Paweł Althamer studied at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts between 1988-1993, earning a degree in sculpture under Prof Grzegorz Kowalski. In 1991, he began exhibiting his works, along with colleagues from the Kowalski studio, including Katarzyna Kozyra, Jacek Markiewicz and Jacek Adamas. He was a co-founder of the Kowalnia ("Smithy") group, a leading collective of young Polish artists in the 1990s. In 2004, Althamer received the prestigious Vincent Van Gogh Biannual Award, founded by the Broere Charitable Foundation of the Netherlands.From the beginning of his artistic career, Althamer worked in various media, from classic performance techniques, happenings and "action" art to the discipline he founded his education on: sculpture. A number of his installations have used sculpture as an element of the piece, such as the self-portrait he submitted as his Master's project at the Academy ("Paweł Althamer", 1993) to the balloon likeness of the author suspended above the city of Milan ("Balloon", 2007). The materials he employs may often be atypical for the medium, but there is often a reference to the roots of his art education. Sculpture in the hands of Althamer carries a totemic or fetishistic quality - it is no accident that a 1991 trip to Africa played a major role in shaping the artist's creative personality. His early figures in grass, straw, animal hides and innards are a testament to this influence ( "Standing Figure", 1991; "Nature Study", 1991 - see photos), particularly the hyper-realist portrait of the artist that was part of his Master's project. The work itself carries a double message, referring to both the age-old academic requirement to demonstrate the artist's artistic ability to create mimetic representations of reality, but also serving as a literal substitute for the author at the defence. The figure was to stand in for Althamer before the committee of professors while the artist himself left the room. A video was played showing the artist leaving the academy, heading towards the woods to strip off his clothes and "commune with nature" while the figure remained. A similar technique was used in the depiction of Althamer's family members, e.g. "Paweł and Monika" (2002) and "Weronika" (2001), a figure of a girl standing in a barn in an Alpine village, a girl's skull inside the figure's head. In 2006, he also created a small-scale sculpture of his newborn son, along with several miniature models of reality that resemble doll houses in the years following, including a replica of the Foksal Gallery Foundation office, employees included). For a few years, he and his wife earned their living making rag dolls which they sold through souvenir and toy stores. Today, he continues to teach ceramics workshops for Grupa Nowolipie, a group of patients suffering from multiple sclerosis and other diseases.

"Paweł Althamer" 1993

In 1991, in the presence of his fellow students from the Kowalski studio, Althamer smoked marijuana while sitting in a tin washtub filled with water and a purple solution of papier-mâché as a record of religious music played ("The Cardinal"). Outdoors in Dłużew later that year, he dressed in a white suit and became a "snowman", sitting outside for two hours in freezing temperatures ("Self-Portrait"). He later recounted,"The sound of people riding in a horse-drawn wagon comes to my ears. I recognise them, these are people from here, from the village. I hear they've noticed something and are intrigued. They think I'm a snowman made by the students. (...) Pain in my spine and limb numbness (the cold doesn't bother me so much) cause me to stop."At another time the artist deprived his body of sensory stimuli by encasing himself in a plastic bag slowly filled up with cold water ("Water, Time, Space", 1991). A material manifestation of those experiments were, for instance, the "Boat and the Spacesuit" (1991), sculptures that were meant to serve as meditative tools. According to the artist, these objects were intended to

 
"Boat and the Spacesuit" 1991

"Water, Time, Space" 1991


"present the body and soul in a tangible, physical manner. You could also perceive them as instruments for practicing dying. The boat would be an equivalent of the coffin, and the spacesuit - of the body."Ten years later, Althamer built a "Tree House" (2001) in the centre of Warsaw (in the immediate vicinity of the Foksal Gallery Foundation office). For him, this was a place of solitude and "wildness" located in the very heart of the urban agglomeration and it functioned there for a few months. Althamer's happening in Berlin in 2002 was also characterised by a metaphorical, even a romantic detachment from the overwhelming burden of civilisation, as he arrived at a fountain near the "white-collar" Sony Centre dressed in a formal suit and equipped with all the props of a businessman and proceeded to remove his clothes, discarding all these symbols - the suit, mobile phone, briefcase. The resulting image was that of a white collar worker who has abandoned his identity ("Self-Portrait as Businessman", 2002).


"Hashish"
 
"LSD"

"Peyote"
 
"The Truth Serum"

"Hypnosis" 2003
 
"Hypnosis" 2004

"The So Called Waves and Other Phenomena of the Mind"  (2003-2004) is a series of films recorded with fellow artist Artur Żmijewski that recalls Althamer's student-era work. The films document Althamer exploring various ways of non-rational cognition, which he deems to be a means of broadening human perception, using mind-altering substances (LSD, peyote, hashish, the truth serum) or hypnosis. During one of the hypnosis sessions shown in the film, the artist returns to one of his earlier incarnations, becoming Abram, a small boy wandering around the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto with his dog, Burek. Althamer represented the vision in the sculpture "Abram and Buruś"  (2007), made of bronze and meant to be displayed outdoors. The boy figure holds a real-life wooden stick that dog walkers can use to play with their own pets.

