Jan Świdziński at his studio (1975). Photo by Zbigniew Dlubak. Courtesy CCA Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw. "Contextual Art as a pure sign, cleansed of stereotypes; a sign which is filled by the present reality.

"For the act of drinking a glass of water to become art, it has to be performed in the right place, at the right time, and in the right company."
(Jan Świdziński)

Jan Świdziński – an artist initially associated with conceptualism – wrote down his theses about contextual art in 1974. At that time, Polish artists were increasingly visiting the West, participating in international exhibitions, projects, or symposiums. Some, like Roman Opałka, became spectacularly successful, firing up their compatriots’ imagination. Many renowned artists from Europe and the United States were coming to Poland. Essays on Polish art were being published in foreign magazines (e.g. the cover of a 1975 issue of Flash Art featured a reproduction of Natalia LL’s Consumption Art). Through the 1970s, Polish art was becoming more and more susceptible to international fashions and trends. Świdziński wanted to explore these new circumstances surrounding Polish art and the way in which it had become part of the interconnected Euro-American art world. Crucial for the birth of contextualism were the following types of questions: what does Polish art look like in the context of the international art world? How is the art world perceived from the Polish context, and how do the two contexts condition each other?

On the one hand, Świdziński was aware that even the most pioneering and innovative art from Poland - a country on the periphery of the international art world – would never be noticed or appreciated abroad.Świdziński referred here chiefly to the achievements of the Polish neo-avantgarde of the early 1970s. He believed that, in such a situation, Polish artists were doomed to the idle copying of the fashions and trends currently fueling Western art. Świdziński perceived this as a sort of new cultural colonialism. That explains why he criticized the widespread association of conceptualism with capitalism.

He also criticized the provincialism and conformism of Polish artists and their focus on repetitions, on playing out again and again patterns created earlier and elsewhere: “Polish art usually followed someone else. Many artistic groups carried the banner of ‘novelty.’ That novelty was usually second-hand. Whoever was first in Poland, was in reality always second … And as far as conceptualism is concerned, it had in fact never been sufficiently digested in Poland. This was for a very simple reason: because it was formulated in English and never translated into Polish, and our knowledge of English has always been poor. In this situation, we can hardly say that anyone in Poland actually knew what conceptualism was about. Art and Language left little more than the texts themselves. What got through more easily was the “surface,” i.e. the conceptual style. It was therefore the surface that influenced artists, and that, as I’ve said, is the scope of ontology."Jan Świdziński, “ Rozmowy kontekstualne” (Contextual Conversations), Wypisy ze sztuki 21(1977): 14-15. And: “Do we have to catch up? After all, we live in a very broad context. We can’t even say we have our own context, and we don’t, say, live in the context of American culture, because some of the stereotypes produced there take root here as well."(Ibid., 12.)

Świdziński promoted contextualism as a native proposition born from the context of the Socialist system, i.e. a socio-economic system in which for better or for worse he was himself immersed. “Western artists perceive their context as a certain whole. Yet confining themselves to it, they make the mistake of generalization. We see the world from a different angle because, after all, our situation is different. … Both these contexts overlap. That enables us to compare their good and bad sides… the comparison of various mechanisms functioning in the different contexts makes it possible to relativize certain phenomena and it invites reflection. The contact is favorable then. … Dialogue becomes possible. That, however, requires a broader view…”(Ibid., 9.)

Świdziński advocated the rejection of a seemingly objective and universal conceptual art. An art forced in line with the logic of globalization, uniformization and cultural colonialism of an “empire.” Świdziński wanted to replace the dominant language of “art in general” with the “eruption of a thousand previously unknown artistic languages and dialects,” coming from various specific geographical, cultural, and economic contexts. He dreamed of decentralization and of equal rights. Contextual art was to be a subversion directed against the relations between the center and the peripheries of the existing art world.

Świdziński, an artist from an unknown and poor communist country, consciously developed his theory as a “weapon” rather than another intellectually sophisticated artistic theory. He proceeded tactically: first he formulated his theses on contextual art (1974), and then he started building an international coalition. Its members included, among others, Hervé Fischer, Fred Forest and Jean Paul Thénot from the Collectif Art Sociologique; Jorge Glusberg of Sistema Latino America; Paul Woodrow; Brian Dyson; Amerigo Marras – mainly representatives from the colonized provinces: Canadians, Argentinians, and Swedes. Świdziński closely followed what was happening in the art world and tried to sense the moment when the public presentation of his theory would trigger an avalanche of changes in the existing art world.

