Piotr Szyhalski—the Polish-born and trained, American multimedia artist—has built a dynamic, richly varied body of work over the last thirty years. The Weisman Art Museum’s Piotr Szyhalski/Labor Camp: We Are Working All the Time! will be the first exhibition featuring works from across his extraordinary career to be critically considered together. Central to this project, this catalogue includes long overdue new scholarship on Szyhalski’s work and some 250 images. The six texts offer reflections and thoughts from varying perspectives, making the work not only more accessible, but also placing Szyhalski in the larger, international context of contemporary art from the 1980s to today.
Szyhalski emigrated to the United States in 1990, where he established himself as an artist and teacher concentrating in design and what at the time was broadly and vaguely called new media art. Over his career, his work has manifested as poster design, mail art, public murals, printmaking, interactive web-based digital art, sound art, and large-scale installation and performance work. Szyhalski started his training in a country under martial law, at the time of a rising tide of sweeping change known as Solidarność (Solidarity), and in the artistic milieu of the postwar generation of Polish conceptual artists, whose politics both before and after the workers’ revolution, as noted by scholar of Polish art history Luiza Nader, were marked by a persistent skepticism about totalizing views of any kind.1 Emerging out of art and design school at the climax of Solidarity’s political success, Szyhalski absorbed these influences and worked to develop his own platform that was at once direct and obscure, poetic and pragmatic, questioning and declarative. Although Szyhalski carried forward many of the themes and strategies of his Polish predecessors, he ultimately established his own voice and practice by consistently, brutally, and productively working against all the tools and strategies he employed.
Deeply concerned with the conundrums of communication, human agency, and labor—both physical and intellectual—and the recording and telling of history, Szyhalski’s work addresses specific issues using a broad array of media and working styles. He has deftly highlighted and probed the nature of truth-telling in both the visual and sonic fields. Vigilantly skeptical, Szyhalski’s art attempts to lay bare the complexities and contradictions at the heart of all propositions. Hyperaware of the potentially manipulative use of media, including artwork, Szyhalski’s consistent attentiveness and inventiveness remakes ordinary experience to illuminate not only nefarious employment of media but also to open a door to resistance and alternative action. Our digital media age is saturated with text and images. This dizzying media overload has produced a crisis of meaning not only theoretical, but now more and more actual, coloring our ordinary lives, spaces, and politics. Szyhalski’s signature strategy of highlighting these contradictions and presenting them to viewers in a way that challenges and encourages their active engagement cuts across all of his work from lithographs to web platforms. This exhibition and catalogue seek to remedy this by not only presenting Szyhalski’s work to a broad audience, but also by offering new views of the projects together and providing novel scholarship and commentary by experts to help contextualize and enrich its overall understanding.
Although Szyhalski deliberately uses many means of production, he is clear about his commitment to an investigation of labor, particularly the labor of attention, understanding, and participation. The selection of works in the exhibition are drawn from across the arc of the artist’s career and were chosen to highlight the many related, overlapping, and repeated themes that arise in the work, including history, technology, and language. The exhibition also highlights Szyhalski’s deep commitment to activating those who engage with the work as a means to catalyze not only understanding but also human agency itself, understood as implicitly political action. As a cross-media, conceptual artist working deliberately in resistance to the unique, precious object, Szyhalski’s work is difficult to present, catalogue, and reproduce. His work is ephemeral and insistently of the moment, including time-based, multimedia performative works and unique interactive pieces not made to be collected. He imagines the work, once produced, as let go and given to others in the way it is used, contemplated, remembered. Whenever Szyhalski has been asked to show a work for a second time he declines or commits to recreating that work as a new, site- and time-appropriate iteration of the complex of ideas that animated the now vanished earlier work. As such, the work of producing a survey exhibition was especially difficult. To honor his practice and core beliefs, WAM engaged with the artist in its production to determine which objects, remnants, and reiterations would be included in the galleries and this book.
