Ewa Partum belongs to the first generation of the conceptual avant-garde in Poland in the 1960s and 1970s and is a pioneer of feminist art. She considered the "possibilities of thought in painting to be exhausted" and sought a "new reality in art". Partum was a pioneer in the development not only of conceptual art and feminist art, but also of body art and critical art. She created "Presence/Absence", the first installations in public space ever documented within Poland. Her work also includes actions, objects, photography, films that she herself calls "tautological cinema", visual poetry performances, and mail art. Ewa Partum defines the essence of her work in these terms: "the act of thought is an act of art".
For a long time the reception of Partum's work was hampered by East-West division, and following the imposition of martial law in Poland she left her country and has lived and worked in Berlin since 1982. In the summer of 2006 Ewa Partum made a spectacular comeback in Poland with a retrospective, The Legality of Space, at the Wyspa Institute of Art in Gdansk. The project addressed the creative output of this legendary figure whose achievements had remained insufficiently examined in critical reflections on conceptual art in Poland and had not been significantly represented in Polish art collections. That year saw a turn-around, with Partum finding her place again in art history, institutional discourse, and collections. In November 2006 she re-enacted her early performance Active Poetry at the Tate Modern. Currently her work is presented both in the Wack! Art in the Feminist Revolution at MoCA in Los Angeles and in For A Special Place: Documents And Works From The Generali Foundation Collection at the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York.
A book, Ewa Partum, edited by Aneta Szylak and Ewa Malgorzata Tatar, is about to be co-published by the Wyspa Institute of Art and Revolver Archiv für Aktuelle Kunst in Frankfurt and distributed in collaboration with Revolver (spring 2007), with texts in both Polish and English by Prof. Grzegorz Dziamski, Dorota Monkiewicz, Prof. Andrzej Turowski, Lukasz Ronduda, Angelika Stepken, and Aneta Szylak. The role of the publication is to bring together a variety of perspectives on the perception and interpretation of Ewa Partum's art, to deliver precise information on her output, especially as to its chronology, and to problematize the specific threads in her art. As Wyspa curator Szylak describes it:
"Partum's work is embedded in the mail art tradition, concrete poetry (she herself uses the term "active poetry", and performance, and beyond its language-oriented conceptual spine, it touches upon such issues as the notion of public space, the situation of women, female subjectivity, and the political context of the 1980s. Sharply innovative, her work has had a clear trajectory leading from the deconstruction of logos to an expansion of her own artistic language as a conceptual and feminist artist. She was the first Polish woman artist to encroach upon public space in the nude, publicly making a value statement about being a female artist, basing her art and its vocabulary on her specific experience as a woman, and connecting her artistic gestures with political statements and a visible presence in the public sphere. She announced that she would perform naked until female artists got equal rights in the art field. This strong connection between a purity of conceptual practice and clear political statement, as well as her practice - along with such performances as Stupid Woman, or, Women, Marriage is Against You, or Pirouette, or Homage to Solidarity - is grounded upon very authentic intellectual and cultural premises. Partum has always treated her body in a very dry, instrumental, and modest way, trying not to abuse or amuse, and leaving one with a sense that she is already far beyond the body-art practice of her times. Her newest work shows a significant shift in her areas of interest - stinging assessment of the economy and politics as well as institutional critique. (Aneta Szylak is curator of The Legality of Space, an art critic and curator, co-founder of the Wyspa Institute of Art in Gdansk, who has curated many important exhibitions in Poland and abroad, including Architectures of Gender: Contemporary Women's Art in Poland, SculptureCenter, New York, 2003).
Ewa Partum, born in 1945 in Grodzisk Mazowiecki near Warsaw, studied at the State Higher School of Fine Arts in Lodz from 1963 to 1965, then from 1965-70 in the Department of Painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, where she won a diploma for her work on poetry as art.
Since 1969 she has engaged in linguistic activities in an effort to find a new language of art. Actions and installationson a linguistic level followed, which were shown both in galleries and outdoors. Among them is her meta-poetry - the spilling and spreading of letters in the form of existent or non-existent texts from the history of literature (with some help from Goethe, Proust, and others). In the early 1970s she produced conceptual installations such as Legality of Space (1971) and Breakfast on the Grass - after E. Manet (1971), as well as poetical actions and interventions in public space such as Area for Poetic License (1971) and Metapoetry (1972). In 1972 she founded "Adres" in Lodz, one of the most significant galleries for mail art and art theory, which she managed until 1977 (showing, among other artworks, Fluxus group documentation).
