Game of Tag, Artur Żmijewski (1-2/2)


Artur Żmijewski
Berek (The Game of Tag), 1999
video 4’30’'


Catalogue entry:

The film shows a group of men and women of various ages. The action takes place in two rooms. One of these is the gas chamber of a former Nazi death camp. People were killed here using Zyklon-B, and yellowish-blueish stains left by the gas can still be seen on the walls. The actors are naked and are playing. At first they are embarrassed by the situation and feel cold, but gradually become more and more animated. Żmijewski: ‘Sometimes as they play they hurt each other by hitting too hard; sometimes the whole thing becomes highly erotic. Some feel overcome with shame, while others laugh and play, completely relaxed.’ The artist emphasized the almost therapeutic character of the situation. Certain events from the Nazi era were repeated, with only the ending changed: “Visually, there was a strong similarity between the two situations. But this time nothing bad happened. Instead of tragedy, we’re watching innocent, childish play. This resembles a clinical situation in psychotherapy. You return to the traumas that brought about your complex. You recreate them, almost like in the theatre’.

Work owned by the following collections:

ED.1/3: Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw
ED. 2/3: Zachęta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw
ED. 3/3: Kadist Foundation, Paris, San Francisco

Work exhibited at the following exhibitions:

What You See is What You Get. Projected: Poland, Medium Gallery, Bratislava, 1999
Berek (The Game of Tag), a.r.t. Gallery, Płock, 2000
Artur Żmijewski. Selected Works, 1998–2003, MIT List Visual Arts Center, Boston, 2004
Artur Zmijewski, Centre d’Art Contemporain de Brétigny, Brétigny-sur-Orge, 2004
Artur Żmijewski, X Initiative, New York, USA, 2009
Side by Side: Poland – Germany. A 1000 Years of Art and History, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, 2011
Poland – Israel – Germany: The Experience of Auschwitz, MOCAK Museum of Contemporary Art in Kraków, 2015
My Poland. On Recalling and Forgetting, Tartu Art Museum, 2015

Bibliography (major Polish publications):

Bojarska Katarzyna, Camp-Museum, Affective Space of Transmission of a Traumatic Experience, [at:] Camp-Museum. Trauma in Contemporary Exhibitions, Universitas Publishing for Stutthof Museum, Krakow, 2013, pp. 139-150.
Jakubowicz Rafał, Ecstasy of Memory, Conversation with Artur Żmijewski, “Pro Memoria. Journal of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum”, Oświęcim, 2009, no. 2., pp. 190-194.
Leociak Jacek, Can art save us? On representations of Holocaust, critical art and contemporary humanities. Conversation with Ewa Domańska and Piotr Piotrowski [at:] “Holocaust. Studies and Materials. Journal of the Polish Center for Holocaust Research, Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw, 2012, pp. 505-524.
Potel Jean-Yves, End of Innocence. Poland and its Jewish Past, Znak Publishing, Krakow, 2010.
Poland-Israel-Germany. The Experience of Auschwitz Today, ed. Delfina Jałowik, The Krakow Museum of Contemporary Art, Krakow, 2015.
Side by Side. Poland – Germany. 1000 Years in Art and History, ed. Małgorzata Omilanowska, The Royal Castle in Warsaw Publishing , Warsaw, 2011.
Art as Conversation about the Past, Batory Foundation Publishing, Warsaw, 2009
Polish Art and the Holocaust, The Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historic Institute, Warsaw, 2013
Traces of Holocaust in the Imagery of Polish Culture, ed. Justyna Kowalska-Leder, Paweł Dobrosielski, Iwona Kurz, Małgorzata Szpakowska, Institute of Polish Culture, Faculty of Polish Studies, University of Warsaw Publishing, Krytyka Polityczna Publishing, Warsaw 2017

Artist’s bio:

