He makes objects which suggest an approaching cataclysm, on the other, he gathers hints and constructs tools with the help of which a human being can free himself from civilisation and will survive in the face of catastrophe.
The main topic of Janek Simon's art is the problem of catastrophe, an approaching end of civilisation, which could be foreshadowed by computer games. The artist does not point to the source of this threat. On the one hand, he makes objects which suggest an approaching cataclysm, on the other, he gathers hints and constructs tools with the help of which a human being can free himself/herself from civilisation and will survive in the face of the catastrophe. This attitude is based on the thought of anarchists who propagated the idea of individual rebellion against the system and state. This rebellion finds its expression in Simon's individual creativity, and consequently, in his aspiring for self sufficiency. Lukasz Ronduda described it as an "anarchic and pragmatic attitude in the face of contemporary knowledge of reality based on overproduction."
Simon studied sociology and psychology at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. His artistic activity began around 2001. As VJ Jansi he cooperated with Commbo group, making visualisations for music in clubs and with the 36,6 Foundation. He is author of interactive installations, videos, objects. Simon takes inspiration from computer games, Internet and the archive (in its multiple meanings). He lives and works in Cracow.
His artistic début took place in 2002 during the Novart.pl Festival in Cracow. There he presented Carpet Invaders – a simple computer game whose board was an image of a carpet projected on he floor. Within the limits marked by the edging in the style of Eastern carpets, a space ship navigated by the viewer shoots at elements of the oriental ornament. The next year, Simon made another interactive installation entitled Balwan (Snowman, 2003). The power of the voice of a person in the projection room influences the projection speed of a film in which children are building a snowman. A viewer becomes a supervisor – the louder he/she utters orders, the faster the work goes.
In his film Odlot (Take Off) from 2003 the church towers of Kraków become rockets which go off into space one after another, leaving the skyline totally flat. It is already in this amusing animation (the Polish title can also be read as referring to the state of drug intoxication) that one finds both the vision of catastrophe and of escape. In the work Kanal (Canal, 2004) Simon placed a sound system under a sewer drain which, from time to time, emitted the voice of Charlie Chaplin from "The Great Dictator" imitating Adolf Hitler. Placed on the old market square in Bytom, the work alluded to the fears that as the consequence of Polish access to the European Union, the Germans would come to the Silesia district and demand the restoration of their former property.
However, the catastrophe is marked explicitly by slight shakes of reality, for example a shaking glass of water (Lekkie trzesienie ziemi / Slight Earthquake, 2004) or paintings swaying on the wall, as if the building was moving just like a ship on the waves (Sztorm / Storm). A vision of catastrophe was also at work in Pożar w kwaterze głównej straży Pożarnej (Fire At Fire Department Headquarters, 2005) - an architectonic model of an existing building with a smoke generator placed inside. Fire spreads in the headquarters of an institution responsible for extinguishing fires - a vision of irreversible disaster. In the work Smród (Smell) in turn, presented in the exhibition Bad News at Kronika Gallery, Bytom, in 2006, the artist filled one of the exhibition rooms with the smell of burning, which could suggest a recent explosion.
The other side of Simon's artistic practice referring to catastrophic visions are numerous tools constructed by the artist on the basis of the information and instructions found on the Internet. He proves that many objects produced by corporations can be handmade, for example Zegarek elektroniczny domowej produkcji (Home Made Digital Watch, 2005). Simon specialises particularly in tools which are supposed to help to survive in extreme conditions, for example, Pulapki na wiewiorki (Squirrel Traps, 2005) set accordingly with an instruction for the American Army. In 2005 in Wolfsburg, Simon presented a scheme Jadalne rosliny i zwierzeta Dolnej Saksonii (Edible Plants and Animals of Lower Saxony) and held a lecture on this topic.
