General 11-10-2003

Featured Artist: Piotr Szyhalski

Michael Fallon has written a profile of Piotr Szyhalski in two parts and an intermission; read this for a fascinating account of a man, a body of work, an institution, and a little politics.

The stag

Part I

Writing about the arts is sometimes pretty challenging. It’s tough to deal with snippy artists, with neurotic gallery owners, with all the nut cases that seem attracted to art–and all for just pennies on the dollar. And then there are days like my recent October Monday afternoon at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts that can make even the most stalwart critic feel like hanging up the towel once and for all.

It started at the front desk of the museum, where I had to stop before my visit to the gallery where Piotr Szyhalski was setting up his current show, “P.R.S.S.,” along with his partner Richard Shelton. At the desk, the museum guard was a buzz-cut camp-commandant type–his dry, humorless (nay, let’s be honest–downright surly and nasty) manner absolutely unwelcoming and not at all in keeping with the bonhomie usually associated with art. Without joy, Herr Schadenfreude handed over a sign-in sheet and a guest pass and called someone to escort me inside. Why are these guys so glum anyway? Is this a disease particular to museum guards? Is it displaced artistic frustration or what?

Difficult questions, but no matter–I shook them off as the P.R. person greeted me and led the way up to the second floor, where Szyhalski and Shelton were caught up in the task of putting together the dark and forbidding installation that became “P.R.S.S.” The show is set up as a series of four spaces hidden behind the doors of an imposing, flat-black room built in the center of gallery. That is, four closed doors in this black barrier lead to rooms from which eerie squeals, squawks, occasional screams, and electric jolts emanate. “It’s a bunker and it’s totally locked,” Szyhalski explains as he surveys the state of construction of several of the rooms. He is dressed in a bright-orange jumpsuit and vaguely resembles the Cold-War cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. And to be honest, he is about as distant and gleeless as a Sputnik rocket booster floating in the outer stratosphere.

Artist and designer Szyhalski came from Poland, where he studied illustration, photography, and the very Polish subject of poster design at the Academy of Visual Arts in Poznan. In 1990, as a benefit of the post-Solidarity thaw, he came stateside to teach at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Since then, his work has been seen in numerous solo and group exhibitions both nationally and internationally. He came to Minneapolis to teach at the College of Art and Design (M.C.A.D.) a few years later, and shortly after that he began working in the medium he is perhaps best known for. That is, in 1995 he mounted the interactive Internet work The Spleen (, a conglomeration of baroque-style body images, social realist propagandistic images of factories and machinery, and snake-oil salesman text that links the visitor to various other web projects by Szyhalski. The colors and style of the work–brownish type on a black ground, with touches of red hyperlink, as well as the hand-calligraphed text and imagery–connote a pre-Renaissance sensibility, ironic for a post-information age communication device.

From there, Szyhalski mounted, for the Walker Art Center’s Gallery 9 Internet art program, a “user-controlled creation” called “Ding an sich (the Canon series)” ( Called “one of the most accomplished pieces of art on the Web,” by Matthew Mirapaul of the New York Times, Ding an sich” is comprised of a series of 10 “Canons”-that is, small Shockwave animations that allow you to interact with the imagery. “Canon 9 (The Message),” for example, is an image of a gaunt man in a shadowy space. A click on your mouse creates hairlines and a rifle shot sound. If you aim accurately enough, the figure falls and is dragged away, presumably dead, and a counter at the top of the small screen subtracts one number each time (from a number counting down from just less than 5.8 billion). Meanwhile, an eerie martial drumbeat soundtrack grows ever more wild the more men you shoot down. This is pretty serious stuff. According to the artist, the ten animations here represent a response to the “Ding an sich,” or “the thing itself,” a concept from Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. It is basically the idea that the reality of the thing, the essence beyond the knowledge of appearances, is unknowable even as it is certain that it exists. The idea represents a metaphor in which the artists bases his practice, and specifically addresses his thoughts about the relationships between artists, audience, and the art.