Everything started with the famous 1976 exhibition in Lund ( Sweden) when Świdziński’s theses on contextual art were unveiled and published in English. “When we remind ourselves that the 1970s saw a growing popularity of Frankfurt-school neo-Marxism and a mounting wave of counterculture that carried so many artists with it, we understand why Świdziński’s voice, coming from the East, critical towards neo-positivism and sensitizing us to ideological falsity, could be so resounding, so mature, and evoking such resonance, and even sympathy."(Kazimierz Piotrowski, “ Sztuka jako sztuka kontekstualna” (Art as Contextual Art), EXIT 2 (26) (1996).) Świdziński’s appearance resulted in an invitation to a public debate with the pope of conceptualism, Joseph Kosuth. In the course of several stormy meetings it turned out that Kosuth and Świdziński in fact represented very similar positions. Since this debate, art has changed in precisely the direction predicted by Świdziński and Kosuth: the artist’s position in the international art world remains determined by his frequent presence in specific institutions in the “central” countries.

Contextualism postulated the impossibility of a universal, objective synchronization of language and reality, the impossibility of confining, either on the artistic plane or in day-to-day life, the rapidly changing reality to any kind of static interpretation. Świdziński developed his theses amid the birth of globalization and its incredible acceleration of the 1970s. He remembered von Clausewitz’s lesson that reality, seemingly tamed by reason (language), always generated unforeseen “friction” that requires repositioning, a new consciousness, and a new synchronization of reality with language. At the same time, that new consciousness does not represent the ultimate one in our knowledge of the world; it is only a phase in our struggle with reality.

Contextualism was an artistic proposition of the society-of-risk era. It acknowledged soberly--and contrary to conceptual linguistic theory--that the semiotic process was inefficient. Świdziński wanted to develop a more up-to-date, contextual and flexible model of semiosis, a model that would go beyond the modernist postulation of art’s non-transparency and competitive relationship with reality. Swidzinski’s new model of contextualism criticizes culture as being meant “to explain everything to us and protect us against the unknowns of nature, but in reality made the world even more unclear than it was in the first place.”(Jan Świdziński, “ About the 1970s, ” Piktogram 3 (2006).)

According to Świdziński, a stable meaning for a given fragment of reality can only be established contextually, in a specific time and place, by a specific person (familiar or unfamiliar with art, determined sexually, culturally, linguistically, economically, with specific intellectual and interpretative powers, in a good psycho-physical condition or not). Unlike conceptualism which tends to objectivize the form of representation and its meaning, Świdziński claimed (in the spirit of the late Wittgenstein) that “meaning was a practice,” an event. The same fragment of reality seen in different contexts becomes different things; for instance, to an artist a given fragment of reality will be art, whereas in the experience of someone else, it won’t. A given phenomenon or idea is art in the context of art but it is an element of everyday life in the context of everyday life, and so on (this line of thinking reinforces the institutional definition of art).

Whereas conceptualism is based on ontological questions, Świdziński’s contextualism is interested exclusively in the relations between the context of art and other contexts of professional culture and everyday life. As Świdziński wrote, “the problem of art was not so much its epistemology as its functioning in the sphere of inter-subjective activities – the functioning of meanings and art in general as a certain form of communication in human civilization, in relations between people or human groups – in the whole broad context, including the political one.”(Świdziński, “ Rozmowy kontekstualne”: 6.) Świdziński believed that after conceptualism, art defined as an institution became a separate, evolving language with its own history but also its own trends and fashions that was known solely to a closed circle of people. Art became a nominalist phenomenon, a discourse that exists only for specialists.

According to Świdziński, the sustaining of significance of the discourse in the broader cultural context depended on the intellectual and moral prowess of these specialists. “‘Art is collective consciousness,” it no longer has any superhuman and super-historical (eternal) essence that needs to be discovered by asking the most fundamental ontological questions.(Świdziński, " Rozmowy kontekstualne": 7.) “Art changes, and the artist faces an existing set of concepts on which he has to take a stance… The artist is at the same time a subject and an object operating in culture. He forms reality but is also being formed, he is one of the parameters of context… He is thus forced to adopt a certain (specific) position and to fully acknowledge his responsibility for what he does, how efficiently he does it, and the purpose for which he does it. He therefore has to acknowledge the full context and all the interrelations that his work entails.”(Świdziński, " Rozmowy kontekstualne": 7-8. See Świdziński, "About the 1970s:" n.p.)


Świdziński rejected conceptualism as a trend unable to answer the above questions. Moreover, referring to the view of art as language that is characteristic of conceptualism, he criticized its isolation from everyday semiotic process. At the same time Świdziński claimed that the conceptual (artistic) reflection on language was also an (unconscious) attempt to solve a broader existential problem concerning man’s linguistic relationship with the world. Contextualism visualizes this anxiety, exposes the interplay between art and life, and tries to propose its own solutions.

