Olaf Brzeski’s practice is rooted in surrealist visions, which he puts into life via film, three-dimensional sculptures and installations. His comments about his own works do not so much mirror his personal interpretation, but narrate fictional stories, illustrated in the artworks or, in fact, made believable through the existence of the latter. This is the way in which Brzeski generates new worlds and their inhabitants.
Brzeski lives and works in Wrocław. He studied sculpture at the city's Academy of Fine Arts between 1995-2000. In 2009 he was nominated for the Views – Deutsche Bank Foundation Award.
He debuted with a winning sculpture in the competition for the Orange Alternative monument (Pomarańczowa Alternatywa was an underground protest movement, which in the 1980s acted against the communist authorities in Poland). The piece featured a stone dwarf sitting on a thumb-shaped plinth, a sculpture that referred to the use of dwarf imagery in some of the organization’s nonsensical happenings. The sculpture now stands in Świdnicka Street in Wrocław.
His first big solo exhibition, at the BWA Awangarda Gallery in Wrocław (2004) and called Only for Animals, was filled with references to figures from his childhood – the cartoon characters who were the source of his traumatic visions. One of them was Snoopy (2004), a humorous dog from the comic strip, who wore a sinister and subversive smile in the exhibition piece. As the artist explained:
The idea behind this show was to invite the viewers to the spirit of childhood nightmares: waking up at night, peeing one’s bed, the feeling of reality continuing on from a dream. The exhibition brings us to the world, where the well-known objects transform as we watch them. They wake us up from one realm, and suck us into another.
Two years later, the same idea continued in the exhibition organized at the same venue, titled Only for People (2006). Featured in the show was a feature film, made on 8mm tape, In Memory of Major Józef Moneta and All True Teachers, a story of two imaginary creatures and their initiation. Krokodylak, the main protagonist, was in Brzeski’s words “a mythical thing that unruly children get scared by. It possesses a great value for upbringing, which is also the function of this movie. This tale of initiation is mostly intended to hint at a symbolic exposure, revelation, killing of any fears and insecurities, which in the film are envisioned in the form of a dead rabbit. Over the dead rabbit’s body, we follow a forest path towards change.” The exhibition also contained porcelain and latex sculptures that built up to a scenery that was as paradoxical as the video. One of the elements in space was a rabbit corpse hung by its exceedingly large ears.
In the subsequent exhibitions Brzeski was building on the concept of The Hunter and The Villains. The artist pictured a bizarre character:
The poor silly son of a bitch, who was convinced that the reality around him could be used, shaped according to his will, controlled and regulated; that he could take over the inherent nature of humans, animals, objects – and impose an order on everything. However, the nature of things is irreplaceable and has its own agenda to cover… Just as he was about to exit and get down to his work, it turned out that his ‘forest friends’ buried his rifle in the woods, and masked the spot with tree branches. His trained hunting dogs escaped to his neighbours’ at night to bite the sleeping hens and lame cats to death. His trophies came alive, and the forest was soon ruled by peace. When his buried rifle turned into a piece of bone, he had to go and buy a new one for himself.
The gallery arrangement could be described as a landscape after the described battle. The Hunter show at CCA Zamek Ujazdowski in Warsaw included unusual hunting trophies and a rifle made out of animal bones. On the floor covered with forest bed, Brzeski placed the skeleton of an unidentified animal, flanked by two pedestals with subsequent trophies. It was hard to define what the titular Hunter was doing exactly, since his study room resembled, more than anything else, a cemetery of animals that broke into it.
The awkwardness of that situation was adequately reflected in the title of his next exhibition Villains – The Extensively Awaited Swap of Roles. At first it seemed that the audience members again found themselves in the hunter’s room, this time, however, it appeared to be completely taken over by animals. This time, the “skeletons” of furniture were dispersed among the forest bed. Brzeski wrote that:
An exchange of the ruling team is taking place on this little planet. Before the irreversibility of things truly get to us, the big head will be hit by coma and most of the signs of life will turn quiet, and then, in May, our remains will rouse young gravediggers.
Even when it comes to the vision of the end of humanity, Brzeski had made sure to bring up the most absurd moment. His sculptures usually act as an element of a larger narrative, frozen in a given moment. Such is the case of his Dream – Spontaneous Combustion (2008) – a black cloud of smoke, raising from the dead body of a person who combusted in his sleep.
Busts on plinths became a constant element of Brzeski’s exhibitions. They would refer to the historic arts, but also behave as separate from it - these porcelain sculptures are always a result of radical transformations. Some of them look as if they were affected by an extreme mutation of a skin disease, while others appear as if they melted following exposure to high temperature. A number of sculptures were presented to the audience in the state of decay, as if a vandal raided the venue just before the opening (Art Is Violence, 2006). Brzeski is fascinated with the figure of the hooligan and of mischief.
His exhibition From Beyond the Grave (2008), on the other hand, made the impression of not so much a finished installation, but of work in progress. Sculptures were surrounded by objects of various natures, as if the gallery was still in the process of renovation. Some visitors described the situation as a "post-renovation mess". One could also find a supposedly incidental hole in a wall, enabling one to peek into a storage room. In the mess behind the wall, the artist left partly destroyed porcelain anvils – forms he had been fascinated by for a long time – signed with his name. One of them was a modified torso of the ancient Laocoon, with artificial limbs attached – giving an impression that they were borrowed from a mystical creature.
