Visual artist, born on the 26th of May, 1966 in Warsaw. His works make reference to (displaced) individuals and societal trauma. At first glance, his images appear to be strictly documentary photographs and video, yet the artist's analytical staging becomes clearly recognizable through the selection of images during the editing process.
Żmijewski's work was, from the very beginning, complemented by intellectual reflection, the springboard for which became Czereja, a periodical published by Żmijewski, with short-term contributions from Monika Zielińska and Katarzyna Kozyra. The magazine published articles about the works of other artists - likewise, students of professor Kowalski - including texts on other controversial thesis diplomas from 1993, comments on the assignments, and interviews made, largely, by Żmijewski. By 1998 six editions were published.
Czereja was also a platform for developing Żmijewski's own attitude towards art, notably, in confrontation with Kowalski. For his theoretical diploma thesis, Żmijewski presented a text entitled Favorite Art Theory, published later in Magazyn Sztuki. Żmijewski wrote:
I am intrigued by this space where the substance of life mixes with the synthesized world of art.
For Żmijewski, art was a factor influencing the fabric of society. Emphasizing, however, that the word 'art' should be in quotes, as it is only its outer form that sets it apart from other modes of human activity. He highlighted the role of spectators and how they experience the work of art. He saw the role of art as that of analyzing current problems, whereby:
Art isn't in any respect better than other industries. It too, just as well, produces objects of a limited validity. (...) cars get rusty, and the work of art becomes devoid of meaning. Or, maybe not meaning, but the need for coming-to-being specific to its times.
Whilst still a student Żmijewski started organizing exhibitions of his friends from Kowalski's class, and later he did so for other artists engaged in critical art. Some of the exhibitions, like Rzeźba Ruchliwa (Moving Sculpture, 1994), took place in Galeria Czereja, the hall of the former Stolica cinema in Warsaw. The most famous exhibition Ja i AIDS (Me and AIDS) with works by Kozyra, Althamer and Kowalski was closed by the cinema management (it was later reopened in Jacek Markiewicz's a.r.t. gallery in Płock). Żmijewski showed Ja i AIDS (Me and AIDS), a film depicting the fear of the deadly disease and the dread of intimate contact with another person. In the film there were three naked people (two men and a woman) running and colliding against each other at full speed. Well, meeting another person is a painful experience - the artist had to say. In later years, Żmijewski would organize or collaborate on exhibitions, like Parteitag (1997), Sexxx (2000), Polska (2002).
Medium and method
One of Kowalski's teaching principles entailed the freedom to choose the means of artistic expression. It was in the 90's that video started to play an important role in the works of many artists, films being a vital part of the diploma theses of Kozyra and Althamer. After graduating, Żmijewski, as well, became increasingly interested in photography and film, the latter medium taking priority. At the time of the exhibition Rzeźbiarze Fotografują he wrote:
I don't sculpt any more - I make films - the world is too complicated to sculpt. One has only to make some photos to realize that sculpture is not able to catch up with reality. Photography and film wiped out any faith in sculpture I had. They ridiculed it.
Żmijewski's films are made in a very specific way. He explained:
I film situations I have provoked and set in motion.
Joanna Mytkowska commented on his working method:
He devises a scenario, sets up a situation, and introduces a group of people into it to see how they react, how they behave, how they cope.
This is why the films have the qualities of directed documentaries. Sometimes the arranged situations are more elaborate. Sometimes the films are more like traditional documentaries.
I'm not particularly interested in digressions on the subject whether what I do meets the criteria for documentary film; for me this is not really necessary. (...) What is most important for me is the content, communication. Entering into discussion. Taking the floor. Speaking out in the matter.
He has also remarked:
Art is, above all, thinking, participation in public life, reacting to the problems of this society. But also contestation. When asked about the feelings of the viewers of his films and the shock that is often their reaction to them, he says: I don't create entertainment for the mass public. Seeing to the well-being and comfort of viewers isn't my intention.
In the late 90's and in the beginning of the 21st century, Żmijewski's works oscillated around disquieting issues, touching on taboos, and uncovering the presence of The Other in the society. In this respect they matched perfectly the critical art movement, represented by Katarzyna Kozyra, Zbigniew Libera and Grzegorz Klaman. Even in this context Żmijewski's works have to be seen as among the most radical. It's no accident that Izabela Kowalczyk's book on the critical art of the 90's is entitled Ciało i Władza (Body and Power), both overlapping fields being the area intensely explored by the early works of Żmijewski.
