The Journey through shambles – exhibition text
Magdalena Karpinska’s latest series of paintings is like the first moments we experience on leaving a room that has run out of air. This encounter with nature is greedy, shameless, hence the recurring motif of the river in her paintings – in its entirety, unfolding to the horizon. In Renaissance paintings, a river suggests perspective, but here it meanders like an hourglass, measuring the time we have wasted in solitude. The memory of this loss is like a transparent fading jug from which time, poured into a broken vase, escapes again in the shape of a river, symbolizing all the changes that could have happened in our life but which we missed.
Karpinska’s paintings increasingly often feature human figures. Illuminated by the setting sun or the moon, they do not form a unique relation with nature, but are a part of it. The distant references to the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich are not accidental. But, in Karpinska’s paintings, men are not in control of nature. They are helpless and listening, and their ears and hands are like flowers. The bathing female friends are not watched or judged by anyone. Ingres-esque faces turn to a sister, not to a portraitist.
Although nocturnes are characteristic of the artist’s work, in this her latest series, black is replaced by navy blue and deep cobalt, as if out of fear of the darkness returning. Awakening, although painted in a sunset, seems to be the main promise of the whole cycle.
June 2022, Justyna Wesołowska
Nature spirits present: “Revolution in silk gloves” A play in eight acts
I was very anxious, but I respected the intense, almost passionate, absorption with which he looked at a butterfly, as though on the bronze sheen of these frail wings, in the white tracings, in the gorgeous markings, he could see other things, an image of something as perishable and defying destruction as these delicate and lifeless tissues displaying a splendour unmarred by death.
“Marvellous!” he repeated, looking up at me. “Look! The beauty – but that is nothing – look at the accuracy, the harmony. And so fragile! And so strong! This is Nature – the balance of colossal forces. Every star is so – and every blade of grass stands so – and the mighty Kosmos in perfect equilibrium produces – this. This wonder; this masterpiece of Nature – the great artist!”
“ Never heard an entomologist go on like this” I observed cheerfully. “Masterpiece! And what of man ?”*
Act I: Silkworm
The story of silk is a tale full of blood, sweat and tears. Of obsession, betrayal, violence. Ideal material for a melodrama which, in keeping with the convention of the cloying tear-jerker, begins innocently enough. It starts with a fairy tale. China, third century BC. Xi Lingshi, the emperor’s wife, goes out into the garden to see what is happening to the plants, why the mulberry trees are languishing, the leaves are turning yellow and the branches are dry. She finds white balls on them. She does not yet know that these hairy beads are in fact cocoons in which the silkworm larvae hide. The Empress takes the find home. She looks at it closely. And eventually, it happens. The inevitable. By accident, one of the balls slips from her hands and falls into the hot tea. The mischievous demiurge chuckles. Xi Lingshi fishes out a soft thread that is slippery to the touch and shiny like glass. That same evening she begins to weave a robe for the emperor. Silk is made just before midnight1.
It will quickly become one of the most desirable raw materials, more expensive than iron or even gold. It will give rise to, but also the name for the most famous trade route linking China with Europe, and for almost 2000 years it will be a closely guarded secret, the betrayal of which will be tantamount to a death sentence. And although the precious eggs were eventually stolen from China by Byzantine monks (sic), who brought them in specially hollowed-out sticks, to this day the main producer of silk is the Middle Kingdom. An empire that, like a spider, weaves delicate webs and feeds unnoticed on exploitation harnessed to the machine of a totalitarian system and driven by the insatiable appetite of capitalist societies.
Act II: Silkwoman
“Men plough, women weave” is the Chinese proverb. In ancient China, silk production was supposed to be the domain of women. They were the ones who grew the trees, fed the caterpillars, threw the cocoons with live pupae into the boiling water, untangled and braided the threads, wove and painted the silk cloth. And not because they invented it. Silk work was yet another way of exercising control, of supervised oppression and of subordinating women’s desire to the needs of the patriarchy. On the one hand, silkwomen, as the women involved in silk production were called, were merely cogs in the imperial machine. On the other hand, weaving also appeared as one of the ways to go beyond the authoritarian system, a tool for independence from male authority and a non-obvious space for emancipation. As in the nineteenth-century novels, women’s craft is here neither an expression of affirmation nor rebellion, but a kind of tool marked by the potential for subversion – yet another open structure thrown into the social order.
