Zuzanna Janin: Imagine your own death and fight for the right to joy

Зузанна Янін. Солодка дівчина. 2001 р.

The Polish-Ukrainian exhibition of feminist art «What in me is feminine?» will be held at the Visual Culture Research Center (Kyiv) from November 19 to December 21.

Zuzanna Janin is one of the participants of the exhibition, who lives in Warsaw and London. She works with sculptures, installations, videos, photography, actions and performatives. She took a part in Sydney Biennial 1992, Istanbul Biennial 1992, Liverpool Biennial 1996, Łódź Biennale 2010, 54th Venice Biennale 2011. The central themes of artist’s works are space, memory and time, as well as the states in between. Her works invite reflection on the arbitrariness of social roles, their fluid boundaries and the place of individual freedom within the workings of state and society.

On «What in me is feminine» exhibition, Zuzanna presents «Fight» (2001) video that shows the artist in an unending boxing match with professional heavy-weight boxer. The characters of the video are not just contenders, but they act as equal partners. In this work the elements of the fight are collected in a poetic assembly of looped gestures and symbols, where typical athletic movements have been transformed into a metaphorical image of interpersonal relations. Janin prepared for the project by training with professional boxers for almost four months.

On November 20, 19:00, Zuzanna Janin will make a presentation entitled “In Between. About the Moment and Memory» and will show her video “In Between” (2006)

Curator of the exhibition Oksana Briukhovetska has talked with the artist about art, feminism, joy, and death.


Oksana Briukhovetska: Zuzanna, tell me what you do now as an artist?

Zuzanna Janin: Now I am working on a new project, and it will be a sculpture-installation, a work about the right to joy, right to fun. We are fighting for a lot of rights, but if we don’t have the right to joy, we don’t have a real, full freedom. The right to work, the right for education, the right for our body, to mostly everything – yes, we need it, but the right to have fun, particularly, safe fun, gives us freedom and security. For example, it is very visible in the Islamic lifestyle*: they are very much controlled in their joy, their fun, especially women. In some traditional and fundamental societies dancing and having fun is against the law! But in Western capitalism, you can see it in a different way, but it is a kind of double standards. It is a turn to control women’s free time – it gives unquestionable space for joy and play for men, but not for women. There is a lot of way to “safe fun”, but usually connected with traditional family or religion celebrations, like weddings, Christmas, private birthday parties, but that’s it. In fact, in modern societies a woman is welcome everywhere, but a lot of men percept her presence objectively – as not being there for herself, just to play, but to entertain or serve others. The pop-culture follows this vision, leading women to the cultural trap. And in such circumstances, a woman may loose her right to have fun – there is less space to enjoy, to play, and to rest or spend time, where she feels safe and respected in her rights and needs. Nobody has a right to accuse a woman or girl of being “provocative”, “asking for rape”, and being in a “wrong place” or so. There should not be such “wrong places”. In fact, it is a cynical excuse: there are no “wrong places” but just people who are doing wrong things against woman. As an equalist, I really would like to see that every person has equal rights in her or his free time. The paradox is that there is equality under the law in Europe, but besides this, there are double standards in culture and inequality for men and women. This is the problem. “Wrong places” should be eliminated by changing the attitude to other people. That is the role of culture and society: create safe habits, for protection of everyone, especially those who can be exposed to violence in a place that is meant for fun, joy, and rest. That includes streets and public spaces as well.

Oksana Briukhovetska: Do you identify yourself as a feminist artist?

Zuzanna Janin: I can say that I am a feminist, because I am a human being, and in with current education it is really impossible not be a feminist. The definition also includes men, because we live in the post-emancipation world, when all people got the same human rights. When I was at school, equality was axiomatic and obvious, but now I can see a regression. So to respect, postulate and remind about this equality is everyone’s duty and right. But I don’t want to label my art only as feminist, because I’m very much interested in things that don’t directly address question of equality of women and men. My works deal with human fragility and conditions in general, with memory, space, time, importance of unnecessary, and processes that are “in between”. We are equal and various, and this is also about our multifariousness and diversity. I hope my art can be a proof of realization of the feministic idea of progress, but my art is not limited to feminist subjects. You have just art and power of art. This is what I have.

