From the DS Archives: Venice Biennale, Krzysztof Wodiczko

This past week, the United States government sued Arizona to block strict new immigration laws that will criminalize illegal transnational immigration in that state.  In light of this, we chose to pull Krzysztof Wodiczko’s Guests From the DS Archives to be reconsidered in the context of our country’s continuing debate over immigration reform.  Guests takes on new meaning when repositioned close to home.

Krzysztof Wodiczko’s Guests represents Poland at this year’s 53rd Venice Biennale. Wodiczko’s video projection installation is at once an aesthetic and a political work. While much contemporary art addresses social and political issues, it is an exceptional achievement for an artist to convey such commentary through powerful aesthetic means as Wodiczko manages to do in this work.

Guests is realized by the projection of large-scale windows physically surrounding the viewer on the walls and ceiling of the darkened Polish Pavilion.  The windows create an invisible but obvious barrier that cannot be crossed by the shadowy, silhouetted figures behind them.  It is clear that these figures are immigrants and refugees through the installation’s accompanying sound element featuring voices discussing their struggle for work visas, opportunity, and national identity.  These stories are pulled from Wodiczko’s own research into the experiences of immigrants from around the world residing in Poland and Italy. Throughout the length of the looping installation (approximately 17 minutes) various vignettes of people come in and out of focus as they are alternately burdened with luggage, washing windows, blowing leaves, sweeping, and selling umbrellas.  In a few poignant instances the shadowy figures look inside, touching the window panes, underscoring their exclusion.

Wodiczko brings the highly relevant predicament of restrictive immigrant policies into the gallery space to educate and to confront the typically elite Biennale audience.  Wodiczko’s Guests certainly presents an idealized account of the immigrant figure, but in doing so creates an effective argument that perceived ‘outsiders’ and ‘others’ are vital members of society.  Wodiczko’s own intent can be summarized by the quote he includes at the pavilion’s entrance: “Refugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples.” (Hannah Arendt, 1943)

Krzysztof Wodiczko earned his MFA from the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw in 1968.  As a prominent contemporary artist, Wodiczko has been awarded many prizes including the Hiroshima Art Prize (1998) and the Katarzyna Kobro Prize (2006).  He is also a prolific writer and theorist.  Wodiczko is currently Director of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT and professor at the Warsaw School of Social Sciences and Humanities.  He lives and works in New York, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Warsaw.

Kryzstzof Wodiczko’s Guests was curated by Bozena Czubak.  It was commissioned by Agnieszka Morawinska and the Zacheta National Gallery of Art along with other supporting institutions for the Venice Biennale.  Guests remains at the Polish Pavilion through 22 November 2009.