Prize Winner: Pawel Althamer

Pawel Althamer, born in Warsaw in 1967, studied sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. An early starting point for his sculptures was the use of natural materials like grass, wax, or hair, which rotted away over time and thus alluded to the transience of art. Since the 1990s, Althamer has engaged in a distinctive participatory form of art production. These projects not only result in characteristic works, but also offer unique experiences for the people involved.

During the ‘Almech’ exhibition in the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin in 2011, for example, he commissioned sculptural portraits of visitors of the exhibition, as well as of exhibition guides, cleaning and security staff, and bankers and their clients, and created with them a monumental, collective self-portrait. The people portrayed discovered the possibility of being actively involved or intervening; they recognised themselves in the sculptures and helped the usual anonymity of a visit to an exhibition to acquire an individual face.

In other performances, Pawel Althamer has worked with the homeless, prisoners, or gravely ill people, detaching them from their isolated social roles and thereby empowering them to be artistic contributors. He has, for example, led the ‘Nowolipie Group’ for almost twenty years – a weekly sculpture workshop for patients with multiple sclerosis. All of Althamer’s creations are embossed with the artistic strategy of the ‘social sculpture’. For the new millennium, he and his neighbours produced the collective sculpture ‘Brodno’, named after their block of flats. He instructed 200 tenants to switch the lights on and off in a specific sequence, with the result that the number 2000 was displayed on the front of the building at midnight. This simple idea convincingly connected art and everyday life, since it not only sent a visual message to the spectator, but also served to strengthen the community of tenants. In 2009, he placed the role of the artist in the hands of schoolchildren in Kassel and let them arrange his exhibition in the Fridericianum museum 

The KAIROS selection committee explained the reasons for their choice as follows: ‘Pawel Althamer answers socio-political questions about participation, justice, and the scope for individual action with artistic strategies which subvert familiar structures and systems of norms. How we live, how we work, which values we subscribe to – all this is made conscious in surprising ways by his installations, performances, and campaigns. He directs our attention to matters we take for granted or ignore, and thus combines aesthetic standards with social sensitivities in an unmistakable artistic creativity which leaves a mark behind it.’

The prize-giving ceremony took place in the Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg on 24 February 2013.