As an art student in Poland in the 1980s, Piotr Szyhalski worked with a team on an archaeological project, whose leader, Szyhalski recalls, often proclaimed, “First we survey, then we dig!” Tasked with assisting and illustrating the excavation, Szyhalski walked with the group in straight lines at the direction of the archaeologist scrutinizing the open field. When the professor decided that a certain section of terrain would likely yield artifacts, he halted the group and gave instructions precisely where to dig. When reminiscing about this experience, Szyhalski almost marvels, with a bit of irony, at how correct the site choices would be, wondering wryly what might lie below the undug earth.
WAM approached We Are Working All the Time! with the artist’s excavation story in mind and as a kind of guide. Accepting there were elements we could not unearth and bring to light because of the self-determined limits of the artist’s control of his own archive, we endeavored, with the artist’s input, to create both a useful and poetic assemblage that could stand in for the whole of Szyhalski’s corpus. The catalogue, we felt, was necessary to capture this, the first survey exhibition of Szyhalski’s work, because although it is a museum survey it too will represent a distinct moment in time not to be assembled again in the same way. A full, traditional survey and catalogue raisonné is beyond the scope of this—and perhaps any—project. With the artist’s active input, however, this exhibition and catalogue offer a new, more comprehensive view of Szyhalski’s Labor Camp, physically and theoretically, than ever before compiled. The new critical assessments further deepen the discourse on the artist, as each catalogue contributor responds to Szyhalski’s career by digging into the ideas, details, context, and conundrums that animate the work.
WAM is deeply indebted to the Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation for its substantial support of this catalogue project. We are also grateful to Ellen M. Doll and Jay L. Swanson for their meaningful contribution. Our sincere thanks also go out to other financial contributors and to all the colleagues who were instrumental in bringing this project together, especially Matthew Rezac, whose insightful design made this volume not only possible but also beautiful and intelligent. Photographer Rik Sferra, who in addition to working on old images and making new ones, made it possible to offer this stunning review the artist’s body of work. The essayists in this volume include longtime Szyhalski supporter Steve Dietz. We are also grateful to Karine Léonard Brouillet, who drew from her doctoral thesis to produce a fresh and enlightening take on two of Szyhalski’s most important works. The others—Emily Capper, Michael Gallope, and Theresa Downing—are more recently acquainted with Szyhalski’s work and have produced novel additions to the scholarship based on their own expertise and thoughtful insights on his pedagogy, music, and textile works. The WAM exhibition design and production team, once again, has met the challenge of working seamlessly with the artist to bring the forthcoming gallery exhibition together. Finally, we thank the artist for his diligent, good spirited, and, as always, creative work on bringing this project to fruition. WAM is extremely pleased and proud to offer this exhibition and catalogue to bring Piotr Szyhalski’s work and ideas to a broader public.
1 Luiza Nader, “Conceptual Art in Poland: Spaces of Discourse,” November 20, 2007, http://culture.pl/en/article/conceptual-art-in-poland-spaces-of-discourse.
Catalogue introductory essay by Diane Mullin, senior curator at the Weisman Art Museum and editor of Piotr Szyhalski: We Are Working All the Time! (University of Minnesota Press, 2020.) Mullin holds a Ph.D. in Art History from Washington University in St. Louis. Her work focuses on 20th century and contemporary art. Her exhibitions include Sacred Texts: Words and Belief in Contemporary Art (MCAD), Paul Shambroom: Picturing Power, By the People: New Deal Art at the Weisman, and Piotr Szyhalski: We Are Working All The Time!
Mullin has published essays and reviews in journals including caa.reviews, New Art Examiner, Public Art Review, Art Papers, and mnartists.org. Her essay “Working All the Time: Artistic Citizenship in the 21st Century” appears in The Handbook of Artistic Citizenship (Oxford University Press, 2016.)
A member of the MCAD faculty from 1998 to 2004, Mullin was director of MCAD Gallery, where she also ran the MCAD/McKnight and MCAD/Jerome Fellowship programs.
Purchase your copy of We Are Working All the Time! through the WAM Shop → z.umn.edu/SzyhalskiOrderForm