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Still from the video work Blindly (2010). Courtesy of the artist, Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw and Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zürich

Blind spots and deaf zones of Polish artist Artur Żmijewski 0

A conversation in Riga with the Polish artist Artur Żmijewski

Sergej Timofejev

‘I went to the beach once with the girl who had been born missing a leg. She wore an artificial limb which she took off to bathe. She looked normal with the prosthesis, but now she started hopping on the one leg, catching her balance, a weird stork-like performance. Such embarrassment hung in the air; corporal otherness was being exposed in the full light of day, publicly. And she looked as if she wanted to hide herself in the sea.

This was very moving, and later I wondered what one could do to complete that leg of hers, to solve the anatomical problem, but above all the problem of shame, of everyone’s discomfiture with the anomaly. It occurred to me to put a healthy person’s limb in place of missing one. And I made this series of photos. It turned out you could successfully replace fingers, hands, legs… At the same time, it creates unusual human hybrids, with three legs, two heads. 

Disability can be as appealing as beauty. Physical deformation distinguishes; it’s something unusual, uncommon. One has to make an effort to grasp it.’

Artur Żmijewski in Riga. Photo: Kristīne Madjare

These words were said by the Polish artist Artur Żmijewski to Katarzyna Bielas and Dorota Jarecka in an interview published in the catalogue to Żmijewski’s exhibition in Riga, mounted by the local collector and curator Māris Vītols with the support of AB.LV Charitable Foundation. The title of the show, ‘Blindspots’, seems to sum up the essence of Żmijewski’s artistic approach: focusing on things that the public tries not to notice; using art to talk about socially important things and influence them. The artist, who has contributed to several editions of the Venice Biennale and key contemporary art exhibitions like Manifesta and documenta, and whose works are held in the collections of Tate Modern and MoMA, constantly turns his attention to social groups that are most vulnerable to the risk of social rejection (the disabled, the poor, prison inmates, refugees...). The exhibition in Riga is housed at the Pauls Stradiņš Museum for History of Medicine, where it has been allocated a separate room; part of the works (films from the Collection series) are also shown in the permanent exhibition halls. The key theme that unites the whole show is disability, deformation of the human body and limitation of human abilities that are perceived as ‘otherness’. How open are we in our perception of this ‘otherness’? To what extent is it the way we see them that imposes this stigmatization on the disabled?

It is also about a certain global question of our perception of harmony and disharmony: it shows deaf people singing and blind people painting, creating an artistic product that surprises us as a projection of something that we, ordinary ‘normal’ people, are incapable of imagining. What are the ideas of sound and singing that are circling in the minds of those who do not hear? What are the images condensing in the consciousness of those who do not see? These are all ‘blind spots’ as well, in this case ‒ in the generally accepted perception of art.

From the series An Eye for An Eye (1998)

I do not think that this is going to be the most popular exhibition project of the year in Riga and Latvia. It truly demands a serious effort of perception, demands ‘uneducation’ (one of the favourite terms of both Żmijewski and Adam Szymczyk, Artistic Director of documenta 14) of our vision, its accepted canons. Perhaps that is why the exhibition will be staying open for a really long time (through 24 September 2017) ‒ as if offering this chance, this opportunity: if not today, then tomorrow or perhaps the day after tomorrow…

My conversation with Artur Żmijewski took place in a conference room in the museum building. The open window faced the yard where birds were singing. These sounds feature particularly prominently in the recording, since Żmijewski tended to make long pauses in the conversation and towards the end of the interview even asked to finish it soon, because, according to him, he was running out of his logical faculties. He is a large man, a bit bear-like, and he (19 years younger) also appears in one of the 1998 photographs on view at the exhibition, in the series featuring healthy people ‘lending’ the disabled their arms and legs. We met again in Kassel a mere three days after our conversation: Żmijewski was one of the key participants of documenta 14, both the Athens and Kassel versions of the event. No matter what your views are regarding Żmijewski’s art, what it certainly is not is something that could be described as parochial or decorative art. And that is why the ‘Blindspots’ show at the Riga Museum for History of Medicine highlights our own blind spots and stereotypes in an exact and distinct manner.

