The 352-page album of photographs and essays was published in London earlier this year as the first complete collection of the politically-charged works of the internationally renowned artist. Known for his curious vehicles and communication apparatuses, large-scale projections and bold videos, Krszysztof Wodiczko (born 1943) has been pushing the envelope of art's involvement in politics and society for more than forty years.
The 352-page album of photographs and essays was published in London earlier this year as the first complete collection of the politically-charged works of the internationally renowned artist.
Known for his curious vehicles and communication apparatuses, large-scale projections and bold videos, Krszysztof Wodiczko (born 1943) has been pushing the envelope of art's involvement in politics and society for more than forty years. He has transformed the iconic facades of public buildings and historical monuments into spaces for critical reflection and public protest against a broad range of injustices committed against those who are marginalised in one way or another. Those who have been pushed out by the static confines of society as a result of homelessness, exile, illness or other trauma are spoken for through the practice and activism of the artist.
Wodiczko has been active artistically and politically since the 1970s, when he was still in Poland and was impacted by the culture of Socialist Realism in the 1950s and the exploration of the divide between object and abstraction, realism and formalism. In Poland art was perforce a politically-charged activity and Wodiczko continued this tradition even after his immigration in the late 1970s, focusing on the "history of subordination, expropriation and domination".
He began with relatively simple drawings resembling blueprints for basic functional objects, as well as complex Personal Instruments, which manipulate the ways in which humans experience their environment through site and touch using electronics as a statement on censorship, and vehicles, which manifested the illusion of freedom a set of wheels represents in society.
In the 1980s Wodiczko's projects took on a greater scale, casting symbolic words and images in significant public spaces as a means of questioning, even attacking, the myths of public property and political representation. Giant hands and other body parts take over the buildings, demonstrating the scale of power that these walls contain and the potential dangers of that power. In his memorial projects, bare-bones symbols of death bring back the true meaning behind an edifice meant to commemorate loss and casualty. The symbols and complexity of their messages evolved through the '80s and '90s. Homelessness figured as a major concern in Wodiczko's work, bringing to the surface what cities like New York hoped to push away through gentrification. His Homeless Vehicles, upgraded models of a supermarket cart large enough to provide shelter, designed with elements resembling missile parts or spacecraft, are among of his most recognisable objects. For Wodiczko, the city's approach to the problem of homelessness made its victims exiles in their own city. The artist provides these exiled communities with tools for survival and for communication, encouraging them to make their voices heard and demand their rights.
Detailed photographs of all his projects, along with commentary from the artist and others involved with his work, critics and the subjects of his practice - the homeless, immigrants, war veterans - give an in-depth look at the concept and process of each Wodiczko's works. The reader gets a real sense of the artist's commitment to his mission through additional resources, such as a transcript of an interview between Wodiczko and two homeless men in Tompkins Square Park on the subject of how to design the Homeless Vehicle and his audio-video projections telling the stories of abuse victims from all over the world - from Warsaw to Tijuana.
The album begins with an introduction by Sanford Kwinter, who places Wodiczko's work within the broader historical context of parrhesiastes in the ancient world through György Lukács theory of 'transcendental homelessness', Michel Foucault's 'discursive cosmos' and a more contemporary vision of 'agonistic democracy'. As an artist in exile of Jewish descent, born during the Ghetto Uprising and raised during the difficult times of socialism in Poland, he sought refuge in the promise of the west, the democracies of Canada and the United States. Faced with the reality of democracy, Wodiczko has long maintained an optimistic, albeit critical, stance towards the possibilities and limitations of 'true' democracy.
Wodiczko's "problem" has always been the problem of democracy, its evanescence and its concretization. In Foucualt's language, every statement activates and carries with it what he called a "correlative space", that swathe of at once discursive and non-discursive reality with which any successful ("happy" in Austin's sense) statement is enmeshed and which is activated by it. The public domain is a world of relations, relations of matter as well as speech in a form so intermingled that it is impossible to say where speech begins and where the monument ends. In Wodiczko's universe the body not only produces speech but is made and unmade by it. Democracy is an illusion if one imagines it to exist outside of its episodic and ephemeral activations. Democracy is largely populated by "unhappy" speech that, only by turns and through enormous effort of public display, through projection and construction of social actors, can be made into momentarily "happy" performances. This pathos is the fate of the cosmopolitan urbanist and it lies at the heart of both Wodiczko's work and life.
The final chapters of the book are devoted to Wodiczko's post 9/11 work in the age of surveillance and suspicion. His 2005 project If You See Something projects images of 'windows' behind which immigrants tell their painful stories and attempt to reach out to the viewer on the other side of the glass. His later War Veteran Vehicle gives a voice to American citizens (and later Polish citizens) who have returned from the war in Iraq or Afghanistan with deep psychological traumas - traumas that are generally undermined by the military, yet impact the lives of their victims and their families. They tell their stories, the horrors that they've seen, the injustice of fully-outfitted grown men fighting teenagers with rusty guns.
Krzysztof Wodiczko's latest project transforms Paris' Arc de Triomphe into the World Institute for the Abolition of War, taking Freud's vision of the soul-smothering architecture of memorials and designing a new structure on top that would call for the world to set aside its hunger for war, to explore ways of extracting aggression and war from the collective human psychology and culture.
The album has been put together by a group of academics, authors and critics engaged in the politically-minded realm of art that Wodiczko operates in: Sanford Kwinter (Harvard Graduate School of Design), Dora Apel (Wayne State University), Rosalyn Deutsche (Barnard College), Dick Hebidge (University of California Santa Barbara), Denis Hollier (New York University), Ewa Lajer-Burcharth (Harvard University), Lisa Saltzman (Bryn Mawr College) and Andrzej Turnowski (Université de Bourgogne).
Black Dog Publishing April 2011
Hardback, 352 pages
ISBN13: 978 1 907317 13 2
The book is available online at www.blackdogonline.com and amazon.com
Reviewed by Agnieszka Le Nart for Culture.pl
Krzysztof Wodiczko - The Abolition of War in London