The bodies in his movies are handicapped, crippled, sick, old. It's the bodies of 'The Others' that only rarely find their way into contemporary visual culture. The power that is exercised over it is dispersed, panoptical. It's the Foucault-like power-knowledge that is not ordained from the above but rather spreads horizontally in the society. Żmijewski was especially interested in how this power was implemented in the visual field and how the imposed constraints could be overcome. Thus his films have become not only a description of a certain fragment of reality, the fragment being uncovered and introduced to the popular discourse, but also an activity encumbered with a certain ideological message and inscribed in it existential question.
In Botanical Garden / ZOO, Żmijewski put together video material showing animals in the zoo and mentally handicapped children. By portraying their isolation from the rest of society, while also questioning this portrayal and putting it in context of voyeurism, he posed questions about bodily constraints, its powers, and lack thereof. These issues were later developed in films and photo series. In Oko za Oko (Eye for an Eye) Żmijewski portrayed disabled bodies of men without legs and arms. In photographs they are replaced with arms and legs of healthy men. Thus came to existence strange creatures with many legs and many heads. Another consequence was the embarrassing contact between the fit and healthy and the crippled. The healthy were introduced to the greatest intimacy, the most shameful contact, the place of the most dreadful humiliation - they touch their scars. In the film there is a sequence of a woman assisting a man while he's taking a bath; the man doesn't have feet and fingers. Na Spacer (Out for a Walk) was filmed at a rehabilitation center for paraplegics. In the course of rehabilitation, the sick are repeatedly taken for a walk by strong, healthy men. The whole ordeal is a big effort for both parties. As Adam Szymczyk has written:
Żmijewski constructs questions around the limits of help, compassion, and empathy, questioning, also, the very mechanism of the rehabilitation process - the equating of disparities – which transforms into physical oppression.
But it's probably the film Karolina that strikes one as the most drastic of Żmijewski's films. Its protagonist suffers from osteoporosis, experiencing a terrible, hardly bearable pain. She is administered more and more morphine which slowly dooms her to death.
In another film, KR WP (Polish Military Color Guard), the issue of power over body returns in a different way. Here, a group of soldiers dressed in uniforms go marching, at first, only to do the same later in a closed room naked. The effect is merely comical. The system no longer has any control over them. They have regained their nationalized bodies. Their bodies belong to them again. Sztuka Kochania (The Art of Love) was a film made for the exhibition Sexxx. It deals with a phenomenon of elderly patients - suffering from Parkinson's and other diseases - attempting transference.
The film tries to show, how these sick people, by means of undesirable and uncontrollable nervous twitches, try to pass on to the others some pleasure. People suffering from Parkinson disease fondle one another with those involuntary tics.
Another attempt at breaking free from the disabilities of the body, but which was doomed to failure, was Lekcja Śpiewu (Singing Lesson). Out of a group of deaf people Żmijewski gathered a choir of singers who performed Kyrie from The Polish Mass by Jan Maklakiewicz in the Augsburg-Evangelican church in Warsaw. Despite the efforts of the conductor, what emerges is pure cacophony. This project was reenacted two years later in Germany (Singing Lesson 2), when a professional opera singer joined the choir. In the Leipzig Cathedral they all sang a cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach, a symbolic figure representing German high culture. Żmijewski was quoted as saying, By singing they manifest their insuperable otherness.
Many of Żmijewski's video works deal with the traumatic stigma of the past, the extermination of Jews in World War II and the difficult Polish-Jewish relations. In Berek (The Game of Tag), he filmed a group of naked men and women of different ages playing tag.
Only at the end does it become clear that these people have been recorded at two different locations, one of them neutral, the other stigmatized with the tragic past as it is a gas chamber of what was once a Nazi concentration camp. Żmijewski compared this experience to a therapeutic situation. Instead of a tragedy, we see here an innocent child's game. This is reminiscent of a clinical situation in psychotherapy.
What I was interested in was the paradox of the religious motivation to go and experience the spiritual return to the roots of one's faith when in fact the holiest places of the catholic faith are located in the Jewish land. This presents a fundamental conflict, inasmuch as those pilgrims have never accepted the existence of Israel.Repetition is also present in 80064, another film by Żmijewski. The title is the number given to Józef Tarnawa in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Żmijewski manages to persuade Tarnawa to retouch his old number. At first skeptical, Tarnawa eventually succumbs to persuasion and agrees. In this work Żmijewski tried to highlight the role of conformism, both in the context of concentration camps, as well as now, in the process of retatooing the number. The artist has been quoted as saying, this film repeats the very same act of conformism, consent, and subordination.
