Katarzyna Kozyra: plastic penises and ribbon vaginas

Article published on Feb. 13, 2008
Article published on Feb. 13, 2008
The Polish sculptor, video and installation artist, 45, probes the theme of the body as a costume - what it is like to be a ‘real woman’?

Katarzyna Kozyra studied German at the University of Warsaw and sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts. After graduation, she gave up the latter for photography, filmmaking, installation and performance. In 1997, she was awarded the 'Paszport Polityki' magazine award for ‘most promising artist.’ She also won a honorary mention at the 47th Venice Biennale in 1999.

Kozyra got the media’s attention though with her student thesis Pyramid of Animals (1993), inspired by the Grimm brother fairytale the Bremen Town Musicians. The pyramid itself was comprised of stuffed animals – a horse, a dog, a cat and a chicken. In 1995 she created a series of large format photos called Ties of Blood, which juxtaposed naked figures with religious symbols in the background. Once again, the rules of male behaviour became the theme of a trilogy of short photos and video, called Ragazzi, Spears and Stairs.

Berlin drag queen Gloria Viagra and singing teacher maestro Grzegorz Pituej have taken part in her ongoing In Art Dreams Come True documentary which she started work on in 2003. Kozyra introduces the two into her world: nightclubs and the opera with their internalised stereotypes of an ideal woman. Kozyra becomes Madonna, an opera diva, a drag queen, a cheerleader, but above all she takes on the theme of the body as a costume.

Do you feel you trangress borders in your work?

You have to overcome your fears above all, because it is a moment when you do something different or do it for the first time. Suddenly, you’re on another terrain. That’s how it was for me with Pyramid; normally, an artist would buy material in a shop. But I decided to be present from the beginning to the end of the animal slaughtering process to research my work.

Where did the idea come from for Pyramid?

I was in the penultimate year of my studies and needed to start preparing for my diploma. At the time bodies really interested me; their partiality, their distance from norms ... somehow the Grimm brother fairytales popped into mind, but in the end it transpired that it’s absolutely not like a fairytale.

Did you expect that kind of reaction?

No. I felt that what I did was responsible. It didn’t even occur to me that people would distance themselves from it to such an extent. Suddenly it turns out that although everyone eats meat, I was the person who killed animals and created some kind of advantages out of that.

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Katarzyna Kozyra's work (Montage: Cédric Audinot)

How did you react to the censor on the sandwich boards?

That was ridiculous. It was as if they were hung up when the pope came to Poland and then someone thought, this could terribly offend the Pope should he see naked bodies on sandwich boards. It was an absurd reaction.

Does draping the genitals of male models with ribbons so that they look like vaginas symbolise the blurring of borders between the sexes?

The boys were positioned in front of me in a difficult situation – you position your camera and tell them to do what they want. Everyone sort of felt funny - they had been invited to a photo shoot and when they came, they weren't being told what to do.

In reality, models have to be able to see themselves as objects. I wanted to put them in a situation where they were victims, so that they would have to search themselves to figure out what they should do and how they should present themselves. Then they began to slip into various roles. These ribbons don’t exactly have to represent a vagina. Some look at them, and see tulips.

Is awareness based on sexual difference?

Probably. Although, I don’t know ... you see, that’s why I do these different things, because these kind of issues bother me. If I am a man, if I perceive myself differently, would I then be perceived differently? If someone said that I was a man from now, then I would focus on how I would behave as a man, to make sure I wouldn’t look ridiculous or stand out from others.

Where do the eternal costumes come in in your work?

Children, who keep themselves aloof from others, don’t know that until someone tells them that. I want to show that it’s all just costumes. Although on the other hand I also behave in a certain way depending on on how I dress up. When it comes to costumes, you can act negatively. You know that you are not yourself and in hindsight of that you can’t embarass yourself.

(Photo: Katarzyna Kozyra)

Does you intend to shock?

No. It doesn’t ever occur to me that what I am doing could shock somebody.

What were the critic's and public's reactions to the castration?

The guys were shaking on the edge of their seats, although everyone knew that it was a plastic penis. Women were more or less amused. I mean I don’t know if these reactions were authentic. Maybe it’s not so shocking to see castration itself, but more because that sliced element subsequently accompanies the elevating Ave Maria in heaven. You could say that they sacrifice their masculinity for this goal.

Why did you choose the song Cheerleader by American singer Gwen Stefani?

I found it not so stupid and in some ways difficult. I saw a drag queen who tried to sing it and who didn’t completely get on with it, although she can sing quite well. Moreover I loved the lyrics - take a chance you stupid ho.

Cheerleader (Photo: Katarzyna Kozyra)

What is the Lou Salome performance about?

I liked that she was very intellectually shrewd as a person, and that some of her lovers were great thinkers (Nietzsche and Rilke), who really defined the era.

Their collaborations were not only intellectual, but also sexual, although they maintained their distance with regards to the latter. I really liked the fact that their spirits were fearful because she was their intellectual muse whilst never allowing them to get physically close to her. They were dogs in the sense of male physicality and lusts, and she kept them biting at their leashes.

Will your next projects also be performances?

No, maybe I have had enough. I am happy to now work more with film and mural paintings. I combine perfomance in In Art Dreams Become True. I am not in the position to separate it from Gloria Viagra and the Maestro.

Are there any artistic borders of creation which you wouldn’t cross?

Perhaps your own disgust. There are some situations when you can no longer beat physical disgust with the aid of understanding. In any case, I am afraid of dead bodies. It’s such a funny taboo which says that we shouldn’t do anything with dead bodies.

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