Film and Painting
Wilhelm Sasnal’s work develops in the space between film and painting—this space then links the symbolic with the imaginary. Curator Adam Szymczyk said Sasnal’s painting is ‘a way to prove what a photograph cannot, as it must always start from something existent—even if it is able to change its object endlessly—though after all it is a way to record things. Painting is a way to observe ambiguous and dramatic changing of conditions’. Traditionally, filmmaking is connected with reality, objectivism, technology, rational and analytical approaches to the world, whereas painting usually entails imagination, subjectivism, handicraft, spirituality. In Sasnal’s painting and films, these values interact and interchange—his painting is frequently subordinated to film-like qualities (the simple recording of reality), whereas his films are almost always painting-like (through specific edition, camerawork, film’s development process, permanent stressing of its materiality).

Sasnal’s films and paintings are deeply embedded in the artist’s existence. He uses them to record—through the filter of his imagination—his relations with the world, with the place he permanently lives in, or stays temporarily, with his family (mostly his wife Anka), friends or chance acquaintances which he makes on his journeys. Never parting with an 8mm or 16mm film camera (another proof of his devotion to working with what is regarded as ‘obsolete’ media—as in the case of painting), he has for years continuously visualised his ‘distribution and redistribution of reality’ by giving it a psychedelic and music video-like shape.

In Sasnal’s work, the fantasies of the autonomy of art and autonomy of subject collaborate, reinforce each other, and examine themselves narcissistically while using each other as a mirror. Today, in the wake of a period of postmodern deconstruction, the autonomy of subject and art count among the most disgraced categories of modern cultural studies and philosophy. Nevertheless, although seemingly long dead and buried, these catagories indefatigably keep haunting our everyday existence and perception of art.

These phenomena and the related experience—a feeling of subjective autonomy which is impervious to complete postmodern blurring of the unaware individual in the ‘torrent of influences of the outer world’—are now there as illegal obsessive fantasies which we cannot remove, although we are aware of their ‘impossibility’.

These obscene ideas, which we sometimes ‘launch’ consciously, or let ourselves be carried away by, are quite a natural reaction to boredom of the stubbornly durable orders of ‘reality absolute’, or ‘truth’, together with an over-formalised, over-objectified and over-rationalised communication of them. Sasnal’s painting and film work illustrates a transfer of these categories, once very ‘real’ and with solid ontological foundations, into what appears as a very ethereal realm of fantasy.

As a result of this transfer, these categories now acquire strategic and tactical value in the subject’s (here also an artistic subject) struggle with the reality: cited by Agata Bielik-Robson, ‘it is the very imaging of oneself as an autonomous… and powerful person that is more important than being one’; ‘so, even if the transcendental idea of autonomy… may be false in terms of the order of truth, as a fantasy, it has a causative value’.

This evident falsification—lie versus reality—is what keeps the fantasy of subject and art lively and anarchically vigorous. What makes these imaginary creations expressive and powerful today is not an authentic faith in fulfilment of their promise, but rather an anarchical boldness, the courage to provoke, change and transgress against the status quo of the reality which this promise—or perhaps its imaginary fulfilment—creates.Music

The source of Sasnal’s film projects are experiments with the film’s internal picture-and-sound relations, a core tradition of the Polish avant-garde and neo-avant-garde —from very analytical works made by the Themersons in the 1940s—‘Oko i ucho’ (The Eye and the Ear)—or by the Workshop of the Film Form in the 1970s—‘Klaskacz’ (A Clapper), ‘C’wiczenie’ (An Exercise), ‘Próba II’ (An Attempt II)—to very expressive punk music videos by Gajewski, ‘Tilt Back’, or Józef Robakowski (video clips of the Moskwa punk rock band). A film particularly important for Sasnal in this experimental background was ‘Koncert’ (The Concert), 1982, directed by Michal Tarkowski. The influence of this unusual music/video-like work is particularly visible in the style of his films.

There is a symbiotic union between film and painting in Sasnal’s work. With this interaction and interchange, his art pulsates with energy and remains freshly intriguing. The artist has said on many occasions that his work is influenced by the aesthetics of musical subcultures, by the visual character of non-mainstream music videos rather than by some specific artistic tradition.

