Krzysztof Wodiczko

Zachęta National Gallery of Art

As Krzysztof Wodiczko well knows, Poland’s history abounds in traumatic events. One such occurred on December 16, 1922, when Eligiusz Niewiadomski, a conservative artist and critic, assassinated Gabriel Narutowicz, the first democratically elected president of Poland, in the Zachęta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw. Wodiczko considers this event a significant moment not only for the history of the gallery—a national monument and the host to this exhibition—but also for that of the nation. “The history of memorials,” Wodiczko argues, “is the history of the machines that only help bad things happen again,” and he uses such monuments against themselves as screens on to which he can project his warning images.

This exhibition, “Pomnikoterapia” (Monument Therapy), had two parts: a site-specific projection on the main facade of the Zachęta and selected documentation of other projects from around the world, along with a presentation of this most important Polish artist’s well-known “instruments”—for example, The Mouthpiece, 1994, or Dis-armor, 2000, high-tech contraptions equipped with sensitive cameras and monitors, which enable those carrying them to observe while being observed, and thus reverse the dynamics of the Panopticon.

Warsaw Projection, 2005, addressed the abuse of women in Poland, which is usually kept hidden as a “private matter” rather than dealt with as a serious problem. Thus, what normally remains in darkness was brought into the light; the secret was made public. Yet the message was delivered with a certain ambiguity (including humor)—a mode of presentation that could be seen as a form of Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt, or an effect of deliberate estrangement. Revealing his sensitivity in dealing with the pain of others by giving compelling visual form to their deep emotions, Wodiczko nevertheless avoided providing a consistent and continuous account of human suffering, leaving room for individual stories to be told in all their complexity by the Polish women themselves. The women appeared on the building like contemporary Caryatids, one projected on each side of the main facade, as they recalled their suffering at the hands of men, as well as their own sense of guilt at being unable to live in harmony with others. While addressing personal traumas with a gender qualifier, the artist touched on the particularly sensitive issue of silence, which—considered historically—might reveal a painful aspect of Polish (in fact, any national) identity: the ability of the oppressed to turn into the oppressor, as Poland witnessed, for example, in the early ’20s, following Narutowicz’s death, when, after a century of foreign occupation, it engaged in military conflicts with its less powerful neighbors and persecuted its ethnic minorities.

Bringing Wodiczko’s public art inside a museum poses a challenge: How to prevent a site-specific, dynamic “event” from becoming a static wall display. Wodiczko’s solution has been to endow his show with a dynamic inner rhythm, taking his audience on an imaginary journey along a path corresponding to the artist’s peregrinations through the world, from Kraków to Boston, from Hiroshima to Tijuana. After its one-time presentation in November, Warsaw Projection was shown as a video document in a gallery on the ground floor, as if it had simply passed through the walls and arrived indoors. As the exhibition enfolded, moving from its vertical display suggestive of monuments to a position of horizontality, Wodiczko’s critical stance was, in effect, internalized by the building—turning the museum into a site of public awareness rather than aesthetic contemplation.

Marek Bartelik