Artur Zmijewski

by Marta Gnyp for Zoo Magazine #30, January 2011

Throughout our meeting, Polish artist Artur Zmijewski — who was recently appointed curator of the prestigious Berlin Biennale in 2012—constantly drew lines in his notebook. By the end, the lines formed a complex and intriguing labyrinth that seemed to follow its own hidden logic. A similar complexity and mystery applies to Zmijewski’s art. His powerful and unforgettable films confront the various mechanisms of human behavior and our dependency on social structures.

Them, 2007, courtesy Foksal Gallery Foundation

Them, 2007, courtesy Foksal Gallery Foundation

Marta Gnyp: Why is it so difficult to get in touch with you?

Artur Zmijewski: I have been traveling a lot. I don’t work in an office and don’t have office habits; I don’t read my emails every day.

MG: You recently became the curator of the Berlin Biennale for 2012. Does this job include office duties? Or do you see it as an artistic project?

AZ: What would it mean if this curatorship is an artistic project?

MG: To begin, you asked artists worldwide to apply for the Berlin Biennale by indicating their political inclination—for example, rightist, leftist, liberal, nationalist, anarchist, feminist, masculinist or whether they are not interested in politics at all. This sounds strange.

AZ: I put this request in because I’m trying to understand what the artists represent. With what do they identify themselves? What kind of ideas are available in the market of political ideologies? What they are prepared to fight for? This is very important to me. The popular opinion that, as an artist I have no political position but as a citizen I do, is for me untenable and strange.

MG: But there are artists who clearly state their politics.

AZ: There are, but the majority avoids this theme or hides it. It amazes me and this is why I would like to have a closer look at this phenomenon.

MG: Would this research be part of your new artistic project?

AZ: Interestingly enough, many people suspect me of having my own secret plans. I’m not a real curator but this position has obviously many implications. But my word remains the word of an artist and seems to be not binding.

MG: Why did they ask you to become the curator then?

AZ: They have probably thought that I could tell a story from a different point of view, which I can. For this, however, I need curatorial power and authority.

MG: Does the function as such not imply that you have this authority?

AZ: It seems so, but it doesn’t. It gives me possibility, but it is an unreal, imaginary power. I would like my word to be treated as the word of the curator. I assume the social stratifications we are used to following disturb our thinking; we are slaves of social formation and we behave accordingly. I have been trying to escape the categorization of artist/curator.

MG: How?

AZ: I’m trying to talk to artists, organize meetings and give them some tasks. Yet the categorization is very strong. I don’t have a strategy at this moment to break it, to reformulate it, and present myself differently to the artists.

MG: What would you like to achieve with the Berlin Biennale?

AZ: I would like to tell you only some of my intentions, but wouldn’t like to show all my plans yet because it could harm this project. I mentioned the subject of politics not by coincidence; I want the politics and the political position of the artist to be one of the themes of the Berlin Biennale. I would like to find the connection between art and politics. Obviously, there are artists already involved in this topic, which is great, because this means that there is a chance we can do something.

MG: Do you think that art can influence politics?

AZ: I think that art and politics are close since they both share opinions about the reality in which we live. An artistic gesture can be a creating act, a possibility to set up a new order and throw away the old one—the same act politics can do. The field of art is a field of power as well, although more symbolic. There are people who have authority and power, and others who don’t. Now I am a part of this power struggle; I was not quite conscious about it before I started.

MG: You seem so conscious about your actions though.

AZ: You can be conscious yourself, but you will be confronted with the unconsciousness of the others. What is at stake is so important that people are prepared to sacrifice a lot to defend it. They would react conservatively; they could stop a relationship only to win in their field. Some of them have invested a lot in art and they want to defend the status quo. If I ask a famous artist, ‘Does the art have use?’ and this artist says ‘no,’ this is for me not a statement on his world view but his defense of what he put at stake so far. It is for me a reactionary conservative answer, as if we were going back in time.

MG: On the other hand, this is a very common post-modern opinion. Art has no use, the meaning provided is an illusion; we are part of various structures and cannot change anything.

AZ: We are able to change a lot. The impossibility of change is just the current paradigm. I strongly believe in the romantic opinion that we can change everything. Sometimes the social tissue is so weak that you can break it just by touching it. Our opinions influence the opinions of others; we inform each other. All is permanently on the move, Panta Rei. We cannot say we have no influence on our world; we have huge possibilities to change. The problem of art is that it didn’t dare to refuse the participation in power, but on the contrary it stays at its service. Art supported the social stratifications and stayed at the peripheries of reality. But art has enormous energy to create or to help create reality.

Democracies, 2009 courtesy Foksal Gallery Foundation

Democracies, 2009 courtesy Foksal Gallery Foundation

MG: In your art, you often demonstrate the human being in many manifestations of behavior: conformism, empathy or lack of empathy, and the will to power. Do you want to show how a human being functions?

