Polish artist Pawel Althamer is a controversial character. Depending on how you look at his work, he’s either a social activist for marginalized communities, or an artist taking advantage of said marginalized communities for his own gain. For his 2001 show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the artist hired a high-school friend of his to come to the museum every day for a month to paint the walls of one room a different color each day. The friend was an immigrant, and he earned a living as a house painter. The performance, in effect, forced the museum to pay the painter for doing his normal job, while calling attention to the use of invisible immigrant labor.
In another project, the artist worked with the Warsaw-based Nowolipie Group, an organization offering rehabilitation for victims of Multiple Sclerosis. Over the course of many years, the group learned ceramic techniques and together made an exquisite corpse-style reclining nude woman, which was later cast in bronze and turned into a fountain (the water squirts out of the figure's nipples). The sculpture, Sylwia (2010) is permenantly on view at the Museum of Modern Art Warsaw.
Below, in this interview excerpted from Phaidon’s monograph, the artist admits that the leadership of the Nowolipie Group was infuriated with Althamer’s treatment of the physically-challenged members of the group—and goes on to admit that his intentions were “not in terms of social awareness, fighting for equal rights, or community-building. What intrigues me is what would happen if I offered someone a new social role.” Read the interview below to understand what those social roles are and why the artist believes they’re useful—and decide for yourself which side of the controversy you’re on.
We know from films and stories that you’ve gone on many other journeys—to Mexico, for example. Your aim was not the get new experience of skills. You didn’t want to learn indigenous customs, technologies or ways of thinking, or to understand local artists, like in Africa. The real reason you went to Mexico was peyote.
That trip was related to another sacred tradition that predates Christianity—a journey in pursuit of wisdom.
But not the wisdom that comes with experience, or stems from contact with other people. You sought wisdom by reaching down into the deeper layers of yourself.
You can have both. That’s what wisdom boils down to—you can always set out on a journey without physically going anywhere, merely by sitting on a chair, just like I am right now. I’ve been making more of these journeys lately. Moreover, you meet many other travelers, because you’re not the only person traveling that way. There are scores of travelers going in just one direction—inwards, towards the within. The expression is actually misleading, as the inside has no end. In fact it is the outside.
In what sense?
In the sense of openness. It’s like when a character in a film is banging on a door wanting to go out, and then you get a bird’s-eye view that shows he’s actually in an open space trying to get into a small room.
I’d like to change the subject a bit. On the way to our meeting, I saw several dozen street-cleaners in Day-Glo vests next to a Second World War monument in the Praga district of Warsaw. I think they were unemployed—the marginalized cleaning the margins of public space.
Nobody would invite them home. Somebody owning a villa with a swimming pool would rather hire professionals, experts, virtuosos of the mop.
That distinction between professional and non-professional cleaners is symptomatic. You seem to see the position of an artist in a similar way—as someone who’s both authorized and unauthorized.
Or at times excluded.
For me, that street scene recalled your operations on a number of levels. First, there’s the aspect of cleaning. Then there’s the fact that your projects often involve poor people unaccustomed to public performances, or people from the margins—prisoners, the homeless, and so-called “problem kids.” Those guys were like prisoners. They were barely moving. It was horrible and made me think of concentration camps.
When I think of my motivations today, it’s not in terms of social awareness, fighting for equal rights, or community-building. What intrigues me is what would happen if I offered someone a new social role. I seek out such experiences myself. Acting in a larger group just makes it more exciting. You get a broader range of experience, more possible interpretations, as well as exchange between participants. This was what drove me. Another aspect is the exceptional availability of people who have merely a handful of life roles to choose from, who let others decide for them. That’s why I invite them.
That means you don’t consider it a form of social protest?
I see it differently now. I know that assuming alternative roles is very effective, that giving people a choice is the only way for them to make that choice. Many people live the way they do because they don’t realize they have a choice. They think it’s the only way. It never occurs to them that they have a right to choose. They never ask the basic question: “What do I choose? What occupation, what position?”
Do you think the profession, or occupation, of an artist, involves responsibility? Like that of teachers or educators?
Whatever I do, I feel accountable to myself. But I’ve also been held accountable for abusing my position, though I don’t see it that way.
I asked the Nowolipie Group, the handicapped people I’m working with, to become an art group, which required going beyond the limits imposed by therapeutic classes. I suggested they try acting like other artists, that they try out various forms of expression. This was frowned upon by my superiors, who expected me to develop and follow a certain programme. I preferred improvised activities, involving the group in various projects without defining the result beforehand. This meant participating in public events, working on sculptures and other projects they thought they weren’t up to. And they weren’t, precisely because they’d never done such things before. I was criticized for being irresponsible and insubordinate, for refusing to conform to the standards expected of a teacher in a state institution. I was drawn into a bitter conflict with my superior, which continues until today.
Your superior was unhappy that you’d thrown the Nowolipie Group in at the deep end?