Polish intellectuals, of course, are not known for mincing their words, for being willing to dumb down any of their ideas, or for having any kind of sense of humor when it comes to issues of import to them. The culture is one primarily built around a group persecution-complex at the hands of powers greater than themselves. You spend enough time in conversation with an educated Pole, particularly if chilled shots of vodka (or in Szyhalski’s case, Jägermeister) are involved, and inevitably a deadpan recitation of the injustices of the Katyn forest (where Russians rounded up and shot thousands of young Polish officers at the dawn of World War II) and of the eighteenth-century partitions (of Poland at the hands of the German, Russian, and the Austro-Hungarian empires) are the result.

Back to the installation in progress: “There’s a clear concept that ties the rooms together,” Szyhalski says dryly and succinctly, dodging obstacles in the gallery–piles of wood, sawdust, and an orange hydraulic lift–in order to move about the work and turn his keen artist’s eye to the details. He seems almost unsure what to say to me, which maybe explains why it’s taken me several weeks to get him to get around to making time to meet me, or even to respond to phone calls and emails. “It’s about the four artworks, and about the context of the work itself. Each room ties together, and yet makes one overwhelming thing. And the whole deals with capitalism. That’s the big thing.”

By the time of the opening the doors will be labeled with neat orange placards, and a melodic Orwellian female voice sounding over an airport loudspeaker will lead visitors through the steps necessary to enter the bunker. This includes using a brand new change machine–of the sort found at any car wash or video arcade–to get the quarters for the vending machine that holds the key cards to enter the rooms. Visitors have to decide just how motivated they are to enter these spaces, all under the gaze of a gigantic black and orange mural of a stag with a large dollar sign between his horns. This maybe is the most humorless exhibition I’ve seen in ages.


Part II

Back at the pre-opening setup, Szyhalsk’s answers to my questions have an almost robotic quality about them–in the pure amount of art-speak thrown out in response to a question about the work, and in his unwillingness to give anything personal away. It’s about now that my spirits begin to sink, and I worry at how purely mirthless this assignment is turning out to be, but I tarry on. After all, it’s always a risk with artists–their bitterness is legendary; only university professors give them a run for their money. And the fact that Szyhalski is a Mitteleuropean intellectual on top of being an artist certainly doesn’t seem to be helping.

Indeed, later on, at a later interview sitting at nearby French Meadow Restaurant, where I try to get some material to rescue this profile, the reasons for this bitterness eventually comes to light. It’s a matter of–what else?–money.

We’re talking about how expensive the exhibition is to set up despite the resources of the MIA that are brought to bear on the event. According to the artists, the show has put them $14,000 in debt. (“See how stupid we are?” says Richard Shelton, Szyhalski’s collaborator). Szyhalski follows with a litany of rants–that the Institute couldn’t lift as much as a single finger to help the artists build the structure, that they had to hire their own contractors and call in numerous favors to get the thing built, how people seem to expect art to be free in our culture (thus the pointed effort to get people to see their work in this show), even how hard it is to make a living as a teacher of art.

“What does it say about a society,” Szyhalski continues, “that people teaching this important thing make less money than staff people at MCAD?” This is where he teaches during the day. Then his bitterness reaches even more angry depths.

“Teachers are like whores in this society,” he spits out, and says something about being unable to support his family of four. “You would think that teaching should be enough, but it isn’t.”

In keeping with the mood of the interviews, the art inside the bunker rooms is distressing on the whole. Two rooms in particular are filled with daunting imagery of the sort that forces you to avert your eyes (watch for warning labels if you’re sensitive to such things). The “P. . . .” room, for instance, is dominated on one wall by a projection of obscenely giant close-up of a Big-Brother-like head. The head tells god-awful Polish jokes and periodically instructs us to “Shock him, he’s Polish!” (A red button on a torture device that sits in the center of the room allows us to do just that, if we so choose). Another nearby room includes a brief video clip of a man having his throat cut by Chechen rebels. It’s a gruesome 7-second clip of film that I, for one, will never be able to wash from my mind now that I’ve seen it.

