PRINT February 2011


Paweł Althamer, Balloon, 2007, nylon, polyester, acrylic, rope, helium, 69' x 23' x 13' 1/2". Installation view, outside the Palazzina Appiani Sports Arena, Milan. Photo: Marco de Scalzi. Fondazione Nicola Trussardi.

MOST PEOPLE KNOW Paweł Althamer’s art only on the basis of his sculpture: densely worked, life-size figures, often depicting himself or his immediate family, that combine organic materials with found objects such as clothing or glasses. These works exude a homespun, introverted uncanniness—think Ed Kienholz by way of Gunther von Hagens. Althamer is also well known for a more anomalous sculpture, disarmingly Pop in flavor: a massive inflatable self-portrait of the artist’s naked self, floating in the air but anchored to the ground by scores of long cords, like a gravity-free Gulliver. However, to think of Althamer as a sculptor is to consider only a fraction of his output. Indeed, his practice is best characterized by a singular approach to collaboration: one that falls outside (and exists in playful tension with) the dominant, earnestly ameliorative norm of this mode. In contrast to the usual collaboration-with-others model, in which the self-effacing artist-initiator produces a rather unmemorable project through consensus, Althamer instigates an instrumentalization of authorship from the very outset. However, as we shall see, this instrumentalization is not accompanied by a lack of social responsibility. On the contrary, this responsibility is present and is marshaled through a delight in absurdity, fantasy, and the ridiculous—an approach that can only be described as civic dada.

In his hometown of Warsaw, Althamer has pursued four long-term collaborations that occasionally overlap: with the Nowolipie Group, an organization of mentally and physically handicapped adults to whom he teaches ceramics every Friday; with the residents of his housing block in the suburb of Bródno; with the artist Artur Żmijewski, who has frequently filmed Althamer’s experiential situations; and with a group of seven delinquent boys known as the Einstein Class. Along the way, Althamer has undertaken shorter-term projects, usually at the behest of museums and galleries: with homeless Poles in Frankfurt (for the exhibition Neue Welt [New World], at the Frankfurter Kunst-verein in 2001); with gallery invigilators in Warsaw, Vienna, and London (Staff en Plein Air [Staff en Plein Air], 2005, at the Zache¸ta National Gallery of Art, Kunsthalle Wien, and the Barbican Curve, respectively); with schoolchildren in Zurich (King Macius I, 2001, at the Migros Museum) and in Kassel (Frühling [Spring], 2009, at the Kunsthalle Fridericianum); with art students in Paris (Au Centre Pompidou, 2006); with prisoners in Münster, Germany (Prisoners, 2002); with illegal immigrants in Berlin (Fairy Tale, 2006); and with his own children (in an exhibition of work by Weronika Althamer, at BAK, Utrecht, in 2003; and in Bad Kids, 2004). Only a few of these adventures have resolved into a tangible product—be it a sculpture, installation, photograph, or video—that could stand as a visual icon to match the sculptures. More frequently, Althamer’s projects have to be narrated by his mediators (curators and critics) as an ongoing, idiosyncratic convergence of physical and mental transformation. Furthermore, those who undertake this task often find themselves invoking terms that do not sit easily within the critical framework of contemporary art: the spiritual, the inspirational, the supernatural, the transcendent. At the fulcrum of each project is Althamer himself, a pied piper mischievously altering the coordinates of individual lives and their institutional containers—but in a strictly intuitive and untheorized fashion that doesn’t readily lend itself to the contemporary shibboleth of “criticality.”

Take, for example, Althamer’s ceramics classes with the Nowolipie Group. Althamer began leading the class in the early 1990s as a way to earn money after graduating from art school, but when this ceased to be an economic necessity, he continued to meet with the participants every Friday evening. Their activities are always organized around a theme. When I visited in 2005, Althamer immediately gave me a pair of brown overalls and sat me down amid the members of the group, who were all working on castles of various types—space age, minimal, or beyond recognizable genre—save one man, who was sitting at the end of the table, making a clay biplane. He stood up and recited his own poetry to me, an untranslatable combination of nonsense verse and hip-hop. I recognized this sturdy, plaintive man with pursed lips to be Rafal, the protagonist of a nearly ten-minute video by Althamer and Żmijewski, Do It Yourself, 2004, an unsentimental scrutiny of him filmed during a relatively uneventful class. In the video, Rafal declares—in a decelerated but rhythmic intonation—his passion for making clay biplanes. He is evidently proud of his skills and his knowledge of different types of aircraft, but his focus is always in several places at once, and as much as he wants to hold forth about biplanes, he also seeks Althamer’s attention.

