“I am Another” could well be the motto of the most interesting Polish woman artist of the younger generation. Her art challenges monolithic, all-encompassing visions of humanity in the name of cultural diversity. She attempts to separate those intertwined aspects of the person which are the product of differentiation and show that, within each cultural context, we are all Another – not just towards others but also, if not primarily, towards ourselves. A human being is not a unity to be contemplated from a single vantage point, but a multiplicity that no line is capable of comprehending.
Already with her diploma piece, “The Pyramid of Animals” (1993), Katarzyna Kozyra stirred great controversy within the critical community. Appearances to the contrary, the “Pyramid” is not a work about animals. Its focus is on the public, maneuvered into a discourse on the act of killing and its cultural significance. The work draws attention to the basic split experienced by viewers when they become a “manipulated part of the installation”. The unsettling paradox inherent in the work is that it shows the evident incompatibility of the animals capacity as living being, as a consumer product, and as a fetish of sanctimonious environmentalism.
Formally alluding to the “The Musicians of Bremen” by the Brothers Grimm, “The Pyramid of Animals” is a monument constructed out of a stuffed horse, dog, cat and rooster which the artist acquired, i.e. picked out from among animals waiting to be put down. Out of the contrast between the aesthetic object as the end-product of a certain process and the videotaped images of the process involved in stuffing the horse (flaying, eviscerating, etc.) which are an immanent part of the work, comes a gripping plea to reflect upon the identity of modern culture. “I am Another,” the artist says in “Olympia”, displaying her cancer-ravaged body in the pose of Manets courtesan. Just like Olympia, she looks the viewer straight in the eye, like Olympia she is undressed, like her, she is reclined upon a bed in similar surroundings (a black female attendant, flowers), and like her, she is aesthetically unacceptable to her contemporaries. Like her 19th century predecessor, who now seems a paragon of beauty, though she had offended her contemporaries with her morbid pallor and vulgar pose, she breaks out of the conventions of representing the female body. “I am not that Olympia, I am not just a model, I am not what I represent”. Kozyra’s “Olympia” challenges the myth of eternal femininity, rebelling against the uniformizing and petrifying function of culture.
In her 1997 video installation, “The Bathhouse”, which represented a thematic (strictly speaking) prologue to the work shown at this year’s Biennale, the artist installed a hidden camera at a Budapest bathhouse to film unsuspecting women engaged in all sorts of intimate activities: washing, toweling, drying, relaxing. The beautiful images calling to mind scenes from art history (Ingres no less than Rembrandt or Degas) show old, devastated female bodies so different from the images we have grown accustomed to; celebrating not eternal femininity (as found in painting, films and commercials) but the state of “being naked when no one is looking”: matter abandoned in its element. The artists face appears for a brief moment on screen, drawing us into a game: “I am there with them, and with you at once; I am someone different; different than those women (through my awareness of the camera, that third eye), but different also from you who are merely viewers; being a viewer I am also of the beheld; it is through my eye that you see them. As a woman entangled in this labyrinth of difference, it is primarily to myself that I am something different”.
Entering a men’s bathhouse with a camera is more than a mere continuation of the previous idea. Here the artist explores the concept of otherness and identity by transforming herself – becoming a man in appearance (with the aid of make-up, facial hair, and a penis) to enter a masculine sanctuary. Issues of otherness, disguise, and split identities all come to a head here. The “otherness of the woman” vis-a-vis shifting cultural contexts shown in the women’s bathhouse becomes an otherness positioned along the axis of the male-female cultural dichotomy. The otherness of the One is set alongside the otherness of the Many. By donning the attributes of masculinity the artist debunks their symbolism, revealing them to be a passport granting entry into another world. In this world the artist, now dressed as Another and a stranger to herself will, to her surprise, experience otherness of a different nature. Even as a “man” she is alien to other men. The discreet bisexual provocation brings out yet another fundamental split. It is as “another man” that Kozyra becomes the object of lustful interest. Sexuality turns out to be a phenomenon transcending sexual divisions, while “masculine” and “feminine” emerge as values of an established culture, symbolized by the bathhouse.
Katarzyna Kozyra represented Poland at the 48
th International Art Exhibition — la Biennale di Venezia. She showed her new work, Men’s Bathhouse in the Polish Pavilion. She recived an honourable mention for the piece, the highest award given to a Polish artist at the Venice Biennale to date.
