in Features | 01 APR 08
Featured in
Issue 114

Game Theory

The social experiments Artur Zmijewski documents in his provocative videos reveal disquieting aspects of human nature

in Features | 01 APR 08

Artur Zmijewski, Repetition (2005)

The primary subject of politics is the body; it is through the power to discipline the body that structures of domination are engrained in society. So if there is resistance, it must come from bodies that are different and articulate themselves differently: this intuition could be seen to lie at the heart of Artur Zmijewski’s practice. In his work he provokes and documents – through videos and sometimes photographs – situations that show bodies in different states: in pain or ecstasy, able or disabled, under regimental control or playing freely, conjoined through gestures of solidarity or clashing in violent conflict. In themselves, these straightforward filmic and photographic records make no pretence to refined artistic form. They serve only to direct attention to the events they record and the bodily experiences evoked by those events. In this sense, the body itself is the primary medium through which Zmijewski develops his philosophy of power and resistance. It is a philosophy of incarnation in which all representation remains a mere gesture towards the deeper implications of corporal experience.

The starting point for Zmijewski’s works is most often a set of basic rules, which provide a group of performers with a cue to act upon, but which never prefigure the outcome of those actions. In An Eye for an Eye (1998), for instance, Zmijewski matches two men of different ages who each have had a leg amputated, to people with unimpaired bodies. Together, the pairs improvise to find positions that allow one performer to lend the missing limb to the other, so that they can stand, walk or climb stairs as if they shared one body. These impromptu acts of solidarity are documented in a video and a series of 20 photographs. For The Game of Tag (1999), Zmijewski asked a diverse group of adults to enter a former concentration camp gas chamber naked and play tag, while he filmed the ensuing performance. After the players overcome their initial feelings of shame, the game becomes more boisterous and they scramble about joyously in the death chamber. For KRWP (2000), Zmijewski persuaded soldiers from the Polish Army’s Honour Guard to perform their drill ceremony on the parade grounds in full uniform – and then repeat it in the nude, in a ballet studio. Under the command of their leader, the naked men march in tight formation, present their guns and chant songs about war and women. Their well-rehearsed choreography remains impeccable. Yet, apart from the occasional awkward giggle, there is an extra bit of proud swagger through which the men overcome their embarrassment and mock the drill.

The experience of the body that Zmijewski points to in these works closely resembles the state that Giorgio Agamben describes as the condition of ‘bare life’.1 The soldiers, the people in the gas chamber, the mutilated men and their collaborators: all are stripped bare and unconditionally subjected to a social experiment performed on their bodies. In precisely these terms, Agamben defines ‘bare life’ as the condition in which someone is no longer protected by either law or cultural conventions and therefore becomes fully exposed to any acts that may be inflicted upon his or her body. It is through their capacity to reduce existences to this condition of bare life at will, Agamben argues, that regimes of power constitute themselves. In this cruel sense, the Nazi death camps are the blueprint for the way in which a new order of biopolitics is being established throughout modernity, as regimes acquire the power to subject anyone’s body fully to their influence through discipline and punishment, as well as through social engineering and the politics of medical care. By demonstrating how little it takes to isolate people in the position of bare life, Zmijewski identifies this state as a condition that impinges on contemporary society at a subcutaneous level.

Bare life is a state of exemption in which no holds are barred. Usually this is to the advantage of the powers that be, which set and break rules at will. Yet the anarchy of this moment can potentially also tip the balance of power. As Zmijewski shows, a certain residual defiance manifests itself physically in the mixture of shame and pride that the soldiers show when their drill rituals are stripped bare. Likewise, carnivalesque exuberance takes hold of the players in the death chamber when they realize they can potentially do anything to each other. An Eye for an Eye, meanwhile, points to the kind of solidarity that can evolve when people find themselves in extreme situations where they have nothing to lose, just an existence to share.

Zmijewski returns to this threshold of bare life again and again from different vantage points. Karolina (2002) is a video interview with an adolescent girl who suffers from terminal osteoporosis. Her disintegrating bones are a source of constant pain to her, only partially mitigated by increasing doses of morphine. Barely able to move, she speaks about her situation in the most clearheaded way. Yet it remains a controversial question whether the care she receives at the hands of modern medicine is keeping her alive or not allowing her to die. By making her struggle public, Zmijewski gestures towards the standards according to which society governs the politics of bare life by enforcing the need to live and restricting the right to die.

Further exploring the limits of physical experience, Zmijewski revisited the body under the influence of drugs in the video installation ‘So Called Waves and Other Mental Phenomena’ (2003) in the eponymously titled show at the Kunstverein Dusseldorf in 2003. The work comprises eight videos in which Zmijewski, together with friend and frequent collaborator Pawel Althamer, can be seen testing the effects of hypnosis and various mind-altering substances. Blissed-out and disoriented, the two artists stagger through their habitual surroundings, touching that threshold where life is experienced most intensely but corporeal epiphanies become impossible to share within the conventions of social communication. There is not much you can say to people who are high. Either you join them, quickly, or leave.

