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rafal olbinski

︎Artist, Painting, Surreal   
︎ Ventral Is Golden

Having explored both the casual availability and the distant mystery of women in his book ‘Women: Motifs and Variations’. We take a look at Olbinski’s work through the literary context of John Beger’s classic, ‘Ways of Seeing’ - A book that amongst other things, looks at the role of the female within classical painting and advertising.

The late John Berger eloquently observed that “A woman must continually watch herself... Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself, by another.... One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object - and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.

One aspect of our relationship to each other in modern social environments is the inability to see beyond the gender distinctive qualities assumed by our philosophies, sciences, habits of mass production and languages that breakdown the relationships between subject and object. The visual language of art and design, for example, largely promotes the idea that as inadequate as we are, we have the consolation of a dream. It is this dream that mediates the distinction between the outer, assumed experiences of being a member of a society, and the inner experience of peceiving reality as an individual.

This phenomena could be described as an intererence pattern between our idea of history and how we act out that history in the present moment. Another aspect of the pattern in relation to whatever the pervaiding social habits are of the time and how these are shaped by our overall relationship towards new technologies.

Berger states that “in the cities in which we live, all of us see hundreds of publicity images every day of our lives. No other kind of image confronts us so frequently.” But the content of the images alter their form, and the content is constructed through the symbols of the time’s pervading attidudes towards new technology. Whether the content are symbols of wealth and prestige (as in classical oil paintings, where the subjects are portrayed as affirmations of their material, class-based possessions) or in advertisements, that render the same ideas but told through commercially inspired idealism, both instances represent contemporary attitudes of the time, along with their associative industirally-minded conceptions of ‘progress’ and ‘power’.

The relationship between the conception, limitations and breakdowns of ‘progess’ and ‘power’, are tropes of Polish Surrealist, Rafal Olbinski’s work. His texturally rich symbolism moves effortlessly through the subconscious mind in much the same way Surrealism and Jungian symbology map the poetic relams of how thinking influences action. His technique is a well crafted visual pun that ties the knot between two mental polarities, breaking the subject/object divide (the underworld of the ‘sub-jective’ mind and the overworld of ‘sur-realism’. 

The pun then becomes the interference patterm, the humorous, that within Olbinski's work in turn reveals a grievance for the dualistic hierarchy of producer/consumer, predator/prey, masculine/feminine, subject/object.

“In some respects this technique is a well crafted visual pun that ties the knot between two mental polarities, thus breaking the subject/object divide.“

Olbinski, having been born in 1943, would have grown up through the Polish cultural transition, from imposed Social Realism of a totalitarian regime, to the De-Stalinization of what was referred to as the Polish October in 1956.
Parallels of cultural shifts affecting the aesthetics of art, design and consciousness are found in many artists and writers in similar epochs, from fellow Pole, Stanislaw Lem, to German born Wilfried Sätty
Their subversion of classical fine art techniques exposed grievance through either the visual pun or the critiquing the instituions, both political and academia, through science-fiction and fantasy.

In the well popularised work of John Berger's 'Ways of Seeing', both the book and the television series of in-depth discussions echoed the necessity of deconstructing our common acceptance of the world, through the images we create and consume, and how these images either satiate or fuel our commerically induced desires and anxieties. The publicity element of Olbinski's work both promises and threatens, appears humorous but reveals grievance, and by studying these apparent contradictions, can we learn how to better separate our own ideals from those so soften contorted by politically sanctioned habits of creative and social expression?

“By studying these apparent contradictions, we can learn how to separate our own desires and anxieties from those bought with the politicised lustre of glamour.“

We are the object of our own desirability. As Berger wrote, when we are naked, we wear the ideas of our cultural perspectives. In one conversation with Berger, one woman remarked that "to be naked is not to be free. To be naked is to wear the uniform of possible sexual intention". - A sentiment further exacerbated through modern advertising exploits of Edward Bernays.

What the surrealism of Olbinski represents (and surrealism in general to some extent) is the awakening of the subconscious 'other', the feminine / intuitive aspects of the mind. Our task is not the allow this aspect to become subsumed by the necessary limitations of the industiralised-masculine-habit-forming-idea-machine-complex, but instead to create a balanced partnership between the two sides of thinking, for between the irrational/creative and the pragmatic/conservative lies the true balance of power.

Further Reading ︎
Artist Bio
John Berger, Ways of Seeing, Episode 3
Stanislaw Lem, Microworlds


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