Paweł Althamer (front row, right) with the Nowolipie Group, Warsaw, 2005.

I first encountered the work of the Nowolipie Group in “Artists’ Favourites,” 2004, a group show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, in which artists were invited to select work by others and to exhibit it alongside short statements explaining their choices. Althamer’s decision to present the work of the Nowolipie Group in this context underscores the fact that his collaboration with the group differs from that of a teacher or an art therapist, since the creative traffic flows both ways. In 2008, Rafal’s obsession with biplanes led the Nowolipie Group to produce a sculpture of a silver plane, ensconcing their own portraits in its windows; with Althamer’s gallery connections, they were then able to realize Rafal’s dream of flying over Warsaw in such a vehicle. This trip took place in February of that year, with the group wearing matching gray overalls and pale blue woolly berets, and is documented in a short video by Althamer titled Winged, 2008. Despite (or because of) the arduous effort required for the group to board the plane, due to the physical handicaps of many of its members, the journey becomes a metaphor for escape from restraints endured on Earth. This endeavor typifies Althamer’s inside-out imagination: He identifies fully with the group with which he is working in order to facilitate the fantasies of its members, stoking their imaginations and sharing their desires to the point where the latter can become reality.

Althamer’s collaborations with his neighbors in the Bródno housing project operate around an equally idiosyncratic atmosphere of misrule tempered by community esprit de corps. Althamer began his collaboration with them in 2000, encouraging two hundred families to participate in the wonderfully pointless homegrown spectacle of Bródno 2000, in which the facade of their huge residential block was made to spell out “2000” in apartment lights, like an LED display. In 2009, in association with the Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw, he opened the Bródno Sculpture Park, installing works by Olafur Eliasson, Monika Sosnowska, and Rirkrit Tiravanija on the bleak outskirts of the estate. Around the same time, he began Common Task, a reimagination of his apartment block through the lens of science fiction, beginning with a futuristic revamp of the main staircase leading to his apartment on the fifth floor. This was followed by a series of three journeys (all documented in video and photographs and all transpiring in 2009) to places with extraordinary or otherworldly architecture. The work is to culminate with the entire building taking off to outer space, to be achieved by a TV broadcast, simultaneously watched by all the inhabitants in their own apartments, simulating a countdown to liftoff.

As the silver-plane excursion and flying building suggest, the trope of the journey is central to Althamer’s work—a physical displacement that serves as an analogue for social, psychological, and individual metamorphosis. The cosmonaut is a recurring image: The insignia of the Common Task project is the tight gold bodysuit worn by each participant, a sartorial imposition that aims to produce collective identification and hasten the process of entering another dimension. The first trip involved taking a small group of neighbors to Brasília; there, they experienced Oscar Niemeyer’s modernist architecture—a far cry from the debased modernism of Bródno—and visited the Vale do Amanhecer (Valley of the Dawn), a syncretic religious cult located in a colorful temple complex thirty miles from the city, whose activities are characterized by extravagant outfits and the worship of a pantheon of saints from other space-times, including Mayan princesses, Egyptian pharaohs, Roman generals, and “astral commanders.” The Vale do Amanhecer’s oracles are considered reincarnations of the Equitunas, an extraterrestrial population that first landed on Earth thirty-two thousand years ago. The Poles’ gold suits, which looked entirely at home amid the futuristic architecture of Brasília, seemed restrained in comparison with the oracles’ flamboyant Star Trek–meets–Mardi Gras costumes.

The second Common Task journey involved 150 gold-suited neighbors, including some members of the Nowolipie Group, flying in a gold plane to visit the Atomium, a monument resembling a huge silver molecule built for the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels. This project, commissioned by the European Union, ostensibly celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the fall of Communism, but Althamer’s time-traveling voyage also suggested the possibility, polemically advocated by Boris Groys in his 2001 essay “Back from the Future,” that the post-Communist subject enters the present against the flow of time—that is, not from the past, but from the future. Groys’s argument hinges on a wager that Communism’s state-sponsored utopianism constituted “the most extreme and radical manifestation of militant modernism . . . [and] of utter commitment to the future” and that those in the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc thus experienced the advent of the post-Communist era as, quite literally, a trip backward in time. Viewed from this perspective, Althamer’s troupe of low-income Poles in gold bodysuits produces a message quite different from that desired by his commissioners. At the same time, this photogenic voyage to the Atomium flirted with a media-friendly populism that was perhaps too well received by the press, but the artist remains entirely unfazed by the possibility that his work will disappear into an ever-churning media circus, preferring always to operate on the popular imagination rather than address a coterie of critical insiders. (In 2007, for example, many of us felt uneasy about his collaboration with Jude Law for Realtime Movie at Tate Modern: It seemed to tip museum branding into overdrive, resulting in a trailer that could easily be mistaken for a Marks & Spencer commercial.)

