The Polish artist Artur Zmijewski (*1966 in Warsaw) began his artistic training in the mid-1990s, together with, among others Katarzyna Kozyra and Pawel Althamer, in the legendary sculpture class of Professor Grzegorz Kowalski at the Warsaw Art Academy. Meantime, Zmijewski works almost exclusively with the artistic means of photography and film, accessing repressed individual and social traumata with astonishing persistence and determination and always putting his finger on the sore spot. Zmijewski gets involved, and provides scope for a social debate through his art.
Zmijewski’s pictures seem purely documentary at first sight, yet the artist’s analytical and precise stagings are also evident in the choice of frame and the montage. Although Zmijewski regarded the tools available for sculptural works as too limited, he has not lost his interest in the classical subject of sculpture: the representation of the human body. His works often focus on psychologically or physically unusual persons. He became famous for his 1998-2000 series of photographs An Eye for an Eye, in which people with physical handicaps, who are missing arms or legs, were rendered complete through healthy people lending them their limbs. In this work the artist maintains an objective gaze and thus provides the social outsiders with a stage, making them visible and audible, as in Singing Class 2 of 2002, for which he had deaf-and-dumb children sing a Bach cantata in the Thomas Church in Leipzig. At the same time, the artist does not refrain from questioning the self-imposed rules of political correctness.
A selection of eight films by Zmijewski will be on show at the Kunsthalle Basel. Many of the artist’s film documents show his marked interest in nationalist phobias and neuroses when stoked by political tension and economic friction. One of his most recent film works is the so-called Israel Triptych, which consists of Itzik, 2003, Our Song Book, 2003 and Lisa, 2003. Lisa and Itzik are film portraits of two people who have positioned themselves on the social periphery: the fundamentalist Jew who demands retribution from the Arabs for the murder of six million Jews, and the young German woman living alone in Israel, to which she emigrated having decided that she had been reborn after being murdered as a little boy in Auschwitz. In Our Song Book Zmijewski requested Polish Jews who had emigrated to Israel before the Second World War to sing Polish songs which they could still remember. As older people usually only remember fragments of the songs of their youth, in this case in the 1930s, what they sing is an non-hierarchical mixture of fragments from military songs, popular tunes and the Polish national anthem.
In the 2003 film Pilgrimage, made during a pilgrimage to Israel organised by Polish priests, Zmijewski provides a very telling view of the Middle East conflict as coloured by a popular Christian faith and erroneous interpretations of parts of the Bible.
In addition to the films, the exhibition will also include a sound installation: sonnets by William Shakespeare read by Wojciech Krolikiewicz, an actor suffering from the incurable Huntington disease, which causes the death of brain cells and thus the loss of control over the body’s motor functions, resulting in irregular and involuntary movements, including a staggering gait and facial grimaces. These uncontrolled movements also influence this actor’s speech rhythm and voice pitch so that the text is audibly deformed.
A high point of the exhibition is Artur Zmijewski’s latest work, his prison installation, originally set up for the 2005 film Repetition, which he made for the Polish pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, curated by Joanna Mytkowska. The Repetition project was realised under the auspices of the Zacheta National Gallery of Art and subsidised by the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Poland. For Repetition Zmijewski recreated the conditions of the famous ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’ in 1971, during which the psychology professor Philip Zimbardo tried to discover how people behave in social roles that are imposed on them by others; the ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’ had to be abandoned under dramatic circumstances. Artur Zmijewski arranged similar framework conditions for Repetition: under the supervision of an experienced psychologist and for a planned period of two weeks, volunteers assumed the social roles of prisoner or prison warder, which they were assigned by lot. Zmijewski documented the experiment in Repetition, for which a prison set-up was staged in a post-industrial site in Warsaw’s historical district of Praga. The prison for Repetition had one-way windows through which five cameramen gathered the film material, that was complemented by footage from infra-red surveillance cameras.
The prison installation will be on show in the last room on the ground floor of the Kunsthalle, whereby the exhibition visitors will only have the observer perspective from outside: viewing the object in the round, and from outside to inside.