AZ: We know the mechanisms already, since many others have shown it to us. What intrigues me is that we know it but we permanently negate it. We are corrupted by the power ourselves.

MG: Do you think that we are lazy?

AZ: To change the status quo costs tremendous energy and time. The status quo is comfortable.

MG: In today’s situation, the market immediately swallows every form of protest or critique.

AZ: I don’t believe in shocking or critical art that surprises the market. In my opinion, this art is required or created by the market itself.

MG: It applies to your art as well?

AZ: I am a part of the same logic. I understand that my films are also being commercialized and it makes sense. We cannot invent any other system at this moment. It is the only possibility for me to earn money for a living.

MG: You don’t mind?

AZ: I don’t mind to have money to live; it is a matter of dignity. Everybody needs money to live a respectable life; so do I. It gives me freedom to work and to make for example the Berlin Biennale, to make strange films, which will be important for a few other people.

MG: Are there any taboos in art for you?

AZ: I don’t share the opinion that art is progressive. In my view, the contemporary art goes hand in hand with conservatism. There is no need to go further than spectacle, irony, or a show; art is not about breaking the rules. Politics goes much further if we speak about breaking the rules: politicians murder, send soldiers to Afghanistan, sentence people for life to a hopeless existence, force young people to go abroad to look for better work. This is breaking taboos on a big scale. Art cannot compete with these movements. What can art do? Show nakedness? Spit on a cross? Pack a shit in a box? These are innocent gestures in comparison with what politics is doing. Political actions are much more provocative. The scale of art is minimal.

MG: You just said that art is able to help change the society. If this scale is so small what can it change and how?

AZ: Throughout history, art has always tried to adapt itself to ever-changing social circumstances; it was at the service of power, the church, the aristocracy and various protectors. Later on, artists became freer and seemingly independent. In the 60s, the situation was different. Most of the artistic languages that we use today, like participation or collaboration, were invented then. Today’s art is like a decent, obedient and wellbehaved girl in a dress, which is buttoned up to her chin. She stands in a corner and keeps silent. She would not speak if no one asks her to. She can play piano and smells well. This was a great comment that I got from one of the artists who reacted to the open call.

MG: How important is Poland for you?

AZ: It is my point of reference. I think we still manage to keep a mystery intact.

MG: What is the Polish mystery?

AZ: We have a very fresh tradition of resistance that is still kept well in the social and cultural memory. We share our different traditions with other countries of the former Eastern bloc. There are still traces of the social practice from this time, which meant that to survive, you need to exchange goods, to believe in what others say, to give each other unconditional trust. You had to be prepared to step forward in complete darkness. This attitude survived also in the artistic practice that makes us different in comparison with the West, where capitalism started to corrupt people much earlier and limited all action to the value exchange. I sense a lack of trust towards me from the side of Western artists. They all think that the curatorship is my own personal project.

MG: Let’s be honest, you are a very provocative artist.

AZ: It is more than this. They miss this unconditional trust.

MG: Unconditional trust is only one of the sides of the picture if we speak about Poland. The quasi-communistic system in Poland survived so long because there were plenty of people who liked this power structure and were completely not to be trusted.

AZ: I’m talking about the artistic practice, for example of Grzegorz Kowalski. During the communistic regime, he and his artist friends could not express themselves freely so they set up small communes, small communities in which they could live their life and make art in the best possible, free way based on trust. In the works of Kowalski, there are still traces of this practice from the 60s and 70s. I don’t think this kind of experience can be found in the West. Here it’s about profit.

MG: Don’t you think that this unconditional trust idea is a bit paradoxical since the communities of trust were set up because you couldn’t trust anybody? The system forced artists to react to the situation. In the West, the system hasn’t required this kind of behavior.

AZ: Sure. Still, I think that because of this situation, we got more; we have been formed by other impulses as in the West.

MG: It is a very complicated issue, but sometimes—with all respect for people who fought for the change of the system —it’s easier to battle against than to create something new without an enemy.

AZ: In the West, there was an enemy as well: communism, the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. After the collapse of the communistic East, which was held responsible for all possible wrong, there came emptiness. This system is a kind of virus that corrupts people around the world in a perfect way, without them even noticing it. It is extremely difficult to lay bare the mechanisms of this system.

MG: Do you believe in a better system?

AZ: I believe you can improve it. Mankind has always been changing the system: from the monarchy to democracy, from feudalism to the free market, we have been always thinking about new possibilities. This process is still going on. Every system is suspected, inclusive democracy.

MG: You opt for small corrections of the system.

AZ: Who knows, maybe bigger than only small?

Artur Zmijewski is represented by Foksal Gallery, Warsaw and Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich.