They call him the Shaman or the Space Alien (Przybysz z Kosmosu) because he teaches how to look at the world from a fresh perspective. With the help of local inhabitants, he puts up his artworks in city centres while placing fragments of real life in museums and galleries. He wants people to come together and act in unity.
In between street actions and exhibitions, Paweł Althamer is a pedagogue. He's been leading pottery workshops for a couple of years with a group of people suffering from multiple sclerosis for whom art is therapy (Nowolipie Group). He also cooperates with youths from Praga, Warsaw's most impoverished district. He opens his heart and helps those who might otherwise never be noticed. He takes groups of people - who might never be able to afford it otherwise -on trips abroadwh, he draws attention to the homeless and invites young unknown artists to collective exhibitions at the Centre Pompidou.
Tower Block Neighbours: Bródno 2000
Paweł Althamer has been living in Warsaw's district of Targówek since his childhood. Thanks to a street action to which he invited his neighbours from Krasnobrodzka street 13, he's one of the best known locals. To make Bródno 2000 happen, the artist asked the inhabitants of the tower block to turn on or off the lights in their apartment. As a result of coordinated lighting, the number 2000 appeared on the wall of the block. 3000 people took part in the event's of the evening. The stunt is remembered as one of Althamer's most spectacular artistic actions in Warsaw.
Bródno Sculpture Park
The artist's initiatives involve local communities and prove that art and every day reality are compatible. He renewed a local playground, repaired the run-down staircase of a tower block and organised a trip to Mali and Brussels for his neighbours. The project, which involved not only locals but also the authorities of the district of Targówek, the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw and well-known artists from different parts of the world, is an ever-evolving contemporary art exhibition located on the premises of Bródno Park.
Since 2009, the Sculpture Park has housed the works of Olafur Eliasson, Monika Sosnowska and Rirkrit Tiravanija. Althamer's own work, the sculpture-garden Raj (Paradise), made together with students from a local school, was created from different types of trees and bushes. The bronze statue Sylwia was created during workshops with the Nowolipie group. The wooden arbour Toguna is inspired by the Dogon people of Africa. It was conceived by Althamer and sculptor Youssuf Dara and serves as a meeting place or a shelter at a bus stop.
The Experimenter: LSD, Hashish, Hypnosis
Althamer views experiments with psychedelic drugs, narcotics and hypnosis as alternative ways of experiencing reality and discovering new states of consciousness. In an interview with curator Sebastian Cichocki he talked about one trip experienced in Bródno which changed him:
"Experimenting with LSD was a sort of initiation. I saw myself as if I had returned to my childhood room and I recognised and remembered my entire childhood, the ties that I have with that period and the awareness of the consequences of the choices that led me to where I am now. That's when I stopped looking to the outside and saw the potential in what was here, all around."
In 2003 and 2004, he shot with Artur Żmijewski the film series Tak zwane fale oraz inne fenomeny umysłu (So-called Waves and Other Phenomenon of the Mind). The substances used in the film to widen human perception are drugs such as LSD, peyote, hashish, truth serum, hypnosis and … a walk with his young daughter Weronika. Althamer turned one of his visions, an image of himself as a young boy walking a dog in the rubble of a destroyed Warsaw, into a work of art: Abram and Buruś, a sculpture of a boy with a dog and a removable stick in his hand stands in front of a tower block on 13 Krasnobrodzka street.
The Traveller: Common Task
Paweł Althamer has been working with social sculpture, in which he involves groups or individuals in his work, since 2009. Once more, the project Wspólna sprawa (Common Task) was made with participation from his neighbours. Dressed in golden spacesuits they walked around the tower blocks like science fiction characters. For the 20th anniversary of democracy in Central Europe, they flew to Brussels on a golden Boeing 737. The golden strangers invaded the Expo 58 and shared historical facts about Poland with visitors.
The group's next destination was Mali, where they visited the Dogon tribes. For Althamer, the trip was of special significance because 20 years ago the local culture inspired his artistic path. The Polish travellers from Bródno met with local sculptor Yossouf Dara whom they invited to the sculpture park.
Paweł Althamer revisited his ideas about travelling and social experiences as transformative moments several times more. In 2011 he invited the inhabitants of two villages from east-central Poland (Broniów and Ostałówka) to take a trip with him in a golden coach. The bus trip featured on-board meetings and workshops. The project was called Marzyciel (Dreamer). A year later the group travelled to Minsk where Althamer, wishing to draw attention to the political situation in Belarus, organised performances by Polish and Belarussian dance companies. The project was called Pramień Sonca (Ray of Sun in Belorussian).
Koziołek Matołek - Matołek the Billy-Goat
In Mali, Althamer walked around dressed like a cartoon character from a 1933 book by Kornel Makuszyński.
"This fairy tale creature that lives on the pages of a children's book is used by Paweł as a metaphorical representation of a local artist working in the global context who draws from his nearest entourage, from the place with which he is physically and spiritually linked" – Sebastian Cichocki told Culture.pl.
The Billy Goat returns in Althamer's sculptures and performances. Just like the original character who is searching for the village of Pacanów, Althamer, in a plaster cast head and red shorts, travelled around Poland and all the way to Brazil.
