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Art Facts: Krzysztof Wodiczko's flashes of inspiration



When you and I look at the facades of public buildings, we see brick or granite. When Krzysztof Wodiczko looks, more often than not he sees majesty in them thar structures.

"They are silent and eternal, pure and visually organized," gushes Wodiczko, a mustached man with a large curly forelock. "Many of the monuments are white. Oh, they are great to me. But too often we silence architecture; we keep it from speaking. And that is a mistake, because it is a very powerful medium."

But buildings speak for Wodiczko, who converts buildings into canvas for his art. The 44-year-old artist, a native of Poland, has made his reputation by flashing projections onto monuments around the world, creating "here-tonight-gone-tonight" pieces of performance art. Wodiczko is bringing his latest public projection to Chicago this Saturday, November 14, a piece he will execute on a lonely building on the near northwest side. Preceding the creation will be a forum on how art relates to the plight of displaced persons.

Wodiczko began doing his projections in 1980 in Canada, where he was living at the time, and since then he has taken his concepts and high-powered 35-millimeter slide projector to sites from Stuttgart to Sydney. Wodiczko's early work may have lacked emotional power (as, for instance, a simple handshake that decorated a pillared building at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1981), but in recent years the artist has made up for this with some kinetic, controversial material.

Wodiczko likes to use his art to disrupt conventional perceptions of buildings. For instance, he says, "in city after city, a memorial hall is built by soldiers, and yet it is turned into a cultural center. High school graduations and concerts take place there. But there is no commemoration of war, no contemplation of its meaning. If we don't analyze memorial halls as they relate to war, then we won't analyze the meaning of war." To spur such analysis, Wodiczko has projected missiles onto the columns of memorial halls in Pittsburgh and Dayton, Ohio. Pittsburgh's Soldier Memorial received the image of a skeleton playing the piano.

To do his projections, Wodiczko often has to seek approval from officials. Where he must, however, he pulls the wool over their eyes.

In 1985, Wodiczko told authorities he wanted to cast a vision of the human eye onto the Swiss National Parliament, located on Bern's central square, the Bundesplatz. "The bureaucrats could not say no to a simple human eye," recollects Wodiczko. "What they didn't know was that I intended to change the direction of the eye's gaze, so it would look from the Parliament to the Swiss National Bank, then to the Kantonalbank and the Citibank and finally to the ground underneath the Bundesplatz, where the National Bank has its vault. Finally the eye looked off into the mountains, to the fresh air and pure environment embodied in the Calvinist spirit."

Wodiczko says he meant his work to "connect the state with the banking system and its money, which came from questionable sources out of the last world war. Here I linked a heaven of a particular kind--the money--with politics of a dirty kind."

Politics of a dirty kind also figured in Wodiczko's most famous projection, completed in the summer of 1985 in London's Trafalgar Square. Ostensibly Wodiczko was to cast the picture of a ballistic missile wrapped in barbed wire onto Lord Nelson's Column, but the artist had something else in mind. Standing in the middle of the square, he ignored the column and instead beamed a swastika onto the wall of the South African embassy.

"The projection lasted for two hours," Wodiczko later wrote. "Of course I [had] consulted a lawyer. The only charge on which they would be able to arrest me was for being a public nuisance, and those were the grounds on which they stopped the projection."

Wodiczko grew up in Warsaw. His father conducted the Polish National Symphony; his mother was a piano-playing microbiologist. Though Wodiczko tried the piano as a boy, "my mother was intelligent enough to see it wouldn't work for me." Instead, he pursued architecture and industrial design, eventually becoming the chief designer at the state-owned optical works. He sidelined in slide images and exhibited in a Warsaw gallery.

In time the free world beckoned. In 1975 he was lured from Poland to be an artist-in-residence at the University of Illinois, and he had a show of line drawings and photographs at N.A.M.E. Gallery here in Chicago. There followed two sojourns to Canada, where he soon emigrated.

He is hazy on the circumstances of his emigration: "I am not a political refugee, in the context of the anti-Soviet propaganda in the West. But sooner or later a person who travels and establishes contact in the United States and Canada has to make a decision on where to live. It is not acceptable for Polish authorities to have someone moving back and forth forever. There is no place in the world for wandering people."

Wodiczko relocated to Canada in 1977, married a critic, and dabbled on the academic left, organizing the Cultural Workers Alliance in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He is still a Canadian citizen, though divorced and living in New York. There Wodiczko teaches art and design at the New York Institute of Technology and Cooper Union.

Of late his projections have failed to jell, or jell the way he'd like them to. He attempted to do a piece on the homeless in New York's Union Square, but the community board charged with okaying the project vetoed it; he ended up exhibiting the plans at a gallery. Last year a Wodiczko projection of homeless people graced the base of the swank Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, but Wodiczko considers that effort to have been less than successful, for reasons he will only summarize in a shrug.

A lecture Wodiczko gave at the Art Institute last spring prompted Peter Taub, director of Randolph Street Gallery, to invite Wodiczko here. The artist was intrigued with Chicago ("It's so glamorous, populated by landmark buildings and famous architects"), and he has been back twice scouting projection sites.

His eventual choice: the 28-story high rise that anchors the Noble Square Cooperative, a low-to-moderate-income housing development located at Milwaukee and Division. The neighborhood was once largely Polish, and Noble Square now has a mostly black population. The high rise looms all by itself over the surrounding area but lacks the grandeur Wodiczko usually likes in a structure; indeed, he finds the Noble Square tower "alienated and alienating." Yet it serves his purposes as "a metaphor for unsuccessful housing policy." His projection will relate to community displacement, according to Taub.

The work will be on display over three or more hours beginning at 7:30 PM tomorrow. The viewing is free. Wodiczko hopes the projection will be visible to motorists on the nearby Kennedy Expressway.

Tonight, Randolph Street Gallery, 756 N. Milwaukee (666-7737), is hosting a forum on "urban planning and the artistic response" at 7:30 PM. The panelists are: Wodiczko; Dan Graham, an architecturally geared sculptor from New York; Linda Krause, an architectural historian on leave from the School of the Art Institute; art historian Maureen Sherlock; and Douglas Dobmeyer, director of the Public Welfare Coalition and an advocate for the homeless. Admission is $4, $3 for students, senior citizens, and gallery members.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.

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