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November 2017
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ARTUR ZMIJEWSKI is an artistic radical who realizes extreme creative conceptions. In his works he refers in an almost obsessive way to the problem of the corporality and physicality of the human being, perceived from the perspective of our basic biological functions. "The physicality of the human body - it's the primary unit in Zmijewski's scheme" (Michael Brodeur). Such a perspective poses a question about the relationship between the material body, subject to illness and decay, and a person's intellectual and spiritual dimension. The artist is especially interested in cases in which severe bodily dysfunction or serious illness precludes participation in life or even destroys the mind. At the same time, as the artist himself admits, the defective acquires an otherness that is often seductive and much more expressive than what is considered normal. Addressing such issues, Zmijewski definitely avoids easy sentimentality and the ballast of political correctness. And this is what makes his works so deeply compelling.


"It is a situation in which the weak torture the strong with their weakness." - Sebastian Cichocki, introduction, Artur Zmijewski. Singing Lesson 1 & 2, Galeria Kronika, Bytom, 2003


Born May 26, 1966 in Warsaw, Artur Zmijewski studied 1990-1995 in the famous studio of Prof. Grzegorz Kowalski at the sculpture department of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, Poland. In 1999, Zmijewski studied at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam. He lives and works in Warsaw, where he collaborates with the Foksal Gallery Foundation. In 2000 he was awarded first prize at the exhibition Guarene Arte in Italy for his video work An Eye for an Eye. In 2004 he had his first two US shows: a major solo exhibition at MIT, curated by Jane Farver, and The Game of Tag, shown at the White Box Gallery in Manhattan's Chelsea, curated by Norman Kleeblatt. Zmijewski will be representing Poland at the 2005 Venice Biennale.


The author of photographic objects, photographs, and video films, he also takes an active part in the art world as curator of independent group exhibitions (Me and AIDS, 1996), and a series of exhibitions: Parteitag 1997, 1998, and 1999, and SEXXX, 2000, among others), as editor of the art magazine Czereja published irregularly since 1992, and as the author of numerous critical texts on art published in such magazines as Magazyn Sztuki and Kresy, and in exhibition catalogues.


Early works by Artur Zmijewski which were realized during his studies are constructions - humanoid mechanisms whose operation depicts one physical or psychical function of man, such as fear, the stench of decaying flesh, circulation of liquids in the organism, etc. His diploma work, 40 Szuflad (40 Drawers), is a photographic object comprised of forty black and white photographs depicting a naked woman and a naked man who press and deform each other's bodies. The artist has placed the photographs in the drawers of a library catalogue file cabinet. The drawers are held by a mechanism with springs and to open them one needs to overcome a certain resistance. The artist was interested in forms that the body can assume when subjected to pressure. A continuation of this work was the video film, Powsciagliwosc i praca (Restraint and Work, 1995). In 1996 he created a film, Ja i AIDS (Me And AIDS), showing in slow motion the naked figures of two couples - a woman and a man, and two men - colliding with great impact.


"In the beginning, my films' main subject was the body treated the way a sculptor would treat clay. I was interested in the forms that, for example, a body subjected to physical pressure can assume. ... In "Me and AIDS" (1996), in which the subject was the feeling of unease that the danger of fatal illness stirs in us, ... the naked bodies tremble like Jello. After each collision, their flesh undulates in waves like the surface of a pond when a stone is thrown into it." - Artur Zmijewski in conversation with Sebastian Cichocki, There is no way you can sculpt a choir of deaf children (December 2001), Artur Zmijewski, Singing Lesson 1 & 2, Kronika Gallery, Bytom, 2003


Artur Zmijewski has a long-standing interest in bodily deformation, the physical defect as a metaphor for spiritual or mental cripplehood. The juxtaposition of a crippled body with a healthy one allows him to speak in a metaphorical way about problems in the relations between people. In 1998 he realized a project Oko za oko (An Eye for an Eye, 1998) consisting of a set of large-format color photographs and a video film. They depict naked men with amputated limbs, accompanied by able-bodied people, who in the staged photographs and in the film "lend" their limbs to the amputated as they stroll or climb stairs. The naked bodies of the protagonists were assembled by the artist in bizarre compositions creating bodily hybrids: two-headed men, men with two pairs of arms etc., and at the same time the appearance of new able-bodied organisms in which the healthy supply the crippled with substitute limbs. As Grzegorz Borkowski, curator of this exhibition at the CCA Zamek Ujazdowski in Warsaw points out, the simple and suggestive arithmetic of human organs introduced to the human imagination by the Hammurabi Codex and Moses' law needs consideration. The title of Zmijewski's work recalls the antique rule of dispensing justice, but its author is not concerned with the question of revenge but with that of equalizing possibilities. He poses such questions as: Aren't those who help as well as those to whom the help is being offered at risk of losing their own integrity? Where lies the border between human cooperation and a symbiosis of individuals carried to excess? Is it possible at all for one person to compensate another for his / her defects?


