Robert Kusmirowski was born in 1974 in Lodz, Poland, although he spent his childhood in Sandomierz, whence he derives his memories of the rural eastern borderlands of Poland. He now lives near the city of Lublin in southeastern Poland. As a student, he received an Erasmus-Socrates scholarship and also studied fine arts at the University in Rennes, France. Kusmirowski only recently graduated from the Art Department of Marie Curie-Sklodowska University in Lublin (with a degree in sculpture, 2003), but he already enjoys international acclaim.
Called "the new Magician from Lublin" by critic Sebastian Cichocki, Kusmirowski had his first shows in Poland in 2002, and in 2003 was named Poland's top emerging artist by critics and curators in the yearly ranking by the influential Internet-based art magazine Raster. During the last three years he participated in many international exhibitions: Stockholm Art Fair 2002; Junge Scene at Secession 2003, Vienna; Le Plateau in Paris 2004; Frieze Art Fair 2004; and most recently Art Basel Miami and at Andrew Kreps Gallery in New York City, both 2005; as well as in shows in Poland, including Novart.pl 2002 in Krakow, and the first Lodz Biennale in 2004. Kusmirowski has also had numerous solo exhibitions: at the Biala Gallery in Lublin 2002; CCA "Ujazdowski Castle" and Gallery XX1 (both Warsaw, 2003); Galerie für Zeitgenoessiche Kunst, Leipzig, Germany; Kronika Gallery, Bytom; Arsenal Gallery, Bialystok; and Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw, (all 2004). Currently his solo exhibition new production is being shown at Kunstverein, Hamburg, Germany). Kusmirowski was nominated for a Polityka weekly "Passport" award.
He first attracted attention with his shows at the Biala Gallery in Lublin and in Krakow's Novart.pl (both 2002), where he presented 1:1 scale railroad models (in Biala it was a complicated installation of a train station, in Krakow, a single railroad car). Before that, as a perfect copyist of old official documents, old newspapers, cigarette packs, matches, baptismal documents, IDs, etc. - all mostly from the time of the Polish People's Republic (PRL) - Kusmirowski was little known. His passion for precise copying Kusmirowski explains through his childhood experience in communist Poland: "There was nothing in kiosks, and also we lacked money - one had to "organize" toys for oneself. We made planes, racing cars running on batteries, steered motorboats made of styrofoam" - says the artist in an interview by Sebastian Cichocki (White Walls Make Me Upset, 2004).
2003 brought Kusmirowski immediate international visibility, with participation in many shows abroad. His most ambitious project, Double V, presented at the Center for Contemporary Art "Ujazdowski Castle" in Warsaw, was a mind-boggling detailed replica of a communist-era artist's studio - augmented by a three-dimensional mirror image of the very same space, seen through a large mirror frame that leaves no doubt that one is seeing a reflection of the studio - until one realizes that one is not seeing oneself in the "mirror". It involved splitting the exhibition space in half, one side complete with plaster, dust, dim lighting, half-finished cups of coffee, cigarette packs, a stained sink, and a multitude of other details that were orchestrated in an absolutely convincing authenticity - and all duplicated on the other side.
Aware of the fact that we live in a world of substitutes, in a flood of dummies, copies, and simple mystifications, Robert Kusmirowski adopted the strategy of a maniacal model-maker. Using cheap materials - cardboard, styrofoam, glues, plaster - he produces copies of existing "nobler" objects and situations. Does a poor, unneeded object repeated with such artistry become more precious? Kusmirowski plays a game with the viewer here, and the audience willingly lets itself be cheated. The notion of original, prototype, or matrix ceases to have any meaning in this case. Kusmirowski visually clarifies that reality itself is sometimes too obvious to be noticed.
"There were plans that I get a crew of assistants [...] But I appreciate the "private" contact with objects [...], this is my time for a "conversation" with the object [&]. Buying an object, or having it made by a craftsman, I wouldn't have learned anything from it. [...] If I found it a waste of time, I would devote myself to one object and it would be presented at the exhibition. [...] But I want to recall the whole situations and events collected somewhere in my subconscious." (from the interview White Walls Make Me Upset, 2004).
Copied groups of objects become the props of a static spectacle, in which sentimental retro-nostalgia exists on an equal footing with the horror of emptiness, a fear of the other side of the mirror. In a modified version, the installation Double V purposely put up in the back room of the Kronika Gallery "became a strange place, which could have been found by Alice in Wonderland, if only Lewis Carrol had placed the action of his novel in PRL reality", writes curator Sebastian Cichocki. Kusmirowski explains his real nostalgia for the PRL period and its discredited aesthetics: "My childhood was soaked through with this atmosphere. Souvenirs, objects, scenery, visits to the movie theaters, to the local cultural center - all had this untypical, long-gone atmosphere. [...] What now seems to me indistinct, polished, was once such a cultural center, not altered in any way, not supported financially, but overgrown with the weight of past time - a dirty, interesting structure. These places call to me - there is more history there [...], I feel the energy of the people who once frequented them. [...] Hence also the respect for old documents - where there was care for the graphics, the font..." (from an interview, White Walls Make Me Upset, 2004). Kusmirowski's art can be understood as aimed at criticizing the fossilized provinces and national nostalgias, but this is not the intention of the author. He does it with all his heart, although, as Sebastian Cichocki points out: "Kusmirowski's case is not that simple at all. Robert has this devil in himself and maybe this makes his art so tempting".
