Interdisciplinary and critical artist who creates objects, installations, videos, video installations, photographs and multimedia projects that tend to be controversial, referring to a particular political or social problem. Born in 1959 in Pabianice. He lives and works in Warsaw.
Zbigniew Libera began his artistic career in the early 1980s. In December 1981, reacting to the introduction of martial law, he printed leaflets and posters protesting against the bloody suppression of the protests in the Wujek coal mine. He also printed leaflets for the Solidarity movement. In spring 1982 he had his first solo exhibition at the Strych in Łódź, but in the autumn he was arrested and sentenced to 18 months in prison for printing and distributing anti-state publications. This period is seen as formative for his artistic identity. As he told Artur Żmijewski and Łukasz Gorczyca in an interview:
I'm a well-known destroyer. I've destroyed most things, although I didn't do it for others but rather for my own experience.
Between 1983 and 1986, after he was released from prison, he was active in the Łódź-based Kultura Zrzuty (Chip-In Culture) movement. At the same time he made his first two videos working from home. As Łukasz Ronduda wrote:
The change in Libera's environment from a very hostile place (prison) to a very friendly one (the family home) would cause him to try to re-familiarise himself with the world and to rebuild his dysfunctional relationship with it; it served as a pretext to talk about the specifics of the self's subjective-objective battle with the 'reality of influence', and also about the ‘relationship of mutuality' between the individual and the world.
Libera's videos from the time deal with precisely this 'relationship of mutuality'. For two years during that period, Libera was caring for his grandmother, Regina G; she was over 90 years old and she was seriously ill, bed-ridden and not communicating with the outside world.
In the Intimate Rites (1984) he immortalized intimate treatments performed on his grandmother - washing, feeding, changing diapers. In Mystical Perseverance (1984) he shows her repeatedly rotating a chamber pot around its own axis. In her hands, the potty becomes a sort of a substitute of a rosary. Libera noticed:
The work describes an activity of a mystical-magical nature, independent of any known form of religion, magic or art. It neither creates nor challenges any system. It is performed daily, irrespective of the current state of political, social, cultural, artistic, financial, official or unofficial circumstances. (...) The work is intimately connected with Regina G.'s existence. Aside from her mental functions, it is the only activity she performs on her own. It is her only form of contact with the outside world.
In the video Jak tresuje się dziewczynki (How to Train Little Girls, 1987) , Libera tackled another aspect of the 'relationship of mutuality' mentioned by Ronduda: the adaptation, communication and absorption of role models and sexual roles – social 'training'. In the slow-motion video (shot during a family meeting), a young girl is taught how to mould herself into the image of a woman. Adult hands pass her a lipstick, a nail file and pieces of jewellery, and apply makeup to her face. An initiation ritual is being performed, but above all, a certain basic knowledge is being passed down about how to create a feminine image, about the paradigms of attractiveness and control over one's body. Izabela Kowalczyk remarks:
The type of behaviour specific to males and females, when performed by adults, seems to us to be 'natural'. (...) But the artist challenges this 'naturalness' by showing that these behaviours are acquired, and that we are often completely unaware of their artificiality.
However, as Łukasz Ronduda points out:
The artist intended the video to speak about the general condition of our survival, about the fact that we are sentenced to an aesthetisation of our personality, to a self-creation in which outside influences are transformed into the qualities that will become the foundation of our identity.
Libera himself said in interview:
For me it was a phenomenal example of the processes that we know are obvious, but which we usually don't notice and whose presence in our lives we don't acknowledge.
In the first half of the 1980s Libera was active in the Kultura Zrzuty movement, and he was involved with the Strych gallery almost from the time it was founded. Those ties weakened around 1985, when Libera, along with Jerzy Truszkowski, Barbara Konopka and Jacek Rydecki, formed a kind of artistic commune as an alternative to Strych. They painted together, played in the punk-rock band Sternehoch and conducted artistic activities with the patients of a mental institution where Libera was employed as a nurse. As Łukasz Ronduda wrote:
They created a provocative, iconoclastic power that embarrassed not only society, but also their fellow artists. Their main goal was to live a creative, intense, 'colourful' life.
