Artur Żmijewski is a provocateur. Sentimentality and political correctness are unknown to him, and nor can he be reproached for facile sensationalism.
This Polish video-maker and photographer rather induces or reports confrontations between humans and the perception of self. A shock effect is well-nigh inevitable, but the initial astonishment is swiftly superseded by a more layered conception of what human existence entails in the 20th and 21st centuries and of the ethics and morals that, consciously or unconsciously, we believe we ought to hold dear.
In his early work, Żmijewski investigates the human body as a fragile and manipulable form. He portrays physical deformities, handicaps and diseases, as well as those who live with these ailments every day, in a confrontational way. These people claim a new rationale for their existence, because the director does not film them with the usual clinical distance or obvious/gratuitous compassion. Existing clichés about what is normal and desirable are upturned. The director refrains from making value judgements or explanations. His ambition is to facilitate a new perception without attaching this to new terms.
Much of Żmijewski’s work stands midway between documentary and fiction. The documentary aspect goes further than the fact that he takes people who truly exist as his subject material. Żmijewski’s films form, as it were, a microscopic magnification of attitudes, beliefs and fears that lie concealed in our daily lives. In his films these are transformed into a highly explicit manifestation. The focus in his more recent work has shifted from the human body towards the elasticity of the human mind. During a journey with a group of Polish Catholic pilgrims to Israel in 2003 he filmed a quartet of films in which religious fanaticism reveals itself in a variety of ways. There is the blind hate of Itzik, an Israeli who considers the murder of Palestinians to be legitimized based on his own version of the history of the Holy Land. The young German emigrant, Lisa, is convinced that in a past life she was a Jewish boy murdered at the age of 12 by the Nazis, and wants to feel at home in a land that regards her conviction as a pathological fantasy. There are the Catholic pilgrims for whom the roots of their faith lie in Israel, a country whose existence they actually do not accept. Polish immigrants living in Israel strain their memory, at the director’s behest, in order to dig up the last remaining snippets of Polish children’s songs from their youth. The films stand in their own right, but as a quadriptych they represent an ambiguous and paradoxical picture of the interrelated notions of identity, history and belief, presenting the diverse interrelationships of desire and reality.
In the film Repetition (2005), the director makes radical interventions in reality and repeats the controversial Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971 fairly literally. The psychologist Philip Zimbardo had a mock prison built for this role-playing experiment in the basement of Stanford University, where 21 students would live for a planned period of 14 days. Each was assigned a role as a guard or as a prisoner. After two days the identification with the set role was complete. After six days the experiment was abandoned. A number of prisoners proved unable to withstand the experiment. A few of the guards were guilty of an abuse of power bordering on sadism. Żmijewski repeated this experiment almost 35 years later, this time with young, unemployed Polish men. Hidden cameras recorded their willingness to comply with a role and the influence of compelling circumstances on the human mind. Just like Zimbardo, Żmijewski assumed the role of supervisor himself. The participants were allowed to pull out at any time, and here too the experiment came to a premature end. The experiment and the film prompt myriad questions about human behaviour, our preparedness to conform or yield to perversion when under pressure. They cast a glaring spotlight on the thin dividing line between fantasy and reality.
The Van Abbemuseum acquired the prison constructed of chipboard and the filmed footage. Both can be seen on the museum’s lowest floor, together with the quadriptych filmed in Israel, which is screened on four monitors simultaneously.