Zbigniew Libera: A Polish Artist with a World View
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Czeslaw Milosz says in his essay, "The Captive Mind," that under Communism the artist/writer has only three choices—to collaborate, emigrate, or remain silent. Though Zbigniew Libera was born under Communism in Poland, he found another way. As an artist Libera didn't so much rebel against Communism as create pieces that spoke to him as a human being, which in turn may have pronounced judgment on the human and social condition.
"He is very good at offending and breaking taboos. Through his work he questions everything from Communism to the Catholic Church and Solidarity. Nothing is immune," says Piotr Westwalewicz, lecturer in the U-M Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and also part of the committee bringing Libera to campus in January 2006. This coincides with an unprecedented exhibition of the artist's works and other related programs.*
In the 1980s Libera joined an underground movement, "Strych"("The Attic"), that included film makers, photographers, poets, writers, architects, and others who were attracted to ad-hoc performances, film festivals, and street actions. It was within Strych that Libera had his first exhibit, and it was because of his actions with Strych that he was jailed for printing material that espoused free speech. Thus, whether Libera intended it or not, he became one of a long list of dissident intelligentsia that has been active in central Europe for the last 100 years.
"Libera is a member of the new generation of Polish artists who are global in their appeal. Their work is rooted in Polish culture but easy to understand within the wider worldview," says Westwalewicz. "It doesn't require a Polish heritage to unlock the meaning of the work."
Playing Games with Social Acceptability
Commenting on his much publicized work using Lego pieces to construct such unlikely structures as prisons and concentration camps (as reported in Chris Burden's essay in "Temporary Art and Culture"), Libera notes that "The rationality of the LEGO system is shocking, you cannot build an irregular construction from these blocks, or something shapeless, there will always have to be a right angle somewhere. You can only do what the rational system allows you to do." Thus Libera concluded that the construction of these camps, mental hospitals, and prisons mixed the historical with the contemporary to represent our world. He doesn't stop there. Other Lego works resemble toy soldiers and classical female figures that represent women as special targets of victimization and regional genocide.
Libera is trying to make us look at ourselves by using toys, games, and even "self-improvement" equipment. In one of his series, Corrective Devices, Libera uses machines that look like simple weight machines, yet have a wholly different function. His Universal Penis Expander and Body Master touch a nerve, compelling reexamination of societal perceptions of what is normal and desirable. Ken's Aunt is a traditional Barbie doll dressed in lingerie, and his You Can Shave the Baby, a traditional plastic baby doll with copses of errant hair, repels and attracts at the same time.
Perhaps Libera's entire collection is meant to inspire the onlooker to ask where the level of acceptability lies and then to take it a step further and ask why.
"Libera's influences are personal, not Polish," says Westwalewicz. "Almost everything he does stems from his personal experience and interest."
Libera's work, while highly personal, also speaks to how he and others were shaped and "corrected" growing up in Poland. He asks questions that he hopes will be provocative but above all raise moral controversy.
Eleanor Shelton is a freelance writer in the Ann Arbor area.
*The University of Michigan Presents Zbigniew Libera and His Work
In early 2006, the University of Michigan will host the first comprehensive exhibition of Libera's work to be held in the U.S. Entitled Revolution in the Attic: Zbigniew Libera, 1984-2004, the exhibition will feature over 100 works from all periods of his artistic development, encompassing a broad range of media including black-and-white photographs, video projections and installations, large color photographs, and three-dimensional objects. The School of Art and Design will mount the exhibition in the Jean Paul Slusser Gallery on the U-M campus and the Work Exhibition Space in downtown Ann Arbor (January 13-February 17).
During his U-M residency, Libera will participate in the exhibition's opening (January 13), deliver the Penny W. Stamps Distinguished Visitor Series Presentation/Annual Copernicus Lecture (January 19), join Norman Kleeblatt of the Jewish Museum in New York and others for a symposium exploring the tradition of Polish counter-culture (January 20), and take part in a related mini-course taught by Piotr Westwalewicz. For complete information, visit <http://www.umich.edu/~iinet/crees/>.
Sponsors for the Libera exhibition, residency, and related programs include the Copernicus Endowment; the School of Art and Design's Roman J. Witt Visiting Faculty Program and Penny W. Stamps Distinguished Visitors Series; College of Literature, Science, and the Arts; and Office of the Vice President for Research at U-M; and the Polish Cultural Institute of New York.