The 2011 piece by artist Dorota Nieznalska instantly sparked the interest of the media and most of the public came to know the work through the news programme on TVN. Inciting the rage of self-proclaimed defenders of morality and religion, it soon became a scandal.
2001 installation depicting a man exercise juxtaposed with a photograph of male genitals affixed to a cross of equal proportions. Debuted at the Wyspa Gallery in Gdańsk in December that year.
The piece by artist Dorota Nieznalska instantly sparked the interest of the media and most of the public came to know the work through the news programme on TVN. Inciting the rage of self-proclaimed defenders of morality and religion, it soon became a scandal.
It was a time of scandals throughout the Polish art world – in the year 2000 at the jubilee exhibition in Zachęta right-wing members of parliament destroyed Maurizio Cattelan's sculpture La Nona Ora, which depicted the pope John Paul II struck down by a meteorite. In the same institution the actor Daniel Olbrychski snuck a sabre into the museum and slashed the canvas of Piotr Uklański’s work Nazis - Olbrychski's photograph was part of a collection of pictures of famous movie stars in Nazi uniforms, but he was displeased with the new context his role had put him in. Later that year Julita Wójcik was criticised for her performance piece which consisted of her peeling potatoes in the gallery - a statement on the evolution (or lack thereof) of the role of women in Polish culture.
In 2001 Zachęta’s director Anda Rottenberg resigned from her post, overwhelmed by the atmosphere of an anti-Semitic witch-hunt propelled by letters and protests from the public. Following these events curators and gallery directors, especially directors of public galleries, took a second thought before exhibiting anything that would arouse the least controversy. Dorota Nieznalska practically vanished from the art scene and only after a few years after the scandal a private gallery from Poznań took a chance on showing Passion once again.
The artist has said of her work as an artist:
In Poland I exist by way of a niche circulation. Private galleries, but not public or mainstream ones, present my works. I also exhibit abroad, but there people associate me with trials and perceive me as coming from a strange country where artists are taken to court.
If the situation had ended with just media hype, few might still remember the original exhibition at a small gallery in Gdańsk. However, for the following ten years a trial against the artist ensued, accusing her of offending religious feelings. Two parliament members from the ultra-right-wing party League of Polish Families, Robert Strąk and Gertruda Szumska, reported Nieznalska to the public prosecutor’s office and effectively brought about her trial. The proceedings were instituted ex officio not by civil action. Strangely enough, similar suits weren’t filed in the cases of other artists, who only a few years earlier, equally controversially, incorporated religious symbols in their works – Jacek Markiewicz's Adoration of Christ in 1993 or Robert Rumas'Hot-Watter Bottles in 1994. In July 2003 the District Court in Gdańsk found the artist guilty of offending religious feelings. She was condemned to six months of restriction of liberty (which, in effect, amounted to community service), but she filed an appeal and a second trial ensued. Critics and art historians stood up for Nieznalska. Open letters and protests were written.
In 2008 critic Izabela Kowalczyk remarked with dismay that
It turns out that Polish reality is resilient to the opinions of experts and authorities. It seems that in the social-political sphere those who are noisy are those who count, not those who try to point to a problem and analyse and explain it.
In 2009 Dorota Jarecka asked: "Is Nieznalska a ‘ritual offering’ of a young democracy?". Critics took note of the fact that the politicians who had brought the case to court were long gone, and yet the trial was still going on. In 2009 the Appeal Court finally acquitted Nieznalska of charges. The sentence was read out on the 4th of June, which was regarded in public opinion as a symbolic date (the 20th anniversary of the first democratic election after the fall of communism in Poland). In the grounds to the judgment the judge emphasised, which was noted by reporter Piotr Piotrowski, "a priority of religious freedom over artistic freedom (freedom of speech). He suggested that the artist’s work may have offended religious feelings, but that wasn’t her intention".
