Born 1943 in Warsaw, visual artist working in photography and video art, art theoretician.
Visual artist working in photography and video art, art theoretician.
Elaborate designs for personal communication instruments and survival vehicles are central to Wodiczko's work, exploring social and political marginalisation through creating solutions for alienated and excluded communities to “develop their shattered abilities to communicate” and share their experiences with others. His artistic practice is an exercise in democracy, an attempt to poke at politics and social structures through unexpected and controversial art forms.
Wodiczko works with projections, video and audio to create a platform in which the voices of those who have been pushed to the edges of society because of any series of traumatic events - homelessness, sickness, war and exile. These works often juxtapose jarring slogans on iconic buildings and monuments, distorting the accepted narrative of history and society in order to bring idiosyncracies to the surface and promote a more tolerant, peaceful approach to community on both a local and global level.
In 1968 Krzysztof Wodiczko graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts (ASP) in the Industrial Design Department, Warsaw. Today he is considered among the internationally most acclaimed Polish artists. Having emigrated twice, from Poland to Canada and then from Canada to the United States, he divides his time between New York, where he lives and Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he is a Professor of Visual Arts, a head of Interrogative Design Group, and a director of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
After leaving Poland (first moving to Toronto in 1977 and later to New York), Wodiczko returned to the idea of instruments and vehicles, which had made up his early works, in the late 1980s and 1990s. He no longer created them for his own use, but for others. He developed design ideas that would not solve world problems, but instead visualise them.
Wodiczko developed a series of tools and devices for urban interventions, such as Homeless Vehicle (1988–1989), Poliscar (1991), as well as portable and wearable communication instrumentations such as Alien Staff (1992), Porte-Parole (1994), AEgis (2000) and Dis-Armor (1999–2012).
His Homeless Vehicles (1988–1989) – upgraded models of a supermarket cart large enough to provide shelter – designed with elements resembling missile parts or spacecraft, are among of his most recognisable objects. At the time New York City counted close to 100 000 homeless people. For Wodiczko, the city's approach to the problem of homelessness made its victims exiles in their own city. The artist provides these exiled communities with tools for survival and for communication, encouraging them to make their voices heard and demand their rights. The Poliscar was also meant to aid the homeless. It helped to develop a communication network among them and warned of any possible dangers.
The instruments that Wodiczko built (based on the theory of xenology) were also created for the homeless, veterans and people without voting rights. This approach considered the instrument as an extension of the body, something between the natural and artificial world. From 1992 Wodiczko worked on Laska Tułacza (The Wanderer's Wand), referring to the Christian iconography of biblical shepherds. Wodiczko designed it with immigrants in mind. The Wand consisted of a small monitor and a speaker in order topass on individual stories; it's a social, but at the same time a very personal instrument.
The Porte-Parole, which Wodiczko worked on since 1994, is a continuation of The Wanderer’s Wand. However, it's attached directly onto the face as a literal extension of the body. A pre-recorded message is played on a monitor, which is fixed to one's mouth – an image of lips accompanied by sound. In the next version the monitor was removable, which allowed for a smooth transition into a direct conversation. The next step was the more developed Aegis (1998), which the artist described in the following way:
It is a more universal tool than earlier xenological instruments, because it's not only intended immigrants but for all those who experience alienation. It's designed to reveal the internal contradictions inherent for everyone and as such it's also dangerous...
The following Dis-armament enabled communication through the back – there would be an image of one's eyes transmitted to a screen placed on this person's back. It would also allow you to play previously recorded statements.
Since 1980, Krzysztof Wodiczko has created over 80 Public Projections of still and video images that critically animate historic monuments and public buildings.
In 1984, the artist projected an image of a giant open hand on the AT&T building in Manhattan at the height of the 40th floor. It was Ronald Reagan's hand, ‘swearing in the heart of the building’, as if the American president was swearing his loyalty to the financial elite. That same year, a projection on the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch appeared during peace talks between the United States and the Soviet Union – the artwork was also political in nature. Wodiczko created a symbolic image of the arms race on the arch– he connected American and Soviet missiles with a chain and a padlock.
Wodiczko conducted his first attempts at public projections in Toronto in 1981–1983 (in the subway, on the walls of buildings), examining technical possibilities and often integrating them into his pieces. However, his works quickly acquired metaphorical and literal meanings and the artist chose more sensitive places in the city's tissue. The projection at the Federal Court in London is considered groundbreaking: The artist projected an image of hands clenching steel bars on a wall of the building where detainees' cells are located. This motif later returned in numerous projects.
In 1985 in London, he supported an anti-apartheid picket group protesting in front of the South African Embassy with his projection on Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square and on the tympanum of the embassy itself. A year later in Boston he stood up for the homeless, displaying their photographs at the Civil War Memorial. That same year, he took advantage of the 47th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Poland to comment on the current situation in the country. Using the Equestrian Statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni in the courtyard of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, he projected an image of a tank (against the base of the monument), a skeleton of a horse (against the horse) and a truncheon (in place of the original weapon). Additionally, the rider had a swastika on his arm. The apocalyptic rider was interpreted as a warning to Poland.
