Katarzyna Kozyra: sculptor, installation and video artist in Poland’s ‘critical art’ movement

PAP / Wojciech Pacewicz

Controversial and shocking , Polish artist Katarzyna Kozyra has never shied away from breaking taboos.

In her work as sculptor and installation and video artist, the 55 year-old from Warsaw, has dealt with some of life’s most difficult questions – with death, disease and ageing just some of the recurring themes in her work.

It started early for Kozyra. At her ‘coming out’ exhibition at Warsaw’s Academy of Fine Arts she presented a structure made of four taxidermied animals – a horse, a dog, a cat and a cockerel – as an homage to the  Brothers Grimm fairy tale ‘The Town Musicans of Bremen’ about four mistreated animals. To accompany the piece she, pointedly, screened a graphic video of her killing the horse.

Animal Pyramid (1993) caused outrage, comfortably setting Kozyra up to be one of Poland’s most controversial young artists. For her, the reaction only showed the hypocrisy of a world where killing animals was widely accepted without anyone having to be confronted with the reality of the process.

Similarly, when in 1992 Kozyra was diagnosed with cancer (Hodgkin’s disease) she chose to confront her illness and the effects on her body through her art, most notably in the 1996 photographic triptych and video piece, Olympia .

Functioning on a number of levels, the piece contradicted art history’s traditional portrayal of the female form – as beauty set up simply for the male gaze. Kozyra, with her weak body and total hair loss, deliberately fixed the viewer with her own gaze. Uncomfortable to observe, the overall effect was to force one to confront the reality of life, death, the deterioration of the human, as well as society’s prejudices.

The original Olympia (1863), created by the artist Manet, had had a servant girl presenting a reclining courtesan with flowers – the nude figure oblivious to the frivolous act as she gazed directly at the viewer. In one of Kozyra’s photographs, the ‘servant’ role came to be played by the nurse administering her drugs – possibly those crucial to her survival. Here, ‘the servant’ took on a key role, anonymous and instrumental, reinforcing an uneasy acceptance and awareness of herself and her body at the time.

Manet’s Olympia caused controversy when it was first exhibited in the Paris Salon in 1865, with the viewing public shocked by the intense gaze of the nude model and the elements within the painting which identified her as a prostitute. Kozyra’s 1996 Olympia, was also deemed  controversial, but for other reasons: the gaze remains, as does the public’s lack of comfort with her chosen subject matter.

In 2014, Kozyra was the recipient of The Polish Film Institute and the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw Film Award, one of Poland’s most prestigious arts awards. She also overcame her illness but continues to document her art practice as a key process in coming to terms with and fighting her disease. The film which won the film award, Project X, dealt with women going through similar health issues. It can be viewed as a therapeutic and crucially important act for people battling the same nightmare.