Author of Let Them See Us, the acclaimed work opposing homophobia and discrimination, and winner of the Samsung Art Master contest for talented emerging young artists. In 2013 she receives the second prize in the prestigious Spojrzenia/Views contest and takes part in the exhibition of the Romanian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
Visual artist, based in Warsaw. Born in 1979.
In elementary school, while her friends were playing in class, she was learning Swedish from cassette tapes. After a year of English studies, she moved to Stockholm, where she mastered the language while working as a babysitter and studying photography. Forced to return to Poland after a few years due to an expired visa, she found herself in the European Academy of Photography. She moved from Warsaw to attend Łódź Film School, where she is currently doing a PhD.
She met there one of her mentors, Józef Robakowski, who taught a course on new media. "Robakowski taught me that it’s important to know what you have to say", she explains in an interview with Culture.pl. "During film school, I started to think like an artist, because in Sweden it seemed to me that photography is mostly a craft, a learned profession."
Breguła’s first project after graduation shocked the public. It was a series of photographs, Let Them See Us (2002/2003), which were placed on city billboards and bus stops. Photos represented portraits of homosexual couples holding hands. "I made this cycle in view of the perception of the problem", she says. Her initiative started a broad public debate and was the first Polish socio-artistic campaign designed to work against homophobia and discrimination based on sexual orientation.
I discovered then that art can create change, that it can influence reality. I wanted to keep working like that. I started to think that my art could have a social impact, could influence reality. I also became interested in art critique, how it works, how it relates to people, how they respond to it. I began to look for ways to reach an accendital audience. I wanted to reach out to people who do not go to museums and galleries, without necessarily trying to make art for everyone. I tried to explore what would happen if the work of artists didn’t reach its target audience. It became obvious that people do not understand art, that they have a problem with interpretation. That is why I started to analyze the artworks of my peers.
One of Breguła’s early works of auto-analytical art was the collection of texts 66 Conversations About Contemporary Art (2007). She talked to people that were not familiar with the cultural environment and the works of contemporary artists. A few years later, she made the internet project Translations of Art (2010). It was meant as an agency that could translate an artwork on order. Anyone having a problem with understanding an artwork could appeal to its services. The interpreters were cultural experts and art lovers that had been chosen as collaborators. The content that emerged usually differed significantly from the official one proposed by the authors themselves or by curators.
For Breguła, each work of art is an ever-shifting entity that, by being open to different interpretations, invites the viewer to contribute to its meaning.
It is relevant that the project took place on the Internet, a place accessible to all, which broadcasts the statement to everyone. The bureau dealt with translating the art in a rather non-orthodox fashion. The artists whose works were interpreted were often surprised, and not always happy. But sometimes the artists themselves would also send their work to be translated.
She organized a scientific conference in Elbląg, Poland, Spatial Forms as the Center of Everything (2012), which invited experts from other disciplines to look at the famous Elbląg sculptures from the perspective their own area of expertise. The conference was accompanied by a publication with ordered interpretations of public art. "I have a habit from which I cannot break free", she said, "I like to talk about art with different people, for example, a lady in the store. I myself still have a problem with art, I still do not get it. I don’t know why it is good or why it is not."
Karolina Breguła also devises projects about the frailty of reality. She seeks a place for art in the everyday life. The purpose of her Artistic Emergency Service (2008) was to fight the small pains and drawbacks of routine. Her intervention of Emergency Service was held at a Kielce train station in order to warm the waiting passengers with lights from a photo studio. With Ola Buczkowska, she completed the work The Married Women (2005/2006). The photographs show portraits of two women who in their common friendship find something that's lacking in their relationships with men. Another of her series, Lovebook (2005/2006), tells the story of a lonely woman.
But Breguła deals primarily with the definition of art and its role in society. In Video Camera (2007), the artist recites user instructions for a camera in all European languages, while miming what she says with hand movements. The video won third prize in the Samsung Art Master contest. Good Neighbors (2007-2009) is a series of performances organized by the artist in Poland's neighboring countries. They are everyday situations – borrowing sugar or petting a neighbor's dog - but Breguła has them happen around people completely unfamiliar with one another - yet still neighbors.
Her film Fire-Followers (2013) is a summary of her research on the role of art in society, and is shown in one of the two exhibitions representing Romania in 2013 at the 55th International Art Exhibition in Venice. The film tells the story of a small town in northern Europe, which has regularly burned down since time immemorial. Its inhabitants are getting rid of all flammable material, including works of art. The arson turns out to be a secret organization of art historians who destroy old artworks in order to make room for newer ones.
The film is due to the fact that I myself feel somewhat uncomfortable around art - due to the fact that I'm lost, that I still have to seek out and fight. Fire-Followers is a structure in which the viewer will feel uncomfortable, because I look for meaning. And that meaning is a story that shows where art is going. It leads us to reflect on the progress art makes as it develops, and on what causes its development. In my film, art has no incentive to push itself forward, so the stimulus has to be triggered.
