I believe and always emphasize is that my works are based on the poetics intended to evoke in its recipients poetic associations by means of an appropriate system of text notation.
J.J.: I think that the work in-between makes such an approach visible in a particular way. You introduced the reader-viewer to the inside of the text whose notation – arranged by you in a specific way – covered the ceiling, the walls and the floor of the Gallery ‘Foksal’. Simultaneously, you introduced the recipient to the inside of the word ‘between’ recorded on all the six walls of the cuboid of the gallery interior. What you created here was a certain tautology which was based not only on concepts but also on space and situation. You made a concept real and you captured or even trapped the meaning of the word.
S.D.: It is worth to highlight that the word ‘between’ did not appear there in a continuous manner. It was arranged as if a fly was walking on different surfaces of the gallery interior and reading the text. It was possible to read the text letter by letter with your sight wandering around on six surfaces.
J.J.: So the sense of the recorded concept was somehow hazing in the space and at the same time defining this space…
S.D.: Tadeusz Sławek inspired by this work wrote even the book entitled Between the Letters. If it is possible to jump from the floor to the ceiling and then on the wall while reading it means that the text has become three-dimensional. What I want to say is that the perception of my works comes in three stages: abstract aspect – concrete aspect – abstract aspect. The moment of so-called concretization of the work occurs not in the imagination likewise it happens in traditional poetry but in the material reality.
J.J.: In that year, namely in 1997 you agreed to recreate in-between at the exhibition which was a wide presentation of the art in Poland after 1945 prepared by me and Ms. Anda Rottenberg for the Art Palace Mücsarnok in Budapest. Do you regard your projects as the works which are reproducible and replicable likewise the text written for publishing?
S.D.: Some of my texts may well be approached as for instance the graphics. There is a certain circulation but it is also possible to make subsequent prints. However, when it comes to printing in publications such as catalogues or press I think that it should be done either as the documentation of the exhibition which has been already held or as the sheet music for organizing a new exhibition. That happened for instance with the catalogue of my last exhibition organized in Leipzig in 1997. That is exactly the sheet music for a new exhibition but complete artistic expression of each text or of entire sets of these texts can be observed only in space at the exhibition.
J.J.: The concept gains its appropriate and complete shape and becomes a concept-shape at the moment of its formation in space. However, as I understand it, each of these consecutive spatial occurrences of the text is equally important, which means that none of them is an original or a copy or a replica. Does it mean that each single occurrence of the text may be copied likewise exactly in case of the text in printing?
S.D.: These texts may be copied. However, every time there is another interior designated for the exhibition which results in new problems because then it is necessary to modify the entire exhibition and sometimes to develop a new conception adjusted to a given exhibition space.
J.J.: In case of that already mentioned exhibition in Budapest we made an exact replica of the implementation of in-between in the Gallery ‘Foksal’ which we recreated in the scale 1:1. We just placed this replica in another exhibition space which was an enormous space of the Art Palace Mücsarnok. What we applied here was an exact citation as we accurately quoted that exhibition, which was held twenty years ago, as a significant fact in the post-war art in Poland.
S.D.: Yes, that was a quotation. In fact, between that ‘box’ and the ceiling, there was a lot of space and next to that box there were some other works. While implementing such projects it is important to exclude at the very beginning some spaces where, for instance because of the windows, it is impossible to present the project in its original form which communicates its true sense. I simply prefer the interiors with artificial lighting which resemble boxes and my projects are usually displayed in such interiors. That is why the Gallery ‘Foksal’ which I have been cooperating with since 1971 was a perfect place for me.
J.J.: Do you believe in the existence of any kind of community, identity and similarity in attitudes and motivations for the artists from the Gallery ‘Foksal’?
S.D.: You know I am in a really specific situation doing what I do and it is not comparable with the activity of the young artists who nowadays also present their works in this Gallery. I am an elderly man who doesn’t keep up-to-date with new names in the artistic environments. It is difficult to talk about the present situation. I can talk about the past situation when Starzewski and Kantor, who obviously had a tremendous influence on the exhibition program of the Gallery, were still alive. Those days there was a really specific atmosphere and there was a group of people who were very important for Wiesław Borowski likewise he was important for them. I can say in that period my work could fit to the mainstream indicated by the artists related to this Gallery whereas nowadays I’m a kind of extinct dinosaur in the Gallery ‘Foksal’.
J.J.: However, it is possible to find some similarities between the core subject of your activity and the areas explored by the other artists related to the Gallery such as Lawrence Weiner, Daniel Buren or Joel Fischer, Alain Jacquet…
S.D.: Yes, there was a true affinity between my concepts and that fabric knitted by one woman implementing the project developed by Jacquet (Tricot, 1969).