"The Billy Goat "seeks all over the world what is close at hand" the story goes. That's also Althamer's strategy based on trips in space as well as in his head. The Warsaw housing development of Bródno is Althamer's Pacanów, it's where he lives, works, integrates with the community and experiences spirituality" – the Museum of Modern Art website reads.
March of Jews
"British theoretician and curator Claire Bishop counts Althamer among artists working via other people […] which Bishop calls "a delegated performance" – Karol Sienkiewicz writes for Culture.pl. In 2010, on the anniversary of free Poland, a group of people invited by Paweł Althamer impersonated prisoners from Auschwitz. Clad in inmates clothing they joined a blockade set up by left-wing youth which was meant to keep fascist movements from entering the main streets of Warsaw.
The Shaman: Tree House
New worlds and the search for them can also take place through ascetic isolation. During his studies, Althamer created the scultpure Łódź i skafander astronauty (The Boat and the Spacesuit) (1991) which serves as a meditative tool. Ten years later, in the centre of Warsaw (near the Foksal Gallery) he built Domek na drzewie (Tree House), an oasis for isolation and wildness in the middle of an urban agglomeration. It functioned for a few months. In 1996, Althamer transformed the cramped space of the Foksal Gallery into a kind of waiting room, covering the floor with white linoleum, mounting white bus seats and adding an extra glass door. A hole knocked out of the wall led to a small garden. The installation was compared to a diving chamber or a meditation room.
Creator of Self-Portraits
While acting as a people's director, Althamer never abandoned sculpture, the field he studied. He created one of his first self-portraits (1993) during his studies, as part as of his graduation thesis. The artwork was made of natural materials: grass, straw, animal skin and intestines.
"The hyper-realistic nature of the sculpture Autoportret (Self-Portrait) could have been a result of the requirements set by the Academy of Fine Arts and the demand set on the artist to create mimetic projections of reality or a literal substitute for the artist. For the figure was meant to replace him at the oral exam – Althamer went out of the room leaving the professors with his self-portrait and a video showing him leaving the university, driving to the forest, taking his clothes off and "connecting with nature"" Karol Sienkiewicz wrote.
Althamer also constructs miniature models of reality resembling doll houses, among others Autoportret w walizce (Self-portrait in a Suitcase) or a representation of the Foksal Gallery with all its staff. For a couple of years, he assembled hand-made dolls later sold in toy stores and souvenir shops.
His 21-metre long inflated self-portrait Balloon (2007), which hung over Milan's Sempione Park (as part of the one of many exhibitions at the Palazzina Appiani), was a statement against classical sculpture. Corriere della Sera wrote that on the first day the residents demanded the removal of the blown-up naked man. Around the clock police surveillance was set up in order to protect the artwork. When it was shown at the Warsaw Gallery Weekend (2012), it floated around in an enclosed space to avoid being subjected to the perils of the urban environment.
When creating social sculpture, Althamer draws inspiration from his surroundings. In 2012, he turned the Deutsche Guggenheim Museum in Berlin into a branch of his father's plant – Almech. Together with the plant's employees, he produced collective portraits of the exhibition's visitors. He made plaster face casts, installed them onto metal constructions and wrapped them with gauzes of polyethylene (used for the manufacturing of plastic bottles). The method was also employed by the artist at the 55th Venice Art Biennale (2013).
The Pedagogue: Mr Rubber
Apart from leading pottery workshops for people with multiple sclerosis, Althamer also creates sculptures with children and carers from the North Praga Pedagogy and Social Animation Group. He helped with the educational programme Einstein's Class which furthered the kid's knowledge of physics.
In 2009, the North Praga group and the famous artist sculpted a local colourful figure from Brzeska Street. A petty criminal and drunkard to some, an authority on the local code of honour to others, the sculpture of Guma (Mr Rubber) stands on the pavement in front of the grocery shop on the corner of Czynszowa and Stalowa streets. The work stirred up controversy because it cemented the infamous reputation of the area. Other residents were more kind to Mr Rubber and covered him with a hat in winter.
"The kids were the ones who wanted to make a monument to the man. The sculpture is mounted on a spring and sways about when pushed, mimicking its prototype. It stands in the same stop where for many years he swayed on his weak legs, chatting up pedestrians." – the artist said.
At the 7th Berlin Biennale in 2012, Althamer initiated Draftsmen’s Congress, which encouraged the visitors to draw on the walls of the empty St. Elisabeth Church in Berlin. Its goal was to encourage people of all ages to express themselves through drawing. Another edition of the project took place at the New Museum in New York and Beijing, as part of the artist's retrospectives.
"You don't like what others drew? Use a brush to cover up their paintings and draw your comment on the side. Be polite or politically incorrect, frustrated or outraged and fight with others in a visual battle. Draw your love, your hatred, your opinion and demands. Show your truth and stand up for what you believe in" – Berlin Biennale curators Artur Żmijewski and Joanna Warsza wrote.
Author: Agnieszka Sural, translator: Mai Jones 04/06/2014