Wodiczko's projections, as in the case of the South African Embassy in London, often refer directly to the function of the building. On the walls of the Allegheny County Memorial Hall in Pittsburgh, a building that is both a concert venue and a treasury of military memorabilia, the artist created a modern version of the danse macabre. During The Border Projection (1988), projected simultaneously in San Diego in the United States and Tijuana in Mexico, Wodiczko shed light on the problem of illegal migration, but also pointed to the infamous Spanish heritage of the Mexican city.
In 2009 Wodiczko was a guest at the 53rd Venice Biennale, filling the Polish Pavilion with his Guests project. Viewers watch scenes taking place seemingly outside, behind an illusion of windows, their projection on the pavilion's windowless walls. The individual projections, the images of windows projected onto the pavilion's architecture, open its interior to virtual, but at the same time real, scenes showing immigrants washing windows, taking a rest, talking, waiting for work, exchanging remarks about their tough existential situation, unemployment, problems getting their stay legalised. The slight blurriness of the images reduces the legibility of the scenes taking place behind milky glass. Wodiczko plays with the visibility of immigrants, people who are 'within arm's reach' and, at the same time, 'on the other side', referring us to their ambivalent status, their social invisibility. Both sides experience an inability to overcome the gap separating them. The Biennale visitors are 'guests' here too, of which they are reminded by the images of immigrants trying, from time to time, to peek inside.
In 2005 a major individual exhibition titled If You See Something... was held at the Galerie Lelong in New York. Projected onto the gallery walls were images of frosted windows, behind which people recounted and exchange various stories that each unfold as a compelling witness to the abuse of power. In one story, a young man being beaten by authorities, already defeated, does not protest; in another, family members of an accused terrorist plead for his release, claiming a forced confession. As the intensely emotional and vivid narratives inside the gallery space are juxtaposed with the ambiguous imagery of dark, moving figures behind the windows, blurred are the distinctions between 'us' and 'them', between what is assumed and what is real.
Krzysztof Wodiczko's War Veteran Projection is an audiovisual project carried out in various places around Warsaw using a demilitarised Honker Skorpion 3. The contraption projects statements issued by Polish war veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan which express the difficulties they face in returning to civilian life. The weapons platform at the back of the military vehicle, which was specially commissioned for the Polish armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been replaced with a specially designed 'projection platform' fitted with audiovisual equipment that emits voice sounds and textual images.
The texts, projected on the walls of Warsaw buildings, speak about the issues faced by Polish war veterans and their families. The projection was preceded by a workshop during which interviews with the veterans were recorded. Selected fragments, approved by the participants, have been turned into an audiovisual projection using special computer software.
In 2011 he expanded the project and made Out of Here: The Veterans Project, exhibited at New York's Galerie Lelong. Viewers experience a visual and aural narrative conveying the complex psychological and emotional impact that combat has on both military personnel and civilians based on interviews and encounters with veterans and civilians from Iraq and Afghanistan. That same year he presented the War Veteran Vehicle in Liverpool, an
In autumn 2011, London's Work Gallery hosted a show of Wodiczko's works, titled The Abolition Of War. The title is drawn from Wodiczko’s proposal to radically transform the Arc de Triomphe de L’Etoile into the structural centrepiece of the Arc de Triomphe - World Institute for the Abolition of War, thus reframing the traditional war monument as a site of education, critical discourse and proactive work towards peace. The show presented a range of the artist's projects and projections in the public space.
Bożena Czubak, the curator of the Krzysztof Wodiczko: On Behalf of The Public Domain exhibition at the Museum of Art in Łódź, writes:
Recent works reflect Wodiczko's involvement in anti-war debates. His idea of the ‘disarmament of the memory’ is translated into his projects, which deconstruct memories of war and violence and have their origins in the artist's earlier practice. The idea of the World Institute of Abolition of War engaged in activities consisting in cultural disarmament of myths created around wars and housed in the Arc de Triomphe in Paris covered with an architectural structure is a spectacular example of his attitude.
The author’s non-negotiable position is that unless we acknowledge the existence of the present ‘culture of war’ and unless we cut the umbilical cord that continues relentlessly to tie us to the glorification of history and celebration of aggression, we must not claim that we will be able to solve the issue of armed conflict in the future. For peace to prevail, we must first face the ‘culture of war’, stop being in denial about it and finally abandon it. Krzysztof Wodiczko deliberately assumes new models of global interdependence as an indispensable step on the path to genuine peace – as we read on the publisher's (Mocak Museum) website.
In 2012 he collaborated with Argentinean architect Julian Bonder on the museum celebrating the abolition of slavery in Nantes. It was created to recognise a dark period in the history of France and to commemorate the abolition of slavery by the French State in a fitting and solemn manner. The memorial also holds out a beacon to the future aiming to promote exchanges, in a balanced and fair way at a site that was France's most important slavery port between the 15th and 19th centuries. It was meant as a 'metaphorical and emotional rendering of the principally historical, yet still relevant fight for the abolition of slavery [that bares] the memory of the past [and serves] as a warning for the future'.
