curated by Diego Sileo
First solo exhibition in Italy of Artur Żmijewski, one of the most important radical figures on the Polish art scene.
The exhibition, curated by Diego Sileo, presents a selection of historical and recent works, including three new works conceived specifically for this Milanese project and produced by PAC, such as the new film inspired by the scientific cinema of the neurologist Vincenzo Neri and the photographic series Refugees/Cardboards, a long black and white photographic mural from which emerge human figures that look like refugees, men and women surrounded by darkness and desolation. The reference is to the many refugees on the Polish-Belarusian border during the summer and fall of 2021, but who today inevitably are also the image of the current war oppression in Ukraine.
His work reflects a concern for the socio-political problems of our contemporary world, and through it the artist frequently examines the mechanisms of power and oppression within the existing social order - as well as conflicts of various kinds that border on violence - while exposing the instinctive human inclination to evil. His works investigate the relationship between extreme emotions and their physical expressions, deal with the disruption of the human body and cognitive functioning in complex cases such as illness or disability, while also analyzing the mechanisms of memory and collective trauma.
Using symbolization, Zmijewski establishes an intricate system of representation in which fear unfolds in terms of social control. When fear becomes mistress of our lives, one can be tempted by overwhelming mechanisms or one can masochistically accept the yoke of submission; or one can play both roles simultaneously. Or one can simply try to understand when fear devours our soul. As Rainer Werner Fassbinder explains in his 1974 film - to which the title of the exhibition pays homage - "fear eats the soul" is an expression used by Arabs and North Africans to describe their condition as immigrants. A life full of fear, an existential fear of everything and everyone. Fear of a foreign and hostile environment, fear of not being able to see their loved ones again, fear of loneliness, fear of death, fear of poverty, fear of being forgotten, fear that no one will love you, fear of state racism. In PAC's exhibition project, fear is also that of illness, mental disorders and disability, that fear of not being accepted, understood, the fear of what is different from us, the fear of what we don't know and what scares us.
Żmijewski has exhibited in solo and group shows at museums and institutions around the world, including documenta 12 and 14, Venice Biennale, MoMA New York, Tel Aviv Museum of Art and Neuer Berliner Kunstverein. In 2012 he curated the seventh edition of the Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art.
Considered one of the radical figures of the Polish art scene, Artur Żmijewski began his artistic training in the 1990s at the Warsaw Art Academy, in Professor Grzegorz Kowalski’s sculpture class, where he developed an interest in depicting the human body.
At first glance, his images appear strictly true to life, but the artist’s analytical and precise staging is just as clear in his editing choices. The work reflects his preoccupation with current socio-political issues, such as the systems of power and oppression, the various types of conflict bordering on violence, and the instinctive human tendency towards evil.
Through the frequent use of symbolization, Żmijewski establishes an intricate system of representation, in which fear unfolds in terms of social control and turns into the master of our lives.
Just as Rainer Werner Fassbinder explains in his 1974 film – to which the exhibition’s title pays tribute – Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, an expression Middle Eastern and North African people use to describe their condition as immigrants living with constant fear. A fear that here also incorporates the themes of illness, mental health, disability, diversity and the unfamiliar.
The exhibition presents a selection of historical and recent works in addition to three new pieces conceived specifically for this event, including a film inspired by the scientific cinema of neurologist Vincenzo Neri.
For the first time PAC presents the photographic series REFUGEES /CARDBOARDS, inspired by the refugee crisis unleashed at the beginning of 2021 on the Belarusian and Polish border. Migrants from the Middle East and North Africa reached the border hoping to seek asylum in EU Member States.
Unfortunately, they experienced vehement pushback. The humanitarian crisis was exacerbated in the autumn of 2021, when the Polish authorities erected kilometres of barbed wire and forcibly deterred migrants, even resorting to tear gas: actions that gravely violate the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), and the Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.
Here, Żmijewski shows these migrants – these people – as imposing figures emerging from the darkness, packing all manner of items to defend themselves from the daily attacks they are subjected to. They are hieratic figures, visually powerful, yet they reveal a pacifist nature, their fight is limited to asserting the right to be heard and protected, a right that is being denied.
Having always been interested in photography – which he studied and experimented with since his academic studies – Żmijewski uses the camera as a means for experimentation and investigation of social issues, as an important medium for accessing and exposing the trauma and injustices of our time.
