Solutions, Answers and the Truth with Hammer Blows

The honour of curating the famous Berlin Biennale, after the 2006 experience with Maurizio Cattelan, has once again gone to an artist – Artur Żmijewski. The fact that they are both “producers of art” is not the only thing Żmijewski and Cattelan have in common: both of them have achieved popularity with works or actions which quite often have been perceived as extreme provocations. We need only refer back to Cattelan’s hanged children, or the extended middle finger set up opposite the Milan Bourse, or Pope John Paul II struck by a meteorite. But as opposed to the Paduan artist, who stings with his brilliant irony, his Polish alter ego, it seems, perceives life from a serious, tragic and ponderous angle, imagining that it’s his duty to carry the whole world on his shoulders – just like Atlantis – and to save it, collapsing under its unsustainable weight. Truly, Żmijewski’s works seem to be light years away from the kind of art which operates with an easy humour and is able to formulate its criticism with a certain lightness, projecting open or polysemic messages, and capable of promoting independent thinking in its viewers. Żmijewski’s video work 80064 (2004), in which he persuades a former concentration camp prisoner to “reconstruct” the number on his upper arm, renewing the already faded tattoo, leaves us mouths open with its direct and brutal message: we must never forget the most unimaginable crimes in the history of mankind. That’s why it’s necessary to reconstruct the remaining footprints and signs regularly, if they gradually begin to lose their colour.

Not long before the Berlin Biennale 7 (BB7), Żmijewski’s video work Berek (1999), which translates as “chasey” or “tag”, was removed from the Martin-Gropius-Bau collective exhibition in Berlin, after an angry protest by the leader of the Jewish community. In the video, filmed in a gas chamber, naked people chase each other, playing tag. The museum’s management did not justify this rather drastic act of censorship in sufficient detail, and voices of criticism could be heard in various local newspapers that perhaps the museum didn’t understand “with whom they were dealing here”: namely, the curator of the next Berlin Biennale. As in the incident with Cattelan’s hanged children, which after public controversy and a storm of protest were removed, resulting in the artist appearing day after day on the front pages of newspapers, Artur Żmijewski, too, after this unwanted advertising campaign was no longer unknown to those members of the public in Germany’s capital city who weren’t associated with art. A better entrance onto the stage would be hard to imagine: the blow-up of scandal really filled his sails. Żmijewski – who as an artist participated in the Manifesta 4 (2002) in Frankfurt, in the documenta 12 (2007), and as Poland’s national representative in the Venice Biennale (2005) – has now presented himself to a wider audience as well.
Which raises the question: how does an artist who defines himself as an “introvert with autistic tendencies” manage the public role of curator, which inescapably means being constantly in the spotlight of the press and public opinion? Żmijewski admits in an interview that he doesn’t have any objections to being the centre of attention, moreover he doesn’t deny that he holds a great deal of power in his hands. In this case, our interest should be particularly piqued by discussions about power, as the entire BB7 is intended as a “political” event, leaning towards interference, with the main objective of being a radical contrast to the established “art market” with its structures and commercial hierarchies. It seems to me that Żmijewski is attempting to use two strategic tricks to avoid this contradiction, which in many ways is inevitable. On the one hand, he has gathered around him a team of curators – Joanna Warsza as his cocurator, with the remainder made up by the Voina group; on the other hand, he started out on his duties as curator of the biennale by making an “open call” to all those interested, with more than 5,000 people signing up as a result. These materials will be published in the digital art library, without any selection process at all, and this will be opened to the public at the same time as the BB7, but will continue to operate afterwards as well.

