Alicja Karska & Aleksandra Went, from the series Biesy, 2014-2023, photography, courtesy by Fundacja Profile

Art and ethical dilemmas. ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ exhibition at the Profile Foundation in Warsaw

We live in a time of war, conflict and armed attacks. Despite historical experience, a feature of society seems to be a pervasive amnesia towards confrontational politics, danger and violence. What is the role of art in the face of the atrocities of the past and present? The exhibition ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ at the Profile Foundation in Warsaw reflects the role of artists and the position of art in a world destabilised by armed conflicts, and encourages to discuss the actuality of art that disagrees with the established social and political order.

What is the role of art in public debate? The relations of art and armed conflict are analysed by artists whose works can be seen until September 9 at the Profile Foundation. The presented photographs, installations, paintings and films address the issue of mechanisms generating violence and threats. The artists ask the world what can be done to prevent further conflicts, what motifs and symbols established in the history of art should be redefined or created anew and how to counter wars and attacks through culture.

Jarosław Kozłowski, African Standards. Postcolonial Version, 2011, installation, courtesy by Fundacja Profile
Jarosław Kozłowski, African Standards. Postcolonial Version, 2011, installation, courtesy by Fundacja Profile

Is This Real? 

The year 2003 was a time of escalation of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and at the same time a moment of virtualisation of the news media: television and the internet. This compilation of world events led to the redefinition of public news reporting. Then we speak of the so-called virtualisation of war. The conflicts of the aforementioned countries were presented as a spectacle watched around the world like a thriller or an action movie.

Many artists and art historians have spoken about the issue of falsified reality through the lens of a camera or camcorder. The concept of virtualization of war is also analysed by Ryszard Waśko, whose three works from the 2003 series ‘War Games’ were presented at the ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ exhibition. The paintings and their positive photographs depict uniformed American soldiers, aeroplanes and tanks. Paradoxically, the positives which were created on the basis of the negatives, appear to be the original.

Ryszard Waśko, War Games I, 2003, oil on canvas and photograph, courtesy by Fundacja Profile
Ryszard Waśko, War Games I, 2003, oil on canvas and photograph, courtesy by Fundacja Profile

Waśko’s works revisit the problem of media reality shaping imagination and daily life. As part of his ‘War Games’ series, he refers to the experience of watching television news. He tries to achieve a kind of oppositional irony against corporate ideology, which characterises the contemporary acceleration of information circulation, produced for the positive image of developed capitalism. Truth is blurred by lies and it is we the viewers who must decide which image to believe. In Poland, the subject of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan functioned for years as taboo. Waśko reminds us that conflicts and armed attacks are constantly going on around us, all over the world. It is naive and short-sighted to believe that the civil wars of other countries do not concern us.

The theme of falsified reality in art is also discernible in Natalia Brandt’s works from the series ‘Blinding,’ on which the artist worked between 2013-2016. The series of works includes 12 sets, each consisting of a painting and a postcard. The artist addresses the issue of memory, how we remember and how this is influenced by visual culture. The postcards depict views of places around the world where acts of terrorism have been committed. Images of cities are presented as tourist attractions and pictures that create our perceptions of the recalled places. The artist invaded the postcards with a viewfinder, which has been associated with the camera since the 19th century. Brandt selected a particular fragment, which she later photographed and pasted on canvas. She covered the composition with painterly patterns, covering up the images of destruction, suffering and cruelty captured in the photographs. Painting here is a covering up, dropping a veil over the scenes of genocide, images of victims that we unknowingly consume with the daily news. What the artist calls ‘blinding’ is to deprive these images of the effect of reality.

The works of Waśko and Brandt are clearly correlated with Susan Sontag’s photographic considerations. The author questioned the morality of the visual arts in her publications. Photographs are everywhere, and the ‘insatiability of the photographic eye’ has profoundly changed our relationship with the world. They have the power to shock, idealise or seduce, create a sense of nostalgia, act as a monument, and can be used as evidence against us or to identify us. Like Sontag, Waśko and Brandt analyse the ways in which we use these ubiquitous images to create a sense of reality and authority in our lives.

Krzysztof Wodiczko, Triumphal Arch - World Institute for the Abolition of Wars, 2010, visualisation, courtesy by Fundacja Profile
Krzysztof Wodiczko, Triumphal Arch – World Institute for the Abolition of Wars, 2010, visualisation, courtesy by Fundacja Profile

War Memorials

War is embedded in the history of every nation. The theme of armed conflicts is a decisive element of national identity, which for years have been commemorated in the form of monuments in cities around the world. The past of war is perpetuated and glorified by culture, and death for the homeland is presented as the duty of every patriot.

The issue of war as an indispensable element of national identity and culture is addressed in the work of Krzysztof Wodiczko. Exploring the impact that architecture and monuments have on collective memory and perceptions of history, his work is deeply engaging and thoughtful. The project presented at the exhibition calls for the transformation of Paris’ Arc de Triomphe into the World Institute for the Abolition of Wars. According to Wodiczko, it would be an open structure with a system of elevators, which would enable the exact reading of the monument’s contents, which glorify armed conflicts and death in the name of the nation. The project’s premise is to dismantle the culture of war by exposing its false image, exposing the process of its creation and commemoration.

