GB No. 12, winter 1994
"An artist must always be at the bottom, because it is the only place from which he can cry. Maybe we shall be able to understand each other at that bottom."
Katarzyna Kozyra, a student of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, presented "A Pyramid of Animals" as her graduation work. She placed stuffed animals -- a horse, a dog, a cat, and a cock -- on top of each other, just like in the fairy tale by the Grimm brothers which was her source of inspiration. About 50 people came to hear the defense of her thesis in June.
"People congratulated Kasia and embraced her," recalls Andrzej Kara , her friend from the neighbouring studio. "The examining board, too."
The president of the board, Professor Antoni Pastwa, says that the opinions of the members of the board differed from the very beginning. "It was both praised and criticized. Personally, I did not like the sculpture -- and I was not alone. That is why she did not get a special award."
Then the rumour started that the artist had killed the animals "for decorative purposes" (Xymena Zaniewska in her letter to Gazeta Wyborcza), "for fun and fancy" (Maciej Iłowiecki in Życie Warszawy). Aleksandra Jakubowska came to the conclusion (published in Wprost) that "Katarzyna K. wants to convince us that killing is an art." According to Jakubowska, nature deprived Katarzyna K. of a conscience and a sense of morality. "She is a pathological individual," wrote Jakubowska.
People telephoned the Academy. Written protests started to pour in.
The Association of Polish Artists reprimanded Professor Adam Myjak, the rector. They said that "young artists who are on the point of starting their career cannot be allowed to perform shameful practices consisting of playing with animals' lives, and tormenting and murdering them."
The Association also wrote the Minister of Culture and Arts. "The author writes in the appendix [to the graduation thesis] that she looked for the animals herself and took care of them so that one day she could kill them with her own hands, and disembowel and stuff them in order to use their bodies in her graduation work."
I have not found any such information in the appendix to the thesis. The artist explains that she has never written the quoted words, and she never could write them because they are untrue. Her supervisor, Professor Grzegorz Kowalski, commented that "these insinuations are a lot of nonsense."
The rumours about the pyramid of animals at the Academy of Fine Arts made the rector come back early from his holiday. The Ministry of Culture and Arts demanded an explanation. It was suggested by the Department of Cultural Education that the rector should consider "setting up certain limits to freedom of artistic expression." In September the rector will convene a special meeting of the Council of the Department. In the meantime his statement is simply that "the Academy is a place for creative experiments and artistic risk."
"We were going to Kassel by car to see an exhibition," says Katarzyna Górna, a friend of Katarzyna Kozyra's. "We were to take turns driving, but she slept the whole time. She kept getting weaker and weaker." When they returned, she could only lie in bed. Whenever she got up, she choked. She thought it was her thyroid. Her doctor says, "she was very brave when she heard the diagnosis." For two hours she thought it was incurable.
"It was in the fall. She called me late in the evening. She was sort of changed," recalls a friend of hers. "She said she had had a valuable experience, that she had managed 'to cross the border.'"
Last October she informed Professor Grzegorz Kowalski that she was going to prepare a thesis entitled "The Pyramid of Animals." She explained that she was going to stuff the skins of a horse, a dog, a cat, and a cock, and place the animals on top of each other. It was going to be about death.
The Professor suggested that she sculpt the animals ("She is a very talented sculptor"). He lent her a book. "Look," he opened the English album Metamorphoses of death symbols, "you can talk about it in this way, too."
She was to prepare some sketches, some small designs. But she did not want to set to work. "I had had my opinion from the very beginning," she says. "The Professor's suggestion was a makeshift solution for me."
"At one point I understood it was a kind of internal obligation," adds Grzegorz Kowalski. "The question of killing of animals did not come up."
On the table standing next to the window Kasia places the works she made two years ago. Some shapeless figures are reminiscent of a lying animal. Thin wires can be seen through the greenish and blue plasticine on the ribs and thighs. On another board there is a figure splashed with blood.
That is how she perceived the model she had found somewhere in herself. She made this work in between two deaths -- first one friend and then another had passed away.
"She was a constant companion to him for several months while he was dying," recalls her friend. "She could see the expression of his face change. His body curled up in pain, and his eyes were directed towards something other than reality. She suffered with him."
The she fell ill herself. She considered this to be some kind of a sign.
She started her graduation work by looking for a horse which was to be slaughtered so she could get the skin. She went to farms and slaughter-houses in the Warsaw area and explained why she needed it. She would leave her address just in case. Nobody resented it. People were simply curious.
"Sometimes people wanted to trick me into taking a sick or an old horse so that they could get rid of it and also earn some money," says Katarzyna.
Katarzyna, her sister, and some friends had been trying to find a dead horse for months. They found none, for she needed to have a good skin.
Jerzy Linkowski, a sixty-five-year-old taxidermist who helped her prepare the animals for the pyramid, says, "The kid was so restless. She could not find a horse skin." He advised her to go to the races. "When a race horse breaks its leg, it is killed," says Linkowski.