Participants of Paweł Althamer’s Common Task, 2008–2010, in front of the Museu Nacional Honestino Guimarães, Brasília, March 5, 2009.

The most recent Common Task journey is more modest in scale and less visually striking. Repeating a trip that the artist had made there as a student in 1991, a smaller group of neighbors and three of Althamer’s brothers visited central Mali, where the villages of the Dogon people teeter on the face of cliffs. Here the gold suits were clearly hot and uncomfortable, but this seemed a small price to pay for a trip to outer space. The Dogon are known for their extremely long ceremonies, one of which takes place every sixty years (the last one began in 1967 and ended in 1973). These ceremonies are organized around masks, and Althamer commissioned a craftsman to produce one for the group, which they covered in gold leaf to match their suits. The documentation of these voyages is also undertaken in the spirit of a “common task,” albeit one with unpredictable outcomes: While Althamer filmed the trip to Brazil himself, the Malian journey was left in the hands of filmmaker Cezary Ciszewski, who produced a short video but, having retained author’s rights, now refuses to share the rest of his footage with the artist, insisting that all screenings be cleared through him. Ciszewski’s film does little to explain the rationale behind the trip and gives the impression of a bunch of loutish blokes stumbling around without any goal. However, it must be confessed that Althamer’s effort on his own video Brasil, 2009, is not much better: The opening shots show the tattooed, beer-swilling men larking around in a hotel swimming pool to no discernible purpose, and we have to resort to Google if the Vale do Amanhecer is to have any resonance other than visual. Common Task translates more vividly into photography than into video, because we’re less likely to demand narrative scrutability from still images; the gold suits and architecture speak for themselves.

At their best, what results from all three journeys in Common Task is a double ethnographic investigation, not just of the Dogon, of a Brazilian cult, and of the EU (or at least of its headquarters, Brussels) but of the Polish interface with each of these entities. However, Althamer himself characteristically frames Common Task in more elusive terms, positing it as an effort to make it possible for his neighbors to leave behind the daily grind of everyday experience and to access another mental level of existence. (The neighbors who went to Brazil, for example, had never flown abroad before.) Like the space voyage, the prolepsis of post-Communist experience, the Common Task trips propose a kind of out-of-body experience. This childlike joy in the experience of alterity—be this cultural (as in the visits to Brazil and Mali), social (as in Althamer’s collaborations with children), or even psychoactive (as in his drug-taking experiments, filmed by Żmijewski, resulting in their So-Called Waves and Other Phenomena of the Mind, 2003)—can be traced back to Althamer’s own feeling of being an outsider, “a cosmonaut in the suit of my own body,” and it is this identification that links Althamer’s social collaborations to his sculptural practice of self-portraiture. However, such a biographical reading is perhaps the least interesting way of accounting for Common Task, and indeed for Althamer’s practice in general. It’s more productive to consider his work through the unfashionable prism of universality.

It is typical of Althamer to invest in the inspirational side of these voyages and to seek common interests, rather than engaging in issues that would concern most critical artists (e.g., the Dogon treatment of women, including genital mutilation). Like Joseph Beuys, Althamer believes in universal creativity, but he unashamedly exploits this creativity to his own ends. For example, when I presented the work of the Nowolipie Group in the exhibition “Double Agent” at the London ICA in 2008, several people expressed to me their distaste for Althamer’s presentation of the group’s work as a part of his own practice. But this is precisely the point. Althamer’s social sculpture—like that of Beuys—isn’t just a set of intangible social relations. It takes the form of physical objects allied more or less uncomfortably to a lucrative singular authorship. The fact that collectors now buy the Nowolipie Group’s objects is not a sign of failure or of the artist’s compromised morals, but is part of a larger barter: Althamer teaches, organizes, collaborates, motivates, and, most significantly, activates the resulting objects as art. Rather than arguing about the moral economy of participatory art—is the artist taking advantage of his collaborators? Or does the benefit accruing to them in the form of international trips outweigh their potential exploitation?—we need to engage in a more complicated conversation about the realpolitik of how collaborative projects are funded and sustained. This will allow us to understand that Althamer’s claim on authorship consists precisely in an instrumentalization of his access to the social and discursive circuits of art and to the financial prerogatives that accompany this. As such, he can mobilize an experimental situation into something that far exceeds its anticipated parameters. The Nowolipie Group’s abandoned female nude Sylwia, 2010, for example, now graces the park of New York’s City Hall. Without Althamer’s eye to steer these productions into a given context and devise modes for their display, the group’s clay objects would remain simply a collection of more or less wonky castles, biplanes, mountains, nudes, and Nefertitis.

