What is the place of art in the world? What, if anything, can we expect of it? Does art have any real goals or impact on reality? Artur Żmijewski, born in Warsaw in 1966, responds to these questions by defining and adopting places, formulating his expectations, and determining his goals. Bertolt Brecht had faith in the power of montage—in juxtapositions that shatter our certainties, mock authority, and author the impossible. Żmijewski has faith in the power of such a clash.
Initially, his work probed areas culturally out of bounds, forgotten, or repressed. He pulled no punches in addressing such themes when showing the peculiar, multiped, and multiheaded hybrids in An Eye for An Eye (1998)—in which the bodies of amputees are complemented by “healthy” ones. There’s no euphemistic glossing over in Singing Lesson 2 (2003)—a recording of one of Bach’s magnificent cantatas performed by a deaf-mute choir. In 80064 (2004), the artist persuaded a former prisoner of Auschwitz-Birkenau to retouch his faded concentration camp number tattoo.
In his manifesto “Applied Social Arts” (2007), Żmijewski criticizes art’s exaltation, self-satisfaction, and alienation, its amnesia and its wasted potential. He insists that art be a partner for both politics and science, as it has social impact, produces cognition, and has the potential to effect change. He postulates replacing the “virus” theory of art—according to which art produces events “that ‘infect’ various parts of the social system just like viruses infect an organism”—with the constructive method of art as an algorithm that will take the “system from the initial to the desired end phase.”1
As practiced by Żmijewski, this formula relies on the artist setting up a situation that will develop according to the dynamics of the participants. His Repetition (2005) replicates Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 experiment in which volunteers were divided into guards and prisoners and placed in a fictitious prison. In Them (2007), he confronts proponents of four different worldviews, triggering a visual and verbal debate on fundamental social problems.
Whether classified as “social experiments” or “staged documentaries,” these clashing activities are intended, on the one hand, to jolt participants out of their customary reactions and identifications, but on the other—as an algorithm—to achieve a specific (artistic) effect. Controversial and discomfiting, Żmijewski’s works certainly prove a discussion-provoking cognitive tool. At times, they operate like seismographs—sensitive to minute tremors and displacements, they identify and record them, presaging the approaching quakes.
1 Artur Żmijewski, “Applied Social Arts,” Krytyka Polityczna 11–12 (2007).