Nearly fifty years after her death, the restlessly experimental oeuvre of Alina Szapocznikow remains unresolved work; a highly significant, even foundational, figure in the history of twentieth-century Polish art, yet her legacy remains elusive to an audience that may be encountering her for the first time. Sitting uneasily between Surrealism, Nouveau Réalisme and Pop Art, her provocative body of work shifted considerably from a classical figurative manner to one more impermanent, sexualised and haunting. Not only does it tell the story of Szapocznikow’s attempt at undoing the integrity through which the sculptural body is traditionally represented, but her work has helped create some of the conditions of representation of women’s bodies necessary for contemporary artists, influencing such works by Paulina Olowska and Pauline Boty. This exhibition, spanning across two rooms, focuses on the Paris period from 1963 to 1973. Throughout these remaining years of her career, Szapocznikow continued to investigate corporal embodiment, through the production of her first body casts, while introducing new processes, such as her photographic experimentation with manipulated chewing gum, and the incorporation of new, more experimental materials more often associated with Pop Art.
Beginning with a slight, poetic fragment of her own body, ‘Leg’, a plaster cast made in 1962 just prior to her relocation to Paris from Warsaw, anticipates much of her later work. In a letter written to Jerzy Stajuda in 1966, Szapocznikow expressed surprise at the implications of casting her own body, reflecting that ‘out of some artistic exhibitionism, I made a cast of my own leg and an assemblage of casts of my face…’ One can read the fragile nature and abject horizontality of this ‘Leg’ form as an example of the fragment as fetish, connecting her work to Surrealism’s fascination with the fragmented body. Other works presented also reveal Szapocznikow’s proclivity for incompleteness and processual accident. Her photographic documentation of chewed gum displayed on a shelf is a case in point. Titled ‘Photosculptures’, these series of photographs produced in 1971 present enlarged masticated creations shaped into abstract forms by her own mouth. Juxtaposing these with a sculpture displaying two cement, leg-like forms with a readymade car part in between, separating them from a torso above, shows that a struggle with the concept of body-as-machine may lie at the foundation of Szapocznikow’s thinking.
The show also highlights two specific themes within Szapocznikow’s work: it’s phallic simulation, and the deployment of strategies associated with fetishism. A polyester resin work, ‘Sculpture-Lamp’ (1970) epitomises this, combining a phallus-like form with a breast-part. The body’s transformation into an elongated, tightly encased glistening mass seems to mesh closely with fetishism’s economy of phallic substitution and disavowal. Placed alongside this work the viewer is presented with a series of ‘Illuminated Lips’ works produced in 1966. Turning sculptures into gadget-like objects, combining pairs of cast lips which teeter atop spindly resin stalks with their machine aesthetic of industrial shards, they encapsulate Szapocznikow’s approach to the auratic art object. Elsewhere, there are sculptural clusters of ‘Tumors’, a series of sculptures created from crumpled newspapers, photographs and gauze enclosed by translucent layers of yellowish polyester resin. Originally intended to be discarded on the floor like clumps of tissue from a diseased body, these works are elevated on a plinth, emphasising their courage. Produced shortly after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 1969, the combination of shapeless masses of plastic and representative photographs within these works are unavoidably indicative of her illness’s abjection.
On the whole, this exhibition pays an excellent homage to the fearlessness at the heart of Szapocznikow’s body of work, shedding light on the role played by her photographic work in relation to her primary practices of sculpture and object-making. By featuring works across a ten-year period, it presents a rich display of material and processes with which she was engaged, allowing us a glimpse into her explorations of corporeal experience.