Świdziński discovered the peculiar schizophrenic relation between the signified and the signifier that is always relative to context and dependent on a whole range of conscious and unconscious parameters. This peculiar “wildness” of the semiotic process whose nature eludes “cold” laboratory analyses by conceptual artists was most fully expressed, according to Świdziński, by Natalia LL in her series Consumption Art (1972).(See Jan Świdziński, “ Gramatykalizacje Natalii LL” (Grammaticalisations by Natalia LL) in Aspekty polskiej sztuki nowoczesnej, (Warsaw: Galeria Wsp ółczesna , 1975).) In this series the artist demonstrates the limitations of the conceptual method by seemingly conducting yet another analysis of the morphology of the visual sign and by introducing into the analysis “hot” codes that elude linguistic depiction. According to Świdziński, Natalia LL gestures towards a “contextual” viewer, one who treats artistic work as a script for his own intellectual and psycho-physiological interpretation, an interpretation that s/he doesn’t fully control, and changing it in effect into a contextual, interactive, process-bound semiotic “event.”

The above determinants “forced” contextual works to strive towards “empty sign” or “pure sign” status. They also made it possible for Świdziński to interpret other artists’ works from the vantage point of contextualism. Świdziński acted vigorously as an artist-curator and artist-critic, organizing exhibitions of contextual art and writing essays about it. He used the work of contemporary Polish artists as part of this activity. The first exhibition of contextual art in Lund, Sweden, consisted of works by Waśko, Robakowski, Gajewski and Kutera. Świdziński confined himself to curating the exhibition and to presenting his own book on contextual art (plus one small work). Świdziński’s authority was legitimized by contextualism, because in the context of Świdziński’s artistic and theoretical activity, he himself could decide what was contextual art and what was not. This included the possibility of appropriating, with their permission, the work of other artists.

Świdziński’s activities as an artist and a curator emerged as a result of contextual analysis of Polish art of the early 1970s, its innovative character and its uniqueness in the context of global art. Particularly important for Świdziński were the following experimental artists and groups: the Film Form Workshop (Warsztat Formy Filmowej), Zbigniew Dłubak, , Heryk Gajewski, Anna Kutera, Romuald Kutera, Lech Mrożek, Paweł Kwiek, KwieKulik, Natalia LL, Andrzej Lachowicz, Anastazy Wiśniewski and Galeria Sztuki Aktualnej (Gallery of Cutting-Edge Art).(See Świdziński, “ About the 1970s”: n.p.)

By becoming an artist-curator Świdziński developed as a unique phenomenon in the context of Polish art of the 1970s. As a result, Świdziński met with incomprehension from the local artistic community which accused him of lacking a tangible body of artistic work. Appropriating (with the artist’s permission) Zbigniew Dłubak’s Gesticulations and interpreting them as contextual “empty signs,” Świdziński wrote: “Zbigniew Dłubak’s works can be a great example of new possibilities opening up for art. … Dłubak explores the issues (crucial for contemporary artistic research) of the work’s construction, which is ultimately realized as its signified, its reception. The work, freed from the bounds forced upon it by convention, becomes a crystalline centre around which new contextual meanings gather in the public reception.”(See Jan Świdziński, “ Z logik niekompletnych rzeczywistości: Fotografia” (Of Incomplete Logics of Reality: Photography) in Nowe zjawiska w sztuce polskiej lat 70-tych, teksty, koncepcje, ed. Józef Robakowski (1981), 264. In a similar, contextual spirit, Świdziński analysed the practices of the Film Form Workshop. See also Jan Świdziński, “ Model kina” (Model of Cinema), Zeszyt WFF 7 (1975).) Świdziński’s own works were also empty signs. For instance, We Are Always Talking About People (1978) consists of a single “found” photograph and a simple sentence.

There are two kinds of contextualist works. First, there is what might be called work-impulses, similar to conceptualism’s laboratory-like poetics and aimed at demonstrating the contextual dependence and relativism of linguistic communication. Second, there are works created as the result of an interaction with reality, such as Liszkowski’s “Bravado” urban happenings, or Anna Kutera’s delicate interventions in public space.

As an empty sign, a contextualist work or exhibition is no more than an impulse that does not draw any attention to itself but instead plays the role of a stimulus, initiating a process of signification whose point of origin is the viewer. The contextual artist is aware that he does not control the meaning of his own work. He accepts the fact that the work keeps evolving and that it is subject to constant updating, and that its lifespan is very short. (See Jan Świdziński, “ Contextual Art (1),” Piktogram3 (2006): 31.)

