Shark Attack: Bielsko Censors Czech Art

Bielsko Biala City Hall Censors Art from Czech Republic

"As curator of the Shadows of Humor exhibition (Wroclaw, Bielsko Biala, Moscow), it is my sad responsibility to announce that this art show can now be counted among a growing list of Contemporary shows that have been censored in post-Communist Poland."

William Hollister

On September 9, 2006, the Deputy Mayor of Bielsko Biala, Poland, Zbigniew Michniowski, contacted the City-owned gallery, Galerie BWA, and with occulted threats demanded that a single work of art be removed from Shadows of Humor, an exhibition of 30 artists and artistic groups associated with the Prague contemporary art scene, and working in the Czech and Slovak Republics. In doing so, a single local politician created a controversy out of thin air.

Moreover, Michniowski, in censoring the exhibition, created chaos and a climate of panic as he apparently tried to prevent the specific nature of his intervention from being known to the public. On Tuesday, September 12, after multiple contacts by media, Michniowski agreed to take responsibility for censoring the show. But he has yet to be honest with the public about the exact manner in which he ordered the work to be censored.

Not Religious Art; not illegal in a Catholic Country

The work of art that Michniowski censored is David Cerny's Shark, which was originally presented publicly at the Biennale 2 in Prague, 2005.

"I am pleased to be exhibited in Poland for the first time," says artist David Cerny. "But I'm really confused to learn that one of my works, Shark, was ordered out of an exhibition in Bielsko Biala by Vice President Zbigniew Michniowski, and that the President Jacek Krywult failed to intervene even after Michniowski created a controversy where none previously existed."

"I don't get it. I know that in Poland it is illegal to insult anyone's religion. Okay. Now what about the character in Shark? I mean, is Saddam Hussein a religious figure? Does anybody worship him? Do the Poles put Saddam on same pedestal as Christ, or does this just reflect the ignorance of a couple of politicians? "

With the Bielsko Biala City's order to remove Shark confirmed, we brought the work to the Szara gallery in nearby Cieszyn, Poland, where the work will be until October 8.

"I am grateful to the mayor of Cieszyn who announced that it is not the business of a City official to censor art," added Cerny.

The exhibition Shadows of Humor, an examination of the post-revolution Czech art scene, opened in Wroclaw's BWA Awangarda gallery in April 2006. The show opened in Bielkso Biala September 8, and the artworks remaining will be on display until October 15. The show is then expected to travel to Moscow -- where no problems with censorship are

Not News?

Censorship in Poland is a deadly serious subject. The censorship situation with David Cerny's Shark represents a radical change in the nature of what is censored in Poland. Artist Dorota Nieznalska has been punished by Polish courts, ordered to perform community service after a work of art was found offensive to the Christian religion, she is still in court appealing the decision. In Bytom, Poland, gallery manager Sebastian Cichocki is currently being investigated for allowing a work of art by the Prague-based Guma Guar to be displayed. There is a serious ambiguity with Polish laws governing free speech, but it is clear that laws concerning religion and free expression have yet to be tested in court.

By banning from the Bielsko gallery Shark, Bielsko Biala city officials are actively encouraging the nature of that which is to be censored to gravitate from the realm of the religious or sexual, and now, anything goes. In a politically charged country, Bielsko City Censor Michniowski has made the problem his business by fundamentally increasing the margin of what could be censored in his country.

When Cows are Horses

Some Bielsko politicians argue this blatant act of censorship is "not censorship." Indeed, the designated City Censor of Bielsko Biala still declines to admit his gesture is a solid stamp into the sad story of censorship in Poland. As far as we are concerned, "a rose by any other
name would smell as sweet," and the rhetoric of Zbigniew Michniowski does not smell very good.

In such censorship situations, it is vital to catch the issue, and define it for whatever it is, whenever such censorship sprouts. If people don't do that, the problem will grow.

Poznan profesor of Art History, Piotr Piotrowski says:

"Obviously, everyone can have his or her opinion on art. Including the Mayor of Bielsko Biala. The problem, however, is not the opinion, but making decision over what it has to be shown to the public. Art is for public, and if it's not shown publicly, the public cannot get its own opinion on art. To keep this is the responsibility of those who are making decisions. Poland is facing right now a huge wave of censorship, unfortunately. I am afraid it will be even stronger. This is sad. This is also why people from the art world should protest and do not acknowledge any forms of censorship."

Artists represented in Shadows of Humor international exhibition project:

Vasil Artamonov, David Bohm, Radovan Cerevka, Jiri Cernicky, David Cerny, Filip Cerny, Anetta Mona Chisa, Jiri Franta, Guma Guar, Marie Hladikova, Jana Kalinova, Kamera Skura, Kristof Kintera, Lenka Klodova, Jan Jakub Kotik, Frantisek Kowolowski, Frantisek Lozinksi o.p.s., Vaclav Magid, Michal Pechoucek, Pode Bal, Rafani, Zdenka Rezacova, Katerina Seda, Matej Smetana, Jiri Suruvka, Vit Soukup, Lucia Tkacova, Linda Urbankova, Ivan Vosecky, Martin Zet.

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