Art Review: Tracey Emin & Tadeusz Kantor

Tadeusz Kantor’s Severe Being and the Art of Tracey Emin

In Search of Reality
Tadeusz Kantor’s severe being

Tadeusz Kantor: Art & Memory
Czech Museum of Fine Art, through June 22

The Polish artist and theater director Tadeusz Kantor once proclaimed himself the “heir” of dada and surrealism. “Illegitimate son” may be a more appropriate term, as he maintained the spirit of dada’s negative aesthetics and focus on destruction while avoiding the later political tendencies of the movement and branching out of surrealism’s initial tenet as a theater of the imagination. He considered absolute freedom to be the highest human value and the goal of art, issuing numerous manifestos throughout his life as his ideas about theater were changed and revised through practice, ultimately winning him international fame on the avant-garde theater circuit for his underground Krakow theater Cricot 2. Was Kantor, who died in 1990, the last European modernist?

This seems to be the underlying question at the Czech Museum’s tiny retrospective of this artist-as-visionary, who, as one of the fore-founders of multimedia art, may have come closer to attaining a “total work of art” than Wagner himself. Paintings, sketches, designs, sculptures, and drawings have been haphazardly scattered in the two-story space to document the evolution of Kantor’s oeuvre from 1943 to 1990. Fittingly, the exhibition opens on the ground floor with a series of photographs from an early production of The Return of Odysseus by Stanislaw Wyspianski (like Joyce before him, Kantor was obsessed with the story of the Odyssey) and some unoriginal early paintings clearly influenced by Cubism. But the most striking works on display here are his informel costumes from a 1961 production of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros; torn into bizarre shapes and splattered with paint, they represent a shift in his work towards a violent abstract expressionism, characterized by a total rejection of formal restraints in favor of a revaluation of existential themes.

Upstairs, we get to see this maximalism unfurl in bizarre mechanical contraptions like the wood and metal “Machine of Destruction” from a 1963 production of the Madman and the Nun and the surreal “Twins in a Garbage Cart” from a 1961 Cricot 2 production, wherein two humanesque (or humanoid) heads and pairs of hands emerge from a sort of cloth in a tiny human cart. Kantor was among the first Poles to organize happenings, and there is some documentation on display, including the famous photograph of his Panoramic Sea Happening of 1967 (the artist standing on a chair in the ocean with his arms outstretched, “conducting” the waves.)

It was through his theater work that most of his ideas about art came to fruition, and an interesting video (in Polish with English subtitles) documents his activities in the Polish underground. Inspired by “remnants of Bauhaus,” Kantor’s early work sought to desecrate the classics, resonating with the more avant-garde, anarchistic strains of modernism. Kantor came to consider reality as the foundation of the artist’s search for meaning; his Informel Theater took “reality of the bottom rank” as its motto, and was characterized by destruction, spontaneous action, and a degradation of his actors’ individuality. These ideas eventually developed into his Zero Theater Manifesto, which made any attempt at acting impossible and completely destroyed the line between actor and spectator (i.e., happenings), and finally the Theater of Death, focused on the past.
Parallel and complimentary to his theater work were his canvases, particularly his development of the emballage, which combined paint and objects into a single work, and his series of Impossible Monuments, where everyday objects such as clothes hangers, chairs and light bulbs were transmuted into (unrealized) statues.

Kantor was an artist in the true sense of the word, recreating the world he inherited according to his own highly unique vision. The Czech Museum’s modest exhibit offers a small glimpse of that world.

The Art of Tracey Emin
edited by Mandy Merck & Chris Townsend
Thames & Hudson, 2002

Academic criticism aims to state the obvious in the lengthiest, most complicated way possible-the more illegible to the uneducated, the better. Reading this kind of writing gives undergraduates the impression that they’re reading a difficult, sophisticated text, while preparing them to comprehend (or even formulate their own) genuinely complex ideas. At its most uninspired, academic criticism stretches to bring in larger social issues that may or may not have anything to do with the original subject, often obscuring it to the point of forgetting ...

To date, hardly any discourse (a word I learned at university) surrounding Tracey Emin, possibly the most famous living British artist, has focused on her work. This is due not only to its sensational autobiographical nature, so easily digestible by the mainstream media that elevated her to stardom, but to the anti-intellectualism that proliferated throughout the ‘90s and has arguably continued until recently. To wit: the definitive publication on the work of Tracey Emin contained an essay that opened with “Tracey Emin has big tits and comes from Margate.”

The contributors to The Art of Tracey Emin agree that something intelligent must be said about their subject, and they have the credentials to say it. The goal being to explain her and her work (which, most of the contributors agree, are one and the same) to an enlightened audience. Among other essays, we get an analysis of what one academic critic calls Emin’s “bad-sex aesthetics.” We’re also treated to an obligatory (because Emin’s a woman artist who fucks a lot) essay on her connection to (and “radical” permutations of) feminist art. Even an elucidation of “pop cultural strategies in Tracey Emin’s videos” (because this subject truly requires the commentary of an academic specialist). The editors also dared to include one interesting essay by Renee Vara on the relationship of Emin’s work to Edvard Munch’s.

While their intentions are good, these authors fail more often than they succeed in grasping Emin’s work: “In many of these pieces, the work seems spontaneous, like a home video, when it is, of course, and cannot be other than, a meditated and ‘made’ work of art” (!!!). This statement is illustrative of the author’s inability to understand the psychology of the artist, in its presumption that spontaneity could never be considered a genuine artistic mode. Even my deaf-mute mentally retarded god-sister can locate the spirit of randomness that animates most, if not all of Emin’s work. Ultimately, the interview with the artist included at the end reveals more truth than the previous 194 pages: Tracey Emin is a dyslexic, nearly illiterate pysco (sic) slut who cunningly put her pain on display to attain fame and notoriety in a culture that equates suffering with authenticity. Those who wish to view the results of this suffering will have to travel to London to view the newly opened contents of the Charles Saatchi collection; those who wish to familiarize themselves with some of the worst academic tendencies of the last two decades need only read the Art of Tracey Emin.


"Her name keeps popping up everywhere I go! It's interesting... everywhere describes her as 'controversial' but not often 'good,' or 'bad.' She has a selection of work, including her famous My Bed at The Saatchi Gallery website (though Charles Saatchi did recently sell the bed)... see here for additional Tracey Emin resources."
July 20th, 2006

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