The same Holocaust issues resurface in the so-called Israeli Triptych (2003). All three films show how heavy the past weighs on those living in Israel today. Itzik, in the film of the same title, weaves two planes of discourse. He uses, for example, historical facts and religious beliefs to explain why the Holocaust gave Jews the moral right to kill Arabs. Lisa is a story about a German girl living in Israel, who believes that her last incarnation was that of a Jewish boy killed by the Nazis. Her firm belief in it and contemporary situation combine to show the tragedy of inner turmoil and solitude of a German girl living in Jerusalem. Nasz Śpiewnik (Our Song-book) illustrations pertains to individual memory. Żmijewski asked older people, who left Poland many years ago, to try to recall songs they knew while living there. Some remember more while others can only summon up fragments. As they try to make their way out of the labyrinth of memory, a stigma of the past emerges.
Together with Paweł Althamer, Żmijewski filmed a polish catholic pilgrimage to the Holy Land - Pielgrzymka (Pilgrimage) . The two artists recorded the whole trip disguised as tourist-pilgrims. The film isn't about religious feelings, however.
Gradually the strategies developed in films like Game of Tag, have taken on a greater importance. These strategies now focused around setting up a situation involving a group of people, with the artist only observing their reactions. Such activities are reminiscent of group experiments with unpredictable results. Out of existing footage, Żmijewski pastes together films that, on the one hand, document what had happened and, on the other, make up the artist's original statement.
In 2005 Żmijewski represented Poland at the 51st Art Biennale in Venice. He decided to re-enact, in the Polish context, the experiment conducted in 1971 by Professor Zimbardo (Stanford Prison Experiment). Zimbardo divided a group of men into prisoners and guards and locked them up in a prison-like building. Żmijewski recreated the starting point of the experiment: a virtual prison came to life and the guards and prisoners were recruited from largely unemployed men. As far as Zimbardo's experiment is concerned, its goal was to prove that people behave in a pattern that is easy to determine. It showed, as he said, that, the casual, good people, when faced with great social pressure, can easily turn into culprits. Professor Zimbardos experiment, which had been supposed to run for two weeks, had to be interrupted after just six days, as both groups started manifesting behavioural patterns normally regarded as pathological: sadism, violence, humiliation. Thirty four years later, the Stanford Prison Experiment remains a source of inspiration for psychologists, sociologists, and filmmakers alike.
Żmijewski tried to precisely recreate the architecture of the simulated prison and its rules. Seven prisoners and nine guards were selected through a procedure, involving psychological tests and examinations, aimed at eliminating mentally unstable candidates. The rooms were equipped with Venetian windows (one-way mirrors), and the course of the experiment was filmed by five man-operated cameras and several night vision-enabled industrial TV cameras. Besides the inmates and the guards, the experiments other participants included psychologists acting as experts, capable of stopping the experiment if things turned dangerous, a former prison inmate, and a sociologist involved in prison system reforms. The experiment lasted for seven days. Making Repetition, Zmijewski referred, not for the first time, to the aesthetics of violence and segregation. Here, the two groups, guards and prisoners, actually joined hands and rebelled against the institution of prison, the artist, and the very situation he had put them in. The contemporary context of Żmijewski's experiment was now the American prison, Abu Ghraib in Iraq and Guantanamo in Cuba. Żmijewski commented on the experiment:
Repetition suggests that what people most ardently strive for is a compromise. People don't keep torturing one another until the conflict is solved. They search, rather, for a safe status quo, negotiate, and act opportunistically.
Joanna Tokarska-Bakir suggested that, one should perceive Żmijewski's work metaphorically. Not as a repetition, but rather as a new opening of the space of social evil. She noticed that, in this metaphor one can easily see the world of a realized humanitarian utopia: nobody, not even the guard, trusts authority. Not even the head of the guards identifies with his role, if authority is meant by it. It's not authority that is in control here. The one that ends up ruling is the one who manages to arrest authority in the act of dominion.