J.J.: In the early period of its activity the Gallery cooperated with Jarosław Kozłowski whose works displayed there, especially in early 1970s e.g. Metaphysics, Physics, Ics reveal also, in my opinion, affinity with your interests.
S.D.: That’s right. Jarosław Kozłowski and I represent the same artistic orientation but his education is based on visual arts whereas I graduated from Polish Philology at the University. Therefore he realizes his ideas in the way which is different from mine, focusing more on the aspects related to visual arts, whereas I focus more on the language.
J.J.: However, at the same time you both refer to linguistics, semantics and in the investigations into the language philosophy and, which in my opinion is the most important, to the duality of meanings and ambiguity of concepts.
S.D.: During the meeting held in 1971 in the Gallery ‘El’ in Elbląg, Kozłowski presented the work that I would also implement with a great pleasure, which proves what you have just said. Our implementations and even our ideas sometimes overlap to a certain extent.
J.J.: Could you tell us something more about concrete poetry perceived as an artistic movement which you some time ago were taking a really active part in.
S.D.: The artistic movement oriented on concrete poetry developed in 1950s initiated by the international meeting in Stockholm in 1953 where the concrete poetry manifesto was announced. I initiated my participation in this movement by taking part, if I can put it in this way, in its funeral conduct, namely in the great international exhibition held in the years 1972 – 1973 first in the Netherlands and then in Belgium, Germany and Great Britain. It was presented in these countries for two years and it put an official end on the artistic movement based on concrete poetry. Nowadays concrete poetry works are created only by individual artists but there are no artistic groups or movements oriented on this kind of poetry. As part of my activity related to concrete poetry movement I managed to organize the exhibition of the works by Ian Hamilton Finlay in the National Museum in Wrocław. His works from the collection presented at the exhibition were later on displayed in the Art Centre in Katowice and in the Gallery ‘Miejsce’ in Cieszyn because Finlay left me this collection and let me decide where to present these works. In early 1990s I presented his works in the City Gallery in Wroclaw. Another example of my activity in this area was the exhibition of Slovakian and Czech concrete poetry which I organized also in the National Museum in Wroclaw. I also presented the works by Václav Havel at two individual exhibitions held in the Art Exhibition Office BWA in Wroclaw and in the Silesian Museum in Katowice. I also arranged the exhibition of Austrian concrete poetry in the Palace of Culture in Dąbrowa Górnicza which has a beautiful exhibition hall. At the same time, the Culture Centre in Olkusz housed the exhibition of American visual poetry. In the years 1978-1983 I organized five theoretical and critical sessions on concrete poetry in the Gallery ‘Na Jatkach’ here in Wroclaw, not far away from my place of residence. I got permission from my friend, Bogdan Górecki, who was running this gallery then, to organize the exhibitions of the works by two artists related to Polish concrete poetry twice a year, on average. A lot of exhibitions were organized there and there appeared also the publications in photocopied versions because it was difficult to print anything those days. In the year 1978 I managed to publish the anthology of Polish concrete poetry which by today has been the only selection of works created in this area with the bibliography from the years 1967-77. The book was published by the Open Theatre Centre ‘Kalambur’ in Wroclaw. Nowadays, each of the concrete poets works individually, if he or she works at all in this field. There is no group oriented on concrete poetry.
J.J.: How did you cooperate with Ian Hamilton Finlay, whom we were talking about one minute ago?
S.D.: It was based only on correspondence.
J.J.: And how about Miron Białoszewski?
S.D.: It was a really amusing story with us because when I started writing my first concrete poetry texts in 1967 such as The Hourglass or Forgetting I noted them down on a piece of paper as soon as they came to my mind just not to miss anything because different things might happen, you know. And for about at least one year I knew that I wrote something but I didn’t know what exactly it was. Previously, I wrote traditional poetry and I even managed to win the first prize -the Cristal Lion – at one edition of ‘Klodzko Poetic Springs’ and the second or third prizes once or twice at other editions of this poetic contest. I believed that my work would develop rather in this direction but then I started writing Concept-Shapes and it was exactly during one of the editions of ‘Klodzko Poetic Springs’ when I met Miron Białoszewski who was one of my friends. I asked him: ‘Dear Mr. Miron, do you think it is worth doing?’ He looked at me and said: ‘Of course it is’ and then he looked again and added: ‘Yes, it is worth doing.’ He gave me real support. However, he didn’t say that it was concrete poetry and only in May 1968 did I get for my name-day from the Polish-Czech married couple the anthology of world concrete poetry published by Odeon in Prague. Only then did I found out that I wrote concrete poetry and I was really surprised at this fact. Yes, sometimes strange fate guides human lives.
