The controversial forty-six-year-old Polish pop artist Zbigniew Libera alters and mimics commercial products ranging from toys to exercise equipment in ways that raise caustic questions about social norms and conditioning and historical memory. The U-M exhibits of his work at the Slusser and Work galleries include scenes of brutality presented as Lego boxed sets, as well as altered photographs, mock gym equipment, several minifigurines, and altered children's dolls.
Libera's series The Doll You Love to Undress offers a set of boxed children's pink plastic female dolls, whose eyes stare out above flayed-open abdomens showing protruding internal organs. Another doll, You Can Shave the Baby, shows a chubby baby doll with incongruous shaggy pubic and armpit hair. A third doll series, Ken's Aunt, shows matronly women in white body shapers, with slightly saggy breasts.
Also doll-like is Libera's Eroica, a set of four boxes containing a total of twenty-five naked female figures the size of toy soldiers. Each box shows, on one side, four scenes of naked women running with arms raised in a glaring spotlight, suggesting a desperate flight from confinement. In an artist's statement, Libera says, "No toy soldier set is complete without the inclusion of women, who have become the special targets of victimization in genocidal settings."
Among Libera's photographs is a response to the well-known Vietnam-era photo showing a running girl who had been napalmed. Libera's version restages the photo, replacing the crying girl with a laughing one, amid other smiling runners. Part of his Positives series of grim photos restaged as happy ones, the work is in part Libera's acidic comment on what he sees as a societal unwillingness to confront unpleasant realities.
Libera's concentration camp work consists of seven Lego kits. Each kit includes the pieces necessary to build one section of the camp. Libera assembled each kit from existing Lego sets, taking, for example, the prison guards from sets including policemen and the skeleton figures depicting camp victims from a pirate set. The resulting tableaux shown on the boxes' cover photos include martial uniformed Lego men dragging white skeletons from homes, beating them, administering electroshock, and committing other violent acts.
The disjunct between the brutality of the camp and the banality of Lego is disturbing. The work has incited controversy about whether the depiction of an aspect of the Holocaust with toys is trivializing. The prestigious Venice Biennale contemporary art exhibit invited Libera in 1997 — but told him to keep this work at home. Libera refused to go. Others say that such depictions, rendered in the modern idiom of Lego, sustain awareness and discussion of the Holocaust. The work raises questions about the commercialization of violence, the role of memorials, and the sanitization of history. The Jewish Museum in New York showed the camp set in its 2002 exhibition Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery / Recent Art.
Libera's works are on display at the Slusser and Work galleries January 13 through February 17.
[Review published January 2006]