Unfortunately, from reading publications and interviews it’s not clear how – if we don’t include this use on the net – the curatorial team is intending to deal with the materials, or how it hopes to undertake a realistic selection, taking into account the physical space which it has at its disposal. The question also arises, whether with the removal of choice and quality criteria it is truly possible to “evade” the fact that any person who takes a comparable position in an institution that spends two million euro in organizing each exhibition, such as this, will clearly show his power. I’d like to say that money and institutional power don’t suddenly become harmless just because we’re talking about themes and activities intended to be “politically engaged”, and which are to serve the whole of society. It’s not a given that art – as if a magic wand had been waved – really gains the capacity to become more democratic, and that this type of broad range openness doesn’t run the risk of losing its way in an indistinguishable mass of productions and activities by populist mediocrities.

In the publication No Fear, which in preparation for the exhibition came out a while ago and can be considered as a catalogue of intent, Żmijewski explains that he doesn’t want to deal with art objects which have been found whilst travelling the globe, and that his plan is “to be a moderator between various political viewpoints”, which materialize in the form of “artistic activity”. But this declaration, which in itself is more than sensible, leaves an aftertaste of disbelief when we find out that the Polish artist very clearly takes a position on one definite side of the political spectrum. Żmijewski has confirmed his leftism many times, and therefore the question arises whether he and his team will really be able to distance themselves sufficiently, so as to offer a balanced overview encompassing the most varied political positions (which they are claiming to do). The fact that the Warsaw artist sees his engagement with the left not as a critical mindset but rather as an active “appropriation” of reality is most revealing to us, and prompts us to reflect.

Very precise functions for art are laid down here: we can read that it “has to be pragmatic and effective and must serve society”. Therefore, art has to give up its position as regal decorator, it has to become active and must go towards “a specific goal in the process of transformation, using political and religious agitation”. But, on the other hand, without mincing words, it is stated that the challenge for art is to “manipulate” society and that it is tired of forever reconciling itself with merely raising questions, that is: answers and solutions are now required. In an interview with Spike magazine, the Polish artist announces: “We work with hammers, not with bombs or grenades.” To manipulate and bang with a hammer – these, therefore, are the strategies of art which, so it seems, do not leave very many options open in the interpretation of this unequivocal missive.

In an interview with Exberliner magazine, Żmijewski goes even further and says: “I don’t see that the world still requires questions, and if there is an answer to the questions we have formulated, I’m satisfied.” And when journalist Ruth Schneider asks him where in his work Berek (the one where naked people are playing “tag” in the gas chamber) he sees some sort of answer, the artist informs that he’d never claimed that this work should provide any answers… And truly, in his artistic activities the BB7 curator is moving ahead, creating experimental arrangements in which – I’d say, lucky for them – he himself is not controlling what will occur later. So basically the setting is open, and, even though the author prepares a concrete situation, he doesn’t restrict himself to providing closed and monosyllabic responses. In other words, we can observe a serious discrepancy between the artistic and verbal expressions. While the first ones still leave us with possibilities for interpretation, the others impose the way in which we should understand the message. To the question of what he is specifically thinking about when talking about “art with answers”, Żmijewski gives just the one example: Marina Naprushkina, a Belarusian artist, who creates political comics. Another example of art which provides answers, as we can deduce from the various materials available to us, is the Voina group which has been invited to participate in the curation of the biennale. The St. Petersburg collective, whose name means “war”, in actual fact organizes political actions (due to which its members regularly end up in gaol), and says that it doesn’t use money and doesn’t pay rent. Żmijewski invited them not so much so that they’d really participate in the organization of the Berlin Biennale, but rather to pull them out of the claws of the Russian government. In addition, a range of solidarity events is taking place in various European institutions, among them the Swiss Institute in Rome, in support of the occupied Teatro Valle in Rome, Rome’s Libera Università Metropolitana (LUM), the Visual Culture Research Centre of the National University of Kyiv- Mohyla Academy (NaUKMA), as well as the Occupy movement throughout the world.