Having been raised in the Catholic faith, I share the belief that truth must be incarnated, and I trust in the capacity of art to convey such sensations. By virtue of my profession (and most likely also influenced by the faith of my Lutheran Protestant mother), however, I do also believe in inhabiting the abstract space that words open up. So I cannot help but perceive a point of view that confines the horizon of experience to physical immanence as depressingly constricted. In following Zmijewski’s work over the years, I have therefore consistently been both attracted and repelled by his insistence on positing the body as the rock bottom of reality. Expressing these mixed feelings in a conversation with writer and film curator Lukasz Ronduda during a party in Warsaw, he responded that I should take into account that Zmijewski’s work faithfully articulates the experience of a whole generation: during the 1980s, Poland’s socialist government sustained its power by instating martial law, and in the 1990s the country then plunged headlong into unconditional capitalist competition; so one state of exemption simply turned into another. Growing up in Poland during this time felt, according to Ronduda, like going through different protocols of drilling to have your body (re-)shaped according to the ideologies of the day.

Two of Zmijewski’s pivotal works, Repetition (produced for the Venice Biennale in 2005) and Them (shown at documenta 12 in 2007), could in fact be understood to accurately describe this experience. For Repetition, Zmijewski re-enacted the infamous prison experiment that psychologist Philip Zimbardo conducted in Stanford in 1971. He had a prison block interior built and paid volunteers around £25 a day to play guards and prisoners. Like its historic precursor, the experiment fell apart after several days, as tensions mounted and increasing numbers of volunteers chose to quit. With an aesthetic reminiscent of Big Brother television shows, Zmijewski’s video documentation of the project shows the patterns of power at play. First, the guards become progressively more sadistic as they realize that the bare life of the prisoners is completely at their disposal. Then, their newly discovered state of seemingly unlimited transgression provokes conflicts between them over how best to enforce their authority. Meanwhile, the prisoners get cannier in their subversive strategies. One prisoner in particular shifts effortlessly between forms of extreme obedience and obscene gestures of adolescent revolt. The most unsettling aspect of his conduct is that it seems far too instinctual to be improvised. You sense that he’s intuitively falling back on a set of tactics for coping under authoritarian rule that were already internalized into his body earlier on. Witnessing his behaviour prompts the uneasy question: do people ever change when their bodies never seem to forget?

Them documents another experiment, one involving representatives from four different factions that shape contemporary Poland. Zmijewski invited small groups from each of these factions to his studio: elderly Catholic ladies, members of the neo-nationalist Union of Polish Youths, Jewish teenagers and young left-wing activists. The form of interaction that Zmijewski proposed to them resembles an exercise that Grzegorz Kowalski – professor of sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw where Zmijewski studied with Althamer and Kartarzyna Kozyra – is renowned for.2 Participants assemble in one space, formulate their respective position through an art work, and then respond to each other by altering the others’ works in whatever way they deem appropriate. Again, this is a situation in which potentially anything goes. In his video, Zmijewski records how each participant group first paints a symbol of their belief on a large sheet of paper. Conflict gradually erupts as the Catholics and neo-nationalists unite against the left-wing activists and Jewish youths, and both parties start over-painting, cutting and burning the symbols of the opposite camp. Essentially, the factions clash over the body politics of the newborn Polish nation: women’s and gay rights are impossible for hardcore Catholics and neo-nationalists to accept, as is the acknowledgement that the Jewish community – which continues to face hostility – has always been part of what these hardliners perceive as the homogeneous ‘body’ of the Polish people.

Throughout his work Zmijewski has repeatedly touched on this issue concerning Poland and Jewish history. For Our Songbook (2003) he asked elderly Jewish expatriates in Tel Aviv, whom he filmed principally in nursing homes or on their hospital beds, to sing Polish songs they remembered from their childhood. Recollection translates into physical effort as, with eyes closed, the interviewees reach deep inside themselves to activate layers of memory inscribed on their hearts and vocal chords. For 80064 (2004), Z˙mijewski persuaded a concentration camp survivor to have the fading tattoo of his prisoner number refreshed on his arm. Apparently unconcerned about the pain, the man seems more troubled by the thought that the fresh colour might efface the original tattoo, but finally agrees to have it done.

The strength of Zmijewski’s approach lies in his readiness to incorporate conflict into his work and to expose the premises of social antagonism by stirring up controversy. Moreover, his analysis of the subcutaneous violence inflicted on bare life as a means by which power structures are constituted seems highly accurate. Still, Zmijewski is more radically Nietzschean in his outlook than I am (as yet) personally ready to accept. Nietzsche’s final provocation against the advocates of enlightenment was the assertion that the law of eternal repetition pre-empts all progress. As the title of his prison experiment underscores, this notion of repetition is, I think, also at the heart of Zmijewski’s philosophy. Consequently, as 80064 suggests, to face a problem means to return to the source of the pain and relive the body’s state of bare life in which you received your formative injury. As a desperate advocate of enlightenment, I would like to believe that there is another way out and that the right words can break the spell and release you from this cycle of compulsive repetition. But maybe this is wishful thinking on my part. God knows, Zmijewski might in fact be closer to understanding how things are in the end.

1 Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford University Press, 1998
2 Piktogram, issue 5/6, 2006. The whole issue, entirely dedicated to Kowalski, gives an excellent insight into his art and teaching practice.