Exhibition titles may either be perfunctory or capture the gist of the artist’s creative interests. Chorography, which designates Marcin Zawicki’s present display, belongs to the latter group. The term itself dates back to ancient natural history and denotes a description of a country or its parts. According to Pomponius Mela (1 C. ad), this is basically a geographical description, albeit of regions rather than the entire world. This was also the case in the early modern era, when this title began to be used in works dealing with natural history (e.g. the Chorography of Jan Długosz, which is not preserved in full, but whose fragments are embedded in his Annals, played a particular role in Polish culture). However, in the context of the exhibition, it is more important to consider how chorography was defined by Claudius Ptolemy (2nd C. ad). Contrary to the cartographic view that encompassed larger areas, typical of geography, chorography was to focus on a more detailed, visual study of small areas based on direct examination: chorography “deals above all with the qualities rather than the quantities of the things it sets down; it attends everywhere to likeness, and not so much to proportional placements.”¹ According to Ptolemy, chorography — unlike cartography — did not require mathematical knowledge, but rather drawing skills similar to those exhibited by landscape artists.
It follows that the very title of the exhibition refers to the relationship, or — to be more precise — the borderline between art and science. This is where, from ancient and medieval illustrations in natural history treatises to contemporary images of fractals, the artist and the scientist have been united by a common fascination with the forms of nature, either inspiring or, as sometimes is the case, instrumentally exploiting one another. These relationships, so multi-faceted and complex that even a brief outline would take as much space as the chorography of a continent, create an important context of Marcin Zawicki’s exhibition.
Its central point is a topographical scale model — a form typically used for museum or educational purposes. It owes its vibrant presence in contemporary art to the oeuvre of brothers Jake and Dinos Chapman. What their and Zawicki’s model have in common is a similar type of visual rhetoric derived from the tradition of 19th century dioramas, with a touch of the grotesque. The fundamental difference consists in the type of performance taking place in the scenery provided by the model. There we have a multitude of human figures in blatantly cruel scenes that make up a terrifying vision of theatrum historiae. Here — an uninhabited landscape with the fauna and flora in a theatrum naturae governed by its own rules. This very duality is also anchored in tradition: dioramas have and can still be divided into historical and natural history ones.
Therefore, the central point of Chorography at first sight resembles exhibitions in natural history museums or pavilions located at the entrances to national parks or natural reserves. However, a closer gaze immediately reveals the deceptive nature of this impression: what we are dealing with here is not a reconstruction of an actual fragment of nature. The museum model has taken on a new meaning: in a peculiar pseudomorphosis, its documentary value has been supplanted by fiction. What seems to be most “realistic” about this fiction is the physiography of the area: rocky slopes partly covered with lichen. Yet the fungi and flora — grasses, flowers, tree stumps, creeping plants — no longer pretend anything in their blatant plastic artificiality and completely random scales. The fauna is a mix of biotopes and natural history eras. Dinosaurs, mammals, fish, insects, corals, birds, polyps… Here too scales contradicting the “natural order” impart oxymoron rhetoric to the entire image.
The landscape appears desert-like and rather uninviting. In spite of that, plants and fungi seem to be doing rather well here. Animals were dealt a worse hand. In fact, a plain bad one. They are probably dead. All of them. Is something the matter? We only know the end-result: instead of a biocenosis one would expect to see in a natural history diorama, we are watching a necrocenosis — a graveyard of animal forms, scattered around and partially hidden in the ground that swallows them or entangled in monstrous spider webs hanging down from tree stumps. Is this a graveyard or a rubbish dump of civilizational debris? After all, all of these animal forms are in fact plastic and rubber toys, products of mass culture of common provenance. The ambivalence they introduce to the invented landscape is an important aspect of not just Chorography, but the entire oeuvre of its author.
Why would a painter such as Marcin Zawicki select a 3D scale model to present his landscape vision? It ought to be emphasized that this is not the first time such a model appears in his art. However, it is now a goal in itself, instead of being exploited for other purposes. Paintings from the Hollow Art series (2009–10) — a subversive, thoroughly postmodern dialogue with old art — were created on the basis of clay models prepared by the artist. This method was well known to Old Masters, such as Tintoretto or Poussin, who created figures from clay or wax, which they then placed in small box-set scenes in order to arrive at a preliminary arrangement of the composition and lighting. The subsequent stage were sketched drawings, on the basis of which paintings were ultimately created (what is particularly interesting here are Poussin’s washed drawings, entirely oblivious to detail and focusing on the general distribution of shapes, heightening and shading). Instead of sketch drawings, Zawicki uses photography, which is also part of the painting tradition, dating back to the 19th century. The subversive nature of his method is due first and foremost to the status of the model. In the traditional order, the model comes first — it marks the beginning of the process of assembling a painted composition. In the Hollow Art cycle, at the beginning is a painting — by Rogier van der Weyden, Adolphe Bouguereau or a Dutch still life — that provides the design for the model. It is no longer a sketch hidden behind the final work, as in the case of the Old Masters. Despite painterly transformations, it maintains its identity in the finished painting and is the subject of the representation. Thanks to the sophisticated technique of the painter, doughy shapes endowed with a glassy, sometimes mucous shine, are painstakingly conveyed, bringing to mind sublime old painting forms caught inside inert matter and emerging transformed into embryonic forms in the course of some regressive process. This is what hollow art stands for, devoid of its deepest meaning — the form of a work of art. “Shape without form […]. Paralysed force, gesture without motion”² is also the world of the hollow men from T.S. Eliot’s poem, whose title reverberates in unison with that of Marcin Zawicki’s cycle.³
In subsequent series — The Fall (2012–13) and Ergot (2014) — the topos of art has been replaced with the topos of nature, while the model returned to its righteous position of the initial stage in the process of creating a painting (even though it still serves as the subject of representation rather than a sketch thereof). The models for some paintings are fragments of landscape, evocative of the central object of Chorography, but prepared in a much smaller scale. In their painted renditions, these accumulations of plastic flora and fauna presented against uniform backgrounds, whose shades are only differentiated by the degree of electric lighting, resemble still lifes rather than landscapes, bringing out the entire ambiguity of the term. The shiny bodies of animals evoke Palissy’s Mannerist platters, the multitude of natural creations — Arcimboldo’s paintings, the nocturnal atmosphere of certain scenes — 19th century fairy tale illustrations, and the kitschy nature of animal figures or fungi — the works of Jeff Koons, although they are devoid of the consumerist extraversion typical of the American artist. Zawicki’s introverted kitsch, immersed in the painted matter, is only one of the elements of his consequently perverse artistic strategy.
