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Artur Żmijewski, Democracies

Single-channel video, 4:45 hours, sound, color

Democracies is comprised of 35 short films made between 2007 and 2012: the shortest lasts about 4 minutes, and the longest about 21 minutes. They were shot in Tel Aviv, Ramallah, Jerusalem, Bil’in, Warsaw, Berlin, Belfast, Carrara, Madrid, among others, and marked a new direction in the work of Artur Żmijewski (born 1966, Warsaw), an artist whose oeuvre is based mostly on creating staged, provocative situations. For example, he persuaded an Auschwitz survivor to have the number on his arm refreshed by a tattoo artist, and invited naked men and women to play Tag in a gas chamber in the site of an extermination camp. Here, for the first time, Żmijewski is caught up in events that he has not instigated nor set the rules for.

Apart from two cases, where he reenacted and shot scenes from the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, all the other films document “ready-made” situations: demonstration, protests, religious processions, funerals, political assemblies—in fact anything that falls under the definition of mass gatherings in public spaces. The reasons for the gatherings change within a wide range of issues including nationalism, religion, freedom and anarchy: anti-occupation protests, anti-abortion protests, the funeral of the last leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and that of an extreme right-wing Austrian leader, swarming football fans, a memorial ceremony for murdered youths.

Thousands of people will pass along on the screen, participating in the unwritten ceremonies known to anyone who has ever been to a mass gathering: marching together, waving flags and placards, shouting slogans, at times singing, dancing and playing music. They cheer, pay respect, swear, run, provoke. They will be faced by Polish, German, Israeli or British police who will do what police around the world does in such events: wear shields and blank expressions, hold batons, try to maintain order and, either willingly or not, escalate into violent confrontations. Above all these people—the thousands filmed in streets and avenues, in squares and parks, and the police along them—above them hovers the title which Żmijewski placed, in a seemingly simple gesture, upon the cluster of films: Democracies.

Seemingly, because within a few minutes of watching, a question mark begs to be added to the title: are these indeed democracies? The dozens of filmed events accumulate into one meta-demonstration, stunning and scaring, fascinating and repetitive, raising pessimism and hope simultaneously. Meanwhile, the public space, with all its different manifestations, is revealed as the protagonist of the summary of events, the arena where one can express everything in the name of democracy, including support for and opposition of the most horrifying ideas.

Courtesy the artist and Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich

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