Zbigniew Libera, at his own exibition in Zachęta National Gallery of Art, 15th of January 2010, photo: Włodzimierz Wasyluk
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.
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 Bather, 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.
In his 1996 exhibition at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw, Libera presented the Urządzenia korekcyjne / Corrective Devices, a series of instruments for boys to discipline the immature male body and help it attain an imaginary "ideal". One of those was Body Master dla dzieci do lat dziewięciu / Body Master for Children Up to the Age of 9 (1995), a resized multi-gym with an accompanying chart illustrating the ideal that the user was supposed to be striving toward: a muscular body-builder caricature of a small boy. As Libera said:
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 Mistrzowie / Masters series (2004) is considered to be the artist's reaction to his work being censored at the Venice biennale. Libera created fictional pages of high-circulation newspapers and magazines – such as Gazeta Wyborcza, Magazyn Gazety Wyborczej and Polityka - featuring fake interviews with his masters, neo-avant-garde artists from the 1970s: Zofia Kulik, Jan Świdziński, Anastazy Wiśniewski and Andrzej Partum. This work was a tribute to them, but it was also a reflection on art history, the process of exclusion and the context of artistic activity, as well as its entanglement in the contemporary processes of marketing and promotion. As Libera said:
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 contain re-photographed pictures from the daily press with each album devoted to a different media publication.
- 1992 - Zbigniew Libera - Galeria Laboratorium, Centre for Contemporary Art at Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw
- 1993 - Prace z powietrza i elektryczności - Galeria na Mazowieckiej, Warsaw
- 1996 - Urządzenia korekcyjne - Centre for Contemporary Art at Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw
- 1997 - Zbigniew Libera - Gallerie Faurschou, Copenhagen, Denmark; Zbigniew Libera - Gallerie Wang, Oslo, Norway
- 1998 - Correct Me if I'm Wrong - Guy McIntyre Gallery, New York, USA
- 2000 - The Other Type of Prison - American-European Art Associates, New York, USA
- 2004 - Mistrzowie i pozytywy - Atlas Sztuki, Łódź; Państwowa Galeria Sztuki, Sopot; galeria a.r.t., Płock; Positives - Casino Luxembourg, Luxembourg
- 2005 - Atlasy fotograficzne i inne wydawnictwa - Centrum for Contemporary Art at Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw; Co robi łączniczka - Galeria Kronika, Bytom (with Darek Foks); Galerie Anne de Villepoix, Paris (with Martha Rosler)
- 2006 - Works from 1984-2004 - University of Michigan School of Art&Design, Ann Arbor, USA; Co robi łączniczka - Galeria Bielska BWA, Bielsko-Biała (with Darek Foks); Fotografie - Galeria Raster, Warsaw
Selected group exhibitions:
- 1987 - Co słychać? - Zakłady Norblina, Warsaw
- 1988 - Teraz jest teraz - Galeria Wyspa, Gdańsk
- 1990 - Bakunin in Dresden - Kunstpalast, Dusseldorf, Germany; Kampfnagelfabrik, Hamburg, Germany; Querspur Videofestival - Linz, Austria; Ave Festival - Arnheim, Germany
- 1991 - Doppelte Identität - Landesmuseum, Wiesbaden, Germany; Kunst Europa - Bonner Kunstverein, Bonn, Germany; Doppelte Identität - Landesmuseum, Wiesbaden, Germany
- 1992 - Perseweracja mistyczna i róża - Państwowa Galeria Sztuki, Sopot; Current Situation 3:3 - Otso Gallery, Espoo, Sweden
- 1993 - Unvollkommen - Museum Bochum, Bochum, Germany; Emergency - Aperto 93, 45th Venice Biennial
- 1994 - Videoprzestrzenie - Państwowa Galeria Sztuki, Sopot; Medienbiennale - Minima Media, Kunsthalle Elsterpark und Fabrikhallen der Ehemaligen VEB Buntgarnwerke, Leipzig, Germany; Europa, Europa - Kunst und Austellunghalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Bonn, Germany
- 1995 - Antyciała - Centre for Contemporary Art at Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw; Beyond Belief - Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, USA; New I's For New Years - Kunstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin, Germany; Universalis - 23d Biennial, Sao Paulo, Brazil
- 1996 - The Thing Between - Technisch Sammlungen der Stadt, Dresden, Germany
- 1998 - W tym szczególnym momencie - Centre for Contemporary Art at Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw; Medialization - Edsvik Konst, Stockholm, Sweden; Gallerie Faurschou, Copenhagen, Denmark
- 1999 - After the Wall - Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden; Generations. Polish Art From the End/Beginning of the Century - Central Exhibition Hall, St. Petersburg, Russia; Rondo - Ludwig Museum, Budapest, Hungary; Pink for Boys, Blue for Girls - NGBK, Berlin, Germany; Negocjatorzy sztuki - Centrum Sztuki Współczesnej Łaźnia, Gdańsk; Refleksja konceptualna w sztuce polskiej. Bieżące praktyki, ruchome horyzonty - Centre for Contemporary Art at Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw; Absence / Presence - Nash Gallery, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, USA
- 2000 - Scena 2000 - Centre for Contemporary Art at Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw; In Freiheit/Endlich - Staatliche Kunsthalle, Baden-Baden, Germany; Muzeum Narodowe, Warsaw (2001); Postindustrial Sorrow - Kunsthalle, Wiesbaden, Germany; After the Wall - Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, Germany; L'autre moitié de l'Europe - Jeu De Paume, Paris, France
- 2001 - Irreligia - Museum Atelier 340, Brussels, Belgium; Anteprima Bovisa Milano Europa 2000 - Milan; Negocjatorzy Y - Bunkier Sztuki, Cracow
- 2002 - Mirroring Evil - The Jewish Museum, New York, USA
- 2004 - From My Window - Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris, France; Memoires du temps de l'immaturité - Passage de Retz, Paris, France; Paisatges mediatics - Fundacio la Caixa, Lleida, Tarragona, Spain; Under the White-and-Red Flag. New Art From Poland - Estonian Art Museum, Tallinn, Estonia; Contemporary Art Centre, Vilnius, Lithuania; National Centre for Contemporary Arts, Moscow, Russia
- 2005 - Broniewski - Galeria Raster, Warsaw; BWA, Zielona Góra (2006); Poles Apart - Rubell Family Collection, Miami, USA; W stronę innego. Obserwacje i interwencje - BWA, Katowice; Ośrodek Propagandy Sztuki, Łódź (2006); Second Present - Trafo Gallery, Budapest; Post_Modellismus - Krinzinger Projekte, Vienna, Austria; International Biennial of Contemporary Art - Prague, Czech Republic; Jak rozmawiać o sztuce współczesnej? - Galeria Arsenał, Białystok; Potencjał - Metropolitan Building, Warsaw; Revenge on Realism - Krinzinger Projekte, Vienna; Falsche Erwartungen - Kunsthalle, Darmstadt, Germany
- 2006 - Faites vos jeux! Kunst und Spiel seit Dada - Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Siegen, Germany