Trout Fishing in Cosmos
3 June 2015
Trout Fishing in Cosmos is a critical, illustrative text written by curator Daniel Muzyczuk on the artistic practice of Polish artist Honza Zamojski, for whom in 2013 NERO published the book Fishing with John. The text includes a description of Zamojski’s latest project, Four Eggs Theory – an exhibition, which ended recently at Futura in Praque, and book – accompanied by a series of published and unpublished images of Zamojski’s work.
Is it much, too much to ask not to hide behind the mask?
Me against the whole world? It’s a little deeper
Me against myself, I fight the Grim Reaper.
Zamojski begins on a high note. Produced in 2007-2008, the dual project We Came From Beyond and We Go Far Beyond is a study in the alienation of art. The artist assumes the role of a post-conceptual curator. Using small gestures, he conducts a fundamentally serious conversation about art that avoids the gaze, shuns the public, and liberates itself from the constraints of the viewer’s vision. It is a secretive art that could well end up unpublished, yet, as an unidentified object, it still visits public spaces. Zamojski uses the term ‘folklore’ to denote certain actions based on an intuitive reaction to the environment. However operative this definition might be, one should note that the project-summarising publication features interviews with each of the artists and several essays pertaining more or less directly to the projects’ various levels. I mention this because there should really be no mystery to this kind of folklore. This is what they will teach you at most art schools – that ‘genuine’ art is a show of intuitive self-expression, worth – for some reason – bothering people about. This reason can be variously formulated, but usually artists’ special sensitivity is cited, a gift that allows them to speak from a first-person perspective about the human condition (and thus about human suffering). Zamojski’s projects are definitely not such.
Even if, on the declarative level, the ‘folklore’ seems congruent with such a notion of expressiveness, this is doubtless a position that has been informed by post-conceptual tendencies. I received proof of this quite unexpectedly, while preparing a lecture about Zamojski’s work. The lecture had a set title, which I thought was the artist’s invitation to an intense sparring match (it turned out he had had nothing to do with the trap – it was the exhibition curator’s idea). The title was ‘What Does Honza Have to Do with Kosuth?’ I decided to treat this rather banal question as a point of departure rather than an end unto itself. The lecture summary, which I wrote myself, was a mischievous answer to the title’s question:
Joseph Kosuth’s name in the title may serve as a synonym of conceptual art and suggest that Zamojski takes issue with it or, quite conversely, that the purpose of the lecture will be to situate him in a genealogy whose distant forefathers are the conceptualists. Both problems are superficial: one purely speculative, the other obvious. Far from demanding an answer, the question can instead define an area of explorable possibilities, encompassing, on an equal footing, Kosuth, Kolář, Moore, Monastyrski and several other figures.
I failed to mention a name that eventually found itself in the very core of the interpretative machine I set in motion. Instead of looking at conceptualism as a formalised practice, I decided to approach Zamojski’s work using less orthodox criteria.
The very similarity of a figurative motif seemed a good enough reason. One of the most frequent motifs in the work of Yuri Albert is a wooden mannequin with a long nose (it seems worth stressing that he can often be found fishing). Albert, a Moscow-based second-generation conceptualist, was inspired, among other things, by caricatures published in magazines such as Krokodil and their social role. A Pinocchio-like figure with a pencil or crayon for the nose is, of course, a figure of the artist, who works intuitively but may also stray from truth (as symbolised by the elongated wooden nose).
I once wrote about Zamojski’s three grey books. In the most recent one, dating from 2011, titled Rhymes Like Dimes, he confirms the fact that they constitute a series. The point of departure is an ever more closely-defined circle. We Came From Beyond / We Go Far Beyond is the aftermath of exhibitions I have already written about. What is more important here is another aspect: it is also a portrait of the artistic community to which Zamojski belongs. Jak jsem potkal d’ábla [How I Met the Devil] (2010), in turn, is a collection of stories about the artist’s Czech roots. The final circle entitled Rhymes Like Dimes is a very peculiar self-portrait delivered hip-hop-style in a grey book styled to look like a cassette tape with two sides. The above would suggest that we are dealing with the work of a melancholic, who plots circles to ever more precisely define his own position. Even if the middle book in the series, Jak jsem potkal d’ábla, can be said to be nostalgic, the other two are full of distance and irony. Together, they form a self-portrait of sorts, bringing the artist to a point where he no longer has to offer any explanations.