J.J.: Did you stay in touch with other poets like Tymoteusz Karpowicz or did other authors from the area of linguistic poetry such as Stanisław Barańczak or Ryszard Krynicki play any role in your creative work?
S.D.: Tymoteusz Karpowicz, did play an important role, of course, but not in the field of concrete poetry. Karpowicz himself walked to me on the street and asked to bring him to the editing house of the monthly journal Odra some texts but he asked for my traditional texts! I also value Barańczak very highly, mainly for his translations. I’ve bought recently his translations of the writings by E.E. Cummings. However, I like his poetry, too. I also value Krynicki’s works. The entire trend of linguistic poetry was really close to me but not close enough to follow it. However, something of this kind of poetry might have budded in my mind. When it comes to the matters related to theory and critics, I’ve been closely related to Tadeusz Sławek for a really long time, actually since the beginning of my poetic activity. I’ve also cooperated with Jerzy Ludwiński, Piotr Rypson, Jacek Wesołowski, Sergiusz Sterna- Wachowiak, Grzegorz Dziamski, Marianna Bocian, Dorota Szwarcman, Paweł Majerski. Rypson is more interested in pictorial and visual poetry than in concrete poetry. He presents in his publication the texts originating from different periods ranging from ancient times, medium ages to baroque, which in terms of their form and content, apart from their aspect of visual similarity, have nothing to do with concrete poetry. Concrete poetry follows completely different principles which are defined rather strictly and precisely.
J.J.: Could you indicate the most important features of concrete poetry and the differences between this kind of poetry and pictorial poetry, as you named it yourself, or visual poetry, as it is called by its followers?
S.D.: The most accurate answer to this question was given by Professor Janusz Sławiński in the second edition of The Glossary of Literary Terms providing a really adequate definition of concrete poetry. Generally speaking, concrete poetry consists in providing the word with autonomy and isolating it from its lingual context and from the non-lingual reality in order to enable this word to exist by itself and to signify itself. However, it also happened that someone wrote an eulogy or an epitaph or an epigram and these texts were formed in specific shapes to imitate a cross or an hourglass but that was absolutely not concrete poetry because in concrete poetry the form is determined by the content and the content is determined by the form. It is a truly basic autonomy of the word and the main distinguishing feature of this kind of poetry.
J.J.: And can you define what is personally the most important for you in concrete poetry which you create?
S.D.: I really dislike talking about what I do because I may have too narrow or even closed view of my own work. Someone from the outside can see something more and something different. I had such an experience not long time ago at the Lepizig Fair where I met a boy, Tilo Schulz whose responsibility was showing visitors around the exhibition halls. He also showed them around the space taken by my project From Here to There arranged there as part of the event Realisation/Kunst In der Leipziger Messe.
And he had an artistic educational background…
J.J.: That exemplifies a specific art of interpretation…
S.D.: Yes, he did it in the way which was really interesting even for me. We were talking for about one and half an hour and he told me about this text more than I thought it really contained. Wesołowski commented once my attitude: ‘You never say what you wanted to communicate in your text. Instead you say ‘Here we need two centimeters and there we need three…’ ‘I specify technical parameters’, I said, ‘However, I want to leave the viewer absolute freedom of interpretation’.
J.J.: It means then that concrete poetry is subject to various interpretations; it does not close the sense of a given concept and does not exhaust its meaning.
S.D.: Yes. We must pay attention to the fact that in the history of literature, for instance in baroque, a piece of lyrics was not regarded as a poem unless it met requirements specified by a given canon. Analogical attitude is observable in concrete poetry. If a text does not meet certain requirements it is not concrete poetry. For instance, Austrian concrete poets started creating visual poetry in the years 1972-73, which was earlier than in case of the other authors. Visual poetry is based on a very strong link between the text and the image. A lot of misunderstandings arise around visual poetry because concrete poetry (or concrete poetics as I’ve named it before) can be divided in two fields – the sonic one and the visual one as it has been named but it is not this true visual poetry I’ve just mentioned. Sonic concrete poetry is represented by Schwitter and his Ursonate, Jandl (Jandl was in Lepizig at the same time. I attended the meeting with him and I know that while reciting his poems he roars as a bull. This guy is in an incredible condition, indeed!). This division of concrete poetry had been used until the visual poetry appeared. After its occurrence we can define precisely that concrete poetry may be categorized as concrete poetry of sound and of written notation. The movement oriented on visual poetry is the phenomenon which occurred later. It is far less strict about its rules – these are just pictures with a word or several words among them. There is no synthesis, no figurative language notation.
J.J.: But you were also not satisfied with all these terms and you coined a notion of concept-shapes which means that since the beginning of your creative work you have been going beyond the defined codifications.