And it is in underground music that Sasnal finds vigour and intensity. In order to emphasise the significance of this, he organised a punk rock concert as a part of a painting and film exhibition entitled Wzorzec kilograma (The standard of the kilogram), Foksal Gallery Foundation, 2006, in which he actively participated as a vigorous pogo dancer. He used the concert as an opportunity to create a space of extra-visual experience, described by Andrzej Pawlowski as a space of ‘energetic communication’, where ‘direct’ intensive and absorbing ties are developed—ties difficult to translate either through language or visualisation.

Sasnal’s works, which stretch between a transfer of information and an aporia of sense, are produced in a constant correspondence with music. In one of his interviews, he said, ‘…sometimes I think that painting will be around as long as there are songs’. His film ‘Marfa’, 2005, which evolves into an alternative music clip of a punk rock band, represents this kind of return to musical roots and is an attempt to underline his original inspiration from music videos. The final shape of ‘Marfa’ is determined by co-occurrence of characteristic features in all of Sasnal’s films. Next to a music video nature, these include, the ‘personal cinema’ and poststructuralist cinema.
Personal cinema
Personal cinema flourished among Polish artists during the communist regime. It was made in private as a reaction to difficulties encountered while trying to speak freely in public. From the time of Miron Bialoszewski’s short films, ‘personal cinema’ developed close to an artist’s life and focused on recording the banalaties of everyday life, fantasies, masquerades, etc.

The films themselves were less important than the ‘social’ effect they generated, how they strengthened ties, intimacy and friendship between people who had met to make the film. The term itself was coined by Robakowski, who originated a new (more narrative, intimate, subjective) formula for the cinema, in a period marked by dislike of the over-objectivised and over-rationalised structuralist cinema.

At a technological level, the development of the ‘personal cinema’ formula closely coincided with the appearance of a small, private and portable version of the film (or video) camera, which enabled an unprecedented closeness of the medium to the cameraman’s life, giving him full control of the production process. Robakowski commented on ‘personal cinema’ as being ‘a way to remember oneself, to record your own mentality, gestures,… mental tensions which turned up together with the reality… You make Personal Cinema when you fail on everything… [it is] a direct projection of the filmmaker’s thoughts. Relieved of all fashions and aesthetic rules or fixed language codifications, it stands close to the filmmaker’s life’.

In this context, Antoni Antoniszczak’s radical auteurist, anarchist and grotesque ‘personal cinema’ is also worth a mention as particularly inspirational to Sasnal’s film-making. For years, the artist has not parted with his camera, developing a kind of a film notebook in which he has recorded his relations with reality, with places he feels attached to—‘Przewodnik po Nowej Hucie’ (A Guide to Nowa Huta), 1997/98, ‘Tarnów’ (City of Tarnow), 2000, ‘Ulica Worcella’ (Worcell Street), 1999, ‘Filmy z Europy S’rodkowo-Wschodniej’ (Films from the Central and Eastern Europe), 1999—his time spent with his family, with wife Anka, son Kacper, for example ‘Mojave’, 2006.

‘Marfa’, 2005, appears to be Sasnal’s record of his presence at the eponymous town in Texas, USA. The artist recounted that, ‘I got on this film everyone I met in Marfa, almost everyone around, which was 50 people or so. Some local skaters. The only music band there, called SPIC (Satanic Punk International Conspiracy), a very good one, by the way…’.

'Marfa', 2005, 16mm film stills 
'Marfa', 2005, 16mm film stills

Poststructuralist Cinema

Another characteristic of Sasnal’s films is a multi-level game with the legacy of the structuralist cinema. In ‘Marfa’, for instance, in addition to his typical material and editorial references to structuralist cinema, he makes a perverse reference to works of the minimalists by turning the entire film into a ‘deconstruction in process’, a record of a sophisticated material entropy of a vehicle. We may also observe an ironic reference to Donald Judd’s work where a metal stack is formed of ripped-off car doors, resembling one of the famous minimalist’s sculptures.

