For all the talk of how shocking Polish artist Katarzyna Kozyra’s artwork is – her show at the Museum voor Moderne Kunst Arnhem is called Transgression after all – it isn’t the ostensibly scandalous elements in her work that cross lines. Blood, violence, disability, slaughter, cross-dressing, and all manner of genitalia abound, but the sophisticated art viewer is likely unperturbed by the presence of these offenses. Kozyra’s true crime is her undermining of human autonomy, the way she complicates identity and subjectivity, moving from one role to the next particularly by way of costume and performance.
Given the exhibition’s title and the reported outrage and censorship Kozyra’s work has elicited in her native Poland, one expects something gritty, guerilla. And indeed, her notorious secret filming of men in a Budapest bathhouse (Men’s Bathhouse, 1999) is a guerilla act. But the nudity and non-consensual filming don’t surprise quite as much as the personal makeover Kozyra underwent to get the footage. The video of the artist applying a unibrow, mustache, wiry chest hair, and prosthetic genitalia is more provocative than the four-channel video installation depicting unassuming bathers. Looks matter, and Kozyra’s intimate access came at the expense of radical surface transformation.
Katarzyna Kozyra, Boys, 2001-2002, Videostill, Collection artist; Courtesy of the Artist and Museum Voor Moderne Kunst Arnhem (MMKA)
In her preoccupation with physical exteriors, Kozyra is more Cindy Sherman than YBA Sensation. Elements of disguise, both convincing and metaphorical, are at the heart of the Arnhem exhibition. Individuals transform themselves and are transformed by the artist through masks, wigs, clothing, scripts, and actions. With the exception of her Bathhouse makeover, none are convincing disguises and there is often something sinister in the costuming. Exaggerated papier-mâché masks, drag queen makeup, and furry dog costumes with mustachioed faces resembling Nietzsche and Rilke conceal and transform at the same time as they question whether such transformation is even possible. Costumes don’t necessarily change people. In the photo and film series Boys (2001-2002), for example, young men sport vaginal looking thongs. Short of their gender-bending wardrobe, they received no artistic direction and in the resulting photographs they waver between looking bored and amused. Any subversion is merely superficial; they just seem like boys.
Katarzyna Kozyra, Punishment & Crime, 2002, videostill; Courtesy of the Artist and Museum Voor Moderne Kunst Arnhem (MMKA)
The oversized video installation Punishment and Crime (2002) features vintage weapon enthusiasts building targets and firing artillery. The threat of real danger is intense, but the pin-up girl papier-mâché masks the participants wear unsettle the most. Some have suggested the female masks temper the violence, but I found they made the tableau more menacing, raising the stakes as if the participants had need to hide their identities. They recall the iconic Susan Meiselas photograph of a Sandinista concealed in a traditional Nicaraguan mask. As Kozyra in the men’s bathhouse could tell you, a hidden identity can allow you to get away with something unsavory.
The most recent work Casting (2010-2011) is a feature length video that collages members of the public auditioning to play Katarzyna Kozyra in a forthcoming autobiographical film. Asked to embody the artist, candidates appear as themselves – men, women, and children. Though it seems innocuous, the project touches upon the same trespasses found throughout her oeuvre. “I always wanted to enter worlds that are closed to me,” say the actors playing the artist. While Kozyra often plays at being someone else, here she watches herself reflected through the performance of others.
A transgression relies on judgment moored in subjective ethic. A line must be drawn, a circumstance described as normal. Kozyra points this out. She reveals roles by playing them, entering worlds that are closed to her and exposing collective desires; she names the conditions of being we have normalized in order to break them down. And that can be as transgressive as anything bloody, sexual, naked, or violent.
[Image on top: Katarzyna Kozyra, Punishment & Crime, 2002, videostill 2; Courtesy of the Artist and Museum Voor Moderne Kunst Arnhem (MMKA)]