Józef Robakowski, Moskwa, 1986, gelatin silver print, 9 1/4 × 6 7/8".

Józef Robakowski, Moskwa, 1986, gelatin silver print, 9 1/4 × 6 7/8".

Józef Robakowski

Józef Robakowski, Moskwa, 1986, gelatin silver print, 9 1/4 × 6 7/8".

Can an artistic practice developed in resistance to—or maybe simply out of disregard for—one ideological system prove equally defiant in another? The answer is a resolute yes when it comes to the oeuvre of Józef Robakowski, who has been an active participant in the Polish art scene since the late 1950s.

Outside of his native country, Robakowski is probably best known as a structuralist filmmaker and experimental video artist. As such, he was celebrated in a traveling show at the Goethe-Institut’s Curatorial Residencies Ludlow 38 in New York and at the ZKM | Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, in 2011–12. But otherwise, apart from exhibitions with lokal_30 and his Berlin gallery Żak | Branicka, solo appearances in Europe, let alone beyond, have been rare. Yet there is a lot to discover, since Robakowski has not only been open to exploring any medium whatsoever but has also been running the private space Galeria Wymiany (Exchange Gallery) in Lodz since 1978.

Robakowski’s recent exhibition “Szpula energetyczna” (Energetic Reel), which showed him to bean artist of many interests, featured a number of videos made between the mid-1980s and the present, together with music videos and photographs shot for and of the Polish punk band Moskwa around 1985–86. The band’s raw energy provides quite a contrast to Robakowski’s video works, which are, for the most part, slow, almost contemplative narrations or meditations. Piegi (Freckles) from 2014 is a good example. Shot in a single take, unedited, and with Robakowski’s talking head occupying the whole screen—trademark features of many of his videos—it features the artist confessing a childhood trauma: his many freckles. The problem would, as Robakowski recounts, eventually resolve itself; the freckles disappeared. Toward the end of this short tale, at once comical and poignant, Robakowski reconciles with the past, using a marker to cover his face with a myriad of dots.

Okulary (Glasses) from 1992 has a similarly autobiographical, auto-therapeutic take, laced with deadpan humor. Here we learn about another identity crisis as Robakowski speaks of his fear of putting on his late grandfather’s glasses. Mordę skuje (Smash Your Face In), 2015, is the most recent video, and one of Robakowski’s most forceful. Again, we see the artist’s face full-screen; he recites a poem of his own composition, a sardonic plea to be beaten up for the sake of feeling life. The violent text resonates with the harsh energy of the music videos—for instance Powietrza (More Air), 1986, in which the band frantically cries for oxygen in then politically oppressive Poland. Robakowski’s recurrent appearance in his own videos could easily be seen as narcissistic, but his collaboration with Mowska demonstrates where his allegiances lie—with the rebellious spirits.

Perhaps the video Mój teatr (My Theater), 1985, sums it all up. Here, we see a close-up of the artist, from waist to chest, as he uses his fingers as “actors” to perform all sorts of gestures and direct the viewer’s gaze. Robakowski’s voice-over text is something like a declaration of artistic freedom, an insistence on the personal as an arena of independence that allows for autonomy in socialist—but also today’s neoliberal—times: “It’s a personal theater, where nobody will stop you, nobody will correct you, nobody will ban you from doing anything, nobody will offend you.”

Astrid Mania