From a happening to a play
In 2013, Karolina Breguła created an architectural opera which reached the final stage of a competition whose winners were presented at the Polish Pavilion of the 14th International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale, curated by Agnieszka Sural. Her project didn’t end up with an award at the competition, but Breguła chose to bring her idea to life anyway.
Wieża (The Tower, 2014) was initially an opera performance presented by the artist at three locations around Warsaw: on the staircase of a block of flats in the Osiedle Za Żelazną Bramą housing estate, on the stage of the Warsaw Chamber Opera, and at the Zbigniew Raszewski Theatre Institute. It became an exciting story about modernist architecture seen from the perspective of its users and inhabitants – residents of a concrete block of flats, a form of building which dominates the Polish landscape.
Both stage actors and opera singers performed in the play, including Borys Jaźnicki, Ewa Konstanciak, and Maciej Nawrocki, as well as Joanna Cortes, Sylwester Kostecki, Anna Lubańska, and Ewa Mikulska. The music was written by Ela Orleans, a Polish composer who lives in the UK.
A flat in a concrete apartment building where there isn’t enough space and privacy determines the everyday life of its tenants, which can sometimes be stressful and not without conflict when it comes to neighbourly relations. Its residents get frustrated and tired of one another but decide to act together to change their living conditions for the better. A plan to build a sugar tower imposed on them by external forces is what unites them. The tower serves as a utopian ’glass house’ which is supposed to irreversibly change their lives. This idea brings them together and evokes enthusiasm, but it turns out to eventually lead to unpleasant consequences for all of its inhabitants.
Two years later at the Biennale of Art in Göteborg, Breguła created a video-musical based on the performance but with a slightly broadened scenario, adding an extraordinary mezzo-soprano aria by Anna Lubańska, a singer of the National Opera. The story presented in The Tower has become an interesting portrait of architecture itself. Architecture created in the name of the main concept behind modernism – an ideal community of residents – leads to alienation, isolation, and social pathologies.
In 2016, Breguła’s individual exhibition Office for Monument Construction opened at the Gallery Market in Glasgow. The film tells the story of people who come from a city which has ceased to exist. Deprived of their home and for lack of a better alternative, the people take shelter in an abandoned concrete compound located in the middle of a busy city. The characters create their own reality and follow their own logic; they fill their days with repetitive games and strange regulations. They search for something to define their identities. One of these people is a woman who works as a ticket seller who neglects her duties in favour of a peculiar hobby – collecting teeth. With time, she realises that her collection has become a symbolic asset which can – just like the titular monument – be used to influence people’s emotions. Breguła references museum collections and their role in society. The film poses ambiguous questions about the acquisition of national goods and collections, as well as institutional attempts to preserve a shared collective identity around those objects.
Breguła creates with the awareness that art can only examine and comment on reality, but it never has any actual impact on it. This realisation, along with the sense of helplessness stemming from it, became the leitmotif of her solo exhibition Remont, Słowo Wstrętne Jak Karaluch (Renovation, a Word as Disgusting as a Cockroach, trans. MD) (2016) in Arsenał Gallery in Białystok.
The axis of the exhibition was based on two films: The Offence (2013) and The Soup (2014). In the first, Breguła uses an allegory. It tells the story of an official from a provincial town who is obsessed with modernity. He craves progress, but the locals cling to tradition and fear anything new and unknown. Since they’re not ready for change, the man has an idea as to how to trick them. The film’s plot is based on the belief that restrictions and prohibitions can become a driving force for development. Essentially, the man’s plan is based on an inherent human trait – perversity. Breguła also points out that a sense of threat to creative freedom causes the incitement of grassroots movements and social activism.
In The Soup Breługa refers to the convention of the Theatre of the Absurd. The protagonists of the film are artists scared to leave their comfort zone and engage in a revolution happening literally next to them. In spite of their initial willingness they eventually withdraw and focus on their private matters. The artists discuss safe methods of participating in the revolution with minor intrusions of reality; ultimately they decide not to get involved. In The Soup Breguła reflects on the political and social involvement of artists: is it doomed to fail?
In addition to The Soup and The Offence, the exhibition in Białystok showed the artist’s mockumentary Fire-Followers in which Breguła examines various aspects of art, such as its status, resonance, and social perception. She ponders on the significance of both the process of creation as well as the outcome. Paradoxically, Breguła’s artwork has numerous meanings, despite the fact that the artist herself is looking for a specific meaning of art. Prof. Maria Poprzęcka comments on this phenomenon in her interpretation of the Fire-Followers (2013):
The calm and serious narrative of the film is misleading; viewers might be under the impression that this is a peculiar but nevertheless sociological record. Meanwhile, we get closer and closer to the limits of the absurd, like in the training centre for dogs which can ’sense art’ with the smell of turpentine, glue, and paint (all flammable materials). A shocking scene in the marine aquarium resolves any doubts: an eloquent guide presents predatory moray eels [...] next to which we see the leading works of the Russian avant-garde. Breguła doesn’t feel sorry for these destroyed masterpieces. On the contrary, she is fascinated by the moment of destruction that presents an opportunity for change – not necessarily a reconstruction, but coming to terms with the aftermath.
