Concerned with the role of the individual in society, Artur Żmijewski produces works which expose social conflicts. His manifesto, Applied Social Arts, anchors his practice in two ways – art as a valid means of knowledge production, and the use of art to address the political and the social. In comparison to the social sciences, art is seldom drawn upon as a form of knowledge. Żmijewski underscores the responsibility that art has in isolating itself to the realm of the aesthetic, rendering itself disconnected from history-making and knowledge production.
This ideology has informed his practice which, from the 1990s, has been characterized by a process of staging experiments as a means of inquiry into social mechanisms of power and control. Repetition (2005), produced for Poland’s Pavilion at the 51st Venice Biennale in 2005 is an often-cited example of a work exemplifying the form and themes of his practice. Żmijewski re-enacts the Stanford Prison Experiment conducted by Philip Zimbardo in 1971 to explore the psychological effects of imprisonment. Though this experiment was cut short and regulations prevented its recurrence in the scientific field, Zimbardo’s claim of man’s desire to dominate has been frequently referenced in academic and cultural realms. Through the re-enactment, Żmijewski asserts art’s ability to remove the experiment from its scientific context and constraints to explore universal human issues stemming from reality.
Democracies (2007 – ongoing) represents a shift from Żmijewski’s focus in constructing situations, while maintaining its stance on interrogating social norms. The work comprises his documentation over three years of public and collective expressions of protest, celebration and grief, from a demonstration by supporters of Polish anti-abortion laws to the live broadcast of Germany versus Turkey in the semi-final of the 2008 European Football championships. Recently presented at Tramway, Glasgow from 29 October to 12 December 2010, with sixteen screens on all four sides of the room, the viewer, when positioned in the middle was subjected to a cacophony of noises which drowned out the subtleties of the individual films, an experience which parallels the heady effects of collective demonstrations and ceremonies and their impact on individual reflection and thinking. Through his work, Żmijewski puts forth the question of whether mass expressions are indicative of democracy and at a more fundamental level, the validity of democracy as practised and fought for today.
Żmijewski will be curator of the 7th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art in 2012. He has initiated a call-for-proposals, requesting that artists provide their political inclination together with their submission before January 15, 2011. Though the norms within art dictate that an artist’s political position remains at a distance from the content of their work, Żmijewski asserts that politics structure our collective needs and hence, all works are political. In deliberately going against a artistic methodology of ascribing a political position to an artwork through this role as curator, there is much to anticipate in how his curatorial decisions contribute to a radically different methodology of exhibition-making.
Born in Warsaw, Poland in 1966, Żmijewski studied sculpture at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts under Grzegorz Kowalski who encouraged students to alter the works of their classmates, as a way to open dialogue on the production of meaning. He is a recipient of the Ordway Prize and has had solo exhibitions in MOMA, New York; Kunsthalle Basel; and BAK, Utrecht. Żmijewski is also arts editor of Krytyka Polityczna (“Political Critique” in Polish) a journal aimed at creating an intellectual base for alternative movements and to introduce new critical discourses in Polish public debate.