John Hurrell – 3 January, 2010
Secondly there is an interview where the interviewee is charmed through conversation into revealing beliefs that the artist clearly despises…
Reaching Tentacles into Reality
Catalogue for the exhibition by Artur Zmijewski
Curated by Emma Bugden and Robert Leonard.
Designed by Katrina Stubbs
24pp. Colour illustrations
Good art and good people. Most of us realise I think that to be good at their job, artists don’t have to be likable or exceptionally moral human beings. In fact personal charisma and decency might well be a curse – a negative attribute for the job. Artur Żmijewski is known for his powers as a shrewd manipulator of the interviewees and participants of his videos. (See my review of his Te Tuhi show, and another). He can be seen verbally manipulating an elderly Auschwitz survivor into having the tattooed number on his arm redone, or getting Polish political lobbying groups to create slogan-bearing paintings which their inflamed political opponents will soon be encouraged to destroy.
For all his apparent sadism, there is something attractive about Żmijewski. He is prepared to get tainted himself, even if he turns himself into a decoy, a catalyst of entrapment. He can be seen naked sprinting across the floor of a gas chamber, playing tag with other unclothed men and women – having fun in a site of horror where context is deliberately forgotten. Though often touted as being preoccupied with sociological or anthropological content in his projects, such as Misha Kavka does in her essay here in this publication, I think that is a misleading emphasis. His approach is more to do with the psychological complexities of the individual than group dynamics. Though the social forces that play on the individual are indisputably of great interest to him, he really zeros in on the nature of that person’s resistance, the mechanisms they use to avoid succumbing.
Kavka is a Media Studies lecturer at the University of Auckland, an expert on reality television. Her view of Żmijewski is that he is an artist who brings to the surface things that normally remain invisible. He works like a pickpocket (this is the artist’s own term) whose octopus tentacle-like fingers silently reach into what he calls ‘ niches of inattention’ – what she calls the ‘darker corners of the collective psyche, staging encounters of power and history, oppression and subordination, pain and pleasure, shame and exuberance.’ To do this she considers he works like an anthropologist – seeing him as someone trained in his early years at Crzegorz Kowalski’s sculpture studio not as an ‘artist’, but as one committed ‘to study, describe and attempt to understand human behaviour or ritual’, unrestrained by conventional societal ethics.
These projects Żmijewski sees as ‘outbursts of extreme subjectivity’. In this show they make up five sorts. Here is how I distinguish them:
Firstly there are the plainly satirical videos – sending up the military, either Nazi armies ridiculed by two Turkish artists dancing with spades on their shoulders, juxtaposed with sections from Riefenstahl’s ‘The Triumph of the Will’ (KR WP 2000); or the military in general, through the artist charming a platoon of Polish Honour Guard soldiers to march a ceremonial drill wearing only boots and caps (Zeppelintribune 2002).
Secondly there is an interview where the interviewee is charmed through conversation into revealing beliefs that the artist clearly despises – a strategy often used by comedians like Gary McDonald or Sacha Baron Cohen. In Itzik 2003 the subject expresses his venomous hatred of the Palestinians.
Thirdly, there are videos where the artist uses human bodies, healthy and dysfunctional together, to create new sorts of beauty - in a manner comparable to artists like Dan Arps who mix normally unconnected substances together (like say putty, pasta and clay) to invent something new. Eye For An Eye (1998) shows a naked healthy man assisting a naked amputee to move around a room and up some stairs. The Singing Lesson 2 (2003) presents a choir of deaf children learning to sing Bach with an orchestra. Rendez-vous (2004) reveals two sufferers of Huntington’s Chorea manoeuvring their jerking uncoordinated bodies around a park where they sit at a bench to eat a pizza.
With Żmijewski there is often this ambiguity, an oscillation between for example, nakedness, a trope for vulnerability or unhidden ‘truth’, and voyeurism. Including sometimes a sense of the artist’s own gaze being not sympathetic but exploitive - even indirectly sadistic.
With Repetition (2005) he repeats the famous 1971 Stanford experiment conducted by Philip Zimbardo where paid volunteers are randomly sorted into guards and prisoners and put into a ‘prison’ environs, with one group in total control of the other. In the resulting dynamic, Żmijewski’s ‘warden’ becomes alarmed at his own increasing sadism, worried about his changing personality that altered within ‘the job’. He persuaded the guards and prisoners to join him in terminating the project.
In the fifth variation, I think the artist displays his own sadism directly. 80064 (2004) presents the retattooing of the Auschwitz survivor already mentioned, Them (2007) sets up and exploits conflict between various Polish political factions, and Selected Works (2007), features intrusive filming of ten lowly paid blue-collar labourers in Mexico, Poland, Germany and Italy - at home and at their repetitive and very boring work.
This is an absorbing brochure about a knowingly provocative artist, one expert at winding his audiences up while also retaining their enthusiasm so they become complicit. There are excellent notes on the above works, based on earlier publications, plus Kavka’s essay. While the latter seems at times too respectful of both art and anthropology (simultaneously acknowledging the artist’s callousness in his ‘attempts to understand human behaviour’ whilst also defending it), her superbly crafted, informative text is thorough, complex and richly layered. Here, read it yourself. It repays many readings.
Te Tuhi and IMA have created an important publication. It, like Żmijewski’s videos, deserves a large and appreciative (even if also condemnatory) audience.
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