Visual Art Review: Krzysztof Wodiczko — The Art of Interrogative Design

By Mark Faverman

Both of these exhibits are examples of the artist as a 21st century shaman – a prophetic and creative force.

Interrogative Design: Selected Works by Krzysztof Wodiczko at the Druker Design Gallery, Harvard University, through February 20. In collaboration with Krzysztof Wodiczko: Portrait at the Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, until April 17.

Krzysztof Wodiczko, Martin Luther Kirchturn1987. The projection of a masked man in a protective suit alludes to contemporary risks caused by chemical pollution and radioactive waste.

When I first heard Krzysztof Wodiczko speak eloquently about his often visceral and visually provocative approach to art, I couldn’t help but see his work as an environmental extension, writ large, of the genre of Polish poster art. These highly graphic, sometimes cartoonish images found their way onto the streets and galleries of the Eastern European bloc, countries that during the Cold War were puppet regiments of the former Soviet Union.

From the 1940s to the 1980s, Polish poster design attracted international attention and admiration. They were tasked with promoting cultural events, including operas, theatre, films and visual art exhibitions. Although the artists were forced to follow state restrictions, these posters were characterized by sophisticated imagery, often reflecting clever surreal or expressionist tendencies. The use of bright colors and strong gestures provided opportunities for biting satire. These posters were not overtly ideological, but they often expressed the artists/designers’ powerful, though necessarily indirect, criticism of the political environment.

Although they could draw on images of violence and sexuality, these posters were “officially” sanctioned and distributed. Government bureaucrats (out of indifference? Old-fashioned incompetence?) turned a blind eye to the scathing comments contained in the majority of these posters. For me, the less circumstantial art of Krzysztof Wodiczko extends this tradition of dissidence.

Wodiczko was born on April 16, 1943, at the end of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (clearly, another source of his vision). He is a Polish-American artist famous for his large-scale slide projection on historically significant facades and monuments. During his career, he created more than 80 such public exhibitions around the world. The main themes of his visual art include: narratives about war, conflict, trauma, memory, human communication and personal history.

Trained as an industrial designer, Wodiczko calls his creative approach a form of “interrogative design.” He skilfully combines art and technology in a critical practice that seeks to give legitimacy to cultural and social issues often ignored in the context of design, such as the struggles of marginal communities, especially immigrants. For example, since the end of the 1980s, the implementation of its projections calls for the concrete participation of marginalized and/or remote people. At the same time, he also designed and created a series of “nomadic instruments”, vehicles used by homeless people, immigrants and veterans to protest their conditions.

Krzysztof Wodiczko, Illegal immigrant2006. This projection on the Kunstmuseum of Switzerland depicted the fate of illegal immigrants in Switzerland.

Wodiczko lives and works in New York City and is currently a Professor-in-Residence in the Art, Design and Public Domain Masters of Design program at Harvard Graduate School of Design. Previously, he was director of the Interrogative Design Group at MIT and the Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS). He has been a professor in the visual arts program since 1991. Over the years he has also been a visiting professor at the School of Social Psychology in Warsaw. His work has been widely exhibited internationally. He was awarded the Hiroshima Art Prize in 1998 “for his contribution as an international artist to world peace”. In 2009 Wodiczko represented Poland at the Venice Biennale and in 2017 he received a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul.

The exhibition of the Superior School of Design Interrogative Design: Selected Works by Krzysztof Wodiczko presents visitors with diverse and varied examples of the work of one of the most remarkable artists of the 21st century. On the one hand, the exhibition emphasizes Wodiczko’s ability to weave together art, design, social engagement and innovative technologies. But the exhibition also shows how he creates maps by projecting the images of marginalized individuals onto urban architecture, memorably etching new memories onto existing monuments. The background is provided at the origin of each featured project, helping viewers appreciate the thoughtful precision of Wodiczko’s creative process. It’s hard not to be moved by the human stories that drive his disruptive gestures, the deep pain that his public art conveys.

Krzysztof Wodiczko, Close-up of Bunker Hill Monument Projection, 1998. Photo: Lelong & Co. Gallery, New York

Wodiczko is best known for his large-scale slide and video projections on architectural facades and monuments which usually also have an audio component. However, GSDs Interrogative design also helpfully presents a collection of his process and object drawings, which have understandably been much less visible than his large-scale installations. These are precious aids to appreciate the demands of his artistic approach as well as to understand the attractions of his aesthetic provocations. The title of the exhibition, “Interrogative Design”, encapsulates the challenges posed by his creative process: he locates a subject or subject, researches an urban area, selects an architectural element, navigates the power structures of local government and cultivates the trust of the community.

In addition to the objects and works featured in the Druker Design Gallery, Harvard GSD’s Frances Loeb Library contains a timeline of Wodiczko’s activity, including photographs of earlier slide shows in public spaces. Particularly interesting: there is an in-depth look at the making of the Bunker Hill Voices Monument (1998), providing fascinating details about what it took to create this life-saving intervention (Charlestown).

At the Harvard Art Museums, Krzysztof Wodiczko: Portrait is a work commissioned from the artist. The purpose of this installation is to interrogate questions about the state of American democracy today. Video recordings of students and young people from Harvard University and the Boston area who were interviewed about current dilemmas are projected onto the iconic portrait in the Harvard Art Museums. george washington (circa 1795) by Gilbert Stuart. This interactive artwork stimulates a relevant exchange of opposing viewpoints in a difficult time of heightened political division. In conjunction with the Portrait commission, two drawings by Wodiczko — recently acquired by the museums — are also on display. The works are studies for the artist’s prescient series Homeless Vehicles, which was created in the late 1980s to meet the emerging needs of homeless people. It was also a response to the “trickle down” economic policies of former US President Ronald Reagan. (Deja vu again.) Remarkably, the elegant space of the HAM gallery, which hosts Krzysztof Wodiczko: Portraitsimply isn’t expansive enough to comfortably present Wodiczko’s multi-layered art.

Wodiczko’s work is nothing if not accessible. His images directly address cultural issues and issues facing contemporary society. Its power stems from the way its visuals fundamentally challenge authority; he transforms public art into a rhetorical tool meant to make people think critically about the world around them. However, beyond the aesthetics and the political context, one senses an intrinsic spirituality in Wodiczko’s art.

Krzysztof Wodiczko, homeless vehicle, 1988-1989 (5th Avenue, New York, 1988). Photo: Łódź Art Museum

According to Wodiczko, his art represents “the present time in which the past and the future dwell.” Both of these exhibits are examples of the artist as a 21st century shaman – a prophetic and creative force.

Urban planner and public artist, Marc Faverman has been deeply involved in branding, improving and creating more accessible parts of cities, sports venues and key institutions. Also an award-winning public artist, he creates functional public art as civic design. Designer of the renovated Coolidge Corner Theatre, he is a design consultant for the Massachusetts Downtown Initiative Program and, since 2002, he has been a design consultant for the Red Sox. Writing on urban planning, architecture, design and the fine arts, Mark is associate editor of artistic fuse.