Sunday, April 28, 2024

Hate for an anti-Putin poster: how to curb censorship in art

Two of Wojciech Korkuć’s posters about the Russian invasion in Ukraine (Source: Wojciech Korkuć’s archive)

Culture in Poland has been dominated by left-liberal and even outright post-communist circles. It is these circles that have seized the shaping of trends in Polish culture for many years. It will take a lot of time and a long-term strategy to change these trends” – says Wojciech Korkuć, an award-winning Polish graphic designer specializing in poster design.

You are an artist with distinctive views, let’s call them – decidedly right-wing. Your works are a reflection of these views. And so far it has been the case that certain circles – liberal, leftist, etc. – criticized basically everything that came out of your hand. Recently, t-shirts with your work are worn by both the right and the left. The art of a man who goes to “far-right, nationalist” (such epithets are used by leftist circles and media – editor’s note) Independence Marches is even worn by a celebrity who became famous for vandalizing the Polish flag…

WOJCIECH KORKUĆ; Above all, I am myself. A couple of my posters that mocked the instrumentalization of left-wing principles for the sake of a joke does not make me a right-wing artist. I don’t think there is such a phenomenon as a right-wing artist. If there is – it is a leftist invention. If I were to pigeonhole myself in this regard, I would call myself a non-ideologized artist. I do not belong to any party. I try to look at reality from the position of a free man, who has the right (still…) to his own opinion. Who observes reality, but does not manipulate it. When working on poster designs, I focus on the quality of the message, on the power of communication. Sometimes it succeeds. Good art will always defend itself. If the project deals with an important issue, is expressive, topical, and powerful – then it turns out that such a project lives with the force of the message and crosses various boundaries. T-shirts with my designs are worn all over the world by various people, most of whom have no idea who designed them.

Wojciech Korkuć (Photo by Jacek Kargól)

Let’s talk about the design itself. It’s the face of a war criminal, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin on two crossed tibias. A reference to a sign warning of deadly danger. Plus the inscription “Achtung Russia,” with the letters “ss” stylized after the runes used by the SS in the Third Reich. We should add that this design was created in 2014.

However, before I did the “Achtung Russia” project, it was in 2004 that I designed the poster “Once Lenin, Once Stalin, Once Putin. No change in the East.” By then I had an inner conviction that Putin’s aspirations went much further than those of his predecessors: Chernenko, Gorbachev, or Yeltsin. Even then I had the conviction that this guy would mess up badly. He equates his ambitions to Lenin and Stalin, who created the evil empire that is the Soviet Union on the corpses of millions of people. For Putin, the collapse of the Soviet Union was, as he put it: “the greatest disaster of the 20th century.” And this revelation has very much defined the sentimental direction in which he is heading. Putin built his criminal policy on ethnic cleansing in Chechnya, in 2008 there was the attack on Georgia and then the Smolensk bombing. In 2014, after the “green men’s” attack on Crimea, I knew that Putin’s gang was embarking on the “main course” of its criminal expansion, and I knew that Ukraine would soon catch fire. And in the background were the gas deals with the guardians of European rule of law, namely Germany. Somehow no one saw or wanted to see a certain analogy. Didn’t this Merkel-Putin strategic cooperation remind anyone in Europe of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact? There were some. But they were not listened to. They got in the way, so they were marginalized and even annihilated.

You were able to read the situation quickly.

The poster from 2014 was my personal protest against Russia’s despotic policies and Europe’s inaction. A kind of warning and caution. After all, Yeltsin anointed Putin in order to live in peace to an old age and avoid leaving this world in an accelerated fashion. He chose a professional thug trained in the KGB, who surrounded himself with people just like him. So in fact, the Kremlin, all of Russia since 2000 has been an armed criminal association. And this is the policy it has been implementing. I only made a poster about it…but it turns out that a t-shirt with this design is one of the most popular forms of protest and demonstration today.