Act III: Butterfly effect
“The flutter of a butterfly’s wings can be felt on the other side of the world,” says another Chinese proverb. The exploitation of silkworms over several thousand years will not lead to their extinction but will change the genotype of the species forever, condemning the nocturnal butterflies to a life of captivity, of perpetual oppression, one symptom of which is their total dependence on humans. Mulberry silkworms are sluggish, slow and lack the instinct to help them escape from a predator. Besides, even if they wanted to, their short wings cannot carry the body, they are just a waste, a remnant and the bitter fruit of a violent evolution.
It all starts with a winged moth that has never crawled out of its cocoon. It starts but does not end. The butterfly effect is a sensitivity to initial conditions, but also an anecdotal presentation of a network of interconnections, relationships and dependencies, even small fluctuations of which can lead to unimaginable, because impossible to predict, changes. In other words, even the simplest equation in a space-time perspective results in chaos. Each variable depends on other variables. The variables influence each other. In this fragmented system, everything and everyone is deeply interconnected.
Act IV: Pantomime on the cave walls
The paintings, but also the objects that are part of Veil, are a story about this very bond. About pulsating fibres and overflowing fluids, about nature that appears as one eternal garden – a membrane saturating impressions and afterimages. It’s a cynical distillate from an alchemical cauldron that echoes with notes of trite magic, eternal mystery, but also organic transgression. Of transmuting, fermenting or crushing, braiding or un-braiding. Of looking for a new form for ghosts old as the world. In the case of Magdalena Karpińska’s works, matter not only tells a story but also means something. It is a fabric that resembles a text collaged from fragments, quotations, motifs and lost threads. It is a story that, as Roland Barthes points out, not only works out through constant interweaving2, but also operates as an ambiguous palimpsest. One story overlaps the other and both emancipate themselves primarily in movement. In the shivering, transparency and rustling of the soft silk, which seems as elusive as fog. Of a matter which transforms itself into an ephemeral sculpture, is not only an actress but also the entire stage. In this sense, what we are dealing with here is not so much an image – a rip, which, as Georges Bataille writes3, resembles a window overlooking the real, but also precisely a curtain which, while entering the phantasm and becoming part of the same dream, at the same time appears as an essential rift. A crack with all its potential for change, or a wound that begs you to put your finger in it. Just as if it were a ripe peach or a fluffy cocoon. It’s not only an escape from a Platonian cave whose interior is lit up by a spectacle of grotesque, scary and funny shadows, but also a way out of it only to realise that we have just fallen into another cavern. And here, too, the spectacle continues. Here, too, mysterious shapes move along the wall. It seems that we already know them, we have already seen them somewhere. But precisely, it only seems to us. Here each thing pretends to be another, yet each thing becomes what it is. Here the curtain, in traditional theatre separating reality from fiction, is as important as the stage, and the story as what it is woven from. Maybe, as Gilles Deleuze wants4, faith in eternal ideas is just an empty shell from the start, the reality is overrated, and all that exists are shadows? Maybe freedom is just watching a farce played out by ghosts, picking holes and, as with a palimpsest, looking at the layers at this cave and the next ones? Maybe, as Michel Foucault writes, it is time to free ourselves from the dilemmas of truth–false or existence–non-existence and let phantasms perform their wild dances5?
Act V: Procession of nature spirits
Let us return to ghosts for a moment. Phantoms, ghouls and spectres. Karpińska’s works, whether we are dealing with painted silk, canvas or objects – small medallions or a plate – play not only with the classic theme of still life for art history but also with the anthroposophical process of expanding consciousness – Steiner’s “return to the homeland of the spirit.” Veil reads as if one were watching a landscape, walking in the woods, swimming in a river or basking in the spring sun. The human being is just an addition here – a piece of abstracted flesh, a shadow casting a colourful spot on the landscape, a black glove reaching for a fruit or a reflection multiplied by the glossy skin of currants. A detail that blends into a fluid background that is a single metamorphosis. The plate is filled with juicy, firm peaches, the fruit altar buckles under the weight of ripe bananas bursting with sweet and sticky juice, tying the brown-yellow fruit to the sunny landscape, and a generous cherry swings on the earlobe like an earring. A spider, softened and resembling a cushion, winds its way across the floor, its soft webs allowing one to lose oneself in the structure of a non-heterogeneous labyrinth; and a flag flying in the imaginary wind, even if it does not merge with the idyllic landscape, transforms into a non-obvious theatre of trembling leaves, gliding birds and jittering shadows, which rip through the cobalt sky with a swish. There is also a cosmic mountain that alternately rises and falls. It can be a mist shrouding mountain peaks, but also the top of a rock that suddenly emerges from the water or a tent inscribed with hieroglyphs of shimmering landscapes. A shelter constructed from the rustle of trees, the darkness enveloping the forest and planets raging in the distance, and a cave whose vault opens up into a sparkling glow – an extravaganza of light. In it, you can see the moonlight, the rising sun and abstraction enclosing, like a shell of a nut, a plurality of matter and spirits. Despite appearances, we don’t have to choose – each version will be just as true. This idyll is seemingly interrupted, but also clarified, by another scene that tears apart the integrity of the bodies. Everything is overflowing and bursting in it. There is a fire in the garden, the element seizes and consumes the curtain and is itself a spectacle of bursting flames – a chaotic dance of tongues tickling the plants. The fire becomes a non-obvious frame, the setting of the screen, and it turns out to be the entrance to another opening. We enter a butterfly-shaped irregular cavity with a view of the water. Just above it floats another crack – another opening, a vaginal mandorla levitating in the air. Or, in other words, a vagina in a sunny halo that, symptomatically, is also on fire. The similarity between the two experiences is no accident.