Another theme taken up by the artist in Remont, Słowo Wstrętne Jak Karaluch (Renovation, a Word as Disgusting as a Cockroach, trans. HSz) is the physical aspect of an artwork. Both the short video performance Cukiernica (Sugar Bowl, 2015, trans. MD) and the photo series Histories of Art (2015) reflect this theme. Cukiernica was created during her stay in Florence. The crowds of people and the multitude of world heritage per square metre overwhelmed the artist. Communing with works of art in such a density resulted in a surplus and caused a creative blockage. Examining works of art simply as objects turned out to be salutary.
In Histories of Art Breguła brings back well-known stories of the destruction of artistic masterpieces. Among others, she recalls the work of Joseph Beuys Fettecke (1982) – a block of butter placed in the corner of the Academy of Fine Arts in Düsseldorf which was accidentally cleaned up; Martin Kippenberger’s installation When It Starts Dripping from the Ceiling, from which a cleaner at the Ostwall Museum in Dortmund irretrievably removed a rain mark painted by the author, mistaking it for dirt. It also featured the deliberate destruction of La Nona Ora by Maurizio Cattelan at the National Gallery of Art Zachęta in 2000 in Warsaw by two Polish parliament members: Halina Nowina-Konopczyna and Witold Tomczak. Breguła perceives the act of destruction as a crucial part of interacting with art, since ultimately – a work of art is just an object.
The exhibition Photophobia (2017) in the Labirynt Gallery, presented five films of which three were new: the eponymous Photophobia, Office for Monument Construction, and The Tower. Seemingly conventional, in truth they each strayed from typical patterns and broke away from norms only to create new ones, ultimately leaving viewers dazed and unsure of what is definite.
Their lost and powerless characters are unable to function in the everyday socio-political contexts which they normally create. Their chores and duties seem to mimic everyday absurdities – the careful systematisation of collecting teeth, illegal clover farming, a battle with artificial lighting, or the construction of an enormous tower made of sugar.
Square is a story about a small-town community. One day a hidden bush on a square begins to communicate with passers-by. Gradually, the noise turns into singing and the source of these strange sounds is allegedly a sculpture that no one has ever seen which is hidden in a thicket of greenery. At first, the inhabitants of the city find the noise pleasant, but with time as the words of the song become explicit, it turns irritating. The statue appears to be saying ‘I would like to ask you a question’ and as everybody knows, questions can be uncomfortable.
Most of Square was shot in Taiwan. Its actors speak Mandarin and Taiwanese, yet it is not a document about the inhabitants of the city of Tainan but a universal parable created by Breguła. The film reminds us of the fear of revealing troublesome secrets that each of carries within.
Karolina Breguła has had solo exhibitions in institutions such as the Atlas of Art and the East Galler in Łódź, the Gallery of Photography Archaeology in Warsaw, the Centre of Contemporary Art in Gdańsk, the Grey Gallery in Cieszyn, the Neues Rathaus in Gottingen, the Landtag Stadt-und Landesbibliothek in Potsdam, the Jugendzentrum Glad-House in Cottbus and the Börgeramt Innerstadt in Cologne.She participated in exhibitions at the Centre for Contemporary Art and the National Museum in Warsaw, Galeria BWA Bielsko in Bielsko-Biała, the Kunstlerhaus in Dortmund, the Gallery Uqbar in Berlin and the Galleri 5 in Stockholm.
Author: Agnieszka Sural, 29.05.2013. Translation: LB, 31.05.2013. Updated: HSz, May 2019
Selected solo exhibitions:
- 2013 – The Centre of Everything, Atlas Sztuki, Łódź
- 2015 – I Don’t Cry Over Sculptures, local_30, Warsaw
- 2016 – Office for Monument Construction, Market Gallery, Glasgow, Scotland; Renovation, a Word as Disgusting as a Cockroach, Arsenał Gallery, Białystok
- 2017 – Photophobia, Labirynt Gallery, Lublin; Square; Fotoaura Institute of Photography, Tainan, Taiwan
- 2018 – The Tower, CCA Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw
- 2019 – Square, Museum of Sculpture in Królikarnia, Warsaw
Selected group exhibitions:
- 2019 – Square at ’Transposition’ Yebisu International Festival for Art & Alternative Visions, Tokyo Photographic Art Museum, Tokyo, Japan
- 2018 – Prêt-à-porter, lokal_30, Warsaw
- 2016 – Instruments for Making Noise at Escape from the ’Liberty’ Cinema, Galerie im Saalbau, Berlin
- 2015 – Office for Monument Construction at ’Common Affairs’, Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle, Berlin