Galeria Sztuki im. Jana Tarasina
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A woman and a man do not exist
The notion of gender assumes that there is a difference. In mythical times all people were united, but over the years this feature has been lost forever. In the Feast by Plato, Aristophanes said that at one time in the world there were three genders: male-male, female-female and male-female. Human beings were doubles and had the ideal form of a sphere. Later there appeared a division, the bodily union disappeared and through the centuries people have departed from one another more and more. Now we do not remember about the primary union of bodies and genders any longer.
The notion of “versus” in the Polish language is used in the term of “opposed to”. The meaning however does not stem from Latin, where it means “towards”. The English language imposed a contrary meaning upon it and this was also adopted by the Polish language: “opposed” and “in comparison”.
The exhibition by Iwona Demko and Bartek Jarmoliński entitled Versus revolves around a question: what is true femininity and what is true masculinity? The intentions of the artists are pointed out by placing this issue by itself. The question is essential and asked directly, as if thrown in our faces. There is no space for nuances: the term points out clearly that the artists participate in contemporary discussions about culture and gender – biological and cultural, maybe also they desire to create a new understanding or broaden old definitions. The artists want to ask that question to the public viewing the exhibition. We, the viewers have to refer to it, think it over and think about our own opinions.
At the same time it is very difficult to answer the question about true gender because there is no such thing as true gender its ideal version. The gender question is as a matter of fact, the same kind of question as the one about truth, art, history, other great categories of the modern era and many other abstract notions. When we think deeper about the question of gender, it turns out that we are unable to define a woman or a man, because of the breadth of patterns, stances and views that both women and men adopt in their lives. The variety of ways they define themselves and what makes them happy is probably as huge as the number of people in the world. For that reason we are unable to put abstract notions into life. Masculinity and femininity do not exist as the embodiments of abstract definitions. This is the reason why we are so often made unhappy.
We are constantly using definitions created for everyday life to deal with current life. We do not realise those definitions exist because they enhance our functioning on the level of common daily living, in a defined group of people, in a certain framework of culture, certain customs, ways of conduct and behaviour. This is where the paradox comes from: a quasi “true” femininity or masculinity does not exist but on the other hand it still dictates our behavior and reactions, not to mention our lifestyle choices. They are terms accepted ad hoc, thoughtlessly, stemming from our upbringing or life within the framework of a certain society, repeated in conversations, showing up as silent assumptions in the fabric of everyday life, the iconosphere that surrounds us, in TV shows, adverts and other forms of culture.
On the other hand we all desire these definitions because they facilitate our lives, our communication with other people and they give us a feeling of security because we are more or less similar to others around us. The exhibition by Iwona Demko and Bartek Jarmoliński is located here. Their common undertaking stems from the assumption that one has to be aware of stereotypical views. The state of self-awareness gives us knowledge about ourselves and the reasons for our behavior and instilled norms. Self-awareness also enables us to answer questions as to why our life has gone this way and not that way and whether we feel happy and fulfilled or not. These stereotypical views, when they are taken out and exposed on a surface, may be analysed and tried on as if they were a costume. For Iwona and Bartek these kinds of views on gender, which are even sometimes automatic, became costumes. One may put them on, but one has to distance him or her away from them.
The works by Iwona and Bartek call to mind certain popular beliefs. But what kind of views are they? Ones such as the very dull and repeated thoughtlessly: girls wear pink, boys wear blue. Or: the female brain is smaller than the male, because women do not have the ability to think analytically and are not capable of work in the areas of science or art. This is – I underline – nonsense. Modernity, our contemporary times, has convinced us how these views are far from the truth. Emancipation, although it is not perfect, is happening in front of our eyes. Women have personal freedom, civil rights, they may educate themselves. Men can take paternal leave. Exactly – usually when one talks about the equality of genders one thinks about women. Let’s not forget about oppressive views dealing with men. Life is not easy for them either. The stereotypical views are that “boys don’t cry” or that a real man has to plant a tree, build a house and procreate a son. And what if a man has daughters? Or he is not interested in having a family? After all, we know many people who do not fulfill cultural norms and opinions. For sure we ourselves do not fulfill these norms. And what? How do we feel?
The authors of the exhibition invite the public to do a test and “check what your views are”. Peeing children, taken from the signs that are well known from Polish houses where they mark toilets, were presented on a large scale. Something is wrong however…. oh, these kids pee the other way round. This simple trick made by Bartek has the ability to provoke many thoughts and associations among the viewers. Above all the work is a return to a family house and childhood that calls to mind not only individual memories, but also more general thoughts about Polish upbringing and its associations. We were reared this way: it was instilled upon us that this is the way a girl and a boy pee. In a simple physiological fact there reflects a range of other things which are associated with it. Among others it reflects the vision of a bipolar boring world, in which the masculine is completely and rigorously separated from the feminine. What is the sense of the division? Why do we and our culture care about that division so much? Filmed statements about true masculinity which we may watch during the exhibition show the absurdity of the views. While – at least theoretically – in our world we have abolished slavery, why are we so dependent on circulating stereotypes? This question is also asked by the work of Iwona – three brains: pink, blue and silver – neutral, show the artificiality of the divisions according to gender. Brains are the same. You can’t tell gender by judging a brain. We all have the same opportunities in the beginning. We are all potential geniuses.
Gender is not something we need to live. Versus talks about that. The acute placing of an issue – the masculinity versus femininity that exists in our culture, is more harmful for us than it makes us happy. I have an impression that the artists are saying to us through their works (somewhat colloquially): “let go of gender”. Feel more freedom, get rid of pressure, have fun with femininity or masculinity. Not long ago I read about a person, a first in the world, who does not have a defined gender and this fact was accepted in court. There also appear voices that say – indeed – the fight for emancipation is very important but in everyday life let’s not care so much about how masculine or feminine we are.
The divisions are harmful to the whole and limit our freedom of choice. The exhibition by Iwona and Bartek invites us to play with gender.
Translated by Małgorzata Kaźmierczak