The Professor kept asking Kasia whether she had by any chance changed her mind and started working on a sculpture. But she was just wondering where she would be able to find a horse skin.
"The skin became the number one subject for many months," says Andrzej Kara . "It was crazy. She could talk of nothing else." This is how Andrzej describes Kasia's nights during the period when she was searching for the material for her thesis: "She goes to bed and gets up after a moment, lights a cigarette, sits down, gets up, walks barefoot, goes to bed, takes a bath, gets out after a few minutes, lights a cigarette, puts it on her kitchen table, starts walking around, lights another cigarette, goes to bed, gets up, takes a bath..."
She gave up looking for the skin for a few weeks when her doctor ordered her to lead a more healthy life.
In March she wrote her friend, then staying in London: "I am free now, so I started acting on the matter of the horse more quickly. . . . I am a little afraid of the graduation thesis. And the inertia: I can do nothing with my own hands!"
"The problem was that she did not want to do a sculpture," explains her friend. "She fought with herself. She felt she would have to cross some internal border."
She was looking for a living horse, which she wanted to have put to death herself a few days before it was planned to be slaughtered.
"At the market I realized that I was looking at horses like a vulture at its victim. On the one hand I could see a living creature, and on the other I had to look at it from the perspective of the future sculpture: healthy, beautiful, immaculate skin. A skin we look for when we buy shoes."
The owner of the horse demanded a down payment -- otherwise in two days the horse would go to Italy to be made into sausages. The horse cost 15 million z3otys. Her name was Kasia. "Just like mine," says Kasia. "And she was red-haired just like myself."
A picture taken of Kasia two years ago shows a gentle and thoughtful face, and long, thick hair. Today, Kasia is ten kilograms less, with short hair combed into a thin pony tail.
Her kitchen table is burnt on all sides. A cigarette put on its end is slowly going out. Kasia does not see it, and she lights another one. She gets up, walks around the kitchen barefoot, waves back the hair covering her face, combs it into a ponytail, sits down again, gets up, lights another cigarette. Near the window a cat is playing with a rabbit.
"I tried not to make friends with this horse," she weeps.
In March, she wrote in a letter to her friend: "I am terrified by this killing."
When the horse was being put to death, a film was shot. The artist wrote in the appendix to "The Pyramid of Animals": "It is a horrible documentary which presents the fresh corpse of an animal. During the first stage you can still see the moving muscles of the horse. Later only pieces of meat, which look quite familiar, can be seen. People are quite accustomed to seeing such things. It is enough to have a look at the hooks at the butcher's. And still, the participation of other people in this stage of preparing the thesis has provoked reactions of revolt, misunderstanding, and even rejection."
Kasia recalls that once when she wanted to kiss a friend good-bye, just
like always, the friend shivered, looked at Kasia with disgust or maybe even with
contempt, and walked away.
"One of the main functions of art has always been to enlarge human awareness. Sometimes it even means penetration of the unknown. At a time when 'an artist does not make art' (a confession of one of the acknowledged representatives of the art world), when painters and sculptors are no longer interested in invoking artistic experience, there appears a need for creating by means of spiritual experience, the subject of which is the artist himself, a traveller going to the land of values."
-Professor Krystyna Zwolińska
Jerzy Linkowski, who was present during the "operation" on the horse, says, "She did not want to look at it and yet she wanted to be present. Then she went to have that irradiation treatment of hers -- she had an appointment just then -- and came back. She wept again. I tried to console her by saying that the horse had been lame, that it would have been butchered anyway, but she wouldn't listen to me."
She did not expect that it would be just as difficult to find a dead cat and a dead dog. She visited veterinary surgeons and animal asylums. She was advised to visit a pet cemetery. Somebody suggested that she put to sleep a homeless cat living among rubbish or in a cellar -- "there are such a hell of a lot of them." Her friends looked for the animals for the pyramid. Mr. Linkowski had the horse, so there was no time to lose.
One day at three o'clock in the morning a friend of hers brought her a cat that had been run over by a car. She had found it in the street on her way back from a party. But it was no good. Kasia kept on looking for a cat. Once she heard the following words on the phone "It can be arranged for a pint of vodka. It can be dug out at a pet cemetery."
"At one point I realized that I was living in an absurd world. I had been looking for dead animals for months. I was behaving like an idiot: making phone calls, travelling around, asking questions, getting my friends involved in it."
She visited the places from which the company Bacutil gets animals to be made into bone meal. But it was difficult to pick out anything even there. Her animals had to be red-haired. Just like the horse and herself.
"It became unbearable," says a friend. "She started seeing killed animals everywhere. 'Look, I am wearing dead bodies,' she would say, pointing to her shoes."