“Violence penetrates daily life. Every day someone threatens someone else with a gaze, a word, a motion,” says artist Artur Żmijewski regarding his series, GESTURES. These photographs provide a powerful insight into the entire poetics surrounding the Polish artist’s work, from the late 1990s to the present. Using the chronophotography technique, the artist creates several images distinguished by the multi-exposure of the subjects captured in their most extreme poses: brandishing weapons, laughing mockingly, insulting with simple hand gestures. Their intense and threatening emotions are amplified by the repetition of their faces, captured in distinctive moments, as if providing a phenomenology of aggressive mental states. The violence depicted here does not recount any specific occurrence or moment: rather, it is an abstraction becoming symbolic, emphasised by the black, neutral background and the contrast highlighting the overall facial and physical expressions. It is the visual manifesto of a daily violence that is partly disseminated through the media, almost mundane in its unselfconsciousness, aimed at assaulting, abusing, humiliating and subduing. Gestures predominantly presents executioners, with tense muscles and a decisive blow, but also people who play a dual role by displaying self-harm.
The strong gestures and dilated mouths make these images synesthetic, enabling us to perceive the sounds – and maybe even the imminent danger.
Invented by Étienne-Jules Marey in 1882, chronophotography arose from a scientific need to document movement photographically, capturing individual moments on a single plate. Therefore, it appears that the technique fulfilled the artist’s stated need for “a mathematical formula, or a model of abstract violence, distilled from things and bodies and endowed with a visual form.”
The city of Wroclaw has a complex history: Polish, Czech, then German up to the end of WWII and known as Breslau. Returning to being part of Poland, it underwent a gradual process of de-Germanisation, starting with the name: from Breslau to Wroclaw. With the aim of rebuilding a new “terra intacta”, all the banners of Nazi Germany and more were completely destroyed: including the German cemetery, the tombstones of which were used as construction material for parks, squares and buildings. An urban regeneration plan that looked very much like a ritual of purification from evil. These graves, however, also contained the bodies of people born – if not deceased – prior to the rise of the Nazi regime. Yet their names were erased and their stories forgotten. With ERASING, Żmijewski considers the weight of history, the consequences of rewriting the collective memory, and the desire for retribution stemming from the frustrating memory of the Nazis. Having recovered seven such tombstones, the artist deletes the names, keeping the dates of birth and death visible. With an interest in art that activates social and political processes, Żmijewski prompts a deep conversation on the reversal of power and, above all, how national identity can affect individual identity, which is sometimes the bearer of sins in extraneous realities.
Shown for the first time in Kassel in 2017, on the occasion of the fourteenth edition of documenta, REALISM is a video installation projected onto six screens, as many as its subjects: six Russian men, former soldiers, engaged in the Russian- Ukrainian conflict – sadly still ongoing. The videos, shot in Russia, depict how these men’s routines are shaped by their new physicality as lower limb amputees, resulting from combat or as a consequence of land mines. The videos, however, lack an empathetic gaze: the shots are stable and do not linger, the camera never exploits the voyeuristic device of pain but it remains objective, aiming for the utmost visual clarity or, indeed, realism. As often happens, Żmijewski points the lens towards subjects whose social or physical condition does not conform to what are considered the ‘standard’ canons. Their movements show ordinariness, strength, self-sufficiency, yet they simultaneously reveal the challenges of rehabilitation and the aura of loneliness surrounding the disabled, who are often isolated socially. An unsettling kind of attraction comes about in viewing these films, which show an extraordinary beauty that has become a model of both physical endurance and inevitability from the damage caused by war.
The body is a complex system, a living mechanism supported by a dense array of sensitive forces that in their unpredictability, render us unique. If the body is a complex system, the psyche that inhabits it is unchartered territory. In attempting to find an aesthetic form for this multitude, Artur Żmijewski devotes much of his research to studying the body: different, changing, emancipated, mutilated, hidden, political.