Anti-Putin poster created in 2014 by Wojciech Korkuć (Source: Wojciech Korkuć’s archive)

Currently this view is shared by many people, but when you created both projects – the reception was completely different. The posters evoked different reactions. Did you encounter any unpleasantness then?

That earlier poster from 2004, “Once Lenin, Once Stalin, Once Putin…” had to be explained to many people. There were even those who didn’t know very much who Lenin and Stalin were. After the public presentation of the “Achtung Russia” poster in 2014, things changed a little.

They called you a Russophobe and considered this slogan as the worst insult…

Please, the things that were going on at the time! Opinionated circles protested that I was insulting all Russians, the entire nation. From today’s perspective, it turns out that even if I judged the whole nation, it was a correct assessment, because Putin still has a lot of support in Russia, and it is the whole nation that is de facto involved in what is happening in Ukraine. Recall the fact that the government in Poland at the time had a policy of dialogue with “Russia as it is” (a reference to the words of then-Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who had many Russophilic statements, saying, among other things, that he wanted “dialogue with Russia as it is” as well as about the privatization of the strategic state oil company: “There is no ideological reason to say categorically ‘no’ to investors from any country, including Russia” – editor’s note). So my projects were not compatible with the taste of those in power at the time. Maybe that’s why even the prosecutor’s office in Krakow was interested in them, because, among other things, “Achtung Russia” posters were displayed in that city. From there came the decision to prosecute the artist for promoting fascism and a totalitarian system, under Article 256 of the Polish Criminal Code! Apparently, not caring at all about § 3 of this article, which reads, “The perpetrator is not guilty of the offence specified in § 2 if he or she has committed the act for artistic, educational, collector’s, or scientific purposes.” The government of Donald Tusk, and by then basically his successor Ewa Kopacz, was in close, friendly relations with Putin’s gang. Mocking Putin was perceived as anti-government activity, thus the prosecutor’s office became interested in the subject. Gazeta Polska wrote about this on its front page.

Were you interrogated?

Yes, but first the prosecutor’s office in Krakow called my brother who lives there. They became interested in the Korkuć, who was a local. This caused a lot of confusion, his eyes were filled with fear for a while. If my brother, an employee of the Institute of National Remembrance (a state agency with research, educational, archival, investigative, vetting, search, and commemorative powers and tasks, dealing with, among other things, the prosecution of Nazi and Communist crimes – editor’s note), had been accused of a crime from the referenced provision, he would most likely have been fired. I reassured those concerned that since the prosecutor who is handling the case is so smart that he can’t read and refer to the author of the poster, it seems there is nothing to fear (laughs).

The police called me as a witness. The female police officer who questioned me asked literal questions about what was on the poster, what the design contained. I described everything in detail, and she did not realize throughout the interrogation that I was sitting in front of her wearing a t-shirt with the very poster in question.

How did the case end?

It seems to me that someone came to his senses and the case was dropped, although I did not get any information. Maybe someone read Article 256 in its entirety and realized that, among other things, artistic activities are not covered by this regulation. If it were otherwise, there would be no film, no science book, no cover with motifs from history. I have not heard of, for example, Emil Karewicz, who played the role of German officer “Brunner” 1 being charged under Article 256 of the Criminal Code, and in my opinion he would fulfill the prerequisites more than I do. In 2016, the poster appeared on the main news of Russian TV Rossiya 1. Since 2015, the poster has been repeatedly shown on an evening program on the main channel of Polish public television. In November 2018, when the poster appeared on the TVP Info program following Russia’s attack on Ukrainian ships in the Sea of Azov, it once again sparked protests from the Russian government. The Polish ambassador in Moscow was summoned to give an explanation to the Russian Foreign Ministry. However, this did not prevent Russian station NTV from doing an extensive program on the poster in December 2018, along with its author in the program Mesto Vstriechi with the participation of various experts and a public audience. As of February 2022, the poster is known around the world.

One of Wojciech Korkuć’s anti-Putin posters (Source: Wojciech Korkuć’s archive)

The Russians are being attacked as a result of your actions, as well as the Germans – when you called for the payment of reparations to Poland – the feminists…does such uncompromising articulation of your views in art close or open more doors for you?

