The Artist Does Not Own His Interpretations: Hedvig Turai in Conversation with Zbigniew Libera

 Zbigniew Libera, Concentration Camp (1996, mixed media). Image courtesy of the artist.  

Hedvig Turai: Your best-known work is the Lego concentration camp set, but of course you did not start your artistic career with it, nor did you end it with that piece. Do you draw a distinction in your career “before” and “after” Lego?

Zbigniew Libera:
Naturally, Lego was such an important piece that it divides my career into two parts. Lego brought me international recognition, and in this sense it really changed something. It is also very hard for an artist to have one of his works raise expectations very high. It becomes very hard to do any work after it. Sometimes such expectations even paralyze you, because you want to do something similar, but you cannot. And then you have to deal with the likelihood that you will never do something that significant again. It is a personal problem as well. But looking back over the years, it is not so simple to draw a dividing line. When I was working on the Lego project in 1996 it was not really known; it became well-known only a year later. But then, mentally I was at a somewhat different stage, I was dealing with different things. So where is this divide? Is it when I made “Lego” or is it when it became well-known, when I achieved recognition for it, which of course also changed me and my thinking about that piece?

H.T.:: Did Lego change your recognition in Poland or mainly abroad?

Z.L.: I was known in Poland in the 1980s, but mainly among artists. “Lego” made me known among a wider public in Poland. However, fame did not make life nice and easy, on the contrary, it was a bad fame. I received attacks rather than appreciation.

H.T.:: Who attacked you?

Z.L.: Different people, for different reasons, but almost everybody. I think that these were people who misunderstood “Lego.” Many thought that this was not an art work but a real toy.

H.T.:: I find your site-specific working method very interesting as it implies your physical presence: a sort of performance without an audience, ending up with your disappearing behind your drawings. Is this method the result of nostalgia for your period as an actor?

 Zbigniew Libera, Concentration Camp (1996, mixed media). Imagecourtesy of the artist. Z.L.: It is a performance. I decided even to impress this feature on the project several times. At the Ludwig Museum in Köln, where the exhibiting space had a balcony, we decided to give the public free access to the room from the first day. For a month I interacted with the visitors and, believe me, it wasn’t easy. To feel you are being watched from behind all the time, or to see the people having no reaction or unable to laugh was frustrating. I even got paranoid, imagining that my drawings were poor, or that my message was not clear enough, all sorts of things. My performances at the beginning of the 90s were transformed into drawn projects or the readings I do here and there. This direct connection with the public is enough for me. We live in a cannibalistic period, people simply want you.

H.T.:: In your lecture you emphasized the universal meaning of your “Lego” set. The barracks are not taken from Auschwitz, the uniform of the figures are not German uniforms, in fact the figures somewhat remind one of Soviet army officers. But despite your emphasizing its universalism, the piece is usually placed in the context of the Holocaust and identified specifically with Auschwitz. What might be the reasons?

Z.L.: My intention was to refer to the icon of the 20th century, which for me is the concentration camp. The first concentration camp was set up not by Germans, not even by Russians, but by the British during the Boer war in South Africa around 1905. When I was working on “Lego” in 1996, the war in Yugoslavia was going on and there were concentration camps in Bosnia, we could see these things every day on TV. This was one of the strongest reasons why I decided to make this piece. So there is no specific historical reference, and I do not represent any particular camp. This is not Auschwitz, nor a Boer War concentration camp, nor the Gulag but the Concentration Camp. Of course when you talk about concentration camps today it is always the Holocaust that comes to mind, because this was such a significant historical event. But in this work there are no particular signs, no swastikas or stars of David. I considered making a Russian Gulag, a “Lego” Gulag. But it doesn’t work. It corresponds to no image in our head. And it did not really work for what I was trying to say either. German terror was organized, rational. Soviet terror was absolutely chaotic, anybody at any moment could be arrested. I was thinking about rationality and education.

H.T.:: You list this work among your series of Correctional Devices. In what sense is “Lego” a correctional device?

 Zbigniew Libera, Concentration Camp (1996, mixed media). Image courtesy of the artist. Z.L.: Correctional Devices is the title of a series and an exhibition. Correctional devices are what society uses for correctional purposes. Correcting our natural body, and also our mentality. Following this line of thought it is easy to understand that almost every object we use, especially toys, are devices for correction. Somebody can look at my correctional devices as devices that were themselves “corrected”. How can you point to the fact that banal everyday objects have such an educational aspect? Only by way of comparing them to other, similar objects that are just a little bit different. This confronts you with the idea that these objects can function in the same way, only normally we are not conscious of that.