Artur Żmijewski (b. 1966) graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw Sculpture Department in 1995, where he studied at professor Grzegorz Kowalski’ studio. He creates installations, objects and photography, yet first of all he produces video work and films. Żmijewski also works as art curator and critic, since 2006 he holds the position of the artistic editor of the “Krytyka Polityczna” journal.
He was awarded scholarship at the Gerrit Ritveld Akademie in Amsterdam in 1995, in 2000 received the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo Per L'Arte Prize. In 2005 he represented Poland at the 51 Biennale of Art in Venice with his film “Repetition”.
The film “Them” premiered as part of Documenta 12 international exhibition in Kassel in 2007. In 2007- 2008 he was on the DAAD Artists in Residence scholarship in Berlin during which the first series of films titled “Democracies” were made. In 2010, Żmijewski received the prestigious Ordway Prize awarded by New Museum in New York and Creative Link for the Arts. Artur Żmijewski was the curator of the 7th Berlin Biennale (2012).
The latest work of Artur Żmijewski, “Realism and Views”, was shown this year at Documenta 14 in Athens and Kassel. It has been been recognized by the New York Times as “the most important as well as the most disturbing” work at this prestigious exhibition. The Guardian summed up Żmijewski’s work back in 2010 as one that „exposes the nasty, fundamental problems that haunt mankind”.

Żmijewski's films are in collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Neue Pinakothek in Munich, Tate Modern in London, Rubell Family Foundation in Miami, Zachęta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw, Erste Bank Collection in Vienna, Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris.  

Artist's commentary from the Berlin Biennale catalogue:

Venue: KW Main Building

The film Berek (Game of Tag) was made in 1999. In it a group of people play a kid’s game. They are naked, they run around, they laugh a lot. But they are also very serious. They know where they are—in the gas chamber of a former Nazi extermination camp.

Berek is about a part of history that is treated as »untouchable« and about overly painful memories, when the official commemorations of this history are not enough. The murdered people are victims—but we, the living, are also victims. And as such we need a kind of treatment or therapy, so we can create a symbolic alternative; instead of dead bodies we can see laughter and life. Berek is about how we can engage with this brutal history and work with imposed memory. It’s possible to have active access to history, and to attempt to emancipate ourselves from the trauma.

I was accused by the director of Martin-Gropius-Bau, Gereon Sievernich, of not respecting the dignity of the victims of the Holocaust, and he removed Berek from the exhibition Side by Side. Poland – Germany. A 1000 Years of Art and History, curated by Anda Rottenberg (September 23, 2011–January 9, 2012). Sievernich seems not to be conscious of the fact that acts of censorship always hurt the dignity of the living. He pretends to know what the truth is and imposes his own version of things, instead of allowing for debate.
Anthropologist Joanna Tokarska-Bakir recently sent me a comment on the controversy:
It’s interesting how the whole issue with Berek explodes now. The video is old. I would emphasize the fact that it is a way of breaking with the kitsch of the Holocaust—which is presented as the guardian of memory, while at the same time that very memory is destroyed, ensuring that the Holocaust would remain a Jewish-only issue. Your video is a way of dealing with the violent appropriation of the Holocaust—through a shock re-coding of that which has become congealed in the solemn interpretations controlled by the »high priests.«
I would also say that—and I feel it more than ever—all of us, who feel there is still a lot left to say, find it more and more difficult to reach the audience, as nobody wants to hear about the Shoah anymore. Phenomena as excessive as the Holocaust and its representations can never take their proper place—there is always too little or too much of them. (…)
The common opinion in Poland is that there is too much of them. It seems that this man [Hermann Simon, director of the New Synagogue Berlin – Centrum Judaicum Foundation, who sent a letter to Sievernich expressing his condemnation of the video], also thinks that way—he does not understand the language of art, but he is important enough for Germans to listen to him (the German complexes). Someone should explain to him, with all due respect, that he is mistaken. As a victim, he does not hold exclusive rights to the public debate. (…) In Berek you found a pseudonym for something that no one wants to hear about anymore. You tricked the Polish guardians of memory. You placed two things—nakedness and a children’s game [Berek]—in the context of memory: namely in the same situation in which Jews were murdered. And that’s a lot.
That is why we are showing Berek in the 7th Berlin Biennale—to react against this impulse to censor, self-censor, and close off discussion.

Artur Żmijewski is an artist and a member of Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique), who lives in Berlin and Warsaw.