Contextualism can be described as a compromise between conceptualism of the 1960s, which was based on categories such as constancy, eternity, or universality, and the neo-avant-garde of the early 1970s with its emphasis on process, change, ephemerality, relationships and interdisciplinarity. The tension between these two poles also alerts us to the fact that contextualism is based on a “logic of difference,” to its acceptance of the coexistence of conflicting meanings in the cultural or social landscape.

To Swidzinski, the ideal scenario for successful social and cultural communication was radical democracy, a system completely different from the one in which contextualism was born. This also sheds light on the contextualists’ critical attitude towards communist Poland’s non-democratic reality. Contextualism’s anti-authoritarian dimension is contained in the postulate that meaning cannot be confined to a single context.

Swidzinski’s criticism of the western art world’s institutions overlapped with his critical attitude towards the Communist, authoritarian political system in which he lived and worked.(See Świdziński, “ About the 1970s”: n.p.) Świdziński’s leftist theory and practice had a lot in common with the theoretical and practical activities of the followers of the so-called Soc Art.(See Łukasz Ronduda, “ Soc-Art, Or The Attempt at Revitalizing Avant-garde Strategies in the Polish Art of the 1970s,” Piktogram 1 (2005), n.p.) Like them, Świdziński distinguished between “real Socialism” (i.e., the authoritarian Socialist state) as it had been implemented (clumsily) in Poland after 1945, on the one hand, and the universal leftist ideas of democracy, human rights, and equal rights for all on the other.

In order to make that distinction, both Soc Art followers and Świdziński, living in a country whose media were dominated by communist ideology, tried to present alternatives to concepts such as Socialism, Communism, or the works of Marx and Lenin. This kind of criticism conducted from within, rather than from the outside, was the only possible way of criticizing the authoritarian system. Świdziński wrote: “The understanding of art as an activity in the context of reality is that which makes the ideology of art in socialism fundamentally different from the ideology of art in capitalism. The Polish position is represented by a contextual orientation. … How is this orientation defined? Because it has been conceived in Poland, it stems from Marxian consciousness. In fact, this consciousness has a long tradition in Poland, dating back to the left-oriented pre-war Polish avant-garde. The second tradition at play here is the Polish school of logic and the Slavic traditions of structuralism. … Growing interest in Marxism meant that the concept of contextual art met with a good reception in the world and that it proved easy to develop an understanding between the Polish proposition and the positions of other artists whose goals for art go beyond technology.”(Jan Świdziński, Press release, Conference: Art as an activity in the context of reality, 1977, Galeria Remont.)

The comprehensiveness of Świdziński’s theory brings him close to contemporary artists rather more than to those from the 1970s. Świdziński was as a post-conceptual, post-modern Oskar Hansen, an artist who designed an open, relational, anti-authoritarian artistic theory and practice and an artist who, contrary to his own premises, thought on a universal scale, is trying to respond to the issues generated by globalization in an objectifying perspective. That objectifying impulse is particularly evident in his effort to “reveal and demonstrate” the general conditions for the production of meaning. Świdziński’s goal was not so much to find a solution to an artistic problem. Rather, it was to find a solution for the existential problems of contemporary humanity in its alienation from a civilization that was developing too fast.

A man who still needs some balance between “nature” and “culture” needs stable meanings and an ability to deal with the changeable ones. Contextualism ruthlessly exposed our lack of control over the reality in which we are immersed, a fact that also accounts for its quasi-existential flavor.(Świdziński, “ Rozmowy kontekstualne:”: n.p.) Promoting a readiness to look critically at one’s own cognitive conditions, contextualism offered instruments that made it possible to flexibly and creatively develop mutual relations between people (and the meanings produced by them) and constantly evolving reality and its ever-shifting contexts. Contextualism wanted to make people aware of how much their notion of art was incompatible with the “reality of art.” This de-mythologizing aspect of contextualism is well illustrated by Swidzinski’s comment to the Freedom and Limitation project, in which artists urged people to go out into the streets and paint the following slogans:

YOU HAVE TO SOLVE YOUR PROBLEMS BY YOURSELF.(Jan Świdziński, Wolność i ograniczenie Mielnik 1981 (Freedom and Limitation Mielnik 1981), (Warsaw: Mała Galeria, 1984).)

Łukasz Ronduda is an art historian, art critic and curator at the Center for Contemporary Art at Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw. He also works at The Warsaw School of Social Psychology. He is the author and editor of Subversive Strategies in Media ArtEnthusiasts from the amateur film clubs (2004); 1,2,3... Avatgardes. Film/Art between experiment and the archivePolish New Wave, A History of a Phenomenon That Never Existed (2008). Ronduda is a co-editor of Piktogram ( and a frequent contributor to ARTMargins.