Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Radical Polish Video Art

The Films of Artur Żmijewski (Artur Żmijewski, 1998 - 2007)
**** (Masterpiece) *Daniel Baird will be introducing the films.

Artur Żmijewski’s Them is a social experiment in a large warehouse flat that documents the archetypization of individuals into groups (i.e. conservatives, humanist, nationalist, liberals) and the confrontations that arise between each other. Each group consists of 4 or 5 members. Their tasks being to paint on a large white canvas a symbol of their collective groupthink. The groups paint a church, the word Poland in Hebrew, the Szczerbiec “the Jagged Sword” – a symbol of Polish Nationalism - with the Polish-flag colors across it in tape, and the word freedom. Each group member is then given a t-shirts to wear of their sign. In the following meetings - there are around five - each group is given access to alter one another’s paintings. These groups are providing their own portraitures of a nation with honesty through their rivalries and chaos.

It is noted in the Peter Kilchmann Galerie (Zurich, Switzerland) text for Them:
“In “Them” Artur Zmijewski refers to experiences from his time as a student of Professor Grzegorz Kowalski’s famous Kowalnia studio where he participated in an exercise called “The exercise” which taught dialogue and collective task solving using the language of visual symbols. Artur Zmijewski transforms this formula into an instrument where visual language illuminates social diversity and reveals pathological tendencies.”

Them in itself purports an opposition as the video is about the tearing apart of four groups of Poles and simultaneously about the groups being brought together on video. Mr. Żmijewski is the sovereign within this experiment as he creates these camps of people; extending himself into their everyday through his instructions. He gives the right to create and to destroy the art works. There is a recurrent demonstration of Mr. Żmijewski’s speculation on the administration and regulation of a population. This theme is noticeable in his earlier film In Eye for an Eye where he shatters the notion of normality as he purports it as a social construct by meshing the abled with the disabled.

The societal crosses into the private as the Polish youth confront the seniors on the virtues of the church, deriding them, to the point that they leave one of the meetings early. The youth cannot understand this emphasis on the church due to it contributions/ignorance to the mass termination of the Jewish population during the WWII (similarly to the title of Mr. Żmijewski’s book If it happened only once it’s as if it never happened [2005]; referring to the Holocaust). This is emphasized with the cameras lingering on a painted swastika. The confrontation comes to a climax as the participants start cutting – and not cutting - each other’s t-shirts and making large-scale canvas fabric airplanes and throwing them out of the window.

The diversity really challenges the notion of a national Polish history, as for each group, Poland, represents something entirely different. This is telling especially for a country known for its endurance with dealing with hardships, which includes the death of Polish President Lech Kaczyński and other parliament members in the aircraft crash on April 10th 2010, the Katyn forest Stalin led execution of 20,000 military officers and intelligentsia, the Nazi Germany Invasion of Poland on September 1st 1939 that marked the start of WWII, and its perseverant Medieval Age period that included an unstable sense of selfhood due to invasions by Germany, Austria, and Russia.

Art critic Daniel Baird is astute in his observation on Poland and the films of Artur Żmijewski when he writes “The tragedy of Jewish history in Poland often seems to be an affront to Poles’ own well-developed sense of betrayal and victimhood” and “national identity, religion, and what can only described as the palpable absence of Jews are divisive themes in contemporary Polish art, and no one has confronted them with the boldness, rigor, and simplicity of Artur Zimijeski.”

Mr. Żmijewski does not really fall into easy categorization relative to Polish cinema, say, compared to people like Andrzej Wajda or Krzysztof Kieślowski, as though they all deal with similar themes like moral anxiety, cultural complexity, and soviet occupancy; he does so abstractly and through termite art tactics and aesthetics. With his handheld camera with a naturalistic non-manipulated setting, mixture of bitter comedic irony mixed with detached social criticism; Mr. Żmijewski aligns himself more to the Dogme 95 movement, specifically the Dane Lars von Trier and his film The Idiots (1998). While Mr. Żmijewski undermining of the idea that Poland is a land of brotherhood and unity as he showcases a more multifaceted portrait is similar to the subversive Yugoslavian Black Wave director Karpo Godina whose aims run parallel in Litany of Happy People (1971), which is set it Vojvodina, Serbia.

While Mr. Żmijewski’s easily malleable camera, experimental nature of his body of work, use of shock tactics and fragrant use of nudity, and overall sense of controlled disturbance puts him, I think, as the Polish counterpart to the Montreal experimental-documentarist Donigan Cumming. Both of their latest work, Mr. Żmijewski’s Them and Donigan Cumming’s Too Many Things (2010), are natural progressions of their radical approach as they intensely render their interested in art history, experimenting with new approaches, and surrogating their position through their collaborators. While Mr. Żmijewski interest in the body and rituals is reminiscent, and extends the work, of 1960s Polish performance artist Zbigniew Warpechowski; the avant-garde artist from the marshy plains of Volhynia.

Another focal interest of Them is the idea of art in Poland, from past generations onto the present. With new generations picking up paintbrushes – or video cameras – the work of the past gets reevaluated and meanings changed from a contemporary perspective. Mr. Żmijewski physically demonstrates this shift as his exercise takes national art-history proportions as the canvas’s get defaced through scissors and fire and then reconstructed with new layers of paper on top of the old.

These works have the quality of mythologizing Polish social consciousness. In The Game of Tag half-a-dozen naked people slap each other in a concrete den; the setting of the unmarked den shifts from a gas chamber and a basement. In KR WP former national guards march by a war memorial and then naked in a aerobics room; a historical undressing of sorts, that critics posit to represent that the WWII soldiers and war criminals were normal people who were following a set of rituals. These videos if not anything else really problematize Polish art and Polish society as it presents a micros-cosmos of the country. Mr Żmijewski mechanically captures this national discourse, and the fun and unease arise from seeing his participants loose themselves in his trap.


The films of Artur Żmijewski (not to be mistaken for the Polish actor who shares the same name) were projected at the Library and Achieves Canada, hosted by Saw Video, introduced by David Bairns, and included Them (2007), The Game of Tag (1999), KR WP (2000), and An Eye for an Eye (1998); Mr. Żmijewski newest film Democracies (2009) was not screened. Born in Warsaw in 1966, Mr. Żmijewski has studied extensively throughout Europe, his breakout film being An Eye for An Eye, which won the first prize in 2000 at the Guarene Arte.-David Davidson

(Canadian Film Institute, Library and Archives Canada, 395 Wellington Street, 21/04, 8PM)

No comments: