Is artist Piotr Szyhalski working all the time, or is he hardly working?
When some of the intellectual interests of his art practice — the questions of communication, human agency, labor and propaganda — constantly pose new questions, this becomes a difficult question to answer.
The Polish-born, U.S.-based multimedia artist's work includes posters, photographs, sculpture, performance, mail art and more. He prefers that his solo museum show "We Are Working All The Time!" — which spans 30 years of his work — be called a survey and not a retrospective. The latter is for the dead, and he is very much a part of the living.
Weisman curator Diane Mullin, who worked with Szyhalski on the show but said the whole process was a "constant dialogue between him and me," noted that his projects feel "especially relevant today as our world works through a rise of authoritarianism, a global pandemic and frighteningly splintered politics here and abroad."
The pandemic delayed the survey exhibition, originally scheduled for summer 2020, nearly two years. As the pandemic began, Szyhalski started drawing "COVID-19: Labor Camp Report," a daily sketch of black-and-white ink posters filled with commentary on the propaganda, horrors, hopes and confusion of the pandemic. He disseminated everything via his Instagram. The project lasted 225 days and ended on Nov. 3, Election Day. (He's worked under the pseudonym "Labor Camp" since 1998.)
The images look like a cross between propaganda and a meme. Poster #144, dated Aug. 14, is a mock advertisement for an imagined USPS stamp with a white mask drawn on it, and the text "Save a Life/Save the Country" above and "Put It On!" below. In #118 from July 19, the text "Democracy! (We Are All Bankrupt.)" is seen above three white flags with U.S. dollar, euro and pound symbols on them. The text below reads: "Our Disease Is Their Prosperity!"
Szyhalski studied the historical moment as it happened, documenting and engaging in real time. The full collection of the project's original posters line the wall outside the main gallery.
From posters to art
Szyhalski, a longtime professor at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, won McKnight Visual Artist Fellowships in 2009 and 2017. He grew up in Communist-era Poland, where his parents worked at the local prison. ("I joke with students that I spent a lot of time in Polish prisons," he said playfully.) Originally trained as a poster designer, he moved from Communist Poland to capitalist America in 1990, hoping for a change. But is anyone ever free of the life they left behind?
"There was a moment in the beginning of pandemic where people were posting pictures of empty shelves at Target and I was thinking, 'Omigod, that's Poland in the 1980s,'" he said.
His interest in using networks as a means of dissemination isn't unlike his 1987-90 mail art project "Private Post-Cards," which reached people around the world long before the internet took hold. The possibility of sharing with mass audiences and engaging in dialogue drives his art.
"In Poland, posters were a social-like device for these designers and artists to speak to the public in a critical way about what was happening in the society," he said. "Even though the poster was for like, a film or theater play … it wasn't. You know, the Macbeth poster, but it's not about Macbeth — it's about the election results or something. So, it's the idea of reading between the lines."
The remnants of World War II and the brutal propaganda of Nazi-era Germany were constantly present throughout his childhood and surface in his work.
In one of his large-scale posters inside the gallery, the text "Learn to doubt and you will rise above the trouble" feels eerily relevant. Look closer and one can spot hanging human hearts that, from afar, look like pine cones.
On another wall, a series of repurposed vintage china dishes with flowers, fruit, wheat or leaves are overlaid with text in different blocky, script-like, Gothic or futuristic fonts that read: "You Work: You Eat."
Although text is present throughout his work, his approach to using language is unconventional.
"Since I am speaking English as a second language, that really gives me a weird distance to it," he said. "It allows me somehow to think of it more as an image or shape or letter forms."
Piotr Szyhalski: "We Are Working All The Time!"
Where: Weisman Art Museum, 333 East River Road, Mpls.
When: Opens Aug. 20, ends Dec. 31. Open 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Wed., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Thu. & Fri., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat. & Sun.
Info: wam.umn.edu or 612-625-9494.