In the late 1980s Libera moved in with Zofia Kulik and Przemysław Kwiek, modelling for Kulik's photographs and living with them for two years. In 1989 he took a trip to Africa and spent several months there. In the 1990s his earlier work was recognised as anticipating the phenomenon of critical art, and he himself was proclaimed to be the 'father of critical art'. During that time he started showing his work in galleries, evoking a strong response from the public. He also started creating sculptures and objects, one of which was an inscription, Christus Ist Mein Leben (1990), in the style of the sign over the entry gate at Auschwitz. The collection at Warsaw's CCA includes Libera's 1991 video installation Kąpielowicz (The Bathe), funeral-parlour slang for a dead body since corpses are washed before a funeral. In the installation, a transparent spiral resembling a pipe emerges from a screen showing the image of water flowing down the drain – an allegory of departure, transience and death.
In the 1990s Libera returned to one of the themes of How to Train Little Girls, creating a series of fictional children's toys – 'prostheses of adulthood in the child's world' – which serve in reality to 'train' children, to teach them certain forms of behaviour and ascribed sexual roles; the toys are instruments of socialisation. But first and foremost, the toys here are reflections of society's notions about the body and how it should be disciplined, and Libera assumes a contrary and ironic attitude toward the ideals they promote. Ciotka Kena (Ken's Aunt, 1994) adds a dose of reality to the unnaturally slim standard of beauty projected by Barbie dolls. The piece was meant to be an older, fatter version of Barbie dressed in a somewhat old-fashioned outfit, like a blemish slapped on the canon of beauty. Możesz ogolić dzidziusia (You Can Shave the Baby), another series of dolls from 1996, were baby dolls with hair under their armpits, around their genitals and on their legs. As Izabela Kowalczyk wrote:
(This piece) refers to the cultural complex surrounding body hair, which is inconsistent with the desired feminine appearance. Hair on a woman's body is treated as something wild and untamed, something that should not be there because the female body should be perfectly smooth.
The title – which is also the inscription on the doll's packaging – indicates the way in which we should treat the doll, which is as a plaything.
Libera also dealt with the issue of the socialisation of boys and what society teaches them should be their attitude towards women. Eroica (1997) is a set of small figurines similar to the toy soldiers or Indians that boys collect, except that this is a collection of naked women in poses suggesting dancing (under a spotlight), submission, flight, surrender or oppression. The packaging urges you to 'collect them all', which implies possession while simultaneously suggesting that the objects are meant for children ten years old or older. Kowalczyk notes:
The female body represented here becomes an object of possession, [adding that] the artist points (...) to the issue of male identity, which is reduced to machismo and the use of violence.
The perversity of the ‘Body Master' is that, being a toy copy of genuine body-building equipment (the weights are very light), the only thing it can train is the child's psyche. As a result, it produces a sense of the effect willpower can have on the body.
The artist also exhibited a penis-expanding device ('for babies, boys and grown-up men'), called the Universal Penis Expander (1995).
The device is supposed to help 'expand the penis to up to 100 cm in length', preventing its user from 'conducting normal sexual activity, but instead reaching a permanent state 'on the verge of orgasm'.' The toy therefore helps its user to attain an 'altered state of consciousness'. The work addresses popular notions about the male sex organ, but in interviews the artist denied any intention to criticise phallo-centric cultural patterns. Libera stresses that the male body, like the female one, is treated by contemporary culture as something that can be transformed at will and made to fit the current paradigms of appearance. The male body is also disciplined in the process of striving toward the culturally-promoted ideal of a physically strong and sexually effective man, capable (by implication) of violence. As a girls' equivalent of the Body Master and the Universal Penis Expander, the artist created Łóżeczko porodowe (Birth Bed, 1996), which resembled a doll's stroller.
