In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic Piotr Szyhalski became a strident, comforting voice of reason and truth. The interdisciplinary artist created a new drawing daily, using the aesthetics of propaganda posters to speak to living through the pandemic. Posted on social media each day, Szyhalski’s pandemic images went viral.
Printed as posters, they were hung on street lamps and boarded up buildings in cities across the United States. They were also shown in exhibitions at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (which now owns digital files of the collection) and multiple institutions here in Minnesota and internationally.
The posters were part of a larger series called “Labor Camp,” where Szyhalski explores what he calls “extreme historical phenomena.” Also his Instagram handle, the term “Labor Camp” encompasses work Szyhalski began creating in 1998 in a multiplicity of mediums, including performance, musical scores, and media arts, as a way to respond to historical events of immense impact and change. A chapter of his “Labor Camp” project became “COVID 19: Labor Camp Reports.”
“This is something that as a concept emerged for me in the late ’90s,” he tells a group of journalists about the larger “Labor Camp” milieu, at a recent media event at the Weisman Art Museum for a survey exhibition of his work called “We Are Working All The Time!”
Born in Poland in 1967 when it was a satellite state of the Soviet Union, Szyhalski trained as an artist in Poland in a time when great change was at the cusp. He moved to the U.S. in 1990, in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union. Since 1994, he has been a professor of media arts at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. His work crosses genres, finding new ways to explore performance, mail art, digital media, printmaking, sound art, and installation, often in collaboration with other artists.
Szyhalski came up with the notion of investigating “extreme historical phenomena” in the 1990s, while studying 20th century Chinese history and the Cultural Revolution. The concept was to acknowledge the experience of living through an “all consuming, massive epic event,” he says.
“When the COVID-19 emerged, I understood that we were living in one of those extreme historical phenomena,” Szyhalski says. “So the idea of responding to it through or processing that material was kind of a natural or obvious way to be in that moment.”
He thought he was done with the project, completing the “COVID 19: Labor Camp Report” (2021) on Nov. 3, 2021. The posters often responded to the experience of living through COVID— the trauma of mass death, the isolation, and the myopic response of the Donald Trump administration to the international emergency. Later, when Russia invaded Ukraine, he realized a new chapter of the Labor Camp series had begun.
“At least at the very beginning, we were literally talking about looking at the potential of World War III happening,” he said. “So this edge of something much larger than it appears on the surface was always there.”
“I’ve been referring to these as “War Reports,” Szyhalski says of the new drawings. “Part of my thinking about this new body of work was how to pay attention to this event, both as a very specific, localized tragedy, but how to also talk about it in a way where we are engaged in a more direct, emotional way.
One drawing depicts Ukrainian victims that were found on the streets of Bucha. Szyhalski studied natural landscapes of Ukraine, in order to directly connect to Ukraine’s geographical place in the world. As an example, he includes chestnut trees in the image. Another work speaks to the refugee experience of Ukrainians fleeing their country. “That’s a direct connection to the experience of my family in Poland,” Szyhalski says.
You can now see some of the “COVID-19: Labor Camp Report” as well as four posters in the new chapter exploring the war in Ukraine at the Weisman.
The exhibition was supposed to open in the summer of 2020, but got postponed because of COVID. According to Diane Mullin, senior curator for the Weisman, the exhibition was put together in time for the original opening in 2020, before the COVID-19 works were created. “The catalog was not meant necessarily to be before the show, but ends up being this monument before it,” she said.
Working with Szyhalski on how to organize the survey, Mullin says, was a practice of “criss crossing and overlapping themes and ideas from across time.” Not chronological, nor biographically organized, it’s instead structured around objects, materials, and thematics.
The exhibition features examples of projects Szyhalski has created as far back as the 1980s, in addition to newer works, like recent painting depicting a crow picking at bones from the ground. “Seek Truth From Facts,” reads the lettering above the bird.
Often in the exhibition, works made many years ago resonate with the newer works. Looking at a set of postcards he made in Poland in the late 1990s, Szyhalski says he was struck by how much visual language, ideas, and sentiments are shared between his older works and newer works.
“For roughly half of my life, I lived in what we described as a communist state. And half my life I’ve lived in a capitalist society,” Szyhalski said. “One of the threads in the exhibition as a whole is acknowledging the complexities of both of those systemic structures, and how similar in many ways they are, especially in the way that they tend to polarize us, tend to dehumanize us, and tend to paint the ‘other’ as less than us.”
Ideas around sussing out truth from misinformation repeat in numerous works in the exhibition. One collection of images features the artist himself in the 1980s, which are juxtaposed with propaganda imagery from the Stalinist era. In another work, leaflet dispensers slowly turn out leaflets every three minutes.
Szyhalski’s merciless satirical voice emerges from the works. In one linoleum cut print, “Alternative Medicine,” (1990), a tag that reads “alternative medicine” pokes through a slit in an old person’s throat. His series “We Are Working All The Time!” (2007-21), repeats the same phrase across multiple screen prints, mocking the notion of tireless overproduction in the series itself.
Perhaps the most chilling work is made of surgical drapes sewn together. At first, the work looks abstract, until you look at it as some kind of mass surgery. The piece evokes the mass carnage of war.
In the exhibition there are giant rollers, sound pieces, and ephemera from Szyhalski’s performance art pieces. Whether through objects, imagery or text, Szyhalski sifts through the artifice, calling out with clarity his visceral response to the world.
Piotr Szyhalski: We Are Working All the Time! runs through December 31 at the Weisman Art Museum (free). More information here.