S.D.: I still use this term to refer to my particular texts, their entire cycles as well as the exhibitions because I believe that it is the most appropriate term to name what I do, to define the idea of my work.
J.J.: We have referred several times in our conversation to your exhibition Concept-Shapes. Concrete Poetry held in the Polish Institute in Leipzig from May to July, 1997 as well as the continuous presence of your project From Here to There (among the works of the other artists from all over the world) arranged in the area of Leipzig Fair. Would you like to say something about your both presentations in Leipzig?
S.D.: It happened that I was invited to Leipzig on 30th May for the opening of both these exhibitions – my individual exhibition in the Polish Institute and the collective exhibition in Neue Leipziger Messe. In the Fair area my work stretches out in the space of the 80-meter corridor, the words ‘From Here to There’ appear in various configurations, continuing in a diversified manner. As the German tour guide specializing in art described – my project seems to pull the walls of the building. It was for me a really beautiful interpretation. He read the sense of this work without even trying – fully consciously – to translate the words. I’m really satisfied that this project is there at the permanent display. It was created in the year 1996 and was reproduced from the catalogue published in the same year which accompanied the permanent exposition of works at Leipziger Messe as well as in another large catalogue from 1997 among the other projects implemented in that year by the artists invited to participate in this event. It is the text in Polish not translated into German. Together with the abovementioned German artist and art critic called Tilo Schulz we drew a conclusion that if the text had been written in German it would be a completely different work. Anyway, I never agree to translate my texts. Every my text is presented in Polish regardless of the exhibition venue. My long experience has proved me that the deeper into the ethnical language you reach, the more universal the text becomes, which means that it is intuitively understood by the foreigner.
J.J.: Does it mean that it is not possible to translate a piece of concrete poetry completely to another language? That is probably not the question of language (and its vocabulary) but the problem of contexts..
S.D.: A translation is possible in a certain range…
J.J.: The translation which is possible is the dictionary-based translation, isn’t it?
S.D.: … or in the form of a free poetic translation. In the works by U E.E. Cummings we can observe a kind of beginnings of concrete poetry and for example Barańczak coped very well with translation likewise Gorzelski who had done it before. When it comes to the works to be presented at foreign exhibitions I usually send the texts which contain the lowest number of words and at the exhibition they are translated word by word as the explanation to my work. Anyway, there are also numerical texts or sign-based texts etc. For instance, one of the works consisting of fifty four parts was presented in the display window of the Polish Institute, from the side of Wagner Street (The Hourglass). Another work composed of twelve parts (Numerical Texts) was displayed in the window from the side of Brühl Street. The Hourglass is the permutation of three words: ‘it was’, ‘it is’ and ‘it will be’. If any passers-by were interested in this text, they could follow it without the explanation of the words it consisted of, which means that such a viewer entered inside this work. In Numerical Texts no translation is required and it is enough if its viewer or reader focuses their attention on them. There is only the first name, the surname, ‘Untitled’ and the date.
J.J.: You mentioned that the catalogue of the exhibition held in Leipzig became the music sheet for a new exhibition prepared by you for the autumn of 1997.
S.D.: This work was transferred to the Gallery ‘Foksal’ and presented directly on its walls. [The exhibition from the years 1970-1977 (fragments). Concrete Poetry. It was held in the Gallery ‘Foksal’ in September, 1997 – explanation added by. J.J.].
J.J.: What does the process of creating your works look like? Where do you take your inspirations from?
S.D.: My texts are different – some of them are based on letters, the others – on words, words and numbers, punctuation marks or texts in the form of particular objects. Therefore they are created in different ways. For instance, in the year 1995 I participated in the Upper Silesian Festival organized in the Museum in Bytom. There is a pretty exhibition room with the cube in the center covered with brickwork and tiles. For Goodness sake! What can we do with that? Not being used to such situations I was wondering how I would cope with that object. And then after several days I came up with an idea that I could implement my concept invented years before. I asked the organizers to cover this cube with black fabric, buy an austere coffin without any inside decorations and order a carpenter working for the Museum to produce two rocking slats. What was constructed in this way looked as a coffin-cradle. Next to this object, on the same pedestal there was the coffin cover. This work epitomized the idea of the text-object. I was forced to respond to the impulse coming from the fragment of the surroundings which cannot be simply ignored. Apart from this object, there were also large texts displayed which covered the wall from the ceiling to the floor. The entire exhibition was entitled Eschatology of Existence. Concrete Poetry. Therefore my texts are sometimes created inspired by the impulse generated by the existing situation.
The conversation was held in the apartment of Stanisław Dróżdż in Wrocław, on 6th June, 1997, authorized in February, 1999 and published in the monthly journal ‘Odra’, issue number 7-8, 1999.