Upon being offered by Center for Contemporary Art in Warsaw (CSW) to participate in a series of individual exhibitions entitled W samym centrum uwagi (In the Very Center of Attention), Żmijewski and Althamer decided not to show anything of their own, they rather invited friends from the Academy of Art, old friends from Prof. Kowalski's class, as well as other artists and non-artists. Wybory.pl ([S]election.pl) illustrations self-consciously and creatively elaborated on one of Kowalski's most typical didactic projects. However, Obszar Wspólny, Obszar Własny (Common Space, Individual Space) was subject to many modifications. In contrast to the classroom environment which, according to the artist, was an exterritorial place, in which a community organized itself around free expression of thought, the process that manifested in [S]election.pl was open to any incursions from external reality and to any prevalent calamities (kindergarten kids, high school kids, call-girls, etc.). As a result a major principle of not acting destructively, a principle adherent to Kowalski's concept of the project was suspended. According to Żmijewski, It turned out that the appearance of such extreme acts of destruction doesn't really destroy or end the action itself - it simply becomes part of it.
These experiences resulted in other films, especially Oni (Them), shown in 2007 at Documenta in Kassel. Żmijewski arranged a sort of workshop, to which he invited members of the Polish right wing radical youth organization (Młodzież Wszechpolska), women identifying with the Catholic Church, young Polish Jews, and members of leftist organizations. Departing from the signs and symbols created by the groups, he indicated the possibility of visual (and verbal) conversation about the fundamental social problems. Although the film ended with destruction, it would be hard to understand that this inability to communicate was the core conclusion of the project.
Similar, though less conflicting, methods of work were applied again in the film Polak w Szafie (A Pole in a Wardrobe) 2006. A group of young anthropologists in an art workshop is trying to work through a trauma related to their fieldwork that focused on the history of the so-called Sandomierz paintings and anti-Semitism. People taking part in the workshop try to contend with an ignominious picture of a ritual murder. According to Prof. Joanna Tokarska-Bakir, the film showed us trying to come to grips with what we had experienced during our field-work in Sandomierz. We became aware of our helplessness. We realized that, depending on upbringing, we might have no way to persuade people of the truth. (...) This is a provocation, aimed at starting a conversation that was deadlocked and wouldn't move, no mater what.
Applied social arts
More recently Żmijewski associated himself with the leftist magazine Krytyka Polityczna. As the art director of Krytyka Polityczna, Żmijewski has been able to further emphasize his artistic position. His article Stosowane Sztuki Społeczne (Applied Social Arts) published in KP (2007, 11-12) was widely discussed, as it was asking a crucial question: Does contemporary art have any substantial impact on society?
Żmijewski analyzes a particular situation, in which art is political, but 'without politics' - a situation in which art fulfills its political potential in the galleries, but not on the plane of real political confrontation which takes place elsewhere, e.g. in the media. He compares the discourse of arts with that of science saying,
The diagnoses offered by artists are considered too equivocal and unverifiable, when confronted with scientific categories. Żmijewski then goes on to propose, the knowledge which arrives as the final product of art is by various specialists repeatedly and obstinately reduced to just another esthetical proposition. Unfortunately art criticism plays a similar role (as was conclusively proved by the reception of the film Repetition).
The manifesto eventually does suggest a possible solution to the problem that would, at the same time, help to endow art with the lost social efficacy. First, he proposes the instrumentalizing of art's own autonomy, with the effect that art's autonomy contributes to the artist's goals without constraining it. Secondly, artists should dare enter the areas ascribed to other domains, and co-operate with people who don't feel any respect for art. Thirdly, Żmijewski suggests one should break with the notion that art is like fashion where everything changes over time, breaking also with the dictates of art criticism. Answering the skeptics' question of whether art is to engage in political discussion, he says, Of course it should engage in political discussion. This discussion will only be valuable if art can talk about its objects usurping various strategies, if art feels at ease with its intuition, imagination and premonitions.
Applied Social Arts, though only few artists declared their full adherence to the postulates and diagnoses represented by Żmijewski, has become a reference point for many artists, critics, and theorists. Żmijewski's essay has definitely given rise to discussions about the place and role of art. Another convergent factor here has been a recent translation of works by Jacques Rancière. In the introduction to Rancière's book Estetyka jako polityka (The Politics of Aesthetics) published by KP Żmijewski wrote:
The meaning is nothing but a social fact, it takes place between people that communicate and act. The politics of art germinates from this mode of thinking. (...) Seen from this perspective, politics is not the use of state apparatus to instill in people a certain set of ideas. It is, rather, a place where our demands, needs and wishes meet. Ergo, politics means art.
