PRINT April 2009


Between 1993 and 2004, Artur Zmijewski interviewed a number of Polish artists—including Paweł Althamer, Grzegorz Kowalski, Katarzyna Kozyra, and Zbigniew Libera—as a means of taking stock of the transformation of art, politics, and society after the end of the cold war. These conversations were eventually published in Drzace ciała: Rozmowy z artystami (Trembling Bodies: Interviews with Artists [Warsaw: Krytyka Polityczna, 2006/2008]), along with a longer version of the following discussion between Zmijewski and critic, curator, and sociologist SEBASTIAN CICHOCKI, which appears here in English for the first time. To read Norman L. Kleeblatt on the art of Zmijewski, pick up the April issue of Artforum.

Artur Zmijewski, Oko za oko (An Eye for an Eye), 1998, still from a color video, 10 minutes.

SEBASTIAN CICHOCKI: For some ten years, you have interviewed artists making “critical” work. How do you think we should understand their various practices?

ARTUR ZMIJEWSKI: Society often takes the artist for a shaman, demiurge, or painted bird—a bit of a madman, someone consumed by an incurable ailment. Obviously, this is just a fabricated phantasm that protects society from real encounters with art, at the same time that it protects the artist from any real responsibility for his or her actions. Many artists today do not want to be cloaked in that myth, however. They do not want such status or immunity, because these are tools of alienation.

SC: Tearing down veils is always fraught with risk. It creates fear in those who want the myth to live on.

AZ: Seeing the true picture involves some loss. What are artists, really, without this phantasm? They are just like other people, somewhat helpless in the world. They are even a bit ignorant, with gaps in basic education. They know little and understand less and, occasionally—like many others—they are incapable of listening. But if artists lose what used to place them above others, why should we listen to them?

SC: What would art be if its role in society was redefined in this way?

AZ: Art is—or it can be, depending on our level of consciousness—an equal partner with other discourses. It deals with the same reality and operates in the same world, talking about the same things. It may take a critical stand—but then science, politics, or social convention can also take critical stands toward art. We are all talking about the same thing: the world in which we live, its restrictions and possibilities, and how we want to construct it.

SC: How could this kind of change happen in art?

AZ: Art can stop maintaining stubbornly that the answers it provides are really questions. I understand that this is tricky, because if one gives answers one must assume responsibility for their consequences. But question marks often merely camouflage the real status of artworks as statements, observations, and answers. Some artworks are like instructions on how to fix spots in the social body that are painful or bleeding. Still, artists will not change this situation all by themselves. And change will not happen with another piece of “political art” for the white cube, but only when artists consciously enter political structures with the intention of putting their own capabilities to use in negotiating the shape of our common reality—in cooperation with people in politics, science, etc.

That said, connections between art and other authorities have led to monstrosities in the past, and the lingering shame makes such cooperative action difficult. We should not be deluded that today’s writers or artists are free from the influence of ideology. People commonly say that we are experiencing the “end of ideology” when quite the opposite is true. Social reality is a priori ideological. Either one serves the status quo or one takes a stand against it.

SC: Did the fact that you’re an artist embolden the artists you interviewed to be more open than they might have been with critics or journalists?

AZ: Yes, possibly. I too belong to that handicapped group trying to experience the world through images. That brings me to two important observations. First, it is a mistake to hold images in contempt. Why? Not least because the masses are ruled by images, as the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk has said. The mere acknowledgment of this is a necessary first defense. Second, images are just one more mode of communication: As visible representations of intuition, premonition, and trust in chaos and errors, images constitute the first stage in the production of knowledge. Knowledge is not usually a sphere for feelings and desires, joy or shame—or, for that matter, for eruptions of extreme subjectivity—but it is all that in art. That is what makes this proposal for a change in art so attractive. The idea is not about intersubjectivity understood as a relation with objectivity deformed by individual points of view, but rather about intersubjectivity as a relation of subjectivities understood as individual illuminations, epiphanies, and insights. This is central to art’s contribution to overall knowledge.

SC: Language also plays a very important role in your activity, as if your different works were only starting points for conversation.

AZ: It is one of the desired effects of images to participate in the ongoing conversation; they should provoke a reply. My films are arguments; as such, they may be overpowered by stronger, more intelligent, or more convincing arguments.

SC: In your interviews with other Polish artists, have you noticed any Christian themes that would place their work in a typically Polish continuum of attitudes and motivations?

AZ: Is the word salvation applicable to contemporary art at all? Perhaps it is still present in the intention to rescue audiences through knowledge, or in the promise of liberating them from the mainstream complex of contradiction and denial. Certainly, among the artists I interviewed, art has always aspired to release people from socially suffered pain by acknowledging it. In a way, this is an impossible task, because it presupposes the possibility of identifying with both guilt and guilty parties. But unlike the objective observer—such as the one science wishes to provide—art seeks out and engages the perpetrator, which is, obviously, not a person or a group of people but a mechanism within society and the unconscious acceptance of that mechanism’s function. Art exposes the lawlessness of the mechanism by incorporating that lawlessness into itself. Hence, art is often the co-perpetrator: It is co-guilty, and it denounces itself. Santiago Sierra offers a good example of this. His art is part of the mechanism of exploiting the poor. The only difference is that his art does so openly and denounces itself at every stage. Naturally, the admission of supporting oppression does not diminish art’s guilt. But Sierra, working within a cultural form, shows exactly how culture justifies oppression by making one recognize how that culture assigns status and value to the shabbiness of his own conduct.

Artur Zmijewski, Oni (Them), 2007, still from a color video, 27 minutes.

SC: Have you changed after encountering various blind alleys in art, or after your work has given rise to unpredictable results?

AZ: The alleys of art are obviously not blind—they are parts of the social body kept under surveillance by people equipped with a special cognitive apparatus, which includes emotion, error, fear, and contradiction, as well as rationality and analysis. If you are simultaneously wise and stupid, then you have more in your hand than someone who only knows or does not know. I am not saying that I am all for stupidity, but I want to emphasize that art potentially offers much more freedom, since it has never rejected stupidity, mistakes, fear, absurdity, being dominated by emotions, etc. All of that weakens the dominance of the strict cognitive procedures decreed by orthodox rationality.

SC: It also leads to some strange and murky zones.

AZ: Society seems set on separating art as such a zone within its body—as a home for madness, mistakes, strangeness, etc. Like in the novel Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers—which Tarkovsky’s film Stalker is based on—it is a zone in which simple objects evoke fear and where nothing is safe. But a schism has already arisen, through the betrayal of those that serve this zone—the artists themselves. They refuse to maintain the holy fire and serve as high priests anymore. What holds art together now is the market, which feeds on and profits from the social delusion of the artist as high priest. But if we can’t act through art in a real way in the real world, what do we need it for?

Translated from Polish by Roman Czarny.