The International Jury of the 48th International Contemporary Art Exhibition, cosisting of Zdenka Badovinas, Okwui Enwezor, Ida Gianelii, Yuko Hasegawa and Rosa Martinez awards the following: […]
Honrouble mention to Katarzyna Kozyra for her testing and questioning of the male authoritarianism through her combinayion of performance art and production.
From the official statement of the Jury
In 1997 you used a hidden camera to film women in a public bath in Budapest, and then showed the material at the Zachęta Gallery in Warsaw. This year you went to a – men’s – bath again, disguised as a man. What was it that originally led you to make a film about women in the bathhouse two years ago?
I wanted to show women as they really are, not touched up, not fake; I wanted to show what women’s bodies really look like, how they behave when they’re acting natural. And I succeeded because they didn’t know they were being filmed.
This leads us to the crucial point, since these are in a sense forbidden images. You’ve infringed upon people’s privacy which should be none of your business, you’ve collected real-life material to show it in an artistic situation. Didn’t your conscience ever bother you about that?
I did it in the name of what I thought was a good and right idea. I knew I wasn’t really hurting anyone. I’m not poking fun at anyone; to me, there’s no such thing as a defective body. Everybody is the way they are, while there’s this pressure on the part of the media for people to live up to some kind of stereotype. I was interested in how the raw material looks, that is, what people are really like.
And the result was a series of incredibly beautiful takes, scenes out of genre painting, the bodies very ample, very Rubensian…
Some of them were, but then there were Dureresque bodies as well. When I went there for the first time, without the camera, I couldn’t get rid of art history cliches, and I naturally saw everything in terms of painting: “God, that’s a Renoir, oh dear, that one over there’s doing something straight out of Degas”.
Did you find similar images from art history in the men’s bath?
No. Women look after their bodies more than men do after theirs. Somehow they spend more time drying themselves, and comb their hair all the time. They devote more time to themselves. They take their time toweling while men get it over with just like that.
That’s one difference.
…the film about men is less encumbered by art…
…than the film about women is…
…that’s it; I was really interested how men behaved in the baths.
So it’s also…
…it’s really something else.
And it’s a question of private curiosity, of seeing how your experiences from the women’s bathhouse would compare with those from the men’s…
…I simply wanted to know what men did in the bath, whether they talk, read the paper – what they actually do there. But all the men did was simply look at others. They didn’t concentrate on themselves, but on others, they didn’t come there just to take a bath and wind down, they came there to watch. With the women it was all focused on the inside, while the men looked out.
You felt very sure of yourself in the women’s baths…
…not all that sure, after all I had the feeling that I was a voyeur spying on people from behind the bushes…
…but it was even worse in the men’s bath…
…yes, because there I felt I was being watched. The women didn’t even notice me but the men did; probably because I looked pretty unusual…
…even though you had a disguise that looked quite normal. You disguised yourself as a man…
…I cast myself as a man…
You cast yourself as a man: specifically, you stuck on a beard and a penis.
Yes, that’s right? So?
So the basic question is: did they get on to you?
No, strange, isn’t it?
How often did you get the feeling it would happen any moment now, that they’d expose you for what you were?
I don’t know, ten, fifteen times maybe, every time someone would stare at me. But on the other hand it was a good experience, you just had to stare right back. That made you feel a lot surer. But first you had to overcome something to be able to give as good as you got. The problem was that I could only be out in the open. I couldn’t take a shower, I couldn’t bathe, I couldn’t go to the sauna, I was afraid of going to the toilet. I could have gone to the toilet to lock myself in for a breather. But I didn’t know what I would have done if I noticed I was being followed by one of the guys who kept staring between my legs.
How many hours did you spend there as a man?
Not a lot, twenty minutes the first time and forty minutes the second time.
Two years ago, in the women’s bathhouse you did your own filming, but now the production process was a bit different.
On the production side I hired two cameramen who had been filming there with a hidden camera a couple of days before so I could see what it’s like and how I should behave. Then I decided more or less what I would be doing, where I ‘d be, and that we would have two cameras. I didn’t have a lot of freedom either, I had to stay close to the camera so that l’d be filmed if they saw through my disguise. Frankly speaking, I was curious what would happen if they got on to me. Because I was sort of invisible there. What would happen if I suddenly became visible, when they saw a stranger in their midst? On the one hand you’re interested what would happen if they blew your cover, but then you’d rather not go through with that. With hindsight, l’m rather happy I didn’t get caught, though actually it was obvious I was a woman.