Libera's toys confront the codes of mass culture, analysing them critically and even ridiculing them. But he stresses at the same time that his objects are meant to 'educate'. The most famous of Libera's 'toys' is Lego. Obóz koncentracyjny (Concentration Camp, 1994), a series of photographs and packages that the artist suggests contain Lego sets for building a mock concentration camp. The work stirred up a major media controversy (caused by critics' too-liberal interpretation of the artist's intentions). Jan Stanisław Wojciechowski, the curator of the Polish pavilion at the 1997 Venice Biennial, refused to show the piece, prompting Libera to cancel his participation altogether. Moreover Lego, the Denmark-based company that had sponsored the work, threatened to sue the artist (but eventually decided against it). According to Kazimierz Piotrowski:
Libera's case will certainly go down in the annals of global sponsorship as one of the few instances in which an artist managed to incorporate a corporation, rather than the other way round.
Lego. Concentration Camp can be interpreted on a number of levels. Jacek Zydorowicz lists the issues the piece addresses, including distancing oneself from marketing manipulation, the potential for violence in children's toys, the role of memory in culture and meta-artistic questions. As Libera himself said:
The thought that originally led me to create this piece concerned the very rationale that forms the basis of the Lego building-block system, which struck me as something horrible: you cannot use these blocks to build anything that a precise, rational system doesn't allow.
The work can be found today in the collection of the Jewish Museum in New York.
In recent years Libera has devoted himself chiefly to analyzing the media and the significance of the image in mass culture. In the series Pozytywy (Positives, 2002-2003), he used famous photographs of war and destruction as 'negatives' for the 'positives' that he then staged: soldiers lighting a cigar for a semi-recumbent man instead of Che Guevara, men on bicycles lifting a road barrier instead of German soldiers breaking through a border crossing Cykliści (Cyclists), smiling figures in striped costumes instead of concentration camp prisoners behind a barbed-wire fence Mieszkańcy (Residents) and tired racers instead of dead bodies Porażka w przełaju (Failure in a Cross-Country Race).
According to Łukasz Ronduda:
In the 'Positives' and their 'logic of repetition', what we have is a detailed analysis of the relationship between trauma and its representation. The artist seems to be saying that the effects of a trauma cannot be fully presented (represented), but can only appear in our imagination as ghost images as the viewers' recall the original versions of the staged photos.
These Positives were continued in the series Ostateczne wyzwolenie (Final Liberation, first published in the weekly Przekrój in 2003. The cover shot was Sen Busha (Bush's Dream) showing an Iraqi woman enthusiastically embracing a US soldier. The misleading photographs of smiling soldiers and Iraqis were travesties of war images.
The press has become the sole gauge of what is good or bad in art; it catapults you to fame or destroys you. Yet the press is not really prepared for the task. I too, not having anyone else to turn to, had to resort to the press, which has assumed the role of mediator between art and the public.
In 2005, in collaboration with poet and prose writer Dariusz Foks, Libera published the book Co robi łączniczka (What Does a Liaison Officer Do?) inspired by the history of the Warsaw Uprising. Folks wrote 63 chapters, which were arranged into a sort of mirror narrative and were accompanied by Libera's photomontages featuring Western movie stars (Gina Lolobrigida, Anita Ekberg and Sophia Loren) against the background of Warsaw in ruins. As Katarzyna Bojarska wrote:
Foks and Libera are not interested in the actual facts of the Warsaw Uprising; rather, they are interested in the representation of these facts, particularly in the presence or absence of certain elements. What they propose is a very unorthodox vision, in opposition to the official patriotic version of the uprising promoted by the Warsaw Uprising Museum.
Libera also analysed the media and the place of images in the contemporary world in Albumy fotograficzne (Photo Albums, 2005), which contains re-photographed pictures from the daily press with each album devoted to a different media publication. Glossy magazines became a starting point for the La Vue series (2004-2006). The photographs resembled abstractionist landscapes and were created by photographing spaces between the pages of the magazines with an analogue camera.
Libera’s next project, The Gay, Innocent and Heartless, is comprised of a series of photographs and a book — a fabricated journal of a partisan, and magazine pages. The whole tells a fictitious story whose main theme are the mythicized masculinity patterns juxtaposed with the unrealness of Neverland, to which contemporary incarnations of Peter Pan flee. This project marked Libera’s return to the critique of media and contemporary visual culture, as a result of which the viewer is encouraged to perceive them more cautiously.
