This captivating exhibition, featuring many of Katarzyna Kozyra’s sometimes provocative major works, was a homecoming of sorts for the Polish artist. Besides the videos, video installations and photographs for which she is best known, the show included Pyramid of Animals, her 1993 thesis sculpture for the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, which at the time inspired a frenzy of national condemnation (mixed with occasional ardent support). Alluding to the Brothers Grimm folktale Die Bremer Stadtmusikanten (The Town Musicians of Bremen), the sculpture consists of four stacked taxidermy animals—on the bottom a horse, then a dog, cat and rooster. (This work, incidentally, preceded Maurizio Cattelan’s very similar Love Saves Life by two years.) These animals were already scheduled to be, as the idiotic term goes, “put to sleep” before they attracted Kozyra’s attention, so she didn’t exactly kill them for her art. However, she was present at their deaths, and used this project, from beginning to end, to uncomfortably investigate death at close quarters.
Accompanying the sculpture is Kozyra’s grainy video of the drugged horse’s last agonizing moments as it quivers, topples and dies, and is then summarily butchered. Issues of violence, power and consumption abound in Pyramid of Animals, yet there remains something celebratory about the jauntiness of the animals as they appear in the sculpture. It’s likely that a big reason this work proved so disturbing in meat-loving Poland is not because of the poor animals, but instead because the artist was a woman resolutely confronting suffering and death, and upending stereotypes of the feminine as life-giving, tender, nurturing and kind.
Kozyra’s works often involve exposed bodies in collective performances. For Women’s Bathhouse (1997), she ventured into a Budapest bathhouse with a hidden video camera. What you see in a looped projection and on multiple monitors are naked women of all ages and physiques as they bathe, rest and scrub themselves: fleshy, nonidealized and at times decrepit women without “feminine” adornment or social insignia. While this willfully voyeuristic work was controversial enough, Kozyra followed it up in 1999 with Men’s Bathhouse, in which, disguised as a young man with a moustache and prosthetic genitals, and covering her breasts with a towel, the artist secretly recorded men in their inner sanctum. Corpulent, frail and elderly, padding about on bare feet or slumped on benches, the men convey anything but confident, world-dominating masculinity; instead they seem vulnerable, contemplative and curiously adrift. Kozyra was castigated for spying on and violating unaware naked guys, but the angst she provoked probably had more to do with her visual dismantling of male power.
In challenging taboos, Kozyra confronts potent issues—the ravages of aging and death, or a human propensity for violence—and explores conflicts and nuances concerning gender. Still, her approach can be disarming, her humor offbeat. In her video installation Punishment and Crime (2002), male paramilitary enthusiasts wearing women’s masks cavort outdoors firing various weapons and creating havoc: an amped- up rendition of boys playing with toy guns. While the masks feminize these weekend warriors and make them appear anonymous and comical, the situation is also deeply disturbing, even nightmarish. Pretend violence by guys on a lark looks unnervingly close to the real thing.
For the increasingly theatrical and cinematic videos and performances that constitute Kozyra’s ongoing project “In Art Dreams Come True,” begun in 2003, she is instructed or molded by two experts: the “Maestro” (opera coach Grzegorz Pitulej), who trains her to be a prima donna, and the “Drag Queen” (noted Berlin transvestite Gloria Viagra), who teaches her how to be “female.” With her acquired skills, Kozyra assumes different guises and performs various roles: she’s a prancing cheerleader in a locker room full of male athletes; a diva practicing and performing onstage; a hermaphrodite opera singer whose prosthetic penis is snipped off before an audience of transfixed young men wearing nothing but towels. Transformational and liberating, these works are charged with all manner of excess, moving from high camp to performance-as-spectacle. Kozyra really pushes herself, exploring her own identity—fluid and malleable, feminine and masculine—and what she is capable of. This exhibition was titled “Casting,” and it included a room where people could try out for the role of Katarzyna Kozyra in the artist’s upcoming autobiographical movie. Both women and men were encouraged to audition.
Photos: (left) Punishment & Crime, 2002, 6-channel video installation. (right) Katarzyna Kozyra: Pyramid of Animals, 1993, taxidermied animals. Both at the Zacheta National Gallery, Warsaw.