Some of the painting models have previously been exhibited as stand-alone objects. However, until Chorography, they had not gained full autonomy. This one no longer serves as a model for a painted composition. In turn — and we ought to finally mention that — it is accompanied by drawings. These do not depict the model or its fragments, while their subtle form is in stark contrast to the rudimentary nature of the 3D landscape. Grouped in two series — on the pages of an old album found by the artist and on large separate sheets — they resemble 19th century illustrations of nature. Again, like in the case of the model, a closer look immediately reveals the fictional nature of the world they depict. In fact, they represent variations on the theme of organic forms, at times closer to realism, at times — to abstraction, rendered in nuanced shades of grey: mammals, plants, at times their hybrids, fungi, insects, birds, fish, sea anemones, radiolarians, cnidarians, polyps, jellyfish, shell-bearers, annelids… The inspiration here, in particular in the case of large drawings, were illustrations showing land and marine fauna and flora based on sketches and watercolours by Ernst Haeckel, one of the most outstanding naturalists of the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. These illustrations, reflecting the approach of the academician and artist, which Haeckel was to a degree, combine documentary precision and a fascination with the visual beauty of natural creations and the sophisticated organization of their structures, sometimes based on the same astounding symmetry that governs the carefully composed arrangements of organisms on individual sheets. This is all underlined by the title of the illustrated publication: Kunstformen der Natur.⁴ Ernst Haeckel entered the fertile borderline between art and science from the side of science. Marcin Zawicki came from the opposite direction.
What is the relationship between individual components of the exhibition? The model represents nature: not a painter’s landscape motif, but a landscape fragment in crudo. Admittedly, it is fictional, but, after all, everything is a game here… At the same time, as is pointed out by the artist himself, this landscape — a creation rather than a documentation — recalls the topos of the artist as the Demiurge inventing his own worlds. However, given the status of props used to create this invented world — cheap products of mass culture — one should perhaps quote the “second Demiurgy” referred to in Bruno Schulz’s Treatise on Mannequins, one that values “the cheapness, the paltriness, the tawdriness of the material.”⁵ Drawings representing the domain of art in the exhibition layout seem to symbolize the artistry of the observation of nature backed by the analytical approach of a researcher and the artistry of transforming its forms thanks to the creative effort of imagination. Together with the model, they symbolize a complementary order of nature, science and art that outlines the basic determinants of culture.
Theatrum naturae et artis — this is how Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz described his idea to combine art and a scientific presentation of nature within a single museum display.⁶ This holistic vision returns today in some contemporary exhibitions and museum concepts. Marcin Zawicki seems to allude to it in his own way. One of the germs of Leibniz’s vision was a cabinet of curiosities that would gather the peculiarities of nature alongside man-made artefacts, including works of art: the Wunderkammer. This was the title of one of Zawicki’s previous exhibitions. From The Wunderkammer to Chorography… It is difficult to resist the impression that while Marcin Zawicki consequently follows his charted path, he is simultaneously extending the playing field.
- J. Lennart Berggren, Alexander Jones, Ptolemy’s Geography, an Annotated Translation of the Theoretical Chapters, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000, Book 1, p. 58.
- T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men, available online at: <http://allpoetry.com/The-Hollow-Men>, accessed: 15 APR 2015
- Ewa Toniak (text in Marcin Zawicki’s The Wunderkammer exhibition catalogue, Green Carrot Art Development Foundation, Warsaw, 2012, p. 4) associates the title of the cycle with the term hollow (Japanese: horō): in manga and anime, it denotes a dead being that feeds on souls of the living, and seems to be absolutely in line with the significance of Eliot’s poem.
- Ernst Haeckel, Kunstformen der Natur, Leipzig und Wien, 1899.
- Bruno Schulz, The Cinnamon Shops (A Treatise on Mannequins or, The Next Book of Genesis), transl. by John Curran Davis, available at: <www.schulzian.net/translation/shops.htm>, p. 35, accessed: 16 APR 2015
- See Horst Bredekamp, Leibniz’s Theater of Nature and Art and the Idea of a Universal Picture Atlas, in Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, William R. Newman, eds., The Artificial and the Natural: An Evolving Polarity, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2007, pp. 212–17.