It is sad that people makes exhibitions with brave artists who break taboos, but when it comes to women’s taboos, they put them in a certain “feminist corner”,  “erotic corner”. As an effect, we have a ghettoization of such art and a woman-artist, and there is no representation of these emotions and problems in cultural space. There is no language to describe oppression. At the same time, the art by a man is still read as central, representing general human emotions. This is a wrong, too – it has to be a dialog, a relationship. Moreover, we need to know that we live in a system that easily categorises: when men are seen as being assertive, while women are seen as aggressive. You have to be very careful about that. In my art, I prefer open interpretation and visibility: I would like to be in balance, in the position, when I can talk about different things. Even my work FIGHT you can interpret on a lot of levels because I subversively use poetry of sport in it and some transformed meanings. And therefore, I would like to explain that in this work I am not a feminist because I am fighting with a man who is not an antifeminist just because he is fighting with me. This work presents a never-ending struggle: no one is loosing or winning because one is smaller or bigger, and there is no beginning and end of the struggle. It is a metaphoric work: in the acting the fighters are equal, although their personal characters are different.

Oksana Briukhovetska: So you talk about female questions from a position of an artist in general sense of the word?

Zuzanna Janin: Yes, I prefer that. A lot of my works have this wider character. My Sweet Sculpture, done from cotton candy, is a work about human identity, about passing of time, youth and death. The work shows the difference between what a common, pop language describes as ourselves versus what is a real process happening with us. In this field we certainly see feministic or gender problems as well, for example, when a person is recognized through how he or she looks. A man has no right to be different from stereotypes, no rights to otherness. Again, a woman has no right to mistake too. People are judged and prejudged. All this is very oppressive. And what oppress women more then men is language and images.

Зузанна Янін_Солодка дівчина(1) 2001

When I talk about this right to joy, I want to say also that there is a specific way of seeing fun, when a picture becomes objectification. We do not possess our own pictures, we do not have tools to protect our data on the internet. As the result of developed democracy, we posses our rights, but our pictures are still out of our full control, especially if you add cyber-crime and cyber-violence. It is an age of smartphones and pornography, which are tools to make pictures that define possession. Cyber-violence is a visual violence. We observe an overdue discussion that we live in the uncontrolled growing culture of commercials, computers games, and pornography, and how far all of it is from real relationship between people and how destructive it is for emotional life of the whole generation. It is very misleading culture at the moment. The internet is very amazing but also destructive and abusive tool.

Oksana Briukhovetska: You speak about the language of culture in general. What can you say about the language of art?

Zuzanna Janin: Visual art is a non-narrative way of communication. It deals with our memory, knowledge, fragility, and taste. At the same time, art is such a market place now. In art there are a lot of things that do not touch any difficult and problematic matters, they just use a lot of stereotypes and play with these stereotypes without fighting or changing them, rather fixing these stereotypes. It is easier to use understandable symbols in art to explain what is around us, like a recognizable representation, colours, and materials, than to create a risky new iconic representation, which pictures and visualises a process of changes. And in my opinion, this is one of the biggest roles of art; now we again need political, social art, which is an observer, always a few steps ahead, builds new visualisation, and senses changes before they actually happen. When I was doing FIGHT video, some people expressed some kind of disappointment that it does not remind, for example, black and white Hollywood’ films on boxer’s life. Of course not! I wanted to use colours in new way for a new visualisation: to compare the colour of an artificial white ring to the natural fragility of skin and symbolic red gloves to both blood and emotions. I wanted it to be filled with unlimited interpretations, and not to be connected with a picture in the past. So I wanted to make my own new iconography and I was sure what I wanted to receive as a final product.

Зузанна Янін_Боротьба 2001

Oksana Briukhovetska: I agree with you that art have to speak about society, about actual problems, social and cultural, and then art will have sense for us. What other topics (not only female) you represent in your art?

