Zbigniew Libera, contemporary Polish pop-artist, unapologetically pushes boundaries by depicting subject matter sanctified by modern culture. The issue of how to depict the Holocaust is debated in many art forms, including theatre, writing and the visual arts. Some artists only carefully depict what is already known about the Holocaust, rather than raising new questions and debate surrounding the topic.
Libera, born in 1959 in Poland served time in prison for drawings that the communist regime considered “pornographic”. After the fall of communism, the artist was able to travel extensively and exhibit abroad. Most of his work focuses on commercialization and it’s impact on society, and criticizes the regime in which he grew up. His most provocative and well-known work is entitled Lego (1996) and is a limited edition of three LEGO sets of a concentration camp. The larger boxes of the set show the entire concentration camp with buildings, gallows with one inmate being hanged, inmates behind barbed wire or marching in and out of the camp. Also included is an entry gate similar to the one at Oswiecim, but without the German inscription “Arbeit Macht Frei.” The guards are the same as the policemen in other LEGO sets, and the prisoners are from the medical and hospital sets. Another set shows a crematorium with smoke coming out of the chimneys and a guard wearing a red hat, looking as if he belongs in a Soviet gulag rather than a Nazi extermination camp.
When Libera presented the piece at an international conference in 1997, he was pelted with insults and criticism, despite the fact that the conference was concerned with how to keep the discourse of the Holocaust alive. The artists were unsure whether or not the set was a limited edition (yes) or a mass-produced piece. Although this was not what anyone was expecting, Zbigniew Libera raised many new questions and answers about the Holocaust through his piece.
When searching for the roots of the genocide, it is interesting that Libera’s work is made almost entirely from pre-existing LEGO pieces. When LEGO corporation heard about the artist’s use of their product, they tried to sue him. Also, the box of his piece states that LEGO sponsored the work of Zbigniew Libera, which the company adamantly refutes. However, three sets were already sold and European copyright laws permit the use of corporate logos for artistic purposes, so the lawsuit was quickly dropped. LEGO spends a lot of time and energy explaining to museums and the public that Libera’s piece is not their product. The fact that the set is produced in multiples suggests that history repeats itself. As the artist grew up in Poland, concentration camps were in his immediate surroundings, although there is nothing specifically German about the construction of the work. This fact proposes the idea that these camps could be located in the Gulag or anywhere genocide is taking place. Elements for such a massacre exist in the world and all that is needed is for the right person to “assemble” the pieces correctly. Holocaust survivors were present at the international conference where the artist first presented the piece. When Libera is asked about his respect for the victims he responds “I am from Poland. I have been poisoned.”
In May 1997, Libera was invited to display in the Polish pavilion at the Venice Biennale, but asked not to bring Lego. The artist ended up withdrawing from the exhibition. Despite the provocative nature of the work and its easy ability to offend, Lego sparks a new dialogue about the Holocaust. Libera shows us that all of the elements for genocide surround us. Now that we are in the 21st century and a few generations past the Holocaust, there is a certain degree of complacency surrounding the topic. Libera forces his audience not only to look at the past, but also at life today.
- The artist statement
- Stephen C. Feinstein