WORDS By Isabelle Wattenberg
What do you call an exhibition of an artist’s lifelong works when they’re still in the throes of their career? The term ‘retrospective’ implies a beginning and an end, a review of something complete. And Piotr Szyhalski, whose multimedia exhibition recently opened at the Weisman Art Museum, continues creating, with no end in sight.
“Because Piotr prefers, even insists on, working in the present moment, we finally agreed that his approach to the survey as new installation work—by him—was the best way to execute the exhibition,” says Weisman Art Museum Senior Curator Diane Mullin. This framework of an independent installation untethers the art from the past and invites examination, but not a final conclusion.
Titled Piotr Szyhalski: We Are Working All the Time!, the installation opened August 20 and showcases a selection of the Polish-born and -trained artist’s works from the past three decades.
Curation posed a unique challenge because Szyhalski works not only with multiple mediums–from poster to digital projects to live performance, in which he often participates—but sound, time, and space as well. Consider his Northern Spark installation, where he wheelbarrowed shovelfuls of dirt from one massive pile to another, or the Instagram project COVID 19: Labor Camp Report, where he posted a hand-drawn poster capturing the country’s milieu every day for eight months during the pandemic’s early stages.
Re-envisioning these multifaceted pieces for a gallery space required imagination and close collaboration between museum staff and artist. While the gallery space displays poster designs, video footage, and artist profiles, the installation also incorporates tangible elements, including an illustrated scholarly catalog that can be purchased and taken home, live performances, and artist-led activations around campus, such as printmaking sessions and “office hour” slots with Szyhalski—which is not too much of a stretch for the artist: he’s a Professor of Design and Media Arts at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
“Piotr was fully involved in the design process of the exhibition,” Mullin says. “He had a hand in label layouts, some didactic design and fonts (including the in-gallery catalog’s ID sticker), and the final design of the outdoor gallery banner.”
Across the breadth of artwork, consistent themes emerge. Szyhalski is consumed by the concept of labor and how it manifests in daily life, society, and politics. This focus and fascination is reflected in Szyhalski’s tendency to include and return to poster art—an omnipresent symbol of communication to and among the working masses—in his work.
“One of the most important aspects of this survey project is the way it reveals how the artist’s long-standing commitment to this investigation of labor yields both a lens on the multiple manners of understanding the nature of work and the consistency of the importance of the idea of labor in human history over time,” Mullin says.
The exhibition’s title appears in multiple forms and projects, but it first emerged in a 2007 Szyhalski work called “Manure & Poetry,” which explored the many ways labor can be defined and depicted through a stage performance that included movement, music, and video. On one corner of the stage, volunteers repeatedly printed posters bearing the phrase. The exhibition will re-imagine the performance in the same place it originally debuted—a true tribute to the ongoing, living nature of Szyhalski’s art.