H.T.:: Many people took your work as a real “Lego” production made for children to actually play with. So you used something commercial. Were you criticized for commercializing art?

Z.L.: All the pieces in the correctional devicesseries seem like ready-mades. I really needed this misunderstanding. I needed this ready-made effect, this effect of familiarity, so that people wouldn32t be scared. I feel that people are afraid of art sometimes. So I showed them an object that is absolutely safe and familiar. And of course these well-known things are the most shocking. At first people thought that this was in fact a ready-made object. Then they realized that it was not and started to reflect on it. Maybe those who thought that these were actual commercial products were people who never really used their brain.

H.T.:: There is another aspect of commerciality. You sold “Lego.” I assume the “Lego” boxes sold well?

Z.L.: Yes, of course I sold them, and I think there is nothing wrong with selling art. But it was not such a good transaction. I was an unknown artist, and I could not get a very good price for it. It was not a good deal. The original work included seven boxes executed in three editions. One of the sets is in the New York Jewish Museum, one is in the “Haus der Geschichte” in Bonn, which is, I think, the museum of the future. It not only concentrates on art but on a larger context. It is a privilege for me that my work is exhibited together with the scenography for Kraftwerk concerts in the 1970s. The third set is in private hands, in Norway. In 2001, when the Mirroring Evil exhibition was on at the Jewish Museum in New York, there was an art fair in New York, and a private collector from Scandinavia put the piece on sale. His price was 100,000 USD. My price was 7,000 USD, if you are interested; it is not a mystery or a secret.

H.T.:: Last year at the Vienna art fair, a Polish Gallery, Raster, offered remakes of your “Lego” boxes. Could you tell more about these new works?

Z.L.: I lost control of my work. I had no piece left to show, which is why I decided to make a series of graphic works in ten copies that show only the boxes. This gave me a chance to have a set for exhibitions, since museums do not like to lend the work for exhibitions.

H.T.:: Once, when you were asked about your “Lego” work, you said: I am Polish, so I am poisoned. This is a very good statement but very enigmatic as well. What does it mean?

Zbigniew Libera, Concentration Camp (1996, mixed media). Image courtesy of the artist.

Z.L.: I am not sure what it means for anyone else. I was not poisoned by anti-semitism. What I meant at the time was that I was poisoned by the incredible amount of information about concentration camps. I was poisoned by too much knowledge. I remember the dreams, the pictures I had as a child. We had to visit the concentration camps during class excursions. All these things cast doubt on the education about the camps. I do not know if it is a good idea to present such things with so much rational information, photographs, numbers, evidence, etc. Because then you do not really know how to live with it; for a small child this is traumatic. When I read about all this later I realized that I suffered from a sort of post-trauma, a secondary trauma, and I recognized that this is what happened to me, and I could not deal with it. So I thought that instead of privileging rational knowledge we should try to play. But it is obvious that when we play, we do not want to identify with the victim. So then let’s identify with the executioners! Emotions are important and they play a more important role than rational thinking in this process. This is what the Greeks called a Dionysian rite. They used their emotions more than their rationality. We do not really know what to do with emotions. Plus, today you are supposed to create only and exclusively the “right” emotions. How should you do that? I do not know. I am not in the Shoah business, but I amsomebody who reveals that a Shoah business exists. During the Mirroring Evil exhibition, I had a rather unpleasant encounter with a reporter from the BBC who invited me to an interview but failed to mention that I would be interviewed together with an American right-wing politician. Had I known this I would have said no, thank you. This politician claimed that I was trivializing evil and the Holocaust. But it was not we, the artists, who trivialized evil in this exhibition, we just showed the world: look how evil is trivialized. The construction of the Memorial of Europe’s Murdered Jews in Berlin took many years of discussion. But one thing that is certain is that monuments are used to forget, not to remember. This is a trick that is well known and we play with it. It is a strange game that politicians, survivors, Jews, the government of Israel, everybody has started to play. In 1996 or 1998, Kazimierz Switon erected a cross in a concentration camp, and then hundreds of thousands of people came with crosses. The whole thing ended with an intervention by the army to remove these crosses. In Poland, this was a sign that something was really, really wrong.