It was Jerzy Linkowski who finally helped her. He had been stuffing dead animals -- earth worms and whales alike -- for years ("There is not a museum in Poland where you cannot find exhibits prepared by me. They are even in zoological gardens."). He found a suitable skin in the freezer -- he had put it there four years ago. It was a red-haired cat. Soon she came by a red-haired dog. The only thing she had to do was to have a cock put to sleep. The veterinary surgeon was surprised: you do not put cocks to sleep, but cut their throats!
The pyramid was assembled the night before her defense. The janitor working in the sculpture department froze. "I look and I cannot believe my eyes -- a horse is walking into the building!"
In July "The Pyramid of Animals" and its creator were shown on TV on the programme "Animals."
Before they started shooting the film the director suggested that Kasia buy some meat. She could be cutting it while they were shooting the programme. She could also tell them about her graduation thesis.
She had had an intravenous drip that day. She felt ill. The television came, shot the programme, and went away. The Kasia in front of the TV camera does not remind one of the student of the Academy of Fine Arts with whom I am talking. She is acting on the suggestion of the director and she is cutting meat. Her actions are nervous and chaotic.
The director wants to show the film at the entrance exam at the Academy of Film.
"I wanted to make a film about an unusual event. This is an unusual event, isn't it?"
Says the director of "Animals": "I am not going to speculate about whether art is more important than life or vice versa. Fascist art discovered everything about this."
Kasia and I are watching "the damned seven minutes" devoted to her on "Animals" (90 minutes were shot altogether). Curled up, she is not watching. She is only listening, but now and then she glances at the screen to see if the bandage that had been put on her left hand after the intravenous drip is visible. "They could say I have taken some drugs and I am talking nonsense." You cannot see it.
According to Kasia's doctor, "Every patient is in a state of shock
after such an intravenous drip. He will seem strange. Not only will his reactions be
different, but his facial expression as well."
"My work is about death at large and the death of those four
animals in particular," says Katarzyna Kozyra. "I did not make it to achieve a
feeling of horror. I made it because of a spiritual need to ask the following question:
'Do we feel the presence of death when we eat pork chops or use cosmetics or other
products made using animals, or has this been annihilated by the presence of our pets -
animals we dote on?'"
"I put myself to this test consciously. The death of the horse was much more horrible than all the insults I have experienced. I wanted to be consistent, so I have made myself responsible for the deaths of the other two animals which had died natural death," says Kasia.
"It is a question of bravery and truthfulness," comments Professor Kowalski. "If she had not said that two of the animals had been put to sleep, there would be no problem: she had taken them from a pile of dead bodies, had them stuffed, put them here. Here, on the other hand, we face a moral problem -- killing." Grzegorz Kowalski has no doubt that it is a questionable matter. The only problem here is the atmosphere of the "discussion."
"Ms. Zaniewska accuses 'The Pyramid of Animals' of being purely decorative, while Mr Iłowiecki says its purpose is just fun. They cannot accept the fact that it might convey some important problems. Such an attitude shows that they belittle art at large as well as the fundamental questions conveyed by it. People just hang a nice picture on the wall, and that is the end. If the picture starts crying, they stand rooted to the ground: why has the artist done anything like that at all?"
The graduation work is also ambiguous to the artist herself. And yet she has made both it and the film.
"It was the natural result of the way I embarked upon the work, and at a certain stage I realized that I could not go back," explains Katarzyna Kozyra.
The dean of the sculpture department, Professor Roman Wo niak, remarked that during the whole history of the Academy there has not been a work that "all the cleaning ladies employed there would come to see."
"The work of Kozyra, academic as it is, touches upon existential problems," he says.
"Death is a taboo," adds Professor Kowalski. "People do not want to talk about it, although it troubles everyone. Should I censor a sensitive student who wants to talk about it?
Should I act instead of her own conscience? I am not good for that. The most basic and important thing is the freedom of the artist."
After the programme "Animals" was shown on TV, Katarzyna Kozyra was visited by an inspector of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty To Animals. "Did you torment the animals from the pyramid?" he asked. Having noticed a rabbit and two cats, he produced photographs of his own animals: cats, dogs, and a white rat.
The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty To Animals has not yet taken a definite stand on the case of "The Pyramid of Animals."
"We must learn first whether she tormented the animals," explains the Secretary of the management board of the Society, Mr. Jerzy Zawisza.
"We have no time for that for the time being, as we are being flooded with information about people behaving cruelly towards animals, turning them out of their homes, starving them or even locking them in cellars," adds Dr. Janina Siedlanowska of the District Board of Management of the Society.
Waldemar Baraniewski, a historian of art, is of the opinion that all the misunderstanding about Kozyra's work is a result of ignorance of contemporary art.
"Few people try to understand it. Contemporary art employs drastic measures, but, if it is just, it is based on a serious artistic motivation, and sometimes even involves dramatic decisions on the part of the artist."
Waldemar Baraniewski maintains that it is the lack of artistic criticism that contributes towards the general misunderstanding of Kozyra's work.
"It is artistic criticism that should act as a bridge between the artist and the average recepient of art."
translation from Gazeta Wyborcza 4-5.9.93