The problem of glorifying war through culture in the form of monuments, is analysed by Alicja Karska and Aleksandra Went as part of the photographic series ‘Biesy.’ For several years they have been preoccupied with the problems of architecture and public space. The artists ask questions about the content carried by abandoned architecture, and try to give it meaning again, sometimes , to restore its lost identity. The first photographs of Monuments-Airplanes in the ‘Biesy’ series were created in 2013. While working on the project, the artists discovered how many of them had been created. Monuments to aeroplanes were built in Poland back in Soviet times, like an unobtrusive, almost unnoticeable decoration of urban settlements and squares. With the outbreak of war in Ukraine, the artists returned to the project. The blurry, overscaled, foggy planes appear to be in constant motion. In the face of the current war in Ukraine, they became evil spirits again and returned to reality. Before, they were only a carrier of history, but now they have become part of it again. 

Alicja Karska & Aleksandra Went, from the series Biesy, 2014-2023, photography, courtesy by Fundacja Profile
Alicja Karska & Aleksandra Went, from the series Biesy, 2014-2023, photography, courtesy by Fundacja Profile

read also Józef Robakowski, “Exercise for Two Hands,” filmed action, 1976 (operator: Zbigniew Warpechowski)

How It Was, How It Is And How It Could Be. Józef Robakowski

Contemporary Lynx Team Jul 31, 2019

Polish culture has had little bearing on the global landscape, contributions of selected artists notwithstanding. Certain events were often propelled forward due to those artist’s own projects. Rarely do these kinds of bold artistic statements emerge amidst the socio-political turmoil of today’s Poland. In my extensive artistic career, I have had a chance to witness at least two such monumental events in the early 1980s – INFERMENTAL and Konstrukcja w Procesie (Construction in Process).

The Post Colonialism 2023

The central place of the exhibition is held by a large installation consisting of 12 African masks, ritual figures, photographs of house gates in Lusaka, a framed playing card and a video showing the permanent process of cutting a slice of bread. Jarosław Kozłowski’s work ‘African Standards – a Post-Colonial Version’ from 2011 is part of the larger project ‘Standards…’ on which the artist began working in the 1990s. The installations are a form of schema involving stereotypes attributed to a given nation and society. Kozłowski refers directly and ironically to reality in its political dimension.

The impetus for the work was a stay in Lusaka, where Kozłowski lectured to African students. What distinguishes ‘African Standards – the Post-Colonial Version’ is a bitter, ironic reflection on the socio-political situation there. The work is about the hypocrisy of white people and their arrogance, which is expressed in the imposition of Western and European cultural standards in Africa. Photographs of the homes of former colonisers in Lusaka appear as closed enclaves, which contrast strongly with the poverty faced by local residents. The masks, ritual figures, on one hand serve as home decoration, and on the other are a symbol of the appropriation of African culture. Treated solely as decoration, they lose their original ritual function. As Kozlowski himself says, the work is not a tribute, but nostalgia, a statement of the white man’s devastation of African culture. The situation in Lusaka makes it clear that post-colonialism still persists, with the white man still trying to dominate and appropriate the national identity of Africans.

Józef Robakowski, Art is Power, 1984-85, video film, 9', courtesy by Fundacja Profile
Józef Robakowski, Art is Power, 1984-85, video film, 9′, courtesy by Fundacja Profile

War as a Destructive Force

Zofia Kulik’s work ‘Self-Portrait with the Palace’ is about the destructive power of war. Her figure is framed in a vaginal-shaped mandorla, surrounded by four angels. The artist holds the tip of a banner spear in her hands and the arrangement itself alludes to the depiction of Mary Immaculate. Although she is surrounded by a mandorla, the black border around her body resembles the outline of an Egyptian sarcophagus. On one hand, she is immobilised, and on the other she is very commanding. Although the composition is very static and lacking in dynamic, the formal tension is palpable, which contrary to the static nature of the figure, carries an element of anxiety and rebellion.

The work refers to the civil war in the Balkans, which resulted in the deaths of many women. Armed conflicts are generally associated with the heroic struggle of soldiers who give their lives for their homeland. Kulik reminds us that war has many casualties. It is a destructive force that affects the entire society.

The exhibition concludes with the film ‘Art Is Power’ by Józef Robakowski, a recording of a parade in Moscow’s Red Square. The montage was constructed on the basis of alternating accelerations and decelerations of the action, accompanied by German songs performed by the band Laibach. The projection is both a demonstration and a warning against the power of imperial might. The film evokes fascist associations and at the same time serves as a warning against confrontational politics. Robakowski grew up in a home where military drill was mandatory. The war deprived him of his father and grandfather, shaping his art in an anti-war and pacifist character. Remembering the cruelty of the war and living in the irrational reality of an inept socialist system, to this day, in his creative work, he tries to comment on what disturbs him. 

The exhibition presents artists who oppose indifference to the atrocities of the present and the past. The rhetoric of the title ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ refers to situating questions about the role of art beyond time-bound categories, but not beyond ethical dilemmas. This is undoubtedly an important cultural event especially during the prevailing war in Ukraine. The presented works not only educate, but also touch our sensitivity and warn against indifference in the face of aggression and the politics of conflict. The film accompanying the exhibition, within which the artists personally talk about their art and philosophy of creation, complements and summarises the whole experience. This is not an easy exhibition, but certainly a necessary one.

About The Author


Warsaw-based art writer and art advisor with an interest in Post-War & Contemporary Art and the art market. Author of numerous texts on art and interviews with Polish and foreign artists, curators, and art critics. Graduated from Art History at Humboldt University in Berlin. Currently works at DESA Unicum Auction House in Warsaw, where she coordinates projects related to Polish contemporary art.

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