Painful videos reveal life's brutal truths.
A deaf choir grunting out a Bach cantata.
A naked amputee clutching a nude person with limbs, so that together the pair looks like one complete body.
A young woman dying from decaying bones, interviewed in bed about the pain she is in.
Artur Żmijewski himself uses the word "brutal" to describe his work, and his videos are indeed as hard to watch as any art I've seen. They are also profound and important and even humane, in the same way Goya's brutalities are. Why not help deaf people sing Bach, regardless of the ugly results? Why flinch at pain seen up close?
"I'm not a good guy who wants to change the world for the better," says Żmijewski (pronounced "Jmi-YEV-skee"). But he's happy to reveal that it might need some changing.
The 45-year-old Polish artist describes living through the fall of the Soviets and then the advent of a rapacious capitalism he saw as "a kind of virus that infects each mind—people didn't expect the dark side to this freedom." He headed to art school on a quest for a way out of the morass: "I was looking for a kind of language, and I realized that art could be that language—that art could help me understand the world." He discovered that video was his best bet for simply getting at that world and explaining it.
A piece recently screened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York presents footage of a group of Polish sculptors, of no particular note, whom Żmijewski paired with factory workers to make public art about the virtues of labor. The sculptures that get made are as lame as you'd expect, but there's something poignant about the sincerity that went into their making, showing lefty ideals still at work. The piece is almost sweet. "Maybe I was tired, a little bit, with the brutality," Żmijewski says.