From the beginning of the 1970s she began creating Poems By Ewa, "conceptual poetry" in the shape of poetical objects, on which she imprints her lips at the moment of pronouncing articulated sounds. These texts combine imprints of her lips with specific letters, sometimes whole phrases. The first lip imprints (with red lipstick) were created in 1971, and one of them was signed with the sentence, "My touch is the touch of a woman". This is a conceptual statement on the topic of femininity formulated at the level of linguistics. In the later Poems, astrongly feminist context appears, as well as a social one, although it never manifests itself in a clear and obvious way.
In 1973-74 Ewa Partum created many short films, Films By Ewa, giving them one joint title, Tautological Cinema. She analyzed in them the problem of the automatism of film medium, and analyzed the structure of film language as a semantic medium.
In 1974 she created a performance called Lodz, a make-up artist did the same job on a whole half of her naked body in front of the audience. After the conclusion of the performance, Partum announced herself as a work of art, making her body an element of a feminist discourse. In 1980 at her exhibition Self-identification in Mala Gallery in Warsaw, the artist's nude performance was accompanied by a controversial series of photomontages depicting the artist's naked figure superimposed on scenes from Warsaw's streets: with Partum thus appearing naked amongst pedestrians, at crossroads, next to a policewoman, in a store queue, or in front of the headquarters of the State Council. The title Self-identification defined the idea of the work as the search for one's feminine identity.
In subsequent works Ewa Partum further developed feminist themes. In the fall of 1980 she presented a performance Women, Marriage Is Against You! in the O.N. Gallery in Poznan. Wearing a wedding gown and wrapped in transparent foil labeled "For Men", she cut the foil with scissors, and then the gown, while the wedding march played, emerging naked before her audience at the end. In 1981, with Stupid Woman, Partum parodied the ways in which women try to conform to men's idealized expectations of them. Much of her work was banned by the Polish censors, as was its reproduction in catalogues.
During martial law in 1982, she presented her performance Homage to Solidarity in the Underground Gallery, Lodz. Naked, wearing red lipstick she formed one by one the letters of the word "Solidarnosc" with her lips and left imprints on white paper, another "Poem by Ewa" that she repeated in West Berlin at Galerie Wewerka in 1983. In part persuaded by Fluxus artist Wolf Vorstell and Berlin feminists, she decided to settle there. In 1984, for an artists' competition on the subject of the Berlin Wall, Partum created a photograph in which she stands naked in high-heels one meter from the Wall, holding up a big letter - in her right hand and a W in her left.
Numerous solo exhibitions in Germany and Poland include Museum of Women, Bonn, 1985 (performance); and Badischer Kunstverein, Karlsruhe, 2001 (Act of a Thought is an Act of Art - retrospective exhibition). In 2006 two major exhibitions of Ewa Partum were organized in Poland: The Legality of Space at the Wyspa Institute of Art, Gdansk, and Self-identification in Krolikarnia (a branch of the National Museum), Warsaw, as well as a reenactment of her early performance Active Poetry at the Tate Modern, London.
In group exhibitions, Partum's art has been presented in Spain, USA, Canada, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, Sweden, Japan, Uruguay, Brazil, and Argentina. They include: W.O.R.K.S., Conceptual Graphics "Reading of Our World", Calgary, Canada, 1973; Prospectiva 74, Sao Paulo, 1974; International Exhibition of Mail Art '75, Buenos Aires, 1975; Film Festival "Film as Film - Film as Art", Lodz, 1977; Quatro, Milan, 1982; Contemporary Polish Art, Berlin, 1984; Polska 86, the exhibition of 20th century Polish photography, Boston; Black-and-White Poland, Paris, 1990; Jestesmy, Zacheta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw, 1991; Wack! Art in the Feminist Revolution, MoCA Los Angeles, and For A Special Place: Documents And Works From The Generali Foundation Collection, Austrian Cultural Forum, New York, both 2007.
Based in part on: Ewa Partum by Ewa Gorzodek, CCA Zamek Ujazdowski, www.culture.pl, 2004
Photographs after www.culture.pl, courtesy of Xawery Dunikowski Museum in Krolikarnia, Warsaw; Homage to Solidarity from Signum Foundation collection in Poznan, other works - collection of the artist.
Ewa Partum, Change - My Problem is a Problem of a Woman, 1979 Performance documented on 16mm transferred to DVD (7 min, 18 sec), two photographs, poster. Courtesy of the artist
Ewa Partum, Poem by Ewa, 1971
Ewa Partum, Tautological Cinema, 1973
Ewa Partum, Hommage a Solidarnosc, performance, Galeria Wewerka, Berlin, 1983
Ewa Partum, Ost-West-Schatten, Berlin, 1984