In his subsequent project the artist continued experiencing photography as an object of manipulation, both semantic (like in the series Pozytywy / Positives) and visual (like La Vue). The experiences of Poztywy was then continued by the realization Wyjście ludzi z miast (The Exodus of the People from the Cities), which was presented for the first time in 2010 during the exhibition Early Years, prepared at Kunstwerke in Berlin by the team of Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. It is a panoramic photograph showing the world after a catastrophe as a result of which people are forced to leave cities. The session was made on an unused fragment of the highway near the city of Płock. It seems like a futuristic vision or a still from a disaster film, but in the Polish context it may also be seen as a distant echo of the exodus of people after the fall of Warsaw Uprising in 1944.
Rzeczywistość jest płaska (Reality is Flat) continues the artist’s exploration of the relationship between two-dimensionality and three-dimensionality. Libera started working on it in 2010, and its initial phase was shown on an exhibition in Profile Foundation. The project assumes the construction of a car prototype, which would reflect foreshortening and other image distortions characteristic of a photo- or video-camera. It is by no accident that the object of this ‘demystification’ is a car, a commodity that for many is an indicator of social and financial status.
Didactics is a new thread in Libera’s work. A the end of 2008, Libera stayed in Prague at the invitation of the local Academy of Fine Arts (AVU), where he agreed to run an open studio (which, by the way, would seem impossible in the case of Polish art schools). Libera imposed several conditions: he did not want to be incorporated into the university rigour and hierarchy — he lived in the studio, the students visited him at his house, and the studio itself was located far from the academy’s headquarters.
Libera based his method on Oskar Hansen’s Open Form theory. He is its ‘second generation’ inheritor — thanks to friendship with Zofia Kulik and Przemysław Kwiecik, and research in their archive. He decided to call the project Open Form Studio. Other than professor Grzegorz Kowalski from Warsaw, who also develops the ideas of Hansen in didactics, Libera focused on the formal model of exercises introduced by Hansen in Solids and Planes Studio at Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. As Łukasz Ronduda wrote:
Paradoxically, Libera’s engagement in didactics was motivated by a desire to return to the pre-education phase, to the level of the easiest gestures, creating a situation of fun, cheerful and spontaneous creativity.
Later on, Ronduda adds:
A crucial method of Libera was to permanently saturate the exercises from the past with a media element, working with the camera. The artist introduced the so-called active documentation, as part of which the student learns to take action and document this actions at the same time. The student also learned the seemingly simple fact, that no documentation is objective.
In 2009, the first Libera’s retrospective, comprising the three decades of his work, took place in Zachęta – National Gallery of Art. The exhibition Libera. Prace 1981-2009 (Libera. Works 1981-2009) showed, except for the well-known works, previously unpublicized photographs and videos from the 80s, alongside with some corrective devices from the 90s, which previously were not exhibited in Poland.
In 2011 and 2012 Libera was working on the cycle Nowe historie (New histories), which was presented by Raster gallery in an exhibition under the same title. As the gallery’s website says:
Libera’s latest photographs compose an independent, all the while intellectually consistent, whole. With Positives, we grappled with the traumas of the past, here we measure up to the nightmarish visions of the future. Libera illustrates the presentiments and fears that arise in our considerations of what the future has to hold. The scenes that seem impossible, or conversely – the scenes that we are certain will come to life sooner or later. In various ways Libera illuminates the most obvious of futurist frames – the apocalyptic notion. He takes on the role once again of an insightful critic of the cultural stereotypes of today, as opposed to that of an engaged prophet.
The photographs from this series bring back the old stories anew: the figure of the Other, relations of power, exclusion, colonization and liberation. They’re also, to a higher degree than before, anarchist fantasizes; dreams about Sensitive Police Officer (Wrażliwy policjant, 2012) and the First Day of Freedom (Pierwszy dzień wolności, 2012). They’re created by the artist with the consciousness that he is in the social position of creating tempting images and disturbing discussions. The people portrayed by Libera — a representative of the ancient Achaean tribe, rastafarians, orthodox Jews, policemen, wealthy white Europeans — abandon their culturally and historically constructed roles and go back to the primeval relations characteristic of tribal communities. Behind them smoulder forlorn abandoned cities and fossilized soil.
