Christian Jankowski: Heavy Weight History

31 January – 8 March 2014, Lisson Gallery, London

By Helen Sumpter

Heavy Weight History (Little Insurgent), 2013. © the artist. Courtesy Lisson Gallery, London

It’s the truly collaborative element with real people in Christian Jankowski’s ‘performance’ projects that allows for their serious insight into his subject matter, even when those works also contain a fair amount of humour, which they often do. This minisurvey features five such projects, from 2007 to 2013, the title work being Jankowski’s 2013 project in which he reengages the city of Warsaw with its public statuary. Eleven Polish weightlifters at the top of their profession are shown working as a team to attempt to raise some of the city’s monuments off the ground – statues of Ronald Reagan and Willy Brandt among them – with mixed success. The resulting short film, shown with a series of accompanying photographs, is produced in the format of a TV sports show, and presented, at adrenalin-fuelled pace, by Polish sports commentator Michał Olsza´nski. It’s his unscripted comments, such as the weightlifters being ‘overwhelmed by history’ when they don’t succeed, that are, in the context of Warsaw’s history, as loaded as they are lighthearted. The weightlifters apparently liked the film so much that they invited the project to be part of that year’s World Weightlifting Championships.

While the other projects included here seem slightly random selections, there are themes that connect them. Public statues are also the focus of Living Sculptures (2007), for which Jankowski cast three human ‘living statue’ performers – in the guises of Che Guevara, Julius Caesar and Salvador Dal.’s female ‘chest of drawers’ figure from his painting The Burning Giraffe (1937) – as lifesize bronzes. He then installed the works on Barcelona’s Las Ramblas, where he had first seen the originals. As ‘real’ sculptures, the works have subsequently been shown in various ‘art’ contexts, including a New York park. There the bronze of El Che was criticised because of the real Guevara’s negative views towards the US, highlighting the conundrum of whether this work was in fact promoting Che Guevara, the Marxist revolutionary, or the street performer.

Communist politics also feature in Crying for the March of Humanity (2012), for which Jankowski refilmed an episode of the melodramatic Mexican telenovela La Que No Podía Amar (The One Who Could Not Love), with the original cast, but replaced all their dialogue with crying. Jankowski takes his title from communist artist David Alfaro Siqueiros’s mural, La Marcha de la Humanidad en la Tierra y Hacia el Cosmos (The March of Humanity on Earth and Toward the Cosmos, 1965–71), an artwork that might be described as equally ‘overwrought’. Then there’s China Painters (2007–8), inspired by Jankowski’s visit to the Chinese village of Dafen, where the majority of the country’s copyist painters work and where the Communist party was building an art museum. Having photographed the half-built galleries, Jankowski commissioned a group of the painters to copy the photos of the empty exhibition spaces, but to paint in an artwork of their choice, allowing the artists to not only showcase their skills but to become ‘original’ painters. Curiously, on the evidence here, many of the artists seemed unable to paint the perspective of the museum’s incomplete architecture. However, that didn’t prevent the works being shown in the Dafen Art Museum three years later.

Maybe it’s no coincidence that the other professionals with whom Jankowski has collaborated include fortune-tellers, televangelists and magicians. Whether it’s people, places or perceptions, Jankowski always manages to pull off that tricky act of a positive transformation. 

This article was first published in the April 2014 issue.