Ryszard Wasko: Bedtime Stories

Photo of Ryszard Wasko.

Children remember bedtime stories. It doesn’t matter where they grow up geographically or to what culture they belong. They expect their parents to tell them stories before they fall asleep. Such stories offer a transition between one world and the next, between the symbolic and imaginary world. They offer a means of comfort as the child goes from the everyday routine of life—governed by material reality and object relations—into dreams of pleasantries or, upon occasion, nightmarish conflicts. While bedtime stories contain a certain universal appeal for children of all ages, there are other social, cultural, racial, ethnic, and political realities that encompass them as well. These factors accumulate over time and add to the potency and meaning of a child’s dreams. Sometimes they will carry well into adulthood.
Given the circumstances that surround an artist’s particular history, the meaning of bedtime stories as a soporific between wakefulness and sleep may carry a daunting symbolic significance. Given the deep psychological realities to which children are subjected, as they struggle to separate and understand the differences between the virtual and tactile worlds of experience, these fairy tales and fantasies sustain not only metaphorical weight in later life, but also a metonymical narrative that intermingles with the narrative of existence. Every artist has a story and every new series of works has a story. Nothing comes out of the void in spite of what recent virtual forms seem to indicate. The void in the material sense of existence is an illusion, a deceit, and this is something that the Polish-born artist Ryszard Wasko knows well.



Having grown up in Lodz in the years following World War II, Wasko recalls the circumstances of life—the hardship and privation, the constant shortages, and the struggles of daily existence. Amid these perpetual difficulties, Wasko discovered himself as an artist and learned how to cope with everyday life with a greater vision of the world than simply the provincial circumstances of life. After studying filmmaking at the Academy in Lodz in the late sixties, Wasko went on to become one of Poland’s leading conceptualists, working as a pioneer in the media of video and photography. Much of this work focused on dense mathematical structures involving sequences of time and reality.



Then in 1981, the Solidarity movement, led by Lech Walesa, hit Poland in the seaport town of Gdansk (formerly Danzig). In response, Wasko organized an international event in Lodz, called Construction in Process, where he invited various international artists to come and work on site-specific projects. Construction in Process was a loosely-knit organization of his own making. Even so, many important artists responded to Wasko’s invitation, including Richard Serra, Sol LeWitt, Brian O’Doherty, Dennis Oppenheim, Lawrence Weiner, and Richard Nonas. Given the condition of Poland in the early eighties, there were constant impediments. Materials were hard to come by and supplies were difficult to find. In spite of the situation, Construction in Process had a significant impact on the participating artists. The event became a symbolic alternative to larger institutional art events, including high-powered state and corporate-sponsored biennials and market-driven art fairs.



When martial law hit Poland, in an attempt to crush the Solidarity movement, citizens were forced to live by a curfew imposed by the former Communist government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Many artists and intellectuals found themselves at risk because of their counter-ideological positions, and therefore were forced to evacuate Poland and go elsewhere. Having discovered through friends that he was a target for deportation or imprisonment, Wasko left for London in 1984, eventually making his way back to the continent, where he lived in Munich and then Berlin. In 1985, four years after the first Construction in Process, he organized a second expatriate event in Munich in which an even larger group of international artists participated.



After the fall of the Berlin wall (1989), Ryszard Wasko returned to Poland where he established the International Artists Museum in Lodz—an ongoing alternative space that shows the work of international artists. In the meantime, as executive director of the museum and as founder of Construction in Process, Wasko continued to produce international events into the nineties, including two additional projects in Lodz (1990 and 1993), one in Israel (1995), one in Australia (1997), and another, including poets, writers, and musicians—in addition to sculptors and installation artists—in the small town of Bydgogosz in north central Poland (2000). Currently, he is in the process of organizing the first official Polish Biennial in his native city, Lodz, which will open in October 2004.