It depends. For me it is important that my projects get attention and exist in the media space. That’s what they were made for, so that they would be noticed and cause a reaction. Reactions to such topics are extreme – from admiration to outrage. From outrage to praise…I’m not going to Russia in the near future, because there the door could close behind me along with the bars of steel. Paying the Poles outstanding reparations for World War II is good advice for the Germans. Without this, no Polish-German reconciliation will take place. German politics is still filled with discrimination against Poles. This is a scandal that must end at some point. But no one will respect us if we are the ones who don’t make it happen. For me, these are perfect topics for posters. Topics about important issues. And for such posters, many directors of various institutions turned away from me. But at the same time there were proposals to show these posters in various exhibitions. I warned every gallery director who offered to organize an exhibition for me that after showing my posters he would have to expect to be fired from his post. Some of them did not heed my advice and unfortunately lost their jobs. This was the case, among others, with the director of the Arsenal Gallery from Poznan. After the “Strategies of Revolt” exhibition, he was fired. But after two years he became director of the Center for Contemporary Art in Warsaw. That is, some doors close, but others open… After 2005, through manipulated articles by, among others, Gazeta Wyborcza (I managed to win a defamation lawsuit), I faced public ostracism. It turned out that there are associations that want to be progressive, “European”, and apply censorship to their members. Whoever is not with us is against us…And I learned about such censorship after the action of a well-known poster collector from Krakow in order to make fun of belligerent feminists…

It was you who was credited with creating a poster with the caption: “You are mean, ugly and lazy. Become a feminist,” which certainly provoked reactions.

You are mean, ugly and lazy. Become a feminist – or see a psychologist.” – that’s what it was. The initiator and producer of this poster was a certain well-known poster collector from Krakow, who did it for a joke, as a prank. He was the one who printed the poster and posted it around Krakow. When we made this poster, I heard from the circle of the Association of Applied Graphic Designers that “I shot myself in the foot.” I didn’t know before, but I found out very quickly that I had touched a subject that is an untouchable leftist sacred cow! Even touching it risks infamy! Immediately a whole information machine was set in motion so that everyone would know what Wojciech Korkuć had committed and what attitude they should adopt toward me. Gazeta Wyborcza showed the poster with a comment by Ms. Magdalena Środa, who wrote that this was some kind of nationwide coordinated action of hatred against feminists. It turned out that feminists rather have no sense of humor…But all of the hatred fell on me, not on the poster manufacturer. At first I thought it was some kind of joke (a joke for a joke…) But the effects of ostracism are still in force. Just like under communism.

In what way?

I was not accepted into the association, despite the fact that many people urged me to join. All contact with me was severed. They stopped inviting me to juries of competitions, ended interviews and publications, pushed me away from assignments that had previously come to me. The end.

Wojciech Korkuć’s poster about the reparations for WW2 that Poland demands from Germany (Source: Wojciech Korkuć’s archive)

I guess you are comfortable in the “dark drawer”

Since I’ve found myself in it, well, I’m sitting in it and somehow managing. After some time, new proposals appeared, because my projects began to attract attention. People who appreciated the courage of projects that speak about important issues started calling. Since these projects are attracting widespread interest, and since some circles are organizing campaigns to destroy my work and me as a person in an organized fashion, which the media is making public, it means that I am raising important issues that are uncomfortable for many circles. And others – they are grateful to me for making these posters.

What does this organized destruction consist of?

It’s a steady action consisting of big things, but also small things. These are the patches that are trying to stick to me, the “mistakes” that constantly happen and are not straightened out. For example, I was credited with the authorship of a poster regarding a protest against the construction of a mosque in Warsaw. The design was described as anti-Islamic and it was stated without a shadow of a doubt that it was definitely made by Korkuć. And it so happened that it was not my design. So what if it went out into the world that Korkuć made the xenophobic posters. How do you undo this media frenzy? Courts, lawsuits, corrections. And still when I go to my exhibition, for example, in Barlinek, someone there asks, why is this place promoting such a xenophobic artist? Because that person read an article on the Internet that is linked to me. A mistake? Rather not coincidental, since the article is still published online despite the fact that Gazeta Wyborcza apologized for it.

