Artur Żmijewski in conversation with POLARIS: the Berlin Biennale is a difficult exercise in acquiring power – it’s like cinema on the way to politics

Both the 7th Berlin Biennial and London Olympics 2012 start the very next year.  POLARIS, partner organization of both initiatives, attempts to peep into these two historically significant events and their implications through Cultural, Ideological and Real Estate perspectives. Foregoing is a conversation between POLARIS Ltd and curator of the Berlin Biennale 7 Artur Żmijewski. It touches expectations in the political career of a curator and his opinions on art, gaining power, German history etc.


POLARIS: You’re the kind of artist who monitors other artists and the art scene in general. You publish interviews with culture producers, you’re the artistic director of the periodical Krytyka Polityczna, and you have been appointed the curator of the 7th Berlin Biennale. What are your guiding principles?

Artur Żmijewski: I’ve always been more interested in the social or political dimension of art and the impact of artistic work. I’ve asked myself whether the language of art is capable of getting people religiously or politically aroused. Artists are just as capable of setting in motion the same chain of events as politicians. How do you exert influence on people’s actions?

POLARIS: What does “career” mean to you?

AŻ: Career means improving yourself professionally. You move forward, acquire knowledge and skills. Some artists possess skills that are truly astounding. There’s the greatness of art and there’s poverty in society.

POLARIS: Speaking of you, people often mention the fact that you graduated from the studio class of Grzegorz Kowalski. Did he really shape you, or it is rather that society needs the myth of a founding relationship between the master and the apprentice?

AŻ: Kowalski is a master, and he runs a master studio. But his students have freedom, and they are partners in artistic play. True, being there you could feel the hierarchy, but there was also a radical freedom of discovery, and a radical freedom of creation. He didn’t like passive students. He appreciated those who were able to make arousing arguments. And of course, he was the one who taught us the craft. That’s also how i came to be a proactive subject. You can’t bestow this status by yourself—you have to achieve it through interaction with someone who is bigger and stronger than yourself. Or do you think you can be a subject just by yourself? A somebody?

POLARIS: Yes, I think so.

AŻ: That’s an illusion.

POLARIS: Tell us more about the relationship between society and the artist.

AŻ: Not everyone can be an artist. That’s an illusion. True, everyone can try to imitate art. But I don’t think that art deserves to be downgraded so as to claim that it can be made by anyone. We are faced with imitations of artistic action on the market—imitators have learned the strategies and tricks of the trade. The privileges, benefit, or authority that a person could gain from such a position seemed to be beyond me. But in the meantime, I’ve come to understand the necessary rituals and etiquette. Sometimes you have to force yourself through tedious discussions in order to forge social bonds. The need for attention is an important mainspring. You just have to channel it so that you can use it for political purposes: artists simply don’t practice enough privileges. As far as the place of artists is concerned, I’d say yes. They should occupy various positions in our reality. Being a curator of the Berlin Biennale, I have the feeling that I’ve been granted a certain amount of power, but this power is ephemeral and only symbolic. Compared to political power, it’s actually rather limited. The Berlin Biennale is a difficult exercise in delegating power—it’s like cinema. My case is a group who aspire, who can be used to speculate on content, and who ensure the exchangeability of ideas and personnel.

POLARIS: Various interested parties control art. They differentiate between true and degenerate art. Aren’t you wary of such classifications?

AŻ: People still classify art today, only the criteria have slightly changed. Class differences and sub-categories exist based on various levels of artistic quality. It’s not such issues as class that I’m concerned about, but rather that the freedom of expression that a group of individual artists possess is withering. There’s no unity; there’s only a loose collection of particularities and localities. Danish artist Asgern Jorn in his Open Creation and its Enemies clearly defines a unity that big scale events such as Berlin Biennale or Artists Taking The Lead (side-event of London Olympics 2012) exemplify. Only through such events can the masses be aroused to participate in a democratic society.

POLARIS: And why do artists tend to stand for a cause rather than to promote their own career?

AŻ: The longest, most significant tradition in art is conformism, not resistance. Denial of assimilation and withdrawal from declarations of loyalty make up the category of art. That is the underlying obscenity of art, just as far-right sympathies or neo-liberal positions are obscenities that underlie artistic do-good terminology. On the other hand there is this obscene opportunism of allegedly rebellious or provocative artists: such as the Russian collective Voina, which have just joined Biennale team. I read a report about an art fair where artists and galleries presented numerous interesting works, which drew attention to social misery. I thought, what would happen if you changed the sentence to read: “At the art fair, people came together who actively support capitalism and hope to profit from commercializing social misery.”

POLARIS: You’re asking for art that is self-conscious, has real effects, which renounces representation for the sake of directness and effective action, and performatively transforms reality. But such terms as “effect,” or “real effect,” “creativity,” and “action” are also part of the neo-liberal agenda. Any activity is expected to bring about effective action, is focused on a goal. How can the logic of art resist supporting the system? We can be certain of one effect—the market value of the works of artists invited to participate in the Berlin Biennale will skyrocket. Above all, this concerns your own work. As for me, although I’ve got nothing to sell, I won’t have any reason to complain, in the symbolic sense.

AŻ: Such thinking is precisely what leads you into the neo-liberal trap. The neo-liberal operating system, which is active in all reality, holds no monopoly on defining my needs and goals. My conscious activity is based on formulating my own goals, instead of ideologically representing the system.