In the context of references to conceptual minimalist art, one should also mention the tensions Sasnal builds in his films between picture and subtitle. Among another of Sasnal’s references is the Polish conceptual media neo-avant-garde tradition of the 1970s—specifically to Natalia LL’s films which were made as part of her ‘permanent formalisation’ strategy.

The strategy (present in many of Sasnal’s films, particularly his recent American projects) consisted of the simple recording of a number of activities regarded as banal (moving from place to place, consumption, speaking words, sleeping, making love). In these films, Natalia LL entered into a ‘meaning-generating dialogue with reality’ which had no such meaning prior to her interference. She tried to show the impossibility of a ‘cold’, impersonal and machine-like view (which the scientificised media conceptualism had strived towards).

Sasnal not only shares with Natalia LL a fascination with this basic process of giving meaning to the world through the creative activity of a subject, but also, like many conceptual artists, frequently draws our attention to the picture’s frame. Nonetheless, Sasnal brings the problems dealt with in minimalist media analyses (by, for example, the Workshop of the Film Form in the 1970s) into a completely different dimension. He is aware that he creates his art at a time when production processes have been subjected to an identical fetishisation as complete products of such processes. Sasnal analyses the same phantasmal potential of a ‘simple’ act by adding a frame which divides the imagined from reality. Slavoj Žižek asked, ‘how does a phantasmal incorporeal event emerge out of a medley of bodies, corporeal causes’.

Through his ceremonious adding of a frame, fixing of the picture’s border, Sasnal shows the inner and outer dialectics so vital to modernist artists. This border forms the ‘edge’ Vincent Crapanzano writes about, a dividing line between the imaginary and the symbolic. In this context Sasnal is a specific ‘media-ist’. Compare his work to the ‘filmmaking’ activities of Pawel Althamer, who dematerialises the edge —the frame—by bringing it to the reality. With a couple of gestures or words imposing a ‘frame’ to his ‘films’, he makes us look at a given excerpt of reality ‘through a window of fantasy’. Sasnal, by contrast, while operating in his ‘laboratory area’ of art, makes the edge tangible, setting it deeply in our everyday existence and keeping it up to date in the context of our relationship with reality.

'Untitled', 2007, 16mm film stills screened as part of MAP's Visible Cinema programme, Glasgow Film Festival 
'Untitled', 2007, 16mm film stills screened as part of MAP's Visible Cinema programme, Glasgow Film Festival

Chè vuoi?

In the context of Sasnal’s art, both repressive postmodern artistic discourses (with their views of what is obsolete, impossible, unseemly, long deconstructed, etc) and national martyrology/pop culture discourses, may be viewed through the prism of the Lacanian/Žižekian questions Chè vuoi? (What do you want?)… You are telling me things, but what do you actually mean by that? What is your point?… You require something, expect something from me, but what do you really want, what do you wish to achieve with this requirement?

Perhaps, in fact, you want the opposite? By asking in such a way, the artist demonstrates an arrogant and anarchist approach. One might believe that he defies the obvious truths of the symbolic order. What Sasnal proposes, however, is a different kind of anarchist imagination, which does not cover up gaps in the symbolic order, but exposes them actively and stresses the impossibility to fully assign the subject to any ideological order whatsoever.

Hence he shows that each and every attempt to define the subject by means of language is synchronically accompanied by an imaginative attempt to escape from this definition. The Chè vuoi? model is subsequently transferred to the viewer’s relationship with Sasnal’s work. For instance, Adam Szymczyk comments that Sasnal’s painting is, ‘like a tease… because he relates to something which makes you think “OK, I think I know more or less what I see”. But then you have to ask yourself: is that really so?’.

The description perfectly matches the tension which in Žižek results from the very nature of a symbolic order: ‘…so we might say that while on the one hand it is a natural tendency of a human subject to accede to a specific outlook, to devote oneself completely to a specific idea etc, on the other hand, it shows a countertendency to negate or question such accession, which results from the very nature of a reference to a symbolic order’.

Sasnal sides decisively with the anarchist countertendency, operating imagination-related extra-textual and extra-symbolic—in a way that is deliberately ‘absurd’. No wonder then, he describes his art as ‘deluxe punk’.

Lukasz Ronduda is a writer and curator based in Warsaw