Fotograf Magazine

Zbigniew Libera

hacker with a camera, and bush's new clothes

On May 13th, 2003, the Polish magazine Przekrój ran a cover featuring a photograph of the war in Iraq. Nothing remarkable in that – war conflict, natural disasters and social upheaval are among the favorite themes of media coverage. But in this picture something was amiss – it showed happy Iraquis welcoming American troops as their saviors. It looked like a perfect illustration of the proclaimed struggle for liberation. Perhaps too perfect, as none of the typical attributes of welcoming scenes were missing – the clasping of hands, the tears of joy, and, of course, the flowers. Thanks to all this, the effect was more of a parody of White House war propaganda rather than genuine reportage.
As a matter of fact, it was the work of the Polish artist Zbigniew Libera (b. 1959) from symptomatically titled cycle, Bush’s Dream. He created these photographs in his Warsaw studio even before the military operation took place, and then printed them in small format on adhesive stickers. He then posted this series of stickers in public spaces: at bus stops, on tramway cars or in pedestrian underpasses. Part of the project were also interviews where Libera consistently put himself in the role of a passionate reporter (”I packed my camera and the bare neces- sities and went with a transport of Polish troops to the front… I wanted to capture the events truthfully, as they really happened…“).
Zbigniew Libera’s strategy can hardly be described within the conven- tional terminology of art history. He employed the tactics of computer hackers, applying them to the social surroundings. He penetrated a certain system and created a duplicate of a given situation, with only minor modifications – enhancing some features, diminishing others. In the crucial final stage – the devastation of the system by a social virus – the artist merely passively looked on.
It is hardly surprising that Libera has been labelled a controversial artist. In his curriculum vitae, we find not a single reference to training in art, but countless instances of complaining. At the time of martial law in Poland, he spent a year in jail for distributing samizdat comics. He was active in the punk band Sternenhoch, founded the avant-garde art group Kultura Zrzuty, and also made several attempts at painting. At some length in the 1980s, he shot several videos on the themes of hospitals and death that first won him the attention of the international art scene. His videos Intimate Rites (1984), Mystical Perserverance (1984) and How to Train Little Girls (1987) featured at a number of shows abroad, and did not escape notice of the press. It was not only due to their potential for scandal that these works made Libera the pioneer of Polish video art, and at the same time heralded the return of corporeality to contemporary art. In comparison to the fury unleashed around the Polish artist in the 1990s, however, all of this was mere child’s play.
The cause of the uproar was a seemingly innocuous series of multiples inspired by toys for children, Correcting Devices. The first was created in 1995, bearing the title Ken’s Aunt. Instead of a sexy Barbie doll, the familiar-looking pink box concealed Barbie’s ironic paraphrase – a figure old, fat and badly dressed. A total antithesis to the contemporary ideal of feminine beauty, as presented by the mass media.
In the following year Libera approached the Danish Lego Corporation, and from their prefab components, he created a construction kit of his own – Concentration Camp. If Libera’s every project thus far had aroused scandal, its reverbations took place more or less on the local scene. The Lego concentration camp caused commotion internationally, which went beyond the context of contemporary art. Even the sponsor joined the accusers, but given the commercial success of the project, Lego were in the end satisfied with an appendix to the copyright law – i.e., the ban on using the Lego brand name for artistic purposes. There occured a para- doxical situation – together with the growing popularity of Libera’s work grew also the dislike of it. And vice versa. When a conference on the Holocaust was held in Brussels in 1997, Libera had to be included among the guests. His contribution was to have been the highlight of the event, and with some irony we may say that it indeed became one, even though nobody heard it. It was drowned by a swell of protest, one of the most fre- quent shouts being, ”Go back to Poland!“ Let us, then, go back to Poland…
The schism described above is even more pronounced on the Polish scene – Libera is the Polish art export item number one, but no respec- ted local institution dares to collaborate with him. To this day, the artist’s representative is Raster, an independent gallery based in Warsaw. This is not just because Zbigniew Libera is politically incorrect – of course he is. But more than that, he unmasks the absurdity of so-called political correctness, including the distribution of social good against the wishes of the ”recipient of the gift“, and the illusion of an intellectual distance from the problem. Similarly, he also attacks other systems, whether the selective nature of historical memory or the gargantuan quality of the affairs of the present day.
The cycle of Correcting Devices hit both targets at once. The same can be said for the last of the trilogy – Eroica. The title of the work alludes to Beethoven’s opus, originally intended as a homage to Napoleon, and the chosen form Libera partly borrowed once more from the toyshop, and also in part from classical art. This four-piece set of plastic soldiers consists of exclusively female figures, related in type to the portrayal of slaves in the canvasses of old masters, among others Poussin’s Rape of the Sabine Women. A work so modest in size reveals more about the reality of female victims of war than a long research paper.
The same is true of Libera’s photographs, which have become prominent in his work over the last few years. The economy of his visual language only serves to enhance their ironic charge. In the ”portrait“ of Che Guevara and his comrades, it is the composition of the Resurrection lifted from Christian iconography, in another picture the German-Polish border is stormed by a gang of adolescent bikers. To an eye accustomed to viewing reality through the optical lens of the media, Libera’s photographs may function as an efficient remedy. Or are they a place- bo? In a number of cases, the plainest sugar water cured a serious disease. At least that’s what they said on TV.

michaela ivaniškinová