Declining Democracy

Francis Alÿs
Michael Bielicky &
Kamila B. Richter

Roger Cremers
Juan Manuel Echavarría
Thomas Feuerstein
Thomas Hirschhorn
Thomas Kilpper
Lucy Kimbell
Cesare Pietroiusti
Artur Żmijewski



Democracies, 2009
Video installation
Courtesy l’artista / the artist, Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich,
Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw
Installation view at CCC Strozzina, Palazzo Strozzi, Firenze

The Polish artist Artur Zmijewski focuses in his work on the integrity and sovereignty of the individual. He is an active member of the Polish political movement Krytyka Polityczna and the art director of the magazine Krytyka Polityczna, both founded by a circle of Polish left-wing intellectuals whose intent is to lay the foundations for alternative political movements based on the ideal of a social civil society. The aim of Krytyka Polityczna is to create a common impact of the social sciences, the arts and politics on society.  
As an artist Zmijewski claims to broaden the range of scientific knowledge through methods of dreams, imagination, repetition, responsibility and risk. For many of his projects he created laboratory-type situations exploring human behaviour, societal conditioning and physical handicaps. With these staged experiments, Zmijewski produced empirical knowledge about the human condition and its social manifestations.
For his work Democracies Zmijewski departs from his established strategy of re-enactment and uses instead a purely documentary approach. Democracies is a series of eleven short films documenting various collective declarations in public spaces, which are parallely shown. Travelling across Europe for over a year’s time, Zmijewski recorded diverse mass events, which have in common that they exhibit basic democratic principles such as freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and equality. Zmijewski confronts the viewer with an encyclopaedic range of political and non-political opinions and claims, and various forms of their collective presentation: demonstrations of union members for higher wages, of women for the right to abortion, a Polish military parade, the burial of the Austrian politician Jörg Haider, drunk German football fans, drumming activists at the Gaza strip. What we see is a basic democratic mechanism at work: the practice of free expression in public. Zmijewski observes without judging: “The message of these people and these events should not be obliterated by any personal intervention or artistic strategy. I just wanted to present this ‘direct speech’, the free expression of these people.” Zmijewski simply wants to keep these public claims alive: be it the feministic claim for equal rights, the call for higher wages, the wish for a life in peace, not in war.
Do we like what is expressed? Do we agree? Or disagree? Do we find connections among these diverse attempts to have ones voice heard? The videos may provoke both our consent and dissent, ultimately inviting us to participate in the public discourse by defining and expressing our own position as the indispensable prerequisite of a functioning democracy.
Zmijewski’s video-installation presents “an intriguing narrative about political activity and freedom of expression, about crowd psychology, representation and acting” as the art critic Axel Lapp writes, and unveil “unexpected connections between seemingly unrelated events”. In contrasting a wide range of “democracies” Zmijewski not only thematizes form, structure and pattern of mass mobilization and its propagandistic power, ultimately he also sets up an experiment about the controversy of opinions involving the viewer and his own convictions.

Democracies, 2009
Still da video / Video stills
20 single channel video
2h 26’’
Courtesy l’artista / the artist, Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich,
Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw

Artur Zmijewski (1966, Warsaw, PL) is a visual artist, filmmaker and photographer. During the years 1990-1995 he studied at Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts. He is an author of short video movies and photography exhibitions, which were shown all over the world. Since 2006 he has been artistic editor of Krytyka Polityczna. His solo show If It Happened Only Once It’s As If It Never Happened was at “Kunsthalle Basel” in 2005, the same year in which he represented Poland at the 51st Venice Biennale. He has shown in Documenta 12 (2007), and Manifesta 4 (2002); Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art, San Francisco (2005); National Gallery of Art Zacheta, Warsaw (2005); Kunstwerke, Berlin (2004); CAC, Vilnius (2004); Moderna Museet, Stockholm (1999). In 2009 he has made new work for the MoMA in New York as part of their Project series, which lead to the exhibition Projects 91: Artur Zmijewski. In 2009 Cornerhouse, Manchester, has presented the first major UK survey of Zmijewski’s work. Earlier this year he presented Democracies at Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw.

Declining Democracy