The defence ought to fight for the artist’s right to commit blasphemy, to profane, because it’s in the citizen’s interest to recognize the right of blasphemy, which not always is elegant, but its presence is incomparably safer than restrictions in this matter. (…) The freedom of speech shouldn’t be instrumentalized; it should be primary, not relative
- Piotr Piotrowski
Even after the trial was over, the debate over Nieznalska's culpability continued. In March 2010 Zbigniew Owsiany a prosecutor from the regional public prosecutor’s office in Gdańsk said in an interview with the Gazeta Wyborcza daily:
If Nieznalska’s work isn’t an insult to the religious feelings of Catholics, than in that case what is such an insult? The legislator wanted the artists to know that they don’t work in outer space, that there are certain laws which need to be abided by, laws that draw certain boundaries. (…) Such is the educational function of this penal lawsuit - letting other artists know that they aren’t allowed to do just everything. This is a memento. If artists were allowed to do anything, they could shock us every day with things I can hardly even imagine.
Finally on the 11th of March 2010, after eight years of trial, Dorota Nieznalska was acquitted across the board. During the whole time of her judiciary battle the artist’s work was held in deposit. Hence most people know it only from photographs, which were shown in the media and in specialist publications. Less accurate or rather biased reports were limited to showing only fragments of the installation – the cross with the photograph of male genitals, the more precise ones presented both elements of the work or a view of the installation at the Wyspa Gallery in 2001. The large cross with the photograph attached to it, hanging from the ceiling on a steel chain cannot be analyzed without the second part of the composition - a film shown on screen, presenting a man exercising at the gym. The artist wanted to grasp the effort of the exercising man, even the physical pain that he feels when he lifts weights and flexes muscles - hence the close-ups of the face which conveys exhaustion close to anguish, the images of the tightly closed eyes and grimaces of discomfort.
The cult of the male body and the suffering which is its result is the work’s theme. The religious motif comes from the title - Passion – and the depiction of the cross. (The artist incorporated religious motifs also in other works, for instance referring to the Instruments of the Passion in Queen of Poland of 2008). Nieznalska exploits the double meanings of the words 'passion' and 'cult', both of which have liturgical symbolism, as well as secular meanings in contemporary society.
The work operates on a parallel – it juxtaposes the sufferings of religious martyrs with the pain felt as if on request by men striving to achieve a perfect body, straining their muscles in order for them to tear, get repaired and increase in bulk. Ultimately, Nieznalska aims to show that martyrdom is becoming trivial. The strive for spiritual perfection or salvation (a common theme in religion) is substituted in consumer society by the cult of the male body, by fetishism. On the other hand, Passion shows that in the religious images of pain, suffering and Passion, masochism is apparent, or at least that they may be perceived in such a way by the modern viewer. The male body is the common denominator of both cases – this is clearly emphasised by the presence of male genitals.
According to Piotr Piotrowski, the reference to the Stations of the Cross in Nieznalska’a work is unspoken. However if it was so, then why would the installation have such an ambiguous title? The fact that in her installation the artist used a Greek (equal-armed), not Latin cross was one of the often commented motifs and at the same time an element of Nieznalska’s defence. After all Christ died on a Latin cross.
The Greek cross is a symbol of perfection; genitals are a symbol of manhood. Together, in the context of passionate physical exercise, they reveal the artist’s irony towards the cult of the male body. So the discursive reference to the Passion of Christ is completely ironic, it ironises the cult of the male body, not Christ.
The peculiar misfortune that fell upon Passion was based not only on false accusations basd on taking certain elements out of context, but also of the fact that the work was never really appropriately understood by critics. Paradoxically, despite the degree of discourse that was initiated in order to defend the exhibition, today it is hard to answer the question: did the artist manage to deepen the topic of the cult of the male body and did she succeed in creating a meaningful metaphor? Or did she just create scandal?
Co-director of the Wyspa Gallery, artist Grzegorz Klaman, commented on the situation that rose around Nieznalska and "Passion" with a film in which he reads out loud aggressive internet comments about the artist and slaps her on the face after each of them making her cry. Nieznalska became therefore a victim of a moral revolution that was to take place in Poland, but which never actually took place. Klaman’s film once again stigmatised her, only this time as a victim, not as a scandalous artist. But if we think about the ambiguousness of "Passion" itself, we might find that it is the works biggest weakness – it was created from the perspective of a victim of the phallocentric, patriarchal culture. She didn’t propose any alternative solutions. It all ended with accusations.
Author: Karol Sienkiewicz, March 2011; updated: December 2011. Translated by Marek Kępa, December 2011 and edited by Agnieszka Le Nart, December 2011.
A detailed calendar of the artist’s trial can be found at: www.nieznalska.art.pl