Curatorial Essay by Marta Marsicka and Dimitrios Tsivrikos
Greta Thunberg on the cover of Time magazine, Extinction Rebellion blocking roads across the UK, and other significant sustainability-related events have dominated our lives, media and key public debates. We’ve been warned that we are facing an ecological disaster and that any further delay, from either citizens or political entities, may result in an irreversible catastrophe for our planet. However, nothing prepared us for the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic – a crisis that shifted our gaze from our planet’s health to the health of the human race, while ignoring yet again their gentle, fragile and critical interdependence. 'Major Incident' captures this fragile relationship between sustainability and our own responsibility towards our health, planet and prosperity. The show illuminates those connections with a vital sense of the materiality that bonds us to the very phenomena that we witness, in a dynamic yet confrontational fashion.
The pandemic has shined a strong spotlight on the weaknesses and deficiencies of the established systems and trusted structures that protect our cosmos. In fact, it altered the entire spectrum across every kind of existence: in microscale, by breaking down the basic infrastructure of human relationships, dividing families and causing widespread mental health breakdown; in macroscale, by shaking the core economic systems that govern our society.
'Handover', cast of artist's hand holding a globe packed in a single-use plastic bag, 40x40x20cm, 2019
But if we drift away from a purely human-centric perspective, we will see the hard truth of the impact the pandemic has had on the planet and its inhabitants. The world watched amazed as fish, birds and other wildlife returned to their natural habitats, thanks to reduced human interference. However, the European Environment Agency and many other organisations have warned us that any positive effects of lockdown are likely to be short-lived and the increased use of plastic PPE will leave the planet drowning in litter.
Piotr Krzymowski’s exhibition at PROJECT Thirteen in London is the artist’s immediate response to the Covid-19-related waste that’s discarded on the streets of the city. Krzymowski has been collecting single-use PPE during his everyday walks and transforming them into uncanny reminders of what the planet and its citizens will have to face after suppressing the coronavirus outbreak. The exhibition takes place at Soho’s PROJECT Thirteen, a non-profit charity, focused on promoting sustainable practices and development of artists, creatives, networks, businesses and audiences.
Face masks and gloves collected by the artist from the streets of London
An essential feature of Krzymowski’s artistic practice is interaction with everyday objects - the artist collects, studies and reconstructs items and substances, to later tell engaging stories about our contemporary and fast-paced modern lives. After focusing in previous shows on human relationships through the lens of the internet and social media, this time his focus is on the environmental crisis. To examine Covid-19-related litter seems a natural choice for a contemporary-life-fascinated artist like Krzymowski.
The exhibition opens with 'Handover', which sets the tone for the entire show and functions as an idea present at every other work at 'Major Incident'. Krzymowski’s hand cast holding a globe wrapped in a bag illustrates a frightening reality of a suffocating world, barely functioning under the plastic sheet.
But the most significant object of 'Major Incident' is the single-use mask. Images of masks and gloves collected by the artist are scattered throughout the show, emulating the randomness of the places where they were originally found. Plastic face coverings fill the bottles stacked in the display unit in 'Filtered'. The installation is a 21st century version of a cabinet of curiosities also known as Wunderkammer. Cabinets of curiosities were popular historical displays of rare objects of natural origin, such as rare stones, shells, animals, corals or small artistic objects.
'Filtered', shelving units with plastic bottles filled with discarded face masks collected from London’s streets, 90x180x30cm, 2021
In Krzymowski’s work, exotic birds’ feathers or expensive ostrich eggs are being replaced by a symbol of our modern-day ecological crisis: cheap, common plastic. Identical bottles made of transparent synthetic material present their plastic bowels, which also contain remnants of those who wore the masks. The nature of the bottles creates an eerie and haunting sensation, caused by the juxtaposition of the artificial material of plastic and the biological matter left on the masks. 'Filtered' is also a comment on the increased production of single-use PPE during the pandemic. Multiplied bottles made of and filled with plastic are waiting on the shelf to be purchased. And perhaps…to be thrown away shortly thereafter.
A mask itself carries enormous cultural significance in the majority of the world’s cultures. The history of masks can be traced to cults and ceremonial rituals where they often functioned as a vessel for the spirits of ancestors who, thanks to the masks, could participate in the event. Later, masks played a significant role in theatre, where they emphasized the character’s expression, ‘freezing’ the particular emotion on its surface. Hans Belting, author of the classic book 'Face and Mask: A Double History' also identifies a Western representative portrait as a form of a mask, where all the attributes of the living person are being transcended onto a non-moving face image, flat surface of the canvas. Those cultural tropes are just one side of the phenomenon of a face mask.
Face masks and gloves collected by the artist from the streets of London
The second one is its protective nature. We all recognise the imagery of gas masks, medieval armour headpieces or the common modern image of the Covid-19 pandemic: single-use plastic masks. The world’s reaction to the mandatory requirement for masks in public spaces is perhaps the best metaphor for the ambivalent nature of the mask. On one hand, it guarantees safety and the possibility of limited biological interaction with others. On the other hand, we’ve witnessed protests against obligatory face coverings breaking out across the globe, praising the ‘freedom’ of individuals not wanting to abide by the rules of lockdowns. What to some is considered as a blessing, for others is a constraint.
'Stained Mask', wooden tent frame wrapped in discarded face masks, 200x80x150cm, 2021
The ambiguous nature of the mask is visualised in 'Stained Mask'. Sewn by the artist, the house is a structured collage of masks, reminiscent of plastic bricks. It’s a modern-day quilt, playing on the ideas of traditional quilt-making, based on joining different materials together. Quilts embody major cultural significance, often associated with community, safety and comfort. Traditionally, patchwork making was a communal activity, in which every member had an important part to play. As Radka Donnell, one of the ground-breaking Western quilt makers stated, “By its original closeness to a person's body the quilt can become an icon of personal feeling and hope". 'Stained Mask' represents a modern day quilt: on one hand, it gives protection and a sense of security, while on the other, it’s a reminder of the dangerous virus and isolation from others.
'Stained Mask’ is accompanied by a series of heat-sensitive prints ‘a touch too much’. The prints are created by covering the surface of the artist’s phone with aluminium powder, which makes the fingerprints visible. Krzymowski also used a thermo-chromic ink, which reacts to warm temperature - every time a warm object or skin is put against the print, it makes the ink temporarily invisible. Prints are a nostalgic reminder of the sense of touch, which in times of lockdown is largely non-existent in our social interactions.
'51° 31’ 27.48’’ N | 0° 2’ 16.044’’ W', series of papier-mâché sculptures filled with discarded PPE material, coated with wax, dimensions variable, 2021
The last series of works included in the exhibition is entitled ‘51° 31’ 27.48’’ N | 0° 2’ 16.044’’ W’. Twelve sculptures consist of globes made of papier-mâché, filled with found PPE and coated with coloured wax. This dynamic series presents a vivid visual reminiscence of surrealist imagery. Uncanny beings float in space, their slender bodies are strangely human or animal-like. The figures evoke memories of mysterious creatures from Yves Tanguy’s or Joan Miro’s paintings. In this series, more than in any other work of the exhibition, Krzymowski’s ability to balance comedy, colourful and engaging visual aspects and the underlying tragedy of the meaning truly comes through.
‘Major Incident’ exhibition at PROJECT Thirteen in London presents a reaction to the contemporary climate crisis and the inevitable repercussions of the global pandemic. Krzymowski’s work stands as a vital reminder that even after humanity deals with the danger of the virus itself, the battle for Earth will be more critical than ever. His artistic expression acts as an essential creative post-mortem of one of the most significant crises in modern history.