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#them

The Polish viewer has seen these faces on the news a thousand times. Their household names should be retrieved from memory instantaneously: the supreme leader of the ruling right-wing nationalist Law and Justice Party Jarosław Kaczyński, the calculating banker turned Law and Justice Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, the hate-mongering Twitter user and MP Krystyna Pawłowicz, the conspiracy theorist and former Minister of Defense Antoni Macierewicz, the majority MP Joanna Lichocka showing her middle finger to the opposition... 


Still, even for Poles, the giant set of standardized photographs may cause initial confusion before they discern individual faces. Three mirror panels stand out. Here, the moment of recognition comes instantaneously: it is me.


In his work on group identity, the perils of pronouns, the dangers of divisions and the painfully impossible attempts to transcend them, Marcin Osiowski once again uses the tools of aesthetics to operate on the field of politics.

THEM
The images of politicians (apparently including priests) that Osiowski has compiled are iconic to the Polish viewer and represent key events from the recent past. He froze them in unflattering grimaces, tightened the frame and crowded them next to each other. The mosaic strip of squares evokes Andy Warhol’s silkscreen paintings (Marilyn Monroe, Muhammad Ali, Chairman Mao) where the multiplication of familiar faces paradoxically gave the viewer the feeling of unfamiliarity. This effect is further intensified by Osiowski as he unifies and flattens the color palette. Notably, some decisions were made by unthinking computer software which bled the red background into the shapes as it saw fit.


“Images of politicians are reproduced because someone wants us to trust them” (Truszkowski, “Andy Warhol as the reproducer of representations”, in: Andy Warhol, ed. Agata Smalcerz, Múzeum Moderného Umenia Andy Warhola, Medzilaborce Slovensko, Galeria Bielska BWA, Bielsko-Biała 1997, p. 57) – this is the role of photography in an election campaign. Meanwhile, Osiowski’s formula has led to the exact opposite. Although he is using well-known images from the public domain, the kaleidoscopic arrangement has camouflaged personal facial features. The monotonous composition which results from aligning the subjects’ lips so that they are all in the center of the frame and dressing the politicians in black-and-red uniforms brings to mind a series of police headshots.


Osiowski’s digital operations have transformed “them” – the familiar Polish faces from news websites and campaign posters – into a multitude of copies of the same “stranger.” The viewer stands in front of them, so different in his or her individuality and the particularity of their self.
On the other hand, Osiowski’s politicians have been surfing the rising European wave of populism and nationalism. In their speeches, they are glad to use the linguistic frame of “us and them,” which they consider synonymous with “insiders and outsiders” (M. Wrześniewska-Pietrzak and M. Kołodziejczak, “Antynomia „my–oni” – kategoria osoby w języku polskim i jej funkcja w politycznym dyskursie populistycznym”, in: Badania nad dyskursem populistycznym. Wybrane podejścia, eds. A. Stępińska and A. Lipiński, Wydawnictwo Naukowe Wydziału Nauk Politycznych i Dziennikarstwa, Uniwersytet im. Adama Mickiewicza, Poznań 2020, p. 86). 

 

 The political subject with which their constituents are supposed to identify is constructed in opposition to “them:” “Jews, Arabs, Ukrainians, German occupants . . . disease-ridden immigrants . . . Russian invaders . . . leftists, cyclists, faggots and dykes,” as Osiowski writes bitterly, “depending on narrative needs and perspective.” On the other hand, the politicians on the wall have also been saying “them” when referring to “the elites” or European Union officials: “the powerful of this world, conspiring against regular people”  (Quoted from Marcin Osiowski’s personal notes). 

US
For a long time, Osiowski has condemned both the actions of the Communist authorities pre-1989, and the current government’s, which is led by the conservative right Law and Justice Party. He has often compared their modus operandi. The redness of the background in this work, a color associated with Communism, could be read as a nudge in that direction.


One could thus easily assume that Osiowski considers the politicians from his digital headshot mosaic as “them” – hence the title. After all, many of his generation have drawn a simple parallel between the “Commies” they fought in their 1980s student years and contemporary populists. If that were the case, Osiowski would be constructing an “us,” a group opposing the current government and the “Polish nation” it purportedly represents. At this point, one might assume that he would include his viewers in the same opposing group.


However, in this work, Osiowski proves that an attempt to look awry at the narrative of “us and them” is usually far more interesting than maintaining the division. As a lifelong student of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy, Osiowski is interested in the relationship between language and reality. He does not miss the irony of the ostensive nature of pronouns such as “us” and “them.” By using one as the title of his work, and most of all by placing mirrors among the portraits, the artist cleverly exposes the fact that “us” and “them” are deictic expressions – ones whose meaning relies entirely on the context of the utterance. We are “us” to us, and they are “them,” but vice versa we are “them” to them. It all depends on whose lips the word is exiting.
On the adjacent wall, silently moving pairs of lips give discourse its visual form. The extreme close-up, muted sound and slow motion are how Osiowski defamiliarized the ritual of watching talking heads in the media. The “us” and “them” enunciated by the lips have been reduced to mere mechanical motions of muscle groups. The absurd movements have been stripped of all meaning.

I
The mirrors placed by Osiowski among the photographs undermine the crude foundations of group identity. As the viewer looks at him- or herself in the mirror, the idea of the birth of individuality immediately comes to mind. The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan suggested that an infant first separates itself from the entirety of the world as a subject during a process he called the mirror stage. The sense of sight plays a key role as the emerging subject paradoxically looks at the image of its body as the other.


Such an affective-political opportunity is given to the viewer by Osiowski’s aesthetic decisions. “We” means I and someone else (M. Wrześniewska-Pietrzak i M. Kołodziejczak, 2020, p. 85).  Within the work, the mirror creates a composite image: it pastes the viewer onto a yearbook photo with well-known populist figures. What will the viewer do? How will they feel? They may be reluctant to stand beside disliked politicians, or feel honored to find themselves among front-page characters. They may compare their features to the photographs, or move their face so that their lips are also in the center of the frame. They may imitate the facial gymnastics shown on the screens, or go against Osiowski’s design and reflect their hand in the mirror rather than the face, or take a selfie.


The moment they identify with their image in the mirror, they will start belonging to the group of politicians. After all, politics are played out in images. Will the viewer see any physical resemblance? Will they become a different person altogether? Will they vote differently in the next election? Or will the feeling of alienation from the group prove to be unbearable, and will the force of dissimilarity drive the viewer to revolt?
Osiowski turns the “us and them” division around. He shows how it is natural, obvious and material as well as relative, absurd and discursive at the same time. But is it possible to build human identity without it? Can it and should it be transcended? And if not through party politics, then perhaps through political aesthetics?

 

curator and author of the text: Aleksandra Paszkowska

text: Klaudia Szott
montage: Antoni Gustowski
additional photos: Julia Karwan-Jastrzębska
narrator: Grzegorz Sierzputowski
 

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