She was. We’re back to the issue of responsibility. I feel responsible for my trainees. I want them to have all the choices they can. Pompously speaking, I care about our common good, about giving everyone interesting and wonderful perspectives. But the director is guided by fear, the “what if?” approach. When these radically different attitudes meet, it can lead to an immediate communication breakdown.
And what did your trainees think?
They trust me. They don’t always understand my point, but they don’t feel threatened. They can always say no, and they know I won’t take them anywhere they don’t want to go or have them do things they don’t want to do. At times they may feel lost, as they often admit, but the level on which we communicate allows for unrestrained jumps into the unknown without ever losing touch.
Before that they were…
They were typecast as a group of sick people coming in for therapy. This was their role. Before that, they were victims of an illness, multiple sclerosis, or just generally victims. This means they’d come to terms with the fact that little could be done. We can do this much but no more.
Were they aware that the ideal of health was beyond their reach? That such an ideal exists but they don’t belong to it?
Yes. I suppose you’d find a couple of doctors who’d say it was irresponsible of me to offer the group something beyond their capabilities, something exposing them to frustration. And there was some frustration. Some people—not many—resigned. A few simply died. I don’t think I’m to blame. It’s a disease that develops in the most surprising way—no one is able to gauge its full extent. When starting an activity I’m often uncertain where it’ll lead me. That can make me feel uneasy.
In what public situations did your trainees find themselves?
The whole group never participated in the same activity. Some of them usually represented the rest. Perhaps the most daring idea was getting two people with cerebral palsy—grown men with the minds of boys, you could say—to conduct classes for people with multiple sclerosis in Newcastle, England. They went there as instructors with me as their assistant. They were great. People normally seen as freaks became leaders, opening people up, showing them that anything was possible. When the rest of the group saw how bravely they were coping and the crazy ways they found to realize their own needs and ideas, they realized they could do the same. This created a stimulating atmosphere that helped people get rid of fear and individual prejudices. That, I feel, is the way to win people over.
Yes, but it might never go beyond the Nowolipie Group.
I’ll do what I can. But the workshops are open. They’re being run.
Being an artist, how do you see the public significance of similar events over the last fifteen years? Do you think the situation in Poland is improving?
It is. Things once kept secret are now coming to the surface. It might seem bad at first glance, but that’s merely because so many things had remained out of sight. Now is a time for cleansing. Clear-cut situations are mixing with “dirty” ones that should be cleaned up. But this is a process, and it’s moving in the right direction. Ten or twenty years ago, I would’ve been fired. But now the group wanted me to stay, and they protested. I could have taken the story to the papers—that would have provided a starting point for a discussion. Instead, I ventured a public protest during a staff meeting. I criticized my superior and refuted her accusations. The faculty reaction was disheartening—the majority thought I was a careerist trying to make it in an institution at the expense of hard-working people who toe the line. I was made out to be someone trying to assert his individuality, trying to be different—that is, better. But at least there was some sort of exchange—I could learn what’s what. People can work for years, all their lives, enduring in strained relationships, unable or afraid to take any steps. I now know that my person, my point of view and my working methods are not accepted, but at least I stated my case and so did they. I think that’s a positive thing.
What about the piece you did with homeless people in 1992, in which you had them sit in the street wearing badges that said “Obserwator” [Observer]? This piece was your response to the commission you got from the new Warsaw daily Obserwator, to create a street advertising campaign for the newspaper. Do you think the social context around the excluded was more repressive at the time?
They were excluded because they had excluded themselves in the first place. Offering them another chance to join the game on different rules can’t hurt anyone—them or the system. I’m convinced that, whatever my motives, I’m fulfilling a useful role. What I’m driving at is that sometimes you don’t need to do anything except recognize your own choice and validate it. The homeless can stay homeless, the ill can stay ill, as long as they accept that. But if they want to change, they need to do whatever it takes. I went so far as to ask people in the Nowolipie Group whether they thought they’d caused their illness themselves, whether they’d wanted to become ill.
That’s an extremely problematic statement, Pawel.
I was quoting a book. But that quote somehow reflects what I think and feel. I trod softly. The group knows me, and I know them. We can be extremely frank with one another. I asked how they felt about such a statement. And one of the women said she wanted to be ill. At that point, she was unable to do anything else with her life except suffer. Others were downright enthusiastic. They consider the time when they discover their illness, when they were diagnosed, to be the decisive moment when they could finally take matters in their own hands and do something with a complete sense of purpose—which doesn’t mean they want to stop taking medication and listening to their doctors.
Perhaps that’s what you get when roles are clearly defined.
Yes. They all take their roles and add one more—that of an ill person. But if an actor were to get such a role it would be neither good nor bad, right? A difficult and interesting role is an exceptional challenge. Think of it this way: so far you’ve been an employee, now you’re an ill employee. So many challenges!