Concentrating on human frailty and vulnerability, Zmijewski incorporates many contextual layers into his work. Of Berek (The Game of Tag, 1999), Zmijewski says: "There was also a film shot, among other places, in a former gas chamber in one of the former Nazi concentration camps... In this small house made of concrete, where people were killed with Cyklon B, huge yellowish navy-blue bruises made by the gas were still visible on the walls. A group of naked men of different ages are seen playing tag there. The choice of place - a gas chamber - and the presence of naked people there, made the external circumstance of horrible events 60 years ago appear to be echoed there. The visual similarity between the two situations is considerable. But this time ... instead of a tragedy, we are seeing a childish, innocent game. It almost resembles a clinical situation in psychological therapy." - Artur Zmijewski in conversation with Sebastian Cichocki, There is no way you can sculpt a choir of deaf children (December 2001), Artur Zmijewski, Singing Lesson 1 & 2, Kronika Gallery, Bytom, 2003


As described by critic Michael Brodeur, "directed to play tag in this small space, the nudes circle and lurch at each other - each childlike giggle tempered by what feels like a trace of panic."


The protagonists of the film KR WP (2000) are former soldiers of the Representative Guards of the Polish Army who first perform their military drill in uniforms, and then do the same thing naked in a mirrored dance studio, equipped only with boots, caps, and dummy rifles, and singing fighting songs. This work, too, refers to the question of the body - this time appropriated for a military ritual and trapped in a form imposed by the drill.


"The goal of my films is not a literal change of reality, for example a change of the situation of Polish Army soldiers or an improvement in the well-being of invalids. The goal will be achieved if one can think with tenderness about males, about their vulnerability. If someone will watch, say, the changing of the guard at the Grave of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw and this lifeless and wooden ritual seems comic to him - the goal will have been achieved. It is the same with invalids: if looking at them we will now have a sense of the startling potential of their otherness, of their different bodily configuration - the goal will have been achieved. But the goal described in this way is only one of many possible reactions." - Artur Zmijewski in conversation with Sebastian Cichocki, There is no way you can sculpt a choir of deaf children (December 2001), Artur Zmijewski, Singing Lesson 1 & 2, Kronika Gallery, Bytom, 2003


Questions about the "norm" of mankind universally accepted by society, and its relationship to people whose functioning or appearance is different, keep coming up in Zmijewski's oeuvre. Imperfection, lameness, and illness are embarrassing problems that do not fit the image of young, beautiful, and able-bodied people promoted by mass culture.


The film Na spacer (Out for a Walk) was realized in 2001 in a rehabilitation center with the participation of quadraplegics. These completely paralyzed people suffering from palsy of all their limbs were taken for a short walk by healthy strong men, cameramen who animated the paralyzed by providing them with normal movements. As Jane Farver, MIT List Center Director, points out, although Zmijewski calls Out for a Walk "a film about failure," he in fact challenges the tabu against displaying "defective" human beings, as well as the notion that the disabled can succeed only if they achieve at the same standards as the physically fit. Zmijewski demands the viewer see and accept what is, rather than some arbitrary, imposed standard of perfection.


In the same year, Zmijewski created the first part of the project Lekcja spiewu (Singing Lesson) which was realized with deaf-mute youth. A video-recording was made in the Augsburg Evangelical Holy Trinity church in Warsaw, where a choir of the deaf-mute "sang" the Kyrie from the Polish Mass by Jan Maklakiewicz. The work was presented in the exhibition Manifesta 4 in Frankfurt-am-Main, among others. The second part of the project was realized in 2002 in St. Thomas Church in Leipzig - in which Bach for many years was a cantor and in which he was buried - where deaf-mute or severely hearing-impaired children sang Bach's cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and Lips and Deed and Life). The choirs of the deaf-mute were accompanied by the organ. Among the cacophony of sounds uttered by them you can hear the words of the confession of faith: "In this holy place, in this holiest place, our voice rises to You and erupts as the sea roars from the deep abyss. O Christ, hear us! O Christ, listen to us!" The Singing Lesson is yet another of Zmijewski's works with handicapped people in which he crosses a seemingly impassable barrier and tries to change an irreversible situation. The miracle does not happen, as it is not possible to overcome cripplehood, but what can happen is a transformation in the realm of perception, when the audience finally accepts the otherness of the world of the crippled and their right to their own self-expression.