Stills from the series An Eye for An Eye, presented among exhibits of the Museum for History of Medicine. Photo: Kristīne Madjare

As a child, I found this museum quite a mystical place, something along the lines of historical thrillers.

Yes, I can imagine that. It is, after all, also a museum of suffering in a way ‒ speaking of the times when medicine was quite primitive, surgical operations were extremely painful and their result was unpredictable.

In a sense, though, it is also a museum of experiments with the human body, which, to a certain extent, intersects with your exhibition presented here.

But I do not work with the subject of medicine. I may perhaps reduce the human body to a mechanism and observe how it works ‒ when it is disabled. However, I do not propose any treatment. I propose observation that can tell us something about existence per se ‒ about what it means to be human and possess a body.

Fragment of the display of the Museum for History of Medicine in Riga. Photo: catalogue to the Blindspots exhibition

Could we say that your interest in the body and its stories can somehow be traced back to your education? You did study sculpture originally.

Yes, we probably could. I studied the human body and its proportions, its construction ‒ how it can be reproduced in metal or wood; how it can be depicted in a drawing as an image. I do have that sort of background, yes.

And yet eventually you found the potential of sculpture as a medium insufficient?

I find films or photographs much more interesting.

Film is, after all, also about the body in movement.

Yes, and it is something so much more objective than an image created by a painter or a sculptor. Film is less subjective, particularly when I work on a material with another person, the cinematographer. Because it is a joint effort, a film incorporates the views of other people alongside my own. And I find it interesting.

You mostly work with real-life, objective images. On the other hand, you do edit them, arrange them in a certain order, which means that it is, of course, also something ‘artificial’.

It is a mixture. I have a film ‒ also featured at the Riga exhibition ‒ about blind people creating pictures with paint. It is a half-scientific half-artistic way of picturing the kind of images that people form in their mind when they are blind. It is an even somewhat perverse interest in their ways of constructing images in their consciousness. They were asked to paint some pictures: a self-portrait, a sort of landscape and some depictions of animals or insects. And they did it. The film shows the actual process and its result ‒ the pictures they made. Perhaps there is a certain element of subjectiveness to the method of setting up the conditions of the experiment; however, we then arrive to a very objective finding in the shape of the actual film and these pictures.

One of the pictures made during work on the project Blindly (2010). Painted by one of the blind participants, it is now on view at the exhibition in Riga.

And yet it is still, in a sense, through your eyes that we see the result.

Of course, it has been edited and then transformed into an exhibition space ‒ which makes it possible for me to share my impressions with the viewers. Without it, I could not have presented this objective finding to them.

When you are making your films ‒ are you thinking about some kind of internal scenario, some kind of dramatic structure?

No, I normally do not have a scenario and I do not have a storyline; I visualize images. These are not fiction films, where there is a growing emotional tension which then eventually reaches a climax, and where there is a happy ending or an unhappy ending. I would say that in my films tension is a constant quantity. It does not vary too much.

Still from the video work Blindly (2010)

And yet the film you referred to, I thought, had a very tragic ending: one of the protagonists speaks about poison which he would take if only he had any, another one ‒ about living as if inside a coffin, and the film ends with one of these blind artists walking away into an absolutely literal increasing darkness...

But that’s more of a side effect, I would say. I speak about the life of people with impaired abilities. I do not set myself the goal of telling a tragic story. I show images, and people experience various emotions when viewing them. Some of these images are horrible ‒ but they are truthful.

An effect that the film had on the viewer, I thought, was also a reminder that the ability to see is actually an incredible gift. The world is showing us its films 24/7. And it is important to remind us of these things that we are so used to and forget so easily, taking them as a matter of course. On the other hand, some of your other films present images that are very far from being horrible – like the video work about the choir of deaf teenagers singing in a church. How did you decide to put them there of all places?

I don’t remember exactly why it was that we were filming in a church. Perhaps it was because it had the musical instrument we needed for the film ‒ the organ. Of course, there is this special harmony to the architecture of a church, a special beauty, and a choir of deaf people singing there deconstructs our customary idea of harmony in a way, creating an alternative version.

