Jolanta Wagner   »

Ad Infinitum

In his essay The Infinity of Lists Umberto Eco wrote that the abundance of technical means the modern man has at his disposal, and the excess of wealth he produces actually weaken and degrade him1. The constantly growing number of things make us continually gather and describe them. Thus, modern civilization is characterized, among other things, by the overwhelming excess and the sense of chaos. The response of the lost and irritated man is either the willingness to abandon the topographical and cultural space that surrounds him or the pursuit of order. The latter attitude is also a kind of opposition to the currently dominating model of the world.

It is obvious that restoring order can only concern a fraction of reality; nothing more can be reached due to the pace of the ongoing changes and the degree of the increasing specialization and concretization.

Jolanta Wagner organizes the world for her private use. Every time she creates her works, he tries to control a fragment of a particular universe. The awareness of mastering a piece of paper, a small territory whose sovereign she becomes, gives rise to the sense of regaining the lost peace.

Thousands of years ago, in the early days of art, trying to overcome the sense of the horror of existence and misunderstanding of the world, the man drew images on sand referring to the surrounding reality. It was an attempt to understand and control the nature and a way to find a reassuring order.

Jolanta Wagner’s collection of works is like the world in a miniature, a representation of the Unity. Works are not obviously examples of ordinary inventories of things. Even if they imply that they are governed by the imperative of practicality, they are primarily poetic, metaphorical.

When we look at her works, sometimes we get an impression that the artist pursues the strategy of conceptual art. An important feature of this art, however, was the rejection of aestheticism. The visualization of the work was only a means that helped read out its essence. Additional texts, sketches or plans had only an explanatory function, helping to visualize, materialize thoughts. The apparent logic and rationality of the works were a kind of mystification; they were merely a method to mask the proper work of the artist, which was realized as a thought process. The artists’ search led to the impersonalisation of the language of art2. In Jolanta Wagner’s view the aesthetic aspect is nevertheless essential. The form is significant not only as a vehicle for the documentary content. The shape of the poetic message derives from the development troof calligraphy.

Signs are somewhat ‘magical’ in their nature. Activities and texts, working like charms, as in the alchemist’s studio, support the creative process. It is more than coincidence that the artist uses worn sheets of tracing paper originating from some architectural studios as a background for her drawings. They have a special value. The technical drawings included there represent many qualities important to the artist. They represent and document. They are precise, quasi calligraphic – they are beautiful in a way. They are also a special testimony of the past (though the artist herself heads for the future, trying to think ‘forward’). They are traces of someone’s actions, struggles, emotions. Drawing on the worn worksheets, the artist broadens the world, and the pre-drawn pictures are its fragments. She adds to these pictures a fragment of today’s reality, enriches them with new motifs, personal experiences and feelings. Perhaps it is easier when it happens on the old, already used tracing paper because it seems to be a ‘rough version’, and one is more likely to overcome the ‘fear of a blank sheet of paper’.

Both records come together in a special symbiosis. The artist performs various, once minor, once more complete interventions in previous drawings. As a result, they blend more completely with each other, the context becomes wider, the visual aspect is more complex. The most extreme example of such activities is the use of the original drawings created earlier by the artist as a background for the successive vision. One of the plans of the city spread out on the surface of paper with its houses, towers and walls on a barely visible outline of the previous map. In this way it obtained its original, largely imagined story.

The tracing paper used by the author is mostly old and damaged. The yellow sheets resemble the materials from the past, such as parchment or papyrus. They tell a story. Their poor condition adds to their antique nature and it gives credence to the passage of time. The artist does not care about flaws, such as smudges or tears. The defects are corrected and they become the elements of a constantly developing story. Jolanta Wagner also uses new sheets of tracing paper.

In this case, it poses a different challenge to the artist. The blank sheet becomes an unknown land to her, an area of a peculiar clean, ‘unwritten’ board. The very concept of tracing paper reminds us of the motif of retaining, but also copying something. The collection of works is like a self-reproducing, constantly supplemented and quoted message.

That motif is most strongly connoted by technical tracing papers used to make copies on drawing boards, which were adopted by the artist. The boards themselves also become the space of artistic exploration. They have a specific quality: various defects, protrusions cause that the drawing looks slightly different. The ink reacts differently to the original background, the lines are more diffuse – 4

the drawing merges into the drawing board, its structure absorbs the recorded story. Jolanta Wagner also creates her drawing works in chalk on the blackboard, like in a kind of ephemeral land art, being ready for the risk of rapid changes and transience, the possibility of the vision disappearance. When we take into account the earlier contexts (for example, what happens with old technical drawings and the fragile material the artist uses in her artwork), such activities seem to be relevant and coherent.

The visions of the city are a significant visual motif of a large part of Jolanta Wagner’s oeuvre. Old urban maps were the inspiration for creating many of them. The images of cities drawn by the artist are half real, half fantastic. In some cases – it refers for example to the maps of ŁódĽ (including Plac Wolno¶ci drawn on canvas, buildings in Piotrkowska Street, the house where Władysław Strzemiński lived), Czech, German and Italian cities – we are able to recognize even specific buildings and their familiar details.