"Along with admiration for the efforts of the deaf we feel an uneasiness caused by our deeply hidden aversion towards that which - like cripplehood - was removed from our consciousness: fear of ourselves, [...], which, as Julia Kristeva has pointed out, is an inner mold of repulsion projected onto outside phenomena.


His works convince us that neither suffering nor different kinds of physical dysfunction or social norms are able to kill the joy of life. The children singing Bach - like those naked soldiers of the KRWP doing drill work or the people playing tag in a former gas chamber - every so often snort with laughter as if they were trying to accustom themselves to the situation in which they found themselves, thus making it "normal". They whoop it up, forgetting the fact that the lesson in which they participate is beyond the social role ascribed to them, that it is an anomaly, a freaky idea. It is also - as in the works of the cycle "An Eye for an Eye", in which the bodies of the healthy and the crippled, women and men, formed hybrid organisms - a musical hybrid, a mix of the sounds uttered by the deaf children and the voice of a professional singer, a negation of all the rules, a mixture of the evenly-tempered baroque system and elements of modal and atonal music." - Violetta Sajkiewicz, Deaf Bach, Artur Zmijewski. Singing Lesson 1 & 2, Galeria Kronika, Bytom, 2003; Exit. Nowa Sztuka w Polsce, no. 2/2003


"Both realizations are a real assault on our conventional imagination regarding the limitations of language and music. [...] Zmijewski [...] tested the audience's endurance and the level of tolerance vis-a-vis the other." - Sebastian Cichocki, introduction, Artur Zmijewski. Singing Lesson 1 & 2, 2003


"In the beginning there is consternation about these members of the choir who are apparently behaving themselves in an unseemly way in church with their strange noises. This interpretation turns into its opposite once it becomes clear with what measure of devotion and conviction something impossible is being attempted here." - Frankfurter Rundschau, July 27, 2002


"As a challenge to our notions of "perfection," Zmijewski's work is near perfect." - Michael Brodeur, The Weekly Dig, Boston, 2004


"Art is a mortal fight for human consciousness" - Artur Zmijewski


In his video Karolina (2002), Zmijewski portrays a real Karolina suffering from osteoporosis. Constant shifting of her bones' crushed fragments causes unbearable pain. Karolina is 18, aware of her situation, and has consciously decided herself to use morphine. Increasing the dose of morphine ends - after a period of time - with the patient's death due to brain anoxia. Karolina agreed to let Zmijewski record a conversation with her about pain, and film her body deformed by numerous surgeries, and to film her while suffering attacks of pain.


In his most recent work, the video Nasz spiewnik (Our Songbook, 2003), a group of aged Polish émigrés in Israel, after years of speaking Hebrew almost exclusively, try to recollect and sing the lyrics of the Polish national anthem. Again, Zmijewski's emphasis on vulnerable bodies and minds is yet another reminder of the privilege of health.


"Some kind of Polish "world" is coming to an end in Israel, a world that we feel an affinity for because we are Poles, and these emigrants are such an 'island' of Poland, even if they don't feel [like] Polish emigrants at all." - Joanna Turewicz, Polski my narod, Polski rod..., Czas kultury, no. 5, October 2003


As a result of a trip to Israel in 2003, Zmijewski created a series of films in which he makes use of documentary techniques and interviews, touching upon delicate issues of memory, the often-fraught relations between Poles and Jews, and the complicated situation of Israelis today. In Pielgrzymka (Pilgrimage), realized together with Pawel Althamer, the two artists take part in an organized journey to the Holy Land. They accompany a group of Polish pilgrims on their way to religious sites connected with the person of Christ, and to sites of Jewish martyrology (Yad Vashem). The pilgrims' religious experiences are interspersed with expressions of their ambivalent attitudes to the Jewish people, which verge on xenophobia and anti-Semitism. In Nasz Zpiewnik (Our Songbook), Zmijewski evokes the memory of Polish Jews, who left for Israel decades ago, in songs from their childhood and youth. The protagonist's monologue in Itzik, fraught with religious references, demonstrates his hatred of the Palestinians. In his view, the Holocaust gave Israelis license to revenge themselves on others. By contrast, the title protagonist of Lisa is a German woman living in Israel who claims that in her former life she was a Jewish boy shot by a Nazi in the back of his head (she claims to feel pain there). By way of divine revelation, she learned that she was meant to move to Israel. In her new country, however, she feels lonely and alien.


