Paweł Althamer (born 1967) began his artistic development with
sculptural work, often life-size self-portraits or portraits of family
members, which, through the use of wax, hair or cloth, appeared organic
and turned into a kind of alter ego of the person portrayed.
Althamer earned international renown above all for his action art in conjunction with "non-artistic" protagonists. Here, he assumes the role of the director, mediator or catalyst, who launches processes whose subsequent development or result he can no longer influence. It is this work with the pariahs of society that also connects him to artists such as Katarzyna Kozyra and Artur Żmijewski, who, like Althamer, attended the classes of the sculptor and action artist Grzegorz Kowalski at the Warsaw Academy of Art. He often works with outsiders, with people who live on the edge of society (the seriously or terminally ill, the homeless, socially disadvantaged youths). In doing so, he assumes social responsibility, without drifting off into social romanticism or simple documentarism. The thin line he sometimes walks with his work became evident through his contribution to the Berlin Biennial 2006, "Fairy Tale": he launched a petition aimed at saving a young Berlin Turk from deportation to Turkey. The only items displayed at the exhibition were a single running shoe belonging to the young man and a protest letter calling on people to support the campaign. The art action, which was criticised as instrumentalising and "turning into art" the fate of an individual, achieved its goal: the young man was not deported.
Through numerous projects, Althamer has highlighted the overall social, educational and cultural responsibility and duty of art institutions, integrating groups in his exhibitions and projects which are generally left out by the same institutions, because they do not belong to any educated, bourgeois target audience. In one project in 2005, he placed the museum staff in the spotlight: the people, namely, who are at the very bottom of the institutional hierarchy and are hardly noticed, although it is they who make the enjoyment of art and culture possible in the first place. Althamer wrote a script for "Staff en plein air" which was realised by art institutions (Zachęta in Warsaw and Kunsthalle in Vienna). It comprised an international exchange with professional colleagues, preceded by courses in German, English and art history. Elegant uniforms aimed at creating an ´image´ were designed for the journey. The tour programme included visits to museums, work placements in partner institutions and a closing ceremony with local colleagues. This "empowerment" suddenly placed the staff, whose main virtue is otherwise regarded as reservedness and a high level of invisibility, at the centre of attention, while their work was valued and appreciated to a greater degree. Althamer regarded his concept not as a form of criticism or calling into question of the art institutions, which – as he says – he did not want to "turn upside down", rather to "turn the right way up" and help them to function in accordance with their true purpose – interpersonal communication.
In February 2000, along with the residents of his high-rise apartment block in the Warsaw district of Bródno, with its prefabricated tower blocks, Althamer realised the project "Bródno 2000". In a process spanning several months, he persuaded 200 resident individuals, families and groups, to turn their lights on or off for half an hour at an agreed time in February 2000, so that the huge figure 2000 lit up the Warsaw sky - a positive concerted expression of all the inhabitants. "Bródno 2000" oscillates somewhere between popular festival, light sculpture and action art.
In "So-Called Waves and Other Phenomena of the Mind", a video installation from 2003/2004 in collaboration with Artur Żmijewski, Althamer embarks on a journey through his subconscious, in which he exposes himself to the effects of drugs (peyote, hashish, LSD, magic mushrooms), allows himself to be injected, under medical supervision, with a truth serum, undergoes hypnosis and loses himself in spontaneous play with his daughter Weronika. Thus, during these consciously induced losses of control, Althamer experiences a universe of diverse impressions and emotions – he laughs uncontrollably under the influence of drugs, has an altered perception of his body and surroundings after taking LSD, and, under hypnosis, experiences terrible war situations from the perspective of a small child. The viewer sees the artist and the full spectrum of his drug or trance-induced emotions, which are exposed under controlled, "normal" conditions and determined by third parties: he becomes a lone child in the middle of a world war, he becomes an ancient warrior, he communicates with plants, animals and God and gives observers an idea of what might be lurking inside themselves too, if they were to leave the constraints of "normal" life. Through this work, Althamer stages himself as a shaman. His experiments are to be regarded as shamanistic techniques, which place the artist in alternative states of consciousness and allow the "ego" to communicate with itself and the world in its various forms of existence on a different level.
These are situations on the border between drama and reality, between art and life. He also explores the question of whether this difference is always recognisable and whether it really exists in "Realtime Movie", a work which was realised for the London exhibition "The World as a Stage". A cinema trailer and posters heralding the slogan "Come. See. Experience" invited people to the Borough Market (30 November 2007, 11.30 a.m.), where the film star Jude Law and other unknown protagonists were scripted to repeat the action in the trailer live and without cameras. Those who appeared, in addition to Law, included a jogger, a woman taking photographs, and a tourist, who all – according to Althamer – appeared in "so-called reality". Jude Law, therefore, was supposed to act as a bridge between film and reality. The trailer to the performance portrayed the thoughts of the character played by Law, which communicated that he felt "one with the world": "In the long run, we can all be sure of happiness". Althamer´s hope was that the audience who were hoping to see Law and the film would discover the beauty of everyday life and that they would take over the role of the actor or director without depending on an artist´s guidance.
It is this belief in the creativity that lies within each and every individual that informs Althamer´s art. It is reminiscent of the Polish futurist Bruno Jasieński, who, in his 1921 "Manifesto Regarding the Immediate Futurisation of Life" had already claimed that: "Everybody can be an artist".