No one needs the opinion of someone who works hand in hand with a xenophobe. I’m guessing that you also felt the consequences financially

Of course. That’s what this whole machine is set in motion for – so that posters are not ordered from me, so that I have fewer orders and collapse under financial pressure. Of course, it is difficult for me to accuse someone of not ordering something from me, but the truth is that I used to have orders from theaters, cinemas, various institutions, and then these orders ended. And I don’t have them to this day. It even happened that a film studio ordered a very urgent movie poster design from me. They were very anxious about the time. But the next day the person withdrew from the cooperation without a word of explanation. And this is the effect of these “mistakes”, these patches, these articles, comments…

Wojciech Korkuć’s poster about the Independence March in Warsaw (Source: Wojciech Korkuć’s archive)

I guess the situation is not that bad for you in Poland, since your exhibitions are displayed in large galleries.

Large galleries have appeared relatively recently. This is a result of those “new doors” that have recently opened, that is, the change in the position of director at the Center for Contemporary Art. Very interesting exhibitions are now taking place there. But there are also proposals for next year from other institutions. We will see what comes out of this.

Such shaping of culture serves to shape us all?

Of course it serves, or rather, it should serve us all. The shaping of culture determines the development of society and the country as a whole. Every country has its peculiarities and art should also reflect these peculiarities. We have many talented artists. Talented and unconventional people who can create free art. Unfortunately, many of them are still blocked and even eliminated because toxic ideology has crept into the culture. The broader artistic community in Poland is divided instead of cooperating with each other. The left-liberal majority fights any diversity of artistic attitudes under the clever slogan of fighting for tolerance and equality, etc. Whoever is not with us is against us…just like in the days of socialist realism, only in a different package. The neo-Marxist doctrine of cultural hegemony outlined by Antonio Gramsci and the so-called Frankfurt School has been injected into cultural institutions in Poland for quite some time. This is a broad topic. Culture in Poland has been dominated by left-liberal and even outright post-communist circles, which, for example, through the Polityka magazine awards, define, verify and promote artistic attitudes appropriate to this environment. It is these circles that have seized the shaping of trends in Polish culture for many years. Is there an equally strong alternative? It will take a lot of time and a long-term strategy to change these trends. Every neo-Marxist utopia ends in the same way – catastrophe. At what stage of this process are we in? It’s hard to say. But it is certainly necessary to ensure that the cost of this catastrophe is as low as possible.

The interview was conducted by Radosław Wojtas

Wojciech Korkuć (born 1967)

Graduated from the State High School of Fine Arts in Warsaw in 1987. Graduated from the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, Faculty of Graphic Arts. Diploma in 1993 in the Poster Design Studio of Prof. Mieczysław Wasilewski. Works on poster design, press illustration, visual identification. In 1996, he founded KOREKSTUDIO. He has had more than a dozen solo exhibitions and participated in dozens of group exhibitions in Poland and abroad. His works have appeared in foreign publications for many years. They have been repeatedly honored in the “European Design Annual”, “Print” magazine, the American “Creativity” competition. In 2001, he co-founded the Moral Hygiene Movement. In 2005 he was included in the catalog of the 200 best illustrators in the world published by Lürzer’s Archive. In 2015 he was awarded the Bronze Medal at the 11th Poster Triennale in Toyama, Japan. Passionate about and promoter of poster art. In 2017 and 2021 he was awarded a scholarship from the Minister of Culture and National Heritage. In 2019 and 2020, he was nominated for the Public Media Award in the “Image” category. Since 2020, a member of the Program Council of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw.

1 A fictional character from the Polish popular TV series “More Than Life at Stake” (Stawka większa niż życie)