What was your role in all of this? There were the two cameras directed at two benches, while you’re walking around…
…back and forth. I walk off one video screen I appear on the other. Like someone who’s there but doesn’t want to play the main part.
Should viewers notice that the person walking isn’t really a man?
Yes, definitely. Then again I had to blend in the background a bit so others wouldn’t recognize me; I must have looked like some kind of freak who doesn’t fit in but is there anyway. Sure, l’ve never been to a men’s bath before, you can also see it as a forbidden temple -I wander in, look around and look like some art connoisseur admiring a beautiful bathhouse, while being looked at himself, then gapes some more; gives the order to start filming, is filmed, and observed at that.
I certainly feel like indiscreet observation was at stake here. And then it’s also like being in a museum…
…hmm, a museum of men…
Weren’t you at all interested in the architecture?
I was. It was gorgeous, like an art deco interior. Much nicer than the women’s baths. The women’s baths were more formal, everything was very simple, 1920s – 1930s in style, sparser, while the men’s baths are decorated all over with little angels and flowers. Someone really made an effort to create a beautiful environment for the bathers. In the women’s bathhouse it was the women themselves who were interesting.
So now you were a woman as a man in a men’s bathhouse…
…a woman as a man in a men’s bathhouse… a woman as a man in a men’s bathhouse…
…and did you learn anything new?
It’s not a whole lot different from other situations when men are in company. They’re more relaxed, but not all that much. There’s a big difference in the way the women behave, less so for the men…
What do you mean that women behave differently?
In public, women try to show themselves in a better light. lt’s something subconscious. They really avoid certain positions in public; they don’t stick their butts out, they’re more graceful on the whole. Men couldn’t care less. They scratch their ass and their balls in public too, there’s practically no difference.
Whose penis did you take a mold of?
A friend of mine’s. I knew he wouldn’t mind letting me use it to make the mold.
This one’s foam rubber actually. Light as a feather.
Is it as soft and flexible as it is in real life?
It is nice and soft, but it’s not flexible. It was comfortable to wear, I was confident it wouldn’t fall off. My only concern was that the real thing hangs loose while mine was just a motionless prop.
The pubes were yours though?
I had to shave off a patch the shape of the base of the cast. The make-up artist stuck it on, added a sort of toupee around the edges, brushed my short and curlies, and there I was with balls and a dick. I was a bit afraid that at closer inspection (and everybody knows how obsessed men are with checking length and thickness) someone would catch on that my penis was fake. The make-up artist changed its colour three times, and it still looked like it had just been taken out of boiling water. Besides it was pretty big for me. I’m petite, so I thought I looked like a little boy with an exceptionally huge dong. It seemed to be on perpetual stand-by, so to speak.
Did the men in the bathhouse try to pick you up?
Most of them didn’t really notice me. But there were some who looked for opportunities to sneak a peek at my crotch. I had to have it out in the open so there wouldn’t be any doubt I was a guy. 1 kept my evidently female ass covered. The penis and a scrotum were my passport into the male sanctum. A world of men: straight guys, queers, urinals…
Does everyone in there walk around naked?
That depends on the time of day, on their mood, on their age. They come to work up a sweat, soothe their sciatic aches, look between one another’s legs, pick up someone… Naked, in briefs, in special bathing smocks, whatever…
You went there with two assistants who used two hidden cameras to film the men who frequent that fairly posh establishment.
Yes, it’s a public bath located in a luxury hotel. When I went there for the first time, the stylist spent two hours doing my wig in a stuffy ladies room in the hall. The second time around, we rented a suite to use as a dressing room. I would walk out of there as a guest wearing a hotel bathrobe. And when you’re wearing one of those bathrobes you can go anywhere you like, the bellhops respect you. We felt like conspirators. Our luggage was in the suburban dorm where we were actually staying. In the bathhouse, the cameramen pretended they didn’t know me. The idea was to protect the film and the equipment in case I got caught. I was afraid of losing the camcorders and the recorded cassettes if they exposed me for an intruder.
Were you exposed?