Sometimes however, in Simon's work one finds longing for well established rules; especially where they had been replaced by chaos and total anarchy. In his computer game Szachy totalne (Total Chess, 2004) sophisticated chess rules have replaced the primitive rules of the arcade game. Particular movements of the opponent cease to work, his pawns are eliminated with the use of a series of impressive explosions.
In his other realisations, Simon applies the formula of aesthetic recycling, adopted from collectors of all sorts of objects and rubbish. The exhibition in Zacheta Gallery in Warsaw in 2005 entitled Krakowiacy lubia czystosc (Cracovians Like It Clean) was in its entirety constructed of cans, plastic bottles, etc. Set together, they reminded of futuristic buildings or the Cracow Christmas Crèche. There was also a sentimental touch to this exhibition - it alluded to the period of early capitalism in Poland, and to the fascination with the cheap glare of packages of the products from the West. This exhibition featured also Triumf polskiego przemyslu samochodowego (The Triumph of Polish Car Industry, 2003) - images from "Turbo" chewing gum, depicting Western cars, arranged in the shape of a Polonez produced by the Zeran Car Factory.
Janek Simon is also interested in a self reflexive side of artistic production - in the notions of artist, art and institutional relations. For the exhibition entitled Piekno czyli efekty malarskie / Beauty or the Painterly Effects he created a video installation Malarz-Samobojca (Painter-Suicider, 2004). In a small cube imitating an exhibition room, the artist presented a detonation of a puppet filled with paint. The effect reminded a work of action painting. In the same year he took part in a project for Casino Luxembourg and as every participating artist was obliged to make one work. His project however was a deceitful one - the work was a dummy of a potential retrospective exhibition in which he gathered - as Duchamp did some time before in his cases - suitably diminished projects of his former realisations (Retrospektywa / Retrospective, 2004). In this way, Simon's anarchic creationism emerged in the face of the strict rules imposed by an institution on artists.
In the project Rok Polski na Madagaskarze (Polish Year in Madagascar) Simon took up the issues of cultural colonialism. In Spring 2006 he went to Madagascar in order to organise in Antananarivo a Polish exhibition. In reality, it consisted of several works by foreign artists (such as Guma Guar) which nevertheless touched upon problems present in Poland today - social stratification and war in Iraq. Most of all however, the project was a journey to a country which in the 1930s was perceived by many Polish people as a possible realisation of the colonial aspirations of the Second Republic of Poland. The cultural expansion organised by Simon provided an ironic commentary to the contemporary aspirations of Polish society to place itself within the world elite.
Invited to participate in the Spojrzenia (Views, trans. HS) competition in 2007, Simon presented Chleby Krakowskie (Breads of Krakow, trans. HS, 2006) which featured loaves of bread turned into mechanical insects scattered around the floor. Moreover, he also presented the Robot VJ installation (2007), consisting of a television set and a video mixer. These then continuously played a bizarre mix of the first and second channel of public television resulting in the effect of a shifting reality, combined with a reflection on media manipulation.
Simon devoted his individual exhibition Gradient (2007) in Kraków’s Bunkier Sztuki to the failure of utopian projects. He showed, among other things, ‘failed’ works of art in an exposition consisting of three parts. The first was devoted to the Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. The 330-metre pyramid-shaped building has been under construction since the mid-1980s but has yet to be completed. The axis of the second part of the exhibition was a failure of home, disaster and fleeing. Finally, in the last, third part of Gradient, Simon presented some ‘unsuccessful’ kinetic sculptures which moved in a non-harmonious way or barely moved at all.
In 2008, Simon was invited to the prestigious Manifesta event, which took place at several venues spread around northern Italy. Simon presented a piece called Volkswagen Transporter T2. Inspired by Jorge Luis Borges’ book, he decided to turn it into a case study. He dismantled an early model of a Volkswagen Transporter (a car associated with alternative movements and a free, unhindered lifestyle) and painted each of the parts with a randomly selected colour so that after re-assembling the car turned into an ‘anarchist kaleidoscope’, a manifesto of pluralism.
