Psychoanalytical Machines: Artur Zmijewski

by Cecilia Alemani


Artur Zmijewski, one of the most prominent artists on the Polish scene in recent years, is finally arriving in New York. As part of MoMA famous Projects series, Artur will be showing his latest video work in Project 91. Cecilia Alemani interviews the artist, a few days before his American debut, to talk about his most ambitious piece: the video installation Democracies, made of up 20 videos of protest scenes filmed around the world — strikes, demonstrations, but also historical reconstructions and parades celebrating political credos of all kinds.


CECILIA ALEMANI: You moved from videos that looked at individuals to videos that seem to analyze group dynamics. What do you look for in a person?

ARTUR ZMIJESKI: Recently, I am simply attracted to the political mechanism that consists of conflict and resolution, conformism and resistance, denunciation and revolt. I am interested in how the political is tackled by individuals who are not professional politicians and whether our nonprofessional political abilities could be used to protect us from being deprived of politics and evicted from the field of the political. Could these be used as defense against privatization by political elites and formalized institutions of democracy, which carry out politics in our name? Are we to agree to this “democratic passivity”?

CA: What happens when people come together?

AZ: The Democracies film series, which features various acts of protest, demonstrations, holidays and anniversary celebrations, re-enactments of historical battles, etc., proves that community events of this kind turn people, the masses, into a political object, a strong voice which can cause anxiety or the need to join them.

CA: You worked with the weak, the hurt, the wounded. How do you choose your subjects?

AZ: It is not me who chooses the themes of my work. They are chosen by the society I live in and various communities to which I belong. I most often answer to questions I am “not asked”. Practicing in the field of art I answer the questions “not asked” by the art world: the curators, the gallerists, the critics. This is what I see as the artist’s responsibility, one who directly answers questions which others are even afraid to pose. And this is what I see as the artist’s illusory freedom, which is nothing more than society’s refusal to admit that it expects very specific things on the part of artists – specific actions, addressing certain themes, ideological activity.

CA: How do you avoid turning them into objects?

AZ: My characters, or participants in my films never become objects. More likely in the course of my actions they regain their dignity and subjectivity. This subjectivity that they recover, at times proves painful and monstrous – such was the case with Black Maniek and prisoner 810 from the film Repetition. Both publicly manifested, and discovered for themselves, their true subjectivity – that of a cruel prison warden and brownnose prisoner.

CA: Can you describe how you build a relationship with the people you are filming? Are you interested in creating a relationship or you think of yourself as a detached viewer?

AZ: The relationship with individuals who appear in my films is similar to the relationship between fellow patients involved in group therapy, a rehab clinic or the relationship between members of a mercenary group. The short-term dependence which binds us is too deep or emotive to control. The insight we experience is too “shocking”, it comes so close to the “bare thing” that we are happy to depart and forget about each other. Neither of us want to cultivate the acquaintance. The situation resembles that in political thrillers a bit – either you liquidate those who know too much about you, or at least you dream about it.

CA: Are you interested in outsiders or marginal characters?

AZ: I was, but then I realized that this was not the essence. I find those who make up the majority more important and intriguing – the shape of the public sphere is a reflection of their views and state of mind. Their tensions become our tensions. Their hatred becomes a reason for us to hate. Their tongues become our tongues. They are the majority, they care for the majority, and the majority agrees with them. This is why they seem most interesting at the moment. And knowledge about them is a way of self-defense against their influence.

CA: Does your work flirt with exploitation?

AZ: No, definitely it is not a sexy relationship. It is not a quasi-erotic play. If I decide to address exploitation or abuse, I thus address disgrace, humiliation, conformism and entanglement. That means I also address ways in which culture justifies and commercializes such actions as the repeated tattooing of a number by a former Auschwitz prisoner [80064]. Despicable and shameful acts.

CA: How do you distinguish between empathy and voyeurism?

AZ: I do not think there is a difference between one and the other. To put it bluntly, in order to feel empathy, one needs to see a drama first. I think this question rather describes the person asking, who might seem to know where nobility begins and ends.

CA: Do you consider your work to be the realization of a video or the creation of a situation in which different people, tensions, personalities clash against each other? Are there filmmakers or directors that influence the way you approach your subject or create your situation?

AZ: Of key importance is not the situation itself, but the product it generates and its results. More than inspirations in the field of art, I feel influenced by the practice of psychologists. Take group work for example, the “psychoanalytical machine”, the collective mind in action. If we pose a question to a group bound by collective activity, isolated and forced to rely on itself – it will provide an answer. An answer which is indirect, rather unconscious and performative. An answer in the form of a sequence of actions, a collection of emotions, a clash of opinions. I strive to construct my situations in a similar way. Though the question was only partially known, the answer was provided.

CA: Is documentary filmmaking important to you?

AZ: Yes, indeed. I do not value scripts in my own practice. I do not value forcing the actors to speak well-practiced lines. I prefer the lack of a script, the state of being lost and mistakes. I like chaos and idiocy – this terra incognita which hides knowledge and precious discoveries.

CA: What is a document?

AZ: I am not sure, as I do not produce pure documentaries. True, my method is documentary, but it is me who brings the documented situations into being.

CA: Do you think of yourself as an artist interested in politics or in basic human behaviors?

AZ: Basic human behaviors are the substance of politics. The aim of politics is to keep us fed, to let us speak about our needs, to make us feel safe and prevent us from killing each other. Of course I do not mean the cynical politics which serves not to fulfill human needs, but to govern and speculate them.

CA: I think there is a trajectory in your work, from very dramatic yet abstract videos like The Game of Tag or An Eye for an Eye, to more descriptive or portrait-like works such as Our Song Book or 80064; more recently in pieces like Them or Democracies individuals only exist as part of groups. Can you tell me if you recognize yourself in these descriptions or do you think your work is proceeding in a less systematic manner?

AZ: My answer will be indirect. Seemingly I am the author. But in fact participants of my actions are subjects not only due to the fact that I treat them in a subjective way, but also because they ask me questions and demand answers. It is a bit like the Lacanian object that looks at us and returns the gaze. For example, the tattoo on the arm of a former Auschwitz prisoner, it is the “unasked” question he posed to me. His passivity is only seeming – he actively calls for answers, interest, attention and time.

CA: Is there a project you are working on that you can tell us about – how it began and how it is evolving?

AZ: In the time of the communist regime en-pleinair events for artists were organized in factories. The artists were cooperating with workers, producing sculptures and paintings. They thus accomplished a utopia of classless society and legitimized the dictatorship of the proletariat. I used this general scenario in order to organize such an event again. The artists and workers worked together to produce sculptures which address the theme of “The Worker”. They worked seamlessly, euphorically and impetuously. The result was sculptures placed on the streets of the city: two yellow cog wheels, a worker’s suit, and portraits of workers with an accompanying inscription: “Forward March, Proletariat!”. On internet forums, you can find the opinions of citizens happy to see sculptures they can understand, to see art which both speaks to them and comforts them.


Originally published on Mousse 21 (November–December 2009)


Related Articles
Of Familiarity: Polys Peslikas
(Read more)
Driving the Human: A Three-Year Development Process Combining Science, Technology, and the Arts
(Read more)
A Sculpture Looking at You Whilst Touching Itself: Jesse Wine
(Read more)
Ficting and Facting. McKenzie Wark, RIBOCA2—2nd Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art 2020
(Read more)
the pleasure principle: Stephanie LaCava
(Read more)
Portraits of Landscapes: Tau Lewis
(Read more)