'The artist's role is to question existing norms. But he has to bare in mind, that he will be judged by these same norms', Grzegorz Kowalski, a mentor to artists representing the 'critical art' movement says, "He must accept the risk of exclusion and condemnation by society". This particular kind of art brings on strong emotions, it breaks social taboos and is outside artistic conventions. It often causes media scandals and outrage especially among the most conservative individuals and fractions of the public opinion.
This article is not about gallery directors and curators attempting to censor artists, it's about those works of art, which in the eyes of specialists are outstanding and groundbreaking pieces, but in the eyes of the public, are shocking, "pseudo-artistic" objects, that attack religious feelings, undermine customs and confront taboos (such as sex).
Can art really be offensive? If so, to whom? In a democracy, what are the limits of artistic freedom and is an artist allowed greater freedom than any other citizen? There is no one answer to these questions, but what is certain, is that translating art and creating a social dialogue remains the biggest challenge to the people involved in art in Poland today.
Katarzyna Kozyra - Animal Pyramid
Blood Ties (1995), a piece created for the renowned 90ties exhibition Antibodies at Warsaw's CSW, was the object of Katarzyna Kozyra's first 'social storm'. It was the first large scale institutional presentation of new trends in art to cause heated debate and discussions in the media. Later on, Ties was presented on billboards throughout the whole country, only to be taken down after protests from the conservative factions of the public. The aim of the artwork was to bring into focus the harming role of religion on emotional and intellectual well-being of women. But it was accused of "shameful use" of the cross and the half moon.
It seems as though from that moment on, people always expected Kozyra's work to have some provocative meaning. Her thesis project, Animal Pyramid (1993, part of the Zachęta collection) is a sculpture of four dead stuffed animals standing one upon the other, and a video documenting the killing and the skinning, which Kozyra attended. The animals were for slaughter but Kozyra was accused of 'killing for decorative purposes'. The artwork caused the outcry of animal rights groups and the Catholic milieu.
On the grounds that a crime has been committed, the case was brought to the Prosecutor's Office. The plaintiffs stated that 'displaying the death of a horse is inhumanitarian and a defamation of its dignity' and that the film 'could serve as an instruction video for satanists'. Apart from 'killing for decorative purposes', the artist was accused of creating pseudo-art. Meanwhile, Pyramid, inspired by the Brothers Grimm Traveling Musicians fairytale about a donkey, a dog, a cat, and a rooster running away from their owners, was meant to show the brutality of the human towards animals and the hypocritical relation of consumers to the killing of animals.
Kozyra's next works continued to the marred by scandals. Olympia (1996) is an auto-portrait of the wounded body of the artist (who had cancer) made after chemotherapy. The critics and the media spoke out against the public display of sickness, old age and weakness, and called it inadmissible. The male and female Bathhouse video installations (1997 and1999) was shot in a Budapest bathhouse from a hidden camera and shows naked bodies. After its release, the artist was threatened with a lawsuit. A Hungarian journalist wrote that its purpose was to "ridicule Hungarian women in the eyes of Poles". For dismantling cultural codes linked to the body, nakedness and sexuality, Kozyra received an award at the prestigious Venice Art Biennale.
Read more on Katarzyna Kozyra and her art on Culture.pl
Zbigniew Libera - Lego. Concentration Camp
A concentration camp built from the well-known Lego building bricks is a work that caused one of the biggest scandals of the 90ties and brought international attention to its author. Understood literally, in Poland, Lego. Obóz koncentracyjny / Lego. Concentration Camp (1996) shocked and offended. Abroad, it inspired and caused intellectual discussions. According to the assumptions of the artist, the work of art speaks not only about the educational nature of toys, but also about the trivialisation of historical events in mass culture. It serves as a warning against "the everyday banality of evil" and brings up issues linked with keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive. Libera said,
The buzz around the concentration camp made of Lego piece surfaced at the time of the discussions about the Berlin Holocaust monument. In Germany, opinions about the mass production of this toy, which would be a sort of monument, started to appear.
The artist forfeited participation in the prestigious Venice Art Biennale when the curator of the Polish exhibition decided to withdraw the Lego because "it could encourage voices against Poland and be the source of accusations of antisemitism". At the same time, international institutions asked for three sets of Legos for their collection. Among others the Jewish Museum in New York, where the Legos inspired one of the most important exhibitions about the Holocaust Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery / Recent Art (2002). In 2011, one of the sets came back to Poland and was bought by the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw.