In contrast to political and economic cynicism, Wasko’s agenda has always been about his commitment to art. His idealistic position has remained the focus of his self-made career over the years. Through most of the eighties Wasko worked virtually independent of any gallery or institutional support His paradoxical brand of conceptual humanism has always been toward developing a better world and a more spiritually-oriented environment for artists in which they can produce work outside of marketing restrictions, and thus communicate ideas that will benefit common people. He understands art as a condition of the international community that invites cultural exchange. Through all of his independent organizational projects, involving other artists, Wasko has never stopped believing in himself as an artist—which is where he began and where he remains today.



As an instigator of conceptual art in Poland in the seventies, working primarily with mathematical systems in relation to film, video, and photography, Wasko has now returned to art-making after a hiatus of more than two decades as an international curator. In this context, we return to the idea of Bedtime Stories—the title given to a recent series of textual paintings that he has carved in the form of bas-reliefs, using white encaustic paint. The origin of these works relates to Wasko’s experience as an adult watching TV news before bedtime. In the process, Wasko is once again trying to define his role as an artist in the pragmatic everyday world of Poland’s new market economy. Yet he is keenly aware of the unexpected hallucination of deception that television as a primarily commercial medium is bound to deliver. In his Bedtime Stories paintings, Wasko refers critically to the symptomatic process of bedtime TV viewing where the subject is bombarded with violence, sex, and absurdities chosen and programmed by a team of broadcasting producers. But he is also seeing this event within the context of his early years growing up in Poland waiting in expectation for his parents to read to him before drifting off to sleep. So there is an overlay between the past and the present, between the literal act of reading and the virtual act of absorbing information.



Wasko knows that the two modes of delivery and reception should not be confused in spite of their mistaken soporific similarity. In the latter case, the viewer/listener is lulled to sleep electronically after a day of boredom and fatigue. Therefore, TV becomes a kind of sublimation quite different from the experience of listening to a parent’s voice, attempting to soothe a restless child. Wasko’s Bedtime Stories are more ironic, more minimal and reduced, more given to the contradictions and absurdities that TV reflects. His white paintings, constructed with wax and pigment, use the phraseology from TV, but in a low-key, nearly invisible form of representation.



We read phrases on the surface of his paintings such as “Japanese Palace on Alert as Princess Masako Final Days of Her Pregnancy” or “Mood in Saudi Arabia is Tense, But Quiet” or “Pope Called For End to Violence Committed in the Name of God,” and we can only think of absurdity, the fusion of the comic with the tragic, a kind of disjuncture, a displacement from physical reality, sublimated in the form of a message that proposes itself as entertainment, as a beckoning call to consumption to keep the mind trained, targeted, tuned-in to this vapor of constant commercial signs. This becomes our virtual identity—our adult bedtime stories—even at the moment we drift off to sleep. There is no escape. We can only recollect the past as a condition in conflict with the present, the easy-going days of slow information in relation to the speed of sound bites to which we are now conditioned, whether in Polish or English. What Wasko is trying to achieve is a kind of oppositional irony between what his parents read to him as a child and the electronic pulse of corporate ideology that characterizes the present-day acceleration of information, manufactured to enhance the marketing appeal of advanced capitalism.



In this sense, Wasko represents a mind apart from the rampant conformity that has vanquished globalized viewers who listen to the news every night, without considering the impact it may have in relation to childhood. Wasko’s Bedtime Stories operate not only on the blank slate of an adult recollection of one’s childhood past, but they reveal the conundrum of “news” as a system of deceit. Wasko transcribes wax words on canvas—words that have the potential to melt away—in order to demystify the presumed authority we may confer on electronic news in the wee hours of the night. His message is simple. It may be summarized in the following way: What is infiltrating our minds in this atmosphere of hyper-fundamental conservatism where the electronic potential to control thought has become not only acceptable but normative? In such a climate, “information” functions as an endless soporific with the potential to erase human memory and experience. Thus, we may properly enact the rituals of marketing and the relinquishment of democratic self-control as if the quality of life were no longer a reality worth taking seriously.

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Robert C. Morgan

Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.