In COMPASSION the artist is inspired by the work of Vincenzo Neri, a neurologist from Bologna who in the 20th century devoted most of his studies to the language of the body in the presence of mental illness. Early in the 20th century, Neri went to La Salpêtrière hospital, where neurologist Jean Martin Charcot was the head of department, and which in the previous century, had been renowned as a centre for research and education on hysteria – which Freud had also attended. Precisely during the years at La Salpêtrière, Neri began filming the patients – whether they volunteered or not – to study the movements ensuing from their illnesses. Once back in Italy, Neri continued his visual recording activities, thus becoming a pioneer of scientific cinema and leaving behind an important archive. In Compassion, Żmijewski revises Vincenzo Neri’s work, which he interprets as “a complex image of the misery of the human condition”. Through the performative actions of actors and actresses, the Polish artist tries to evoke empathy for the patients Neri filmed, showing images of an altered, disordered and yet attractive physicality.
In his text Applied Social Art, from 2007, Żmijewski wrote: “Today the video camera is the artist’s best friend,” explaining that “film is a way to intervene, to fight for something, to inform, educate, update knowledge, tell fairy tales, persuade, draw attention to problems and critical focal points.” This is a viewpoint that is compatible with the artist’s body of work and reaches its peak in GLIMPSE thanks to the camera’s unfiltered and almost documentary-style eye. Shown for the first time at documenta 14 (Athens, 2017), the film is comprised of images from four refugee camps located in France and Germany. Specifically, the situation in the camp of Calais, in northern France, which is especially dramatic. Also known as “la jungle” (the jungle), the Calais refugee camp has provided temporary asylum to about ten thousand migrants – mainly Afghans, Syrians and Pakistanis – accommodated in caravans, tents and plywood dwellings as they wait to cross the English Channel to reach the United Kingdom. The camp was demolished by the French authorities at the end of 2016, yet is still inhabited by groups of migrants. It was – and still is – the scene of police brutality against both adults and children. Glimpse gives us a close look at a highly marginalised population and is so harrowing, it feels as if it belonged to a different era. The work investigates political power and the deprivation of essential human rights: such conditions are not only underscored by the attitude of the police, but also a number of specific shots that appear to scrutinise the migrants with the same disdain of those who consider them a burden on society.
Relative to the research commenced in 2016 with Glimpse, the photographic series IN BETWEEN focuses on the status of non-Western people in Europe, and the Europeans’ perception of them. The shots recall a style of ethnographic and propaganda photography that originated in the mid 1800s. It was a kind of anthropological photography, aimed at classifying the human race: an attempt, as you may imagine, to identify scientific criteria on the basis of physical measurements and proportions, to demonstrate the superiority of Western populations. Purely physiognomic characteristics dictated the impurity and inferiority of other populations, thereby justifying colonialism and all the
brutality it brought with it. Despite progress having been made – on all fronts – Europe is still weighed down in the 21st century by racism and xenophobia, which in recent years have been instigated by the growing number of populist parties, and the incapability to manage the refugee crisis. The lack of interest in actually meeting – getting to know – what is seen as ‘other’, still leads to the formulation of qualitative judgments and erroneous stereotypes, even if in good faith, by those who claim not to be racist. Żmijewski creates a series in which his subjects are put in a relationship with the urban landscape, as their bodies are measured or endowed with rhythm thanks to compositional patterns: a visual translation and a contemporary attempt to make their bodies comprehensible, if not scientifically, at least socially.
Inspired by Katarzyna Kozyra’s video Blood Ties (1995), in which her sister – Ewa, a lower limb amputee – hops across a beach until she reaches the water, in 1999 Żmijewski created the video and photographic series entitled AN EYE FOR AN EYE. The piece is one of the first focusing on the beauty of imperfect bodies, on their movements and the aesthetic claim to their existence. The four men move until their bodies fit together: the image is that of a new being, yet almost mythological in its appearance, powerful and endowed with an unprecedented kind of balance. The men – missing one or both legs – are members of a sports club for the disabled: they are athletic, confident and not ashamed about showing themselves. The biblical derivation of the title overturns the inherent punitive morality linked to the law of retaliation, and offers a new conclusion: ‘the eye’ is not removed, but given, even if temporarily. The piece tells of the possible coexistence between normative physiques and those considered defective, creating a new narrative of beauty, also working politically against the marginalisation of disability.
Although in part it expresses the discomfort of intimacy, for Żmijewski nudity is a question of a mental, rather than a physical, encounter, a way to speak (one’s) truth. For the artist, nudity is “the most authentic encounter of all, even when it’s unrelated to pleasure, mutual passion or warmth.”