Not at all! Not as a woman at least. If I was “recognized” at all, it was as someone else – as a gay. I was bugged by guys who kept cropping up beside me giving me lewd stares. One of them would look me straight in the eye, another circled me trying to check out what I had between my legs. Like I said, l’m really slim and petite, so my disproportionately large prick interested them. I felt uncomfortable, I didn’t quite know what was going on. When someone was looking at me I didn’t know whether it was because they liked me or because they could see the net holding my beard in place. Were they seducing or exposing me? I had bushy converging eyebrows, a towel stuck on to my tits, and I hadn’t shaved my legs for half a year.
A woman with hairy legs?
See for yourself.
Jesus Christ! Will you look at that; your calf is positively hirsute! Tell me, what was it like with a penis in a masculine world?
I felt awful because there was nowhere to hide, not even in my own body. After the experience in the women’s bathhouse when I attracted no interest as a woman among women, I thought it would be similar here, and that I wouldn’t arouse any interest as a guy among guys. But it was just the opposite! The thing that was supposed to protect me, my penis, made me get lustful or nosy looks. It was a perfectly normal bathhouse with mixed patrons: tourists, heterosexuals, homosexuals – you know, guys. My options were limited. I couldn’t take a shower or a steam bath because everything would have come off. All I could do was sit on a bench next to or facing one of the cameras. As a result I kept sitting next to this one guy. He was great by the way: good-looking, well-built, cool. That’s probably why I felt like a real twerp next to him. But since I kept sitting beside him, he could have thought I was making a pass at him. When I left that damn sweat-hole after forty minutes, he was standing in the lobby smiling and looking at me so hopefully! Was he waiting for me? That’s when I really felt guilty about misleading someone, about unintentionally having played with someone’s feelings.
How did you feel as a guy?
Sticking a cock on didn’t make me feel like a guy! I have no idea what it feels like being a guy. Being a woman I felt terribly ashamed among men. Even though I was disguised, I felt totally naked.
Did you spot anything interesting, did anything unusual happen?
Yes, well, I’m not tremendously popular as a woman; but as a guy I had three suitors in the course of thirty minutes. I never expected to attract such interest. I wanted to be transparent so I wore boxer shorts the first time around, and I became invisible as soon as I walked in. I sat there on the bench, relaxed and blending in with the surroundings. I calmly observed what was going on around me. I didn’t feel I was being watched; all the tension involved in preparing for the project vanished. Earlier, I had wondered whether I would be able to get past the gate in the first place, how soon it would be before they unmasked me and how they ‘d react: would they laugh, kick me out, make a scene, beat me up? I expected everything. But it turned out that nobody recognized me, that no one suspected anything, and that gave me a right to be there. That was a revelation and a triumph at the same time. So then I became bold enough to walk in wearing that ill-fitting ridiculous prop. Everything changed. Whereas before I felt like some sexless freak, I now acquired a gender. Nobody imagined I was a woman, but the men cast me as a gay with their hungry glances! And that came as a shock. They created a new character.
In 1997, in the same bath, you used a hidden camera to make a film about women. What led you to make a film about men now?
Why should only women be spied upon? In commercials, in porno mags, it’s all women. Why not see what men are like without their “protective layer”, their elegant facade; without all their status symbols, their designer suits, their cars – bareass in the baths. Women would be happy to see their slack blackened balls and their limp dicks. But is it really going to be a film about men?
How did you feel filming women as compared to men? What interested you most?
During the making of the first (women’s) bath project, I felt like a cowardly bastard with a camcorder hidden in a plastic bag, spying on everything, and taping it, too. I used them – those women. Except that I didn’t put them in sexy poses like they usually do, there was no veneer, I didn’t turn them into enticing objects; they remained themselves – none of them is coy, because there’s no point, there’s no one to see them. Women feel and act different in the presence of men. And I wanted to show women, not their artificial, public side. In the men’s bath the most interesting thing was that I was among men who didn’t know (or didn’t see). I was wearing a cap that made me invisible – how rewarding to make fools out of men. A woman “dresses up” as a man. And it works, even though everybody there observes everybody else. Nobody can tell she’s a woman. You know what I think? It’s a sauna for guys. So even the towel fell of my tits, they’d never even think there was someone of the opposite sex there with them: that the dude with the tits was a broad. Their conviction that I was a guy cloaked me better than any disguise.