Grzegorz Klaman - Emblems
Emblems, Grzegorz Klaman's work (1993) are human organs in glass containers. He borrowed the brain, liver and intestines from the Medical Academy. The transfer of the preserved items from the laboratory or lecture hall to a gallery raised aesthetically and religiously motivated objections, said to break cultural taboos. The text describing the artwork presented for the first time at the National Art Gallery in Sopot reads:
Do you know what you look like on the inside? This is you represented through parts of the body without which you cannot life. Is this what you identify with when you say I. Who and what are you? What are you trying not to remember? What do you not want to know about?
Read more on Grzegorz Klaman and his art on Culture.pl
Alicja Żebrowska - Original Sin
In the video installation Grzech Pierworodny – Domniemany Projekt Rzeczywistości Wirtualnej / Original Sin - The Alleged Porject of Virtual Reality (1993) Alicja Żebrowska not only deconstructed the Biblical story about Adam and Eve, she blurred the borders between art and pornography. The motif of the apple, the sexual act and the simulated birth-giving of a small doll laces through the two versions of the film. Żebrowska's artwork caught the interest of the media and was the reason for an attempt to close down the exhibition at the CSW where it was presented. The taboo breaking artist was invited on one of Poland's first talk-show as a "sort of curious entity, a weirdo old hag"
Robert Rumas - Hot water bottles
Termofory / Hot water bottles (1995-2001) are eight water filled plastic bags under which Robert Rumas placed figurines of the Madonna and Christ bought at a store with Catholic devotional objects. Displayed in the Gdańsk Old Town, the work met with reactions from the passerby straight away - holes were made in the bags and the figures of the Saints were brought to a nearby Church.
Irreligia. Morfologia nie-sacrum w sztuce polskiej / Irreligion. Not-scared morphology in Polish art, an exhibition in Brussels (2001) where the Hot water bottles were displayed, was the source of discussions in the international press, and mass outrage of the Polish Catholic milieu. None of the Polish protestors saw the exhibition, but it caused its co-author, Kazimierz Piotrowski, to lose his job as curator of the X. Dunikowski Sculpture Museum. The artist commented,
This work was an attempt to touch the live tissue of the city. On this street, pavement tissue - I placed hot water bottles, which are normally placed on painful wounds. And between one and the other figures - live religious tissue. Just like the Church studies sects, I also approach art as a researcher. Society should think about why art looks the way it does and whether its reactions are justified.
The Belgian opponents of Hot Water Bottles questioned the validity of placing the artwork on the square in front of the Brussels City Hall. Its defenders claimed that if there are religious works of art in public spaces, then in the name of equality, there could also be "irreligious" works. The disputes turned into a debate about the boundaries of democracy. The exposition was terminated before time. The parson of the Notre-Dame de Lourdes parish, who was a patron of the exhibition commented: "People who care more about the fate of one sculpture than than of a raped woman surprise me". In his Church he permanently placed one of Rumas's works symbolising the commercialisation of religion - Las Vegas made of plastic Holy Marys crying money.
Read more on Robert Rumas and his art on Culture.pl
Piotr Uklański - The Nazis
Piotr Uklański made headlines for the first time in 2000. In Warsaw's Zachęta Gallery, he presented an artwork called The Nazis (1998) - a gallery of photographic portraits of actors who had played Nazis in films. The artist wanted to show how mass culture beautifies fascism, a movement with brought terror for a couple of dozens of years and today appears in the context of male elegance and sex appeal.
When one of the portrayed actors, Daniel Olbrychski, slashed a couple of photos with a sword he had snuck in, the Minister of Culture ordered the exhibition to close down. The event started a series of fights which lead to the dismissal of the director of the Gallery Anda Rottenberg, who had received letters with antisemitic threats posted to the Zachęta Gallery. This same work, shown 12 years later in the same institution didn't attract that much attention. Neither did a couple of other which could have been accused of being pornographic or politically incorrect - Polska Über Alles, Porno Doppelgangers.
In 2013, another work of Uklański's was part of the W sercu kraju / In the Heart of the Country exhibition presenting a collection from the Museum of Modern Art. In the sculpture Deutsch-Polnische Freundschaft (2011), the Polish eagle dangerously "befriends" (as the title suggests) and fuses with the Nazi emblem. The artist has always showed interest in the role of symbols in social communication, and here seeks to draw attention to the problem of appropriating Nazi aesthetics by the nationalist movements in Poland. The work, a perverse warning against native fascism, xenophobia and racism, and attacked by right leaning media, was created for the exhibition Obok. Polska - Niemcy. 1000 lat historii w sztuce / Side by side. Poland - Germany. 1000 years of history in art in Berlin (2011/2012).