Is this so? Paradoxically, it is not. The work following these gestures seems at first sight hermetic and based on one, endlessly repeated joke, at the source of which is a simplified human figure. Ever more simplified, the typography too becomes a kind of ornament and a company for the mannequins, which, as Agnieszka Pindera notes in an essay accompanying the Anaconda series, are rooted in the iconography of the Old Masters.
The simplification is not meant to ridicule, for the whole thing is not about laughter. The apparent lightness of tone emphasises the narrative’s artificiality, as if Zamojski wanted to convince the viewer that he is a rowdy fellow preoccupied with fish and skimpily dressed girls. But even if funny, the jokes are hardly profound. They appear out of necessity, as it were, in order to stratify the representation and image of an artist sketching his deepest fantasies. In Albert’s case, self-portraits are meant to convey the critical perception of conceptual art, on the one hand, and a gut-based one on the other (the ‘cold’ position and the ‘hot’ one, as Wojciech Bruszewski put it). In Zamojski’s case it is different.
The attributes cease to play a symbolic role. Zamojski’s action brings to mind the structure of a certain American book. The promise offered in the title of Richard Brautigan’s novel, Trout Fishing in America, is utterly fulfilled – the book is a complete catalogue of places, techniques and tricks for improving your chances of success in the sport. The surface of the narrative seems agitated by underlying bursts of continuous laughter, yet after a few episodes it turns out that the seemingly disorganised and chaotic form is strictly governed by a pulsating computational machine for which the laughs more supply a form of power than an obstacle. As in the works of the OULIPO artists, the procedure provides a framework and a catalyst for bursts of imagination. It also means that what appears to be the content in a form extracted from a larger series is in fact – when a larger structure is taken into consideration – merely a constructional element to contain actual content.
Such ornament of content in Zamojski’s new works are the autobiographical themes, not to say ironic self-portraits, stemming from the three grey books. How to turn autobiography into fiction? By what means? Sten Hanson begins his audio autobiography with the words ‘Nothing ever has a real beginning but the story must start somewhere…’ This is followed by bird chirping, the swoosh of water, and animal sounds. A minute later, we realise that some of the natural-sounding shrieks and groans are synthetic or manipulated. This is not a field recording, and so the autobiography that Hanson is to present is fictional too. A gesture that alienates the listeners and prevents them from identifying with the protagonist (a product of the composer’s imagination) becomes also a first step in precluding the obvious effect of immersion in a sonic landscape. Hanson and Zamojski occupy similar positions, both constructing equivalent self-portraits, both resting on fiction and actually highlighting it. Drawings are created with a sense of distance towards the subject. It is contained in cages comprised of typographic characters or whole words. The artist’s background in graphic design comes to the fore here but, as in We Came From Beyond / We Go Far Beyond, it is radically sublimated and infected with a conceptual elegance that increases the author-audience distance.
Even humour (which he shares with Albert) does not help: it is heavy, intellectual, and the laughter, like in the plinth of Zamojski’s contour sculpture of a rider, extended to infinity, is thus reduced to an ornamental form. So why bother with a body of work that, at first sight, seems both immature and stuffed with an indigestible combination of conceptual choices? The answer may lie where we least expect it.
A fascinating and surprising trope is offered by a book published by Zamojski as an editor. He is planning to publish a series of Charles Willeford’s crime novels about a Miami-based detective called Hoke Moseley. These are novels that go beyond the genre’s traditional form, where the narrative is constructed so that the reader has no advantage over the detective in trying to solve the mystery. In Willeford’s case, we often know the culprit’s identity beforehand, which can offer an even better taste of the plot and its twists, as we read the book for the sheer pleasure of it. This is not the only crime story in Zamojski’s output.
In at least two earlier works, his own this time, there were references to Witold Gombrowicz’s Cosmos, a crime novel even farther removed from the canon than the Willeford books. ‘Cosmos’ here denotes a quality, rather than space; its opposite is chaos. Gombrowicz demonstrates how a single unexplained event – a sparrow hanging from a tree, encountered by the protagonists at the very beginning – can forever disrupt the established order. We used a fragment together in a book called How to Build a Monument,
where it accompanied several historical and fictional examples of monuments in public space. In that company, it was definitely enigmatic; an artwork perfect for the We Came From Beyond / We Go Far Beyond project, but also one that sets a limit on dreams of art’s impact on the unsuspecting recipient. To some extent, Gombrowicz is the opposite of Willeford – we will never find out who committed the senseless act of violence. On the other hand, this very fact brings them closer, because neither is really interested in finding out. They are preoccupied with building, monitoring and controlling series initiated by the original element. In How to Build a Monument, Zamojski represented movement by using a simple Pinocchio figure that comes alive, kineograph-style, by flipping the pages.