Our conscious involvement in the Biennale project could be formulated in a number of ways:

  • art is a public service, because an artist represents not only him or herself, but also the community to which he or she belongs: an educated European community
  • art is an influential element of public opinion, represented by intellectuals, and by artists who speak not only on their own behalf. It has broad exposure in the public sphere, and operates in close relationship with the media.
  • much of today’s art is based on a language of representation that operates in a dispersed network of power. The powerful influence of this representation could help us master the tools we hold in our hands, and it would also mark the first step towards acknowledging the fact that we have a right to gain power

What discredits art and blocks its influence is, among other things, the speculative art market, with its overrated dirty American system of valuation of artworks and corruption of talent. Artists are often brilliant innovators, or talented politicians, but the market employs these skills in the production of spectacle.

POLARIS: In a recent interview you have spoken of Socialist Realism and its influence in Stalinist Russia.

AŻ: Artists have the ability to manufacture situations, but they can’t transfer them to other contexts and sustain them. And that’s one of the biggest desires among artists—universalizing exceptions. Maybe we should look for ways to universalize them.

There have been situations when political change has served as a vehicle for universalizing artistic experience. That was the case in the time of Socialist Realism. Socialist Realism was a new aesthetic paradigm which, under administrative and political constraints, served as an highly ideological means of visual communication for the masses in a time of proletarian turmoil. Local terminology and visual language were universalized and became the mainstream. This applied not just to the fine arts. There were poems written back in the 1930s in the style of Socialist Realism: “Czy rośnie chleb spod pługa, czy lecą skry spod młota—to nasza jest zasługa, to nasza jest robota” (“If bread grows from beneath the plough, if sparks fly from the hammer’s blow—this is our doing, and is our great work.”). Today Stalinist art is anathema. Unjustly so.

POLARIS: And if someone urged you to get involved in politics …

AŻ: That would interest me.

POLARIS: If you got into politics, how could you maintain your status as an artist?

Artists are just as capable of setting in motion the same chain of events as politicians. In order to activate their followers, artists—in contrast to politicians—use paradoxes, reveal inconsistencies, challenge the status quo, or disclose secrets, which give way to a whole range of new secrets. One must only invoke the political influence of Italian futurist. This enables them to achieve a kind of diversion or shocking revelation which influences action. The viewer is stunned by the magnitude of the secret.

POLARIS: We have been living in Berlin for the last year. You once said that the seductive narcissism of the city lays claim to artists from all over the world. Then why do radical artists from Colombia or Japan come here? What are they doing here?

AŻ: They’ve wandered away from home, lured by the cheap rents here. They’ve forgotten that the only thing that makes sense is doing something for one’s own nation—without that, nothing has meaning.

POLARIS: International community has been recently shaken by the right-extremist violence in Germany, committed by National Socialist Underground. At the same time, Berlin Biennale 7 joins the cause of investing 70 million Euro to preserve Nazi architecture in Nuremberg. To what extent do you think racially motivated violence is still rampant in European countries?

I have already mentioned the need to break with accusations of German racism. It could be coordinated through an international effort, say, in the form of announcements on the front pages of European, Israeli, Polish, and American newspapers.

The announcements might read as follows:

  • The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, USA Today: “Europeans wish to express their thanks to the American nation for putting an end to the war in Europe, and for the sacrifice of the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers who fell there—with your help we began our lives anew. May the gods and all the spirits of the world bless you.” [Europeans]
  • The International Herald Tribune, Jerusalem Post, Ha’aretz, Ma‘ariv: “Our ancestors persecuted Jews, killed many of them, and expelled them from Europe. We want to apologize, on their behalf, and on our own behalf, although we were not the perpetrators. We ask you to remember that we are no longer the same people—also with your help, we now know how to care about the living.” [Europeans]
  • Die Zeit, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Süddeutsche Zeitung: “Your ancestors started a devastating war and paid a terrible price for it. Although the nations of Eastern Europe, especially the European Jews and Roma, paid an even higher price. Today, the generations of the tormenters and those cursed with the misfortune of being born in the wrong time, are passing. We know that the Germans of today are a different people, a people who is free, and who knows that the Holocaust is a horror of the past. Contemporary Germans should know this: You are not responsible for the Holocaust.” [Jews]
  • Rzeczpospolita, Gazeta Wyborcza, Polska: “Poles, at the behest of the German occupiers, played a limited role in the extermination of Jews. Despite the threat of imminent death, they also played a major part in saving them. Poles have accounted for their guilt—today’s generations are not responsible for the deeds of their ancestors. You are not guilty of hatred towards Jews; you are not guilty of being sympathetic towards their extermination. You are free from guilt.” [Jews]



The Berlin Biennale is the forum for contemporary art in one of the most attractive cities for art. Taking place every other year at changing locations throughout Berlin it is shaped by the different concepts of well-known curators appointed to enter into a dialogue with the city, its general public, the people interested in art as well as the artists of this world.

The German capital is continuously under change thus remaining fragmented, diverse and contradictory. It is this particular mixture of high contrasts and a relaxed manner defining Berlin side by side that does not only attract international artists, many of whom choose Berlin as their base and place for production. Every two years the Berlin Biennale explores artistic developments to present the unseen and the unfamiliar before the background of this inspiring atmosphere.

In 1998 the first Berlin Biennale took place founded on the initiative of Eberhard Mayntz and Klaus Biesenbach – founding director of the Kunst-Werke Berlin – , in order to promote a representative and international forum for contemporary art in Berlin. Since the year 2004 KW Institute for Contemporary Art has been the supporting organization of the Berlin Biennale. Its significance for the cultural landscape is reflected in the patronage granted by the Kulturstiftung des Bundes (German Federal Cultural Foundation)

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