Brzeski’s deformed porcelain busts were also featured in the exhibition Scontrum at the Królikarnia Museum in Warsaw, a branch of the National Museum. The purpose of the exhibition was to revisit the sculpture collections of the museum and engage with their extensive size and history. Brzeski, along with artists including Nicolas Grospierre and Agnieszka Polska, was invited to enliven the dusted spaces and objects, which in fact seemed to be a very natural continuation of his previous actions that made use of classical representations and their relevance for contemporary art in general. Those undertakings may be read both in the context of institutional critique, as well as in the context of his musings on the artist’s tool kit.
In the series Little Orphans (2009) Brzeski translates anecdotes born in his mind into simple sculptural objects. Long blocks of cast iron overwhelm the viewer with their mass, but at the same time appear to gradually dissolve, maybe due to the pressure of having to hold their own weigh, or, as Brzeski explains, because of the boredom that they have to face during long days in the cabinets that make their homes.
In the projects to follow, Brzeski’s discourse would consistently shift from the perspective “only for animals”, via “only for people” towards “his eyes only”. While continuing to draw on the dark expanses of his imagination, the artist was beginning to turn towards the substance of the artworks, and to the artistic process. The narrative in For My Eyes Only, an exhibition organized at BWA Wrocław (2013), would persistently guide the viewers’ eyesight and body, subjecting them to the rule of artist’s point of view, literally.
Self-Portrait is another piece which enters a formal dialogue with classical sculpture – made of bronze, it shows a nude, proud man with a sizeable penis, and Pinocchio’s nose. Thus, the artist announces his next steps with a touch of humour – for he is about to introduce himself to us as a liar, a harlequin, and a conjurer. Brzeski will be entangling his audience in visual illusions and tricks of the mind – he will show all of his cards, but at the same time manage to confuse his viewers repeatedly.
Brzeski is able to present the down-to-earth aspects of art practise in a subtle way. The expression “for my eyes only” may refer to an object of desire, of a feeling that arises through the encounter of an artist with his model. Olaf Brzeski created a series of drawn portraits of prostitutes, 27 Women in a Week, constituting a direct result of the road trip he took up, and a reference to the erotic voyeurism, the intercourse or penetration of another person.
By paying the women for the time they spent posing, Brzeski does not only effectively enclose a fair reward for his demand, but also wishes for us to pay attention to the process that took place in that kind of situation. When producing drawings of the prostitutes, he was to highlight the desire, the shame, and curiosity that accompany an artist when he converts the man’s primitive nature – his sexual instinct – into a sophisticated and widely accepted form.
The Fall of a Man I Don’t Like (2012) is a video, in which the artist relates to the viewer ideas and thoughts about the artwork that is about to come into being, while we watch the image of his studio from a bird’s-eye view. In the end, he draws an image of a dead person – as it turns out, Brzeski’s neighbour – anonymous, and yet placed at the centre of the artwork.
Studio is my most natural environment. I am able to relate to my life and to other people via my work – it provides me with an essential dose of experience. As soon as I take it in, I am much calmer and have better relations with those next to me. I think that I am more in control then. My work gives me confidence. My ego is stable. This project is a return to the classic form of a study: an artist, and opposite of him a model, an object, a phenomenon. It is an attempt to represent, to expose the twisted and distant ways of our subconscious.
999, a film that refers to The Fall… shows the same person, now in the state of medical reanimation. The biographical theme, the continued story about the neighbour becomes not merely a direct reference to the life adventures of the artist, but a steady narrative frame, which grants continuity to the practice, but at the same time remains subjective.
The sketch is a recurring method in Brzeski’s practice – both as an object in itself, separate among other stages of creation, and as a specimen for the delusion carried within materiality. Matter, in Brzeski’s works, is alive – as Iwo Zmyślony has written, “it pretends that it isn’t itself.”
The film and the drawing that both portray The Fall of a Man… have been ultimately transformed into a sculpture. The object shows a full-scaled figure of a person. Constructed out of thin metal bars, it is an extremely faithful replica of the drawing and at the same time an autonomous object – which makes it all the more confusing for the viewer’s senses.
Brzeski’s retrospective titled Self-Seeker, which opened at the CCA Zamek Ujazdowski in Warsaw in June 2013, intends to link the major phases in the artist’s oeuvre: the period of fascination with beasts, nightmares and violence, and the one,during which the artist has focused on the matter, sculptural forms and artistic methods.
The titular Self-Seeker is not only a reference to the position of the artist under scrutiny and subject to self-study, in the light of this overview of his achievements. It also hints at the theme present throughout his discourse, where he aims to analyze his relationship with his own milieu – as an artist and as a human being. He does so by presenting himself as an insolent, arrogant person who believes in the causative power of his own imagination and its potential to become an objective and universal truth.
Brzeski took up the task of designing the bar area at the Czarna Bar and Gallery in Warsaw in 2012. The conceptual décor that resembles an uncomplete preparation of walls and lights is titled Infinity. In the middle of this ever-unfinished composition, he placed a mirror that reflected the view of the venue’s interior. In this way he embraced two crucial inspirations for this project: the movie Playtime by Jacques Tati, and Eduard Manet’s paintings - Brzeski wanted to face up to the Folies Bergere barmaid’s wish that there was a better world on the other side of the looking glass. Resembling both a stage design and a site-specific installation, Infinity is made out of carefully crafted elements, and carries on the themes of intertextuality, play with form, and restlessness of art objects.
Author: Karol Sienkiewicz, July 2009. Update: Ania Micińska, June 2013.
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