Everything here is fleshy, sensual, subordinated to unobvious performances or choreographies notated by barely perceptible movements of nature, processes of overflowing secretions, the interweaving of plant runners or the cracking of the fruit’s body under the influence of its bursting juices. You can almost smell its sweet, slightly suffocating smell in the air, as it betrays the dynamics of chemical reactions and the presence of invisible micro-organisms. Not only do nature spirits seduce with their transcendental binding of beauty and goodness, but they also muse, play with their unpredictability and play with the illusory nature of their bodies. For, as Rudolf Steiner, the father of anthroposophy, whose concept overcame both the one-sidedness of natural science and the often absurd hypotheses of mysticism, wants, nature is not only consciousness but also bodies: physical, spiritual and astral. Steiner assumed that beyond what we see and feel, beyond the illusory shell of our senses, there is something else, a spiritual dimension and another world, but as he argued, not everyone can establish contact with it, even if we all subconsciously sense its existence. By the way, the sixth sense was supposed to be bestowed upon female artists, among others – because art drawn into the framework of anthroposophical education nurturing unobvious connections between human beings and the cosmos, as not only Steiner but also Hilma af Klint believed, is precisely the breach through which the unconscious most fully emerges.
Act VI: Theatre within a theatre
We have got a flag, an altar, colourful medallions with portraits of flowers, a magic mountain and a mountain of fruit. We can start a revolution or stage a play. There is also a curtain, some props and even a costume. The latter is a large overscaled cloak painted in organic-abstract patterns, yet another veil full of cryptic messages, mysterious drawings, blooming flowers with a circle of women entwined in an embrace, and a huge black glove. It is, as the title proclaims, the mantle of Wonder Woman. The pop-culture heroine was brought to life in the 1940s by American psychologist William Moulton Marston. He created a phantasmic figure of a woman, an equivalent of the female Superman, which over the years has manifested phantasms, Jungian archetypes, projections and images subordinated to the power of discourse, connected with the element of otherness still rooted in Nietzschean philosophy, rather than a secret power. Karpińska not only shatters these male fantasies, the conventional ways of narrating the collective experience of women but also performs a subversive capture of both the story itself and the codes associated with it. In this sense, the mantle of the mythological heroine, whose absence is a symptomatic reflection of the invisible, appears above all in the context of its complexity. It collects forms, genres and varieties of feminine or minority agency. It proliferates the phantasm, affirming different points of view and readings of the same fabric. Not surprisingly, looking inside the mantle, we hear voices.
The stage is set, but the main character was not there and still is not there. Perhaps because nature spirits neither believe in the existence of a monomyth nor feel the need to write an ideal story – a hero’s model journey, which, described by Joseph Campbell6 and, according to this theory, reproduced by most cultural texts, emerges from non-existence as one and the same construction, assembled over and over again from the same elements. Spirits, unlike the protagonist, usually male anyway, who allows himself to be caught in the trap of having power, like to tell different stories. They create new stories, sometimes releasing desires, other times fantasising, or capturing someone else’s symbolism. They play with conventions and the linearity of time. Above all, however, they speak – they all chatter at the same time, drowning in a chaotic polyphony of voices. They believe that the text is abundant and the fabric is community.