H.T.:: In Trafo, two pieces from your Positive series were exhibited. You convert sad, negative pictures into happy, positive ones. I thought that “Lego” works the other way around. Initially only positive feelings were connected with this clean and rational toy. You made these feelings negative, you added negative connotations.

Z.L.: I have to think about it. Every interpretation, even when it surprises me, is good. The artist is not the owner of interpretations. There might be reasons why I myself haven’t thought of an interpretation, so it might be true, and anyway who knows what truth is? I am a mystery for myself as well. The Positive series is part of the same line as “Lego”. It is another attempt to play with trauma. You have all those traumatic pictures that I am sure no one is able to consume and digest. You cannot live with them, I think that people instinctively do not want to look at these pictures, like that of the Vietnamese girl injured by napalm. We have various blocks. And the photo is blocked. In a regular situation, something might remind you of something like this, and there might be a flashback. We never see anything for the first time, we always look at an object and we come back to the picture we saw of this object the previous time. We always make one step back into memory, back to the previous picture. We always view our own memories of things, and not the things themselves. It is like one very long permanent journey into our memory. I tried to nail down this process of seeing and remembering.

H.T.:: How did you choose pictures that you call negatives?

Z.L.: In two ways. I wanted to have the really scary ones. But who can judge what is scary and what is not? I had to rely on my own judgment and memory. So I chose from my memory, from my childhood memory. The napalm photo by Nick Ut is from Vietnam, shot in 1972. The negative of the “Residents” was a still from the film, a Soviet chronicle from 1945. This still was very often used as a photograph. Then there is this famous photograph from the beginning of the Second World War, from 1939, when the Germans broke through the Polish border. There is also a photograph from the late 1960s, the assassination of Martin Luther King. And there is this very scary photograph by the Russian war photographer Dmitri Baltermants, “Grief in the Crimea,” with the bodies of thousands of dead Russian partisans. The bodies were discovered in spring time when they had not yet begun to decay. Approximately 7000 partisans were killed, it is an incredible photograph. The last one is Che Guevara’s body in the morgue somewhere in Bolivia, a famous photo. The body was often compared to the painting “The Dead Christ” by Mantegna; the photo was staged of course. Actually, many of these photos were staged. Another important point was that the photographs should be very well-known and recognizable. In order to play that game–I show you a photograph that is innocent and you remember–I had to use well known pictures so that people would recognize them. The series consists of eight photographs. Not all of them are well known. But if you have two or three very well known images, even if you are not sure if you know this or that picture, you can read the method. You try to remember something because you understand the rule of the game. And then you start to create something that is your own creation. Partly from different photographs, partly from different events. Sometimes very funny things happen in the case of my “positive” version of the “negative” photograph known as Napalm, I played with making a little spelling mistake and called it Nepal. A French journalist then wrote about “that famous photo of the nuclear explosion in Japan.” So, the viewer can create a new picture, a new version, probably very much like him/herself and only for him/herself.

H.T.:: I must admit that I thought that the “negative” for “Residents” (exhibited in Trafo) was Margaret Bourke-White’s famous photo of the liberation of Buchenwald.

Z.L.: I understand this, but if you compare Margaret Bourke-White’s photo and mine, you realize that, among other differences, in her photo the barbed wire creates a kind of squared pattern that is unlike mine.

H.T.:: In the West you are mostly known for “Lego”. Do you feel this is a one-sided situation, like a box in which you are locked up?

Z.L.: It could be a trap. But of course it depends on how you deal with it, how you use this. My assistants were preparing a business proposition to find support for my Masters project. They are true PR people and they realized that anybody who is interested in my work would sooner or later find “Lego.” So they said, let’s put it on the first page. They found two American web sites that attract 10,000 visitors per minute. 10,000 times per minute people all over the world click on “Libera, Lego”. So they thought that this was a very strong business proposition. We actually found companies that wanted to support the Masters series with enough money to produce the work. When I get the possibility to create something like Positives and it is immediately shown in the world, then this is an important part of the overall picture. So, Lego is both a burden and a gift.

H.T.:: In your Masters series, which you just mentioned, you were dealing with your own “heroes”.

