Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Let's use people for guinea pigs, push them til they snap - and call it Art








Artur Żmijewski: Selected Works
Te Tuhi
4 October - 30 November 2008

A lot of artists are arseholes. That’s no big revelation. Par for the course perhaps, but I really wonder about Polish video artist, Artur Żmijewski.

What sort of guy would badger a frail 91 year old Auschwitz survivor into having a Nazi identification number that's tattooed on his arm ‘renovated’ with new ink – just to make some obscure point about victim mentality and Jewish passivity? What sort of prick would encourage different Polish communities of opposing ideologies to lovingly create symbolic banners promoting their respective viewpoints, then put them in one space and gradually encourage such mutual interference that civilities break down and they start smashing up each other’s handiwork? What kind of character would want to recreate the famous Stanford experiment of 1971, where normally decent people are paid to take on roles of prisoners and guards (they’re randomly allocated) so they end up being traumatised or temporarily turned into sadistic monsters?

Is Psychology that noble a cause it can justify screwing people over in the name of Art? Perhaps it is? Żmijewski is fascinated by techniques of manipulation, devious coercion, and sometimes, varieties of operant conditioning. People become pigeons or rats in a Skinner box. He is obsessed with the patterns of human behaviour but he is not a Behaviourist. He clearly believes in minds and not just bodily actions by themselves. Social minds really. How groups of individuals form collective units.

The real questions embedded in this Żmijewski show is how did he persuade the various subjects to participate? He must be incredibly charming, with a steely but subtle mind that knows all about the intricacies of emotional blackmail and the strategies of maintaining power relationships.

Remembering that the main theme is such structures, there are several sorts of ‘victim’ in his projects. Often they are people with ghastly disabilities or body mutilations. Or lowly paid labourers with very dull jobs who let themselves be filmed 24 hours a day; or respected people (by virtue of their occupations, like soldiers) who take off their uniforms to march and sing; or both sexes, old and young, naked playing chasing in a concentration camp gas chamber. Sometimes, after initial shyness or disgust, they actually end up having fun. So Żmijewski is not always being damaging – though perhaps the subjects might have regrets later.

The best works though, go beyond psychological and somewhat voyeuristic exercises, to present a moving kind of poetry that is meticulously presented on film. One project shows an amputee being supported by a two limbed person, so that while walking the naked torsos merge and appear to form a three legged man. The cropping and editing of the image is very clever, and the image haunting – even when the two naked men struggle to get up and down from a mattress.

Despite my misgivings, there is no doubt this work raises a lot of interesting issues to ponder – besides the above topics like conditioning, or social structures that spawn sadism. Some of these question our attitudes to our own and other peoples’ bodies (healthy or otherwise), or the propriety and decorum in art galleries as spaces (their various no-go subject matters), or how far is freedom of speech ever really permitted or encouraged in the art world – if at all?

10 comments:

Tao Wells said...

WOw you'll be writing for the national party next or Destiny Childs political arm.. McCain. bush they all share your perspective in my personal view. That of the deadly shrinking violet, you think their being shy, but they really have their finger on the button, feeling the ecstasy of an itch just about scratched.

Yes it's journalistic writing but the issues you so waveringly wave deserve better than the shock and awn structure your revelation gave me. Could you consider other philosophical viewpoints past such religious/catholic dichotomies and read/write something that starts with your conclusion as an opening sentence and goes on to bounce cleverly through the charms of indifference. Say tell us what part you thought was art. And what was the art of....

John Hurrell said...

Tirelessly seeking self-publicity as usual,eh Wells? Who cares about your incoherent gibberish, when you're not even interested in art -only Tao.

Tao Wells said...

Art! You'r the tired speaking to the dead, once a gallery minder always a gallery minder, huh? Leave the gallery look at a tree.

John Hurrell said...

Rather listen to the grass grow than get an earful of dead wood.

so you tell me said...

Beautiful exchange

John Hurrell said...

Tao and I dance well together. I like the fact he uses his real name. Even when we vehemently disagree it is great everything is out in the open.

stephen said...

Ummm...

John Hurrell said...

I thought you were accusing me of being inarticulate, Stephen, in your Adam post. Or is 'Ummm' for you being loquacious?

stephen said...

You don't like criticism much, do you? Fair enough.. who does! The last thing I was accusing you of being was inarticulate, for you said whatever it was that you said very clearly and articulately.

"Ummm..." means, I can't yet work out whether or not you know that so you tell me is Tao by another pseudonym. Jury's still out.

John Hurrell said...

Well thank you Stephen, for exposing the little shit.Ihad no idea. I immediately retract all the kind generous things I said about the infuriating little pest. The jury's not out on that one.