ZBIGNIEW LIBERA: WORK FROM 1984-2004
The exhibition at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor is the first complete survey of Zbigniew Libera's work over the course of the last twenty years, from 1984 to 2004.
Zbigniew Libera is one of the most recognized Polish contemporary artists, his works being both straightforward and perverse. His biography is engaging and far from the standard artistic career: he never undertook an artistic education, during martial law in Poland he was imprisoned for a year for printing illegal materials, he played in a punk band, and for a long time was a live model for artist Zofia Kulik. He was one of the first artists to create video in Poland in the mid 1980's. But it was his Correcting Devices - objects focused on ways of showing how individuals are formed in the socialization process - that launched his career internationally in the 1990's.
1980's: POLITICAL ART, VIDEO
Zbigniew Libera was born in 1959, and by 1979, as a student at the University of Torun, he joined a Lodz-based avant-garde group of artists. His first works were flyers and graffiti on the city walls. Arrested in 1982 under Martial Law for the illegal printing of political cartoons and booklets, Libera spent a year in a camp for political prisoners. His artistic path also began in the 1980's - a time in Poland that was not friendly for culture, and especially not for art. Libera showed his works in public for the first time during Martial Law. But was it really "in public"? The space in Lodz, called Strych (The Attic), was private. Not a typical gallery but rather an open studio, it was a place for meetings and sometimes shows, like Libera's.
The art practiced in this circle was called "private art", and was in opposition to both the official art sponsored by the communist state, and underground art under the patronage of the Catholic Church. In a world completely deprived of any public life (the imposed curfew, closed galleries, museums, and theaters, and even the telling lack of posters in the streets), the viewing circle was limited to the independent artistic community of Kultura Zrzuty (The Pitch-in /i.e. potluck/ Culture) and Strych (The Attic) in Lodz. During this period Libera made paintings but later destroyed most of them.
The concept of "embarrassing art" created in this private artistic circle inspired Zbigniew Libera's first videos. Works from this period, including photography, referred to living in a close family circle, relationships with mother and grandmother, and various aspects of childhood and puberty. Shocking works that were some 10 years ahead of the later wave of "body art", Intimate Rites, Mystical Perseverance (both 1984), and later How to Train the Girls (1987), established him as one of the pioneers of video art in Poland.
Aside from his visual practice, as a member of Kultura Zrzuty (1983-86), he published hand-reproduced magazine Tango, and later (1985-89) co-formed the punk rock bands Sternehoch and NAO. He also worked as an art therapist in Psychiatric Institute, doing collective paintings with his patients and using them as stage sets for musical performances. After moving to Warsaw, he worked with today's world-renowned artist Zofia Kulik as a model for her photographic works (1988-90).
At this time, he also participated in the most important exhibitions of young art in Poland, such as Expressions of the 1980's in Sopot (1986) and What's Up in Warsaw (1998). His video works were startling in the context of shows of paintings that mostly represented the neue wilde style.
1990's: OBJECTS, CORRECTING DEVICES
In the 1990's, Libera's work became focused on ways of showing how individuals are shaped, formed, and "yoked" in the socialization process. Over a period of five years he created a series of works where he has been exploring 'correcting devices' we use in our culture to exercise model patterns of behavior, which are necessary for everyone to function as a citizen in contemporary society. His research relates directly to Michel Foucault's theory, to the way of thinking about society and culture as a product of a given system. Libera's Correcting Devices touch on the areas of childhood upbringing and the human body. He began by making objects in which he manipulated existing consumer goods - not for aesthetic reasons, but rather for their functional meaning. This resulted in the specific character of the objects he created, which were no longer only decorations or gadgets, but objects really functioning, in which creative action was a part of their function. Toys became the main interest of Libera's studies and observations, as they often took forms resulting from the mechanisms of socialization that interested him. That is where the gulf appears between the ideals we treat our children to in toys and the ideal of reining the children in.
Libera's works are a response to commercial standardization and refer to patterns of behavior that are also imposed by the media and advertising. In both their aesthetics and materials, Correcting Devices belong to the everyday world. They are as real as objects in store windows. Also, the process of creating them required methods and means employed in mass production. The artist's participation here was limited to ideas, coordination, and supervision in carrying out the designs. All works were produced in limited editions, thereby suggesting their potentially unlimited reproducibility. These include the Universal Penis Expander (1995) - a machine for enlarging genitals designed on the model of gym equipment, or Body Master: Play set for children under 9 (1994).