Still from the video work Singing Lesson 2 (2003)

As I was watching and listening to it, it occurred to me that we do not actually know how angels sing. Perhaps it is exactly like this that they do it: without hearing their own voices, having only an abstract idea of what a sound is and what singing is.

It may well be the case, I agree. There is another video in this series (Singing Lesson 2), which was filmed at the St Thomas Church in Leipzig, where Johann Sebastian Bach used to work as a Kapellmeister. And the deaf children sang Bach’s cantatas there. It was a story of the destruction of the perfection of Bach’s music, which is the epitome of ultimate harmony. However, it is not only about music. It is also about disability, about the ways in which we perceive and accept it ‒ accept it conditionally... Although I prefer unconditional acceptance. 

How did your protagonists feel after the filming, after singing in a church?

I don’t know. I haven’t had any contact with them after the filming.

The film leaves the impression that they were enjoying themselves... 

Yes, they probably did. The actual filming was an entertainment for them.

Still from the video work Singing Lesson 1 (2001)

In a way, it reminded me a bit of a poetry event that I organised with my friends. With the support of the American embassy, we invited a deaf-mute poet from the USA, along with his partner, his ‘voice’, who translated from sign language to English. We had events in Riga and in Liepāja, and they were attended by people who usually don’t go to poetry readings ‒ by deaf-mute Latvians living in these cities. It was a completely new experience for them. But you also gave your protagonists a chance to take on a new role, to experience something unusual for them...

Yes, although it was not what I had in mind then. My intention was not to offer a new experience to deaf-mute people. I do not focus on bringing gifts to anyone, I focus on a study and on presenting the findings of this study. Although, of course, it was something new to them ‒ just like to the people who see the whole thing on a screen. Essentially, it is a certain knowledge, presented in an emotional form.

You have a kind of ‘manifesto’ about the ways in which art can achieve a status of significance in contemporary world. It was published more than ten years ago. Has anything changed in your ideas? 

I still think that art can be an influential force, accumulate knowledge and share it with the public. Art must not be reduced to pure aesthetics and production of commercial objects. Potentially, it is something so much more interesting than that. I still think that art can be used (in the best sense of this word) and it can be created in collaboration with people representing other areas of human activity: politics, science. There is this possibility; to what extent it is made use of ‒ it’s another matter completely. I do not actually call the text a manifesto; rather, it is an essay. My intention was not manifesting anything; rather, I wanted to share my thoughts on art and on ways in which it can function in society. I did not try and convince anyone to adhere to my ideas. 

You mentioned knowledge that an artist can share. Apparently, you did not quite mean the kind of knowledge that can be found in books. If I remember correctly, what you mean is more like a certain experience that you accumulate through creating the actual work.

Yes, and it works in my practice. For instance, the film about the blind people. It is not merely an existential story of the difficulties of being, but perhaps also an access to certain images of which these people dream in their consciousness ‒ which they generate there. It is exactly the same objective element of which we were speaking just now. Also, in the same sense, we could also mention the films of the Collection series which were also presented at the exhibition at the Museum of Medicine. They are stories of mundane everyday activities that the disabled perform on a regular basis; they present the difficulties these people encounter when they walk, sit down or stand. There is something slightly morbid in all this ‒ but also something objective: information about the mechanics of the body, of the way it functions when it has been affected by disease. It is not a medical narrative, and yet it was quite close to the kind of films that patients suffering from various specific illnesses make themselves. In this case, I was actually inspired by these video stories released by various societies that unite people experiencing similar symptoms. I think that I use similar strategies, combining tragic stories with objective information on how the human body behaves in these situations.

Video works from the Collection series presented among the exhibits of the Museum for History of Medicine across several floors. Photo: Kristīne Madjare

You do more than just work as an artist with groups of people you film. You also have a certain experience of working with groups of artists, acting as a curator for them. That is what happened at the 2012 Berlin Biennale, a huge event that was much talked about at the time. You were the principal curator at the Biennale.

Being a curator is much, much more complicated. I spent two years on this. It means constant travelling, meetings, a multitude of chores to do, perpetual shortage of time ‒ I was exhausted. There is an interesting story to the whole thing, of course ‒ actually, a certain manifesto moment that was realized in association with other artists. We wanted to make a statement ‒ that art can be a political instrument, an instrument of social influence. That was where the potential of this job ‒ the post of the curator of the Berlin Biennale ‒ actually lay.

