Zbigniew Libera is one of the most renown Polish visual artists.
He is considered to be the key figure of the Polish „critical art” of the 1990s and a pioneer of video art, which he had created since the early 1980s.
He was raised in a small town Pabianice near Łódź in central Poland. He was a son of a nurse, a single mother. He is perhaps the only one of Polish renown artists who did not attend to an academy of fine arts. His whole artistic education was informal.
First, there was a musical family of his high school friend, who’s father was a conservatory professor. Then, there were exhibitions in the Museum of Art in Łódź. Several years later a private archive of performance and conceptual art of the 70s curated by Zofia Kulik and Przemysław Kwiek (KwieKulik duo) became Libera’s „university”, but also a „convent”. Libera becomes an „apprentice” of the duo and lives in their house on the suburbs of Warsaw for a couple of years.
In the beginning of the 80s Libera entered the counter-cultural milieu of the Pitch-in Culture. They met at an attic of an old tenement house by the main alley of Łódź. Soon after the Martial Law was introduced in 1981 and state-sponsored galleries were closed, the attic became a venue for exhibitions and concerts of the „second circulation”.
The first exhibition on The Attic included Libera’s artistic debut.
During the Martial Law, Libera spend a year and a half in criminal arrest and an internment facility. He was arrested for printing and distributing leaflets in protest against the bloody suppression of the strike in Wujek coal mine. He was released shortly before his debut. This was not the only difficult experience that influenced the course of his life. In 1986 he worked in a psychiatric ward of Pabianice hospital as an occupational therapist for a year. He moved from Łódź to Warsaw to avoid constant harassment by the communist security service (although he no longer had ties to political opposition). In the breakthrough year of 1989 he started a half year long solitary journey to Egipt, Israel and Sudan – as he puts it – a mystical journey of a hermit. He went through a couple of identity crises and departures from art, during which he destroyed his old works.
Although Libera became a star of the art world in the 1990s, he was engaged in artistic life and created interesting controversial works already in the previous decade.
He is a pioneer of video art. As early as in the time of the Pitch-in Culture he bought a quality Japanese VHS camera, thanks to an inheritance from an uncle from USA. Throughout the 80s he intensively documented Polish artistic life, including parties and plein air trips of the Pitch-on Culture milieu as well as exhibitions and performances of fellow artists.
He recorded his closest family as well, in private situations, including his 90 year old bedridden grandmother, with whom he had close ties, and after whom he took care afer being released from prison.
Camera registers a man in his twenties feeding, bathing and changing diapers of his grandmother. It also registers how the grandmother, in advanced dementia, spins around an iron chamber pot on the floor, in regular sequence. Libera identified this strange behavior as a kind of mystic ritual substituting rosary prayer. After awhile, Libera assembled these recordings into a short films and started to show them to befriended artists and curators. That is how some of the earliest, strongest and best known works of Polish video art were made (Intimate rites 1984, Mystical Perseverance 1984).
Libera achieved international renown due to his work Lego. Concentration Camp (1996).
Out of grey blocks acquired from the famous Danish corporation he build miniature barracks, walls, crematoria and clothes sorting facilities. He used plastic policemen in black uniforms from „Police” sets as guards, and skeletons from „pirate” sets as prisoners. He arranged and photographed scenes based on archival photos from the II World War period. The photos were printed on boxes deceptively similar to original Lego System sets. The pice provoked an extensive press and academic debate reaching i.a. Denmark and Israel. The work found its way to the prestigious Sao Paulo Biennale and – almost – to the Venice Biennale. The curator of the Polish pavilion in Venice pressed to exclude the controversial piece from Libera’s planned exhibition, so the artist withdrew from the show entirely.
Today, editions of the piece are included in the collections of the New York Jewish Museum, the House of the History of the Federal Republic of Germany in Bonn, and Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw.
Lego was created as part of the Corrective appliances series. Others include Body master – a miniature body-building atlas for boys and delivery bed play-kits for girls – for ages 7–9. There’s also the Ken’s Aunt plastic doll – with a body of a late middle-aged woman sporting a ’60 hairdo. Finally, there’s a weight stack made to enlarge penis size. All are designed and crafted with factory precision with packaging resembling actual products found in toy stores.
Other notable series of Libera are Positives – large format photographs restaging iconic pictures of tragic moments in the XX century.
The Corrective appliances were interpreted in relation to the concepts of dispersion of power and disciplinary society by Michel Foucault.
Libera characterizes his art, in words of his artist friend Marek Janiak – the „art of embarrassment”. „It brings forth an effect of embarrassment, confusion, it throws the viewer off balance, out of the normal course of thought” – said Libera in an interview with Łukasz Gorczyca and Artur Żmijewski. – „Its beauty lies in an error, in some exceptional dud, in an unknown situation, in the oddity, the puzzlement.”
Libera also said that his art operates like a „virus”. It employs an esthetic that is accessible to the wider audience, almost pop-like. However, at the same time it hides a subversive message of cultural critique.
Pieces from Libera’s expansive body of work were interpreted in connection to problems such as social marginality, bodily practice, gender and sexuality, senility, illness and death, oppressiveness of the state and the dominant culture, as well as memory of historical trauma.
Warszawa, Warsaw, Poland
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- Pabianice, Poland
Author(s) of this page
- Szenajch, Piotr