This focus on following transformations initiated by a single gesture is by no means intuitive. It is a rational process, governed by economy and logic, even if it is very hard to analyse the process of succession and causality between the different elements. The story and narrative that crime literature teaches us leave only nominal causal connections that are devoid of meaning. We can define this type of literature as pure narrative, open to being completed through defining the object of the suspense.
How close this is from there to the notion of bi-abstract paintings that Franciszka Themerson coined to describe her own work. Contrary to appearances, she was referring to figurative painting, giving a misleading name to the process of figures’ liberating themselves from their ascribed meanings. Men in bowler hats became whatever else. Importantly, the process divested them of any ridiculousness, and setting them against an abstract background, helped to create an ambiguous world. As Franciszka Themerson wrote,
Now the space of every painting contained a geometrically defined conflict based on two kinds of abstraction. Hence the name ‘bi-abstract paintings’. One kind is the abstraction of the unique universe in which we are imprisoned, expressed through the organisation of space, intersecting surfaces, geometric figures; the other is the abstraction of what we see and what we know about the human body, human emotions, and human behaviour. I finally found a visual language I had been looking for to learn about and convey reality as I experienced it. A bi-abstract language. As I have already mentioned, I painted it rather than inventing it. And now I let it grow according to its own laws.
Of course, Zamojski is not interested in conveying reality. This would be too close to an intuition-based model of art making. But when viewed from outside, without delving into its causes or structure, the process seems similar.
The Four Eggs Theory, one of the latest books by the artist is a display of a joyful analytical process and brings into the picture a lot of previously diffused notions into a logical conclusion. It might seem again as something different than it really is – a piece of conceptual art rooted in manifesto-like narrative. The book however is equally meant to draw to mind classics of neoavantguarde (especially Imre Bak) and corporate process describing tutorials. The eggs serve as metaphor (center, border area and exterior; fragility; growth) that the artist engage in an explication of the creative process (as if the creative processes are fully explicable). Four forces form a backbone for the practice: aforementioned intuition, inspiration, idea and item. But the road to full realisation of the idea is scattered with threats that on the first glance are not distinguishable from the successes. Maybe this is the main difference between Four Eggs Theory and corporate memes that form a ready-to-use manual of “How the Work will Fail”. The creative process as mapped by the artist seems objective operation that needs a subject just in order to get realised. This is maybe the most egalitarian creative energy theory ever made. Zamojski conceptualises the artwork as something maybe not easy to do, but nevertheless doable for almost everyone and offers a paradoxical road-map into the creative realm in the meantime exposes himself again as a postconceptual (or postcorporate design, not to mention post-internet) artist.
I have a sense that Zamojski wants his art to confuse the viewer. While in this particular case camouflage is not tantamount to building an aura of mystery, the artist’s intentions may nonetheless remain vague, especially if you analyse a single piece rather than his work as a whole. You cannot extract meaning if you separate Zamojski the draughtsman from Zamojski the sculptor or publisher. Structure, logic and consistency are visible only from afar, when the strokes no longer signify ‘ha, ha, ha’, but arrange themselves into a statement of conceptual origin, whose meaning is in the process rather than in any particular piece in itself. The viewer of Zamojski’s art should see the broad scope of his work. The elongated nose, as rendered by the artist, is not merely semantic, but constructional and architectural as well. The signs rendered by the artist signify not only on a meta-level but also as part of a structure. Like rhyming in rap, they are built according to a rhythm that serves as a construction on which a story may be based. Crime novels have a conventional structure based on strict rules, whereby signs are gradually revealed and the narrative reality assumes a deeper level of semantic organisation. The disorder introduced by a crime has to be explained by following the causality and meaning of facts. Zamojski builds a world governed by similar rules, at the heart of which is thinking in terms of series and of the consequences of basic gestures. He would see no sense in not wearing a mask because it is precisely the mask’s construction that reveals more than his exposed face.