This review appeared in frieze:
Artur Żmijewski, ‘Democracies’, 2009–12, video installation
‘Working’, Artur Z˙mijewski’s first show since the much-maligned 7th Berlin Biennale he co-curated in 2012, saw the artist revert to a more traditional exhibition format, which he not long ago claimed to have lost interest in. (This is perhaps understandable, given the biennial’s less than enthusiastic reception.) Yet, judging by the results, this kind of straightforward presentation is what most benefits his work. Consisting of two series of short documentary films made between 2007 and 2012 as part of his ‘Selected Works’ and ‘Democracies’ cycles (made up of 18 and 30 videos, respectively), along with three discrete films, each around 20-minutes long, this formally and thematically varied exhibition proved more effective for playing by the rules.
The first pieces one sees in the exhibition are hung from the ceiling in a brightly lit area running alongside the five gallery spaces, each dedicated to a separate project. These vast expanses of paper covered in paint splotches, child-like scribbles and finger marks were made by blind people in the course of workshops that Z˙mijewski initiated and filmed for Blindly (2010). The film makes for painful yet fascinating viewing. Tasked with painting a self-portrait, a landscape or an animal, the participants in Z˙mijewski’s assignment gradually reveal their stories as they comment on their creations. One woman, who lost her sight following an accident, confides that it felt as though someone had locked her in a coffin. A man conjures the memory of how a dead fly felt between his fingers, as he struggles to depict it. Z˙mijewski has a long-standing interest in maimed, disabled or paralytic bodies, which are seldom portrayed in contemporary visual culture.
Drawings made by people who can see, but equally childlike in appearance, were presented together with My Neighbours (2009), a series of interviews Z˙mijewski conducted with his neighbours in Holon, where he had been staying, in the wake of particularly destructive Israeli attacks carried out in Gaza as part of Operation Cast Lead. In the situations set up by the artist, the act of drawing serves as a catalyst for conversation and effectively disarms his interlocutors. In his recent interview-based projects, Z˙mijewski has increasingly turned to this method as a means of provoking an exchange. The visual and verbal responses to his questions in My Neighbours, such as ‘What are the reasons for the last conflict in Gaza?’, are all the more chilling because of their candour.
Whereas in Blindly and My Neighbours we catch glimpses of the artist asking questions, directing proceedings and operating the camera, Z˙mijewski is absent from The Mass (2011). Recording yet another constructed situation, the film re-enacts the liturgy of the Roman Catholic mass, blow by blow, on the stage of Warsaw’s Dramatyczny Theatre, with professional actors cast in the lead roles. Far from innocent, the setting in which the mass is thus ‘performed’ acts as a powerful metaphor for the theatricality and elements of illusion that underlie the Catholic ritual; the event’s organizers were at pains to explain how this was not an act of profanation or, at the very least, provocation. Placed at the heart of the exhibition, this standalone film owed much of its visual impact to being the only one projected in a darkened room on a large screen with benches placed in front of it, like in a church pew, inviting sustained, cinema-like viewing.
The 50-odd short films that comprise ‘Democracies’ and ‘Selected Works’ were all selected by Z˙mijewski himself, as if to illustrate a remark in his 2007 manifesto, ‘The Applied Social Arts’: ‘today the camera is the artist’s best friend’. Thirty films included in ‘Democracies’ – documenting rallies, reconstructions of historical events and protests by interest groups on both sides of the political spectrum in Poland, Germany, Israel and the West Bank – were screened simultaneously on as many monitors, calling to mind a situation room. Headphones were provided to allow visitors to tune into individual videos, as in the space dedicated to the ‘Selected Works’ series, comprising 18 films shown in a sequence, each named after a working-class protagonist whom the artist had shadowed for a day at work and in their free time. Edited down to anywhere between six and 17 minutes, the films in both cycles have in common their diaristic aesthetic, not unlike Jonas Mekas’s output, and a loose narrative structure imparted by the lifespan of an event or the day-in-the-life format. The appropriateness of the exhibition’s title, ‘Working’, may well be queried given that so many of the activities it charted – from attending political rallies and mass to painting, drawing and filming – fall somewhere between work and play. But then, as the Italian educator Maria Montessori once said, ‘play is the child’s work’.