Z.L.: At a certain moment I started to realize that there is a scandalous omission of certain artists from the history of Polish art by critics. Evidently, there are black holes. These are artists who were my teachers, whom I worshiped, with whom I had differences but with whom I also had a very strong relationship for years. I am convinced that they played a very important role in Polish art, and in the shape Polish art is taking today. But people do not know about them. They are slowly disappearing, although they are still living. One of them, Andrzej Partum, died in 2002, and Jan Swidzinski is 81 years old now. Some of them are unable to appear publicly, some are alcoholics, some are insane, they have traumatic biographies.

H.T.:: Did they belong to the underground scene?

Z.L.: At the time it was the underground. However, in Poland, the meaning of the word “underground” is different from the West. Western artists that once were in the underground are now in the finest museums. In Poland, they were in what we called “the second market”. The first market was the official life, the second was the unofficial life with a net of publications, private galleries, private publications, and private archives. After 1989, none of these artists was appointed a professorship in the academy and they did not have individual exhibitions when it would have been possible to mount them. However, their opponents, sometimes even their enemies, have kept very important positions. There was a social revolution, but it did not change the art system, there has not been a revolution in art. The art system has not changed. The professors of the former communist regime are still in their positions, holding on to their money and their possessions.

H.T.:: So, when you produced your fake articles on forgotten and invisible artists and then proceeded to publish them in on real newspapers, this must be considered an act of transgression.

Z.L.: Yes. The problem is that these artists landed in a no-man’s-land. In the 1970s they of course were in the underground, as I said, so there was no documentation on them. In the 1980s, what happened ten years earlier seemed interesting but the most important thing then was the fight for freedom. In the 1990s, we wanted to look around and get rid of the earlier threats. So there were no books, no articles written on them either, and these artists started to be erased from memory. I wondered how to repair this situation. The ideal would have been for art institutions to begin researching them, and for museums to collect documentation. But we have to work from memory since these “documents” might be nothing more than scribbled notes . These documents cannot be found in any collections in Poland, you cannot find them in the museums of Warsaw or Lodz, they are completely in private hands, not in the public sphere. On the other hand, the press has a very strong voice. So, the question is, who rules art in Poland? Private galleries, money of course, and popular magazines, like Gazeta Wyborcza, not the popular art magazines. So I realized if I wanted to do anything for these artists, I had to do it myself and through the press. Maybe it helps a little.

H.T.:: It is a complex process in which you produce these articles. You commission the articles from professional art historians or critics, but then you have them corrected by journalists working for popular papers. Is this also a criticism of our profession, of how we art historians work?

Z.L.: It is rather an institutional critique, and in a sense a criticism of what the nation gives to these artists.

H.T.:: How do you see your position as an artist in Poland today?

Z.L.: It is strange. Last year I had many exhibitions all over the country, except in Warsaw. I haven’t had an exhibition in Warsaw for eleven years. But eventually I will have one. Right-wing people in Poland and in the art world persist with the provocations they started in the late 90s’ This creates an atmosphere where the directors of big art institutions are afraid of doing anything which could be controversial, giving a reason for the authorities to chop off their head. They think it is safer to do nothing than to do something which will be publicly discussed, since these discussions could end very badly for them. The Center for Contemporary Art in Warsaw for example has been silent for 5 or 6 years. I do not fit in because my appearance would, well, lead to discussions.

H.T.:: You are often invited abroad. And it seems that you have a different position abroad.

Z.L.: I am better known in Poland but this is a very special situation. I am known as somebody who is doing bad things, I am the black sheep. The radical right-wing press writes incredible things about what is good and what is bad. But in the West, of course, I will never be supported without the support of my own government, my own country. There is no reason for the French government to support, let’s say, Hungarian artists. America doesn’t intend to support anybody but Americans, Saatchi supports British artists. I am someone who needs support: my work is costly and it takes time. So to work completely on my own is impossible. I have a contract with a private gallery in Poland, Atlas: without them I would have never produced my latest works.

Budapest, November 12, 2005.

A different version of this interview was published, in Hungarian, in the journal, M3232rt32.

Zbigniew Libera co-operated with studio Strych in Lodz. From 1983-1986, he was a member of the artistic group Kultura Zrzuty and published the magazine “Tango”. He is co-founder of various artistic clubs and cafes in Warsaw (“Baumgart/Libera”, “Aurora”). Libera produces objects, photography and drawings. In the 1980’s he made several movies and video installations. He lives and works in Warsaw.

Hedvig Turai is a former contributing editor to ARTMargins. She lives and works in Budapest.