Libera designed his toys in the same manner, exploiting the innocence associated with children's toys to introduce the concerns of puberty, adolescence, and also adulthood into the creation of the object: in You Can Shave the Baby (1996), for example, he provides the doll with hairy legs, pelvis, and armpits. Libera was capable to address surrealist projects from the feminist perspective and is regarded as one of most important Polish feminist artists.
In such works the artist addresses our influence on the behavior of children. Among his most disturbing works are the LEGO Concentration Camp sets (1996), which very convincingly simulate real LEGO sets through the use of real blocks and identical packaging. With these sets Libera created a complex and explosive mixture - connecting the problems of aggression and cruel play with educational toy technology and games based on the patterns of conflict, combat, and violence. The rationality of the Western culture and it's free economy culture has been juxtaposed using a particular example of Auschwitz as a case study. The system gets exposed to the core as Lego blocks talk vividly not only about history but about a questionable future of the contemporary society. A Society which constantly seeks perfection and dream about selfimprovement. The message of these sets is particularly strong because of their immobility and solidity, in contrast to the virtual world of animation and computer games.
Libera's machines are not peripatetic vehicles for discussion and criticism, like Krzysztof Wodiczko's vehicles (to which the artist refers in his statements). They are static and serve to project some precedents - social role models: a strong male, a fastidious female concerned with her appearance - yet constantly in flux with the times and their location. With the Universal Penis Expander, as well as the Birth Beds for Girls and the earlier body-building set, Body Master (for children under 9), Libera employs the simulation of items and devices which already exist, and which our culture actually creates to determine the behavior patterns necessary for individuals to live in society.
The first show of Correcting Devices took place in Warsaw's Center for Contemporary Art "Zamek Ujazdowski" in 1996. Works from this series were earlier and later presented in many shows in Poland, Europe, and America, including Aperto, XLV Venice Biennale (1993), Beyond Belief, MoCA Chicago (1995), the Biennale Sao Paulo (1996), L'Autre Moitie de L'Europe in Jeu de Paume in Paris (2000), After the Wall in Moderna Musset in Stockholm (1999) and in Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin (2000), as well as in provocative exhibition Irreligia in Brussels (2001/02).
A second series of Correcting Devices premiered in 1998 at the Guy McIntyre Gallery in Soho, and was later shown at Lombard Fried Gallery, also in New York City (1999); it included Eroica (1998) and The Doll You Love to Undress (1998), among others. The work Lego: Concentration Camp, after many other presentations, was acquired by the Jewish Museum in New York and later became a centerpiece of its controversial exhibition, Mirroring Evil (2002), provoking much impassioned commentary. During the late 80's and 90's the artist also participated in the most important manifestations of young art in Poland.
2000'S: PHOTOGRAPHIC WORKS
Recently, while continuing his work on the mechanisms of visual shaping, the modes of persuasion that program our environment, as well as collective memory, and particularly the phenomenon of the so-called post-views of memory, Libera has created two series of works Positives (2002/04) and Masters (2003/04), which refer to problems of creating public opinion through the means of press and problems of medialization in general. After its opening in the Art Gallery Atlas in Lodz (2004), the show was presented in four other Polish cities, and Positives was also shown widely in Europe, including Spain (La Caixa), Luxembourg (Casino Luxembourg), Berlin (Kunst Werke), Luxembourg (Casino Luxembourg), Paris (Danysz Gallery), and Marseilles (RLBQ Gallery).
Masters and Positives are composed of pieces that seem to entrap viewers, works in which the artist has returned to his strategy of risky mystification, of bluffing designed to irritate the cultural competence of viewers.