Read more on Piotr Uklanski and his art on Culture.pl
Dorota Nieznalska - Passion
Dorota Nieznalska is the only Polish artist who was put on trial for her artistic actions. At the request of right wing deputies, she was accused of "insulting religious feelings" in her work Pasja / Passion (2001), and following a heated trial, she was sentenced to six months of restricted freedom which consisted of community work. A higher instance court acquitted Nieznalska only after eight years after the scandal erupted.
In the installation, consisting of a Greek cross with a picture of male genitalia and a film, the artist used the double meaning of the word "passion", which can be understood as agony or as one's devotion to something. The cross - the symbol of suffering - talked about the pop-cultural trend to torture the body by going to the gym.
Read more on Dorota Nieznalska and her art on Culture.pl
Joanna Rajkowska - Greetings from Aleje Jerozolimskie
The appearance of a plant that grows in warm climates in Warsaw in 2002 was the beginning of Joanna Rajkowska's artistic experiments, and the personification of an ethnically and culturally diverse Poland. The presence of the fake palm reminds of the history of the street, whose name derives from New Jerusalem, a settlement of Jewish merchants and artisans founded in the XVIIIth century on the border of the city. The merchants got expelled from fear of increasing competition for Poles.
Joanna Rajkowska's Palm Tree generated conflicts from the beginning, but it also spread humour and irony. There was talk of a division among Varsovians between those for whom it's a symbol of social openness, diversity, development and change, and those who adhere to tradition and believe in a city that doesn't welcome strangers. Protests and manifestations, both private and public, still take place under the palm tree. This is where the striking nurses, the representative of the green Party and refugees from the Middle East came to demonstrate. Initial animosity however made way for kindness. The palm tree became a part of Warsaw's identity and a recognisable symbol of the capital in the world.
Read more on Joanna Rajkowska and her art on Culture.pl
Artur Żmijewski - Holy Mass
A theatrical staging of a Catholic mass in 2011 divided the Polish public opinion. "The liturgy is the world's most often used script. It's time to check if it's not a trashy play" the director of the Msza / Holy Mass performed at the Warsaw Dramatic Theatre said. Instead of a priest, an actor dressed in a chasuble read the prayers from the lectionary and gave out communion wafers from a chalice. Despite numerous voices of indignation from the media, Artur Żmijewski's actions, a test of the sacred sphere in a profane space, were not met with an official protest from the bishops of the Catholic milieu.
Julita Wójcik - Rainbow
Since it was erected on Warsaw's popular Plac Zbawiciela in 2012, Tęcza / Rainbow, has caused the largest amount of violent reactions. Whether it's because of groups of rowdy teenagers who have set fire to the rainbow for fun (and then share their exploits on the internet), or certain groups of people who use its symbolism for fights of political nature or about world views.
The Rainbow's original message is joy and optimism. Wójcik sees it as a symbol of allaince, love, peace and hope, as well as movements of emancipation of sexual minorities in the contemporary world. Her work of art has been given a second life in the form of Internet memes and jokes: "I'd tell you a joke about the Rainbow, but I'm afraid I'd kill it".
Jacek Markiewicz - Adoration of the Christ
In an amorous-religious transport of joy, the artist caresses a medieval cross from the collections of the National Museum. Twenty years since its creation (1993), and after repeated presentations in the country and abroad, Jacek Markiewicz's masters project caught the attention of right-wing Catholic milieus at the British British Polish Polish: Art From Europe's Edges In The Long 90s And Today exhibition. Following protests in front of the Ujazdowski Palace, the exhibition halls were occupied by devote Catholics who prayed for the "cleansing" of the slandered cross and the closing of the exhibition for a couple of days. The police stepped in when red paint was poured on the wall on which the video was being projected. Reports about "insults of religious feelings" were filed with the prosecutor's office.
Markiewicz's work balances between adoration and profanation. Professor Maria Poprzęcka writes, "It was created in the early stages of capitalsm, when young artists manifested their aversion towards the ubiquitous Church, which, in the previous system was the only buffer of freedom", Doctor Antoni Ziemba adds - "The artist's nudity […] did not defile holy things, it could have been and should be understood as a dramatic, drastic way to attract attention to the link between the human body and the carnal incarnation of God in Jesus".
In one of the interviews, the artist explained:
When I entered a church in Warsaw and saw people praying to a sculpted pseudo-god, it shocked me. The work in which I fondle Christ was motivated by the desire to insult everything that is not God. And in spite of everything, it is a religious work about the adoration of God. By licking a huge medieval crucifix and touching it with my naked body, by insulting it as it lies beneath me, I pray to the Real God.
Author: Agnieszka Sural, translated by Mai Jones 23.11.2013, title by LB and AM