Act VII: Chaos breeds more chaos
Joseph Stalin is said to be the author of the saying that one cannot make a revolution with silk gloves. One can only add that a revolution is not made – or at least not this one – because revolution is being spun all the time. From the ball to the thread and vice versa: from the thread to the cocoon. All it takes is one small disturbance – a glimpse of the burning curtain, and on the other side of it, in a different order and time, a fire breaks out. All it takes is a bit of carelessness while drinking tea, and a whole species of nocturnal moths transform into lazy worms. It is enough, as Friedrich Nietzsche wrote – the sight of silly and busy little souls rocking in the air and Zarathustra bursts into tears7. There is no destiny here – one more conceptual grid imposed by hegemonic power. The world is ruled by chance. Blind chance immersed in the unconscious, in the rarefied sauce of the uncanny, contradicting the rationalised vision of the world and shattering Western systems of knowledge. Chaos and irrationality, primary attributes of demonic or hysterical femininity. Everything begins and ends, bogged down in the matrix of the primordial, warm and dark as night8. Inside the ripe fruit, which instead of a stone has a hole with a view of the spirits of nature – perverse, cocky and beautiful, endlessly playing cat and mouse. In this sense, the veil of the title appears doubly treacherous because, as Michel Foucault writes, “it shows what it defends and conceals that it reveals, what it is supposed to cover.”9 It reveals how truths are produced, and shows who cooks up – because, after all, history is a meaty pate – modern mythologies.
Act VIII: Arachnology
It is possible that Xi Linsgshi, the hallowed patron saint of silkworms and silkwomen, did not go out to the garden at all, drink tea and weave a robe for her husband. Perhaps it is yet another patriarchal narrative explaining the world to us and forcing the woman into the male paradigm and then happily reproducing femininity in the form of a phantasmal projection? Perhaps, the first ever silkwoman was like Arachne, the embodied heroine of Greek myth, whose work became a way of tearing the story out of the normative conditioning of discourse10? If we only imagine that she was weaving silk first and foremost for herself and that by painting it she was simultaneously releasing feminine – for fabric always embodies community – desires, it becomes clear that it was desire and its revolutionary potential that were considered dangerous. Suppressed desires threatened hegemonic power and as such could lead to the overthrow of the existing order. „ Only a subject that both owns itself and has access to a library of the already read has the luxury of flirting with such an escape from identity – like Arachne’s loss of her head – as is promised by the aesthetics of the centreless (in fact, headless) body” 11 – wrote Nancy Miller in Arachnology making fantasising, but also theorising and over-reading the unread one more strategy of female emancipation. As an aside, it is probably no coincidence that the princess, whose craft became the focus of divine wrath, returned to earth in the guise of a spider. Following this line, one might consider the Chinese empress to be a moth, the text to be a fabric, and the fabric to be yet another pulsating tissue.
– “Man is amazing, but he is not a masterpiece,” he said, keeping his eyes fixed on the glass case. “Perhaps the artist was a little mad. Eh? What do you think? Sometimes it seems to me that man is come where he is not wanted, where there is no place for him; for if not, why should he want all the place? Why should he run about here and there making a great noise about himself, talking about the stars, disturbing the blades of grass?”
“Catching butterflies,” I chimed in.*
* Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim
February 2022, Anna Batko, The essay published in the catalog for the exhibition “A VEIL” in BWA Bydgoszcz
The Sunshine’s gone – exhibition text
Magdalena Karpińska had started a new series of large-format paintings before the lockdown. She continued her work during the pandemic, in the abruptly transformed context and conditions. The sunshine had suddenly gone – it turned out that the good times were over.
Painted in the evening light, Karpińska’s paintings have something of taming anxiety. The whole series focuses on plant care, which for many has become a form of coping with the daunting reality. “Watering I”, “Watering II”, “Cutting with secateurs”, “The glove”, “The cobweb” – the titles have the ring of mantras evoking simple and familiar actions that may help bring some peace of mind.
Plant care and gardening help to repress the ever-present sense of guilt that appears when we blame ourselves for passivity, uselessness, and hidden egoism. Taking care of plants, similar to taking care of our body and helping others, may give us a momentary release from that haunting sense of guilt.
The inspiration for one of the paintings is a poster of First Blood – a movie from 1982, the first of the Rambo series. In the painting, Rambo holds a grain sheaf instead of a rifle – at dusk, or in the moonlight, he looks like a romantic sower. In the artist’s memory, Rambo: First Blood refers to times when, as children, we all carried an image of the male war in our imagination. The new Rambo – dressed in a “first crop” – becomes a modern-day hero/heroine.
June 2020, Polana Institute