Various discussions that ensued included polemics by anthropologists from the Institute of Applied Social Sciences. In an article entitled Pseudo, while admitting that Żmijewski's analysis of the art field is quite sober, they reproached him for idealising science, demanding from it something about which science, itself, is very suspicious.
To Żmijewski's credit, however, is the crystallization of artistic attitudes, asking the question considering artistic (over-)production, finally pointing to the drawbacks of the system in which the artists function. Seen from this angle, art is a negotiated area of free activity, though not exempted from the domain of social norms. It's the artist who eventually takes responsibility for his work. Personal abilities and ingenuity are swept aside, as the discourse, engaging in it and producing it, grow in importance. Staying away from the center, self-conscious indifferentism is, ultimately, a kind of escapism. Żmijewski's article questions not only the necessity, but also the very possibility of using the word art, as it significantly continues to lose its value.
It may seem that by taking away from art its exclusiveness, Żmijewski succeeds at weakening art. On the other hand, his activity does strengthen art, as it ascribes to it a substantial social role. Many think that crossing the border of art's autonomy and using it instrumentally is unequivocally synonymous with retreating from its territory. They effectively ask if it's still Art? Żmijewski doesn't seem to be in any way intimidated by such critique, as the art is not at stake here anymore.
One can discern a certain change in Żmijewski's films made after the manifesto. In a series of films called Wybrane Prace (Selected Works) 2007, he created portraits of the so-called common people, working at the factories or doing simple chores. Żmijewski accompanied them at work and at home, at their most simple activities or leisure. He would even film them asleep. In Demokracje (Democracies) 2009 he confronted various expressions of political attitudes in public space, most often demonstrations, such as those in Israel and the West Bank, in Poland and other European countries. He shows an anti-abortionist demo in Warsaw, alongside the funeral of Jörg Haider, alter-globalist riots, a march in Ireland, holy mass in a catholic church and a Way of the Cross in the town streets. Żmijewski said in an interview that many similar videos end up on Youtube, because the official media won't show them. In Ireland he realized a project entitled Robotnice i Robotnicy (Male and Female Workers) 2008-09. He asked construction workers and cleaning ladies - in large, migrants from Poland - to tell him about their work and what hopes they have about their stay abroad. The answers are short texts or little drawings. They constituted part of a special edition of KP (2009, 18), edited by Żmijewski and fully dedicated to visual art, photography, artistic projects, etc. They all share an attitude of politics and social activism. Thus, a magazine has become an alternative to exhibition way of making a statement; the statement being made in a serious environment. The authors of this issue of KP included the names of Santiago Sierra, Adrian Paci, Ahlam Shibli, Maurycy Gomulicki, Paweł Althamer, Anna Molska and many others.
In 2011 Żmijewski was appointed the curator of the 2012 Berlin Biennale, a controversial choice that has been widely commented in the press, particularly in Germany. Żmijewski has declared his aim to be to stop asking questions and come up with answers to issues that go far beyond the art world, questions of politics and society and the siren call of widespread government protests around the world. His aim is to try to move art beyond the institution and into the street, where it may have an impact on reality. In a 2011 interview with Adam Mazur for Biweekly.pl (Art's Inner Lie), the artist said:
I think there’s a treasure deep within art itself. I think that art is the enemy of that terrible ideologic cynicism that’s spreading like wildfire through the entire world, through institutions of the state, and the world of politics. I don’t know whether we should transgress the borders of modern art, because I feel that we’ve done this multiple times already. I think we should rather be more pragmatic. If pragmatism were to replace the production of these “intellectually astonishing” paradoxes, then I’d say that one of art’s limitations has been demolished. We’re hearing in the news that the stock exchanges are being run by people who are addicted to risk, and can see with our own eyes that capitalism produces people addicted to certain lifestyles. Striving after satisfaction through experiencing paradoxes and questions without answers that the art world produces is also a kind of addiction. This entire field resembles a kind of anthropological chaos: a vortex of formal inventions, not quite sociological, unfinished analyses, a mixture of visual languages, grammars, requests for breaking taboos, some subversive practices, participation, group conformity, traditionalism, etc. That doesn’t satisfy me at all.
Critical Reviews of Artur Żmijewski's Theatrical "Mass"