If the demise of civilization is imminent, then Zuzanna Czebatul sets the scene for what will most likely be a spectacular and annihilating event.
It might be useful to think of civilization as a kind of Hydra deprived of heroes to devour, forced to cannibalize itself knowing that somehow, it’ll grow back enough heads to eat and survive. The metaphor is meant to represent humanity’s sustained and grotesque inclination to self-mutilate – a perverse innovation that rests on exploiting nature’s charity to repeat the cycle in perpetuity. A closer look at today’s state of affairs, however, might suggest that our penchant for self-mutilation has fallen into the realm of self-immolation: that is, where nature has, quite literally, dried up its favors and begun the process of disintegration. Our Hydra heads have stopped regenerating, and the hero most likely to appear and witness our weakened state is neither a meal nor hero at all – but an idealogue who would deliver to us the finishing blow. Artist Zuzanna Czebatul conceives the end of our modernity as something fashioned by the greed and ignorance of the ruling class. For her, the gesture of contemporary art is both a signal and unveiling of various kinds of systemic failure. She offers a simple prophecy: we are all shareholders in an impending disaster.
Your work amalgamates different architectural aesthetics – fallen marble columns made of plastic, graffitied ›concrete‹ blocks made of foam, wool and polyester, and even an 1,800 square meter carpet which could be a 21st century Jacquard tapestry. What draws you to the ancient?
Through inverting, twisting and deconstructing the characteristics of both materials and cultural symbols, I hope to lay bare some of their hidden meanings. In a time of alternative facts and a widespread tendency to evaluate things in black and white, it seems unavoidable that we have to refresh the way we look at – and question – Western culture and its power relations. This is currently happening with problematic monuments and the names of certain institutions.
I remember John Berger writing that »a State can be judged by the future its sculpture sets out to promise it«. If your practice is about looking backwards to reorient the future, what promises are you hoping to project into the world? How might your works gesture towards this?
The inflatable columns you mentioned – from my exhibition T-Kollaps at GGM1 Gdańska Galeria Miejska – are a good example. I was interested in how the ruins of the Acropolis symbolize Greek culture and architectural perfection while also telling of the classical world’s decline. My installation used transparent polyethylene to transfer this symbology into the present. Transparent polyethylene is often used to package consumer goods, and I thought that turning a symbol of democracy into a pile of cheap, deflating plastic would provide a grim but truthful commentary on the state of our world. My home country, Poland, for instance, is in a politically dire situation.
You trace this kind of ›democratic decay‹ or ›fall of empire‹ in your exhibition The Singing Dunes at the CAC Synagogue de Delme — particularly in your series »Their New Power«. Are you suggesting a relationship between the failure of classical empires and the rot of democracy we’re witnessing in real time?
Being born into a major political shift myself – the fall of the Iron Curtain – my relationship with fraught political systems was shaken early on and fueled my interest in social transitions. The twentieth century alone is so dense with political upheaval: we know great empires that disintegrated and nation-states which emerged, flourished briefly, then vanished. World Wars I and II transformed the international polity and new ideologies swept the world and shook established groups from power. With few exceptions, almost all countries experienced at least one revolution. The question is whether the current shifts can be called a ›fall‹ yet. »Their New Power« contemplates those steps between an empire’s rise and fall. Our immediate future is perhaps determined by a collective need to move to the edge of democracy in order to save it.
I think our failure is not so much inevitable but already present. When Joëlle Gergis writes on the climate crisis that »we have released intergenerational warming that will be with us for millennia«, I wonder if our reaching of the limits of democracy (in the form of populism) will or has already caused, a similar kind of catastrophe.
Since the climate crisis is systemic, it’s inevitable that we have to change our economic system. With COVID-19, we’ve seen how quickly we can adjust and change our habits. The question is whether it will always require a deadly virus or bushfires – like in Australia – in order for humanity to evolve collectively. I have doubts we’ll make it in time, but I want to remain an optimistic pessimist. Of course, cultural landscapes – especially the art market – have to alter and find new ways to operate. Ideally, this begins with a renewal of its values through centring new definitions of freedom, democracy and togetherness.
Is the art market ready for this change? And what might ›freedom, democracy and togetherness‹ look like in the industry?
Given the pandemic, radical changes in the art world aren’t of utmost concern. In any case, the art market’s self-reflections – be its purported awareness of white male dominance or its role in the post-capitalist state of the world – are often performative and hollow gestures designed to be media effective. The art system, bloated by capital, has become delirious and disenchanted. I expect that in the near future the rift between »institutionally relevant art« and »art as a commodity« will widen, and ephemeral, digital and collaborative art practices will flourish. I’m curious to see where the former will go in terms of formulating effective solutions for community building and interdependence and how we think against the grain.
Are you working on any projects that deal with this kind of community building?
Together with writer Kate Brown, artist Leon Eisermann and graphic designer Alexander Egger, I’m working on a new platform which generates funds for good causes. The Artist Charity Aid Network (A.C.A.N), is a digital platform that connects artists with buyers by way of a donation from each side. Artists donate a piece to the network and interested buyers of this artwork donate to a charity of the artist’s choice. Afterwards, providing a proof of donation secures the work’s acquisition. Works by Lena Henke, Elif Erkan, Przemek Pyszczek, Real Madrid and many more can be bought below market price. This way we can convert our work into a currency that allows buyers to purchase art they wouldn’t be able to afford at a commercial gallery, for instance. And not only do people have the opportunity to buy a unique work or edition, but they’re also supporting organizations which are tackling important social issues. I feel this kind of undertaking is an experimental way to share and redistribute resources and directly connect contemporary art with political, ecological and social activism.
How might you urge other artists to integrate some form of activism into their practice?
Through participating in or formulating concepts, shows and political projects myself. It’s more effective to bond with those who already look in the same direction rather than trying to convert those who don’t. I’m especially hopeful when working with art students, who sometimes astonish me with their nuanced understandings of gender, race and class. The next generation of artists have a critical awareness of the socio-political misconceptions my generation had to so painstakingly unlearn. It’s very soothing and motivating. I’m excited to continue my work with these students too, as I’ve been appointed an academic tutor at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Brno in 2021.
If your work is about the end of civilization, maybe education is the way to slow it down or even stop it from happening.
Yes – whether we succeed or fail depends on the choices we make to educate society. The writer and scientist Jared Diamond responds with two premises: we need to develop long-term thinking, which is to make bold and courageous decisions before things reach crisis point, and find the willingness to reconsider and shift our values. Looking at the history of humanity, however, it does seem an end is unavoidable. But history also proves that something new rises after. Maybe we’ll vanish abruptly like the Maya or gradually like the Roman Empire. In any case, I hope the last days will look Mad Max-like.