The idea of randomness is present in Simon’s other works, such as Wentylator (Fan, trans. HS), which was essentially an installation of a rotating fan with black trainers tied by their laces to its blades. The artwork has been shown, among others, at the exhibition Niezwykle Rzadkie Zdarzenia (Extremely Rare Events, trans. HS) at the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art in 2009 as part of a wider project. This was a collaboration between artists, scientists, and experts on culture, devoted to studying the unpredictability of accidents and the importance of such ‘rare events’
Coincidence was also the major theme of an artwork shown by Simon at the Wolność Od-Zysku (Freedom from Profit, trans. HS) exhibition at Zachęta Gallery in 2009. The artist tested a few potted plants for survival: every day he decided which of them would be watered by rolling a die. In this piece, Simon offered his commentary on the phenomenon of shortage, especially in the light of the prevailing economic crisis.
Janek Simon is no stranger to artistic dialogues. In 2008, at the Raster Gallery in Warsaw, he allowed Romanian artist Vlad Nanc to redefine his work. Simon, in turn, creatively transformed the Romanian’s work. The entire exhibition could have been read as a reflection on legal authorship, the conflict between copyright and the right to freely reinterpret, cite, or create pastiches. When asked about the project, Janek Simon offered the following commentary:
Initially, I was actually attached to the idea that we would improve our work, but then we moved away from everything that might have resulted in a conflict of ambitions and we tended to move towards complete cooperation.
In 2008 the space of the Arsenal Gallery in Białystok was transformed into the psychedelic office of a phantasmatic corporation for the Fuga exhibition. The made-up firm specialised in creating demand for new products and creating a new language of communication. In the installation Simon wove in a few quotes from Alejandro Jodorowsky’s films (coloured mineral waters, a pyramid made from matches). The escape from reality was only apparent and what seemed to be fantastic was actually a reflection of the advertising world and the media.
In 2010 he showed Morze (The Sea) at the Raster Gallery in Warsaw, which took upon the subject of travel and conquest, attempting a new sort of geography lesson based in culture, economics, tradition and real-life experience. He embellished a portrait of Levi-Strauss with traditional Indian bindis and scribbled Janek Was Here over a political map of Ghana, testing the limits of our consciousness of the Polish dream of imperialism - one that never came to fruition, but was always vested in the hearts of those who wanted to conquer the world, much like the Dutch, English, French, Spanish and Portuguese.
As part of the 2010 collective exhibition Robotnicy Opuszczają Miejsca Pracy (Workers Leaving the Workplace, trans. HS), Janek Simon completed his own artistic project. The exhibition presented at the Museum of Art in Łódź featured artworks created by over 20 artists, including Joseph Beuys, Rafał Bujnowski, and Roman Dziadkiewicz. These creators prepared pieces that in various ways offered artistic commentary on the global development of the information society, the service sector, and the knowledge-based economy. The concept of the exhibition was based on three interweaving threads: transformation of industry, a broadly understood scope of contemporary productivity, as well as the work and the economics of artists.
To carry out his project, Simon visited the Alba International Market in Lagos, Nigeria, where electronic waste sent from around the world creates the largest second-hand market for used equipment. These items, after further processing and/or alterations, enter a new, unofficial and for the most part, illegal economic cycle. The installation grew progressively along with the duration of the exhibition and was the final product of the artist’s journey. Simon’s work explored endemic trading systems that remain informal and exist marginally, pushed out by the global balance of power, creating a transnational flow of capital.
Bartering and trading markets were a significant, though unofficial, part of the Polish economy throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. As part of his project, Janek Simon became a local trader in Łódź and tried to sell items he had brought back from Nigeria.