Answers are being fervently sought from art, but paradoxically those that the curators themselves offer are quite thin on the ground, and so we are left hanging in the air…
BB7 is taking place almost concurrently with the Kassel dOCUMENTA (13). It seems that both events should be compared at the conceptual level, and it turns out that the statements by Artur Żmijewski and Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev are literally in discord. While specific action is demanded of the artists in Berlin, in Kassel it’s the exact opposite – the discussion is about indirect activities in place of direct purposes. The event taking place in the German capital, as we saw, demands the finding of answers and a stop to the bombarding of the planet with useless questions, almost as an ultimatum, whereas in the north of Hessen the discussion is unequivocally about a “differentiation strategy”, which is in contrast to “finding answers”, and, while the hope is to change the world with focused, performative interference in Berlin, in Kassel preference is given to reflections about the world. Summarising it all, we could say that BB7 demands art that is strictly subjected to serving society, whereas d13 offers a process of reflection as interplay in a dynamic network of various competencies, searching for new knowledge, because Christov-Bakargiev “likes things that she doesn’t understand”. Consequently, in the same year and in the same country (a mere 300 km away), the sophistic position of a proponent of strict and final principles collides with a Socratic “I know that I don’t know” attitude.

Żmijewski goes even further, and in the 18 January, 2012, edition of Tagesspiegel announces that “artists find it much easier to tell the truth”. This announcement clearly shows us that the BB7 curator is convinced, firstly, about the fact that truth exists, and secondly, that someone exists to whom this truth is known; and that is not only philosophically, but – I’d say – also politically quite a delicate assertion. Quite spontaneously the Soviet Union Communist Party and Soviet government press organ which was also called Pravda (‘Truth’) comes to mind, and it seems to me that the meaning is sufficiently clear: only one “truth” exists, and the custodian of this truth is the government, which doesn’t permit any other thought which would differ from the party line. Obviously this isn’t the place for a reminder of how many people’s deaths were caused by this kind of political attitude (not only during Stalin’s rule), but definitely it could be a suitable occasion to get clarification on some terms which are still being used today, in complete isolation from recent European history. Thus in Żmijewski’s dialogue with co-curator Joanna Warsza on the biennale’s website, he characterizes Berlin as an ideologically passive and empty city, in which nobody takes on responsibility. This assertion sounds as if the non-existence of ideology is a synonym for “emptiness” and “lack of responsibility”, as if ideologies were a mandatory requirement for an ideal society, and as if this would guarantee for the populace a concordant coexistence. With respect to this, one wants to enquire as to what Mr. Żmijewski understands by the word “ideology”. Perhaps he understands this to mean dogma, doctrine or teaching, as indicated by my thesaurus?

And what about the word “solution” (Lösung)? Anyone who has even the most minimal knowledge of history will unavoidably hear its resonance with “final solution” (Endlösung), and that is an association which, to my mind, needs no further clarification.

The fourth term which I think important to clarify is “socialist realism”. The Polish curator stands up for the universalization of visual language and defines “socialist realism” as a language which has been “unjustly cast into exile”, even though he himself admits that it is an “aesthetic paradigm which came about under politically coercive conditions”.

In conclusion I dare to say that, having perused all of the available materials – internet sites, interviews, on-line videos and protocols of intent – it’s very difficult to understand what will await us at Auguststrasse when the 7th Berlin Biennale opens its doors on 27 April. Perhaps we’ll see the rebirth of socialist realism in last century vintage form, or perhaps we’ll suddenly get caught up in political activities of “the insubordinates”, and in actions where various objects get occupied, and where, disguised as art works, the streets of Berlin Mitte are taken over?

At any rate, Artur Żmijewski has publicly announced that he is not interested in being selected as the curator of any exhibition ever again…

Barbara Fässler

Translator into English: Uldis Brūns

Berlin Biennial curated by Artur Żmijewski

Published in
Studija 84 - 3 2012

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Artur Zmijewski, Anna Warsza (Photo: Anna Eckhold)
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Artur Zmijewski, Anna Warsza (Photo: Anna Eckhold)

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Logo BB7