exhibition open until 2 June 2010
In his works Janek Simon draws inspiration from scientific theories and models, such as the disaster theory, though he also observes the specificity and usefulness of such disciplines as geography or economy which change in parallel to the changes in civilization. Simon's objects often take the form of peculiar visualizations which are based on mathematical and physical formulae or statistical data. His works are at the same time experimental and anarchic, they illustrate the clash of scientific theories with quotidian reality, and the sociological and political phenomena of the everyday. A series of pieces, often containing complex electronic systems which are "Do It Yourself" constructs, are made entirely by the artist himself, who consciously seeks methods of work which is alternative to the contemporary culture of mass production and subcontracting.
"Morze" [The Sea] is a summa of Janek Simon's overseas experiences. Having for many years travelled across Asia, Africa, or the Caribbean, the artist not only followed the traces of colonialism but also analysed the changes in his own consciousness - from excitement to disappointment with the notorious and ubiquitous aura of exoticism accompanying all travel. By exploring the political and economic mechanisms of colonial conquests Simon verifies the standards of "political correctness" of today. "Morze" [The Sea] is a lesson in geography in its final stage - a sketch of a new atlas which no longer is based on physical distances but distances in culture, economy, civilization, and communication. "Morze" [The Sea] is also a title of a monthly issued in the 1930's by Maritime and Colonial League, a rostrum of Polish imperialistic aspirations, a synonym of our national struggles with identity and place in the world.
The Raster exhibition is composed of two groups of works. The first one is made up of objects and films which touch on the artist's personal experiences of a tourist and explorer. "The way to the port in Tamatave" (2006) or "A guided tour of Fort Amsterdam" (2010) are films documenting Simon's two travels: to Madagascar and to Ghana. The camera lens unmasks the everyday reality of a travel, stripping it from all exotic charm. Most importantly, however, it reveals the relevance of ethical dilemmas of travelling. By filming a mumbling guide in a historic harbour - once a point of collection of slaves - or a rickshaw man, Simon shows how the quotidian economy of the post-colonial world brutally verifies the vision of an innocent exotic journey, and how tourism helps the stereotypical relations between the "visitors" and "locals" remain intact.
Another instrument for diagnosing the still valid need to exoticise and then commercialize the exoticised is "Chinese Keyboard" (2010) - a robot, constructed by Simon, playing an oriental sounding tune on a cheap Chinese toy. The artist concludes his deliberations in "Tristes Tropiques" (2009) - a centrefold from the famous book by Claude Levi-Strauss [Tristes Tropiques] analysed with the use of a tool for examining eyeball movement. The artist follows the young anthropologist's observations and his disenchantment with the European model of culture, pointing at the automatic and unreflective homogenization of contemporary global civilization. The colour dots, indicating where to focus one's eyesight on photographs from the book by Levi-Strauss, are self-adhesive bindi - a traditional symbol Indian women wear on the forehead - which the artist bought during one of his trips to India.
In the second group of works Janek Simon refers to the issue of the end of geography as described by Paul Virilio. The artist builds models which visualize the process of the shrinking of the world as a result of the development of technology, communication, and trade relations. "Time-space compression of the Atlantic region" (2010) is a 3D structure placed on the map of this Caribbean state, showing the distances between the different towns measured not in kilometres but in travel time by means of public transport. "Time-space compression of Trinidad" (2010), on the other hand, is made up of models of trade relations and their development in the Atlantic region, as well as the times needed to cross the ocean - how these were changing from the 15th c. to 19th c. By visualizing the historical and statistical data Simon refers to the idiom of modern art. At first glance his works resemble formally sophisticated abstract compositions. The modernist formalism, the aesthetic revival of which is just pending, is an intentional point of reference. Simon's works draw on objective scientific data, but at the same time they are subject to untamed artistic processing. The artist thus plays with the narrative of history and the visual, persuasive force of art. The innocence of both is undermined, there is no objective knowledge or pure abstraction.
Another, ideological dimension of the problem is revealed by the artist in his selection of covers of "Morze" [The Sea] magazine ("Artist's reactions to "Morze" covers perception analysed with DIY skin galvanometer", 2010). The imperial Polish dream of colonialism is subject to rational evaluation here. By examining the changes in the resistance of his own skin (corresponding to shifts of emotions), Simon chooses those photographs to which he reacts the strongest (as revealed by appropriate measurements). The work also grapples with national and personal nostalgias. From a historical perspective, it shows a poorly known aspect of visual propaganda present in the process of forming the modern identity of the Polish state, at the same time testing our present awareness of it.
Simon's most recent work is separate and autonomous from those discussed above. Prepared especially for the Warsaw exhibition, it features a stamp album with a display of post stamps from countries of equatorial Africa issued on the occasion of winter Olympic games. This paradoxical collection is a sort of a mirror reflection of "Morze" covers - a seeming fulfilment of dreams about the universal character of European civilization. But, in fact, it is again the everyday of postcolonial economy, to which we all belong, if only by collecting stamps issued in Africa with the intention to satisfy the western stamp collecting market.
The exhibition at Raster Gallery is a modified version of Janek Simon's solo presentation at the Arnolfini centre for contemporary arts in Bristol (30 January - 5 April 2010; curator Nav Haq), which has taken place with the support of Adam Mickiewicz Institute as part of Polska!Year.
Tristes Tropiques, 2009, rozkładówka książki, lakier, bindi