Auropol is an initiative developed by Simon and carried out with the help of artists such as Marta Deskur, Monika Zawadzki, Tomasz Kowalski, Agnieszka Polska, Daniel Rumiancew, and Andrzej Szpindler. The first part of the project was an artistic residency in the utopian town of Auroville, located in the south of India, which ended with a group exhibition at a local gallery, Kala Kendra. What followed was a film created from material gathered during the trip and supported with bits from Simon’s archives. It was shown in the autumn of 2012 at the Museum of Art in Łódź as part of an exhibition entitled Niewczesne Historie (Untimely Stories, trans. HS).
In 2012 he represented Poland as part of a group exhibition at the Liverpool Biennial with his work Odlot (Take-off).
The individual exhibition Podróże na Wschód i na Południe (Travels to the East and South, trans. HS) from 2014, showed a wide range of Simon’s artistic activity, dedicated to exploring the remnants of cultural colonialism. During the exhibition, such productions as Rok Polski na Madagaskarze (Polish Year on Madagascar, trans. HS), Misja Aurpol (Mission Auropol, trans. HS) – a new film montage from an expedition to India and a preview of Nollywood Ashes and Diamonds – a remake of Andrzej Wajda’s Polish cinema classic Ashes and Diamonds. The Nigerian adaptation of the film directed by Niji Akkan will aim to present the history of the Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Biafran War.
Apart from Simon’s previously exhibited works, Travels to the East and South featured some new pieces as well, including an installation entitled The Incredible Adventures of Mr. Seven – a compilation of the numerous preposterous stories told by an Indian named Mr. Seven and recorded by Simon. This man’s chaotic confession led to self-reflection for the artist, which resulted in an autobiographical ending to the project. Alang Transfer is a reconstruction of a project made abroad. Simon brought a series of pictures and information boards collected on shipwrecks abandoned at a ship-breaking yard in Alang, India. During a performative auction which opened Simon’s exhibition in Belgium the artist sold his collection, therefore exposing the economic mechanisms that shape the modern world. The Alang Transfer installation in Awangarda Gallery was a recreation of the original project.
One of the main attractions of the Wrocław exhibition was its 3D-printed figures. Simon based their design on sketches by Oskar Hansen and Lech Kunka. These miniature sculptures are a reconstruction of objects Hansen and Kunka once saw in Paris’ Museum of Man and then attempted to draw.
People with the Heads of Dogs is a sentimental review of artworks and various artefacts that Simon gathered throughout his years of travelling. In Warsaw Raster Gallery, Janek presented objects that occupy an important place in both his artistic and personal history. The eponymous people with the heads of dogs are sculptures printed by a domestic 3D printer. The figurines were inspired by illustrations observed by Simon in Marco Polo’s journals. The mediaeval traveller described a land inhabited by Cynocephalics (the Dog-headed people), which, according to him, was located somewhere on the Andaman Islands. These mythical creatures were also mentioned in other sources dating back to ancient times.
Janek Simon converts his travel experiences and subjective research into various artistic ventures. He explores paradoxes discovered during his journeys and studies the universal aspects of Polish culture. Simon observes the reception of his native culture in particular regions of the world to obtain a better understanding of his own position in the world. He researches economic and cultural dissonances which occur at various latitudes and longitudes and uses the language of art to first find and then show a common denominator. In his work, Simon analyses modernity, universalism, and Polishness with original material that goes beyond European cultural hierarchies.
In February 2019, the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art opened an extensive retrospective of Simon’s work encompassing the last 15 years. For this occasion, the artist wrote a computer program that gave way to his new project – Synthetic Folklore. It consists of a series of patterned rugs that visually combine motifs from various ethnic traditions: Polish, Indian, and Caucasian. Simon once again returned to the subject of universalism, but this time he reflected on its use in times of identity politics and the increasing role of artificial intelligence. This prompted the exhibition to return to Carpet Invaders – Simon’s artistic debut. Another installation premiering at Ujazdowski is called Huaqiangbei Commercial Street.
Author: Karol Sienkiewicz, November 2006. Updated: HSz, 2019.