It seems, however, that the correspondence of the created vision to the actual shape of the objects is not the main goal of the author. She rather creates a kind of universal, but varied architecture with archetypal, model outlines of houses, castles and bridges. At times, even the motif of the ‘impossible’ architecture appears, though it is not drawn as accurately as, for example, by Maurits Cornelis Escher. In his book Invisible Cities Italo Calvino evokes the motif of an atlas that ‘also shows the cities about which (...) geographers do not know if and where they exist but they could not be missing among the forms of possible cities. (...).’3 Jolanta Wagner’s cities are built centrifugally, the houses, sometimes increasingly sparse, like in Map of the Town A., stretch radially towards the outskirts, at the same time to the edges of the work of art, creating an impression of immeasurable continuity beyond its frame. Running out of the drawing, the streets connect somewhere in space with others that cross the boundaries of the next picture.

There, in the second picture, single houses and roads run – converging towards a central building or square. Eco emphasises that in the case of that structure cities have their centre, because their suburbs connect with each other outside the image – the world they represent is deprived of it, its structure is not centralized4. It is like in the postmodern vision of the world, where there is no dominant centre that organises the entire structure. And like in the concept of rhizome by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Gauttari, which refers to the non-hierarchical model of reality controlled by a network of specific connections – relations occurring between the world of nature and culture or their elements5.

On various levels Jolanta Wagner’s attitude combines both rationalism, the need for order and idealism supported by a certain kind of innocence. It does not come as a surprise that one of the artist’s favourite painters is Cy Twombly. His artwork represents a desire to escape from rigid conventions, expressing longing for sincerity and spontaneity.

The maps drawn by the author are characterised by a specific perspective – a topographical image typical of naive, children’s art, or of historical conventions in which the idealist element was dominant over the modern realism. The maps of the world, typical of antiquity and the Middle Ages, have a special position here. The fact of belonging to a certain aesthetic formation is reinforced by numerous additional images characteristic of Western European panel paintings or compositions that form kleimo, the borderline surrounding the iconic Byzantine paintings. Moreover, these works are also characterized by lively unrestrained colour scheme.

Such works in Jolanta Wagner’s artwork are not only the expression of longing for sincerity of the means of expression, but also an attempt to introduce a tinge of mysticism, nostalgia for something distant – in time and space, for something intangible and elusive. Also for the arduous creation which posed a challenge for a cloister scribe centuries ago.

References to calligraphy are visible in the artist’s work on many levels. The works previously discussed originate from such an attitude. In the case of colourful maps and Calendar, calligraphic associations are also noticed on the level of the material background which is a thick, handmade paper with its organic and archaic nature.

This sphere of creativity also connotes a number of oppositions typical of Jolanta Wagner’s entire work, such as the opposites: poor – rich, simple – sophisticated, sublime naive, elite – common, mass-produced – unique. In his work titled Venus of the Rags (1967, 1974), Michelangelo Pistoletto, one of the Italian representatives of arte povera used the statue of the Roman goddess looking at the heap of rags from a second-hand shop, thus confronting the unique classic symbol of beauty with products of today’s world of mass overproduction.

Jolanta Wagner juxtaposes mass-produced objects, such as for examples packages of luxurious perfumes, creating not only drawing visions, but also spatial compositions. She combines the desire to use ‘fabulous things’ with the idea of documentation. The installations are part of a general inventory of items. They are here because of their attributes (including the scent that releases not only the aromas of perfume ingredients, but also an aura of exclusiveness and prosperity) and because they reflect the echoes of someone’s presence, combine the vicissitudes of the original owners with the objects’ further story, to which the artist contributed herself with her creative activities. In these works Jolanta Wagner provides another kind of documentation, not deriving from the pure ‘infinity of the lists’. Nor is it just a message commenting on the condition of our culture of excess. Piles of objects – even that composed of books – although they come mainly from the present, they become guardians of memory; the message is a kind of memento. The compositions evoke the echoes of the holocaust in Auschwitz. That motif was also present earlier in the ‘technical’ drawings of the Radegast station.

The nature of Jolanta Wagner’s creation is associated with the idea of new realism. It brings to our mind the works by Arman, Daniel Spoerrie, where artists use ordinary objects, everyday things, ‘poor’, ‘low rank’ goods. Such things just wait to be artistically ennobled. The fact that they have been selected and exposed turns them into art, though some of them have already gained the status of being ‘beautiful’ (for example, a sophisticated, albeit slightly worn cup). Beautiful items – even damaged – still remain beautiful. It was the designer who gave them that value. However, when the artist uses them in the composition, they are taken to another, higher level. The ‘added value’ of many objects also lies in their individual stories, the secrets they hide (Inventory of a Wardrobe).

In a series of works titled Poubelles (Garbage) Arman accumulated objects and embedded them in the material. Jolanta Wagner covers her tracing papers with wax. The wax is not just a security measure. It ‘warms up’ the images which are underneath. The background changes its character – it feels different. The encaustic painting is an ancient painting technique. Images painted with wax paints were durable, and colours were brighter and deeper. That is why the Fayum portraits are still so impressive today. Wax became a kind of reminder, like in the works of the artist from ŁódĽ.

General Census which the artist carries out will never be completed. It is obvious that we are not able to archive everything. Someone who undertakes a similar task is accompanied by a subjective feeling that it defeats them. In terms of aesthetics this feeling is defined as infinity. And Italo Calvino wrote: ‘The catalogue of forms is endless: until every shape has found its city, new cities will continue to be born. (…) In the last pages of the atlas there is an outpouring of networks without beginning or end…’6

Dariusz Le¶nikowski

Transl. Elżbieta Rodzeń-Le¶nikowska