Zuzanna Janin: I make different works about many problems that interest me. I made a work about death “I’ve Seen My Death”, it was a fake, simulated funeral, observing passing away in todays “social rituals”. There was an obituary notice in newspapers, filming a fake ceremony in the cemetery, photographing of a death body. Nothing physical, nothing medical, but only visual and social. I did not say that “Zuzanna Janin died”, but that “she is gone”: you know all this language we use to make death more symbolic, unreal and invisible… And I photographed myself like a “corpus delicti” in numerous different deaths. Which is also symbolic because you cannot die twice. If people imagine themselves dead, their imagination can be very vivid: in a car crash, in a hospital, at home, everything is possible in our imagination. But in reality you can die only once and for one reason. And I visualized through what kind of pictures you own death is visible in the society today. First, it was a scandal and then it was included in two very important collections: Hoffmann Sammlung in Germany and La Gaia Foundation in Italy and it has become the opposite. Well, then I have got a “label” of an artist of difficult subjects like death. I think that this project changed the perspective of seeing my other works as well.

Oksana Briukhovetska: Really, the topic of death concerns all human beings, both male and female.

Zuzanna Janin: Yes. Later I added some element to the project: I came to the opening as a fake pregnant woman. So as a woman I can demonstrate this circle of death and new life. In some performances I invited approximately 20 fake pregnant women. As a result, a lot of pregnant women come and walked among other guests, and this contradiction to the subject of show – death – builds an interesting tension.

Oksana Briukhovetska: Do you speak about death from some woman’s perspective?

Zuzanna Janin: In the society that is quite conservative and sees a role of woman just in giving and protecting life, a woman should not speak about death. Women do not die. They never get older. We do not speak about the process we belong to. And because of this, we do not talk about our identity, we just touch fragments, certain roles for certain groups, but not in its entirety.

Зузанна Янін_Слідуй за мною_Зміни мене_Настав час 1995_97

Oksana Briukhovetska: It is like we should not talk about the age of a woman. 

Zuzanna Janin: This is a created perception and it follows the pursuit of youth. We are told to perceive women until certain time: so after 40s people become invisible, an older woman looses her attributes as a interesting woman, so women are seen only through how they look like (loosing this may be good in certain way, actually). But also there is something problematic that we do not talk about: no visibility, so no needs, no sexuality as well as no right to joy. We do not have a language to talk about transforming the attitude to this issue. This excludes older people from being happy. But again, this is oppression of culture and mostly of language: people even do not really recognise the age of others when they say this magic “over forty”, here is just invisibility and silence. Others tell older people what is better for them and how to be “happy”. It creates a general confusion, frustration, and lack of harmony between what we hear and what we see and feel in reality.

Oksana Briukhovetska: It is definitely a topic of the right to joy.

Zuzanna Janin: Exactly. You know there is the right for happiness. But in nowadays culture in the post-Soviet Europe it is problematic. I can see a strong regression of democracy. Honestly, we have a worse situation than women in Western Europe. Generally they had the sexual revolution in the 60s and secularisation of the state long time ago, and it was more or less harmonic process both from below, from society, and from above – the state. In Central and Eastern Europe we had an apparatchik system, which brought us equality ideologically, from above, at the same time killing and repressing those who believed in democracy and progress in society. So what we have here is not really a fight from below. So we have the struggle in historical and revolutionary memory, but not in personal memory. And if we talk about my work FIGHT that comes to art from the sport area, we see how the gala openings of the Olympic Games looked in the last years. England made an inclusive dance of history including all cultures, immigrants, rock music, and suffragettes too, obviously. But Russia’s Winter Olympic Games show was a kind of exclusive show of selected or forgotten fragments. It was s about a possession of vision – power is in what we see. The power of diversity against the power of fragmentations. The fragmentation becomes a tool of control and manipulation. I have recently explored it in my work “A Trip To Fear” about my trip to the place, where my grandpa was kept as a political prisoner to compare and intertwine collective and private memory.


* This interview was given a few weeks before the terrorist attack in Paris, which targeted the most important Western symbols of freedom, fun, and culture like music, dance, and sport, places of spending free time in the public space of a contemporary city.

Warszawa, October, 2015



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