Visual art review: Krzysztof Wodiczko – The art of interrogative design

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By Mark Favermann

Both of these exhibitions are examples of the artist as a 21st century shaman – a prophetic force, as well as a creative one.

Interrogative design: selected works by Krzysztof Wodiczko at the Druker Design Gallery, Harvard University, until February 20. In collaboration with Krzysztof Wodiczko: Portrait at Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, until April 17.

“Martin Luther Kirchturn”, Krzysztof Wodiczko, 1987. The projection of a masked man in a protective suit alluded to the contemporary risks caused by chemical pollution and radioactive waste.

When I first heard Krzysztof Wodiczko speak eloquently about his often visceral and visually provocative approach to art, I couldn’t help but view his work as an environmental extension, in the broad sense, of the genre of Polish poster art. These very graphic, sometimes caricatural images found their way into the streets and galleries of the Eastern European bloc, countries which during the Cold War were puppet regiments of the former Soviet Union.

From the 1940s to the 1980s, Polish poster designs attracted international attention and admiration. They were tasked with promoting cultural events, including opera, theater, film and visual art exhibitions. Although artists were forced to follow state restrictions, these posters were characterized by sophisticated imagery, often reflecting clever surrealist or expressionist tendencies. The use of bright colors and strong gestures provided opportunities for biting satire. These posters were not overtly ideological, but they often expressed the powerful, albeit necessarily oblique, critique of artists / designers in the political environment.

Even if they could be based on images of violence and sexuality, these posters were “officially” sanctioned and disseminated. Government bureaucrats (out of indifference? Old-fashioned incompetence?) Turned a blind eye to the scathing comments contained in the majority of these posters. For me, Krzysztof Wodiczko’s less circumlocutionary art extends to this tradition of dissent.

Wodiczko was born on April 16, 1943 at the end of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (clearly, another source of his vision). He is a Polish-American artist famous for his large-scale slide show on facades and monuments of historical importance. During his career, he has produced more than 80 public exhibitions of this kind around the world. The main themes of his visual arts include: narratives of war, conflict, trauma, memory, human communication, and personal history.

Trained as an industrial designer, Wodiczko calls his creative approach a form of “interrogative design”. He skillfully combines art and technology in a critical practice that focuses on the legitimacy of cultural and social issues often overlooked in the context of design, such as the struggles of marginal communities, especially immigrants. For example, since the end of the 1980s, the implementation of its projections has required the direct participation of marginalized people and / or foreigners. Simultaneously, he also designed and created a series of “nomadic instruments,” vehicles used by homeless people, immigrants and veterans to protest their conditions.

“Sans-Papiers”, Krzysztof Wodiczko, 2006. This projection at the Kunstmuseum in Switzerland shows the plight of illegal immigrants in Switzerland.

Wodiczko lives and works in New York City and is currently Professor in Residence in the Masters of Design program in Art, Design, and the Public Domain at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Previously, he was director of the Interrogative Design Group at MIT and the Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS). He has been a professor in the visual arts program since 1991. Over the years he has also been a visiting professor at the Warsaw School of Social Psychology. His work has been exhibited widely internationally. He received the Hiroshima Art Prize 1998 “for his contribution as an international artist to world peace”. In 2009 Wodiczko represented Poland at the Venice Biennale and in 2017 he was the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the Seoul Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art.

The Graduate School of Design exhibition Interrogative design: selected works by Krzysztof Wodiczko presents visitors with diverse and varied examples of the work of one of the most remarkable artists of the 21st century. On the one hand, the exhibition emphasizes Wodiczko’s skill in weaving together art, design, social engagement and innovative technologies. But the show also shows how it creates maps by projecting images of marginalized individuals onto urban architecture, memorable marking new memories on existing monuments. The background is provided in the origin of each featured project, which helps viewers appreciate the thoughtful precision of Wodiczko’s creative process. It is difficult not to be moved by the human stories that animate his disturbing gestures, the deep pain that his public art evokes.

Close-up of the projection of the Bunker Hill monument, Krzysztof Wodiczko, 1998. Photo: Galerie Lelong & Co., New York.

Wodiczko is best known for his large-scale slide and video projections on architectural facades and monuments which usually have an audio component as well. However, GSD’s “Interrogative Design” also usefully presents a set of its drawings and process objects, which have, of course, been much less visible than its large-scale installations. They are invaluable aids in appreciating the demands of his artistic approach as well as in understanding the attractions of his aesthetic provocations. The title of the exhibition, Interrogative Design, sums up the challenges posed by his creative process: he locates a subject or subject, studies an urban area, selects an architectural element, navigates the power structures of local government and cultivates trust. from the community.

In addition to the objects and works on display in the Druker Design Gallery, the Frances Loeb Library at Harvard GSD contains a timeline of Wodiczko’s activity, including photographs of previous slide shows in public spaces. Of particular interest: There is an in-depth review of the completion of the ‘Voices of Bunker Hill Monument’ (1998) project, providing fascinating details on what it took to create this vital intervention (Charlestown).

At Harvard Art Museums, Krzysztof Wodiczko: Portrait is a work commissioned from the artist. The purpose of this article is to examine questions about the state of American democracy today. Video recordings of students and youth at Harvard University and the Boston area who were asked about current dilemmas are shown on the iconic portrait of George Washington (circa 1795) from the Harvard Art Museums by Gilbert Stuart. This interactive work of art stimulates a relevant exchange of conflicting views at a vexatious time of heightened political division. Along with the “Portrait” commission, two drawings by Wodiczko, recently acquired by museums, are also on display. The works are studies of the artist’s premonitory “Homeless Vehicles” series, which was created in the late 1980s to address the emerging needs of homeless people. It was also a response to the economic policies of former US President Ronald Reagan. (Already seen again.) Remarkably, HAM’s stylish gallery space, which hosts “Krzysztof Wodiczko: Portrait”, is simply not large enough to comfortably showcase Wodiczko’s multi-level art.

Wodiczko’s work is nothing if it is not accessible. His images directly engage cultural issues and the problems facing contemporary society. His power stems from the way his visuals fundamentally challenge authority; it turns public art into a rhetorical tool dedicated to making people think critically about the world around them. Yet beyond the aesthetic and the political context, one senses a spirituality intrinsic to Wodiczko’s art.

“Homeless Vehicle”, Krzysztof Wodiczko, 1988-1989 (5th Avenue, New York, 1988). Photo: Łódź Art Museum.

According to Wodiczko, his art represents “the present time in which the past and the future dwell.” Both of these exhibitions are examples of the artist as a 21st century shaman – a prophetic force, as well as a creative one.


Urban designer and public artist, Marc Favermann has been deeply involved in branding, improving and making more accessible parts of cities, sports venues and key institutions. Also an award-winning public artist, he creates functional public art as civic design. Designer of the renovated Coolidge Corner Theater, he is a design consultant for the Massachusetts Downtown Initiative Program and, since 2002, has been a design consultant for the Red Sox. Writing on urban planning, architecture, design and the fine arts, Mark is associate editor of Artistic fuse.

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