In November 2012 he set up another chapter in the War Veteran series with a projection of authentic interviews with war veterans on the monument to Abraham Lincoln in New York's Union Square Park.
In 2016, Krzysztof Wodiczko took part in a collective exhibition entitled Rysa Na Powiece (Scuff Mark on an Eyelid) organised by the BWA Municipal Gallery in Katowice. The project was designed to present modern Europe, which has changed over the past decades through the process of modernisation and its failures. The terrorist attack in Paris on 13 November 2015 was the direct inspiration for the exhibition, as well as the aftermath of the tragedy which resulted in a wave of aggression directed not only at the terrorists, but at all immigrant communities.
The Rysa Na Powiece exhibition is a visual story about the changing reality around us. The title is a metaphor, delineating the brief moment that separates us from falling into a panic, a freefallthat intensifies social tensions, fear and hostility towards strangers. As part of the exhibition, Wodiczko presented Drabina (Ladder) – his piece from 1975.
Krzysztof Wodiczko: Instruments, Monuments, Projections is Krzysztof Wodiczko's first major Asian retrospective; it opened in 2017 at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul. The exhibition was intended todeepen visitors' understanding of the relationship between art, society and democratic processes. It included a new interactive media project entitled My Wish created by the artist especially for this occasion. The project was commissioned by the Museum and featured the stories of 13 marginalised Koreans, told by a statue of Kim Ku – a well-known Korean independence activist. In the dark exhibition hall, visitors could hear the voices of families of the Sewol ferry disaster victims, who died tragically in 2014, laid-off workers, immigrant labourers and refugees from North Korea.
Wodiczko first visited Korea in June 2016 in search of a statue for the My Wish project. The artist also took into consideration the statues of Admiral Yi Sun-shin and King Sejong. However, Kim Ku was the final choice. Wodiczko was moved by Kim Ku's manifesto My Wish, which presented a vision of an ideal nation. The artist said:
Kim Ku became part of my attempt to understand Korean history and the history of democratic thought and democratic process. Poland, too, was colonised. I understand Kim Ku as someone who was met with mistreatment at the hands of militants, who confuse negotiation with collaboration.
When Krzysztof Wodiczko returned to Korea six months later, the country was in crisis. Eventually, a nationwide movement resulted in the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye and the election of Moon Jae-in. The artist watched demonstrations calling for impeachment as well as counter-protests organised by ultra-conservatives. He said that open microphones at such rallies are very purposeful, but they cannot do what he can with his projects.
Audio recordings were completed first, and then the speakers took on Kim Ku’s stature and role. They assumed the voice of the statue. Wodiczko mentioned that the participants' stories were very powerful. In particular, he remembered the story of two mothers who lost their children in the Sewol ferry tragedy.
‘The loss of children is hardly comparable to any other experiences’, he said, noting that women are a leading force in the democratic process. ‘They affect change through speech and appearance in public space’.
For me, the most important (part) is that they want the truth. It is not only personal, but there are ethical and political arguments in what they were saying. If truth is hidden from them, what about other things that are not revealed? Their demand is larger. They are speaking on behalf of the absence of truth.
Krzysztof Wodiczko's Żywe Obrazy (Living Pictures, 2018) are animated historical figures with the voices and gestures of contemporary people. Still images of scholars, reformers, Enlightenment activists with an eminent record in the field of national education speakwith the voices of contemporary citizens, animated with moving images and statements.
The portraits of Stanisław Staszic, Hugo Kołłątaj, Stanisław Małachowski, and Joachim Lelewel became a medium enabling viewers to participate in cultural practices and the larger public debate. Students, activists and Varsovians of various backgrounds and generations could embody images of their great ancestors and share their experiences and views on contemporary life.
On the occasion of 2019 Milan Photo Week Krzysztof Wodiczko presented his most recent site-specific project entitled Loro (Them). It’s a live performance that uses drones and innovative new technologies to amplify the perspectives of migrants, political refugees, and marginalised citizens to explore the complexities of their lives in today’s globalised society.
Drones are often associated with images of war, surveillance, intrusion and fear, but in the case of Loro (Them), the artist quite literally anthropomorphised the aircrafts to reclaim a broader conversation about technology’s relationship to humanity. Each drone was equipped with two screens showing only the eyes of the people involved in the project. A megaphone-like mouth amplified each participant’s story with candor and frankness.
The title of the project immediately emphasises the distance that is created between those who are mistakenly considered different – highlighting the all too familiar 'them' versus 'us' dichotomy. At the same time, the artist seeks to cancel this divisive space, putting audiences face to face, albeit virtually, with real stories and real individuals.
Wodiczko's work can be found in numerous public collections such as: The Fundació Tapies, Barcelona, Spain; Museum Sztuki, Łódź, Poland; The Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego; The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; the Artbank, Canada; the Israel Museum, Jerusalem; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Lyon, France; FNAC, and FNAC Ile de France, Paris; FRAC Pays de la Loire, Nantes, France; The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto; The Jewish Museum, New York; The Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; The Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art; The Center for Contemporary Art, Warsaw; The New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York; Zachęta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw; MACBA, Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona, and Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland.
Based on information provided by the artist, May 2007. Updated: HSz, October 2019