The year following his graduation from the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, Żmijewski produced a video entitled ME AND AIDS, a performance piece in which he is personally involved with two other performers. The work, set in a bare classroom, sees the three artists move their steps uncertainly, as if they had lost their sense of direction. Their encounter takes place violently: a strong and painful collision of bodies, followed by a thud magnifying the effect. The sensuality of the naked bodies and the pleasure of the contact give way to fear, discomfort and bewilderment. The artist provides us with a narrative about relationships that is anything but romantic, indeed, full of potential dangers that in this case are made concrete by the disease. The conclusion thus suggests the impossibility of a joyful encounter devoid of suffering. Overall, Me and AIDS holds a necessary and crucial magnifying glass up to the patient’s psychological condition, amplifying a phobia that is both intimate and collective.
The performance – and this use of the unbound body – is greatly influenced by the Kowalnia, Professor Grzegorz Kowalski’s study class, which Żmijewski himself was part of, together with Katarzyna Kozyra and Pawel Althamer.
A recurring theme in Żmijewski’s work is the re-examination of Poland’s painful past – his homeland – which was occupied by the Nazis, destroyed by war, and consequently, became the scene of the most brutal death camps, including the infamous one of Auschwitz. In searching for an experience that belongs to a generation preceding the artists’ own, what matters most to Żmijewski is emotional restitution, rather than a linear and factual reconstruction. Based on his words, in relation to 80064, another famous work dealing with the same theme: “Trauma can be witnessed and processed only through the following generations, by those who weren’t there to experience it, but who have inherited its effects.” In GAME OF TAG, one of the pieces that has garnered the most criticism and scrutiny, the situation we find ourselves observing is indeed paradoxical. The playful aspect coupled with the horrendous and tight spaces of the gas chambers – one fake, the other real as evidenced by the yellowish rings left by Zyklon B gas – creates a short circuit that is as visual as it is emotional. Are we witnessing an impending disaster that the victims are unaware of? Or maybe is there a different conclusion, essentially a therapeutic way of imagining an alternative narrative? Or are we forced to deal with these places and experience the complete scope of possible feelings, in order to truly comprehend them?
In Game of Tag the performative role is left to others, a rather common feature in Żmijewski’s work: the performance by proxy shifts the attention from the artist’s own body to the collective one, elevated to symbol for an entire community. In the performance by proxy the incipit and the structural aspects are determined by the artist, but the final results remain unpredictable.
As an extension of his thesis, in 1995 Artur Żmijewski presented a performance piece in collaboration with artist Katarzyna Kozyra, also a student at Warsaw’s Academy of Fine Arts and enrolled in the Kowalnia, Professor Kowalski’s sculpture class. The work TEMPERANCE AND WORK, both video and photographic, is presented here in its filmic completeness. The two performers observe each other and then decide to explore one another. They confront each other physically but in the most unusual way: they dilate or compress the skin of the other, they forcibly bring their faces together, they assume absurd positions to observe themselves from different points of view. The sensuality of physical contact and any erotic tension are thus replaced with physical investigation; if on one hand this reveals a game imbued with a hint of irony, on the other it also conveys the challenge of communicating as the attempt to understand the other reaches the limits of exhaustion. Their young bodies are devoid of any sexualisation, not just through the gestures, but also due to the extremely saturated video colours, which render them less promotional and muted. However, the intimate setting makes their encounters believable and it seems that the viewer is permitted to witness an intimate moment like a voyeur.
The ZEPPELINTRIBUNE is a Nazi building, part of the large Nuremberg Rally Grounds complex, built between 1933 and 1938 by architect Albert Speer, who was eager to leave behind a project that would endure the centuries. The architect strongly believed in ‘the theory of ruin value’, according to which a building must show its aesthetic and ideological grandeur even when it had ceased to be functional (such as Greek and Roman ruins). Unsurprisingly, the building was inspired by the Pergamon Altar, a Hellenistic monument to which Berlin had dedicated a museum in 1910. Indeed, from the Zeppelintribune Hitler delivered his most powerful speeches, heard by thousands of civilians and soldiers. Because architecture is not just a matter of buildings and lines, but above all one of identity and power, the Zeppelintribune was one of the first Allied targets after the victory: the swastika looming over it was ceremoniously blown up.
Despite its decay over the years, the Zeppelintribune still stands today – just as Speer wanted. Żmijewski utilises it as a performative setting, fully aware of its potent political and symbolic values. The artist brings together historical documents and contemporary scenes to create a parallel between past and present, and to consider the importance devoted to this kind of memory.
