Józef Robakowski, Come to Me, 1989, video, color, sound, 5 minutes 19 seconds.

Józef Robakowski, Come to Me, 1989, video, color, sound, 5 minutes 19 seconds.

Józef Robakowski

Józef Robakowski, Come to Me, 1989, video, color, sound, 5 minutes 19 seconds.

Der Linie nach” (Along the Line), a recent exhibition of work by leading Polish avant-garde filmmaker Józef Robakowski, took as its cohesive ingredient a simple formal element: the line. Not in itself a particularly compelling theme, it is nevertheless of great significance for Robakowski, who believes that by training his artistic faculty on such a basic form it is possible to address nonformal, procedural, and personal subject matter.

Robakowski’s roots are in action-based art production dating back to the 1960s, for example with the Toruń, Poland–based collective Zero-61. Since then, and continuing with his contribution, as cofounder of the Workshop of Film Form, to the tradition of film in Lodz (graduates of the film school there include Krzysztof Kieslowski and Roman Polanski), his art has been characterized by constant experimentation. His work in film relies less on specific motifs than on the medium’s capacity to be reduced, even deconstructed, into parts: shape, speed, sound, light. Using line as the unifying factor, this exhibition brought together very different works that ultimately distilled into a telling portrayal of Robakowski’s investment in formal abstraction. A light box patterned over with strips of 35-mm film stock (from the project Gnuśna linia [Idle Line], 1992–) revealed that each strip had a wavy line scratched into it from top to bottom. The related 35-mm film installation, static and simplistic as it is, embodies the essentialist nature of Robakowski’s method, as well as its pseudoscientific rigor. The light cast on the wall by a nearby projector took the form of the very same line, swaying at the speed at which the film reel passed before the source of illumination. The film stock itself had been spooled backward out of the projector in a large loop reaching to the wall on the opposite side of the room; this type of play with film’s mechanical parts retains its own niche in art today––Rosa Barba’s work being a case in point.

Other works in the exhibition further expanded the terms for understanding line’s meaning to Robakowski. Come to Me, 1989, a color video, attended to a straight white line painted on a soccer field. The camera, treated as a mere appendage of the filmmaker’s body, watched the line pass back and forth in either direction as Robakowski walked its length and back. The line thus allowed him to create a film whose mode was nonnarrative, but that transmitted a specifically subjective perspective. In this case, the line mirrored the artist’s experience of space over time, as dictated by the repositioning of the camera.

Still, in the limitation of its focus to a more or less formally dependent construction, the exhibition unduly diluted the formidable social dimension of Robakowski’s production. Largely absent were works dealing with the artist’s day-to-day existence in the early ’80s, when martial law had been imposed in then-Communist Poland. Such works figured prominently in Robakowski’s first solo show in New York two years ago at Ludlow 38 as well as in his first in Germany, at ZKM | Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe last year. One series included in both of these earlier exhibitions, “Handshake,” 1981, a group of paintings with a handprint motif that the artist distributed to family and friends, embedded a statement of solidarity within a formal motif; each symbolized the profound significance in an authoritarian society of even so simple a gesture of physical connection as a handshake. To the extent, though, that the exhibition in Berlin contributed to a broader representation of Robakowski’s artistic initiative, it was a valuable effort by this young offshoot of a Krakow-based foundation serving to promote Eastern European art in an international context.

John Beeson