The artists actually seem to have much disdain for the institution that has granted them space to exhibit, and perhaps even for the audience. For instance, Szyhalski scoffs that the MAEP doesn’t have much money to fund the construction of gallery exhibits. “What do I care about that?” he says. He further scoffs that the institute seems to be intent on mucking up the complicated technology that makes the projections interactive computer displays work. He has to go to the MIA after our interview to fix several of the setups. “That’s the price we pay for this level of technology,” he says. “The people who are maintaining the spaces don’t know what they’re doing.”

“Don’t get into that,” says Shelton tiredly.

“I have to,” continues Szyhalski. “It’s unbelievable that we have to go in every freakin’ day to fix it. They want fancy technology, but they don’t want sound.”

There is a pause. Shelton explains: “The problem is that George is in the next room.” He means the show “George Washington: A National Treasure,” which appears in the gallery next to “P.R.S.S.” This painting and interactive video display is attracting visitors not prone to appreciating the squeaks, squeals, screams, and shocks of Szyhalski and Shelton’s work. The artists figure that museum workers have been throwing off their works by turning down the sound to accommodate the fans of George, and they claim that on one occasion someone even killed the power to the room altogether. This caused the artists endless headaches because they then had to restart and recalibrate the complicated electronics that make the rooms work.

Though the artists were disgruntled from the hassle to keep the show running, the apex of all this disgruntlement arrived with the artists-led tour of the show on October 19. Apparently during a lecture, Szyhalski threw leaflets–of the sort used by the military to spread propaganda–off a balcony of the museum into the main floor space. Though details of the sequence of events are sketchy, shortly after Szyhalski’s performance four or five museum guards interrupted the tour and closed down the gallery space.

“It was the last thing I thought would happen,” said Szyhalski. “Over the years I have always used the leaflets with all of their historical associations.” Szyhalski cites his interest in religious tracts in general, as well as the way the leaflets reference the millions of propaganda pieces the military has dropped in Iraq and Afghanistan. The leaflet Szyhalski distributed is typical of the Polish poster art tradition that Szyhalski studied as an student. Poster art has been a significant artistic tradition in Poland since at least the 1890s, when early modernist artists like Stanislaw Wyspianski made the medium popular around the country. But its heyday occurred in the politically charged era after World War II, and most particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, when artists made highly charged political statements using deceptively simple symbolic imagery that perhaps allowed the messages to elude the censors.

Szyhalski’s leaflet was simple-a graphic image of a bomb image on one side, along the words “This could have been Real Artwork!… Grow through Scattering!” More text, and the image of a leaflet scattering appeared on the other side. The message seems to be a commentary on the priorities of a society beholden to moneyed, militaristic interests rather than to the joys of art–an ironic enough statement for a rather joyless artist, and doubly ironic for having been made inside a major art museum. And, further cementing the socio-political commentary of the work, and adding a small touch of humor, it turns out these are a special sort of “auto-rotator” leaflet, designed to military standards for maximum dispersion during free-fall.

Szyhalski continues: “I never thought for a second that the museum drop would be a bad idea. It’s a gesture I make as part of the talk. It’s beautiful by itself as the leaflets tremble in the air.”

“What’s ironic,” says Shelton, “is they came and shut down our show, in a completely different space than where the leaflets were. It was almost a punitive thing.”

Szyhalski concurs with this. “It seemed like retaliation. It boggles the mind. How can they do this, and with the curator [of the MAEP] right there?”

There is a pause, as we each wrestle with own thoughts about this image-a goon squad of jack-booted museum guards kicking down doors and shouting from their pursed, Schutzstaffel lips, “We’re closing this show down.”

But at long last Szyhalski cracks a wry, Eastern European smile. “People commented on how beautiful it [the drop] was,” he said. “I think art is an important central cultural force and we should embrace that, even if it has to be nurtured outside the system.”