“Yeah, you spent your entire childhood there [in Warsaw], right?” reads the subtitle on a video playing the disembodied voice of Jean Marie Drot, interviewing Alina Szapocznikow in her studio. Szapocznikow answers, “Not entirely, but oh well.”
Alina Szapocznikow was born to a Jewish family in Poland in 1926 and spent part of her childhood in the Pabiaice and Lodz ghettos. During WWII, she was sent to Auschwitz briefly, while in transit to Bergen-Belsen, and, according to her Wikipedia entry, was also sent to the Czech concentration camp/ghetto Theresienstadt. The video (whose English title is Travel Diary in Poland: Freedom of Fine Arts in Poland Where Zhdanov Is not Polish) is included in Szapocznikow’s current exhibition, To Exalt the Ephemeral: Alina Szapocznikow, 1962-1972, at Hauser & Wirth. Later in the video, Drot presses her, asking: “Alina, you never told me about your adolescence, your youth … what happened?” Szapocznikow says, “Of course I told you. Only it is too indecent to talk about,” before continuing, “the camps … I don’t talk about that in public …. You know, I am ashamed that I belong to the same human race as the Germans ….” When Drot asks her to repeat this, she rephrases: “I am often ashamed that I belong to the same race of people who invented the camps and all of what I am thinking about” (emphasis added).
In her work, Szapocznikow readily welcomed the influences of Surrealism and Pop Art, along with many other twentieth century innovations. Yet part of Szapocznikow’s extraordinary accomplishment as an artist was her ability to represent the unspeakable experiences of her childhood. When the war was over, the rest of the world became familiar, through photographs, with what Szapocznikow knew intimately from her own experiences: desiccated, emaciated corpses stacked in piles, their skin like rubber, their bodies collapsed into the void created by starvation; dismembered bodies; bodies whose insides and outsides could no longer be distinguished; not to mention her exposure to the suffering of those bodies while they were still inhabited.
The first room in the exhibition features three bodily fragments made of plaster. The earliest is “Noga” (“Leg”) (1962), a cast of the artist’s own leg. In “Sans titre” (“Untitled”) (1964-65), disembodied lips and chin are perched on a short plaster leg, while “Ventre” (“Belly”) (1968) is a full-body cast from below the breasts to above the groin. “Noga” marked Szapocznikow’s earliest use of her own body, which served her exploration of the fragility of embodiment and obsession with bodily integrity (what belongs inside and what belongs outside). At the same time, it represents the relationship between the body as female and as a second class citizen, with all the negative consequences this entails. So inextricably connected to her own embodiment is her work that a series of black and white photographs of used chewing gum as sculpture are literally works spat out of her mouth.
By the mid-1960s, Szapocznikow was experimenting with plastic and polyester resin. She produced numerous full-body sculptures that were illuminated from within, along with a series of lamps whose light emanated from a partial face and lips. These riotously funny and beautiful lamps seem to anticipate the lamps, ash trays, and other kitsch objects featuring paintings or sculptures of female body parts that can be found in novelty shops. They also bring to mind the gruesome Nazi practice of making lampshades from human skin.
In the 1970s the artist worked on a series of sculptures titled The Souvenir Series, which she made by coating photographs with polyester resin. These works included representations of popular icons like Twiggy, as well as artists known to Szapocznikow personally, such as Christian Boltanski. One striking example, “Souvenir I” (1971), is made from a family snapshot of the artist as a child, simultaneously standing on her father’s shoulders and collaged onto the body of a corpse in concentration camp pajamas. (Her father died of tuberculosis in 1938, before the war began.) The image recalls, with deep irony, the expression “dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants,” which is meant to describe the debt of wisdom we owe to those who came before us and whose knowledge we stand upon to see even further.
In works that combine car parts with figurative sculpture, Szapocznikow engaged in dialogues, already in progress in cybernetics, about the relationship between man and machine, especially as it pertained to the body. Cars are commonly described as having a body and body parts, and this integration of the body and the machine underlines the importance of the physical to the artist, raising questions about the post-human that resonate today.
After Szapocznikow was diagnosed with cancer in 1969, a number of her sculptures took on the appearance of flayed skin. These pieces suggest not that the outside has been separated from the inside, but rather that the inside has disappeared. It is hardly surprising that her own mortality would conjure up images from childhood of the empty, dried up bodies that littered Eastern Europe and turned Poland, in particular, into a giant Jewish graveyard. In
“Glowa Piotra” (“Head of Piotr”) (1972), “Herbier” (“Téte de Piotr”) (1972), and “Herbier blue I” (1972), what looks like an exterior skin, made of polyester resin, represents the empty casing for a body that no longer has an embodied presence. “Cendrier de Célibataire” returns us to the partial face, this time made of colored polyester resin and depicting the head from just below the nose to the neck. The work’s title in English is “The Bachelor’s Ashtray I,” but the cigarette butts that crown the missing part of the face look for all the world more like a swarm of maggots.
It feels impossible to talk about Szapocznikow without discussing the Holocaust because its legacy is so visible in her preoccupation with embodiment. The exhibition brochure considers desire, fear, eroticism, as well as abjection, the disintegration of barriers and even the evocation of death. Yet it does not focus on the Holocaust, though it includes this quote from the artist, dating shortly before her death: “Despite everything, I persist in trying to fix in resin the traces of our body: I am convinced that of all the manifestations of the ephemeral, the human body is the most vulnerable, the only source of all joy, all suffering, and all truth.” Art criticism often holds the position that talking about an external referent — or historical experience — somehow diminishes the significance of the work of art and that Szapocznikow’s oeuvre should be viewed within the canon of art historical developments, in dialogue with other artworks. To the contrary, her ability to represent what many after the war felt was un-representable, was her most remarkable achievement.
To Exalt the Ephemeral: Alina Szapocznikow, 1962-1972 continues at Hauser & Wirth (32 East 69th Street, Manhattan) through December 21.
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Of all the Nazi attrocities to focus on, the lampshade story is probably the hardest one to prove. But it is true that at Buchenwald tattooed human skin was collected by the couple who ran the camp. So maybe next time, just do a little more research? You were this close to getting it right.
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