Participants of Paweł Althamer’s Common Task, 2008-10, Brussels, June 4, 2009.

We should also recall that if Althamer takes advantage of his collaborators, then art institutions in turn are exploited on their behalf. When the curator Alex Farquharson wanted to show the Einstein Class, 2005, video in London in 2006, Althamer insisted that the Polish boys be invited to the opening, and local counterparts had to be hired to supply a dubbed translation for the film, further depleting an already threadbare budget. As in many of Althamer’s projects, altruism is inseparable from institutional inconvenience and upheaval (which the London exhibition made explicit in its title, “What Have I Done to Deserve This?”). On receiving the Van Gogh Award, Althamer brought his son Bruno and teenage friends to be “in residence” at the Bonnefanten Museum in Maastricht, the Netherlands, letting them smoke pot and draw on the walls, all in the name of expanding their horizons through exposure to another cultural system (Bad Kids). Althamer readily admits that he shamelessly uses art institutions to counterbalance his own deficits as a parent; this also goes for his status as a neighbor, insofar as sharing the opportunities that he receives as an artist with those for whom travel is an altogether rarer luxury serves to make his life in Bródno run more smoothly.

Althamer grew up under Communism, and this backdrop is, of course, not irrelevant to his method of working. Indeed, a key source of the complexity and fascination of Althamer’s art is its requirement that we attend to the specific context in which he works, a Polish culture that is both West (integrated into the EU) and East (but vehemently disavowing its Soviet past). The fact that Althamer works collaboratively is not to be misunderstood as a return to late Soviet-style collectivism, which was just as alienating as its capitalist counterpart; it is conspicuous that the former East does not overflow with artist collectives, in contrast to the West, where collectivism has become a relatively common format for politically committed artists. (As the Romanian artist Dan Perjovschi pointed out to me, the last thing that artists wanted after the transition was to work collectively: The collapse of Communism meant that they could finally realize their individuality.) Althamer’s generation of artists is one of the last to come of age under the regime, and his multiple, overlapping collaborations seem to be a hybrid formation: endlessly seeking individual freedom (of the imagination, of expression, of spiritual belief) while also understanding this search to be collective and transformative in impetus. In this, he continues the ethos of a number of Eastern European artists working in the 1960s and ’70s, whose art is best understood less as a series of exhibitable objects than as the pretext for, and by-product of, experimental life experiences among a self-selecting community.

There is, of course, much to be said about the catastrophic state of politics in contemporary Poland: its rapid embrace of neoliberalism, the erosion of its public space, its rampant nationalism and xenophobia, and the pernicious integration of the state and Catholic Church. While some artists are on the ground, documenting and addressing this mess, Althamer’s response—dressing up in gold suits and flying to Africa—could easily be construed as escapist. But this would be to overlook the oblique dadaism of his work and the extent to which his multiple collaborations converge and overlap with daily disputes in Warsaw. Last November, he marshaled the Einstein Class and his Bródno neighbors to protest against a neo-Nazi rally in the center of the city. Dressed as Auschwitz prisoners (the costumes were rented from a local film studio), around forty participants peacefully protested in front of the rally. “It was very Common Task,” notes Althamer, by which I initially understood him to be describing a method of organization (fast, improvised, collective, in uniforms). In fact, he meant something else: a form of collective responsibility, based on a humanizing instinct to stress what people have in common (a shared life, context, and history) rather than concentrating exclusively on difference, a focus that can promulgate hate. In this context, common doesn’t denote the most prevalent aspect of contemporary subjectivity—consumptive desire (and its corollary, alienation)—but the shared human qualities of the imagination and its capacity to catapult us all into creative new social constellations. As such, Althamer’s instrumentalized approach to collaboration is unquestionably geared toward social betterment, but in the most sly and mischievous fashion, making explicit the dialectic between individual and collective. As he observes, there is no outside in Common Task. It’s like the Swiss Army: We all have gold bodysuits at home in the cupboard, waiting to be deployed.

Claire Bishop is associate professor in the Ph.D. program in art history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.