In his Positives series, Libera references journalistic photographs that have become inscribed on the public mind. Because of their broad use in the media, these images have entered textbooks and much of recent history is perceived "through" them. The concept of these Positives, produced by photographing arranged scenes that uncannily resemble situations once recorded by photojournalists, is to invert the message of images that have become iconic. Libera's method reveals the mechanical way in which the perceiver "recognizes" that which is not in fact depicted. The images of concentration camp prisoners or victims of napalm attacks exist for merely a moment as the mental illusions of observers, illusions that arise from purely formal suggestion. The artist's "renewed" versions of "photographs that shook the world" elicit various interpretations - from calming ones that perceive them as reminders of the power of photographs that have been thoroughly consumed, to those that seek to read them as breaks in the smooth surface of "correctly" perceived history.
The artist is also interested in the issue of the perception and assimilation of images of history as this issue relates to the history of art. Having noticed an absence of trustworthy academic examinations of contemporary art, Libera felt provoked - as he underlines - to use the press as a means for introducing into the space of public discourse certain individuals who have proved important to him. His Masters series is simultaneously a kind of homage to those whom he perceives as his artistic authorities. Prior to this exhibition, the artist published extensive, invented newspaper stories designed to remind readers of the figures Libera had selected and to present the significance of their output. His choices were Andrzej Partum, Jan Swidzinski, Leszek Przyjemski, Anastazy Wisniewski and Zofia Kulik (the latter being the only individual in the group to be widely recognized in Poland and abroad). With this gesture, the artist sought to counteract the "eradication from history" of important conceptual artists whose achievements, in his opinion, anticipated phenomena in contemporary Polish art that currently garner much attention.
Libera remains active in the social life, in 2000-2001 co-founded artistic clubs/cafés in Warsaw: Baumgart/Libera and Aurora. Since 1998 he has given several lectures in Europe and the U.S.; since 2000 has been publishing monthly essays in Polish press.
RETROSPECTIVE EXHIBITION CONTENTS
The exhibition at the University of Michigan is the first major retrospective of Zbigniew Libera's complete works. It provides a rare occasion to view works widely known in the context of those rarely shown, presenting works from all periods of Libera's artistic development, the ones which best reflect his creative goals in those periods but also characterize his kind of art. The exhibition is composed of various media: black-and-white photographs, video projection and video installation, large color photographs, and 3D objects: from small ones, such as medications, toys, and dolls, to large gym equipment. The 29 works in the checklist are in fact composed of 70 photographs, 3 videos, and over 600 3-D objects.
Ken's Aunt, detail, 1994; a series of 24 dolls in cardboard boxes, mixed media; Courtesy Wang Gallery, Oslo, Norway)
Intimate Rites (Obrzedy Intymne), still from video, 1984; video projected on the wall, 12 min.; Courtesy National Art Gallery Zacheta, Warsaw, Poland
Mystical Perseverance (Perseweracja Mistyczna), 1984-1990; installation: DVD (50 min. loop), TV monitor, night table, miscellaneous drug packages, text; Courtesy State Art Gallery, Sopot, Poland
Universal Penis Expander, 1995; stand and device, manual, advertising poster, mixed media; Courtesy Art Promotion Institute Foundation, Warsaw, Poland
You Can Shave the Baby, 1995; dolls in cardboard boxes, mixed media; Courtesy Paulina Kolczynska Fine Art, New York City
LEGO Concentration Camp (LEGO oboz koncentracyjny), detail, 1996; set of 7 LEGO concentration camp boxes (1996), Courtesy RASTER, Warsaw, Poland
from Album of KZL Lego, 1996; 21 photographs of concentration camp project; Courtesy Onestar Press, Paris
Eroica, detail, 1998; toy soldier set: 100 bronze figurines, 8 boxes; Courtesy Paulina Kolczynska Fine Art, New York City
The Doll You Love to Undress, 1998; detail, a set of 6 dolls in cardboard boxes, mixed media; Courtesy Paulina Kolczynska Fine Art, New York City
The Miracle (Cud) from series Positives (Pozytywy), 2003; photograph on paper, 120 x 155 cm; Courtesy Atlas Gallery, Lodz, Poland
Nepal from series Positives (Pozytywy), 2003; photograph on paper, 120 x 170 cm [New Version]; Courtesy Atlas Gallery, Lodz, Poland
Residents (Mieszkancy) from series Positives (Pozytywy), 2002; photograph on paper, 120 x 180 cm; Courtesy Atlas Gallery, Lodz, Poland