The photo-book Fotografie (Photographs, 2012) is the first retrospective of Libera’s photography. It contains works made in the years 1982-2012. Several photographs appeared in the book for the first time: male nude Dürer, a portrait of a child soldier Capa Boy, the cycle Lekkoatleci (Athletes) and new fragments of the series Młoda polska (Young Poland), Domowy performance (Domestic performance) and Ktoś inny (Someone else).
Łukasz Gorczyca, the editor and publisher of the album, said in an interview for Culture.pl:
The arrangement of the book, which is subtly divided into four chapters, emphasizes not only the specificity of each period in the artist’s work, but, most importantly, draws attention to various strategies connected with using photography; various philosophical premises related to working with a photograph: starting with the initiatory, self-referential function of photography, through using this medium as a means of confrontation between the individual and history, to end up with creating one’s own social utopia, own territory.
In this book the viewer can see Libera’s absolute immersion in photography. We find out about his journey, always accompanied by a photo camera — in all moments of life, economical circumstances, various epochs and sociopolitical realities. The artist tells both personal and common stories — the trauma of World War II, family experiences, imprisonment, the martial law in Poland, political transformation and catastrophic future.
In 2011 Zbigniew Libera became the laureate of the first edition of the Film Award established by Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, Polish Film Institute and Wajda School. It is a sort of a scholarship/grant for visual artists. The means are to be allotted to creating a fiction film. Walser, Libera’s full-length debut, was created thanks to the award. It tells a story of the life of a lost tribe of forrest people which is disrupted by civilization embodied by a railway clerk, Walser.
Libera spoke of the film the following way:
The adventure of a lifetime of the railway clerk, Andrzej Walser, which is the plot of our film, is an attempt to talk about a lost chance. The chance to alter our current, posthuman, as Michel Foucault called it, way of existence, that we assumed by choosing the path of civilization. Although this story is fictitious, it could have potentially happen in the future and it does not blight its inner truth.
The tribe is called Conteheli. Their members are people with eyes blue like flax, fair dreadlocks and young bodies. They look like an embodiment of hippie fantasizes about coming back to nature, or like a Slavic version of Na’vi from Avatar. Their life resembles paradise, up until the moment when a representative of the outside world appears. He wants to enter their pastoral realm and learn the incomprehensible language at all costs, but all his presence brings is chaos and destruction.
The press materials read:
The stylized world of Walser flirts with the tradition of genre cinema: post-apocalyptic, sci-fi, western, or films about cavemen, where primitives and ‘glamour’ were not mutually exclusive. The clichés known from this sort of films serve as blocks from which Libera builds a multilayered jigsaw: from the literary figure of paradise lost, philosophical and countercultural concepts of a utopian community, or fantasizes about the end of civilization.
At the invitation of BWA Gallery in Wrocław, Libera became the curator of Studio Mistrzów (Masters Atelier), a project which was to allow young artists to be challenged by the vision of an artist-curator, interpreting their works from the perspective of a different generation. The participants of the casting announced by BWA Gallery were over seventy young creators from all over the country. Libera chose six of them, with whom he later prepared an exhibition in BWA Awangarda Gallery: Honorata Martin, Tom Swoboda, Michał Łagowski, Piotr Blajerski, Maryna Tomaszewska and Franciszek Orłowski. What he said about them was:
These artists are not trying to solve problems they see with their art, but they’re authentically, emotionally and personally engaged in them. It is a sort of spirituality; a spiritual disposition, perhaps. This is something that was and still is absent at the contemporary artistic scene. I was stricken by, for instance, the fascination with poverty and homelessness.
The exhibition Artysta w czasach beznadziei. Najnowsza sztuka polska (editor’s translation: The artist in times of hopelessness. New Polish art) did not present all the works, but at the top of things the documentation of the creative process as such. The artists chosen by Libera were faced with what cannot be shown and will remain a secret. They were trying to define contemporaneity, which Libera himself called ‘the epoch of hopelessness’.
Author: Karol Sienkiewicz, December 2007.
Updated: June 2011; AS / October 2015 (sources: culture.pl, rastergallery.com), translation NS June 2016