In the video, two artists nicknamed arbeitsmänner (workers), parade before the monument and emulate the gestures valued by the Third Reich. As in most of Żmijewski’s work, this is not a one-way message because, if on one hand the movements turn out to be satirical, on the other they appear dangerous due to the power they had in the past. The same goes for Speer’s building: although today it is in a state of decay, its architecture is still visible, for better or for worse.
In the background is the German song Ich bin Lili Marleen, particularly famous during World War II, the favorite song of soldiers on both sides that became an unofficial anthem of brotherhood among the soldiers themselves.
As mentioned earlier, Pawel Althamer is a Polish artist who, like Żmijewski, attended the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts where he graduated in Sculpture in 1993. An eclectic artist, interested in contemporary social issues, Althamer works with various media: sculpture, performance, video, and interactive art projects. His sculptural work often focuses on the human body, which is conveyed through slender traits and imbued with vitality, aimed at showing the body as a vehicle for interiority. UNTITLED resulted from the synergetic work of Althamer and Żmijewski, who often collaborate on different kinds of projects. In these pieces, the two artists concentrate on reinventing a human physicality with metallic materials. The mostly geometric lines create a dynamic impetus that, together with alternating fullness and voids, give the matter vigour.
DEMOCRACIES I (2009) and II (2012) comprise a video collection of actual events taken in different places. The series shows the reasons motivating the population – or a part of it – to gather en masse in public spaces: the emotional investment, the euphoria, the occasional violence, are the consistent foundation in these videos, the pace of which is overwhelming and sends us hurtling into the same chaos. The artist wants to investigate the individual’s different behaviour in the context of mass gatherings, as well as the fine line between the right of expression and fanaticism. In this sense, the plural title is emblematic: it not only refers to the different ways in which a democracy can be articulated, but also calls into question the assumptions that make it so. This work underscores the relational antagonism discussed in depth by Claire Bishop in reference to participatory artistic practices. Bishop argues that conflict is the cornerstone of a democratic system because “without antagonism there is only the consent imposed by the authoritarian order – a total suppression of the debate”, yet at the same time, this very conflict doesn’t satisfactorily address the needs of all individuals. Żmijewski dwells on all the contradictions inherent in today’s democratic systems, the compromises upon which they rest, and the social inequities they cannot overcome. Amongst his videos we see several populist demonstrations that, rather than fighting for a common good, incite hatred and violence. As the artist himself said, “it was interesting to see how this has translated into political spectacle – how these murderous feelings are transferred to a symbolic level and represented there with confidence”.
POLITICAL GESTURES, presented for the first time on the occasion of this exhibit, aesthetically deploys the typical gestures of dictatorial political power. The work relates to both Gestures – with which it shares the technique of chronophotography, and the study of gestural violence – and to Refugees / Cardboards – which, given its theme, represents its antithesis. In fact, the photographs are inspired by the iconography of Hitler’s propaganda, specifically Heinrich Hoffman’s pictures as the official photographer of the Nazi dictator. In those images, Hitler appears deliberately imperious and inscrutable, decisive and threatening, resulting not only from the facial expressions, but mostly from the deliberate gestures.
Once again, Żmijewski juxtaposes the faces to exacerbate their expressions, placing the figures according to an arched progression and guided by the arrangement of the hands. Like the movement of the lunar phases, his subjects grow in intensity until they reach a central peak, in which the face is not only bigger but also monstrous, literally blotchy with rage. Yet, like every curve, this one also reckons with its descent: an inevitable epilogue or the perpetuation of cyclical motion?
ARTUR ŻMIJEWSKI (Warsaw, 1966) is an artist, film director and photographer. His work examines the dynamics of power and oppression within the social order.
It analyses the relationship between extreme emotion and its physical expressions, and deals with upheaval of the human body and cognitive function in extreme cases such as illness or disability, investigating the processes of memory and collective trauma. In his work, Żmijewski articulates a narrative structure of a cinematic kind that seems to rely on simple schemes, only to subvert these modes of representation. There is no opposition between subjectivity and objectivity, but a kind of dialectical game between the body and its purpose. Żmijewski has exhibited in solo and group shows in museums and institutions around the world, including documenta 12 and 14, the Venice Biennale, the MoMA
in New York, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, and the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein. In 2012 he curated the seventh edition of the Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art.