Art here becomes a game that takes place on various levels: in the sphere of meanings and of the matter itself. The artist leads a game with transitory memory, tradition, old iconography, and plays with the viewer: with his imaginings, and memories, with the imperfection of his perception, and with himself. In Double V the whole artistry of Kusmirowski becomes evident, in both craftsmanship and concept: copying, which here is a strategy of talking about vanishing or the mortality of things, leads to the important and charming "fragility" of his dummy projects, which at first glance have the status of "souvenir spaces", resistant to the action of time.
This quality of a "place of memory" characterizes both the installation Double V and the later Fountain in Warsaw's XX1 Gallery. Fountain was a charming reconstruction of a turn-of-the-century spa's pump-room. There was an "antique" fountain jetting water in the center of the space, a "niche" with a water tap and a rusted drinking cup, and a bust with a memorial plaque honoring a non-existent poet, Ignacy Paczynski. Reconstruction is not a literal action here; the artist's archeological interest is more subtle: it is rather an attempt to recall an atmosphere of a place or time that can only be sensed intuitively. The space is only seemingly "historic" and solid, and the unprepared eye often does not distinguish this disorienting pseudo-reality, the thin, subtle border that divides these works, already belonging to the sphere of art, from the original, less durable works, more vulnerable to the effects of time: smearing, diluting, wearing out.
Kusmirowski creates situations strongly pulsing with the threat of fragility and passing on: seemingly solid, but filled with eschatological symbolism. Equipping them with portrait medallions, inscriptions, memory plaques, he makes chosen objects and reconstructed spaces similar to monuments, graves, or memorial sites. These places are kinds of historic utopias, albums of somebody else's recollections and nonexistent events, writes Joanna Zielinska in the catalog for Hydrograf, 2004.
This motif had already appeared in his early works: in Monument, with a black man levitating over a decorative base and with a devotional, cemetery-like inscription, and in Face, where Kusmirowski puts a naturalistically executed face of a kelpie into an antique vase from the Rennes cemetery; both works are also the artist's self-portraits. His installation at the Berlin exhibition Drang nach West(end) showed a medallion with a portrait of a dead child placed in the wall, and a grave stone "from" a forgotten German cemetery in Poland in front of it. In D.O.M., 2004, he went even further: his re-creation of a multi-ethnic cemetery in Lublin completely filled the exhibition space at Warsaw's Foksal Gallery Foundation.
Hydrograph, presented in Bialystok's Arsenal Gallery in 2004, was - like his previous projects - preceded by a private search for appropriate objects and photographs. Hence all these spaces hide the direct, touch-based participation of the artist, and are a reconstruction of his private mythology. The entire historical context added to the arranged objects is a product of artistic fantasy, and furthermore it is susceptible to the action of time in a literal sense, as the details are executed from non-solid materials. Objects become kinds of curiosa, grave monuments, contemporary mementa mori. "In Kusmirowski's projects, there is an obsession with death and a discreet sadness about passing on [...], a will to recall what from a rational point of view has been lost, what has not become a part of history. Time and the mortality of things are key words for understanding this nostalgic art. [...] The viewer is involved in the intimate mythology of the artist, drawn into a travel through worlds that have been obsessively reconstructed or rewritten anew." (Joanna Zielinska, the catalog for Hydrograf, 2004).
Yet another project included a performative element: Kusmirowski pedaled from Paris via Luxembourg to Leipzig (1,200 km) on a bicycle produced by the A.Wolberg company in 1926. A part of the international project Cultural Territories (2003), it was composed, aside from the journey itself, of documentation containing a mixture of real and fictitious moments, contemporary elements, and historical references: in Leipzig's Galerie für Zeitgenoessiche Kunst, Kusmirowski exhibited fabricated newspapers from the 1920's describing the act of "a brave man from Poland", "aged" photos of the route in sepia, and also the bike itself - but this time a facsimile made from cheap materials... It now became obvious that Kusmirowski was capable of copying not only objects and interiors but also whole situations. On November 14, 2004, Kusmirowski left Lodz and walked 1500 km on foot to Paris for the opening of the exhibition De ma Fenetre - of which his action was a part - on December 16.
Kusmirowski comments on the role that the mysterious world of his childhood plays in his art: "It is a matter of deriving new, pure energy that has its source in the most interesting period of my life. [...] I had the ability to build more and more complicated worlds, to imagine the infinity of the Cosmos - that was the great power of the very thought itself. Now I want to return to this, to feel that power. I would like to realize the dreams I then had, like walking, for example, on the lake bottom in an old-time diver's suit. [...] Recalling this state in memory is difficult. I have to perform some physical action to help me do it. Like when I now build various old spaces devoting a lot of time to it, that is a way for me to feel something that seemed to have been lost. Imagining that I can do a work like this doesn't do anything for me, but when a dream gets materialized, I feel a great power." (from an interview, White Walls Make Me Upset, 2004).
Kusmirowski is an individual full of eastern charm, and a bit unpredictable. For many reasons, he stands as an exotic, new element that in no way fits into the rest of the Polish art scene. He is unimaginably fertile as an artist, always having in mind alternative projects. Each one wilder than the one before.
Robert Kusmirowski, Balcony, I Lodz Biennale, Lodz, Poland, 2004
Robert Kusmirowski, Paris-Luxembourg-Leipzig, Galerie für Zeitgenoessiche Kunst, Leipzig, ermany, 2003
Robert Kusmirowski, Yes, I'm a hillbilly, CCA "Zamek Ujazdowski", Warsaw, 2004
Robert Kusmirowski, D.O.M., Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw, 2004
Robert Kusmirowski, Hydrograph, Arsenal Gallery, Bialystok, 2004