Region: Social conscience on display at DOX exhibit
Wodiczko's prolific projections push the frontiers of public art
Posted: March 13, 2013
Krzysztof Wodiczko, who is currently a professor in residence of art, design and the public domain at Harvard University, developed his concept of interrogative design - which aims to facilitate communication between the minorities and majority of a society - through large public artworks, such as his early and outlandish Alien Staff (1993), above, and other eye-catching projects that inevitably draw the viewer into a discussion.
Polish artist Krzysztof Wodiczko's socially focused work - which he dubbed "interrogative design" in a 1994 essay - changed the face of art.
Born in 1943 during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, he studied art and industrial design in Poland before emigrating to Canada in 1977. He spent many years as the director of the Interrogative Design Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was also a professor in the Visual Arts Program. Currently, he is a professor in residence of art, design and the public domain at the Harvard Graduate School of Design as well as a visiting professor at the Warsaw School of Social Psychology.
For decades, Wodiczko developed his concept of interrogative design, whose primary function is to facilitate communication between society's minorities and majorities. His massive public artworks, for which he gained international recognition and for which he is perhaps best known, project the faces, voices and bodies of marginalized groups of society onto public buildings, confronting viewers with unavoidable images and information.
In his essay on the topic, Wodiczko explains his concept of design as one that "takes a risk, explores, articulates and responds to the questionable conditions of life in today's world, and does so in a questioning manner."
The retrospective exhibition of Wodiczko's work currently on display at Prague's DOX Gallery certainly raises questions. Some of the most curious pieces in the sizeable exhibition, his early Instruments like Alien Staff and Mouthpiece, are outlandish, eye-catching objects that can't help but invite outside contact. Videos portraying these public projects also show strangers asking, "What is that?"
Wodiczko says his work aims to have a healing effect and that it acts as an "emergency aid in the process of survival, resistance and the healing of social, psychological and physical wounds."
Another early work of his, the Homeless Vehicle Project from 1987-89, provided New York's burgeoning homeless population with contraptions Wodiczko fashioned out of shopping carts, in which they could not only carry their belongings but also sleep. The exhibition culminates with his latest project, Out/Inside(rs), created in collaboration with DOX and the Roma community from the ethnically tense Šluknov region in north Bohemia. In this project, Wodiczko makes statues talk, projecting the faces of his Roma subjects onto the busts of seven historically significant Czech personas.
As Wodiczko explains, migrants and foreigners are crucial in his work, because they possess the unique ability to critically assess their new location, as well as the place they come from. This, he says, gives them a kind of potential to be prophetic people who announce a better world while at the same time denouncing the current world.
"In a sense, those people are equipped with instruments that help them … offer unsolicited truth of their experience to anybody who comes closer," he says. "People come closer because they are curious to see somebody with a strange object. Therefore it's easier for them to establish contact with non-strangers through this kind of object."
Wodiczko's art closely focuses on marginalized groups of society like the homeless, immigrants, Roma and war veterans. His work can bear different labels - for example political art, socially engaged art or art in the tradition of a critical approach - but its basic premise involves an artist concerned with social issues who also wants to use his art to cope with them, says Jaroslav Anděl, the exhibition's curator.
Anděl explains that, in many ways, Wodiczko is a "pioneer" who is able to draw on and combine several traditions in his art at one time. His work belongs to and exists within the realm of contemporary art, but it also contains elements of design, which he redefines as an art discipline.
"In his public projects … Krzysztof Wodiczko has conducted a series of active mediations that combine significant public sites, tough subjects and aggressive statements that are only possible because of their temporality. He applies the immediate force of performance to social and political problems," writes art historian Patricia C. Phillips.
"The rhythms of extenuating events and the brevity of each installation give his projected episodes the intensity of public, political demonstrations. His thoroughly staged, illuminated images often require months of preparation, yet they seem like surprise attacks - fiercely focused parasitic invasions of renowned institutional hosts."
In his 1999 installation Hiroshima, Wodiczko projected the hands and voices of Japanese and Korean atomic bomb survivors, as well as Hiroshima youth, onto a river embankment below the city's A-Bomb Dome. In his 2001 Tijuana piece, factory women working in the maquiladora free-trade zone in the Mexican city wore media technology designed to project their faces onto the spherical El Centro Cultural while recounting tales of incest, police abuse, and workplace discrimination in real time. Wodiczko says he aimed to give monuments a narrative, animating them with the voices and gestures of a city's inhabitants.
"I use, in these projects, the visual and acoustic power of the projection gear to transmit, empower … and make visually apparent in the public space the presence of those who are little seen and heard," he says.
Wodiczko brand of socially conscious art does not seek pity for its so-called outsider subjects. Instead, it works on multiple levels. He not only brings the issues - for example, racism and discrimination of Czechs toward Roma - into public awareness, but also questions the forces behind them. He focuses on specific social situations as well as wider universal issues to get to the root of the problem. He also avoids the aims of pity or charity that lead the audience to distance themselves from the victims and view them as something 'other,' Anděl says.
In Wodiczko's own words, his works are intended to provide "ongoing motivation for critical judgment toward the present and past to secure a vision for a better future."
Kasia Pilat can be reached at