Berlin, 2012.  Photo:

But if we were to look back at 2012 through the eyes of today... It was a time of activism, the time of the Occupy movement, of protests in Russia. And yet it seems that the public reaction in different countries has been completely unpredictable. The trends that the activists were fighting against have, on the contrary, only increased in strength. Which is quite strange actually...

Yes, it is indeed quite strange.

So, in that case ‒ is it a defeat?

Yes, it may be a defeat. Something just did not come to happen. I mean, the social movements similar to Occupy expressed dissent from the existing and dominant means of implementation of social policies. But the whole thing was not completed, the process was interrupted. These people were stopped, although they created a new political vocabulary, new means of political communication. It is an unfinished story, an incomplete work. And now we all find ourselves in a situation where the agenda is set by this old political vocabulary: leadership, manipulation, secret deals, police state, domination.

The 7
th Berlin Biennale (2012), Draftsmen's Congress at St. Elisabeth-Kirche. Photo: Sandra Teitge

Moreover, these concepts have now been elevated to a more active level.

Exactly. So basically, something just was not completed there. Something was started and then unexpectedly halted.

Halted by whom?

By sceptics. There are so many of them, and they keep repeating: ‘Yes, it’s very interesting that there is a party that can make decisions without violence, without leadership, without domination. But we are not ready yet... Besides, the lack of leadership will lead us to defeat. We need strong leaders, we need real fighters.’

But there have always been sceptics. Or would you say there are more of them now than in the 1960s?

(Smiles.) Perhaps.

Your latest work, which premiered at documenta 14 in Kassel, was filmed in Russia...

Yes, I wanted to get better acquainted with life in the Russian Federation... in Moscow. Because it is an empire. And we have always lived in the shadow of this empire. And I wanted to try to understand this country, form my own opinion about it...

Glimpse, a 20-minute video work by Artur Żmijewski, was presented at the Athens part of documenta 14. Photo: © Stathis Mamalakis

The exhibition in Kassel presents the result of this study ‒ a video installation featuring disabled people from Russia. At the Athens part of the documenta, however, you showed a film about refugees. It is a subject discussed quite actively in contemporary art, among other areas; for instance, a work that sparked heated debates at the current edition of the Venice Biennale was the project by Olafur Eliasson dealing with exact same subject... What was your approach to the theme?

I wanted, in this case, to take the side of the majority, the ones who are against refugees, against their presence in their countries, in Poland and other Eastern European countries ‒ and not only there. I wanted to create a situation where I, as a director, try to transform the verbal negative reaction of the majority into a visual field.

You are showing refugees as the ‘bad guys’?

Yes, bad ones ‒ dirty, living in inhumane conditions. Despite that, they still somehow manage to get in, to seep into Europe, and, no matter how ‘bad’ they are, they are still good enough for cleaning our countries. It is a bad story anyway, but it has been created by all of us, present-day Europeans.

Still from the video work Blindly (2010)

It is, after all, not only a problem for the refugees themselves but also a sign of change taking place in many places in Europe ‒ symptoms of departure from openness, reinforcement of the borders... But as a conclusion to our conversation, I would like to return to your films presented in Riga. You mentioned knowledge. Have these films added to your own knowledge as well ‒ regarding your own body? Have you started to understand it better now?

I don’t know, I’m not sure... It is, after all, a story of something rational and irrational: of something given in a mystical, existential way and, at the same time, of practical understanding of the mechanics of the human body... There is something there that cannot be expressed with rational means only. And that is why there are images ‒ moving images of living people existing in poor conditions... We see degradation, destruction of the body as a result of diseases ‒ I do not elaborate on what kind of diseases specifically. It is not important in this case. In this, I differ from the medical approach.

But what does the viewer get from it ‒ what is it that they can extract from all this?

I don’t know. I do not represent the viewers here. You have to ask them about it.

You are on the other side?


Artur Żmijewski in Riga. Photo: Kristīne Madjare