Memory of the Holocaust is similarly at issue in Zmijewski's film 80064 from 2004. The title is the camp number of a former Auschwitz prisoner, Jozef Tarnawa. In this much-discussed work, Zmijewski persuades him to have it re-tattooed. The artist wanted the film to be an attempt at "opening the door of memory," a sudden "eruption of recollections" through the reminding of a past humiliation. The man hesitates, but finally gives in to Zmijewski's strenuous imprecations. The scene in the tattoo shop depicts (and re-enacts) the conformist mechanism of totally accepting one's fate and submitting oneself to inhuman rules - a mechanism that gave the camp prisoners a slight chance to survive.


Also in 2004, Artur Zmijewski made two works featuring Wojciech Krolikiewicz, an actor suffering from Huntington's disease, which deprives the man of control over his body, causing difficulties with speech, and makes the most trivial everyday activities serious obstacles. Zmijewski portrayed him in the film entitled Rendez-vous, in which Krolikiewicz prepares to go out, and then meets in a pizzeria with a woman, who also suffers from Huntington's. Their behavior attracts other people's stares. For the exhibition at Centre d'art Contemporain in Brétigny, Zmijewski produced the second project, CD recording of Krolikiewicz reading Shakespeare's Sonnets (William Shakespeare, Sonnets).


Zmijewski's Powtorzenie (Repetition) was chosen to represent Poland at the 51st Venice Biennale in 2005. Here, the artist reconstructed Philip Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment from 1971. Zimbardo, a specialist in the "psychology of evil," analyzed the behavior of ordinary people placed in the roles of prisoners and wardens in a make-shift prison. The experiment was to prove that human behavior is predictable and dependent on circumstances. Over thirty years later, Zmijewski exactly recreated Zimbardo's experiment in Poland. The experiment, however, took an extremely different turn - the participants (both prisoners and wardens) together decided to leave the prison, revolting against the author of the project. Zmijewski's film aroused considerable controversy in his home country.


In autumn 2005, Zmijewski was invited to participate in an exhibition that opened a series of shows W samym centrum uwagi (At the Very Centre of Attention) at the Centre for Contemporary Art Zamek Ujazdowski in Warsaw. The aim of the project was to assess the actual situation of art in Poland. Together with Pawel Althamer, Zmijewski declined an individual art project in favor of a curatorial one, Wybory.pl ([S]election.pl). Inside the gallery space, they reconstructed a creative exercise from the studio of their professor at the Academy, Grzegorz Kowalski: Obszar wspólny i obszar wlasny (Common Sphere and Private Sphere), while at the same time revising some of its assumptions. To this end, they invited their former colleagues from Kowalski's studio. The CCA's exhibition space became the site of uninhibited artistic activity and creative dialogue as Zmijewski and Althamer performed their anarchic deconstruction of the institutionalized exhibition space by replacing exhibition with process.


Selected solo and group exhibitions

Artur Zmijewski, Me and AIDS, 1996, video, 3:30 min.


Artur Zmijewski, Me and AIDS, 1996, video, 3:30 min.


Artur Zmijewski, Me and AIDS, 1996, video, 3:30 min.


Artur Zmijewski, An Eye for an Eye/Oko za oko, 1998, video, 10 min.


Artur Zmijewski, An Eye for an Eye/Oko za oko, 1998, video, 10 min.


Artur Zmijewski, An Eye for an Eye/Oko za oko, 1998, video, 10 min.


Artur Zmijewski, An Eye for an Eye/Oko za oko, 1998, b & w photography


Artur Zmijewski, Singing Lesson 2, 2003


Artur Zmijewski, Singing Lesson 2, 2003


Artur Zmijewski, Our Songbook/Nasz Spiewnik, 2003, video, 13:40 min.


Artur Zmijewski, Our Songbook/Nasz Spiewnik, 2003, video, 13:40 min.


Artur Zmijewski, Repetition, 2005, DVD, master DV


Artur Zmijewski, 80064, 2004, DVD, master DV, 9:20 min.