Pawel Althamer, a world-renowned sculptor, performer, action artist, and creator of installations and videos, whose work has helped redefine the concept of social sculpture, is currently working on a project inspired by the situation of the Belarusian opposition.
It all started with an idea for a mural depicting Andrzej Poczobut, a journalist who has been in a Belarusian prison since 2021. Over time, thanks to the project’s curator, Michal Mioduszewski of the Wolski Cultural Center, the concept of the mural evolved into a sculpture. He invited Pawel Althamer to join the project, for whom participation in this endeavour became extremely important, especially since 2012 the artist, as part of the “Common Cause” project, walked together with Belarusian artists and Polish participants of the action several kilometres through Minsk in golden overalls to greet the rising sun. Despite the fears, despite the threat of arrests that occur even with gatherings of several people on the streets of Minsk.
It was no coincidence that Mioduszewski’s collaboration with the artist on this project developed. The curator of the project is an active participant in Althamer’s already long-standing project “Wspólna sprawa” (English: Common Cause), he was, among other things, one of the passengers of the golden airplane, with which the residents of Warsaw’s Bródno district reached Brussels on June 4, 2009, dressed in golden overalls to form a sculpture-parade to celebrate the 20th anniversary of regaining freedom in Central Europe.
Faces of oppositionists
Pawel Althamer decided to make a sculpture depicting a group of figures whose faces would have the features of oppositionists persecuted by the Lukashenko regime. The artist invited theatre director Grzegorz Jarzyna and stage designer Anna Axer-Fijałkowska as well as actors from TR Warsaw theatre to collaborate. Althamer wanted to work with the artists to rework together the poses, costumes, expressions, and interactions of the group of characters. Working on the sculpture resembled a theatre rehearsal, except that the idea was to keep the actors in motion. Once each pose was approved, the figures were scanned in 3D. This material was the starting point for making casts, the elements of which the artist is refining. A sculptural sketch, or bozzetto, was also created, which Althamer presented at his cross-sectional exhibition in Regensburg on July 4 this year, where he received the prestigious Lovis Corinth Prize, awarded by the Kunstforum Ostdeutsche Galerie.
“I decided to work on the monument because in the case of projects of a social nature I am usually accompanied by a simple thought: why not?” Pawel Althamer says. “Of course, the motive of social and personal responsibility also worked. If an artist from Belarus, who, like me, values freedom, which led him to prison, I cannot be indifferent to such a fact. I think that if I lived there, I would have been behind bars for a few years already, probably sticking sculptures out of bread and drawing on the cell walls.”
“I decided on an unconventional approach to the subject – a sculpture that is a collective portrait of the community, but not a tormented, shackled one, but one that stubbornly goes its own way,” the artist adds.
“I was keen to avoid veering into ethos by showing men with grenades and Molotov cocktails in their hands. Using the popular American myth of superheroes, I wanted to show normal people who have the real power within them to overthrow a dictatorship. Instead of the ubiquitous cult of martyrdom, the sculpture is meant to evoke positive feelings among those walking in the park. It is meant to express hope for a better world.”
In the visuals, the golden group resembles a Mannerist sculpture from the Baroque period. Only by coming closer will it become clear that the individual life-size figures have the faces of political prisoners: Andżelika Borys, Maria Kalesnikava, Alana Gebremariam, Natalia Hersche and Andrzej Poczobut.
The artist’s response
By the time the sculpture is in Edward Szymanski Park in Warsaw’s Wola district, which is planned for spring 2023, it has become well-known in international art-loving circles. This is crucial because the dramatic fate of the Belarusian opposition has been overshadowed by the war in Ukraine.
The presentation of the bozzetto in Regensburg was accompanied by a film entitled “A kiedy słońce wzejdzie” (English: And When the Sun Rises). Bozzetto, which showed the creation of the sculpture, but above all explained the political and social context, which is not as obvious to Western European audiences as it is to residents of our country, who have long been watching the drama unfolding in Belarus up close. The film was produced by the Joho Production House, which belongs to the Keino Group, which engages not only in commercial but also pro-social activities. In it, you can see scenes showing the process of creating the sculpture, commented on by Pawel Althamer.
“This film is not a ready, finished work for me, it’s more of a prelude to a longer material dedicated to the idea of freedom,” Zuza Barc, screenwriter and director, says. “I hope it will come to fruition, as the project is just gaining media momentum. A lot more will happen before we can see the finished sculpture. Among other things, there are plans for a presentation at the headquarters of the European Commission in Brussels in November 2022.”
“The making of the film was very emotionally engaging for me, because of the subject matter,” Zuza Barc adds. “I had the opportunity to talk to people directly affected by the Lukashenko regime. Talking about freedom with people who live in an enslaved country helped me understand the importance of freedom and democracy, however imperfect. It worries me that our society has managed to become desensitized to what is happening in Belarus. I would like Pawel Althamer’s sculpture, and the film inspired by it to make us reflect again on what is happening across our eastern border.”
At the same time, another artist has joined the realization of the art installation – Mateusz Kowalczyk, a prominent representative of the younger generation, who, working with the sculptural arrangement by Althamer, Jarzyna and Fijalkowska, will prepare a VR (Virtual Reality) experience.
“By adding another layer and field of interpretation of both the sculpture and the theme of persecution suffered by the heroic Belarusian society, Kowalczyk expands the field of influence and reach of the work.” Michal Mioduszewski, the curator of the project, concludes.