Józef Robakowski: My Own Cinema

Centre for Contemporary Art, Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw, 5 June – 7 October 2012

By John Quin

Wilful confrontations with film and its forms characterise this 35-work, half-century-spanning retrospective for Józef Robakowski, doyen of the Polish filmic avant-garde. Czesław Miłosz once said, approximately, that ‘the difference between a Western and East European intellectual is that the former has not had a good kick in the arse’: one imagines poor Robakowski getting his serious backside seriously booted on many an occasion. We know he was removed from his position as a professor in Łodź and forbidden to leave Poland or show his work there. His was an imposed exile at home, making it – ‘it’ being his varied selves – up as he went along. Witness his view of the past From My Window (1978–99), filmed over 21 years from Robakowski’s apartment as he looks down on the square below, a sequence that wryly describes quotidian events that feature his unknowing neighbours.

The past, of course, is very much at home in Poland, and the general mood of nostalgia in the show is infectious. I recall my dead grandfather as I watch Acoustic Apple (1994), a four-minute video of the artist engaging with an apple. My memory calls up Robakowski taking huge chunks out of a Golden Delicious like old Papa gleefully using his new false teeth. And then I check my notes – no, I’m wrong, he was only peeling it. The rasping sounds are those of his knife. Our individual pasts and memories inevitably colour perception, a banality Robakowski captures masterfully.

The show’s earliest work, 6,000,000 (1962), features found footage of dreadful Holocaust images. In sharp contrast, the self-explanatory About My Fingers (1982) is a good example of Robakowski’s oft-whimsical autobiographical concerns. He prefers constant experimentation (using animation, documentary, accidents and performance) to the tried and tested. Test 1 (1971), then, is a cameraless film made by perforating celluloid and then matching the dots of light with blips of sound – glitch cinema, if you like – that recalls the heady early days of Dada and Walter Ruttmann’s Lichtspiel Opus 1 (1921). My Videomasochisms II (1990) and The Energy Manifesto! (2003) catch Robakowski poking fun at the portentousness, respectively, of Marina Abramović’s self-abuse and Bill Viola’s watersports. And here he is (fucking with Fluxus?) banging his head against a Casio synthesiser in Concert for Head (2009). Here too is the fight against creative assimilation: in I Am Going… (1973), we see the artist climb a high snowbound parachute tower. As with Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner, there is a gripping sense of the solitude, determination and sheer Nietzschean will of achieving newness.

There is a recurring, nagging, sense of déjà vu seeing these works, but that would be imprecise – the phrase perhaps is reja vu: this will happen again in the future. Didn’t Douglas Gordon do some videos mucking about with his hands? And didn’t Darren Almond go on to do whiteout shots of purgatorial permafrost? Robakowski was ahead of them. Not for the first time are we made aware that artists ‘behind’ the Iron Curtain were making works in advance of their more privileged Western peers.

Witold Gombrowicz once wrote that a critic’s ‘intellectual ballast crushes the remainder of the direct, intuitive feelings of a man’. It is with trepidation therefore that we judge an artist like Robakowski. As with Gombrowicz, his works were conceived ‘in fear and hatred of criticism, with a desire to escape it’. Both artists were forced by uncaring history into a creative zugzwang. And it is apparent now that Robakowski couldn’t care less. Time has vindicated him.

This review originally appeared in the December 2012 issue.