Althamer has often challenged stereotypical notions of a particular place by completely redesigning the gallery space or manipulating the viewer's perception of it. During his first solo exhibition (titled, somewhat perversely, "The Exhibition", 1991), he restored Płock's Galeria a.r.t., run by fellow student Jacek Markiewicz, to its original function. He cleaned the place, washed the floor, scraped the white paint off the tile stove, and brought in the necessary pieces of furniture so that the gallery became once again the apartment it used to be. The artist spent several days there, recording the neighbours' daily life onto video. In 1996, Althamer transformed the cramped space of Foksal Gallery into a kind of waiting room, covering the floor with white linoleum, mounting white bus seats and adding an extra glass door. When you entered the space, you found out that it led you outside, to a small garden, through a hole knocked out in the wall in the area usually reserved for exhibitions. The installation was later likened to a decompression chamber or a meditation room. Three years later, in 1999, the artist created a frame for viewing a fragment of the park and courtyard adjoining the Foksal Gallery building by covering them with a large white tent. Remaining there for two early-spring months, the tent interrupted natural plant growth. At another time, Althamer transformed the space of the prestigious Berlin gallery, the Neugerriemschneider, into a picturesque ruin (2003). The gallery remained open (or rather desolate) 24 hours a day, which was interpreted as a vanitas theme, or even a pessimistic forecast for the "art world". Another "discovery" project was the "Path" set down through a field by the artist during the Skulptur Projekte in Münster in 2007.


Althamer's video projects were his broadest attempt at a "creative" perception of reality on the basis of illusion. The artist made use of this method for the first time in 2000 during the "Manifesta"  in Ljubljana. Every day for three weeks ten hired actors were paid to "enact reality" to the accompaniment of music played on oboe by a street busker ( "Motion Picture" - see to the accompaniment of music played on oboe by a street busker ( "Motion Picture" - see photos)."Real Time Movie", Carnegie InternationalIn 2001, Althamer invited the audience of a lecture he was to deliver at the CCA Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw for a short "Walk" (see photos). At its end, participants were handed itineraries which revealed that some of the reality they had passed on their way was orchestrated, played out by hired actors. The concept's subsequent realisations provided for well-known actors to participate. And so in Pittsburgh in 2004, Peter Fonda played a passer-by, while in 2005 Mirosław Baka and Agnieszka Grochowska were featured in Warsaw ("Film") and in 2007 Jude Law played a man buying a fish at a London market ("Real Time Movie"). In all three films, the "film" screened in reality was announced by trailers, which anticipated reality, as it were, because the films they advertised simply did not exist. Thus the "real" reality was mixed with an orchestrated one whilst proving itself just as interesting. In effect, every participant in the event had become a filmmaker "shooting" a movie from his own point of view.

Many of Althamer's projects mixed reality with art, making art part of reality or using it as a pretext for action. That was the case in 2000 when the artist asked the residents of a large tower block in Warsaw's Bródno district to turn the lights in each apartment either on or off so that they formed the pattern of numbers "2000" ( "Bródno 2000" - see photos), turning a happening into a sort of local community event.

Althamer has often hired people unconnected in any way with the art world to participate in his action pieces. As early as in 1992, he hired homeless people to stand on the street as "observers" as part of a promotional campaign for the daily newspaper "Obserwator codzienny". For his happening/installation "Astronaut 2" at "Documenta X"  in Kassel, Althamer hired a man to live for the duration of the show in a trailer that had been converted into a living space. The man, as the alter ego of the artist, was also an "alien" in the sense of being an immigrant. During Althamer's exhibition in Chicago in 2001 featured the artist's friend from high school, another Polish immigrant living in the US who earned his living as a wall painter. For this work, he painted d the gallery's walls a different colour every day for several days. Another time, Althamer invited immigrants dressed up as curators for the opening of the show "Neue Welt"  in Frankfurt in 2001. For his show at New York's Wrong Gallery in 2003, he hired couple of illegal immigrants first to ruin and then repair the gallery's main door and a composition arranged by the artist. British theoretician and curator Claire Bishop counts Althamer in the company of artists, such as Artur Żmijewski, Santiago Sierra or Phil Collins, who operate through other people, involving them in their actions on the basis of collaboration or mediation, which Bishops terms "delegated performance". What separates Althamer's works from those of, for instance, Sierra, is that he focuses his efforts on the aspects of cooperation, pleasure, and fun rather than on an a potentially ambiguous situation in which a person is either assisted or exploited. For the Award Ceremony for the Van Gogh Prize in Maastricht, for instance, Althamer brought along a group of teenage "homeboys" from Bródno. He has also carried out numerous projects together with Grupa Nowolipie, where he teaches ceramics workshops. Among their joint projects was "Double Agent", curated by Claire Bishop. The exhibition featured ceramic pieces created by Althamer's students, along with two films made during the workshop: "Do It Yourself" (2004), a collaboration with Artur Żmijewski, and "Flight"  (2007), which showed the Grupa Nowolipie members take a sightseeing tour over Warsaw aboard an old biplane. In certain instances, Althamer withdraws from his works to create room for others. He turned his solo show at Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2006 ("Au Centre Pompidou") into a group show featuring eleven young artists based in France who were given equal space for exhibiting their works. The show was preceded by workshops in Poland and France. By challenging the notion of the "art-world celebrity", Althamer was able to make it possible for a number of young artists to debut in France's leading exhibition space. Similarly, in 2006, Althamer and Żmijewski turned down invitations for solo shows at CCA Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw on behalf of a project called "Elections.pl" and invited the former Kowalnia students to participate. The project was built on Kowalnia's flagship exercise known as "Common Space - Private Space", an exercise in non-verbal communication. This time it was carried out outside of the academic context in cooperation with members of the Grupa Nowolipie and some pre-schoolers.

Author: Karol Sienkiewicz, June 2008.